(part 4 of 4)
April 2: Fez – Volubilis – Assilah
I’m beginning to get a grip on Toño’s concept of road time. When he says the distance between two destinations is two hours that means it’s closer to four. When he says a journey will take between 3 – 3 ½ hours that means it’s going to be closer to six. Laugh all you want, but someday when you get stuck in the passenger seat (pro: lots of leg room) with a window that won’t roll down (con: full-on sauna in the middle of the day) maybe you’ll show a little more compassion.
On the way north to Assilah we stopped at the Roman ruins of Volubilis about 30km north of Meknés. The city is the best preserved archaeological site in Morocco and was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1997. We bought our tickets and asked the guy for a map. No maps. We climbed a steep hill to the 20 acre sight only to find that absolutely nothing is signposted. There were a few unofficial guides hanging around the main gate offering their services, but we weren’t in the mood for a full tour. We just wanted to have a quick look around and get back on the road. Fortunately, my guide book has a basic map of the site, but after a brief glance I saw that the triumphal arch (the Arch of Caracalla) was mislabeled and placed all the way on the other side of the site. So we followed a German tour group at a reasonable distance and were led to the most important mosaics, some of which were not so easy to find.
Lola asked me, “What’s the tour guide saying? You studied German in high school.”
“He’s saying that pile of rocks over there is really, really old.”
The Romans made some pretty sturdy monuments (understatement of the century), but the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 laid waste to the last remaining buildings of Volubilis. The same earthquake shattered the stained glass in the 13th century Romanesque cathedral here in Plasencia. It still hasn’t been replaced.
(Fun Fact: the scene in Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ where Willem Dafoe and Harry Dean Stanton have a confrontation was filmed at Volubilis.)
After our visit we were having a warm Coke with no ice (which is a great way to leave your thirst completely unquenched) at the site’s café when Toño struck up a conversation with one of the unofficial guides. He informed the guide that I had been searching for a rock with a large penis carved into it (because I am an 8 year old boy trapped inside the body of a 40 year old man) which marked the site of the brothel of Volubilis.
“Ah, the penis sculpture! ¡La sorpresa Romana! You didn’t see it? It’s near the triumphal arch.”
“They need to label the monuments or at least have maps of the site available.”
“Yes, but then I would be out of a job.” Good point.
From Volubilis there’s a nice view of the whitewashed hilltop town of Moulay Idriss 5km away. Named after Moulay Idriss I, who fled Mecca in the 8th century and brought Islam to Morocco, the town is a sacred place to Muslims. It was closed off completely to non-Muslims until the mid-20th century. For Moroccans six pilgrimages to Moulay Idriss during the annual moussem (religious festival) is the equivalent of one Haj to Mecca.
We arrived in Assilah late in the afternoon. After haggling with a “parking attendant” over a good price to keep an eye on the car, we dragged all of our things into the medina on foot. When we got to the house we found that a carload of friends from Spain had beaten us there by a few hours. (Now I was outnumbered 8-to-1.) And they brought enough beer and wine to cripple a donkey. We carried a load of bottles up to the rooftop terrace and watched the sunset over the Mediterranean. Our neighbor had a rooster living on his roof. The bastard crowed non-stop for 3 days.
April 3: Assilah
After two days in Fez, Assilah was completely stress-free. The mayor is apparently on a mission to make the town as clean as Switzerland. (No, seriously.) Many of the houses in the medina are being bought up by wealthy Moroccans and Spaniards. It reminded me of some of the Portuguese villages we’ve visited on the Atlantic coast. It turns out there’s a reason for this: the Portuguese captured the port in the 15th century and built the walls that still surround the old medina.
Everybody went shopping after breakfast. I decided to head out for a solitary stroll around noon. La prisa mata. Outside our front door there was a kitten dozing in a flower pot in the shade. I scratched his head. He stretched his little limbs and started purring. I love this town already.
The town is covered in murals which change every year during the Assilah Festival. There are lots of swanky galleries and exhibition spaces in the medina. The place was packed with Spanish tourists taking advantage of the Semana Santa (Easter) holidays.
I sat down at a café in Place Abdellah Guennoun and ordered a tea. I watched a fisherman walk up to a wooden kiosk on wheels and buy a single cigarette. Then he walked back down to the port. Perfect. I like to sample the local tobacco when I’m in a new place. I walked over to the kiosk and asked the kid if he had any Moroccan cigarettes.
“Is it Moroccan?”
He nodded and handed me one out of an open pack. I pulled a bunch of coins out of my pocket.
“¿Cuánto te doy?”
He leaned forward and picked a tiny coin out of my palm. He handed me a lighter and asked if I would be interested in purchasing anything else to smoke during my visit. He raised his fingers to his lips as if he was taking a drag off an imaginary joint.
The muezzins began the call to prayer. A couple of shop owners placed long wooden sticks across the entrance to their shops, but they left the doors wide open and all the goods out in the street. They hurried off to the mosque in the corner of the square. The mosque was full so large mats were placed directly in the street. People were down on their hands and knees worshipping right there under the midday sun. I paid for my tea and wandered down to the beach. It was slightly uncomfortable watching all those people praying in the street. It felt like I was witnessing a very private moment that I shouldn’t have been allowed to see. Down at the beach a guy tried to rope me into a camel ride.
After lunch I took a siesta on the rooftop terrace. I woke up to the sound of Toño pouring tea.
“You want one?”
He gave me a little slice of Moroccan history. He told me the story of Abd el-Krim (aka: Muhammad Ibn ´Abd el-Karim el-Khattabi) who was a Riffian teacher, translator, journalist, politician and military leader who led a revolt against Spanish and French occupation in the 1920s. His guerrilla tactics were later used by Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh and Mao.
The road map was spread out on the table and I spotted the Algerian town of Ain Sefra near the Moroccan border. I gave Toño a brief introduction to the life and times of Swiss writer Isabelle Eberhardt who died in 1904, at the age of 27, in a flash-flood in the desert at Ain Sefra. She had converted to Islam at an early age and travelled all over North Africa dressed as a man which gave her the freedom to do as she pleased in Arab society.
Around the corner from our house there was a hammam with a single entrance, but with different times of day for men and women. During the entire trip we kept saying we were going to go to a hammam one day. We never got around to it. La prisa mata.
At dinner I had a chicken pastilla – a savory-sweet pie made of warqa (like filo, but even thinner) filled with chicken, caramelized onions, eggs, lemon and almonds. The whole thing was then heavily dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar. It was like dinner and dessert all rolled into one. The pastilla wasn’t very large, but every bite was like an entire meal.
The bottle of whiskey didn’t survive the visit to the terrace after dinner. I was surprised it made it this long. (I have a crackpot theory that mint tea suppresses the urge to drink alcohol.)
April 4: Assilah – Larache – Lixus – Assilah
Drove to the crusty seaside town of Larache to have a look around. On the way we ventured down some back roads in search of the ruins of Lixus. We ended up on a dead-end road that spit us out on a small trash-strewn beach across the bay from Larache. Nonetheless, there was a “parking attendant” accompanied by a few stray dogs keeping an eye on the place. He pointed to a couple of teenage boys in a row boat.
“They’ll take you over to Larache for a small fee.”
The girls thought this sounded like a great idea. Unfortunately, I was drafted to accompany them in case somebody had a problem with a bunch of females having a laugh without a male chaperone. (Word had gotten out regarding my complete and utter destruction of the two rude little boys in Fez.)
We survived the crossing despite the fact that the two boys were more focused on Elvira’s younger sister than they were on the task of navigating. Toño and Jose Manuel met us in town after parking the cars and we wandered through the medina. There was a group of local kids setting up a stage in the square next to the Fortress of the Storks, a 17th-century Spanish fortification. A couple of sheep were resting under an old car. There was a banner hanging in the entrance to the square announcing the event: a Moroccan Rap festival.
We ventured out to the western edge of town to pay a visit to Jean Genet’s grave in the old Spanish cemetery. The cemetery is perched on a cliff high above the sea next to an abandoned lot where a little boy was picking through the debris. A large pile of rubbish smouldered unattended. We rang the bell and the caretaker opened the gate.
“We’re looking for the grave of a French writer.”
“Genet. This way.”
We followed the woman and her little daughter through the cemetery. We passed their small, cement, whitewashed house. Washing was hanging out to dry among the graves. A scruffy white dog was asleep on a tomb. A narrow cement path led us to Genet’s grave. The vagabond / petty criminal-turned-writer / political activist died in France, but he was fond of the Bay of Larache and requested that his remains be laid to rest here. I read Genet’s The Miracle of the Rose in high school. I remember being shocked by the autobiographical tales of French prison life and the author’s homoerotic lust for his fellow inmates. Genet made the Beat Generation writers I was so obsessed with at the time look like amateurs.
The caretaker’s daughter picked wildflowers for us to place on the grave. Elvira, who is fearless with a camera, directed the little girl, “Place the flowers there. Muy bien. Now stand next to him. Estupendo.” The little girl was enthralled to be getting so much attention. She was even more excited when we handed her a bunch of coins as we parted ways.
On the road back to Assilah we found Lixus. First settled by the Phoenicians and later a thriving settlement under the Romans, Lixus was believed by ancient Greek writers to be the site of the mythological Garden of the Hesperides (Nymphs of the Sunset!) where Hercules stole the golden apples of wisdom. Located on Tchemmich Hill overlooking Larache and the Loukkos River, the sight occupies roughly 75 hectares (185 acres) of which only 25% has been excavated. Again, nothing was labeled or signposted.
The caretaker walked behind us at a fair distance and offered information only when we asked him a direct question about the monuments. (He was having a grand old time sitting in the shade of some acorn oak trees with his friends and a few sleeping dogs before we showed up and killed all the fun.) Toño picked up a turtle scurrying around in the ruins and it pissed all over his hand.
Back in Assilah a shop owner caught me eyeing a pair of babouche – leather pointy-toed slippers.
“48.” I was expecting him to laugh and wish me better luck next time which is the reaction I always get in Spain.
“We have shoes up to size 54.”
Before I knew what was happening I was in the middle of a bidding war. In the end I decided to pass. As if my massive feet don’t draw enough unwanted attention in public, imagine if I strolled around town in a pair of colorful, pointy-toed slippers. I don’t think so. But they were mighty comfy.
For the last night of the trip Mohamed (the caretaker of the house we had rented) asked his mother to prepare a giant couscous and a chicken tajine for the nine of us. It was by far the best meal we had during the entire trip.
April 5: Assilah – Tanger Med – Algeciras – Plasencia
We just made the 11am ferry, but once we were on board there was an hour and a half delay. It seems that, until the boat is completely full, they don’t leave the port; the crossing has to be profitable. In Algeciras, due to the long delay, the ferry crew decided to allow the lorries on the lower deck to debark before the cars on the upper deck. The port was a massive, sprawling, disorganized parking lot of cars and lorries waiting to cross over to Morocco. There was literally not enough space on the dock for the lorries to debark. Total chaos. Another hour delay. Everybody sitting in their cars waiting…
A revolt started brewing. First, people started leaning on their horns. This tactic proved unsuccessful so people got out of their cars. A group of about 30 people confronted the ferry workers. Angry words were exchanged. One of the guys working on the ferry was sent out with a large bottle of water to offer people a refreshing drink of warm water in a tiny paper cup. People got back in their cars, having been assured the delay would end shortly. Another half hour passed. People started leaning on their horns again, this time for several minutes. This was not a pleasant sound. Again, this proved unsuccessful. The process of confronting the ferry workers was repeated.
A couple of protesters knocked on our windows. “Let’s go! Join us!”
We declined. Finally, we debarked. Then there was another interminably long wait as everybody went through Customs.
A bit north of Sevilla we stopped for a late picnic lunch on the side of the road. I slowly savored every last bite of Mohamed’s mother’s leftover couscous in a sad attempt to hold onto what little was left of such an amazing trip.
We had hoped to make it back to Plasencia around 8pm. We arrived after midnight in the middle of a crazy lightning storm which accompanied us for the last couple hours of our drive north through Extremadura. At a gas station near Mérida there was a huge flash of lightning which knocked out the power. Fortunately, we were only using the restrooms and not gassing up the car, which now had an additional 2,000 kilometers on the odometer.
Let’s wrap this thing up: It’s good to be knocked out of your comfort zone once in a while. And if you enjoy being knocked way the hell out of your comfort zone, Morocco is a good place to start. This was the first trip I’d taken in ages that actually felt more like an adventure than just a vacation. This is going to sound pretentious as hell, but I felt more like a traveler than a tourist. There’s nothing wrong with being a tourist, but you need to balance it out. A little less All-Inclusive Holiday Package and a little more That Donkey is Heading Right For Us! Know what I mean? I think you do.
Lola the List Maker did the accounts after we got home: counting gas, ferry, food, lodging (and hundreds of scalding hot glasses of mint tea) for 8 days, we each spent a grand total of 350€ per person.
Not too shabby.
Muchísimas gracias to all of my traveling partners (Toño, Mar, Lola, Rosa, Elvira, Suluki, Jose Manuel & Patri) for allowing me to use their amazing photos.