Thursday, January 12, 2006

Festival of the Sheep

It's the last day of our visit to Morocco. Our flight leaves at 9.00 this evening. Today is the Festival of the Sheep, which celebrates God's provision of a ram to Abraham when he was about to obediently sacrifice Isaac. Three million sheep will have their throats cut all over Morocco and everyone is at home.

We had booked a Berber driver to take us into the hills near Marrakech and show us some villages. Even though it's an important festival Mohammed shows up. I feel bad that he's not spending time with his family and say we are willing to watch the sacrifice. He invites to his mother's house where they will be killing a ram at 11.00am.

Mohammed drives us through a deserted Marrakech and out onto the plain. He explains that he is a Valley Berber and that his village is about 45 minutes drive outside Marrakech. The village is constructed of bricks and the red earth found all over this part of Morocco. Mohammed's mother's house is built around a courtyard with a small square of garden in the middle. There is an entryway, an enclosure for farm animals (and a small, domed, two-person hammam), a dining room, a kitchen and bedroom. In a doorway off the courtyard is a hand pump to bring water from the well. Electricity was installed three years ago.

Mohammed's sister greets us with a basket of cookies, some are shaped like stars and some shaped like Christmas trees. We sit in the sunny courtyard at a plastic table and Mohammed's young wife serves us sweet sage tea, the preferred winter drink. Her hands are decorated with a complicated henna design. She is wearing a bathrobe as a coat because although it's sunny, it's a cool day.

Presently the butcher arrives along with Mohammed's brother and they drag a ram from the animal enclosure out of the house to a patch of waste ground. The butcher faces east and says a prayer. Then as Mohammed and his brother hold the ram down, he cuts its throat. It takes the ram a good few minutes to die, the last minute spent scrabbling in the dust, desperately fighting death. The blood is startlingly vivid. I have been eating meat all my life, but this is the first time I have seen an animal slaughtered. I think of Abraham and Isaac and all the other sacrifices in the Bible. I think of Passover and Easter.

Finally the ram dies. The butcher makes a small cut in the skin of one of the ram's upper hind legs and blows into this, inflating the ram like a balloon. This makes it easier for him to skin the ram, which he expertly does in about ten minutes. About halfway through the skinning process Mohammed and his brother help carry the ram to the entryway of the house. The ram is strung up from a beam so that all the blood will drain away.

Richard and I watch the butcher gut the sheep. We are ready to go. 'Wouldn't you like to stay and eat with us?' says Mohammed. 'We make kebabs of the heart and kidneys. And tomorrow we will eat his head with couscous.' We politely decline and he cheerfully says goodbye to his family and drives us through a valley called Ourika and up into the mountains.

It is cold here and as the road brings us higher we see snow on the ground. The Ourika river runs down cold and fast from the Atlas mountains. Sometimes there are houses on the other side, with hanging wooden bridges spanning the river. Presently we stop at a house beside the river. A family of mountain Berbers live here and although they show this place to tourists it is life as usual for them. We see a skinned sheep and also a skinned goat hanging from a beech tree between their house and the river.

One of the Berbers speaks excellent English. He shows us an ancient but working flour mill powered by the river. He also shows us their dining room and larder and we pass some members of his extended family preparing the sheep's heart and kidneys. We drive further up into the mountains and see women washing their clothes in the river. It must be freezing. Mohammed gets out to smoke a cigarette and greet the Berber men, mostly dressed in their hooded djellabas. The road ends here so we drive back down and stop at an impressive-looking restaurant with stunning views of the Atlas mountains. This is obviously a place for coachloads of tourists and the food does not match up to the building or the setting.

It's nearly 3.00pm now and we don't need to be at the airport for another four hours, but when Mohammed asks us if we want him to drive him back to Marrakech or to the airport we both say 'The airport, please!'

We are ready to go home.

[This trip research for Roman Mystery 14, The Beggar of Volubilis.]

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Marrakech Souks and Gardens

We've found it! The best hotel yet. Thanks to the Rough Guide we booked the Hotel Gallia. It's a beautiful little hotel based around two tiled courtyards near the Djema el Fna. It's cheap, clean, warm and joy of joys! there is a bathtub! The staff are warm and welcoming and always on hand. They speak French and English. It is bliss after the rather grim and cold Hotel Terminus last night.

I get up early to check out the dyers' souk at 6.30am – like the guide books say – but it must be too close to the Festival of the Sheep; everything is closed and dark. Never mind. I go to a hammam around the corner. This one is called Hammam Polo and I have to go upstairs to the women's section. It is pretty basic with only two taps for hot and cold, not a nice 'Roman' basin like the hammam in Fes. Someone should do a 'good hammam' guide.

Afterwards I'm ravenous and have breakfast in the courtyard of the Hotel Gallia with two women from London, one an Australian and one from South Africa. (I promised Richard he could lie in as long as he wanted). The breakfast is bliss. Fresh squeezed orange juice, lemon for my tea, honey with croissants and fresh bread and 'Moroccan crepes'. Yay, Hotel Gallia!

Richard is up by 10.00 and I sit with him while he has his breakfast on the sunny roof terrace which I discovered after a little explore. At 11.30 we get a petit taxi to the Jardins Majorelle, one of the must-see sights of Marrakech. They are small but beautiful. The green of the bamboo, palms and shrubs contrasts beautifully with planters painted in cobalt blue, turquoise and lemon yellow.

After that it's back to the souk for another attempt to find the dyers' souk. This time the souk is packed with people doing last minute shopping and we find the dyers' souk. Colourful skeins of yarn glow in the sunlight slanting through the reed roof. There are necklaces, tassels, garments, all in jewel-like colours. We stop at a paint and spice shop and the owner shows us the jars of powder used to colour plaster for walls.

Back in the Djema el Fna we rent yesterday's Independent for 10 dh and have a coffee and salad on a terrace overlooking Marrakech's most lively square. It is glorious in the sunshine, almost warm.

A quick stop back at the hotel to freshen up and then we are back to the Djema el Fna to hire a calech (horse-drawn carriage) to take us to the Palmerie, the closest thing to an oasis we will get to see. We agree a price for the two hour round trip (250 dh) and set off through busy pre-holiday traffic. Our driver Said wears a sombrero and sometimes I think I am in a Western. After negotiating hellish traffic of buses, huge trucks, mopeds and people with sheep in wheelbarrows we reach the outskirts. There seems to be a knife sharpener on every corner, making his stone wheel spin with a foot pedal as sparks fly off the razor-sharp blades of knives. Everywhere is the bleating of sheep and rams as people lead them off home.

Finally we reach the relative tranquility of the Palmerie, which turns out to be an expensive residential area of houses with walled gardens. And some palm trees. If Chella in Rabat was an amazing revelation, this place is a bit of a letdown. Never mind. We stop at the 'Caravanserie' and take a photo of two camels and have mint tea in the weakening afternoon sun. Tomorrow is the Festival of the Sheep when we will have an unforgettable experience but for now we carpe the diem.

[This trip was to research Roman Mystery 14, The Beggar of Volubilis.]

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Roman Ruins in Rabat

by Caroline Lawrence (author of The Roman Mysteries)

Our train leaves Fes on time at 11.00 but like most Moroccan trains we've taken so far, it's late arriving at its destination: in this case Rabat.

We'd hoped to see the Roman ruins at Chellah and the bronzes at the Rabat Archaeological Museum. Luckily it isn't too late. We drop off our luggage at the Hotel Terminus across the street from the train station, then catch a petit taxi to Chella, where the Roman ruins are to be found.


The taxi drives us outside the town walls and we catch our first breath-taking view of Chellah. Honey-coloured ramparts look like a fairy tale castle in the late afternoon sunshine. Mustapha – a handsome guide with green eyes, bad teeth, a scarred face and a Masters degree in English – takes us round the Roman ruins and the Merinid ruins, all surrounded by the golden ramparts. This peaceful walled site also includes a sacred eel pond and a botanical garden. Ahmed knows the names of every tree and plant.


Storks have built nests on top of the disused minarets of abandoned mosques and we have never yet seen them at such close proximity. When they clack their beaks they sound like woodpeckers.

The hotel clerk and taxi driver told us the Archaeological Museum was closed but Ahmed assures us it's open until 6.00pm. It's already 5.00 so we bid him thanks and goodbye and catch a taxi to the archaeological museum which is indeed still open. Star of the museum are some bronzes from Volubilis, including a bust of the handsome Berber king Juba II. There is also a bronze dog and a bronze statue of an ephebe, or young Greek athlete. One gave the name to the House of the Dog in Volubilis and the other to the House of the Ephebe.

It's cold here in Rabat and after trying one or two of the recommended restaurants and finding them deserted, we catch a taxi to the Rabat medina and go to a restaurant overlooking the Atlantic. It's too dark to see much and this place is deserted. I have pastilla, a filo pastry pie stuffed with chicken and dusted with cinnamon and sugar. Richard has paella with prawns.

The hotel has provided a heater in the room but it doesn't do much to dispel the cold. Tomorrow it's back to Marrakech where I hope we'll find a warmer place to stay.

[This 2006 trip was to research Roman Mystery 14, The Beggar of Volubilis.]

Monday, January 09, 2006

Fes Medina Time Machine

The Hotel Batha (pronounced Bat-ha) in Fes is good in every respect but one: they have terrible breakfast. In a land dripping with oranges the juice is bottled and sickly sweet. The bread is stale. The ubiquitous hard-boiled eggs are so old that when I bite into one my teeth bounce back and I put it down in disgust. Too bad because our dinner here last night was fine and the room is warm. There is a pool and a tiled courtyard and it's all very reasonably priced.

We meet our guide for the day outside the hotel. Ali is dressed in the "uniform" of Morocco, a djellaba. For some reason this hooded robe makes wearers look like evil monks. What does a peaked hood seem sinister and a rounded hood spiritual?

Ali has a car and speaks good English. I tell him I don't want to shop but I do want to see the tanneries. He says fine and drives us past the golden walls of the Medina to a ceramics factory.

The potteries used to be in the Medina but the olive pits they use to fire the kilns cause billowing black smoke and so they have recently moved outside the city walls.

There are very few people around – either tourists or workers – but Ali hands us over to a man who will give us a tour. The first room we see is the tile-cutters' room. This is fantastic. I can't imagine any difference from Roman times. The men and boys squat round low tables in a plaster-walled room and chip away at the ceramic tiles, making stars, hexagons, diamonds and all the other shapes that make up the mosaic walls, columns and fountains you see everywhere.

Next our guide takes us to the back of the factory where there are six big circular pits in the ground. This is where clay from the mountains is soaked and kneaded (by bare foot) to make it soft enough to work. The ground is slippery here from yesterday's heavy rainfall.

We see the kiln being fired, get a demonstration of a foot-powered potter's wheel and see the glazing room. It's like going back in time. Nothing can have changed in two thousand years. Finally we are taken to the factory shop. This is a cooperative and the prices are marked. Not cheap, but we buy a few things to take home: a bowl for olives and a tile.

From here Ali drives us to a parking space outside the Medina walls. No traffic is allowed inside, and all goods are carried on donkey, mule or horseback. Ali was born and raised her in the Fes medina; he often stops to greet friends and we are never pestered.

The tanneries are amazing. You go up through tunnels of leather-goods to a high balcony where you can look down over them. Another guide offers us a mint-tea and as we sip it he explains how things work. The raised pits are for tanning and dyeing the leather. The hay-strewn flat rooftops for drying, the running water for washing. The stench is bad but it must be terrible in the heat of the summer.

After the tour we buy some belts, a leather rucksack, and a pouf for our London apartment. It's not cheap and I realised I could have done a better job haggling. Never mind: the profits are shared out between all who work here, including the poor tanners who are all rheumatic by 50.

Ali leads us through narrow winding streets past stunning mosaic mosques and fountains. Every so often you have to press yourself to a wall to allow a donkey to pass. We see boys hammering copper, someone feeding sawdust to the furnace of a hammam, just like a slave in Roman times would have fuelled a hypocaust.

Ali takes us to a carpet factory despite the fact that I tell him we do not want to buy a carpet. He just wants us to see 'the six-hundred year old house it's built in'. I realise this is definitely the 'shopping tour' not the 'monument tour'. But I don't mind because this is like going back in time and the monuments are mainly mosques and Islamic tombs, which don't really concern me.

We don't buy a carpet at the 600 hundred year old carpet shop and we don't even go into the jeweller's or embroiderer's. But we do let Ali take us to the apothecary. This is a little Alladin's cave of coloured powders in jars and dried lizards and bottles of oil. Here again, Ali sits and lets an on-site guide do his spiel. We smell lots of perfumes and aromatic spices and Richard buys half a pound of cumin and 'Moroccan curry powder' to experiment with at home. I buy a textured glove and a piece of sandstone 'pumice' for my next hammam.

Ali also takes us to the Mellah or Jewish Quarter and up narrow stairs to the synagogue. Until recently it was a museum but since the owner died her son is selling off everything so that he can go back to Paris to live. What a shame...

For lunch, Ali takes us to an ornate restaurant near the carpet shop we saw earlier. The set menu is cheap and surprisingly delicious. Dessert is oranges sprinkled with cinnamon, which is simple but tasty.

As Ali drives us back to the hotel mid-afternoon, I ask if he knows a place where we can hear some Moroccan music. He tells us he'll take us to a restaurant in the Kasbah where we will hear authenic Moroccan and Berber music, see belly-dancers, etc. It sounds very touristy but Ali assures us the whole evening costs 'only' 300 dirhams per person (about £25) and that the restaurant will provide a courtesy car home.

He picks us up at the hotel at 8.00 and drives to the Restaurant Palais La Medina, then leaves us. I pay him and give him a nice tip and a signed book for his kids, and later wish I hadn't. This place is a huge disappointment. Although the tiled interior is stunningly beautiful and the performers mostly good, the food is terrible and it's full of tour groups. Also it ends up costing over 1000 dirhams. We do not get a courtesy car home.

Bad Ali! No dog-biscuit!

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Seeking warmth in Fes

Yesterday, Friday, it was cold and pouring with rain at Moulay Bousselham, where we've been staying at a guesthouse. We eagerly pack our cases, knowing we are off to the warmth of a hotel room in Fes... we hope.

Gentiane's Berber butler drives us through pouring rain to Souk el Arba, about an hour away. We find the small unheated train station and wait for the ticket man to arrive. We manage to buy tickets: a good sign. At exactly 12.52, the time of the train to Fes, everyone goes out onto the platform where we stand shivering for another half hour. Then someone makes an announcement and everyone drags their cases across the tracks to wait on the unsheltered platform. It is still raining steadily. We are cold and damp. At last the train arrives: an ancient unheated creature that is due to be replaced by a modern new double-decker in the near future. Cold consolation.

We find a compartment with a nice Moroccan couple who are returning to Fes to spend the festival with their family. At one point another Moroccan breezes into our compartment long enough to establish - in excellent English - who we are and where we are from. He recommends a restaurant in Fes and a guide named Ali who speaks excellent English. I ring Ali straightaway and arrange for him to give us a half day tour of the medina the following day.

The windows are wet and steamy, so we can't see any of the countryside passing by. Richard and I pass our time shivering and reading and sharing food with the Moroccan couple; I offer them salted peanuts, which they accept, and we get juicy tangerines in return. Finally we arrive at Fes. It's 4.30pm and will soon be dark. I have been cold and damp since I got up at 7.30 and am yearning for warmth. But it's not easy to get a taxi an a rainy afternoon in Fes. At last we succeed and climb into a red petit taxi. He drives us past medieval walls of golden mud and stone. The rain pours down.

The desk clerk at the Hotel Batha (pronounced Bat-ha) jokes that he doesn't have a reservation for us. Ha ha. When I ask if the room is heated he says no but it has air conditioning. Ha ha. And when is breakfast? Between 4.00 am and 6.00 am. Ha. But he does usefully inform us that we can have dinner in the hotel restaurant for only a slight increase to our room rate. A porter takes our luggage and shows us to the lift and at last we find what we have been seeking all day long: WARMTH! There is also a bathtub - oh bliss - and a toilet without the ominous wastebasket beside it (meaning used paper goes there and must not be flushed).

The Rough Guide says there is a hamam near here and as I haven't done anything researchy that day, I decide to be brave and go. I consult the guide book and pack a towel (thanks Hotel Batha), shampoo, soap, face cream, a hairbrush and a spare pair of panties. Out the hotel - still raining, and dark now, too - up to the cinema. I can't find the cinema but a peanut seller kindly takes me to the unmarked door of the hamam and beams a toothless smile. I tip him two dirhams. In the entryway I buy a ticket from an old man. Entry to the hamam costs 18 dirhams, about one pound fifty. Through ancient double wooden doors to find a steamy room with a tile centre and drain. Around this courtyard on three sides is a low stone balcony with women changing. I go timidly across and up a few stairs, find the lady who takes you ticket. With a bit of questioning in French I rent a locker (wooden box above the bench) and agree to a massage for 50 dirhams, about four pounds. I undress down to my panties, like everyone else, and an old lady (also in just panties) grasps my left arm above the elbow with a calloused hand and pulls me across the slippery floor to a room aroud a corner.

This room looks just like the ruins of Roman baths: tile floor, tile walls, high ceiling and two stone basins, one for very hot water, one for cold water. There are naked women everywhere, sitting on the stone floor surrounded by colourful plastic buckets. They are all ages, from little girls to old women. They are washing themselves, their hair, even their clothes.

My old guide takes me into a second steam room, almost identical to the first but less crowded. She gets me to sit on the floor and starts tipping buckets of deliciously warm water over me. Then she asks for my shampoo and when I produce the Head and Shoulders she washes my hair, brushes it through rinses it with a bucket. Bliss.

Now another lady with a red bandana type headscarf takes a scrubbing glove and rubs me hard all over. It is almost painful, probably because I'm not used to it. I am lying on my back. The floor is heated underneath in Roman style and is so hot it almost burns. I close my eyes and try to relax into it. Before she gets me to turn onto my front she shows me the worms of grey skin she has rubbed off me. Eww.

After she does my back they sluice me off. Then a third headscarfed lady gives me my massage, rubbing me painfully hard with my bar of soap. Finally I know it's over when they sluice me down with gaspingly cold water.

I go back to my locker and start to dry myself. Suddenly feel a bit sick. I have to put my head between my knees for a few minutes. I should have rested after the bath. The hammam must not be rushed. But Richard is waiting back at the hotel room. After a few minutes I feel better. I get dressed and go back to the hotel feeling cleaner than I have in my whole life. And very warm.

Dinner in the hotel restaurant is uninspired but good and especially nice because they've seated us by the fire. We have harira - the noodle, vegetable and bean soup - then I have chicken kebab and Richard has a beef tajine. We treat ourselves to a bottle of rose from Meknes and finish off with oranges sprinkled with cinnamon. That night we sleep in a warm room on clean sheets and a firm mattress. Yay! Hotel Batha and warmth.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Volubilis

It is January 2006. Richard and I are in Morocco researching Roman Mystery 14, The Beggar of Volubilis. We have been staying at a B&B run by a Frenchwoman named Gentiane in Moulay Bousselham and have already had some adventures. Today is our big excursion to Volubilis.

On the way we stop at the Thursday Market at a crossroads near here. Families are coming from all over on horse or donkey drawn carts, or in shared taxi, or on foot. The market is huge, with different products being sold in different sections. In addition to the usual spices, sweets, shoes, sardines and bric-a-brac, we see barbers shaving their customers beneath little makeshift awnings.

The Festival of the Sheep is coming up, so lots of the things on sale are geared to that: bales of sweet yellow hay, a green clover-like fodder to feed the sheep; sharp knives to cut their throats next Wednesday; skewers and grills to cook the meat, and the sheep themselves. We see several men leading sheep on mere pieces of twine. There are lots of lambs about but the sheep for Wednesday must be full-grown rams because the festival commemorates the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, when God supplied a ram at the last minute. The rams cost between 800 and 3,000 dirhams; the equivalent of about 50 - 2500 pounds sterling.

At the market we buy a beautiful woven throw-rug for our room at Gentiane's house. The tile floor must be deliciously cool in summer but it is freezing here at night; I have not been so cold since the last time I went camping. The carpet, which cost about five pounds, will bring relief from the icy floor.

Back in the car, Gentiane drives us towards the mountains. We stop for a quick mint tea and break at Souk el Arba, a town whose name means 'Wednesday Market'. We pass more horse and donkey driven carriages and carts, going down a straight flat road lined with eucalyptus. Beyond lie orange groves, sugar cane and artichokes... Soon we begin to climb thorough hills fuzzed with wheat, making them look like the folds of a bright green plush blanket. We reach the site of Volubilis about two and a half hours after we set out. There are puffy clouds but no rain and by the time we have paid our entrance fee and found a guide to show us the mosaics, the sun comes out. There are wilddlowers everywhere: little orchids called Venus-slippers, white fragrant narcissi, yellow and white daisies...

Volubilis is a stunning site in a stunning setting. Martin Scorsese filmed The Last Temptation of Christ here. Storks roost on the lofty columns of the ruined Temple of Jupiter. The Decumanus Maximus runs from the arched remains of the Tangier gate down to an impressive arch of Caracalla. Our guide Abdu shows us all the mosaics. I especially wanted to see the mosaic of four chariots pulled by birds, but it has been eroded or vandalised and is only partially and badly restored. The mosaic of the desultor (horse acrobat at the chariot races) is in better condition. There are two very strange mosaics on the same subject: Venus being washed by Pegasus spouting water from his mouth.

It only takes us an hour or so to look round; it is the setting I especially wanted to see... After another mint tea for me, and coffee for Richard and Gentiane, we set off back home. Just as well: we reach the motorway and the last stretch of or journey just as it is getting dark. It's dangerous to drive on the country roads in darkness because the horsecarts rarely carry lights; they think if they can see you that you can see them. You come up on them very suddenly, and therefore need to be alert.

When we get in, it is so cold that we decide to move on the next day. Most Moroccan houses are not heated because it is so rarely cold, so Gentiane is not to be blamed. She rings and books us a hotel in Fes for two nights and she makes sure to ask for a heated room. Twice.

[The Beggar of Volubilis is book number 14 in the the Roman Mysteries series. These books are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. There are DVDs of some of the books as well as an interactive game. For more information, teacher should visit my SCHOOLS page.]

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Lixus and Larache

Today we went to the Roman-Phoenician site of Lixus, a few miles north of here.

It is another cold but sunny day so we eat our breakfast on the patio: hard-boiled eggs dipped in salt and cumin, Moroccan flatbread with home-made butter and stawberry jam, washed down with either lemon tea or Berber coffee.

Last night we ate very well: bissara (split-pea soup) to start, then artichokes fresh fromthe market with home-made mayonnaise, and fish that was swimming in the Atlantic that morning. A delicious tangerine and strawberry fruit-salad for dessert;strawberries are the speciality of this region and they are just coming into season.

I sat out on the terrace with Grace aftyer dinner and talked about writing. It was a cold clear night and the sky was full of stars...

Today Gentiane drives us to the town of Larache, untouched by tourism. We pass through fields of strawberries, turnips and sugarcane. The soil here is chocolate brown and very fertile. Later we see a cork forest and then the sea, as we come into Larache. After a short stop at the little archaeological museum there we visit the town souk and then the Spanish market, a covered market where we buy olives, dates, almonds and a circular white goat cheese wrapped in its own palm-leaf basket.

We stop at a shop next to a cinema; it sells sandwiches Gentiane promises will be delicious and cheap. We watch the cook chopping and frying the meat and tomatoes and onions with twin spatulas, then he pops the warm ingredients into a split piece of round flat bread and lets us choose our salad filling by pointing: onions, tomatoes, olives...

We drive out of town past the fish market, salt-pans, and marshes to a hill which rises above the sorrounding area. This is the site of Lixus. We sit in the shade of olive trees, eating our sandwiches and looking at dozens of square stone vats below us.

After we finish eating, the kind and intelligent guardian of the site tells us we have been looking at the remains of the ancient fish-salting factories. He guides us upthe hill to show us a small theatre and ampitheatre combined, a baths complex, a residential area for rich Phoenician merchants and Roman soldiers, and the remains of half a dozen temples: two Roman, two Carthaginian and two Punic... The sky is blue and the sun is warm as we go higher and higher to find a lovely panoramic view at the top.

After a good hour exploring the site we come carefully down the steep slope and reward ourselves with mint tea or coffee at the nicest cafe in Larache, overlooking the ocean...

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Moulay Bousselham

We are enjoying our third day in Morocco. Its very cold at night but lovely during the day.

Our arrival two evenings ago was a slight culture shock. I think the the taxi driver charged too much for our ride from the airport. Then he abandoned us in the souk with a vague gesture signifying 'over there'. We despaired of finding our riad in a maze of unmarked streets in the Kasba, at night.

When we finally found it and convinced them we did have a reservation, they gave us the Aladdin room, overlooking this inner courtyard. The sheets were clean, the room warm, and in the light of day the next morning we saw how nice it was. Breakfast by the pool under an orange tree with fat little sparrows in attendance.

After a quick visit to the souk yesterday morning, we caught a comfortable train to Kenitra. It took six hours and passed through desert and then green plains; through Casablanca and Rabat. A cheerful New Yorker named Grace picked us up at the station and drove us on a fast good motorway to Moulay Brousselham. She is staying at the same guest house as us and was on her way back from Rabat, where she used to live.

We were given a warm welcome by Gentiane and her international guests, a French couple and an Italian woman.Lovely artistic house;stained glass and cushions everywhere. We enjoyed aperatif of orange wine and homemade chicken liver pate; then chicken stewed with fennel and prunes.

Today Grace and Richard and I took a boat out and spent the afternoon on the lagoon with our guide Khalil.

I have now achieved two of my goals:
Had lots of mint tea
Seen a flamingo

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Research in Morocco

On the first day of 2006 we are off to North Africa to do some "research" for Roman Mystery 14, The Beggar of Volubilis. We fly to Marrakech, way down south, but will spend most of our ten days further north, on the Atlantic coast between Tangier and Rabat. The Riad Amira – where we're staying for our first night – looks like this on the website.

That evening – if our BA flight is not delayed, and if the taxi can find the riad, and if the riad has our room – I hope to drag Richard out to the famous Djemaa el Fna, with its snake charmers, tooth-pullers, acrobats, storytellers, musicians, clowns and pickpockets... I hope it will look something like this:

If we survive that, we'll explore the souks and kasbahs the next morning, then catch a train to Kenitra, just north of Rabat. There I hope we will be picked up by the grandmother of one of my young fans. Gentiane is an artist who runs a guest-house beside a lagoon near the little fishing village of Moulay Bousselham. On a map of Morocco are where the yellow arrow is pointing.

The red dot at the top of the triangle is Tangier, the red dot on the Atlantic is Rabat and the red dot on the other inland apex of the triangle is Fez. The little blue dot which the arrow points to is the lagoon called Merdja Zerga. As well as exotic birds, there are supposed to be lots of sandy windswept beaches nearby. Not so good for swimming this time of year, but great for walking and thinking. Also, I will get a feel for the geography of the place, the tastes, the smells, the feel of the air.

Here are five things I hope to do:
1. Visit the Roman ruins of Volubilis. And any other Roman remains in the near area.
2. Spend a few hours in a hammam, the closest thing to a Roman bath you can find today.
3. Visit the tannery in Fez. Apparently not much has changed there in 2000 years.
4. See a flamingo in the Merdja Zerga lagoon near our guesthouse.
5. Drink lots of mint tea.

The Beggar of Volubilis is out now in paperback...