We see dignified ruins where children play amongst the stones; we see abandoned palaces, some fifty of them that all whisper stories of a glorious past when a thousand years ago Meknes was the bastion of Arab and Islamic culture.
We meet in Mèknes, over a mint tea in the Café Aswan with owner, Abdul (of course), buzzing around in the background. Liz, sitting at the next table, a Californian girl travelling with her pal Marj, is a home exchanger. What’s more, she is a friend of a friend who knows a British couple with a home to exchange in the Atlas Mountains. What amazing serendipity is this!
Instantly we are new best friends and as we take in the sights of Mèknes we discuss how, without an Internet connection in sight, we can find these Moroccan home exchangers.
At least, that’s what we meant to do. But Mèknes and its history takes over. We see its dignified ruins where children play amongst the stones; we see its abandoned palaces, some fifty of them that all whisper stories of a glorious past when a thousand years ago this city was the bastion of Arab and Islamic culture. We see the great mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, unifier of warring Berber tribes in the 11th century, and we see the pond where the 1200 horses of his warriors were watered every day. All around us are smiling welcoming people, looking for ways to help us. Somehow, the absence of an Internet café fades into embarrassed insignificance.
And then Sámi, who’s been driving our donkey cart as we clip clop through his city, hears the magic words. “Internet?” he cries and off we go, clipping, clopping faster and faster into the ugly new town, down some faceless streets and there it is, ‘Mèknes Internet Café’. The size of a postage stamp with two ancient screens and a worrying amount of wires, but wobbly Internet connection nevertheless.
A series of clicks later and up comes our possible exchange. It’s called Rose House and is a traditional Berber house in the High Atlas Mountains. Even more exciting, the owners, Michael and Helen, are open to all suggestions. Liz and Marj are booked on a wickedly early flight tomorrow to Marrakesh. But we slow lane travellers, with our trusty hire car, our map, and our lack of agenda could well mosey towards the High Atlas and check out the Rose House for ourselves. It sounds like a plan.
Suddenly our empty roadside is lined with spotlessly clean butchers shops and friendly little charcoal brasseries in front of them, red hot and smoldering grey, ready to cook as much or as little as you want.
We wave our farewells to Liz and Marj, with promises to meet up again and set off towards the Atlas Mountains.
Half an hour later, we catch it; a whiff, the faintest smell of something delicious. I stick my nose out of the window, sniffing like a puppy and it is unmistakable. Barbequed lamb with a hint of rosemary. Suddenly our empty roadside has become lined with spotlessly clean butchers shops and friendly little charcoal brasseries in front of them, red hot and smoldering grey, ready to cook as much or as little as you want.
“We can’t stop,” says Jafar. “We’ve got to stop,” say I.
The traders put their best faces forward, a charming young man with a wide smile, a lovely young girl with a cheeky grin. We go for the cheeky grin which, as it turns out, goes with the wide smile (they are a team). Within half an hour we’re eating ‘meshewe’ meaning barbequed lamb. Delicious cubes of it, with a salad of lots of onion, tomato, a bit of chili and parsley all finely chopped. Drink is water and the whole thing, with a fat tip, is 100 dirham. We can’t eat it all and there is an old man hovering, his eyes eating every mouthful with us. As we leave we gesture, “for you”. He grins with appreciation and points out his difficulty. No teeth. He’s got gums though, and it’s going to take longer, but he’ll manage somehow.
Gallery photographs © Jonathan Perugia, www.jpfoto.com