Rabat to Meknes
An easy day today. Catch a train to Meknes. Basically this is our only goal, so we had better make it. Up early, having packed last night. It has been miserable weather, and we are hoping it will clear up further inland. Having our last juice at the stand outside our hotel door, we walked up to the railway station. Being dad’s son, we were there 45 minutes early, but not a problem. We had made it to the station (it was less than 1km from the hotel!).
The train pulled up on time, and the women swarmed forwards. Cramming themselves on before the people on the train could even get off. Nothing unusual there, as we have seen the same behaviour on the buses. We were unable to get a seat, and started dreading the next two hours. Standing on the train is not the most comfortable. However at the next station, about half an hour away, people started getting ready to disembark. Finding the best positions in preparation to fight their way through the women there. We used this time to score some seats for ourselves, and were lucky enough to be able to sit together.
The train ride was not that interesting, as there are trees growing all along the sides of the tracks, blocking the view. Using this time to read up on Meknes, and try to relax. None of the stations are marked, and there are no announcements over the trains speaker system, so we were worried we would miss the station. As we started going through a built up area, around the time we were supposed to arrive in Meknes, we asked. It was. Picking up our bags from where they were conveniently blocking the isle, we made our way to the doors. Now we had to go through the experience of going against the women. It wasn’t too bad, and we made it through with only a few cuts and bruises. These little old ladies are vicious.
At the station we were not swamped by people. This left us a little confused, so we went outside the station. Still no-one. A little apprehensive now, we pulled out the guidebook and pretended to read it. Someone asked if we wanted a taxi. Knowing not to take the first offer, we were non committal. They WALKED AWAY! Now we were really worried. Are we still in Morocco? So we went a little further and waited by the road. There, nothing happened. This means we are going to have to find a hotel by ourselves! We talked about it, and thought we could do it. It has been a long time, and skills barely used in the past weeks had to be dusted off and assessed. Now we looked at the guidebook in earnest. There were hotels “Thataway” If we were right about the direction we had left the station. This could be difficult! Walking along in what we thought was the right direction, we had to stop and ask for directions. There was: No hand, No guide, just directions.
Now we were spinning out. It is a different country. Still, apparently we were going the right way. The scale on our map was wrong, and we walked for a long while. Then we found the up-market hotels. In one, somebody was helpful and suggested that we needed to go to the Medina to find accommodation in our price range. We were trying to avoid this. Not wanting to walk any further, we grabbed a couple of Petite Taxis. On getting in, he put the meter on!
It was a good thing we took the taxi as it would have been an extreme walk. Dropped off, at the right place, we started checking the hotels. First one was booked out. The second was dingy, with wet floors, broken toilet, and you have to pay extra for a supposedly hot shower. Dropping the others here, Anna and I went to see the other hotels on the street. The next had no showers at all, but the room was fine. On asking if we could get a room with a power point, we were told they had none. Next. The last hotel was a lot nicer to look at. Floor to ceiling tiles in good condition and again hot showers (5dh, the same). Clean sheets, and overall, a lot better. Yet again, no electricity, so we ended up at the dingy place. Still, it was good to know that we were are in Morocco, and not spirited off to some other exotic place!
Now it was time to take our first look at Meknes. We are staying in the Medina, on the outskirts of the central area. At the wide central square we took the wrong path, and ended up walking through some side street mazes. Not a problem, after a bit of backtracking. Taking the right path, we went through some more gates in the walls. So far we would have passed through four defensive walls. This place would have been awful to try and conquer. There are walls everywhere, and the defenders would have amazing opportunities to stop invading armies at different points. Coming to another wide open area, we followed the wall where we came across some magnificent gates.
These were much nicer than the famous gates at Rabat. Tiled along the top and towering above the big open plaza in front of it. Bab Mansour. Named after the architect that built it, that converted from Christianity to Islam. Beheaded after its creation by the Sultan Moulay Ismail (Apparently a real bastard). Moulay Ismail reigned from 1672 – 1727. The first to bring Magreb (Morocco) under unified rule in over 500 years. There was a huge standing army to achieve this, and he also raided far into the south to find people for his legendary Negro legions. He was also a big builder in the cities. His only drawback was that he could be considered a bit blood thirsty. Killing a lot of people during his reign. When you think that this was the same time that people were being burned at the stake or put on racks in Europe, I think it is a bit biased against him although he did have a tendency to put peoples heads on stakes.
There were horse drawn carriages, and a fair few people around, so we must be nearing an interesting place. Walking through the archways, we though we had come across a mosque. The outside had beautiful tiled fountains. It was not a mosque, but the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail. We, as non Muslims were even allowed in. No fees! The first room was bare, a few tiles, and open roofed. So was the second and the third. The next however… Where to start. The tile work was delicate and well thought out. There were four pillars surrounding a fountain in the middle. Inlayed doors lead off in another direction, and the roof was superb carved wood. It is still held in high regard, and an active shrine. Even though he was a complete bastard, he did bring peace and prosperity to Morocco.
We could not go into the next room where the sarcophagus was, but we could see it. Again the room was perfect. The archways were covered by delicate engravings in the stucco, the tiles laid perfectly, and the symmetry, stunning. He is still buried here, along with his favourite wife. Not sure how he chose her, as he apparently had over 500 of them. This was also the downfall of his Sultanate, as when he died, all the sons decided to fight over the kingdom.
Just next door was the so called Prison of Christian slaves. Eventhough the court had Christian slaves, this was most likely an underground granery or storage rooms. It is immensily big and we can only wander a bit of it. The damp vaults are lit by the occasional skylights in the square above. The vaults are beautiful in their simplicity. Bare stonework without any decoration.
From here we walked back to Place El Hadim, the square of Demolition and renewal. The Sultan demolished part of the Medina to make the square. Now a place of storytellers and snake charmers. We had grazed the edge of this on the way through. This time we had the chance for a popper look at it. Not as busy as the main square in Marakesh, it has more charm. The people do not hassle you, and it has a much nicer feel to it.
From there, we entered into the souks. This was a lot different. The sight of all the people. Firstly the official shops have their wares out to the edge of the road, obliterating the footpaths on either side. This isn’t a problem as you can walk down the road itself. However in the middle of the road, and on its sides, are all the unofficial stalls that have all their products in carts, bags, shopping baskets, or just laid out on the ground. In theory, you can just walk around them, but then there are all the people shopping. I have not been in a place so packed since Asia. There were people everywhere. Then there is the sounds. The salesmen crying out their pitch to get you to look at their stalls, kids bawling that they want dried dates, or the latest toy, Mobile phones going off in every direction, and everyone yelling their conversations to be heard over the general din. The smells were amazing as well. Roasting food from the few food stalls, spices wafting through the air, ripe fruits, and industrial smells. You could almost taste it. Lastly there was the feel of the streets underfoot, although you did not want to explore those too deeply.
Stopping for tea to escape the hubris, in a quieter industrial part was good. It gave our feet a rest, and work out what we wanted to do. Wander a bit further, but generally head back, as it starts getting cold as the sun goes down. Making it to the graveyards, we turned around to go back to the hotel. Another section of the souks and more people. Then we popped out at the bottom of the square. Now it was dark and there were small fires everywhere. These are the fires of people cooking street food. Mostly sausages here, BBQ style. The flames were high, and there is probably more charcoal on the sausages than sausage! It is an interesting sight, but we were not game to try them tonight. Trying instead the more unadventurous Moroccan Pizza. Not bad either except for the tinned tuna. Then it was time to hit the local cafe for a coffee and game of cards, while watching the jumble of people go past, and be thankful we were not trying to do the same any more.