KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
The train was running late but we didn’t really mind too much because it was such a nice compartment and we had already booked a place to stay in Meknès. We arrived after 9:30pm and it was very dark but the area in front of the train station was well lit. Most of the passengers for Meknès disembarked when we did so there was a real demand for taxis and we were surprised that there weren’t more waiting for fares. We were approached by a ‘grand taxi’ driver who quoted us double the fare, and I wanted to wait for a ‘petit’ taxi and not feel like a tourist with a large ‘S’ on my forehead.
Editor’s Note: The ‘grand taxi’ is a large, old, grey, Mercedes car, with the emphasis on old. They take the place of local buses.
The long and the short of it was that we waited for a long time, essentially until every other passenger was picked up and whisked away, and then we managed to get a petit taxi for our short ride to our ‘riad’ (courtyard house/hotel) near the Medina. The Riad Yacout was wonderful, from the moment we stepped over the threshold. It’s such a relief when you’ve taken a risk to book something on the internet, and the hotel is exactly as ‘advertised’. In fact, the Riad Yacout was better than we expected.
We hadn’t eaten any dinner, but had snacked on the train so we didn’t want to have a full meal. Instead, we ordered a sandwich and a bottle of red wine. No problems there. We sat in the common area, just off the central courtyard, enchanted by the soft light of the brass lamps, enjoying the Moroccan décor, and the sounds of group of diners enjoying dinner in the private dining room.
We had been warned that the internet connection might only be possible on the ground floor courtyard, but were delighted to find that we had a strong signal in our room. This may not seem important to most travellers on a short holiday, but having access to internet from our hotel room makes us feel more like we’re at home. It’s great not to have to go to a common area when we want to check email, do web banking, check cricket scores, or upload photos for my journal. It also means that if we stay up late or wake up early, we can be flexible about our communications.
After breakfast the next morning, we met the owner of the riad, Aziz, and asked him if it was possible to stay an additional two nights. Somehow, now that we had seen the hotel, four nights didn’t seem enough. Our first impressions of Morocco were so much better than we had imagined them to be, we didn’t feel the need to cut and run. To our delight, he was able to accommodate us, but we would have to move to another room for the last night. No problem there, we are consummate movers and shakers, we would happily check out another room and yet another bed.
The weather was perfect when we stepped out the door and into the bright light of day. I should mention that the rooms in the riad are decidedly dark, that’s because the courtyard homes are built to deal with the Moroccan climate. The summers are baking hot and the winters cold. By building homes with thick walls and windows turned inward, the homes can be kept cool in the hot months and warm when the night temperatures drop to near freezing. Obviously, a guest who wrote a review of the Riad Yacout didn’t understand this when he described the rooms as ‘ a little dark’.
We spent the day following the walking tour route outlined in our Lonely Planet guidebook, and had a great time discovering all the unique little corners of the medina at our leisure. The book described Meknès as a laid-back city and I would have to concur on its description. At no time were we bothered by anyone, though we were gently encouraged to come into some of the carpet shops for a look around. A friendly ‘no thanks’ or ‘je regarde’, with a smile and eye contact seemed to be enough, and we were usually then greeted with a genuine ‘you are welcome’ in return.
I had not visited Meknès on my visit to Morocco in 1972, so it was really nice to see it for the first time. It is one of the four imperial cities, along with Rabat, Marrakesh and Fez, so we were able to enjoy the sight of long rows of crenulated walls stretching out of view, something that is a lasting memory of mine. I don’t believe I’ve seen anything exactly like this anywhere I’ve travelled, not even the Great Wall in China. Same, same, but different.
We stopped for lunch on the large central square, Place el-Hedim, built by Sultan Moulay Ismail for grand announcements and public executions (ugg!). There are a few restaurants with tables and umbrellas around the perimeter of the square, but these are primarily for visitors and not local people. There isn’t really a culture of eating main meals outside the family home here, similar to what we found in Tunisia. The women go about their errands as well as the men, but the women return to the homes and the men to the ‘salons de thè’ when they have any spare time. The men seem to have way too much spare time.
Editor’s Note: Someone has to cheer for the football teams!!
We sat at tables alongside other tourists and ordered a tajine with chicken and vegetables. This is a Moroccan meal that has come to be known by the name of the pottery dish that the food is cooked in. Or, perhaps, I’ve got that backwards, and the dish is named after the dish. Who knows, and who cares. There are three main tajines on offer and I will describe them here (as they are described in my Lonely Planet Morocco), at the risk of making your mouth water and your feet want to wander.
Dujaj mqalli bil hamid markd wa zeetoun - chicken with preserved lemon and olives, zesty in flavour, and velvety in texture
Kefta bil matisha wa bayd - meatballs in a rich tomato sauce with a hint of heat from spices and topped with a sizzling egg
Lehem bil berquq wa luz - lamb with prunes and almonds served sliding off the bone into a saffron-onion sauce
We tried all three of these specialties while staying at the Riad Yacout, though I have to tell you that after the first evening, when we each ordered our own meal, we spoke to Aziz and asked if it would be acceptable to him if we shared one of the complete dinners between the two of us. Moroccans have a tradition of providing great quantities of food to their guests, and we just couldn’t do justice to all the food presented to us. His answer was, yes, of course, but he added ‘please feel as if this is your home’. And we did.
Now, getting back to our meal on the Place el-Hedim. We ordered a tajine with chicken and vegetables and were served a small portion of chicken, steamed in its own juices with a pile of carrots and potatoes on top. It was the lamest excuse for a Moroccan meal I’ve ever eaten. There wasn’t a hint of spice, no taste of cumin, which for me is the taste of Morocco, and not a trace of onion, garlic, tomato or saffron to be found. We did get a large basket of fresh bread with the tajine, so we weren’t hungry when we were done, but we weren’t about to come back either.
People come to the Place el-Hedim nowadays to watch the action on the square. It was siesta time, and there weren’t many people around, so our attention was drawn to another table of tourists who had just finished eating a very full meal consisting of many plates of kebabs, salads, desserts accompanied by beverages of all sorts (non-alcoholic as is the case in Moroccan public places).
What drew our attention was the face of the poor waiter as each of the French couples tried to pay for their meal separately. The poor man was trying to add up the cost of each of the meals, accept the payment in different currencies and trying to make change in dirhams, without offending his guests or getting short-changed in the process. The cost of eating a meal in an outdoor eatery In Morocco is so insignificant compared to dining in France, why couldn’t these tourists just take turns paying the bill, or sort out the bill afterwards on the bus?
We had a picnic in our room that night as we weren’t up for another big meal. We had walked into the Ville Nouvelle and found a shop that sells wine, so we washed our cheese, bread and olives down with Moroccan red and slept like babies despite the extremely windy night and the sound of the canvas covering the central courtyard flapping against its restraints.
When we come down from breakfast the next morning, all ready to set off for the train station and the nearby imperial city of Fez, we were shocked to find it had rained in the night, and in fact, it was now foggy and a light mist was still sprinkling moisture over the Medina. Knowing how much Anil hates the rain, I suggested that we stay indoors and try for Fez the following day, but Anil felt we should continue with our plan. It wasn’t rain he said, and it certainly wasn’t cold. That man keeps surprising me, just when I think I have him all figured out.
I have written about Fez in a separate journal entry so I won’t describe it here. We spent the remainder of our five days resting in our ‘riad’, working on my journal, walking through the small neighbourhoods outside of the Medina and generally, enjoying ourselves at a relaxing pace. One morning we walked to the nearby Royal Golf Course to check out the facilities. I knew Anil was harbouring the desire to have a round of golf, but it was clear that the few players who do come here, play really early and by late morning, the groundskeepers are on the greens and the sprinklers are turned on to ensure the grass doesn’t get too very dry.
We learned that the former king of Morocco, Hassan II was an avid golfer and it was for his enjoyment that many of the courses in the country were built. His son, the reigning monarch, is more environmentally conscious and is discouraging the building of new courses, and perhaps will eventually let the existing ones close. Instead of a round of golf, Anil and I had café au lait on the terrace overlooking the golf course and admired the massive old stone walls that surround the grounds.
Not too much more to add, but I will close by telling you about Sultan Moulay Ismail’s ‘Black Guard’. This came to my attention because the Riad Yacout where we stayed for our six nights in Meknès faces on to Place Lalla Aouda, the former parade ground where the famous guard would assemble for inspection. The Sultan brought the original 16,000 slaves from Sub-Saharan Africa and ensured their happiness and continued existence by providing them with wives and raising their offspring.
The sons of the Black Guards were trained for service, to follow in the footsteps of their fathers. By the time of the Sultan’s death, the Guard had increased tenfold. These soldiers were responsible for ensuring the Sultan’s domination over the whole of Morocco, keeping the European powers at bay and for chasing the Ottoman Turks back into Algeria. It sounds to me like the wives should be recognized for their contributions to the increase in Moulay Ismail’s military might as well!