After nearly three weeks in the big cities of Morocco, Tom and I headed to the mountains.
Tom had visited the Ourika Valley in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains before, so we booked a room at in Tnine, the village he’d visited with a souk where the Berbers came by donkey. We planned to see that on Monday, the day of the week it happens. We arrived on Friday.
Our hosts in Morocco have been very hospitable, but Abdurrahman at the Secret Atlas is by far the most generous and friendly of them all. Using a translator on his phone because he speaks only Arabic, he served us delicious thyme tea on our arrival, told us about his family, and shared beautiful passages from the Koran that explained his exceptional hospitality. For 11€/night, we have a spacious bedroom, living room and kitchen. The extraordinary breakfasts Abdurrahman cooks for us each morning are a few euros more.
The apartment is elegantly spare and spotless, the bed excellent, and views spectacular.
We were a little surprised, however, to find that the Secret Atlas is in apartment building on the relatively busy street that connects the two parts of the village. On Airbnb, it’s listed as a “farm stay.”
On our first afternoon in Tnine, we explored the part of the village near the river. It was hot, the pollution from all the cars and motorcycles hung low, and other than offering a window into the lives of ordinary residents of the valley, there wasn’t much to see there.
The next morning, we discovered that other than a couple nice places for tea or a meal, the other end of the village had little to offer either.
We looked on the internet to see what else we could do. Everything looked like it would require another expensive taxi ride. The taxis to and from Marrakech are a bargain because they’re shared by up to seven people, but to call one to go from point A to point B requires paying the fee for the distance traveled to where you are and to where you’re going at the full rate.
But wait. It looked like at least one destination was close by, and it was something neither of us had ever seen: a saffron farm!
Le Jardin du Safran is an easy walk from the Secret Atlas. We’d passed by the dirt road that leads to it the day before.
What an enchanted place! We found the front gate open.
A sign told us we were free to wander around but not to pick the fruit or flowers. Pretty soon the farm manager found us and took us on a tour that lasted a couple hours.
Synchronistically, we’d arrived the day before the four best and busiest days of the year: the saffron harvest. Every year, from November 4 – 8, when the flowers of the crocus sativa bloom, dozens of local women are hired to do the delicate work of pulling the bright red pistils out of the flowers, nipping off the yellow end with their fingernails just so, to produce the tiny strands of highly aromatic spice so highly valued throughout the Mediterranean, and the world.
Instead of watching the women at work, we sat down on the stools around one of the round tables and learned how to pull the pistils out of the flowers ourselves! Then we saw the drying process and smelled the exquisitely freshly dried product.
The second part of the tour was a leisurely walk through the farm, where a wide array of other herbs are grown, and trees: olive, walnut, persimmon, pomegranate, date, apple, and argan for oil, all arranged around small square plots in which the crocus bulbs were planted. The day’s harvest was already picked, but a few flowers were left for the tourists.
There were also goats and donkeys.
Tomorrow we’ll visit another local farm, one that calls itself the bio-aromatique, organic-aromatic, farm. After today’s surprise, I can’t wait.
I guess it’s a farm stay after all!
It was in the Nejjarine Museum of Wood Arts in Fès that the thought struck me. The chaos of the crumbling medina, the vibrancy of the souks, the noise, the pollution, the exploding energy of the colors, and the sheer quantity of stuff –
– is beautifully balanced by prevalence of the purposeful geometry, sacred geometry, everywhere.
That’s why Morocco is so enchanting.
Islam takes the prohibition of worshipping graven images seriously, and discourages figurative art. Like all of life, art should be dedicated to God, and God is only describable as essence. Geometry is essence.
Who can resist being centered by such design?
All my years of studying sacred geometry, beginning even before my Ganesh Baba days, and then Dan Winter and most deeply with Alice O. Howell, peaked at that moment in the museum. I stood at the center of a ideally proportioned room surrounded by mandalas, exquisite symmetry, perfect curves, rhythmic repetition, and profoundly satisfying rectangles and squares.
I wanted to take dozens of pictures, but photography was not allowed, so I was forced to confront the serene beauty of that room face on. It was transformative.
Since then I’ve consciously attuned myself to noticing and letting the geometry take me in.
Even contemporary Moroccan design uses the elements of sacred geometry to create beautiful calm spaces, as exemplified by our current Airbnb in the new part of Marrakech.
For several days, Tom and I stayed in the Bird’s Nest, an upper room in Palais el Mokri, which is truly a palace, on a hilltop above the medina in Fès.
It was a little like staying at Miss Haversham’s place. Built in 1906 for the Pasha of Casablanca, his descendants are now restoring their magnificent inheritance, an enormous project, and renting out rooms on Airbnb. They’ll also cook for you, and bring very decent meals to your rooms.
The place is magnificent. Dilapidated, but magnificent – and worth every penny of the $23/night we spent to stay there!
Palais el Mokri is about a ten minute walk from the souks, museums, and restaurants of the medina, or old city, of Fès.
Here’s a peek into what we saw there:
By early September, it became clear that the papers necessary for me to acquire dual Austrian/American citizenship, and in turn an EU passport, were not going to arrive before our Schengen visas ran out. I’d diligently supplied the set of required documents to the Austrian consulate in Los Angeles but at each step the rules seemed to change, and there were more hoops to jump through. Our 90 out of every 180 days spent in the Schengen area would be up by mid-October.
Our 180 days began when our visitor visas were stamped on our entry to France in May to explore the possibility of living there. Every time you go through passport control, your passport is scanned and a computer tells the border agent your Schengen status, so there’s no getting around obeying the rules.
We decided to apply for long term French visas, and we booked a trip to Morocco.
Next, we took the train to Rabat/Salé. Rabat is the capital of Morocco and Salé is the huge mostly residential city across the river from it, Oakland to San Francisco.
Our Airbnb apartment was in a middle class neighborhood in walking distance from the old medina, the ocean, and the tram to Rabat.
Salé is clean, relaxed, and very friendly. The first afternoon we were there, we noticed some construction going on next door. From our fourth floor windows we could see a long tarp over the narrow street below.
That night – it was a Friday – a crowd gathered and a sound system was tested. It was a massive tent they’d set up. From 8 pm that night till long past midnight, our flat was filled with the voices of two men singing long, exquisitely beautiful prayers, interspersed with poetic speech. We fell eventually fell asleep, enchanted.
The next day was beautiful. We bought food at the neighborhood stalls and planned to stay at home, relaxing and cooking.
In the early afternoon, though, the tent filled up again, the sound system was turned up, and the celebration began. It was a wedding! The music was live and very loud. Western music would’ve been harder to take for such a long time, but still. In the late afternoon we took the tram into Rabat for a few hours. The routine noise of the busy city seemed wonderfully quiet to us.
When we came back and Tom peeked into the back of the tent.
The wedding went on till just before midnight. Clearly, everyone had a great time – even without alcohol!
Over the next days, we made friends with the cashier at the local grocery store, visited the old medina, and sat at a fish restaurant across from the ocean enjoying an enormous meal.
We also explored the beautiful city of Rabat, a stunning combination of ancient and modern. Such an adventure! And now we’re off to Fes.
Cordes-sur-Ciel, population roughly 1000, sits on a hill overlooking the valley of the Cérou, which flows into the Aveyron and then into the Tarn. Our house is on the south side of the hill; the Cérou is on the north. Just to the northwest of the village there is another even smaller village, Les Cabannes, though which the Cérou flows.
Les Cabannes, a fifteen minute walk from our house, is the home of the local quincaillerie, hardware store, a very important place when one is just moving into a new house.
At the post office, there’s a community center where you can print a page for 15 centimes, which makes getting a printer seem wasteful.
There’s also a bistro we like, Le Petit Café, with a dog called Luigi who’s in love with Mocha. This isn’t as endearing as one might think. Luigi is very passionate. He recently followed us to the post office with such enthusiasm that Mocha and I had to take refuge until the post mistress phoned the café to send someone to pick Luigi up. No one could come in or out of the post office until he was gone. Now one of us goes to the café in advance to ask them to hold onto Luigi while we’re there or when passing by.
About halfway between Les Cabannes and Cordes is our favorite grocery store, Prim’Frais,which specializes in local products. They have a nice selection of relatively exotic items, like fresh herbs, too.
Lately, we’ve been going to Les Cabannes almost every day.
In addition to the Prim’frais, there’s a gas station along the way. The mechanic has a junk yard for parts, and an eye for interesting stuff.
There’s the nose and cockpit of a crashed plane for example:
Here’s what it looks like inside:
There’s also a Renault that’s been there so long it’s getting covered in moss.
And, if you take Rue des Tanneries home, you might see a goat or two!
Perhaps August is the most beautiful month of the year in this medieval village in southwest France, or maybe it only seems so because it’s the beginning of our new life here and we’re seeing everything with fresh eyes.
Either way, here’s a series of pictures from our first two weeks. A few, like the one above, were taken from our bedroom window first thing in the morning; the view is enchanting.
After dinner we usually climb the hill behind our house. This picture was taken about half way to the top.Our neighbor, Lilliane, who comes from Paris every summer, tells us the best restaurant in the village is at the Hostellerie du Vieux Cordes. Rochelle, Tom, and I sat on the patio there, shaded by a 300 year old wisteria, until a thunderstorm chased us inside. Even inside it was dramatic. As I took the last bite of my oeufs brouillé au truffes (the English menu called them “blurred eggs with truffles”) one of the tall casement windows blew open with a bang, startling everyone in the room.
Later we sheltered under the roof of Les Halles, the covered square at the top of the village, and watched as lightning lit up the sky above the museum of contemporary art, once one of the grand houses of the village.When taking the footpath from our house to the lower village, bring a bucket for all the wild fruit: blackberries, plums, quince, apples and grapes.
I think my favorite meal is soup, salad, and bread, with a Gaillac rosé.
One day we were greeted by traditional Occitan music and dancing when we got off the bus from Albi.
Another view from the window:
A doorway on our street:
After Rochelle left, Garrett, Chris, and Ed visited. Garrett cooked us a spectacular Sichuan Chinese meal.
A walk in the upper village:
And a visit to the Musèe Charles Portal, the history and archeology museum, which rises high above the western gate to the city, the Charles Portal.
Lace-making machinery from the early 20th century:
And more morning pictures:
Including some hot air balloons which floated gently over the village at daybreak.
Really, what more could anyone ask?
Tuesday was our fourth day as French homeowners and the first day all the shops are open after the weekend. It was also the last day we would have a rental car, so Tom and I went to Albi, a picturesque 20 minute drive from Cordes, to change the SIM card in his phone and set up French phone and Internet service. Coming from the US, we had the amusing idea that the task could be completed in one visit.
Turn out that in France, particularly in August, it’s more complicated than that.
For a start, to get a French phone number, you need a French bank account. Like many of the French cities we’ve visited, Albi’s central commercial district is largely closed off to cars and offers everything you could need, so we walked over to the Albi branch of the bank that also has a branch in Cordes.
In France, we discovered, an appointment is necessary to open a bank account. The Albi bank officer could make one for us in Cordes, but the next one available was on Thursday a week.
At the Albi branch, however, an appointment was available the following Tuesday. That seemed worth the bus trip, especially since we’d already found out that we’d have to return to the Apple store for a charger that’d had to be ordered. Tom said we’d take the Albi appointment.
The bank officer wrote down all the documents we’d need: passports, three months of bank statements from our California bank, proof of residency in France (which we already have – though how we got it so soon is another story), and several more documents that she kindly agreed to leave off the list, since we couldn’t possibly have them yet.
She’d also need our phone number, of course. It’s an American number, Tom said. But then the bank cannot call you to confirm! A French number is needed!
However, having already set a precedent regarding the missing documents, Tom was able to convince the officer to confirm the appointment right then.
Lesson learned: even when the red tape seems endless, a little dialogue goes a long way.
Credit goes to Tom’s excellent French, pleasant personality, and the willingness of the French to keep the conversation going and to negotiate.
It’s true we still have to go back to Albi in a week with the rest of the papers, and that surely won’t be the end of the steps we’ll have to follow – we’re told it takes about three weeks to get local internet and phone service set up – but Albi is such a beautiful place and I’m sure there will be other things we need that aren’t available here in the village, that I won’t mind going back.
Who would have guessed that the line to rent a car at the Bordeaux airport would take 2 1/2 hours? Or that not one of the three agents would adjust their customary style to – at the very least – shorten the conversations they usually enjoy with each customer? Imagine how exciting the story of our journey from California would have been. Arnaud at Avis was particularly skilled at drawing out his clients’ stories, but I kept looking over my shoulder at the dozens of families with small children behind us: a sea of impatient grimaces, hungry whines, and tapping feet. I’m not sure it made any difference.
It took us close to three hours to get onto the road.
Outside, it was 38C, record-breaking heat, but the thoughtful GPS took us along the back roads, so we enjoyed the ride –
– even the muddy track through the cornfields that saved us a good two minutes over the more conventional route.
Eventually we arrived at the office of M. duMartin, the notaire (real estate lawyer), in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, where the couple from whom we bought the house and our real estate agent were waiting.
I will be eternally grateful that Tom is fluent in French! M. duMartin, jowls and chins indistinguishable, thick steel-colored hair brushed back and plastered to his head, melted into his ornate chair behind the expanse of his ancient desk, and read aloud document after document after document. Do we understand that there can be no changes to the outside of the house, not even to the paint on the blue voleurs (shutters)? And here, this is very important, you see where the back of the house goes under the one on the street above? The well is in your house, but a shaft goes up into the house above…
Periodically a young assistant in short shorts, long legs, and assorted tattoos brought more documents, or copies for us all the sign. M. DuMartin’s wife, gray hair in braids circling her head, appeared behind him from time to time, ghostlike.
It was stiflingly hot in the room. I struggled to follow, using all the skills I’ve acquired from years of hearing loss: catching enough words to get the gist, applying what I know from similar situations, and watching everyone else’s responses very carefully. Still. French legalese!
We signed the papers at last and went to the house with the agent and the sellers for a few lessons in house’s quirks.
And now we are here!
We woke to a gentle breeze coming through the wide open window.
Such a view! Come see us!
After lovely lunch in Albany with old friends, Heather and Norm Mendel, we stopped for coffee in Stockbridge, MA. The former Alice’s Restaurant was closed, but we had the best coffee of our trip at Stockbridge Coffee and Tea.
You can get anything you want…
We spent the night at Kathleen Becker’s beautiful studio in Northampton. What a meal we had at Coco in Easthampton!
Dinner and the next night were spent with Tom’s Neuhaus cousins in New Canaan, CT.
After dropping our trusty rental car in Stamford we took the train into New York City, where we stayed three nights with Elise in Park Slope.
On James’s birthday we took the ferry to Rockaway, and then back to the UN where he gave us an after hours tour.
And today it’s packing and organizing for our midnight flight to Bordeaux.