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The Long and Winding Road to Meknes

December 12, 2021

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.

One Comment
  1. So much food and all of it looked tempting! It is fortunate that you are walking and climbing to burn excell calories. Will your eating habits/preferences change when you are home? I love reading of your adventures and wish your planned group was there to share them with you!

    Like

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