Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Travel Tuesday : Casablanca, Morocco

After a long train ride yesterday from Fez, we arrived here in Casablanca. Got off the train and stepped into a (relatively) cool breeze -- since we're back at the coast. Got to our hotel (the Guynemer), which LP raves about, but it's nothing special. I mean, it's a small room in a dingy hotel, but it does have a friendly staff and wi-fi. It's all we wanted in a place to crash for a night before flying to Egypt.


Walked around Casa a bit yesterday -- there are some grand old facades in this town -- but it's all dirty and poorly maintained. It's not a poor city -- there's lots of international business here -- but perhaps the lack of rain keeps everything coated with dust.

We were most saddened by the ruined Hotel Lincoln. It was built in 1919 as the Bessonneau building, designed by French architect Hubert Bride. The huge structure was featured in old postcards, dominating the former Boulevard de la Gare.


Varying reports say that after the owner attempted to get permission to tear down the building, the authorities responded by giving the building protected status. So the building was abandoned and squatters were allowed to move in -- in the hopes that they would slowly but surely destroy the structure from within.

Here was the status of the exterior when we saw it in 2009:



The strategy seemed to work -- with a partial  collapse of the building in 1989 that killed two people, another in 2004 that killed one more, and yet another in 2015 that killed another man. At the same time the area was being revitalized. Note the tram line on a newly pedestrianized section of Morocco running immediately in front of the ruined hotel in this 2018 photo:

photo from L'Economiste
Meanwhile calls for proposals on how to save at least the facade and renovate the structure went out three times between 2015 and 2018. The last report I could find stated that a proposal from the REALITES group had been accepted and they planned to build out a 5-star hotel to open in 2022.

Made the trek (skirting the medina and inadvertently passing through some dodgy areas, but in broad daylight) to Rick's Cafe -- modelled on the bar in the film... which was, of course, actually modelled on the Caid's Bar in Tangier. But we figured we'd be bummed, later, if we didn't at least have a drink there.



Not very imposing on the outside (why on earth didn't they invest in a neon sign?)...


... but it is beautiful inside, even if it doesn't look anything like Rick's.




Had a drink in the upstairs bar; the drink was stiff if expensive, the service non-existent... but it was the first time we had had a service charge applied. Happy to have our one drink, beg someone to give us the bill, wait 5 minutes to pay them, and then skedaddle.

On the way to Rick's we came across the Hassan II mosque, the third-largest mosque in the world. It's so big you can scarcely believe it -- it's set a bit apart from other buildings so you don't get a sense of how big it is. But it can house 25,000 worshippers at once, along with another 80,000 in the surrounding squares and halls. Beautiful, but not open to non-Muslims. (fair enough).




After Rick's we decided to get some food, and followed LP's recommendation for Al-Mounia -- which was gorgeous and classy in a way that Rick's will never be. Stepping through a guarded door into an amazing fairy-lit courtyard with a huge tree providing shade.


Were seated quickly, and then not long after we arrived the crowds came. We told them we were vegetarian and they brought out a 6-plate salad to share as a starter -- huge thing... an eggplant salad, two different pepper salads, the tomato and onion salad, a cucumber salad, and... oddest of all... ground carrot with sugar. Honest.


They were all delicious (well, the carrot was odd but still tasty) and very filling, so when our vegetable couscous came we weren't very hungry. The waiter was funny and charming and pretended to be sad that we didn't finish our couscous (or our "dessert couscous" that came with walnuts, dates, and a liberal coating of powdered sugar). But it was relatively inexpensive and absolutely Moroccan.

Up next: Egypt!

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Travel Tuesday : Volubilis, Morocco


Got up early(ish) and went to the nearest medina gate to pick up a taxi. I had been thinking about taking a bus or a shared grand taxi, but we bumped into Josephine on the way out of the riad and she convinced us to take the train. We got a taxi right away and were at the station in a few minutes, then easily got 1st-class tickets to Meknes and settled in for the short ride.


Got off at the right station (the second one) -- so thrilling not to have luggage! -- and out into the street. A man quietly said "Taxi? Volubilis? Moulay Idriss?" and we said no thanks and moved a little bit away to get our bearings. LP said to go to the Institut Francais to haggle for a taxi and to try to get the price down to 350 Dh.



While I was looking for the map, the man approached again, again very quietly and politely, so we asked how much. He described the trip: 20 minutes drive to Volubilis, 2 hours to walk around the site, then a 5-minute drive to a panorama above Moulay Idriss, and then 20 minutes back... for 350. Which is exactly that I wanted to / expected to pay. So w/o haggle or hassle we agreed.



The driver was nice -- chatting in French and telling us about the upcoming festival for the king, about prickly pear (cactus), about olive oil, etc. We understood about 50% of what he was saying.

Soon we arrived at Volubilis and I could barely believe my eyes -- the site was huge!




Volubilis itself was surprising -- like Ephesus must have been in the 70s -- some bits cleaned up, but lots of piles of rock, a few arches, lots of fallen pillars, and only a handful of signs. A big museum, very modern looking, is being built, but seemed to be a couple of years from opening. (The building was apparently completed in 2011) But once open it should help the place -- which just needs money to improve the signage, etc.










The mosaics are remarkably intact, other than the ones which have had their faces or naked bodies scratched out.






The Hercules mosaic is particularly lovely.



And this elephant is remarkably realistic:


And I liked the arches, especially the triumphal arch. And I like that storks have built their nests atop two of the tallest columns in the basilica. Very nice that someone still makes a home there.



We were pretty much done after 1:45 -- there's no shade to speak of at the site, and it's very dry. We couldn't even be bothered to go to the cafe for a cold drink -- we just went back to the car and our driver.



Leaving Volubilis ("I told you you would only want 2 hours!") he drove up the hill to a nice view of Moulay Idriss, explaining that it's the tomb of Moulay Idriss I, and the tomb in Fes is of his son, Moulay Idriss II. "Poor man's Mecca", because 5 trips to Moulay Idriss during the saint's festival = 1 trip to Mecca. A fossil seller sidled up and tried to sell us fossils, while telling us about Moulay Idriss but he kept slipping from German to English which is pretty much what I do when speaking Spanish or French.



Then back in the car and back to Meknes, where the driver was a bit disappointed in us that we didn't want to explore his city. But we only had 20 minutes until our train at 13:29, so we didn't want to risk it. So to the station we went, and discovered the train would be 35 minutes late. Okay, fine. Well, the train was eventually 90 minutes late. Boo. And when it came there was no A/C. Double boo. But it came, we got on, and had no trouble getting a petit taxi back to the medina.






Spent the afternoon resting (oh, after having a date shake at Cafe Clock...) and then in the evening went back out for a saunter, looked at some slippers, and ate.

The slippers thing was tough -- I think I *wish* I wanted them, but in part I didn't want the hassle. But we went to a shop, Wil tried on some yellow slippers (the best!), and we looked at the different quality. I think the guy just normally sold to locals, so didn't want to haggle -- but he also gave us very inflated prices. So we said no and walked away, and he didn't follow. I realized that flat slippers really wouldn't do much for my feet, so I dismissed the idea as well. So no slippers for us.




Dinner at Café Clock, again -- got a great table we sniped from another couple (who left a bag with a melon, and then slunk back for it). Wil had the cheese and veggie grilled sandwich, I had the falafel/tabbouleh/hummous platter (not as nice as last time?) and two big waters. We watched the sun set over Fes and relaxed.



Then "home" to our riad, a cold drink on the rooftop, then bed.  

lovely Albert Moore-ish scallop / fan shape at Volubilis

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Travel Tuesday : Fes, Morocco

When we arrived in Fes -- after our looooong train journey -- we headed out to hail a Petit Taxi. The first driver wanted to charge us 50 Dh, which we laughed at and moved on. The second guy said 15, so we jumped in and he took us to the Bab Bou Meloud, the famous blue gate.


From there it was relatively easy to find Talaa Kebina, even if it was challenging to find the first riad we wanted to look at: the Dar Iman. I thought the mosaic work and painted doors were beautiful, but Wil hated it from the beginning. He didn’t like the terrace, the courtyard, and the immediate surroundings. So we moved on.




We checked our map and decided to try my first choice: Dar El Hana. We got lost a couple of times, and had to ask directions, but we found it and it’s gorgeous. More subdued, with a great big room and a lovely roof terrace. The room was, however, far more expensive – 890 Dh, but we talked her down to 700/night as we were staying nights. The owner is an Aussie expat named Josephine, and she’s lovely and thoughtful, giving us tea and water and telling us about Fes and how she came to be here.




Our room was huge, with an anteroom and desk and couch, as well as a large bedroom and shower. Beautiful floors and wooden details, and a very cute “secret window” looking out over the street from the bed.


our sneaky window 
the view from our sneaky window
Got settled a bit and then headed out to the town. We made a loop through our part of the medina, stopping to visit the shop of the man who helped us find our way. (Wil hated the brass mirrors, I failed to think of a place to put one. Eventually we would buy a beautiful carved bowl that still graces our dining table, ten years later.)



We ended up at Café Clock, a very cool “cross-cultural café” run by an expat Brit. It’s a converted riad, so there are lots of different seating areas and chill-out rooms, plus a great roof terrace. The food was good too – we split a falafel/tabbouleh/hummus plate and a “Fes tapas” plate with roasted beets, pickled carrots, little croutony things, an eggplanty pepper spread, some very soft goat cheese, a tomato and onion salad, and a couple of dates. Which made me sorta wish I had a date shake.



The next morning we wandered down to the tanneries. We just walked down, down, down past the shops and the mosques, eventually finding our way by following the donkeys laden with hides... and the unmistakable stink.






A nice man offered to show us a good view and took us through his shop and up onto his terrace. I was happy we had gone with him, since the place seemed simpler than the ones with the fancy covered terraces – we walked past trying hides. Yellow was that day's color… or perhaps the previous day’s as these were drying?



The dye pits are amazing. The whole scene looks (and, now that I think of it, IS) medieval. They were dyeing browns and reds, with men (they were all men) standing in the pits moving the hides from one pit to another. Amazing. We also saw the very stinky part, where they take the hides and tan them, using lots of pigeon poo and cow urine, apparently. The men drop hide after hide into a vat, turning them over and then mushing them down with a stick. Then they take them out and put them in the next vat of muck. It must take days to tan the leather…





After the hides are tanned, they're dyed in these big vats. 


 And after they've been dyed, they are carefully stretched out and touched up, if necessary, to ensure even color. Yellow is the most prestigious of the colors.


Anyway, after watching the tanners and dyers do their stuff, we headed back in to run the gauntlet through the shop. The first man had been nice, but he turned us over to another man who was less nice. Wil saw a good bag for the netbook and the haggling began. The seller started at 750 Dh. ($95) Wil countered with 200 Dh ($25). The seller dropped to 550, but Wil stood firm at 200. They asked our best price, and Wil stood firm. So we said thanks, goodbye, and then left. A few minutes later the man came after us, telling us he couldn’t make a profit, and asking our best price. Wil was a rock, and said “200… it’s all I can spend on a bag”. The man let us go, and I started to wonder if we had really gone too low. I man, a camel leather bag, pockets, buckles, etc…. But a few minutes later the little boy from the shop came running after us with the bag and said “OK! OK!”.


We wound our way around the narrow streets, marveling at the beams placed between buildings to keep them from falling.




We struggled to find our way back to our riad – we had to leave the medina to try and get our bearings at the city walls.



Perhaps we had been dazed by the smell of the tanneries? But we went back to the riad, stopping for food en route -- though these honey-dipped sweets, covered with bees, were too alarming for me to contemplate.


We spent most of the rest of the day relaxing on Josephine’s breezy roof terrace enjoying beverages from her icy fridge. Bliss.