Oh Hey, Pompeii!

2013-09-21 09.59.27Our tour bus arrives outside the ancient city of Pompeii around mid-afternoon.

This is one of the things I’m looking forward to seeing. Ancient-ruin-anything pleases my inner geek.

Once inside the front gates, we meet our next local guide Vincenzo (or Enzo, as he likes to be called). He takes our group down a tree-lined path and into the sun-baked ruins of part of the old city.

We’re told it’s impossible to see the entire old city in one day; for our part of the trip, we’ll see roughly a third of the ruins (which lasts about two hours).

Enzo’s actually third-generation resident of the modern-day town of Pompeii, so he’s as chock-a-block full of information as he is entertaining when he describes what life in ancient times would have been like.

2013-09-21 10.08.28He takes us to see an ancient ampthitheatre, and explains practical purposes for things, such as the way the roads were paved, and how merchants set up shops.

He shows us an ancient “fast-food” restaurant, as well as how to determine whether the ruins of a home belonged to someone of a certain class.

We take respite from the sun in an old structure, and take a look of a couple of figures in plaster – said to be real people, frozen in the positions in which they died. I’m not sure what’s more surreal – that, or seeing them under glass, themselves relics from an ancient event.

2013-09-21 10.48.39From there, Enzo takes us to a section of town that housed a brothel, explaining how prostitutes would bring in business.

Up on the walls near the brothel’s entrance are faded erotic pictures, depicting the kind of services customers could ask for.

(In the street not too far away from the brothel, there’s a drawing on of of the stones that one could describe as an ancient form of “GPS”, so to speak.)

2013-09-21 10.13.27Near the end of our tour, we pass through a very large courtyard.

At one end is a building housing all sorts of recovered artifacts – urns, vessels, pieces of moulding, and again, figures frozen in plaster and time.

One particular person is crouching – likely under something to protect himself, but sadly, his gesture was in vain.

It’s been an interesting look around Pompeii. But after a post-tour gelato, it’s time to pile back onto the bus to get to the next leg of our destination.

Blurry-Eyed Beginnings

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Sunday, September 22.

2013-09-20 03.55.52It’s amazing how the months before a trip can seem so long, then seem to vanish in the blink of an eye.

But here we are. My mom and I, with our tour group, in Rome. Italy. Finally.

Technically, it’s “day 3” of our itinerary, having spent the first evening, then most of the following day in the air, and finally arriving at our hotel at 4:30 in the afternoon, exhausted and practically nodding off during the orientation session with our trip leader, a compact Italian man named Franco. (Well, me, anyway.)

Today, is much, much better. We sufficiently fill our tummies at breakfast and slap together some small sandwiches for lunch.

Our day starts with our tour bus passing Rome’s historic ruins before we’re let off for a closer look. Franco hands us off to our local guide Tiziana, who leads us from point to point, rattling off historic facts and waving around an antenna with black, white and red ribbons tied to it, so we can see her at all times in the sea of other tourists, and keep up.

2013-09-20 04.27.11We spot the ancient arch after which Paris’ Arc de Triomphe is modelled, and  come across some sort of military parade as we’re looking at the various remains from the old city. We follow Tiziana farther, and pass by the exterior of the Colosseum.

At this point, the group breaks up for an hour or so. Some of our fellow travellers enter the Colosseum for a more detailed tour. Mom and I opt to stay outside.

The grounds around the exterior are teeming with tourists. Men illegally selling their cheap knock-off scarves, squeeze toys, and other wares, approach us repeatedly.

At one point, while taking some shade from the sun, we see a few pedlars high-tailing on it on foot, whizzing past us. There are police officers in the area.*

The group re-assembles, and we return to our hotel on the outskirts of town, where I gladly take a nap to battle my lingering jet-lag.

2013-09-20 10.51.09We return downtown in the late afternoon for a walking tour of the various piazzas and fountains, most notably, the Trevi Fountain – the biggest and, obviously, the busiest of them all.

At the fountain, we navigate around the hordes of tourists, finding a small patch of marble long enough to sit and snap a couple pictures.

Next, we pass through a shopping galleria with ornate stained glass (and stores with expensive designer labels), pass by a couple of smaller fountains and check out Trajan’s Column.

2013-09-20 11.39.49We head to the Pantheon, whose interior is not only architecturally stunning, but simply massive.

I glance up at the hole in the roof of the dome. Because of the time of day, the sunlight casts a shadow just inside, acting like a sundial.

Remains of various individuals are buried here, including those of the artist Raphael.

Our scheduled sightseeing for the day ends at the Piazza Navona, where merchants are hawking their wares and buskers are in abundance.

We’re let loose for dinner, and Mom and I partner up with two ladies – Susan from Darwin, Australia, and a Dutch lady from Vancouver named Else. (We don’t find out her name until later, because unlike a lot of people on the tour, she’s not wearing a name tag.)

2013-09-20 13.27.42We walk away from the main drag and manage to find a restaurant who can fix something Mom can actually eat!

Our meals consist of pasta and pizza; Mom can’t finish her meal, and I’m lucky my appetite’s big enough to demolish mine.

We aren’t downtown much longer after dinner, before we’re collected, walked back to our bus and whisked back to our hotel.

Today was so-so. We’ve got another early start ahead. We’ll see what the next day’s itinerary holds.

*Seems the police don’t really arrest these guys; rather they chase them around the area.

More Meknes, Some Ruins and Onward

Tuesday, March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day.

morocco-march-2009-066After breakfast, we set out in cabs towards our first point of interest in Meknes – the royal Granaries. We arrive, only to discover they’re closed to the public – construction.

So trip leader Will shows us the location and we have to make do with walking around the perimeter.



We have better luck at the tomb of Moulay morocco-march-2009-072Ismail, said to be one of the greatest rulers in Moroccan history and the man who built Meknes on the backs of at least 25,000 slaves.

Just outside the entrance to the tomb is a old man dressed in the colourful garb of a traditional water-seller. Will asks on our behalf how much it will cost to take a picture. The man says five dirhams. I make a mental note of this as we enter.

We’re first met with a prettily-tiled but dark inner courtyard with a fountain. This turns out to be quite deceptive as we step through another entranceway to see an outdoor courtyard, painted a sunny yellow.

We pass under a series of arched doorways until we reach another even more beautiful indoor courtyard, with various tiles and wood-carved designs adorning the walls. The tomb itself is in another room off to the side and is gated off.

Leaving the tomb, I approach the water-seller and ask if I can take a photo. He tells me it’s 10 dirhams, not five.

Sneaky old codger.

morocco-march-2009-088So I take the first picture – and he’s not even looking at the camera. I get his attention to look my way and I snap a second.

Perhaps he didn’t even know I snapped the first picture. But since he increased the price, I personally resolve to keep both pictures – that way I get my money’s worth.

(Petty, I know. But still – who likes to be cheated out something that was apparently a set price?)

Personal lesson # 1: There is (for the most part) no such thing as a set price in Morocco.

Next stop: the dungeon where a number of slaves – including Christian slaves – were kept. The guide tells us Moulay Ismail made his slaves build a tunnel from the dungeon all the way to the ruins of the ancient Roman town of Volubilis.

On the way out of the dungeon, I come across a dog-eared Joker card, practically embedded in the dirt. I don’t know why, but I pick it up and slip it into my pocket. Must be some sort of symbolic significance, but I can’t figure it out yet.

Next stop for us is Meknes’ main square and the medina, with the food markets and other various souks. We pause briefly in front of this huge doorway – apparently called “the fourth most beautiful door in Africa”. It is pretty.  And so enormous, it dwarfs anyone who passes it.

We stop for a drink break – juices, avocado smoothmorocco-march-2009-101ies and such – and then split up. Tour-mates Alex, Colin and I head straight for the food market. I’m just a bit bedazzled by the huge displays of sweets, olives and spices.

Then we make a few turns and before we know it, we’re in the butchers’ section of the market. I hear the incessant crowing (a cry for help?) of a rooster at one of the stands. And I’m immediately reminded of what Will told us about a day or so earlier – about a type of spinning contraption (akin to a rotating meat grinder) some butchers use, into which they fling chickens WHOLE … and likely alive. As a meat eater, I’m filled with a momentary feeling of dread.

We (luckily) don’t see any of this. But see all sorts of meats – and parts on display – goat heads, cows’ tongues and feet, and organs I can’t even identify. Alex mentions she’s ready to leave the section, and I’m more than ready to follow.

We hit the fish market, just in time to witness some men pulling a small shark in a plastic bin. We don’t stay very long, as the section isn’t terribly big and there are people trying to do their shopping.  

We head outdo0rs into the nearby souks. Alex gets a brand-new pair of sequined slipper-shoes from a boy who claims he’s 16 (but looks like he’s about 13).

We continue wandering until we run into our other tour-mates Sally and Cathy (sisters-in-law from the States), who’ve been searching everywhere for the meat market (to satisfy their curiosities about the meats on display), but to no avail.

Alex and Colin double back while I offer to take them back through there, getting yet another glimpse of the meats and heads on display (and a brain or two, too).  

morocco-march-2009-1121We meet up with the group a little later, and are then taken to lunch. Our meal of the day: camel burgers.

Now, let me preface this by saying: when I first f0und out we’d be eating camel, I actually took offense to the idea of eating an animal we’d be riding in about four days. But then I had to realize that Moroccans probably see camels the way we see cows in North America – that they serve a utiliarian purpose, that they’re not endangered (quite the opposite) and, well, they get eaten. 

This being said, I’m actually surprised how tasty the burgers are when we actually chow down. Vegetarian friends, I TRIED not to like it. I so DID. But I failed.

Next, Will takes the group to a shop run by a Moroccan man with an apparently funny laugh. (I hear the laugh in the shop; I’ve heard funnier laughs. But men with high-pitched laughs are pretty funny to listen to, anyway.) He tells us about Meknes’ artisinal speciality – iron plates with tiny threads of silver inlaid into them in traditional Berber and Andalucian designs.

And you can guess what happened – yep. Another one for the crazy plate collection. Will also scores a walking stick for himself. The top is inlaid with pieces of what I can only guess are bone or ivory.

We morocco-march-2009-129say goodbye to Meknes and visit the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Volubilis, with the aid of a raspy-voiced tour guide with a sharp sense of humour.

It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But during the period of Roman conquests, it was an important administrative town in Roman Africa – and it’s evident by the sheer size of the sight. There are just ruins as far as the eye can see, and despite the damage done by time and the huge Lisbon earthquake of 1755, it’s still relatively intact.

morocco-march-2009-1701From Volubilis, we head to Fez – the first point of interest on the trip that I’ve REALLY been waiting for. We reach there late afternoon. The place is overrun with cars (both moving and parked), scooters and dudes pretty much everywhere. (Note: I merely said “dudes”. I did not say “good-looking dudes”.)

We reach our hotels and go through the exercise of getting our room assignments and moving upstairs. Liz and I are paired up once again, after getting Alex as a roommate in Meknes. The room is what we’re coming to expect in Morocco. It’s got a neat view onto the sidestreet below and of the main street.

What I’m not prepared for is the bathroom. It’s got a sliding even tinier than the last hotel – just enough space to turn around, maybe once. The shower is a stall, which is fine. The toilet, however, is one that requires a bit of dexterity and balance. The bowl itself is pitched on a forward angle, which means the lid can never be kept open. And anyone using said toilet has to brace themselves against the sliding door to keep from falling off.

If this doesn’t help with my quad muscles and my glutes, who knows what will?

Later in the evening, Will takes us to a restaurant just down the street, run by an older gentleman he refers to as “my Moroccan father”. The man also apparently knows seven languages.

(Will told us that once he showed the man – whom I will now call Moroccan Dad – a flashlight that beamed an image of Saddam Hussein (that he got as a joke). When Will demonstrated this, Moroccan Dad was so taken aback, he spat on the floor of his own restaurant.)

Dinner goes fine; I also get my first taste of what a number of Moroccans will be saying to me for the rest of my trip, when Moroccan Dad says, “Ah! Jamaica!” and to humour him, I say, “Yeah, mon!”

(At least HE is nice about it.) 

Back at the hotel, some of us stay up longer, playing a couple of card games, before turning in (not before I briefly encounter some unwanted attention from a small group of Moroccan guys staying at the hotel. It’s what I have been dreading most. But it’s brief).

Tomorrow – our first full day in Fez. I’m so excited!