We set out earlier this morning than usual, by about 9am, because today is our first full day of driving on the trip so far – we will drive due south, about 250 km from the Rif Mountaintop village of Chefchaouen through fertile fields of olive trees, cactus pears, pomegranates, citrus, and vegetables, to the royal city of Meknes.
But first, we needed to extricate our car from its parking spot in the middle of the produce market that takes place on Sundays and Thursdays outside of Bab Souk, the gate to the medina nearest our hotel. We had arrived during this market on Sunday, and had struggled to maneuver our tiny car through the even tinier spaces left by the tables of produce of all kinds, Rif Mountain women streaming into town to sell their crops and handcrafts, local sellers of everything from used shoes to junk… In other words, it was a madhouse! But, still, with a great deal of good humor all around, and the willingness of the locals to move their crates of grapes and tables of other produce a bit to allow me to slowwwllly back our car out of its parking place, we managed to finally, by about 10am, get on the road out of Chefchaouen.
The mountainous landscape, and the soft, golden light, made the drive south a delightful experience. It was our first good look at the fertile agricultural hills and valleys of Morocco, and they are just beautiful – dark, tilled fields spread with black topsoil, alternating with fields already planted, or ones covered with a dusting of pale yellow hay…and everywhere, silvery green olive trees, some loaded with fruit, some already harvested… cactus plants topped with red pears, and prickly aloe vera.
I drove slowly, most of the time at about 40 or 50 kph, so I could safely have a good look as we made our way, and also so that I could easily stop to let Tali take some pictures whenever she asked. Lots of pulling over to the side, to let cars and trucks behind us pass on their speedy way to their own destinations…
After a few hours of driving, a bit after noon, we pulled into a rest area; we were more than a little bit shocked to see that the Moroccans (thankfully) don’t have Western-style fast food restaurants along their highways. What they did have is a large kitchen set up, not far from the petrol pumps and public restrooms, with a woman preparing Tajines from scratch. We stood there to watch her complete her preparations (we’d missed the first step or two), and so we were treated to an almost complete step-by-step cooking demonstration, of how to make an authentic Tajine! This was for us a wonderful surprise, because we had been interested in taking a cooking class ever since we arrived in Morocco, and it just hadn’t worked out yet…as will often happen, the universe provided just what we had requested, and in a delightfully unexpected way!
On the counter in front of us were at least a dozen Tajine clay cookers, all on their clay stands, which were filled with burning charcoal. Half of the tajines had beef underneath, followed by thinly sliced potations, and then by a mound of onions on top; the other half were chicken Tajines, with the chicken followed by potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, and squash. We watched the chef carefully layer her ingredients, one by one, on the mound of onions or vegetables that she had begun with. On the top of the beef set of Tajines went raisins washed and mixed with a little sugar; on the top of the chicken set went freshly cut tomatoes with parsley. She then covered each of the cookers with the distinctive Tajine clay cover, and put a spoon underneath the cover, to keep it open just a little, to allow steam to escape. She told us that they would then cook for about an hour – just in time for late lunch for hungry drivers!
Next to this Tajine kitchen (and remember, this is in a highway rest area!) was a butcher’s shop, complete with wrapped carcasses of meat hanging from hooks. If a hungry traveler did not want a Tajine, he or she went over to the butcher’s and selected a cut of meat, which was then cut and prepared to order on a barbecue grill. Food, even if not always suitable for those who don’t eat meat like us, is taken very seriously here in Morocco!
By about 3pm, we were less than an hour from Mecknes, and very close to the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Volubilis, so we decided to spend some time seeing this Roman Empire’s farthest outpost, the end of the Imperial Road that reached across France and Spain, and south through Tangier. Direct Roman rule lasted here only a little over two hundred years, from 45 AD to 285 AD, though the town was continuously occupied from thousands of years B.C. until the 18th century, when many of its great stone blocks were hauled away for use as building materials in Mecknes.
There remains here more than thirty beautiful floor mosaics (all unfortunately exposed to the ravages of the elements), numerous columns and arches standing in noble contrast against the shockingly blue sky, and the stone foundations of grand houses of hundreds, or even thousands of square meters in size. Many of the mosaics were the floors of indoor fountains or pools, while in one particularly luxurious house, mosaics adorned almost every room – mute testimony to the very high level of aesthetics the Romans accorded to their living spaces.
We had a wonderful time enjoying the late afternoon golden light, just beginning to turn pink as the sun descended, walking through Volubilis, imagining how life here might have been in its heyday, until it was time to finish our drive at its destination, the royal city of Meknes.
After the brief drive that we had remaining, we met the proprietors of our Riad in Mecknes, two musicians… Simon, who originally lived in England, and Mouna, a Moroccan whose family lives in Mecknes, but who was living in France when she met Simon. Staying in their Riad is not at all like being in a hotel, but rather like being the house guests of friends, who invite you to stay over in one of their upstairs bedrooms.
After a very brief walk over to the main square in the medina, we returned to our Riad and a well-earned sleep.