Rain, rain, rain

My daughter, Jude, and family arrived on Saturday and with the exception of yesterday, where it was mostly just overcast and cool, it has rained – and rained and rained. And it is going to rain until they leave on Friday.

All credit to the family that they have such a positive attitude in the face of such lousy weather, particularly as it looks better in London, where they came from!

The parents had an energetic wet walk on Saturday and an even wetter one early on Sunday. Then the whole family braved the rain for their traditional Esparon to Bréau walk. Yesterday they took advantage of the relatively improved weather to climb up the steep hill to the Col de Mouzoules (not bad for Maddie, aged six) where I met them for a picnic lunch, and then they continued on to Bréau and back home via a visit to their other favourite haunt, the river at le Rieumage.

After all that energetic, bracing exercise it is entirely permissible that they are playing games on the iPads! We alternated this with a good session of the two families’ favourite card game, Monopoly Deal. Even Maddie can now join in, when she is not creating decorated folders (Private – keep out) and other art works.

On Sunday the girls, helped by sous-chef Ed, made some delicious chocolate chip cookies, which have been sustaining us since then. Sadly Ed has now had to go back to London, unexpectedly, for work. So meals without the chef are going to be a challenge for Jude and me.

More good news: my cold is improving by leaps and bounds, and Philippe (who cuts my grass) and my tenant, Sébastien, are climbing on the roof trying to find and fix the source of the leak (so i can avoid major roof repairs).

However, a new complication is that on Sunday I heard that my friend, Roy (Chris and he were graduate students together 50 years ago) is seriously ill in the hospital in Alès. He was in Alès for a court hearing of a neighbour dispute and was found unconscious in the hotel. His children are scattered round the world, his main friends happen to be absent too, so I have been a bit preoccupied with phone calls.

His wife, Lynn, is en route from York, but it is tough for her, as she speaks only English and Spanish (she is Mexican). But I have just spoken to the hospital and been assured there is someone who can explain what is going on in English. Meanwhile, I just got a call from Ryanair – she left her mobile on the plane! Poor Lynn, I may have to leave my family tomorrow and go to Alès to see what I can do for them.

Difficult return

It should have been lovely coming back home. But I seem to have just faced problems.

It started by my discovering I had somehow lost (not been given back?) my French sim card for my phone. So I had to spend yesterday going back to Montpellier to get another phone card.

It is cold and wet. (Inevitable, of course, after the incredible September we had.) This will be a challenge next week, when I sleep/camp in my new bedroom, where the only improvement since the summer is it at least has doors now.

My lodger Sébastien came up to tell me that there was yet another roof leak which I will need to sort out. October is a bad time to find builders who repair roofs.

Worst of all, the cold which I caught in Azrou, has developed into something pretty nasty. I’m not just sneezing and developing my usual bronchial hack, but I have a slight temperature, feel tired and shivery and very sorry for myself.

Jude and family arrive on Saturday. I must somehow get better by then – and tell the weather to behave.

Oh, and Brexit… … Johnson may get his numbers on Saturday and we will have a Brexit that will be even worse than Theresa May’s. Corbyn is doing his usual faffing around, the chances of a second referendum seem slim, and if/when there is a general election, we have the sickening prospect of several years of Johnson as PM. So half the British population, including me and all my family and friends, will be unhappy and angry.

Last morning in Fez

We enjoyed our delicious breakfast on the terrace, as usual. The clouds in the photos are temporary; they disappear mid-morning.

Then we made one last trip into the medina to buy a present, pausing for a moment in front of the camel meat stalls.

We had to stop of course for one last thé at our favourite cafe near Bar Boujloud. Looking up at the roof of the terrace opposite we discussed how professional photographs would have tackled my casual snap shot.

I discovered that Dan is a regular visitor to photograph exhibitions and galleries. He is an admirer of the good old names – Cartier Bresson, David Bailey and Don Cullip. We differed about whether it was still possible to take special photos with the coming of digital photography and post processing – and mass snapping.

Back at the riad we packed.  Thank goodness Dan has travelled light, as no way could my purchases – the tea pots and enough Moroccan biscuits to hand round 30 members of my orchestra – have fitted in my bulging case.

This is but one of many ways in which Dan has proved to be the ideal travel companion. He is easy going, always positive and in a good humour, fascinated by everything he sees, and incredibly tolerant of walking at my pace. And of course we are both lovers of cafes and people-watching.

The packing done, we had one last chat with Merieme (the manager of riad not the student-writer-waitress in the cafe).  When I asked her about the history of the riad, she said it was about 200 years old, had been given a major restoration in 1943. She pointed out the dates in the decoration over the two doors, one in our date system one in the Arabic one (1362). 

Now the Bee brothers, from Edinburgh, have been responsible for the latest restoration and modernisation, done with great taste.

I had maybe been a bit generous with the tips, I really have no way of knowing. But the affection with which Merieme and Nadia hugged me seemed genuine.  A very nice team of people and if I come back to Morocco I will definitely stay here again. 

The journey home was easy. Al Arabia is a good airline, and it is great being able to leave one’s car at the airport for an affordable price.

Shopping

(Little delay as the riad has had internet problems – the result of installing fibre optic!)

It continued to be fun showing Fès to Dan. He was more interested in soaking up the atmosphere of the medina than visiting tourist sites, but nevertheless was as enchanted as I had been by the Madrasa Attarine.

On our way down I did my first tourist purchase a Moroccan teapot, together with two glasses and a tray. I can’t wait to see if wild French mint can make as good a thé à la menthe as we have been getting here.

Dan’s purchases have been more sartorial: some leather barbouche slippers, a very handsome turquoise leather belt, and a striped cotton shirt.

Dan and I reckoned we were quite good at bargaining, striking a balance between being greedy and pulling the price down too far – and being naive and paying too much. At the end of the process we shake hands with the trader and smile. It is after all not a game but all the same an amiable transaction.

Laden – at least Dan was… – with our purchases, we continued down our favourite Talaa Kbira, to the very heart of the Medina. I wish I could be invisible and just sit watching the world go by – instead of being one of the people watched. There is so much to amuse, interest and photograph (oh how much I would like to photo people, but I don’t want to intrude). There is very little hassling of us as tourists and a lot of kindness and good nature. Lots of ‘Welcome’ in various languages.

At the bottom of the medina we came to the Madrasa Attarine, just as charming for me on this second visit.  Dan was intrigued by his visit upstairs to view the little rooms where the madrasa’s pupils lived.  

I then left Dan to continue wandering and made my way – increasingly slowly – up Talaa Sghira.  At one stage a man called out to me to sit down.  I hesitated, knowing it could be a prelude to ‘come and look at my shop’, but he insisted, saying he could see I was tired.

It was his shop opposite, but he did not press me. Together with the older man at the next stall we once again discussed the place of the French language in Morocco.

Then, as I was leaving I said how friendly and kind I found Moroccans. “And Algerians,” said the older man.  Whoops, had I made a faux pas?  But no, he was teasing another friend who had just arrived and was Algerian.  “We are all Arabs,” he added.  Yet, from the appalling little I know of their relative histories, I suspect that Moroccans and Algerians are very different.

So, back to the riad, passing outside an ironic juxtaposition of ancient and modern: a mule carrying a cart with the carcasses of old discarded computers.

Dan and I met up for our last supper at ‘our’ place – Café Cinéma – and were as usual greeted by the delightful staff, especially the very special Merieme, who had come to work on her electric bike – surely a symbolic statement of her desire to strike out for individuality and independence?

I told her that Zohaïb, the student who works one day at the riad, is a fellow student of hers and admires her work very much.  She was evidently pleased.  I asked her what she wrote about.  Things that cannot be talked about in Moroccan society, she said, like sex.  I didn’t feel I could pursue the subject, but I did say to her that in our own way, our generation fifty years ago did what it could to change the place of women in society. Reporting what is happening is one way.  Writing poems is another – beautiful – way of reflecting on life and changing it.

At one point when I was recounting struggles in the sixties, she remarked, drily, “It is like watching a black and white movie”. That put me in my place and made me feel old! Anyhow when we left all the young staff – four of them – came to say goodbye.

Dried out

The day started well. We both liked the Riad Aarou very much – and not just because of the clean, modern bathrooms!

We had been welcomed by a delightful woman – why did we not get her name? – who also served us breakfast on the roof terrace. We both had nice rooms, slept well, and in the morning found we were not only on the edge of the old medina but also a stone’s throw from a boulevards with a very French small provincial town ambience. Maybe as French small town dwellers this made us feel at home. Dan wondered if we could suggest the two towns twinned and we could become the regular ambassadors 🙂

Our project for the day was to do the Lakes Tour before returning the hired car to the airport. Even the guide book said that the first lake might be dry after successive years of drought. But we didn’t manage to find a single lake with water in it! Granted we took some wrong turns and were not always on the tourist marked route, but it was clear to us that this area has changed since the guide book was last revised three years ago. We could see shallow areas where there had clearly been water, but also signs of farming being done on an industrial scale, in particular new plantations of fruit trees, and lots of ancillary building development.

Yes, there may have been several dry summers but the real culprit we reckon was insensitive agriculture. How nice it would have been to meet a Moroccan agronomist who could have explained what is going on, what is planned for Moroccan agriculture and whether there are plans to conserve and use efficiently the water resources, which must surely dwindle with climate change.

It was frustrating that our tour had not turned out as expected, but – as glass half full people – we were fascinated by the rapid changes we could see taking place.

As our tour had been so brief, we had time to stop off at the next small town, Imouzzer du Kandou, and to wander round the market of what turned out to be rather tacky, very poor looking town. I think for Dan it was quite an eye opener to wander along such scruffy alleyways – evidence of rural poverty. I had seen similar places in other parts of Africa and in India. There were apparently troglodyte dwellings in the kasbah, but neither of us felt inclined to poke around as tourists to find them.

Hard to imagine that this place, which is over 1300 metres up, had been developed by the French and is still used by Moroccans as a weekend retreat from the hot plain round Fès and Meknes. What a contrast to Azrou, which had felt much more French and in a better economic state.

We then came down of this plateau into the hot plain, returned our hire car at the airport and took a hairy taxi ride into town, with a driver who had developed lane switching to a fine art, to be performed while talking to his mates on his mobile.

We were welcomed back like old friends at Riad Tizwa. This time I am in the only room that was available – the luxurious Room 1, a suite on two levels, my grand bedroom/salon and then up more stairs to the bathroom and dressing room – which tonight has been turned into Dan’s bedroom. Very grand and unusual, and lovely to have our own sitting area within my bedroom.

I then took Dan to see the grand town entrance, Bab Boujloud, stopped off for a thé a la menthe at my favourite cafe, showed him where the two main ways down into the medina start, strolled back to our quartier, Batha, and had supper at my haunt, Café Cinéma (where I was once again greeted like an old regular).

I feel gratified that Dan was as enchanted as I am by the riad, Batha, my choice of cafés – and the general cheerful bustle of life in this part of Fes. Over supper we got talking to two Australians who, like us, were returnees to this cafe for supper, not just for the food but because the staff are so nice, not least the lovely Merieme, the student of English, who, we learned today, is already writing stories and poems both in Arabic and English.

When we got back to the Riad, it turned out that Zohaïb, the student of English who works at the Riad at weekends, was a fellow student of Merieme’s, and clearly liked her as much as we did and was most admiring of her literary feats. I suspect there is more to the Merieme story, including an intelligent girl wanting to break away from traditional feminine role expected of her

Taza to Azrou

Today we have driven miles and miles up and down mountain roads of breathtaking beauty and variety. Sometimes it reminded us of the Cévennes, sometimes of the Pyrenees. But always on a grander and wilder scale.

Mustafa’s farm had already been about 1500 metres high and now we continued to climb up and up, with views back across vast hazy hill ranges. The geology was a fascinating mixture of limestone, often not unlike the cirque de Navacelles, but then it would change to sandstone or clay. Almost everywhere there were olive trees, often looking as if they were self planted – and certainly on such steep slopes it would surely be impossible to harvest the olives. Sometimes we passed irrigated areas with a variety of vegetables, in the flatter areas there had obviously been a harvest of wheat. But mainly we saw just goats and sheep, and people passing on mules and donkeys.

I longed to stop and ask to take photos of some of the old men on their mules but did not dare for fear of offending. We saw so many with weathered, wrinkled faces, usually wearing an improbably complex arrangement of shawls and headgear. Instead, we waved, and they waved back.

We drove and drove and drove, mesmerised by the beauty of the landscapes, often stopping to admire it – or so that I, the navigator could try to work out where we were on my phone and how to navigate the network of winding, anonymous roads.

Well, here we are in Azrou in what looks like a good riad. While I write this, Dan has gone out for an explore. This is his first trip in Africa and to a Muslim country, so much is novel.

Car trip start

I met up with Dan at the airport yesterday for the start of our three day trip exploring some of the Middle Atlas mountain range.

The car hiring saga continued, as in theory we had to provide a large deposit using a credit card, which neither of us had. (If we had stuck with Europcar, the company with which I had abortively tried to hire, I had been assured that debit cards would be OK). Anyhow the very nice car hire man finally found a solution: Dan had to take out more insurance and somehow this managed to unlock the problem of the deposit.

We aimed to start by driving north-eastwards, towards Taza, and then south, ending up in Azrou.

So three hours after Dan had landed, we set off along the motorway to Taza, a town 120 km from Fès. This must have been the quietest motorway I have ever been on. We were actually staying on a farm some way south Taza, and turned off into remoter, hilly country. We had no map of Morocco, so thank goodness for GPS.

We passed almost no one as the road mounted over wilder country, very like the Causse Méjean. We were met at the remote small holding by our host, Mustafa, a jolly man (made jollier, Dan suspected, by his secret stash of beer). The farm was a very simple building, set in 35 hectares of fields, with a mixed collection of sheep, cows, chickens, turkeys, and a donkey. Our bedrooms were simple but clean. The shower and loo, across the yard, were a bit more basic… My knees are getting a bit problematic for Turkish loos. Supper was a delicious tajine, cooked by his wife.

Plumbing apart this was a lovely, peaceful stay with friendly people, and the silence of the night broken only by the barking of a dog in the next farm, and Mustafa praying early in the morning.

Closed for restoration

Once again I have been thwarted by the unexpected news that something is “closed for restoration” – or as one notice put it “closed for restitution”.

In Fès it was the highly reputed museum that was closed. Here again it is the museum, plus the 18th century Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail. These were today’s projects, so very frustrating. I’m so glad that the restoration work is going ahead, I wonder if there is more Unesco funding going on. Merieme explained that the conditions of such funding often meant not just restoring the objects but providing proper facilities for visitors.

I found myself at a loose end, so decided to rest after yesterday, bring my blog up to date (internet problems do not help and I imagine they will get worse as I leave Fes and Meknes). I’m sitting in a peaceful corner of the empty entertainment floor – bizarrely ornate with multiple sofas and not a surface left free of tiling or decoration. I can only imagine that it is used out of season for local events.

Car hire saga

I have also spent – yet more – time trying to resolve the car hire problem, which has done nothing for my blood pressure. My friend, Dan, is coming out for just a few days, and we decided some time ago to spend three days exploring the countryside in the Middle Atlas mountain area, going first East towards a national park near Taza, and then south, to the lakes near Sefrou.

The advice I got was to stick with the known international companies for car hire. I chose Europcar because my friend, Roy, has good experiences with them and just to ensure there was not a problem about my age (76) I emailed in September for confirmation. I was told there was no age limit in Morocco, and on that basis Dan and I agreed I would hire the car and add him as a second driver.

Once I got to Fès this is what I tried to do – except now I was told there was an age limit of 75 in Morocco! I wrote back to the manager of short term car hire in Morocco and finally got a reply on Monday: “indeed, there is no age limit, but our delivery agent remains the only witness who can judge your situation because at the time of delivery if he notices that you are unable to drive, he will not deliver the vehicle.”

OK, I thought, I must remember to stride with confidence towards the ‘delivery agent’ (with stick packed away). So I tried again to book. And got blocked! I complained again and got the reply that I required letters or equivalent from my doctor and insurance company confirming I was medically fit to drive and had had not recent accidents.

If I had been told this in September I could have got them! As it was I switched to Plan B (delayed several hours by the Europcar site crashing…). This was to make Dan the sole driver. More hiccups while I had to clear my browser of cookies and history (the Europcar site was convinced that I was still wanting to be the driver). Only to reach the final, insurmountable problem: only the driver can pay and I cant book a reservation for him in advance (or pay for him). Dan is by now out of contact, so when he arrives at the airport we will probably have to pay the full rate rather than the half-rate for online bookings.

Now I must go out and have a walk to calm down!

Volubilis

The ancient Roman city of Volubilis lies 35km from Meknes. Thanks to Mokhtar, I had a ride in a rather elderly Citroen, driven by Abdel Kadir. I tried not to wince when he overtook.

This part of Morocco is a vast fertile plain. Apparently it produces much of Morocco’s wheat, not that one could see that at this time of year. I was impressed by the huge quantity of olive trees – we drove through large plantations. And there were clearly other fruit and vegetable farms. This abundance of food was obviously the reason for the development of Volubilis and of Meknes.

The ruins of Volubilis rise up the side of a hill and can be seen from miles away. Exploring the site was a challenge for me, as it required lots of climbing up and down high steps (occasionally helped by others). But it was worth it: much was sufficiently intact to give one a good sense of the orderliness and engineering expertise of the Romans. I reminded me a bit of visiting Hadrian’s wall and admiring how the Romans managed to achieve this in their most far flung outposts. The setting on the hillside made it even more spectacular. The forum and basilica were great, but my favourite bit was some quite well preserved mosaics. Happily Unesco has put money into the site, which explains why it is relatively well organised and preserved.

Inevitably there were lots of tourists, which made taking photos a challenge. I find it particularly irritating when people spend ages taking selfies, unconscious of the wishes of others tourists round them. Today there was a couple I found particularly irritating. He would take various pictures of her (yes, she was young, well dressed, pretty, and aware of it). Then she would take selfies in front of the same Roman pillar. I think I would have found it less irritating if they had shown any interest in Volubilis itself. I was not the only one: a group of Australians, exasperated, finally asked them to move on, and one woman called out « This is not a catwalk, you know ».

After two hours I was back in the car, on the way to Moulay Idriss. This is a lovely white town, built on two outcrops, with a big mosque between them, and at the top, the tomb of Idriss I who founded the first Muslim dynasty in Morocco in the ninth century.

Abdel was a bit résistent when I insisted on going to Moulay Idriss. But he was right, the ascent for the panoramic view next to the tomb of Idriss ended up having too many steep steps, particularly after my hot tour of Volubilis. I admitted defeat, descended (losing my way of course on the way down) and rejoined Abdel and the car. Annoying. I think I should have ignored his impatience and persisted. Or maybe joined all the tourists on the attractive white terrace filled with cafes down below. But I’m glad I insisted on the detour.

Meknes medina and madrasa

After another restorative collapse at the riad, I went back to the nearby medina in search of the Bou Inania Madrasa.  This was a little gem and when I arrived I had it to myself! I was joined shortly by a young Australian who was also enjoying taking photos.  He showed me one he had taken of the mosque, from the roof of the madrasa, and murmured it was perhaps too many steps for me.  No.  I saw not going to be defeated twice in one day and got to the roof.

Latter, wandering around the medina, getting lost as usual, an elderly man suddenly addressed me in English: “Excuse me, I have seen you before.  In a cafe in Fès.” And I remember, he had been engaged in conversation with the young couple next to him.

He turned out to be an Egyptian living in Denmark, a retired psychiatric nurse.  It was a surreal situation: we two strangers wandered round the stalls, talking about being retired (he is 77), about travelling on one’s own, about travelling, Brexit… You just knew that he was a really nice man and must have been good at his job.  One of those people who thinks positively about the world and people.  It helped that he of course spoke Arabic.  Here he is (on the right) asking the tailors if we could photograph his shop – we were both intrigued by the tailors’ models.

I was kind of sad when we said goodbye.  In his white garb and colourful shoulder bag, he reminded me of Dilip, Kate’s boyfriend all those years ago.

So, this was a good day, and before leaving the medina (once again having taken the wrong alley) I allowed myself to be lured into the shop of an elderly gentleman selling Jewish antiques. Meknes had been a centre with a thriving Jewish population and synagogues for centuries, but no more.  There were some beautiful objects. I did wonder how he had come to have this collection, but gave in and bought a small delicate object for my granddaughter, Willow, who was eight on Monday.

And here I am, on the riad roof terrace, just after sunset, waiting for my couscous to arrive.