Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Tuesday morning in Salé

The breakfast nook
 This is breakfast. Oh, I wish I could eat it all! The jam is so delicious I say I must take some home, thinking it's bought in the souk somewhere. In fact, Jan makes it herself, and she sets aside a jar for me. She's so kind! Everything is home made and organic - the breads, the yogurt, everything. The terrace is a bit cool when I first come up, but it warms quickly when the sun makes it over the rampart. You can't quite see the view of the city for the high walls.

At dinner last night I met two new friends, Trish and Veronica. Trish works at a university in Redondo Beach, California, so we have lots of commonalities there. Veronica is from South Africa and has lived all over the world. Interesting people. In the book about the riad, among the many things that can be arranged is a guided tour of Salé, and we decide to take one later in the morning. We also decide on massages and going to the hammam, at some point, perhaps more than once. But today a tour.
Being pretty much finished with breakfast when T & V start in, I go for a stroll down to the marina before the tour. It's a wonderful morning, with not many people out. I should get out even earlier tomorrow, for the beautiful light.

View downriver from the end of the marina

The working boats apparently don't get a manina
 The marina is not as I thought it might be, a place for the local fishing boats, but a place for pleasure boats. There aren't many in town today. Along the western edge of the marina, between the old town and the river they're building a totally new idea of Moroccan living; luxury apartment blocks with tree-lined spaces, and shopping on the ground floor. A row of cafés and restaurants worthy of any California seafront is being put in at the quayside. This could be anywhere in the world. There's not even the wonderfully intricate carved stucco or colorful tile work so typical of the country - just a very small touch here and there.
On the river, however, there are the local boats. Dozens of them seem to be fishing the river mouth. Or are they moored? No, it looks like some of them at least are really at work. There's a guy rowing, too, seeming to pull on some rope that must be attached to traps. A curious activity. I don't see the rowboat that takes people across for 2 dirhams a head. I'm not sure where to find it, but I'd like to.

The Kasbah area of Rabat
Our tour guide is our host, Rachid.
We don't go in the mosque, but rather explore the neighboring madrassa. The entry hall and adjacent prayer room are incredible. Floor to ceiling, every surface is either patterned tilework, gorgeously carved stucco, or beautiful woodwork. The building is 17th century, but it has been recently refinished.

I can appreciate how people are inspired to praise god in places like these.
Upstairs we see the miniscule rooms where students from families too far away to commute would stay. The cubicles are about 10 feet square, no window, common toilet down the hall, no closets or anything. The phone & electrical sockets are incongruous in this spartan setting.

Up more stairs and you can go out on the roof. The roof is just another room of a building in this part of the world. The top of the madrassa has the best view in town, and we can see the life of the medina in another sense, not from inside the warren of twisting lanes and covered souks and blind alleys, where you can only see a short way in any direction. From on high the medina is a harmonious patchwork of colors, mostly the rectangles of walls and terraces, sprinkled with round white satellite dishes and the green of treetops.
We visit some of the other buildings of the madrassa complex. The library has four rooms, one for books in French, one for books in Arabic, a reading room between them, and a more formal reading room where exams are taken. There's a custodian of the books, which are not numerous and which all seem to be at least two decades old and some a lot more. The students are not here. They have the world in their i-phones; what do they need with a library?

We go down to the ramparts keeping the sea at bay. Salé was founded by pirates, governed officially by pirates, and they built extensive battlements along the shore to spot, subdue, and capture any boat that came along. Rachid shows us the entrances to the prison where slaves from the european coast as far north as Ireland were kept. Some idle boys we see at the first entrance emerge from the second just as we get there. I imagine the dark hall underground must be nearly as disgusting today as it was then.

I was hoping for a place to walk along the shore, but looking north all I see is a wasteland of bare rocky coast covered with trash and spotted with men fishing or doing nothing in particular. Even if I wanted to pick my way through the debris, I'd be harassed by the men. Though the men here are largely well behaved, several times now when walking alone I've been approached by a man who insisted I was pretty or who wanted to show me something. They seem to think that women exist to be wives, so if you're single you must be looking. Or it's those loose Europeans - they'll do anything. I don't seriously fear being dragged off to an alleyway, but it's annoying the men just won't leave you to your business.

The Salé medina looks inward on itself, and although the houses along the western edge do have windows facing the sea, no building is oriented in that direction. There are no doors this way. All the streets end at the medina wall. As late as twenty years ago, Rachid says, they would close the gates at night, and if you were caught outside, you just stayed out. Now that the wall's defensive function is a thing of the long past, but things change slowly, and nobody in there considers the sea as an attraction to be embraced with a huge westward terrace.

Rachid shows us things we'd never have guessed, like the alley parallel to our street, which leads to structure covering a large pit, where a man shovels sawdust into the huge furnace that keeps the hammam hot. And the communal bakeries, one-room shops where there's a fire and an oven and two guys to tend it, and people bring their bread to be cooked. They bring it on a plank, covered with a distinctive cloth, then pick it up later. Many people don't have either hot water, so they bathe at the hammam, or an oven, so they have their bread and cakes baked down the street. 
We wind through the souks, with their endless shoe merchants and sellers of clothing. The gold sellers alley is said to be better than anywhere else, and they must be referring to the flash and bling of the workmanship. I like gold, but I'd like something more subtle. Jan says gold is 400 dirhams a gram, and silver 20. Buy by the gram, not the peice, and always negotiate in dirhams. 
There used to be a significant small textile industry here, but now the few carpet dealer we pass have mostly polyester goods made in China. A few local sources do remain, and we go into one shop where Rachid is friends with the owners (actually, since he's friends with everybody, that hardly specifies the shop!), and I see a deep blue bedspread that would be just the thing at home. It's too narrow for a double bed, so I'll use it to change the color of my couch. Rachid takes us upstairs to the workshop, where in one cramped room a man using a large loom to weave a beige and white cloth. Bags of wool for spinning are stacked behind him, so he must spin as well, before he can weave. It's neat to have a picture of the man who made my bedspread from scratch.

It's getting on to 2 now, and we did make a pitstop at the riad and at one point I had us duck into a bakery for tiny portions of olive & dried tomato pizza. When Rachid says it's this way back to the riad, we ask him where we might get a vegetarian lunch, and he directs us to a european-style restaurant at the marina.Certainly, he says, they will have paninis. 
There's only one restaurant open down there. The fancy ones at the end of the quay are just for dinner. And they do have paninis, just no vegetarian ones. What else they have is a lot of seafood, as one might expect from a restaurant at a marina. We have been strongly warned against having seafood at the marina by our hostess, Jan. We don't know why we should avoid it, only that we should.
I have the fried calamari anyway. 

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