Suitcase and World: Imperial Beauty. Meknes.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Imperial Beauty. Meknes.

It wasn’t a long ride back from Moulay Idriss to Meknes. As we had agreed to when he picked us up, Kamal dropped us off in front of the Bab Mansour. After we all got out of the car, Kamal gave us a 20 second orientation tour – behind us was Bab Mansour and the entrance to the Moulay Ismail mosque and in front of us, the Place el Hedim.

We paid him his fare, said our thank-you’s and then went on our way. He turned out to be very nice man who didn’t rush us around and when he could did his best to tell us where things were. Of course, it would have been a far better experience for both he and us had we been able to communicate in the same language. Hand gestures can only get you so far.

By now, it was well past lunch time so decided that the first thing in order was to grab a bite to eat. We headed into Place el Hedim.

"Where are we? " I spotted a Tourism Information office and even though there was no one inside to assist us, I wanted to quickly glance at the map of Meknes to get us oriented. I spotted the Moulay Ismail Mosque as well as Heri es Souani which were the top two places on my list to visit. They didn’t look like they were located that far apart from each other but as Soon and I have come to realize, the scale is often wrong on the maps.

Place el Hedim was a relatively quite town square this afternoon; only a few people milling around. Even the restaurant tables that populate one side of the square were relatively empty.  Forget the restaurants, I had my eye on a pile of colorful tajines.  Hmmm.....might have to get one of pretty.

"It's all about eating " I have long come to expect that in certain parts of the world, especially if there is a concentration of restaurants, there is someone ready to shove a menu in your face and to tell you how good their food is. Place el Hedim was no exception. One determined young fellow made his way all the way to the middle of the square. By the time I noticed him, the other three already had and has what now has become a custom, they told him that I was the decision maker. Why me? :-)

I looked at the menu. By now, it was all the same old Moroccan tourist dining – bouef brochette, tajine de poulet, tajine viande aux pruneux et amandes, couscous aux legume, jus d’orange, ….etc. Same old stuff. Not being all that hungry, I was ambivalent but the other three decided we should reward the guy for taking the effort to come and meet is all the way in the middle of the square so we agreed to take seats at his establishment.

The other three were tempted by the chicken that was been grilled on the rotisserie so that’s what they ordered – their platters came with French fries and veggies . I just wanted something small so I ordered a sausage (read *merguez*) sandwich. We all had orange juice to wash down our meal with. It's orange season here and I’m usually not a fan of orange juice but the stuff here is so good even I can’t turn it down.

Our meals came and we all dug in. The rotisserie chicken sounded better than it tasted. Aaron’s and Mildred’s pieces were so dry they were essentially like eating sawdust. Poor Aaron couldn’t even finish his so Soon and I nibbled on it, dipping the pieces into the plate of spicy tomato sauce that had been put on our table along with the bread as our appetizer. Mildred wanted to give her piece to the cats that were wandering about but the restaurant guy kept shooing them off so no chance of them getting any.

After lunch, we took a quick toilet break and then went on our way.

"Time to explore Meknes "
We followed Kamal’s instructions on how to get to the mosque. We entered through a gate and sure enough we could see the minaret but it was on the other side of yet another wall. How to get there? In front of us was a small garden which we walked past. Soon had the correct idea of walking away from the main gate, which was closed. That led us to a small row of shops and when I saw that, I figured we were going in the wrong direction so I dragged the three of them back to where I was seeing people entering for prayer.

Of course, being non-Muslims, we couldn’t go in that entrance. As I was looking around for a door or some sort of passageway, I turned around to see the guys talking to a local gentleman. He told us to go back in the direction that Soon was originally taking us in.

So, back we went. This time, we walked well past the row of shops and we came across an archway. Through it we walked under and there, across from a row of shops, was the entrance to the mosque or at least that's what we thought it was.

"It's not a mosque, it's a mausoleum " An enterprising guide stood at the ready to assist us. He welcomed us inside and in the gentlest of manners, started to tell us about the mosque.  It was at that moment that I discovered we weren't standing outside mosque but instead, outside the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail.  Wow!  It was on my list of must see places in Meknes so I was thrilled we were here.

Without objection or hesitation, we followed him around as he seemed to know where he was he was talking about and where he was going. As I introduced myself to him, he kissed the top of my right hand and told me that he was just a simple Berber man. The glint I saw in his eyes told me otherwise. :-)

The mausoleum is typical of the Islamic architecture in Morocco and it’s beautiful in its simplicity.

We entered into a room with a small fountain and there, our guide (have no idea what his name is) gave Soon and Aaron a description of the place.

The mustard colored yellow walls were adorned with tiles that were predominantly green in color and banded with a border of stone carved with the phrase, “Allah is Great” all the way around. We walked from one open courtyard to another, finally arriving at a window that gave us non-Muslim visitors a view into the tomb room. In the center was the tomb of Moulay Ismail.

"Wow, wow, wow!! "
Our guide instructed us to take off our shoes and enter inside. What we walked into was an amazing sight. A small fountain in the middle but all around us was stunning tile work and elaborately carved plasterwork.

Even the wooden doors were beautiful - enamel painted with touches of gold.

This was the room that fronted the one containing Moulay Ismail’s tomb so basically, this was all we were allowed to see. I am in no way complaining because there was so much to captivate my eyes and to hold my attention, I could have stayed here for a long time.

Of course, it was the perfect place for a photo op so Soon and I took our time, waiting as we needed to for the other tourists to get out of our view. We don’t want annoying tourists in our photos :-)

Soon also captured a view of the room on video. Every time I watch it, I still marvel at the magnificent detail.

After seeing this room, we were pretty much done with the mosque and we retraced our steps back to the entrance.   On the way out, I caught sight of what looked like a clock, high up on the wall.  There, I figured we would tip our guide, thank him for his time and bid him goodbye.

But, I knew from the glint in his eye that this man knew how to make a dollar. He proposed to take us to the prison. What prison? I was intrigued. He then asked what we had in mind and I told him I wanted to go to Heri es Saouni. He replied that that was a long way away – we couldn’t walk there given the short amount of time we had. I asked if we take a taxi there and he said that that would be expensive. A caleche (horse drawn carriage) would be better. He told us it would cost about 100 dirhams for the four of us to ride. Reasonable.

"Plan B "
So, as we stood around him, he came up with a revised plan. We go to the prison, then hop on a caleche to go to Heri es Souani and then we would be dropped back to outside Moulay Ismail mosque. Sounded like a good plan to me. Without even questioning how much this would end up costing us, we agreed to the plan and with that, we started off.

"Underground we went "
Turned out the prison, which is called "Habs Qara" was located directly across the street from the small row of shops. Standing along the street were several caleches – ever so conveniently located for us. Now I realized why he suggested riding on them.

From above ground, we would have never guessed that the plaza area topped an underground prison. We paid our 10 dirhams each for a ticket and followed our guide inside.

Down the steps we went, into a large tunneled space which was dimly lit with electric lamps. The orange glow that the lights cast against the stone walls gave the entire place a slightly eerie feel. 

The only natural light came in from holes located high up. Those corresponded to the circular columns I had seen outside. I thought they were solid columns and had no idea what they were. Standing underground and seeing the light filtering down, I now knew their purpose.

It was cool and damp but it was a winter day for us but I can only imagine how horrible this place would have been in the heat of the Moroccan summer. It would have been cramped with prisoners and barely any light or air. The stench of human waste would have been overwhelming; prisons of days past did not have bathroom facilities.

We walked about several of the tunnels and before long, headed back above ground. I must do some post reading on this place so I can better appreciate what I saw this afternoon.

"Carriage ride "
We followed our guide across the street where he negotiated for a caleche to take all five of us to Heri es Saouni. The ride would cost 100 dirhams plus 20 dirhams for carrots for the horse…..a tip :-)

Our guide sat with the driver while the four of us squeezed into the carriage. With a shake of the reins, the horse set of. To the sound of hooves clopping on the pavement, we slowly made our way.

"Clippety clop " It was actually a very enjoyable ride; we went at a very nice pace and without a car door to obstruct my view, I was actually able to snap a photo of the shadow that our carriage cast on the city wall. Clutching a metal handle, I carefully swung around to take a picture of our horse as he pulled us along.

"Just a simple stable for the Sultan's horses "
By foot, it might have taken us a while to get from the prison to Heri es Souani but by horse, it took no time. I was sitting in the carriage with my back to the driver but I heard our guide point out the famed Agdal Basin as we passed it. I didn’t really get a good view of it until I got out of the carriage. Then, I could see the massive pool.

Before we got on our way, I decided to finally ask our guide his name. He responded “Mohammed” which I sneaky feeling was not the case. The man with the glint in his eye had another name and I was determined to get it out of him.

We followed our guide up to the entrance and ticket booth where we paid 10 dirhams for our entry tickets. As we turned to walk into the main part of the grainery, the man behind the ticket booth shouted, “Hamid” and wouldn’t you know it but our guide stopped walking and turned around. So, *Mohammed* was actually *Hamid* :-)

Following Hamid, we entered the main part of the grainery, a massive stone building, divided into several rooms, all of which were once used to store the food for the sultan’s 12,000 thoroughbred horses. In two of the rooms, there were water wheels that were used to draw water from the pool outside for the horses.

Adjacent to the grainery were the stables. Today, all that is left of them are the arched columns that once held up thatched roofs. With assistance from UNESCO as well as other nations – I saw a sign indicating financial support from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), the stables are being restored. Someday, I’m sure they will have one area restored to what they believe it would have originally looked like.

Hamid gave us a few minutes to wander in the stable area before meeting back up with him at the ticket booth.  It was amazing to see how thick the stone walls were.  Originally, there would have been a wooden roof overhead.   I was impressed at how massive the stables were....had to be to house 12,000 horses!!

"The the Sultan slept here "
Back with Hamid, we headed outside to our awaiting caleche which would take us back to Moulay Ismail mosque. Along the way, we passed the Dar el Makhzen which was one of Moulay Ismail's palaces.  We got out of the carriage to take photos.  Since it's still a functioning palace today for Mohammed VI, Hamid instructed us to not take pictures of the guards standing by the door.  So, I snapped a few photos of the front door of the Palace. On my way back around the caleche, I couldn’t help but take a photo of the back of it….license plate and all.

 It was a short ride back to the mausoleum. After we all got off the carriage, Hamid directed us to the shops that were located across the street from the mosque.  Arghh!!!  How did I know this was coming? Without having even stepped foot inside any of the shops, I already knew none of us were interested in buying anything but somehow we all felt obliged to go in.

"I hate annoying salesmen "
The shop that Hamid directed us to specialized in damascene which is  the art of inlaying different metals into one another; often creating very intricate patterns.  In this shop, they had pieces where either gold or silver was inlaid into a darkly oxidized steel background.  Nice but I have no desire to lug heavy pieces of metal around nor was I so keen to be willing to go through the trouble of having something shipped back home for me. I quickly scanned the shop and at one point in time, had to fend off a salesman who was trying to sell me a leather bag.

I have discovered that the shop workers keep a close watch on all the customers and the moment you pick up and item or in any other way look like you’re even remotely interested in you, the descend on you as quickly as a hawk to prey. Whatever you want, they have it in the color you want, the size you want, the style you want, etc. If you then dare to ask what the price is and they tell you, that is pretty much a sign to them that you are interested and they stand ready to haggle. So, even if you then say you don’t want the item, it’s too late. They think your disinterest is because the price is too high and they start to try to bargain with you. First, they drop the price….but only by a negligible amount. Then, they ask you what your best price is. I usually drop to about half which of course, elicits a response of feigned disbelief from the vendor. If you truly want the item, then you negotiate. Otherwise, walk away and don’t look back. So, the lesson I have learned is to not pick up an item or ask the price unless you are even remotely serious about buying the item. Otherwise, you’re just wasting a lot of your own valuable vacation time and plus, it’s just an annoying experience.

Outside the shops, we asked Hamid for his fees. He showed us his official guide badge and then asked for 160 dirhams. An extremely reasonable fee I thought. We said our thank-you’s and bid farewell.

"Back to Fez "
We retraced our steps to Bab Mansour which we decided would be the best place to catch a cab. It was either two Petit taxis or a Grande Taxi. Though I had spotted the train station on the map I had no idea how far away it was from the Bab Mansour. We were trying to guess how much the fare would be. No idea. We stood and watched one Petit taxi after another go by. In Meknes, the Petit taxis are a light blue color, the Grande taxis are gray colored Mercedes Benzs. I managed to flag down a Grande taxi and Aaron walked up to the passenger side door window to ask the fare. Before any of us knew it, three men approached from both sides of the car and got in. The driver shooed them away though because he wisely knew that he would get more fare from ferrying four passengers than three.

The drive to the train station took longer than we thought it would….as if we knew where we were going.

The driver deposited us curbside and we left it to Aaron to negotiate the fare. The driver wanted 50 dirhams and Aaron was going to try and bargain him down…..not really though. Aaron was having fun pulling the guy’s leg so it was a lot of playful banter, so to speak, going on between the two of them.

Eventually, Aaron emerged from the car with a smile on his face and 50 dirhams less in his pocket.

We entered the station and bought four tickets back to Fez. The train was delayed in arriving so we had about ½ hour or so to wait. We headed out the platform and into the cool night air. It was a bit too cold for me actually so I took out my scarf and wrapped it around my neck. I found a spot to sit and plopped myself down.

The train pulled into the station at about 6:15p and we could see, as the cars went by, that it was already full. I was preparing myself to stand all the way back to Fez which was luckily only about 30 minute ride away.

Sure enough, when we boarded, there were no seats to be had. Full. We inched our way through the compartment until we found a spot we could stand comfortably at. Someone gave up their seat so Mildred could sit. Very courteous. Part way through, a man gave up his seat and insisted that I take it even though I motioned that I was okay to stand.

A short ride later and we had arrived back at Fez. Now, came the challenge of finding taxis to take us back to Bab Boujloud.

After a visit to the toilet and the ATM, inside the station, we made our way to the parking lot. The first man who approached us offered to take us in two Petit taxis at a cost of 40 dirhams each. When I told him that we had taken the same route earlier in the morning for just 10 dirhams each, he quickly turned and walked away. I think he knew his scam failed.

We started to look around for another taxi and I found a man with a Grande one. He wanted 50 dirhams to take us back. On the high side but no one was in the mood to negotiate away 30 dirhams which when converted to US dollars and divided among 4 people was barely a $1 each. Not worth the effort really.

We piled into the Benz and sped off. 20 minutes later, we were back where we started this morning.

"Dinner time! " At first, the gang wanted to return the restaurant we ate at but again, another enterprising restaurant worker intercepted their path with a menu in hand. Again, they left it up to me to decide. Again, I looked at the same tourist food menu as all the other restaurants. This place had seating inside plus according to the young man, all the cooking is done by one one…..mama. Home cooked food! Can’t go wrong so he shepherded us inside where we took a table in the far back corner.

Seated next to us was a Chinese man…..from China who looked very excited to see two other Chinese faces. I had to disappoint him though by telling him that we were not from China.

We ordered our meals and began chatting with the Chinese man seated next to us. He was traveling by himself and had been in Fez for two days; leaving tomorrow for Marrakesh via bus because he wanted to see the local scenery…..taking the slow route, so to speak. He lives and works in London and decided to come to Morocco for the Christmas holidays. He finished his meal before we even started ours so we bid him safe travels.

After our meal, we meandered our way back down to the riad where we all slowly unwound from the day.

It had been another activity filled day and I know I will be asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow but until then, I’m going through the photos on my camera and recalling each and every minute. I’m having a great time in Morocco!!

Good night Volubilis!  Good night Meknes!  Goodnight Fez!