Friday, December 28, 2018

The receptionist at the hotel, Rhama, also serving as the concierge, who arranged our drive to the archeological site of Volubilis, had told us it was only a half hour drive. I had not been very enthusiastic about this trip. I was wrong. However, it took us an hour and a half to get there but driving through the countryside, which we had not seen, more than made up for the time. Our driver stopped at a place full of tables and little stalls selling things that had a view out over a dammed lake to the mountains. The valley is not only beautiful but also extraordinarily fertile with the kind of rich dark soil I know from North Dakota where it is called Dakota Gumbo. Wheat had been planted and was springing up vividly green against the black earth. There were orange trees and olives as well as almonds in bloom. They have an extraordinary scent.

My best experience of this was driving north in California with Mount Shasta ahead of me—when I first noticed the mountain I mistook it for a cloud but when it remained statically in the same shape over many miles I reidentified it as a mountain—with almond orchards on either side of me. Their scent made the drive a sensual orgy.

Our driver, Mohamed, drove on the two-lane road at a speed that made me fasten my seat belt firmly. Since I spent six year driving back and forth across the U.S. ten times, I am a critical observer of other’s driving skills.

As we descended further into the valley, on our left we saw the roofless pillars and arches of Volubilis. The Blue Guide calls this “breath taking,” with their unerring capacity for cliché. It isn’t quite that but it is certainly a view that focuses you. There is quite a lot of Volubilis to see and we spent three hours doing it. It falls roughly into two categories, buildings: the Basilica, Forum and Capitol, floor mosaics: Hercules´s Labors, Wild Animals, House of the Acrobats and a number of others. There is a route to follow and you are given a nice little map with everything labeled in English and Arabic.

As we got in line to buy our tickets, I heard the man in front of me say to his wife, “They charge local people less. I think I could pass for a local. ¨

To this she replied, “You could but you could pass for quite a few things. You could be a Turk.”

I looked at his swarthy bearded face. Indeed, he could have been local or a Turk. “Where do you come from?” I asked.

“From Persia,” he answered. I am always amused by this euphemism for Iran or perhaps I am envious that I have no such euphemism for the U.S., that allows me to detach slightly from my country, but I was delighted to run into an Iranian and get news of things there, not that news is very good from anywhere these days. But the line moved swiftly and we didn’t have a chance to get very deeply into connections we might have.

It was cold, but the architectural remains are beautiful to walk among. The isolated arches with their keystones look precarious but are undoubtedly firm. The pillars have that sturdy Roman quality. “Here stood a civilization you could count on,” they seem to say. On top of one, as though endorsing this statement there was a large stork’s nest, a sort of porcupine bun of twigs. The mosaic floors are charming—the fish gracefully arching their tails, an octopus looking quite spider like, a man riding backwards on what is, I suppose a donkey but could easily be a long legged anteater, the people often round-eyed and startled looking, Hercules doing well as he wrestles with the lion. It has a cozy feel to it.

When we finished at the last arch it was three o’clock and getting colder. We hurried back, but could not find Mohammed because neither of us remembered that he had told us to look for him in the coffee shop. Kathy called our hotel and all was well.

He drove us through the green valley where small flocks of sheep were being herded home for the night. At the gate, Bab Bou Jeloud, he deposited us. We hurried off, very hungry now, since it was four and we had had no lunch, to the Clock Restaurant where we had an okay but not super meal. Kathy had an orange cake either this time or before that was a wonder and flourless.

It was getting dark as we walked home and the atmosphere in the Medina was different as people closed their shops. I did not feel as safe as I had during our daily walks. I had the sense that “nice” women were not unaccompanied by a man at night in Fez.

Home in our beautiful hotel we paid our bill, packed, and then, although quite full from our late lunch at the Clock, dutifully ate our eggplant salad. There wasn’t much room for it but I also knew that this was the best eggplant salad I was going to have for many years. It was going to be a high bar.

In my elegant room, carved and painted ceiling overhead, great arched windows shuttered, silk curtain pulled across the door, I packed up. Fez had been interesting but a quiet interesting, not the cymbals and trumpets of Istanbul.

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