Sunday, August 14, 2011

Part II: Volubilis, or the Hunt for the Ancient Phallus

Sometimes, having the humor of a 16-year-old boy can be an asset; the dogged determination to find the penis carved into the rock led us on a 2-hour search and covered most of the ancient site. Maybe that's what drives all great archeologists, the search for the perfect ancient dick joke. (Photo at end)

Which came first, the olives or the Romans?

Curiosity about Volubilis was the reason we took the foray into the center of Morocco, instead of driving up the Atlantic coast, which is a faster route to our final destination of Chefchaouen. You can read about Volubilis's UNESCO World Heritage designation. For those who have a shorter attention span, Volubilis is an Ancient Roman city, at the westernmost border of the Roman Empire. It was originally settled by Carthaginians. There are parts of the city that date back to the third century B.C. and the huge Arc d'Triumph was built around 213 A.D.
Some historians say that one point the city housed up to 20,000 people. The surviving mosaics and fountains evidence that it must have been stunning before the city was abandoned about 1000 years ago and much of its treasures were plundered for the building of Moulay Idriss and general thievery.

Our visit--

After a wonderful breakfast and another walk around Moulay Idriss, we bade our hostess at Dar Zerhoune farewell and headed toward the arches of stone down on the plain that are visible from up in the mountain city.

It was a hot day. Ramadan has passed slowly during the month of August, so the offers of guides were easily waved off and the men could return to laying in the shade. It's only 10 Dirhams (less than $1.50) per person to enter the site, I almost feel guilty paying so little. Val and I immediately turn off the main path onto a smaller path, a way I like to refer to as 'taking the we-didn't-pay-for-a-guide route.' Instead of walking around to the entrance of the town and working our way through the ruins of the residential sector and ending at the Basilica and governmental buildings we went straight for the big columns. Of course, it was the search for the rumored phallus carving that led us through the maze of stone walkways and over most of the expansive site.

Some people say that the penis carving points to the red light district, who knows if that is really true. As Val said, 'well, it's pointing at something.' Either way, if you are in Volubilis, remember, it's in the House of the Dog. We did eventually google it from Val's phone so that we could end our quest.

And then I got stung by a bee.

So, did the Romans bring the olive trees that dot the landscape because the climate was perfect for their growing, or were they already here?

As always, there are more photos on our Flickr site.
Volubilis photos
Moulay Idriss photos

Next up, Part III: Chefchaouen

Teaser: Khalia is coming shortly.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Welcome to Moulay Idriss, or "THOSE are olive trees!"

"Olive them?"

Trip #2 outside the Casablanca/Rabat area
Part I: Moulay Idriss

Moulay Idriss. Ever heard of it? Neither had we. We decided that for our second trip we wanted to venture out onto the winding mountain roads of central Morocco. We are trying to make Casablanca home, but it lacks the charm and mystique in the living medinas of the ancient cities. Destination was Volubilis, the most well preserved Roman ruins in N. Africa, but en route, why not explore the holy city of Moulay Idriss? It's just up the road and is finally open to non-Muslims to stay the night. Visiting during the holy month of Ramadan made it especially interesting as the small central square was bustling with activity late into the night.

We were introduced to a lovely guesthouse called Dar Zerhoune, named for the mountain range the city is nestled into. It was perfect for us and the proprietor, a Kiwi named Rose, gave us much insight into activities. Thank you again for being a wonderful hostess!

Arriving in Moulay Idriss, you leave your car in the small lot in the main square. There are no roads that will accommodate a full-sized vehicle, only foot traffic, donkeys, and small carts. The city is well over 1000 years old and the ancient design can be seen in the tiny winding streets that climb the contour of the mountain. The city is part of the mountain in a way that modern construction has lost. Almost every step you take to move in any direction is a stair step up or down.

From the main square it is apparent that foreign visitors are few as there are soon plenty of eager volunteers to show you to your hotel, to take you to see the “view panoramic,” or to see the rare cylindrical minaret. By “volunteer,” I mean “for a small fee” but, unless you are like Val and I and enjoy getting lost in a city, I recommend paying the pocket change for someone to direct you. An English-speaking older gentleman became our guide (without our asking, of course) and once we had walked around with him, it took us an hour of wandering the winding alleys to find our way back to our hotel. But, in the process we enjoyed the walk. Well, at least for the first 30 minutes of stairmaster action!

While you are up on the hill, visit the Scorpion House. It's a beautiful place to take in the view and have some delicious food.

Lastly, if you decide to visit Moulay, you must know that there are thermal-heated Roman baths up on the mountain just a short (and beautiful) walk along the river from the town. Visit them. You will not be disappointed. If you are, you should be more fun.

Coming Soon: Part II: Volubilis

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

First Visit to Marrakech

Now that we are back from our second trip out of town to visit Volubilis, Moulay Idriss, and Chefchaouen, I must do a quick write-up of our overnight trip to Marrakesh (Marrakech). Then I can allow myself to talk about our jaunt through the center of the country and the Rif Mountains.

Visiting Marrakesh can be done in a weekend, although, it will leave you wanting more. We will return, eventually. But there are so many more places to see.

I wanted to hate it – touristy, pushy sellers, and such – but I couldn’t. It was beautiful, it was fun, and our little oasis at Riad Bayti was just the relaxation we needed after a month in Casablanca.

First, I must mention the trains…

Morocco is a country with a wonderfully developed system of highways and trains. So, taking the train from Casablanca started out perfectly. We didn't get too ripped off by the petit cab on the way to Casa Voyagers; negotiating to use the meter helped considerably. We arrived early and since there were no seats next to each other in first class we opted to take our chances with second class. Now, we are always game for an adventure and I don't really consider myself a premier class sort, it’s generally twice the price, so I'd rather save the money and put it toward another trip. We knew we were doomed when the announcements started that the train (8:50am, first on Saturday) would be delayed. And delayed. And further delayed...

The train finally arrived at 10:50, the time of the usual second train of the day, so the chaos that erupted pushed us onto the train in standing-room-only for the three-hour trek. A smile will help get you someone's armrest to perch on, but it took hours before a woman got off at one of the intermediary stops, allowing me to sit. She had motioned for a man standing next to me to take the seat and seemed quite angry when he gave the seat to me.. I must get used to those cultural differences. Was it because I am clearly foreign, because I’m a woman.. I don’t know. I sat down and immediately fell asleep.

Once we arrived in Marrakesh we found another petit taxi and negotiated a good price to take us to the Bab Mullah - the Jewish quarter – and paid a local man a few dirhams to show us down the winding alleys of the souk to our riad. The heat was not unbearable and soon we were walking to the Djamaa el Fna Square and into the many souks to wander. The medina is manageable and relatively clean, cleaner than Casablanca anyway, and not so confusing that you necessarily need to hire a guide. It was the artisans who stole my heart; hammering iron lanterns, tanning leather, dying wool, the city is alive and while most of the crafts go to fuel tourist influx of cash, there was an authenticity. These are not cheap souvenirs.

So, we did end up finally buying a few pieces for our home that will remind us of our trip. I have a weakness for textiles and the carpets are just amazing. Through the long negotiation process Val got them down to below 1/3 the original asking price, so everyone was happy. The experience of carpet buying is fun; the setting was a beautiful old mansion, the tea was sweet and packed with fresh mint, and the salesman, Driss, was friendly and the haggling was tough, but going from 10,000 DH to 3,000 we felt satisfied with ourselves, and walked out with the most amazing carpet we had seen yet. Don’t try to haggle for carpets in Marrakesh if you aren’t up for the challenge.

For dinner, the lovely restaurant Tangia, near Riad Bayti in the Bab Mullah, is a wonderful option for a fancy meal out. If you are feeling a bit travel weary and are not sure your stomach can handle the food stalls in the square, Tangia’s pigeon pastilla is just perfect. Although, my sister once referred to the Moroccan pastilla as a chicken donut, the dusting of powdered sugar over the meat pie is really spectacular. The sampler of Moroccan salads will leave not one of your taste buds un-teased. We finished the meal with a lamb tagine with figs, no complaints to sip our tea and watch the belly dancers before retiring back to the terrace at Riad Bayti for the evening.

Sunday, we walked to souks, bought some fragrant spices and tea, and took a first-class train car home. I’ll go half as often if that means I have a seat and a drink cart to bring me some strong, hot coffee.