Greetings from Morocco – we have finally set foot on African soil! Our first days here have been wonderful – full of impressive landscapes, fascinating cities and towns and, above all, incredible generosity and hospitality from local people. It’s only a week since we were boarding the ferry in Algeciras along with a handful of cars and watching the European coastline slipping out of sight with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. We had opted to sail to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta rather than Tangier as bikes travel free to the former, so we didn’t actually reach the Moroccan border until we were 3km inland at Fnideq. Hardly anyone was travelling in the same direction as us, so we had our passports stamped very efficiently, but there were plenty of people coming the other way. Many taxi and car drivers seemed to take the view that it would be sensible to drive on the wrong side of the road to jump the queues. Together with laden donkeys, innumerable pedestrians, money changers and water-filled potholes, this made the road a little difficult to navigate! Once clear of border madness, we made good progress, arriving in Tetouan where camels were grazing by the roadside. After a brief wander in the medina (the name given to the original Arab part of a town), we fell gratefully into bed and slept very, very well. Since then, we’ve been heading more or less due south, passing through the Rif Mountains to Chefchaouen and Ouazzane, and then enjoying a flatter road through empty plains of incredibly black soil and soaring larks to Volubilis and Meknes, finally arriving in Fes yesterday.
Friday 15th saw the beginning of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and a time both of fasting and abstinence and intense celebration. We couldn’t have imagined what a revelation it would be to travel in Morocco at this time, and in fact had been a bit worried that we might not be able to get food supplies and might cause offence by eating or drinking during daylight hours. In fact, everyone seems incredibly calm and happy, and eager to share food and experiences in the evenings, when they congregate in cafes or simply on the street to break the fast together. From what we can gather, with the exception of travellers, pregnant ladies, the infirm and those involved in a jihad(!), everyone above the age of about 12 breakfasts before sunrise and then fasts throughout the day until the muezzin sounds at sunset. (Fasting means abstention from food, drink, smoking and sex.) From about 4pm, the scent of harira (tasty soup made with chickpeas, noodles and coriander) fills the streets and as it starts to get dark people begin their meal by drinking a glass of milk, eating a few dates and tucking in to their soup. Ramadan is also a time of almsgiving, and this seems to extend to needy cycle tourists as well as the poor and homeless, as we found out last week…
Leaving Chefchaoen on Friday we met a French couple, Matthieu and Maud, on a tandem, and discovered they were doing a world tour. As they too were heading south, we decided to spend a few days cycling together. The following evening, approaching Volubilis in the afternoon having cycled 100km, and wondering where we could camp, the four of us were spontaneously offered “accommodation” (i.e. a place in the yard to pitch our tent) by a local man. As if this wasn’t generous enough, Mohammed then invited us into his modest home and insisted on sharing dates, milk, bread, salad and the delicious harira his mother had made. Later on, two friends appeared bearing jars of coffee and sweetmeats and we spent the evening together talking and playing cards. Although Arabic is the language of Morocco, most people speak some French, but we were curious as to why Mohammed’s spoken French was so good and why his bookshelf was full of weighty tomes in that language. We soon discovered he was born in Algeria but had been adopted and educated in Morocco and had worked in France as a chef. He was incredibly well-read and interested in world affairs and in our travels. We eventually got too tired to carry on with another round of rummy, so retired to our tents. It’s also Ramadan tradition to stay up into the early hours, however, and we heard Mohammed singing along to the televised nightly celebrations and refilling his long, tapered tobacco pipe until late into the night.
The next morning we explored the Roman town of Volubilis (entrance gates a mere 200m from Mohammed’s back yard!). It’s an impressive sight, with beautifully lively and detailed mosaics in several rooms as well as a striking triumphal arch. It’s all very un-English Heritage, with fig trees growing through walls, cats roaming about on the mosaics and not a manicured lawn in sight! Slightly incongruous too, with vast dark-soiled fields in the background and the very un-European looking Zerhoun mountain range encircling the plain on which the town is sited.
Morocco, by the way, is a vegetarian’s paradise after the trials of Spanish cuisine. Harira is nourishing, ubiquitous and cheap (30p per bowl), cous cous royale consists of a bed of semolina with seven different vegetables and if you order a vegetable tagine you get a slow-cooked casserole flavoured with cumin and turmeric and topped with caramelised onion, all served in dish with a pointy cone-shaped lid (it’s this vessel that gives the dish its name). Apart from that the bread is fresh and delicious – either crusty baguettes or flat, round, light loaves – pastries are as good and varied as you would find in France, and fresh fruit and vegetables abound. On the roadside between the towns, large wicker baskets of pomegranates are arranged by the roadside and tiny stalls sell plaited strings of pink-skinned onions, bunches of mint or coriander, and fiery-skinned red peppers. Here in Fes, one street away from our hotel, there is a vegetable souk, and by day there is hardly enough room to squeeze through between the stalls, which groan under the weight of bunched carrots, glistening aubergines, baskets of okra, bright red tomatoes, jerusalem artichokes and enorous and oddly-shaped gourds. Walking through one of these markets is an incredible experience – all the sights, sounds and smells assault you and you find yourself feeling like a child in a sweet shop – wanting to touch everything and buy a bit of whatever is for sale. There are sacks of rice, pasta and beans, sultanas, nuts and chickpeas, strings of figs, boxes of dates from the southern oases, and vats of honey. A stall can be an artistic masterpiece – bowls piled high with glistening mauve and green olives, and arranged symmetrically, with sugary, preserved lemons stacked in between and bunches of herbs hanging above – or it can consist of just a wheelbarrow of squawking chickens, a tray of pancakes, a piece of canvas on the ground with half a dozen bunches of radishes. There are also sticky, honey covered pastries at the moment – a Ramadan speciality we are particularly enjoying – incredibly sweet and sold by the kilo, although thankfully you can also buy smaller quantities. Away from the food souks, there is an incredible array of goods and services on offer,with workshops spilling out onto the pavement in many cases. In Meknes, carpenters were particularly abundant, planing and chiselling, polishing and carving everything from bookcases to beautiful screens of laceria, the art of Moorish knotwork. We commissioned two wooden batons to hold our solar panels in place on the bike and, helped by Maude’s French, managed to get exatly what we wanted in the space of ten minutes! Further along, in the metalworkers quarter, reels of wire were being straightened and re-coiled, sheets of metal were beaten flat, and red-hot lumps of iron pulled from a brazier and beaten into shape, while beautiful window-grilles lay stacked and ready for sale. It’s too bad we don’t have room in the panniers for anything!
So, the next few days will be spent in Fes, exploring “the most complete medieval city of the Arab world” as our guidebook describes it, and resting up fo a while before the heat and long distances we will encounter as we head south. Change is afoot on the website too, with Luke masterminding new, improved pages and more route info so please keep logging on and spreading the word to others! Many thanks for all the messages of encouragement – despite this update sounding like we are living an idyll, the road is still long and the hills and heat are hard, and emails from home help to keep us going!