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.

Moving on to Meknès

It’s quite a wrench to leave the comfort of Riad Tizwa, and nice I will be returning for the last two nights.

Merieme had organised a driver to take me to Meknès, Rédouane turned out to be the brother of the driver who collected me from the airport, the big difference being that Redouane spoke good English (his brother had been a dropout at school, he explained, and now regretted it).

Redouane has a degree in Ancient Arabic Literature. He still loves the subject but unsurprisingly there are not many jobs going. So, he combines taxi work with being a guide in the medina (he was proud of having passed some diploma to accredit him as an official medina guide).

As we drove out of Fès his guiding instincts were evident: he was much more informative than Amin had been about the extent and history of the royal palace estate in Fes el-Jedid. And as we left the town behind and drove through a hot plain, with olive plantations, vegetable farms and dry fields which have yielded their wheat crop, Redouane said The ever growing development of Fes was replacing extremely fertile land. When I asked about irrigation he explained that underground there were huge reservoirs of water, usually brought up these days by pumps. When I queried the idea of unlimited water (explaining a bit the increasing concern in Europe about judicious use of water supplies), he acknowledged that this year many farmers were complaining their water supply was dwindling, as the rains had not been as heavy as usual.

When we reached Meknes, I paid for the taxi – and gave two tips, as the actual driving was done by another guy. All very complicated.

I was met at the ancient Bab Mansour by Mokhtar, a young man whom I later realised was the front of house guy for Riad Selma, where I am staying for three nights. I have of course been totally spoilt by my Riad Tizwa experience, so finding a cheerful but tacky riad, with gaudy Moroccan features was a bit of a reality check. It reminded me a bit of some of my Indian stays. But hey, the price is good.

In the afternoon I crossed the main square to have another look at Bab Mansour. Oh dear, I was disappointed. Apart from it being almost hidden behind tourist buses and busy local traffic – and being a target as usual for Chinese taking selfies – I was not particularly impressed by the architecture.

This huge arch was built in the seventeenth century as the entrance of the imperial city being developed beyond (and now apparently in a dilapidated state).

I was equally unimpressed by the Place el-Hedime which I had just crossed. Thus seemed to be just a large space, with snake charmers and horse rides for visitors. I suspect it might be more lively in the evening. As it was I witnessed the only sign of violence since coming to Morocco: to young men ferociously chasing each other and having a fisticuffs, soon surrounded by a crowd and the arrival of police. A little later I saw two boys of about 12 having a similar bust up, and wondered if this was coincidence.

There was rather a nice covered market beside the square. I bought some olives – in recognition of the status of Meknes as olive centre of Morocco – and may come back to the sweetie counters……

More mundanely, I stopped at a phone stall near the riad and bought a Moroccan SIM card plus some credits – all for less than ten quid. It’s an Orange SIM card, which just goes to show you how the first world is ripped off by the phone companies. I have come to realise that pretty well everyone – including women – has a smart phone, though few have iPhones of course. I didn’t get to ask what the phones were being used for, but this photo I took in Fes shows a group of boys clearly enjoying some game on their phones.

Back to Riad Selma, where sitting on the roof, watching the sun set I had a really good tajine, apparently thé spécialité de la maison, with almonds, cinnamon and I think honey.


Signs

Unless you want to get to a Riad or restaurant which is just round the corner, you can forget relying on signposts to find your destination.

The Riad signs are usually written in French or English. Street signs are usually in Arabic script and sometimes also in the Latin script. Unfortunately some key signposts are written exclusively using Arabic script..

Transport

So far I have used a ‘grand taxi’ to get to Fès from the airport and a ‘petit taxi’ to get round Fès. I probably won’t t use the train system this trip but it is apparently pretty good for long distances.

The standard way goods get round the medina is in one of the many two wheeled carts. I’ve noticed there is a cart rank at Batha roundabout, not doubt relying on the trade of taking tourists’ luggage down to the riads. Given the steep hills in the medina, being a porter is a tough life.

I saw at least one man (the egg seller) using his two wheel cart as his sales stand.

Despite the sign indicating No Donkeys (or similar), there seem to be quite a few donkeys and mules transporting stuff around. Despite this, no sign of donkey droppings. I spotted one owner busily collecting his charges poo (he rushed round to stand beside his animal when he saw me taking a photo = one of the very few people to demand money for being photographed.

There are one or two motorised vehicles, but the frequent steps, even though shallow and with sloping bits for the carts, deter much more sophisticated means of transport.

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Animals

As well as the donkeys and mules, I have seen hundreds of cats in the medina – and one dead hedgehog in one of the side alleys.

are lots of birds, particularly in the morning, but so far I have been unable to photograph and identify them. I would have said that many of them were sparrows or starlings, but they sound different.