Sanford and I are now in Morocco. We arrived on April 2nd. We had walked from our hostal in Madrid a few kilometers to the bus stop for the express bus to the airport, flew 1 ½ hours to get to Tangier, took a cab to the train station, spent 3 ½ hours on the train to get to Meknes, then took a petit taxi to the gate of the old town where our accommodation host, Fatima, picked us up to walk the rest of the way to our lodging. Sounds like it was a horrendous day but all the pieces fell into place as they should and the day went smoothly.
Morocco is a mosaic of Arabian, European and African influences. The official languages are Arabic and French. I had forgotten that I had read that before and was totally shocked when I got off the plane and realized everyone was speaking French; I sure wish I remembered more of it from my high school days. That being said, there are a lot of people who know English, so communication is not much of a problem. Most of the population, 99%, is Muslim, and you can hear the calls to prayer five times a day. The people are less conservative than some other Islamic countries and are quite tolerant of other people’s beliefs.
Meknes, our first stop, is a quiet city tourist-wise so has a more relaxed atmosphere and is therefore a nice introduction to Morocco. We are staying in the Medina, which is a walled off, old Arab quarter of the city. There are essentially no vehicles allowed in, except for the odd motorcycle or some tiny trucks delivering goods, as the streets are brick and many lanes are only narrow alleyways. Homes have no yards, they open up directly to the alleyways. Everything looks rough. However, when you enter into one of the homes, the interior definitely does not match the exterior. We are staying in a riad, a traditional Moroccan house with an interior courtyard. The home is beautiful with lots of tile, nice carpets, comfortable furniture, modern kitchen and most important (for me) a western-style flushing toilet! Speaking of toilets, so far, in the airport, train station, train, and many restaurants the toilets have all been western style. I have only come across one squat toilet at one of the historical sites we visited.
We have spent our time here wandering around the medina and taking in the sights, sounds and smells that is Morocco. I am especially enjoying the food. The “national drink” here is mint tea. They stuff mint leaves into a glass and then pour green tea over the leaves. Wonderful! They generally serve the tea sweet but it tastes just as good without the sugar. Dinner is often a tagine, a North African stew of spiced meat and vegetables prepared by slow cooking in a shallow earthenware cooking dish with a tall, conical lid. Accompanying the tagine is couscous with caramelized onions, raisins and nuts added, and is spiced with cinnamon. I believe in one of the cities we will be visiting there are day Moroccan cooking classes and I think I might take a class.
The major sites that we have seen include:
Habs Qara, Prison of Christian Slaves. This is a large underground cavernous area where 60,000 slaves, of which 40,000 were reportedly Christian prisoners of war, were shackled to the wall, forced to sleep standing up, and ordered to work on the sultan’s laborious building projects. Above the prison is the Ambassadors’ Pavilion, where Moulay Ismail, who reigned from 1672–1727, received ambassadors from abroad who came to negotiate the ransoms and release of their captive countrymen. They never suspected the prisoners were directly below them.
Heri el Souani, the Royal Granaries and stable. One of Moulay Ismail’s greatest achievements, the Royal Granaries were designed to store grain as feed for the 10,000 horses in the royal stables – not just for a few days or weeks but over a 20 year siege if necessary. Engineers counted on three things to keep the granaries cool enough so the grain would never rot; thick walls (12 feet), suspended gardens (a cedar forest was planted on the roof) and an underground reservoir with ducts under the floors. Behind the granaries are the stables, now roofless due to a 1755 earthquake.
Bab Mansour, widely considered North Africa’s most beautiful gate. Completed in 1732, this was considered Moulay Ismail’s last important construction project. The gate was conceived as an elaborate homage to himself and strong Muslim orthodoxy of the dynasty, rather than as a defensive stronghold.
Bou Inania Medersa, a residential college. Built between 1350 and 1358, virtually every square inch of the building is covered with decorative carving or calligraphy.
The Roman Ruins of Volubilis. This was a day trip, 28 km northwest of Meknes. Volubilis was the Roman Empire’s farthest-flung capital and these ruins now contain some of the best archaeological treasures in the country.
Finally, in addition to sightseeing, we celebrated my 60th birthday. Sanford had arranged with the host of the Riad we are staying in to make a special dinner and dessert and he managed to buy a bottle of wine for that evening, which is not the easiest thing to do in Morocco! Alcohol is forbidden by Islam but ironically, Morocco also produces some wines and beers. Alcohol is allowed to be drunk in certain restaurants or hotels and there are a few bars around, but very few people here drink alcohol. It is sold in some large grocery stores and in some small shops but it is not readily on display to purchase. We were trying to find a shop that sold wine and finally asked someone on the street where we could get some and he took us to three different stores where he knew they sold alcohol before we were able to purchase any. One store no longer sold alcohol and told us about another one which turned out didn’t have any supply at the moment, but the final store did have some wine for sale. In Morocco, if you ask someone for help with directions and they lead you around, like this fellow did, they expect a tip. The suggested amount is 10 dirham ($1.30). I think this fellow really deserved it!
Our host prepared an amazing meal with all kinds of appetizers and several main courses. It was divine!! The wine….not so great. It was a wonderful birthday. Thank you to all who sent me birthday wishes, it was much appreciated.
Next stop is Fez.