Sunday, April 13, 2014

Morocco--Day 4: Volubilis and Fes

We were definitely looking forward to today's itinerary which included some birding, but would be a day of major historical and cultural emphasis.  We left Kenitra about 7:00 AM heading for Volubilis--the most southern significant Roman ruin in Africa.  En route we stopped in a hilly area where lots of fields were planted in hopes of finding callandra lark.  We could see a couple flying up out of a cultivated field, but the common kestrel sitting on the power lines ended up flushing them over the ridge.  As a result we all hiked up to the ridge line where we had a chance to see the lark plus wagtails flitting around the field (In today's post, all of the photos of birds plus the one of me were taken by Laura, and the rest are mine.  Click on any photo to enlarge).

With the lark on the list, we piled back into our van and made the short drive to Volubilis.  I had visited here in 1981.  The ruins were unchanged, but the place was now a definite tourist spot with a a couple of new buildings between the ruins and the parking area.  In 1981 we were the only visitors, and there was one very old man in a djellaba.  He was missing most of his teeth and spoke only a bit of english but still guided us thru the ruins.  This time there were many guides plus an entrance fee.  There were many tourists and a large detail of security people to "protect" the 10 year old prince and his small group of friends as they toured the site.


While taking in the ruins, we had the good fortune of noticing a short toed snake eagle cruise overhead.  Most of our time was spent looking down at the various mosaics that still remain where houses used to be.

There were some birds around including a stonechat and a sardinian warbler.

Our guide, Majid, spoke very good english and enjoyed showing us around, especially when he had Dan straddle a surviving relic that he had initially covered with his hat as Dan looked up at the skyline.

The commotion caused by the prince's arrival had us ready to leave, but then the security guards insisted we had to wait for about 5 minutes before they would let our van drive away.   

We arrived in Fes mid afternoon to meet our next guide, Ali, who Adrian and Martin knew from past trips.  First stop was to view the entrance to one of the 5 royal palaces which was unchanged from my memory when I first saw it 33 years ago.  We learned of one recent major change. The current king, who is about 40, for the first time in the country's modern history has allowed his wife to be seen on occasion in public.

Not far from the palace we entered into the medina which is the old city of Fes founded in 789 AD. Today Fes has about 1 million inhabitants living in and around the old city.

There are no motor vehicles in the medina but we immediately saw the donkey sign followed soon after by the real deal.

The shops are all generally very small and the walkways are often very narrow.  Most foreigners worry about getting lost in the Medina, so there are lots of guides--both official who you pay, and unofficial who get paid a commission if you buy anything from the merchants that they steer you to.  In 1981, the unofficial guides were generally boys age 10-12 whose "story" was that they had a brother in America, and they wanted to improve their english.

We of course had to visit the leather tannery which reeks from the tanning process.  The extensive shop that looked down on the tannery gave each of us fresh mint to smell to counter the odor of the chemicals. Bartering in the markets in Morocco is the norm, and we ended up in a lengthy negotiation with Adrian doing a masterful job of haggling down the price of what are called poofs--decorated round leather skins that you fill once you get them home to turn them into ottomans.

I kept being asked by members of our group what had changed since my visit in 1981.  Interestingly, the exchange rate for the Moroccan dirham was still 8 to the dollar.  The poofs price started at $100, but Adrian worked the price down to $75.

Our next stop was a cloth making business that still was using hand operated looms.  Ali showed us the various styles of scarf wrapping--Berber, Beduoin, etc.  I ended up being one of the models.

After a long walk thru the medina, we were very glad to arrive at the Dar (private home turned into a hotel).  As we would discover over the next 2 weeks, a dar or a riad (a private home that also has a central open/garden area) is definitely a better housing option over the hotels.

We were offered the traditional mint tea when we arrived, and about an hour later we sat down to a far better meal than any we had eaten so far.  The salad course included 9 choices some of which we could not even figure out what was in them, but whatever it was it was yummy.  The main course tagine was beef with green peas and artichoke hearts.

Before dinner we went thru the bird trip list, adding another dozen new birds to the count.  Tomorrow we would be heading up into the high Atlas mountains for the first time.  Stay tuned!

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