The journey from Moulay Idriss to the UNESCO World Heritage city Meknes took about thirty minutes and when we arrived in the city Abdul stopped first at a lay-by on the edge of the city with a panorama of the city. The word panorama makes it sound picturesque or interesting but I have to say that from here it didn’t look terribly exciting at all, just very similar to Fez with a jumble of off-white concrete box buildings and a forest of satellite dishes and TV aerials.
Fortunately we didn’t stay long and Abdul drove us into the centre of the city and took us directly to the central square of the Medina, which, although much smaller reminded me straight away of Marrakech. Abdul parked the taxi right outside the gates of the Royal Palace and I was concerned about that, but I needn’t have been because Abdul seemed to know a lot of people, probably even the guards and there was no problem. He certainly knew the owner of the restaurant the ‘Terrasses Pavillion des Idrissides’ and before we knew very much about it we had been led to a terrace table overlooking the square by a couple of eager waiters.
Mindful of yesterday’s expensive lunch we examined the menu carefully before making our selections and then we enjoyed a simple meal at a far more agreeable price and it must have been good because Sue, who is a notoriously fussy eater, finished everything on her plate.
The main square was moderately busy but didn’t feel crowded and we walked past the snake charmers and the men with Barbary Apes all trying to sell photographs, fortune tellers and soothsayers and my favourite the tooth puller who would have provided dental surgery at a fraction of the cost of the National Health Service if we had been brave enough to allow him. There were rows of market stalls selling fresh and dried fruits and others competing to sell a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and all around the square were cafés and restaurants with high level balconies where people were sitting and just enjoying the random entertainment.
A bit like Al Stewart in the ‘Year of the Cat’ we slipped into the souk and walked past carpet shops, elaborate lampshade shops, slipper shops, silver and pottery shops, shops selling leather, silks, ceramics, spices and pastries and our senses were under constant assault from the colourful sights, the rich aromas and the chatter and noise of the traders. Occasionally a donkey and cart would send people scattering as new supplies were delivered and the shop owners were probably glad of this because the only place to go to get out of the way was inside the shop doorways where someone was waiting to pounce.
Threading our way through the heaving twisting lanes we elbowed our way through the crowds and nodded politely as we rejected invitations from all sides, trying all the time not to make eye contact and declining inducement to go inside the shops and look all the time trying hard to remember the way that we had walked so that we could get out again without getting lost. We seemed to be the only tourists here so we weren’t too adventurous and soon we were back on the sunny street which led to another souk, this time the food market which, maybe because it was Saturday, was exceptionally busy.
There was large butchery section here and there was a smell of blood, offal and sawdust. Whole goats hung from metal hooks, there were bull’s heads in various stages of being dismembered and sheep’s heads carelessly discarded and lying on the floor for anyone who wasn’t paying attention to trip over. Along one of the internal lanes there were cages and cages of live chickens just waiting to be selected, purchased and killed.
The process was swift but brutal – the selection made and the price paid the butcher deftly cut the bird’s throat and shoved it unceremoniously into a plastic bucket, head first so that the blood would drain away. The poor thing struggled for a short while but when it was dead and drained it was dunked first in boiling water and then freezing water and then plucked on a primitive but effective plucking machine. Micky, a butcher himself, and Kim stopped to watch the macabre process but Christine, an animal lover, and Sue, a bit squeamish, walked on without stopping. I went with Sue and Christine.
As we turned a corner there were herbalist shops with spices arranged in colourful pyramids and baskets of dried flower heads and quack remedies. Kim went inside to look at the jars of colourful potions and perfumes and to enquire about the spices and the prices each time making a promise to return later. I imagine that this is a promise that shopkeepers in Meknes hear hundreds of times every day and probably don’t take them too seriously but after a few minutes we did return to one of them and this probably took the owner by surprise.
We bought a few bags of spices and I began to worry about taking these little multi-coloured bags of suspicious looking powder through customs especially bearing in mind that Morocco has a reputation of being a big producer of illegal drugs.
Our heads full of the sights and sounds of the busy souk we pushed our way out through a main entrance and made our way again across the main square which was beginning to fill up and I imagined that it was going to be a big night in Meknes tonight. We wouldn’t see this of course because now we had to find Abdul who had promised to take us to see the other important sites in the city. We found him chatting to the restaurant owner – presumably negotiating his commission!