Glimpses of history

The road also returns home

The Economist Online | Nov 30th 2007


AT THE heart of the medina is the ancient Karaouiyne mosque. Like almost all the mosques in Morocco (so Barnaby tells me), foreigners are not allowed inside. All we can do is peer at it through its multiple doors, clumsily circumnavigating the building in the misleading streets to find them. When the doors are open we can see a tranquil courtyard, or a fountain, or an old man at prayer. But it is only ever an angle, a tantalising glimpse, which reminds you of how much you are not seeing. The mosque, like Morocco, is exuberant yet discreet.

But we can go inside the madrassas (religious schools) with their zany Andalucian decorations, which look at once frenzied and deeply orderly. We are shown around one of them (for a small consideration), and find one smart shoe lodged upside down on the face of the minaret at the top. In the Nejjarine Foundouq—an 18th-century palace that is now a museum—we find some beautiful white doves huddling behind a door.

We visit the restored synagogue in the old Jewish quarter, or mellah, but little else of its Jewish heritage survives. You can just make out, if you look closely, the marks left behind by unscrewed mezuzim, the doorpost emblems of Jewish homes. The only other leftover is the cemetery, with its serried above-ground white tombs. Most of the people in it must have died thinking that their little hybrid civilisation would last forever.

The main conclusion of my few days in Morocco is that, in the perpetual heads-or-tails game of sizing up the importunate locals, I am fated almost always to get it wrong. The people I at first take for shysters unfailingly turn out to be good samaritans: the directions down some ill-lit alley that we follow with suspicion are accurate, and the Moroccan dirhams I try to press into their palms are proudly waved away.

But the ones who seem most reliable invariably lead us to a roof that does not, in fact, have the promised view of the Karaouiyne mosque, or to a palace that turns out to be their uncle's shop. Guilt about our preconceptions alternate with feelings of naivety.

Most of the would-be guides—which is to say, almost everyone in the medina who lacks something more tangible to sell—seem spookily to know where we are staying. They keep up a kind of disconcerting Pinteresque patter, dropping random scatter-gun remarks, such as "very good restaurant", or "my father works in tannery" or "fish and chips" in our general direction as we pass.

Very few are insistent, but I develop an invincible tactic for any that are: dredging my brain for the remains of my schoolboy French, I point to my partner's protuberant belly and in an anguished voice say, "Monsieur, regarde!"— whereupon they apologetically retreat. It will only be around 18 years, say a well-meaning Canadian couple in our riad, before we can do this sort of thing again. I hope they're exaggerating.

When we get to the airport, after driving through the modern part of Fez in which most of its residents actually live, and then the inevitable ugly outskirts, we find that our flight is slightly delayed. We board, but then sit on the tarmac: from the window we can see an honour guard in traditional dress, with long white robes and ornamental hats, formed up a little way up the runway. A stewardess whispers that the king is arriving. A plane lands; a large entourage sprints out of it, and then an indistinct figure paces through the honour guard. The men in white shamble away, and our plane takes off.

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FROM Chechaouen to Fez, through the sparse Rif mountains, just the two of us in the back of another rickety Merc (the Moroccans, I'm guessing, must have negotiated a job-lot some time in the late 1970s). Although the windows won't open, we feel uncomfortably pharaonic, counting what looks like dozens of people crammed into the chugging vehicles we overtake on the switchback roads.

This time we see old women bent under firewood, children selling tomatoes at the kerb, gnarled olive trees, a very small girl in a red skirt taking washing from a line outside a hillside shack. Newly slaughtered animals sway outside a roadside store; others offer bulbous squashes, pomegranates and olive oil.

There are shepherds with wide-brimmed hats, dry river-beds and terrifying driving. We stop at a remote café, and my (female) partner excites intense (but not unfriendly) attention. The locals know the name of Britain's recently installed prime minister. But, like many people in faraway parts of the world, they seem to believe that Manchester, home of United, is our main city.

We reach the medieval walls of Fez. Soon we are through the Jamaï gate, and then winding through the medina towards our riad (a grand old residence converted into a guesthouse), periodically glimpsing minarets above the walls of the narrow alleys.

The place we are staying in is at the end of an unprepossessing, slightly rancid cul-de-sac; inside it is stunning, with breathtaking tiles and carvings, a pretty fountain and a beer. From the roof we watch the sun set blood-red over the city and its fortifications and the old Ozymandian tombs perched above it, as the tag-team of muezzins send out their evening call to prayer through the frantic streets.

Afterwards I read up on Fez. It has a fascinating but also rather melancholic history. Whatever else it is, a holiday like ours, I realise, is also a sort of safari of pain. Tomorrow we will visit the spot where (so our friend Barnaby assures me) a "harmless intellectual" was executed in the 14th century.

Here the disembowelled, stuffed body of a captured Portuguese prince was put on public show; there is the one-time home of a vizier who "fell victim to the child sultan Abdul Aziz's Turkish mother and her ally, the half-black chamberlain Bou Ahmed"; the vizier was imprisoned with his brother and, when the brother died, left chained to his corpse. A whole Almohad army, I read, was treacherously massacred; 664 years later, "80 mutilated bodies were stacked up before the palace gates".

In the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, where we sipped coffee and orange juice, there were hangings and garrottings. In Paris there was the Terror, the perpetual revolutions and the wartime deportations. Burnings, beheadings, burials alive…So much cleaned-up blood and forgotten loss. Today, outside a butcher's stall we saw the bloodied severed head of an unfortunate donkey, which for some reason I keep thinking about.

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THE train from Madrid to coastal Algeciras leaves from Atocha station, which has a lovely indoor jungle in its old glass atrium, and an arresting monument to the victims of the 2005 bombings. The journey runs first through the brush and plains of central Spain, flat and hot like the landscape in a spaghetti western, then through the lush mountains of Andalucia, with their winding ascents and secret waterfalls. We pass little hillside stations with platforms enlivened by orange trees. Guards in smart uniforms turn out to wave us through.

At Algeciras we board a ferry for Ceuta, one of Spain's contentious enclaves on the Moroccan coast. We pull out past Gibraltar—the equally contentious fag-end of the British empire on the Spanish coast—which from sea looks like a sort of stranded meteor, with a belt of civilisation wrapped around its base. I try to be excited about the ride: this is, after all, one of the great sea crossings of human history, a marine highway of conquest, exile and enlightenment. But the ferry is too sedate for much imagining, too reminiscent of the ones you used to take from England to Calais before the tunnel opened, only with less Guinness and puking.

On the other side, we are soon in the piss-smelling no-man's land between Spanish Ceuta and the Moroccan beyond. Then we are across the border and into an antique Mercedes, which has a hole in the windscreen that looks like it may have been made by a bullet.

Everything announces that we are in a different, developing country: the trundling of livestock through towns, the frank corruption of the traffic police, the seemingly universal toothlessness. On the road to Chechaouen, our first stop in Morocco, we see lots of outsize portraits of the smiling young king. We see a pure white horse bending to scratch his cheek in a stubbly field.

Chechaouen is one of those places, found in most countries that attract backpackers, where there is nothing much actually to do, but which through some combination of geography and vague pleasantness has become the designated spot on the travelling trail for sleeping and mooching. Drinking oversweet Moroccan tea in the lazy central square, we see boys carrying big trays of freshly baked bread, shuffling old men in cowls and herds of skinny abused cats. We notice the contrasting fashion senses of different generations of women.

From the walls of the kasbah there are fine views of the encircling Rif mountains. In the mazy alleys of the medina, or old town, there are studded azure doors, sudden flashes of exquisite tiling or ornamental ironwork, and food being sold in very small quantities. There is vanishingly little booze, but every fifth person wants to sell you kif, the marijuana that seems to be the Rif valleys' main product.

What is a holiday? It is more a ritual than a real rest. It is a time when you want to feel free, but you aren't, not really, and not only if you are unwise enough to take your BlackBerry with you. Your holiday does not comprise the things you would do if all your time was your own; it is what you choose to do because most of it isn't.

For some people, us included, holidays are when we try to find and taste some of the things that our own, supposedly advanced nations have lost: spontaneity, exuberance, craftsmanship. A holiday is sweetened and soured at once by the knowledge of its brevity. Whatever holidays are for, and whatever they mean, today, I think, was about as good as they can get.

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IN THE morning we cross the Place des Vosges from our hotel to visit Victor Hugo's house, with its gloomy chinoiserie, and then take a stroll in the Jardin du Luxembourg. Near the central pond there is a queue of young children and patient parents, waiting to rent toy sailboats on strings. The necessary old men are playing boules.

Then we go for a slap-up lunch at a famous old place that has a view of Nôtre-Dame. It's the sort of fancy restaurant where your feelings swing between inadequacy, embarrassment and resentment—and you overcompensate for the discomfort by spending much more than you had intended: precisely the effect, probably, that the gilt ceiling and unctuous service are designed to achieve. The clientele is part discerning French, part larging-it English weekenders, part international rich. The food is terrific.

We came because my father mentioned to me that he'd been to this restaurant at Christmas, 1958—following that detail up with other, more lurid ones about his friend being chased by a nightclub owner's Alsatian around the Place Pigalle, and someone's desperate bid to make a stopped car run using a bottle of Black Label.

It was one of those conversations after which you suddenly appreciate how little, really, you know about your parents. I ask to see the guest book for 1958, but the mâitre d' says it is in the basement and can't be retrieved (I silently bet that it could have been if we hadn't chosen the cheapest wine).

In the afternoon we collect our stuff from the hotel and head to the Gare d'Austerlitz to catch the sleeper to Madrid. A fondness for overnight train rides is one of the less self-destructive habits that we picked up during the three years that we spent in Moscow. This train, I discover, is disappointingly antiseptic in comparison with the Russian ones.

No one, for example, knocks on the door at midnight and dispenses huge rations of Armenian cognac. (Once, on a train from Moscow to St Petersburg, a friend and I tried to order a mere bottle of wine in the restaurant car. "You can't be serious", sniffed the waitress; we meekly switched to vodka.)

Plus this time there is a gregarious American in the neighbouring cabin, evidently on one of those 29-countries-in-two-weeks extravaganzas, who spends the night noisily extolling the virtues of Bruges to his companion ("You have to see Bruges… even Hitler loved Bruges").

We have scarcely any time in Madrid: just enough to drink coffee in the Playa Mayor, peer through the palace railings and take a delicious outdoors-in-November snooze in the Parque del Retiro. Next to the marble lions on the shore of the park's boating lake we watch a modelling shoot; at the end the participants applaud and embrace each other in a very Iberian way.

At the Reina Sofía art gallery we gawk at Picasso's "Guernica", with its terrible silent equine scream. Anthony, our latest guidebook squeeze, directs us to a perfect old bar, where we sit on barrels and eat tomato-and-bread soup, surrounded by expressive young Spanish lovers.

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MOST British people lurch between extremes in their attitude to France: between jokes about military capitulation and garlic on one hand, and inferiority complexes over French food and style on the other. By the time we reach our hotel from the Eurostar terminal in Paris—our first destination in a holiday that will continue in Madrid and end in Morocco—I am already struggling, amid the grand architecture and superabundant cafes, to remember: what is it, again, that is supposed to be wrong with France?

Apart, that is, from the queues, which curl around the Sainte-Chapelle and across the square in front of Notre-Dame cathedral. We've been to Paris before, but long enough ago to have forgotten, goldfish-like, whatever we once learned about the gothic architecture and all those confusing 19th-century revolutions.

After a few years, I suspect, you can go back virtually anywhere and see it almost new. It is too rainy to wait outside, so we take a guiltily touristy cruise on the Seine. Then we head to the Centre Pompidou.

It has a fabulous Giacometti exhibition. His surreally elongated cat looks, in fact, exactly like real cats often do. He plays profound tricks with depth and dimensions. His minute sculpture of a person, the height of a fingernail, captures something agonisingly true about how it can feel to be a human being.

Looking at the photos of Giacometti in his workshop, I conclude that all aspiring artists and writers should strive to develop deep, philosophical rings around their eyes, like Giacometti or Auden or Tom Stoppard.

In the evening we have dinner with a French cousin of mine, Michel, and his wife Mathilde. It's a strange relationship: Michel helped me with a book I recently wrote about our family's history (called The Earl of Petticoat Lane), and I know intimate and dramatic facts about him, such as how he and his (Jewish) parents survived the second world war disguised as peasants on a farm in Périgord, or how in the first one his father fled across the Carpathians from Galicia to escape the Russian army.

But we have scarcely ever met, and I worry that conversation will sputter. It doesn't. We have lots of interests in common that we didn't know about, Michel speaks perfect English, and it feels like a tighter connection than it ought to. Afterwards my partner and I head for a chanson bar near Père Lachaise cemetery.

There are, in fact, four of us altogether on this jaunt. My partner is six months pregnant, and this is our last mini-adventure before the baby (our first) arrives. The fourth member of the party will shift—a series of intense relationships, with their joys and betrayals, following each other in lightning succession. In Morocco, I already know, we will hook up with a chap called Barnaby from Cadogan, and in Madrid with a man called Anthony from Lonely Planet.

In Paris we keep company with Monsieur Time Out. What is it that makes us, like other people, suspend our autonomy and submit to this voluntary enslavement to our guide books, our gaze directed half the time into the "Eating Out" section rather than at the wonders we have nominally come to enjoy?

Happily, tonight Monsieur TO excels himself. The bar is full of amiable students and one tattooed, accordion-playing chanteuse, all drinking on-tap red wine and lustily belting out Edith Piaf numbers. We join in, quietly. One of the songs is about an Alaskan seal, whose seal lover runs off to join a circus.

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