Monday 3rd October 2011, Moulay Idriss, Morocco
As Ian says, harking back to a childhood advert for a refreshing drink "Moulay Idriss when I's dry". We are certainly dry tonight. The water has been turned off at the campsite and in less than an hour the electricity generator will also cut out. I actually managed to get a shower in the few minutes that the water was turned on but Ian was less lucky. Oh the joy of being able to speak French. We pleaded with the campsite manager and he turned it on just long enough for me to fill our bucket and Ian to take a shower. Impossible to flush the loo or wash the supper plates of course. But he's such a nice man we cannot be cross. It's not really his fault after all and apart from a French camper van we are the only people using the site anyway and it's costing us just 70 dirham a night – about £5.
We don't drink the water in Morocco anyway. Until now we've drunk whatever comes out of the taps everywhere we've travelled. The only time we were slightly ill was in Romania. Here though, the thought of coping if one of us is ill does not bear thinking about so we've taken the precaution of carrying a dozen bottles of water around with us though we're not paranoid enough to worry about washing up or cleaning teeth with the local water when we can get it. But how nice it would be to hear the flushing sound of a toilet cistern and see clean water in the bottom of the pan! Sometimes, with luck, there is a tap and a bucket in the loo – usually no more than a ceramic hole. Here though, even the bucket was empty.
This morning the British camping contingent moved off from Chefchaouen about thirty minutes before us. We took a wrong turning coming down from the campsite high above the town and ended up right in the heart of a chaotic street bursting with lorries, cars, motorbikes, donkeys, men in white hoodies, women wearing anything from veils to sunhats and baggy trousers to flowing jellabas. Barrels were rolled, sacks of flour carried on people's heads, wheelbarrows loaded with live chickens or trays of freshly baked flat bread, and streets just too narrow to let Modestine through or even to turn around. Eventually we nosed our way forward to discover a blind end ahead and an almost vertical, unmade road down into the medina to our right. I am filled with admiration at the calm way our situation was accepted by everybody around us. Pedestrians gathered to watch while other drivers waited without a murmur as we negotiated a 103 point turn so we could return the way we'd come. Nobody hooted or got cross. It was just part of everyday life to have a British camper van stuck in their little corner of this chaotic town.
For the next few hours we drove along roads Romania can only dream about, passing through little villages, over dried-up river beds, across a wide and empty landscape of ploughed fields and withered grassland scattered with olive trees.
Beside the road eucalyptus trees and cactuses offered some shade to villagers, workmen and mules as they busied themselves hacking at the ditches with mattocks, collecting the prickly pears from the cactuses into buckets or waiting with huge bundles and plastic carriers for the overcrowded tiny buses that link these villages to the outside world. A woman held a bucket for her cow to drink from, a man sat astride an overburdened little mule as it struggled off along a stony track out to the open fields. Ian thought he recognised a plot of cannabis plants growing beside the road. I waited while he went to photograph it. Four traditionally dressed ladies working nearby jumped up and down with excitement, waving and calling to us with lots of laughter.
Of course the most interesting things in the landscape involved the local people but we felt it was far too intrusive to blatantly photograph them. Most of the pictures are therefore taken from behind. The people however did not have the same reticence and were all intrigued with Modestine, waving and calling to us all the time. We were almost never out of sight of humans, even out here on the huge, empty and endless landscape, stretching right up to the mountains, across vast hectares of carefully tilled but empty fields to green woodlands on the mountain slopes. They walked for miles along the roadside in the hot sunshine, they raked or brushed the dusty ground around their shabby huts, old ladies rode on pack mules already laden with baskets or brushwood for lighting the fire to cook the family meal. It's impossible to express just how different the life style is here from Europe, the nearest we have encountered being rural Romania. Here though, use is made of pack animals rather than carts. Indeed we saw only a couple of carts all day while donkeys waited patiently in the hot sunshine while they were laden with sacks of flour, wood, bales of straw, buckets of water or anything else that needed moving.
One of the most heartening things in a country where the illiteracy rate is around fifty per cent was the number of children walking in small groups along the roadside for very long distances, heavy schoolbags on their backs. We've yet to explore this aspect of Morocco but we've seen far more children obviously not attending school than we've seen returning home at lunchtime. They all wave and shout at us, laughing with delight when we slow down and wave back. It's a slow way to travel along these local roads. There are motorways across the country, but the rewards are enormous for taking the slow route.
At one point we entered a wide green gorge and passed the entire English camping contingent stopped by the roadside. Seventeen campervans passing through these villages must seem like the circus has come to town to these kids! We waved as we passed. Fifty kilometres further on we stopped at the town of Ouezzane for diesel. It cost 7.29 dirhams a litre which is around 60 pence - less than half the price in most of Europe. Needing a break and a clean, western loo with paper, hot water, soap and paper towels we stopped at the adjacent riad (posh westernised hotel cum restaurant that charges accordingly but has air conditioning and table cloths and where the majority of the Moroccan population have never set foot). In this semi paradise we relaxed with hot pancakes and really good coffee watching the traffic passing through the town. Sure enough, a convoy of seventeen assorted campervans passed by and disappeared out of our lives, almost certainly for ever.
We were heading for the town of Moulay Idriss where we knew of the existence of this campsite, convenient for visiting the Roman city of Volubilis. Our route took us right past the ancient site exposed on a hilltop beneath the searing heat of the centre of the day. Nobody in their right mind would choose to wander around there looking at mosaics, Corinthian columns and the crumbling remains of triumphal arches.
Leaving Modestine to the care of the parking attendant I meekly followed Ian, guidebook in hand, as he strode off along the Decumanus Maximus, dismissing the advances of tour guides by telling them he was already familiar with the site!! Well he doesn't have to cook supper, sort out Modestine's oil and water or write the blog so he does spend more time than me pouring over the guide books! Our thermometer gives up once temperatures near 45 degrees so I don't know how hot it was but I really envied those Romans their fountains, colonnaded perisyles, frigidaria and baths. Even the many geckos hid in the shady cracks between the crumbling walls. Messages home to Rome from Vindolanda on Hadrian's Wall, which we visited very recently, requested woollen socks. From here they must certainly have pleaded for sunglasses and factor 40 UV cream.
To be honest, it was an excellent site, very different from Vindolanda. Strange that we should find ourselves at the two extremes of the Roman world within a couple of months. I don't know how much further south into Africa the Romans penetrated but some of the mosaics here depicted lions and elephants.
Originally a Carthaginian settlement, Volubilis fell into Roman hands about AD 40. It was set in an important wheat-growing area and may have had around 20,000 inhabitants. The height of its fame was in the 2nd and 3rd centuries and it was abandoned to the Berbers around 280 but Latin continued to be spoken until the arrival of Moulay Idriss in the 8th century. In the 18th century its marble was plundered for Moulay Ismael’s palaces in Meknes. In its heyday in the second and third centuries it received its main monuments, the baths, the capitol, dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, the basilica and the triumphal arch of Caracalla which was erected in 217. Many querns show the importance of the city as a centre of the bread-basket of the province of Mauretania and many of the inhabitants lived in considerable style. The main street, the Decumanus Maximus which leads from the triumphal arch to the Tangier gate is lined with the gateways of mansions which were flanked by shops. The gateways led to colonnaded courtyards, normally with a basin or fountain. The House of the Columns even has spiral columns. In the rooms leading off the courtyards are a magnificent series of mosaics of which the best include the labours of Hercules and Orpheus surrounded by animals which include many Africa species. In the House of Orpheus is also a depiction of a school of dolphins. The most obvious inhabitants today are the son of the guardian who rides his donkey around the ruins hoping to be photographed and storks who have appropriated the tops of some of the columns to build their untidy nests. From the top the capitol the holy city of Moulay Idriss can be seen, it outline looking remarkably like a camel.
By the time we left, even Ian admitted he was exhausted and in need of a cold drink. Amongst Modestine's many attributes is an excellent fridge that stays cold all day, even in these temperatures without continuous electricity. Rarely has a bottle of chilled water been so gratefully received by us.
Moulay Idriss nestles on the steep slopes of the mountainside that looks across at the site of Volubilis. The campsite turned out to be some ten kilometres beyond the town but by now its charms were nothing compared to our hopes of a cool shower and a shady tree for Modestine. The site was not where our guidebook indicated but a couple of men at a wayside cafe pointed us in the right direction. If only the water was working properly it would be a wonderful site. We've eaten supper outside in the velvet darkness and even the insects have left us in peace. The electricity generator has just been turned off again so time to end for tonight.