Moulay Idriss is perched on top of a hill and is considered a holy city. Although tiny and unassuming in appearance it has great importance to Muslims and many undertake pilgrimages here. It was here that Moulay Idriss arrived in 789, bringing with him the religion of Islam, and starting a new dynasty. In addition to founding the town named after him, he also initiated construction of Fez. The mausoleum of Idris is only open to Muslims but there are plenty of café’s and people selling wares along its winding narrow roads. We drive through slowly admiring the views but keep going. We still want to see the City of Meknes.
At one point (17th century) Meknes became the capital city of Morocco under the reign of Moulay Ismail both a great and fearsome leader according to history. Its name comes from the original Berber tribes of Morocco who settled there in the 9th century but its ‘golden age’ is considered to have be under the rule of Moulay Ismail. It was he who installed a large prison under the city to hold Christian sailors which he captured. Pierre and I sit on a balcony overlooking where the prison lies (all one can see are ventilation shafts which poke above ground) and with a beautiful view of the old wall that surrounded the city.
After lunch we meet Reda’s friend – Hamid aka ‘The Teacher’, so called because after spending 3 years in England he returned and happily shared his knowledge of English and sales techniques to his peers. He is skilled in both as we soon discovered. We walk into his store where trinkets and silver embedded mirrors are displayed as well as beautiful linens which are embroidered at an orphanage run by Franciscan nuns. Franciscan nuns?! In Morocco? Truly this country is a constant surprise and a cultural and religious melting pot. Upon seeing was don’t have enough cash handy to purchase the items we are eyeing Hamid / Teacher feels the solution is for us to step through to his carpet shop (at this point despite our explanations he still doesn’t seem to be fully understanding that we have come without our credit cards) and see if “the lady falls in love with anything” (little does he know that it is Pierre who is more likely to open his pockets than I) Before we even look at the carpets adorning his shop (they hang from the wall, the ceilings, are laid on the floor and in piles that tower up.) he invites us to sit and offers us tea and coffee, this is how every encounter with the people of Morocco begins with an offer of tea/coffee whether you are visiting or settling in for a negotiation of price. Although we negotiate I am sure we are not that shrewd. Then begins our education on Berber carpets, live wool versus dead wool and many other tales …though how much we should believe is up for debate, regardless if we are being taken for a ride it is such a pleasant journey that you cannot mind.
But now…how to pay? No problem says Teacher after some consultation and phone calls, he has spoken to his boss and will accompany us, together with his credit card machine, to the Riad. We leave him to arrange the carpets and his invoice book and we meanwhile wander into the town centre to view the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail. There are three courts which even though faded by time reflect brilliant colours of yellow and cream. It contains a mosque, and the tombs of the sultan and his family. A visit to Moulay Ismail’s final resting place is believed to bring baraka—divine blessing.
Back at the Blue Gates to the entrance of the old Medina Reda parks the car and together with the Teacher we wind our way through the labyrinth of alleys only to find back at the Riad they use a satellite phone, not a plug so this is a problem for the credit card machine but…this is Morocco so, no problem. Quickly we retrace our steps finding Reda at the entrance waiting patiently – he drives us into the bigger city centre where we find an ATM and in finally – success – we pay the Teacher and Reda drives us back to the Blue Gates and the teacher to the station. That evening sees us enjoying a vegan feast fit for a King in a cosy rooftop dining room. I am trying very hard not to turn this ‘travel’ blog into a food blog but oh my with food like this its nigh impossible to avoid the temptation! So, forgive me this one example I am going to share with you; Burnt Aubergine, Carrots with rose geranium, Green beans with thyme and paprika, Courgettes and pomegranate seeds (so large and juicy compared to any I have ever tasted before) – and that my friends was before the vegetable tagine… Pierre says he has never, in all the years we’ve known each other, seen me eat so much and he’s right! Although the Moroccans (Arab or Berber) love their meat, every meat dish is preceded by many vegetable dishes and the meat dish itself is small.
Thursday morning we wake early and enjoy another breakfast on the rooftop before meeting Reda outside the Blue Gates. Today he is going to join us for a hike up Jbel (mountain) Zalagh. It took us just over an hour to the top (800 metres) and it was a beautiful way to start the day, not to mention the views over the surrounding countryside. Along the way Reda pointed out certain flora and we chatted about life, social media, belief and tradition. I was surprised how much he was prepared to share of his personal life with two total western strangers but the outdoors and especially hiking has a way of making strangers friends. He shared that he was recently married and was obviously both shy and proud of his lovely and very smart new bride (she has an undergraduate degree – if I understood correctly – and is now going study mathematics at varsity)
After the hike we climbed back in the car but soon Reda stopped the car, calling to an old man sitting under an olive tree (groves and groves of olive and almond trees cover the surrounding countryside) he bade us to follow him into what looked like a small shed. Inside a horse and man were busy pressing olives to make olive oil. I’d taken my sweater off to hike in my (actually Pierre’s t-shirt since it was bigger and thus I felt more modest) t-shirt but now put it on now out of respect. Far from being offended or irritated with ‘le-tourists’ the gentleman bade us welcome and in French / Arabic filled in bits of explanation which he felt Reda had missed J Nothing is wasted from the olives – later that evening we had another Hamman treatment and the black soap is a mixture of the black oil from the olives with eucalyptus.
From there Reda took us to two look out points to get beautiful views of the old Medena – the first was among the Merinid tombs and then on the opposite South side. Many people had told us we must, must go up to the Merinid tombs for the view and now I could see why. Beneath us the medena stretched out in shades of ochre and burnt sierra– above it skins laid out on the hillside to dry from the tannery looked like beautiful red poppies (so long as Dot didn’t think too hard about what they actually were)
A final stop at a pottery factory – more “you are welcomes” more tea, more demonstrations and education, we learn about white clay versus terracotta and watch as a skilled artisan uses a pottery wheel to create tagines and egg cups. More negotiating “ah you take something for you, a gift from me” – “are you happy?” (with the price) Pierre – “well …can you make me more happy?” smiles from the gentleman “of course, of course, you make me smile, you make my family happy and I am happy to make you happy” – some money slipped into the order book, then promptly slipped out and into a pocket – more smiles.
At dinner that evening we chat away to Badiaa about life in Morocco (particularly as a divorced woman) and Fatima takes us into the kitchen to show Pierre how to make the pickled lemons he has become such a fan of. If cooking is an art form then Fatima is the Leonardo Da Vinci of chefs – one of 10 girls (and two boys!) she has been cooking since she was knee high, learning as she stood on a chair peering over her mother’s shoulder. Later post our Hamman and dinner a knock at the door – its Reda dropping off the invoice from the Teacher (who’d forgotten after all the previous evening’s excitement) and with him his wife – I am touched he has brought her to introduce her.
Friday morning we take our final rooftop breakfast, before leaving Riad Laaroussa – we wish we could stay longer. The atmosphere at this Riad is warm and we feel as though we are leaving family and dear friends. Karim wants a photo with us and begs us to come back and next time we must come to his home and meet his mother – Insha’Allah.
I feel quite tearful to leave and even more moved when arriving at the gate there is Reda waiting for us in the same clothes as yesterday – he apologises and explains that since seeing us last night he has had little time to rest and change, it seems the tourist season is here and he has been doing transfers most of the morning but, he wanted to be the one to take us to the city centre to collect our hire car rather than send some other driver. At Hertz we discover our hire car has broken down but “no problem, we will get you another and upgrade you!” So we spend a pleasant hour drinking espresso and watching the passing pedestrian traffic and hawkers selling their wares.
I do think that Pierre is quite brave deciding to drive in a place where, not only does he have to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road but where the rules of the road are more like guidelines than rules – although there are many gendarme along the way checking traffic. However as it turns out once we are out of the crazy city centre it is not so bad and it is pleasant to watch the scenery unfold at our own pace. Flat roof low buildings appear along the way barely distinguishable from the surrounding landscape. There is no way to tell for sure if they provide shelter for humans or animals. We find ourselves behind trucks and Lorries so overloaded with – hay; mattresses; baggage’s…you name it that they literally lean to one side! (And I am from Africa so this should not surprise me but I have never seen anything like it).
Like the country itself the road trip is full of surprises we pass small and then larger Berber villages – their adobe houses blending perfectly with the surrounding countryside. Every now and then you’d emerge from an expense of ochre desert plains into a valley of date palms.
We pass through empty stretches of road where the only sign of life I can see are dogs, dogs and more dogs. They are used to guard the sheep and goats and lie happily along the side of the road unperturbed by the passing traffic. Dogs are loved for their loyalty but considered ‘unclean’ for those of Muslim faith. Should you touch a dog, before you can pray, you need to wash your hands 7 times and remove the clothing it touched. Cats are however considered clean.
Ifrane, when we arrive is however a HUGE surprise. Have we taken a wrong turn? Have we landed somewhere in Europe? Beautiful, clean but with very European white plastered, black tiled, pointed roofed homes – it is extremely large and cosmopolitan. I am taken aback, for the first time I see bare forearms on a couple of girls, there’s a pizzeria and for the first time since my arrival I have ‘western food” – a mushroom tagliatelle, yummy but it feels like “dead” food after the perfectly prepared al-dente vegetable tagines I’ve been enjoying thus far.
Lunch done we drive onward to Midelt a lovely but unassuming little village where we spend a pleasant evening before our journey continues onto Merzhouga.