We spent the last 2 days in Fes, said to be the oldest city in Morocco. We travelled there via Volubilis, southernmost point of the Roman Empire (featured map blew me away), the ruins of a city of 10,000. Like most Roman ruins, it is…ruined, and still only about 1/3 excavated (they have yet to find the amphitheatre) but the outlines are striking. As ever, I was astonished by the expertise and engineering capacities of the Romans: the baths, the “rest rooms” where families sat side by side to relieve themselves (hmmm), the aquaducts, the brothel (proof of which is still intact, see photo of well-rubbed stone), triumphal arch, temples, vomitoriums, etc. We visited the site at midday (mad dogs and Englishmen) and it was brutally hot.
We then proceeded to lunch at AFER (Association of Rural Women and children), a non-profit devoted to improving the lives of rural women & children. Another massive lunch. We now recognize that most meals in Morocco follow the same format: a variety of small salads (eggplant, lentil, potato, carrots, fava beans, etc.), bread, olives, goat’s cheese, followed by one or more tagines (couscous & vegetables, beef, chicken and preserved lemons/olives, etc.), then fresh fruit for dessert. The food is absolutely delicious and spiced but not hot (except for a chili paste served alone). The Moroccans love sweets – so breakfast consists of cakes, pastries, jams – and sometimes eggs. The fresh orange juice is amazing!
At AFER we also got a lesson in Arabic (the alphabet, written right to left, and how to spell some of our names.) I am, of course, fluent now. HA!
In Fes, we stayed at a very nice hotel with an elevator, a bar (imagine our delight!), although they only served beer and wine, and that only by the bottle. We forced ourselves to adapt.
The first night we all went out to a dinner/show – to get a taste of Moroccan culture. The meal was as described above (so we were unbelievably stuffed after our large lunch). The culture consisted of traditional music and singing…and I have to say if I never hear Moroccan music again, it might be too soon. I mentioned that this was not to my taste, and one of the gents on the tour, agreeing, said, “But better than heavy metal, right?” I shook my head… (Conversation was difficult due to the din.) There was also belly dancing, a terrible, possibly drunk magician, and a mock wedding ceremony. Members of the audience were dragged up to participate in all these activities and two of our party were selected and subsequently embarrassed. The evening dragged on and all of us would have been falling asleep had the music not been so deafening and jarring. Ah well. I will pass on future offers of this kind of cultural experience.
Yesterday we went on a long walking tour of Fes: a fascinating mixture of Muslim, Jewish and Moorish cultures. The Moors and Jews came to Fes when they were expelled from Spain about 800 years ago. The grandson of Mohammed lived in Fes and his home/palace is now a holy place as he is buried there. It is home to the world’s oldest university. The Medina is surrounded by a 15 km wall, and has 9000 streets! A smaller Jewish area is attached to it. We visited the kasbah, and walked to tiny streets of the medina for a couple of hours, a crazy warren where one could easily get lost (or robbed.) Although our guide kept apologizing that many of the shops were closed because it was Friday, Muslim holy day, we were relieved and could scarcely imagine what it would have been like on a weekday. We visited fascinating workshops where we spent too much money): ceramics & mosaics, weaving (silk threads are pulled from the fibers of the agave plant), and the tannery (where we were handed bunches of mint to help us handle the atrocious odor – and viewed the immense vats of natural dyes). My impression was that these workshops have likely altered little in several hundred years.
At the end of the day, we stopped at a supermarket to stock up on wine and beer for the desert. I then took a walk along the main, new boulevard in Fes.
While the Moorish architecture and mosaic work is gorgeous, most Moroccan buildings are unimpressive: square, yellowish, stained and crumbling flat-roofed mud/clay construction. As a result most cities look like slums. Even the mosques lack the teardrop minarets of Turkish mosques; they have square towers – because the Turks never came to Morocco. Cats abound, crying at night, snoozing in the sun, crowding fish sellers’ feet. But in the medina, at last, aromas of spice and cedar filled the air (in some places anyway).
We now leave cities behind and head for the Middle Atlas Mountains, Sahara Desert, Todra Gorge, High Atlas Mountains and seaside! 10 hours in the van today. Sand dunes tonight.