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Away at Last, and Reflections

I write this from my seat on Air France 1277 from Marrakech to Paris. Until the moment I was buckled in I worried something would happen to keep me stranded in Marrakech. But I’m finally on my way home, and the only thing I have to stress over is the flight to Boston tomorrow.

As I reflect on my three weeks in Morocco, the most prominent impression is of the people, so kind, generous, welcoming. Abdou and Zacchariah, of course, who were stuck with me for our twelve-day trek, who taught me “yellelah,” let’s go, and who had to listen to me butcher shukran, or however you spell it. I promise to have more Arabic when I return. Abdou’s sisters-in-law who included me in the traditional Friday couscous lunch, and sister who fed us our second breakfast as we left Casablanca. And his charming parents, who hosted us for tea in their home in Dadès.

Amanda and Youssef, who organized my alternate tour when Lori and the rest of the group were locked out, and kept me posted on flight options. 

Hayat, Hamid and Hajiba at Dar les Cigognes, who so warmly welcomed me and made me feel part of their family, faithfully tucking my hot water bottle under the covers of my bed each evening. Zaida, the wonderful chef at Dar, who introduced me to harira and eggplant salad, bastilla and tajine, and Aziza, who gave me my first-ever hammam treatment. Note to self: Dar has a cooking school.

The earnest Nordine at Riad d’Or in Meknes, concerned that I had only cold water in my sink tap but powerless to fix it. While I never met the chef, I loved his Berber omelet and lamb tajine.

Hajiba, in Moulay Idress, who fed me a sumptuous lunch on her terrace, then showed me how to make Moroccan bread and sweets in her tiny kitchen, measuring by eye and hand and mixing by feel.

Kiki, the tall handsome Berber who led me on a tour of the date farm, fed me the fruit straight off the tree and then hosted me to lunch at his home, prepared by the talented Rakida.

Ibrahim, who built Villa Dadès during Covid, looking after this gem of a hotel in the middle of nowhere, waiting for the guests who will surely come when times return to normal, operating on faith by building what will be a gorgeous rooftop pool and bar.

Jane, the American owner of Riad Baya, whom I only met by phone, but who was very concerned about my well-being while I was her (only) guest. I know we will meet for real one day, as I’d love to see Morocco with her. And what a coincidence that she had lived three years in West Hartford! Fatna, whom I called Fatima for two days, the genius in the Baya kitchen. The huge salad à la Niçoise, and the amazing chicken tajine with green olives and preserved lemon. Avocado smoothie at breakfast, and another riff on Berber omelet. 

And finally, Khalid, the sweet young man at Baya who greeted me with a warm smile each morning, helped print out my travel documents, got wine for me and got me started on my way to Jamaa el Fna, though I got hopelessly lost for awhile returning.

All of these people were unfailingly polite, calm, welcoming, patient and generous, genuinely happy to have me, an American, experience their country. I always felt safe and secure, even in the crowded medinas and squares.

I already want to come back — to see the big part of the west and Mediterranean coastline that I didn’t, to have a photographer guide help me climb a dune in the Sahara for sunset and capture the Milky Way. Spend more time in Tangier eating fish. Take a street food tour with Amanda.

Next time I’ll bring fuzzy socks or slippers against the cold tile floors, leave the bathing suit at home (no need for it in the hammam), bring a sweatshirt for reading in bed. I’ll bring wool socks, not cotton, no matter how warm the temperatures are predicted to be. I’ll learn some Arabic and take pictures of all my hosts. And see again the marvelous people I met on this trip, Inshallah.

Cooling My Heels in Marrakech

The next morning I checked the Air France website to make sure my reservation was there, but it wasn’t, and I couldn’t add it. Even though it was the middle of the night in CA where Marc is, I placed several WhatsApp calls, and he finally called me back, unable to explain why Air France didn’t seem to have my reservation but promising to get right on it.

Meanwhile, Abdou picked me up to get a rapid Covid test and we were told we could return to the clinic in two hours to get the results. Back at the riad, I optimistically gathered all my stuff, still awaiting word from Marc, and we went straight to the airport after I got the (negative) test results. It was too early to check in, but the AF website still didn’t show my reservation. I queued up at check-in, and when I got to the desk, a very unfriendly agent told me, unsurprisingly, that I didn’t have a reservation. I called Marc to report this, and he told me he’d been having trouble getting in touch with the ticketing people because it was the middle of the night (he had assured me he was there for me 24/7, but clearly his ticketing folks aren’t). Finally, after I had cooled my heels for an hour, he phoned back with the news that AF had cancelled my flight. “Not our fault,” he claimed, which cut no ice with me. Even though it was still two hours till takeoff, he told me I wouldn’t be getting out. I suspect they bought a seat that was already sold.

Dejected — no, furious — I returned to the riad, where I am able to stay as long as I need to. Through WhatsApp I met Jane, the American owner, who splits her time for now between Marrakech and Minneapolis. She couldn’t have been nicer, and I think we have a lot in common. In fact, she lived in West Hartford, CT for three years! She offered to arrange for someone to come to the riad to give me a Covid test whenever I know I’m flying.

Another lovely dinner by the amazing Fatna. I thought I couldn’t eat another tajine, but her version, with chicken, green olives and lemon, was just delectable. I loved the flavor the olives developed in the sauce.

Marc finally got in touch to tell me I was booked on the AF flight on Thursday, two days from now. When he sent me the confirmation, it was to JFK, but at this point I don’t care, as I can find a flight to Boston easily enough. 

I discovered tonight I’ve been calling Fatna Fatima, though she’s so gracious — and speaks no English — that it doesn’t seem to matter!

15 December — Still in Marrakech

When I awoke this morning I checked the AF website, and, thanks be to God! my booking for tomorrow popped up. But it’s to Boston, not JFK, which makes me very happy. I was able to go in and select my seats, and they told me I could check in at 10:30. I texted Marc to see how that had happened, warning him not to mess it up. Thus began a process of obsessively checking the AF website every few hours to make sure my booking hadn’t disappeared.

After breakfast I ventured out to see if I could find my way to Jamaa el Fna to find the sweet little beaded slippers I had seen for Maya but didn’t buy two weeks ago.

I haven’t spoken much of my location, which is deep in the medina down unmarked streets on the opposite side from Dar el Cigognes. Khalid, the sweet young man here at Riad Baya, got me started, and my GPS worked to get me all the way there.  And I found the slippers! But alas, I lost the signal when I attempted to come back and became hopelessly lost. I finally gave in and decided to take a taxi, confirming with the driver that he could find the riad. Well, he couldn’t. You can’t just drive up to it anyway; you have to park on a bigger street and walk about 5-6 minutes — if you take all the correct turns — to the little nook where it’s located. 

So the driver dropped me and said I was close (I was, but I couldn’t verify that). I set off, trying to find a place where I could get WIFI and retrieve my map. I stopped a young woman who ooked as if she might speak English (she did, a little) and asked if she knew the riad. She didn’t, but the nice woman walking with her who spoke not a word of English and very little French guided me part of the way (though it turns out she didn’t know the riad either) and we stopped at a shop where the kind owner let me jump on his phone’s hotspot. Turns out I was a mere one minute away!

An aside about my experience with my Maroc Telecomm SIM card. I bought it here in Marrakech shortly after I arrived, and the transaction was a bit confusing because of the language barrier. I know the coverage is good through 12/31; and for the first week or so it served me pretty well: I could use the GPS while exploring Marrakech, retrieve email and WhatsApp messages while we were traveling, no problem. But beginning a few days ago I was unable to access the internet unless I was in a place with WIFI. Maybe I ran out of my data allowance? No idea. This was my first experience swapping out my SIM, so I’ll need to understand it better next time I travel abroad. And probably get a universal card.

Back at Riad Baya, I checked AirFrance again and saw that my reservation was still there, and I was able to check in and select my seats. The site says I can see my boarding pass, but I couldn’t; but that doesn’t really worry me. This afternoon I felt confident enough to send a Marco Polo video to Katherine with good news, finally. Marco Polo has saved my sanity, as I’ve been able to see videos of the grandkids just about every day.

This evening a person is coming to the riad to administer a rapid Covid test; he’ll email me the results in a few hours, so I can print them out before I leave here. Only thing left to do is reserve a hotel room at Charles de Gaulle for tomorrow night. Oh, and keep checking the AirFrance website!

Back Over the High Atlas Mountains

We’re on our way back to Marrakech to wind up this grand tour of Morocco, but first we take a little detour to the ancient village of Ait Ben Haddou. Established by a Jewish Berber named Haddou in the 11th century, the nearly abandoned village (just seven families now live there) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a ksar, or walled town. There is no running water or electricity in the village, but there is a small hotel where people who like brushing their teeth by candlelight can spend a night. A small river separates the old town from the modern city of Ait Ben Haddou, with all modern conveniences.

We approached the old town by hopping rocks across the shallow river, then beginning a steady climb past shops closed due to Covid and the consequent dearth of tourists. It’s very sad to see the padlocked shops, knowing these folks depend on tourism for their livelihoods. Turns out the village has a place in Hollywood history too.

Many many steps lead to the tower at the top of the town, where watchmen could observe approaching vandals or caravans. If the latter, they would be admitted through the gate for commerce. From the top of the town you can see the tree-lined trail along the river marking the caravans’ route between the Sahara and Marrakech. 

There is now a modern bridge dating from the early 2000s connecting the old town to the new and ending the risk that the flooding river would strand people on one side or the other. Although this site is not in my Lonely Planet Guide, Abdou says that tourists flock to the place, so seeing it empty is very unusual.

Back on the main highway, we tackled the High Atlas Mountains, where snow lightly covered the peaks and frequent switchbacks and construction slowed our progress. At lunchtime we stopped at this charming eatery on the roadside. I told the boys they were going to have to stop taking me to such fancy places, as I’m just a simple girl. But the tajine was excellent. Soon after we reached the highest point in this road through the High Atlas, about 7500 feet.

A bit further along we saw this Berber village perched on the mountainside, its sheep or goat folds clinging to the steep rocky area above the houses. According to Abdou, the menfolk generally work elsewhere, many being truck drivers, while their wives and children stay in the village and tend the sheep and goats.

It was kind of a culture shock to return to the modernity of Marrakech and its heavy traffic, after ten days practically off the grid. I’m in another pretty small hotel called Riad Baya. Abdou and I had to walk through the winding streets of the medina to get to it, and I have no idea how to get out! But I’ll worry about that tomorrow; for now I’m enjoying a beautiful room with both heat and hot water!

Once we got in WIFI range this afternoon, I learned that my flight has been cancelled for tomorrow. As I write this I don’t know how much longer I’ll have to stay here. Officially, flights are suspended till 12/31, but the government has made agreements with three airlines to run repatriation flights for people who need to get home. This was not a total surprise to me, as I’d been telling my ticket guy that Turkish Airways was not one of the three authorized.

After some scrambling ticket guy Marc was pleased to let me know I was booked for tomorrow on Air France through Paris. He sent me the confirmation and I paid another $1500.

Fatna, the genius chef here at the riad, prepared a beautiful salad that reminded me of Salad Niçoise: green beans, beets, carrots, tomatoes, olives and potatoes surrounded a mound of rice mixed with peas, and a delicate vinaigrette to top it off. The main course was lamb kefte and Berber bastilla, with dessert a refreshing salad of mixed fruits. I persuaded Khalid, the charming young host, to go buy me some wine, since I haven’t had any since Tangier!

Dades Gorge and Ouarzazate

Back down the switchback road to Dades this morning, and a stop at Abdou’s parents’ house for tea. We found his mother harvesting olives from a tree in front, and Abdou took us on a short tour of the garden, with its many fruit and olive trees. All seven of the kids live far away from the family home, so mom and dad rattle around in their six-bedroom house in town. Below is the highway through the gorge. I appreciated Zacchariah’s careful driving!

These guys love to have their photos taken. The image below isn’t very good, but I was determined to get a shot of the nomad trucks hauling their sheep, in this case whizzing down this treacherous road.

The region is known for its Damascus roses, and each May there’s a rose festival in an adjoining town. We stopped for a quick visit at the distillery, where rose oil (very precious at US$17,000 a liter), rose water, and all manner of lotions and potions are made. The distillery resembles a winery, with its stainless steel vats. No one was working today.

A nearby town was holding its Sunday market, so we stopped to have a look. Amid what looked like chaos to me, folks were picking up pretty much anything they needed, from produce to fish to jewelry to clothing to shoes. The image on the bottom is a typical display of shoes and clothing, while the vendor next door tried to keep things more tidy. These tok tok trucks were ubiquitous.

Ouarzazate is known as the Hollywood of Morocco, because there are several movie studios here. I had a tour of Atlas Studios, which produced, among many other films, Queen of the Desert, Gladiator, The Passion of Christ, Kudun, Cleopatra and Asteryx and Obelisk, along with some James Bond films and scenes from History Channel and National Geographic documentaries.

Out of the Desert and Pointed Southwest

Abdou, Zachariah and I headed for Dades, the boys’ hometown. On the way we stopped at the khettaras, an 18th century system for delivering water from the mountains to the oases, a distance in this case of 14 km. Holes were dug by means of a foot-powered crank system that carried buckets of dirt to the surface until water was reached, then the water would flow through the tunnel thus created. This khettera is dry, since pipelines have been built, allowing us to walk through the (now lighted) tunnel. Interesting engineering.

The drive back to civilization took us through myriad dusty one-street towns, most half-deserted — but every café boldly announced it has WIFI. From time to time there appeared a date farm; dates are the biggest crop here. Kids go to school on Saturday, and they were going home for lunch as we passed by. Hard to know what their future holds, so far off the beaten path. As you’d expect, most young people leave these remote towns when they get old enough to make their own way. At a shop in one tiny town, Abdou persuaded me to dress up in some Berber clothing so he and Z could take my picture.

In Tinghir we stopped for the views over  a big gorge to a town sprawled on the opposite bank. The old village, in the near distance, had been ravaged by flood years ago, so the townsfolk simply moved further up the other bank.

Further along we entered the Toudgha (pronounced too-dra) Gorge, enclosed by 400-meter sheer rock faces on either side of the road, with a stream rushing through where nomad women were washing clothes while their donkeys grazed on scrubby grass. An abandoned hotel/auberge was tucked at the base of the rocky wall, and had been quite a fancy place until some giant boulders cut loose and landed on one wing of the hotel, which closed thereafter. As I said to Abdou, the hotel was in the perfect location, till it wasn’t.

As the day wound down, we twisted our way into Dades and out again along a snaking narrow road offering panoramic vistas of the town and countryside, stopping at a formation of volcanic rock the locals call “monkey toes.”

My hotel, the Villa Dades, is smack in the middle of nowhere, but is very chic. It was built during the first Covid lockdown; they’re still working on the swimming pool and outdoor bar, which I suspect will be stunning when they’re finished. For now, they have a pretty little terrace overlooking the mountainside where the sun slips down.

Into the Sahara

After breakfast we visited a fossil processing facility outside Merzouga. Finding marine fossils is big business on the edge of the Sahara, and the manager showed us several pieces of granite with embedded marine fossils, mostly ammonites (nautilus) and squid, then briefly demonstrated how the stone is carved and polished to reveal the shapes of the shells. The resulting art is stunning, and they make dining and coffee tables, as well as myriad smaller items.

Driving into the desert, we met up again with Kiki at his home, where one of the village women, Rakia, would demonstrate how to make medfouna, a regional specialty that we would eat for lunch. She started by making three cooked “salads,” which we would simply refer to as sides, that are served at room temperature: all started with garlic sweated in oil, to which chopped tomatoes were added. One continued with sliced carrots, another with green beans and the third with aubergine, all cooked in clay dishes over braziers fired by olive wood charcoal.

Medfouna is essentially a Moroccan calzone, so she made a semolina bread dough and set it aside to rise briefly while she finished off the salads. Dividing the dough into pieces, she formed a bottom crust by gently and patiently patting the dough into a perfect circle about eight inches in diameter, then piling on a pre-cooked mixture of ground lamb, onion, garlic, parsley and spices. Patting out another piece of dough, she placed it on top of the filling, pulling the edges of the bottom crust up to make a seal.  Then more patting and turning, deflating the air bubbles that formed under the surface, gently spreading it to a diameter of about 12 inches (all this she did on a tea towel sprinkled with semolina). After making a second pie, she put them aside to rest while Kiki started a fire in the outdoor oven using wood and dry palm fronds. She used a pizza peel to slide them onto a metal pan that had heated along with the fire, and baked each one for perhaps fifteen minutes.

Et voilà! Lunch was unique and oh so delicious.

After lunch my driver, Mohammed, from the desert camp where I’m staying tonight, came to collect me. I had the option of going by camel but decided against it, as it takes about an hour and a half, and if I didn’t like it there wouldn’t be anything I could do about it. The ride over the dunes, however, was heart-stopping, as we had to climb to get to the camp, and the Land Cruiser bucked, skidded and leaned as Mohammed expertly negotiated the sandy terrain. I asked if I have to go out the same way tomorrow, and he said yes, but told me it would be downhill. Can’t wait.

My comfortable tent has a heater against the cold Sahara nights, and a bathroom with toilet, shower and sink — and plenty of hot water. My host is a young man named Mustafa who gave me a little briefing on the camp and what to expect. There’s a couple from Berlin in the tent next to me, so it was nice to have someone to chat with before dinner. They were an interesting couple, he German, she Israeli; both spoke English fluently. They are avid travelers, so we had much to discuss.

After dinner, Mustafa and the other staff member lit the lamps along the path to a fire pit, which blazed merrily; then they played drums and sang Berber songs as we enjoyed watching the stars come out. Though I stayed up till after moonset to catch the Milky Way, the sky was scattered with clouds and I couldn’t see it. One of the things I miss about this trip is having a photographer leader who knows when and where to go — like hiking up the tallest dune for the sunset, which I wasn’t about to do on my own.

I headed to the dining tent the next morning looking forward to a blast from the patio heater, because my heater did little to stave off the desert cold; but learned from Mustafa that my neighbors had appropriated it for their own tent during the night. Yavon had asked me last night if I knew the Hebrew word chutzpah…. Anyway, Mohammed took me on a much tamer ride back into town, and I was grateful.

Through the Middle Atlas Mountains

Though Riad d’Or was growing on me, mostly due to the kind offices of Nordine, I wasn’t sad to leave the gritty city of Meknes. Our ultimate destination today was a date farm outside Errachidia, the last major city before you reach the Sahara. It’s a five- or six-hour drive if you do it straight through, but we didn’t. We stopped for a coffee in the very beautiful and un-Moroccan town of Ifrane. Developed in the 1930s by the French, it looks like it should be in Switzerland, not the Middle Atlas Mountains. The homes have steeply pitched roofs and are very Western architecturally. Parks with many hardwood trees, lakes and walking paths give the town its European air. There were patches of snow on the hillsides as we drove out of town. We also passed through a very large cedar forest shrouded in thick fog; as soon as we cleared the forest, the sun came through.

Further on, we saw cars stopped at the side of the road, so we did too, to watch the antics of a few dozen Macacque monkeys swinging from tree branches, wrestling, grooming each other and engaging in all manner of monkey business. According to Abdou, these monkeys actually came from Spain; they’re the same species as those in Gibralter, I believe.

Pressing on, we passed through an area with more snow and a few ski slopes, then the landscape became increasingly desolate, though the light snow cover added a certain beauty. Soon we were past the snowy stretch, the two-lane highway a silver ribbon snaking through the rugged brown landscape with barely any vegetation. For long stretches we saw no houses or towns, but occasionally there were nomads driving small trucks with pens on the roof holding wriggling sheep. Abdou told me they were migrating to find better feeding grounds for their animals. I could envision these top-heavy trucks taking a hairpin turn too fast and sending the sheep flying.

We stopped for lunch in Zaïda, a busy town that is the crossroads of the Middle Atlas. Cafés lined the main street, festooned with sides of beef and lamb hanging in front to whet the appetite, and men barbecuing said meat on smoky grills lining the sidewalk. At the restaurant we chose, there were also six or eight tajines simmering away on another grill. We shared a big platter of grilled meat and kefte with lots of bread.

I didn’t think it was possible, but once we left Zaïda our surroundings were even more like a moonscape, with odd rock formations and striations on the mountainsides that evoked brown corduroy cloth covering the land in its folds. No trees, barely any scrub grass, just rocks and dirt. 

In the late afternoon we passed through Errachidia and continued out of town, Zachariah finding the barely marked turnoff. Waiting for us was the tall and stately Berber Abdul (I think — he told me I should call him Kiki). We followed him for a couple of miles to the date farm, where he and I set off on about an hour’s fascinating walk through the gigantic grove, tucked in a gorge. In addition to date palms, there are olive trees, and also small fields tucked between clumps of palms where they cultivate other crops they need for subsistence, like alfalfa, onions and corn.

These yellow things are the spent fronds that held dates. Workers climb the trunks (those woody remnants are very sharp) to cut down the yellow or orange stems holding the ripe dates. For the first time in my life I ate a date right off the tree, and it was so soft and sweet. I learned there are forty varieties of dates just in this forest!  The farm was not planted per se, but is thought to have sprung up after caravans passed through the area, discarding date pits. Families in the village form a kind of cooperative, planting and harvesting crops and picking dates together. Kiki has lived here all his life, and while the waning light remained we walked through the tiny village of mud and straw houses where he was born and raised, now deserted.

Tonight we’re staying in a small auberge on the edge of the village. They fed us mounds of food, including one of these giant tajines for each of us. People who criticize Americans for portion sizes have never been to Morocco!

The Long and Winding Road to Meknes

Leaving Chefchaouen behind on another spectacular day, we set off on the long drive to Meknes. I don’t think it’s really that far, but there was a lot of road construction and slow vehicles on the two-lane highway. Clearly life is hard here in this rugged mountainous region. Farmers were planting their winter wheat by hand using mule-pulled plows, as the fields are inaccessible to tractors — and tractors are probably out of reach for these farmers anyway. We passed numerous people riding donkeys laden with burdens or driving donkey carts. Olive trees were everywhere, and in some towns we saw community presses where farmers bring their olives to make oil. As we descended from the Rif Mountains, suddenly we were surrounded by vast wheat fields punctuated by groves of olive trees, and the barren rocky soil was replaced with rich black loam.

About a half-hour out of Meknes we stopped at Volubilis, the most important Roman excavation in all Morocco. Established by the Berbers and then the Carthaginians in the 3rd century BCE, it became a remote Roman outpost in about 25 BCE and grew to about 20,000 people. It continued to be occupied after the Romans lost control in the 3rd century AD, through the 8th century. An earthquake in Portugal in the mid-1700s damaged much of the site, and it was not until the early 1900s that excavations were undertaken; half the site has still not been uncovered.

The most striking aspect of Volubilis is its large number of well-preserved mosaics, reflecting the prosperity of its citizens. There are vestiges of a forum and a basilica, and the remains of large homes with thermal baths, the plumbing plain to see. Columns toppled by the earthquake have been re-erected; in place of a capitol, one is topped by a stork’s nest.

As I listened to my knowledgeable guide, Abdul, who clearly loves his work, I thought, as I always do when I’m geeking around ancient sites like this, “If these stones could talk!”

Into Meknes, a modern city, and my lodgings for two nights, the Riad d’Or, which is tucked deep into the medina. And of course I’m the hotel’s only guest. Once again my room is frigid, and there’s no thermostat or any sign of heating at all, and the water from the sink tap is freezing. Must inquire when I go down for dinner…

The dining room is dark, with a solitary candle on one table and one of those propane patio heaters beside the table. I briefly consider whether it’s all that safe to use it inside, but the ceilings are at least 20 feet high, so I’m hopeful carbon monoxide poisoning won’t be an issue. I report my heat problem to Nordine, my earnest host, who sheepishly admits he forgot to give me the remote for the heater mounted on the wall. But when I tell him I have no hot water in the bathroom sink, he’s puzzled and dismayed. He’ll look into it and move me tomorrow. if it can’t be fixed. Meanwhile, I’ll just have to wash my face with ice water.

The photos above don’t capture the eeriness of the dining room, as my phone’s fill flash lightened the area so it looks almost bright. Trust me, shadows lurked in every corner, and I had flashing thoughts of Bela Lugosi. On the upside, however, the chef is excellent.

We spent the next morning strolling around Meknes, which is one of the four cities that have at one time or another been capitals of Morocco. These four cities all have royal palaces, and this one has a seven-hole golf course. (It’s good to be king.) We visited a museum that’s part of the reservoir complex being restored. Besides the large reservoir, there’s a huge granary and stables; the king had at one time 12,000 horses. All of this is inside the city walls, so the city could be self sufficient in case of invaders

Bab Mansour

Meknes was declared the capital in the 17th century by Moulay Ismail, a harsh leader who conscripted Christian slaves to his building projects, particularly the Kasbah, with its richly tiled Bab al Mansour (Mansour Gate). He also appropriated some of the artifacts from Volubilis in his palace architecture.

Back in the medina, we visited a shop where Damascene is made; they also sell hand-embroidered table linens of two types: one sewn by nuns and the other hand-made by Berber craftswomen.

We decamped from Meknes to Moulay Idriss, a lovely town of about 10,000 souls that straddles two sizable hills about 30 minutes away. The town is a pilgrimage site honoring its eponymous founder, a great-grandson of the prophet Mohammed, who in the 8th century fled Mecca and brought Islam to Morocco. His mausoleum is at the top of the town. For centuries the town was closed to non-Muslims; in 1912 outsiders were allowed to visit, but it wasn’t till 2005 that non-Muslims could stay overnight there.

Our purpose in going to Moulay Idriss was not a pilgrimage, however, but lunch and a cooking demonstration by the talented Hajiba at her home. She led me up flight after flight of stairs from the town square to her welcoming front entrance, painted by her husband, a woodworker. Up still more steps till we reached the living area and removed our shoes, then she led me to the terrace with its panoramic view of the white-washed town.

Lunch was an expansive spread, beginning with salads: two kinds of carrot salad, courgettes with herbs and coriander, sliced cucumbers, local olives, spicy local olives, tomato salad, beans in spices and her home-baked bread. Next came chicken kebobs, then kefte of beef accompanied by twice-baked small red potatoes. Dessert was sliced oranges topped with honey, cinnamon, dates and almonds; nougat that wasn’t over-sweet; and two kinds of cookies, one almond and the other tiny little flowers spiced with pepper. Egad! you say.

On to the cooking lesson. For the next several hours I watched and took video of her making bread; two kinds of cookies (one coconut-lemon and the other sesame); two varieties of milliwi (no doubt I’ve spelled it wrong, but it’s phonetic); and hacha (they look similar to our English muffins, but taste totally different).

All of this she accomplished in a tiny kitchen with the smallest stove I have ever seen, and an outdoor gas oven with no temperature settings or timer. She used a beautiful shallow glazed pottery bowl for mixing dough — all by hand, so she could feel when the sugars were dissolved, or when the texture was just right. The same bowl gets used over and over, washed in between, of course. Hajiba measured everything by eye (who says baking is a science?), which does make sense, since she makes bread every day.

Their house doesn’t have central heating, so it takes longer for dough to rise in the winter; she puts the bowl or tray of dough over a shallow sheet pan she fills with boiling water to speed the process. Later I learned from Abdou that most Moroccans don’t have central heating. As cold as I have been these past couple of nights, I can only imagine what winter must be like. Fog rolled in as we were finishing, and Hajiba zipped up the heavy plastic curtain that helps keep the wind from leaking into the house, and she told me that they just wear more clothes when it gets cold. I’m such a baby.

Finally, the payoff: a table laden with all the things she baked, accompanied by dates, olives, honey, butter, cheese (Laughing Cow) and jams, and a nice cup of strong coffee. I so wished I had my fellow travelers with me to eat this bounty! Hajiba kindly wrapped to-go packages for Abdou and Zachariah, who were very grateful after cooling their heels in the town square all afternoon.

Back at Riad D’Or, Nordine had managed to get my room warm, but was unable to solve the problem of no hot water in the tap. He offered to move me to another room, but since we’re leaving early tomorrow, I declined. The best thing about Riad d’Or is the chef, and this morning Nordine had told me lamb tajine was on the dinner menu, so I was looking forward to it. However, after the enormous lunch and all the afternoon sweets, I had to tell him I could only manage soup and a salad. It was a good decision, because if I’d eaten any more I wouldn’t have been able to sleep.

Heavenly Blue Chefchaouen

High up in the Rif Mountains, the 14th century city of Chefchaouen clings to the mountainside below the remnants of its ancient city walls. My charming hotel, Dar Echchaouen, perches higher still, and they placed me in a room at the very pinnacle of the property.

Famed for the endless shades of blue on doors and walls of the small but labyrinthine medina, the rest of the city is also dotted with the color that made it the darling of Instagram. Abdou and I strolled through the medina, and I was stupefied by the quantity of merchandise on offer — but not the variety. Most of the offerings were djellabas, which seemed pretty attractive on this chilly day. I had no idea I’d be aching for one later.

Women in the Rif Mountains wear these embellished straw hats and red-striped aprons. What attracts most visitors, I would guess, are the doors, in every shade of blue you can imagine. The steep stone streets forced me to keep my eyes on my feet!

Lunchtime found us climbing more steps to the enclosed terrace of a welcoming restaurant called Chourafa, whose energetic waiters were anxious to try out their English on us. A signature dish of the region is anchovy tagine, the little fish nestled in a savory tomato sauce imbued with spices and served with saffron rice on the side — so I had to try it, and it was scrumptious.

Two Doors

Just beside the medina is the entrance to a very small kasbah, its Portuguese tower overlooking what is probably a tidy garden in season. More steps to get to the top! You can practically reach out and touch the unusual octagonal Spanish mosque minaret.

I wasn’t prepared for how cold it was when I got back to my room before dinner. It was only after dinner that I realized two things: 1)a small window in the shower was wide open, and 2)there was a remote control high on the wall for a heater. Even though I torqued it up to 30 C (82 F), it never actually got warm in there, so I wore my down jacket until I worked up the courage to put on my PJs. At least my laptop was generating heat!

A word about mint. At home it is the bane of my herb garden, choking out everything else. In the early spring I yank as much of it out as I can, but I still have to repeat the process several times during the summer. But this trip has given me a new appreciation for the herb. I find myself craving mint tea several times a day, and it has shown up to great effect in many of the meals I’ve enjoyed. I started my dinner tonight with a stacked salad of tomatoes and goat cheese that had a mélange of basil and mint in the dressing and garnishing the top. And I can’t tell you how much I love the creamy goat’s cheese from the Rif Mountains.

Unfortunately, I’ve been trying to finish this post for several days, and some of my images just refused to load, so I’ll publish without them and share them with you when I get home.

Exploring Tangier

In the memoir I’m reading, Adventures in Morocco, the author, Alice Morrison (an ex-pat from Scotland), muses that the movie Casablanca should more rightfully be titled Tangier, as this city is more evocative of the exotic film locale. I have to agree. My 1930s-era hotel, El Minzah, while it offers all the mod cons, as the Brits say, has the captivating aura of the years between the two world wars, and I expect to bump into Humphrey Bogart around every corner.

It rained overnight, and I woke this morning to the sky blazing orange behind Gibralter, the air clear and fresh when I opened my window.

Our charming guide this morning was Rabab, who spoke excellent English. She led us first to the expansive market, which was bustling with produce sellers, dozens of fishmongers, artfully arranged olives and lamb on the hoof. Leading us through the petit socco, or small medina, we stopped for a look outside the American Legation, which seemed like not too bad a place to be posted. The medina was quiet on this Sunday morning, both because Tangerines don’t rise too early and also because the border closure means virtually no tourists are about. Some shops were locked up tight.

Speaking of tangerines: I never knew that that variety of citrus was first cultivated here, and took its name from the city of its birth. This medina is very clean, and one doesn’t have to dodge scooters or bicycles. All the walls are whitewashed, with trim in lapis blue and cedar doors. Rabab shared stories of some of the famous people who lived here, from the wealthy heiress Barbara Hutton (her fifth marriage was to Cary Grant), to Henri Matisse, who came to Tangier for the light in 1912 and 1913. Café Baba opened in 1940 and has hosted scores of famous musicians, including the Rolling Stones. Café Cherifa is one of many cultural cafés in the city.

The city is perched high above the Mediterranean, and you can’t walk anywhere without climbing steep hills or steps. Up and up, we made our way to the Kasbah, where there’s an interesting museum of Mediterranean culture in the former sultan’s palace. One unexpected discovery was a well-restored Roman mosaic in a courtyard flanked by Corinthian columns. (But the Romans weren’t the first to colonize the area: the Phoenicians arrived in around the 12th century BCE.) At the top is a panoramic overlook of Tangier’s harbor.

Walking back through the medina (aka le petit socco), Tangier seemed to be waking up and was totally transformed. The fountain in April 9 square was running and people were bustling about. April 9 square was the site of a speech by Sultan Mohammed V of Morocco in 1947 basically telling all the colonial powers — especially England, Spain and France — to get out of Morocco and let it self-determine.

Lunch today was at Saveur de Poisson, where there is no menu: you just eat what they feed you. Fish soup with fiery harissa (on the side, thankfully), olives, warm walnuts and olives,  followed by fish roasted with spinach, then a fried whole sole with a fish kebob on the side, all accompanied by wonderful Moroccan bread and washed down with mixed fruit juice. For dessert, Grenadine berries and raspberries sweetened with honey, and sweet couscous and almonds, also bathed in honey. Twenty bucks.

Leaving Tangier in the morning, sadly. I liked it very much, and hope to get back one day. Meanwhile, maybe I’ll do some more reading about it.