Descending from the mountains and the Blue City of Chefchaouen, we are soon back in olive groves, cherry orchards, and fields of wheat and lettuce. Mohamed suddenly pulls over … there’s an open air market that he thinks we should see …
We park on the side of the road and traverse a narrow foot bridge over a creek. After taking shots of this burro bit and learning about how it was used, Doug asks us to leave our cameras shuttered, since this is a ‘daily life’ activity and tourist photos would be intrusive. We spend about an hour wandering the grid that the stalls are set up along, orderly in their layout but calling out “souk” in their content, offering everything from plastic kitchenware and plumbing supplies, to detergents and cleaners, spices, raw fish and freshly butchered chicken. A man cooks kebab over a trench brazier, a ferrier shoes a burro. I walk past large tubs of fava beans, alfalfa and oranges, among stacks of cartons whose labels I could not decipher. Most of the stalls were run by men, the shoppers were equally divided between men and women, each loading their purchases onto motorcycles and burros for their respective treks home
We’re back in the car and on our way. About 3 hours later, Mohamed negotiates some fairly astounding traffic, with roundabouts at every intersection, cars interlacing through each other every which-way, with the rule of the road seeming to be dictated by a “stare-down and wave-through” technique. The chaos gives way to a wide and much calmer palm tree lined boulevard with a 12-foot wide park down the center, complete with grassed areas and park benches and filled with pedestrians. We arrive at the Hotel Volubilis in downtown Fez.
It’s a modern hotel, a very stark contrast to the riad in Rabat and the boutique mountain hotel in Chefchaouen. My room is white, spacious, unadorned, and overlooks a swimming pool. For the first time since arriving, I am wishful for my suitcase and the swimsuit contained therein. Brenda later offers me hers, but I never do take her up on that offer.
And then, a series of small unfortunate events starts to fray the edges of my else wise impressibility.
I unpack my ‘luggage’ – a heavy, white plastic laundry bag from the Hotel Barcelo in Casablanca – and the handle rips. “A bit of duct tape will patch that right up,” I say to myself as I reach for the roll I had tucked into my purse. I reach down to take off my shoes, and find that I’ve blown the side seam. “Good thing I packed that duct tape,” as I remove the insole to do a quick internal repair. In the bathroom, there’s a hole in the shower wall that I can see daylight through. “I’m going to need more duct tape” I mutter as I use up most of what I had left so I could take a shower. I take off my watch and the metal band breaks, beyond my ability to repair. There’s no bottled water or WIFI in the room, no services directory, not even a “do not disturb” sign. In the corner, there’s a broken chair…
I go down to the lobby to inquire about WIFI, and find Doug, whom I alert about the broken chair in my room so he doesn’t get charged for it. A few minutes later, Doug and the front desk manager arrive, and I show them the shower wall (now patched) and the broken chair. “We have another room” says the manager. “I don’t need a new room, I just don’t want to be charged for the broken chair,” I respond. “Please follow me,” says the manager, and he shows Doug and me to another room.
“Do you like this room?” the manager asks. I reiterate that I don’t need a new room, I was just reporting a broken chair. I’ve already unpacked and I really don’t want to make a fuss. “So this room will work for you then?” the manager asks. OMG. I walk over to a chair in the corner. “This chair is not broken. Let me take this chair to my room, and it will all be perfect. Can we do that?” The manager finally understands and insists on carrying the new chair to my old room. Such a simple fix, and yet so elusive…
I think it was later that day that we hunted down a hardware store, in part to escape the drum corps that have taken up a corner of the hotel lobby. We find a Carrefour, where I use the last of my dirhams to buy a roll of duct tape in case my shoe or luggage blow out again. Mark and Catherine stock up on wine and champagne in the grocery department downstairs, while their floor standing oscillating fan is being assembled in the hardware department. It will help them sleep at night, and will provide notes of humor at every hotel, kasbah and riad for the duration of our trip. On the way out, I notice the really nice bright green Tyvek shopping bags that Carrefour offered at their checkouts, and Doug gets one for me. New luggage! In the car, Mark and Catherine gift me with a bottle of vodka. Things are looking up!
After a dinner buffet in the hotel restaurant, Doug and I hit the boulevard in a search of an ATM and a drug store. We locate two ATM machines, which both fail (adding to the list of All the Broken Things) but do find a convenience store, where after a short discourse between Doug in Egyptian Arabic and the shopkeeper in Moroccan Arabic, with accompanying charades, I procure some necessaries, including a plastic disc that looks like a scalp massager, but which works surprisingly well as a hairbrush and is very compact.
Back on the boulevard, we see a bronze statue of a lion in the parkway, and I pose for a photo. I would later learn that it commemorates the last wild lion in Morocco, who was shot by a trophy hunter during the 1930’s. Had I known that, I would not have smiled for this photo…
We cross the street to the hotel. The drummers are now gone, so I sit in the lobby to get onto the WIFI, until the hoteliers start turning the lights out, signaling that it’s time to return to my room.
The next day, breakfast in the hotel restaurant turns out to be among the best of the entire trip. Fresh and grilled vegetables, eggs, blocks of feta, dates, olives, and folded and fried Moroccan pancake called mesmen, which I spread with honey and cream cheese. I also note a variety of cold cereals and something that looks like Cream of Wheat. At the end of the room there’s a table-top coffee dispenser, reminiscent of the vending machines I fell in love with in Florence, that serves 5-6 different styles of thick, milk-based European coffees at the push of a button.
Mmmmm…. vegetables and coffee, my two favorite food groups…
Today we visit Volubilis, the ruins of a Roman town renowned for its mosaic floors. We stop at a 3rd ATM but it doesn’t work for me either, so I give up so as not to delay our day any further. I’m concerned that my shoe repair won’t hold in the rugged terrain we are going to be walking through soon, so I break out my sewing kit and astound my traveling partners when I produce thimble, beige carpet thread and a leather needle, and begin to stitch up the side of my handmade Italian shoe.
“You carry a sewing kit – with a leather needle?” they ask. “Textile artist!” I answer. About 20 minutes later, my stitching is complete, and I pull out a black Sharpie. “I may be a bag lady but I’m still a fashionista,” I joke as I color the carpet thread so it matches my shoe. By now my traveling partners have run out of words…
Just outside the city, we reenter agricultural areas, marked by roadside produce stands with pyramids of fruits and potatoes towering over the edges of the bushel baskets that line the edge of the road. Farmland is interspersed with ruins of stone or brick walls. We arrive at the Roman ruin of Volubilis.
After leaving the parking lot, we are greeted with an expansive concrete plaza – designed no doubt to gather large groups together for orientation before heading out onto the site. We hired a local guide, who wore a long, loose, lime-green caftan over his jeans and sandals, and a conical straw hat that I had started to see on some of the older people on the outskirts of town. We head out under hot sun and a pale blue sky with just enough wispy clouds to offer a contrast to the nearly 104 acres of ruins we were about to view.
The floors are exquisite and I am in awe of their condition, in sharp contrast to the vestiges of the walls that surround them. I wonder what has prevented weeds from breaking through, when everything else is overgrown.
The guide is great, and again I wish I had brought my journal, even with the risk of it drawing my attention away from where my feet were going. There are informational placards that I photograph along the way, with information about the aqueducts that fed the city, and some of the homes which are named after images in their mosaic floors, including the “House of Venus,” the “House of Bathing Nymphs,” and the “House of Big Game” with its lions and tigers detailed in the floor.
The “House of the Rider,” (Maison av Cavalier according to the carved stone marker) named after a bronze figure discovered there in 1910, was one of the larger homes at 1700 square meters. The mosaics covered the floors of the public areas of the homes (but not the private areas like kitchens and baths), and I cannot help but think there must have been some ‘keeping up with the Jones’s” competition as the floors become more spectacular as you circle clockwise through this site.
We see the the remains of a bathing pool. Shown here is a jacuzzi – a large flat pool with a center stonework carved into backrests that would accommodate 10 people. It served as a social center in the same way that the Turkish hammams did during the Ottoman period. Our guide told us that the water for the jacuzzi was heated by underground pipes which ran under the ovens in the nearby bakery. Talk about architectural multi-tasking …
The imposing Triumphal Arch of Caracella is a popular place to have your photo taken, and guides are yelling at the too-adventurous tourists to stop climbing to the top of it, presumably for a better photo op.
Further down the avenue, our guide points out the bakery, and the King’s Palace with its huge circular mosaic floor, and a square pool larger than my entire living room, overlooking a panorama of fields and orchards, with the Atlas Mountains in the distance. I take note of a stacked stone wall, and a vomitorium with the remains of the trench which drained into the sewer.
I had seen a piece of a mosaic floor in a Roman exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum, but it is entirely different to see them in context. In spite of being exposed to the elements, they are remarkably intact and vibrant. It’s a testament to the craftsmanship that went into their making.
Back at the plaza, there’s a small museum, with maps on the walls and a few cases of Roman artifacts which included bone buttons and needles, bronze pieces from horse trappings, and a foot tall bronze figure of a boy, labeled “The Genius of Abundance.” In the next building is a display and sale of local products, mostly honey and packages of herbs from the nearby farms. I am once again disappointed by the lack of a gift shop, and will have to shop for a book online.
Tasks for tonight include laundry – combining a shower with a soapy stomp on my red traveling coat, wringing it out in a towel and hanging it up to dry. With all of my clothes clean and in various stages of drying, I head back down to the lobby to read up on what I expect to see in the souk tomorrow. It’s another night of being on WIFI until the lobby lights go out. I hope I’m not annoying the hotel staff…