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Travel Journal - Marrakesh Noel Morata 2011

Flying into Morocco directly from Barcelona is a quick jaunt compared to the earlier 24 hour flight including three layovers from Hawaii to Barcelona. This was a nice and easy 1 1/2 hour flight across the Mediterranean ocean to Marrakesh. First impressions from above are dry and arid with little brick/adobe villages and slender minarets or towers denoting a mosque. It quickly converges to several villages and finally a city emerges in various shades of brown. looks so stark and surreal! Then you start seeing more mosques, squares, city centers and buildings more familiar in an urban environment - but you know this will be different. And right away when you get out of the airport, you notice the changes. Horse drawn carriages, old men riding on donkeys, people pulling push carts manually - things are transported by any means here. Along the way, I spot camels, more donkeys and horses - almost from a distant past but still used for transportation or tourism - its hard to tell. The taxi driver skirts along the old fortified walls with towers, elaborate gates and palm trees adding to the exotic first flavor. It looks and feels very old and yet colorful...very well lived in and not just for the tourists. Even though the medina is a tourist mecca, many parts of Marrakesh ville is worth exploring outside of the older center. I wanted to pull out my camera right from the start because I heard that Morocco is a photographer’s dream spot, so I was excited about get started. In seems like every time I turned a new corner, there was something exciting and new to capture. The areas to focus were limitless with so many fascinating subjects, architecture, gardens, food stalls and souks, beautiful Moroccan craftsmanship and art abounds. It’s inspiring being here and capturing things out of the ordinary from my normal world. Take a look and enjoy my first visit to this exotic land.

The first gate we entered into the medina or old town of Marrakesh is the Bab Kechiche. Surprisingly, the entrances do not lead directly to the interior, but through a convoluted tunnel and switch back into another interior gate. These were protective defense barriers used to thwart ancient invaders. Upon entering the medina, one immediately see’s horses, donkeys and pushcarts drawn with manual labor, everything is carried around by any means. You can smell the local tannery nearby and many offers to visit the site are offered but kindly rejected, I’m not sure I’m ready for this type of experience yet. The immediate smells of this old city call out immediately along with the mass confusion, little alleys and unmarked streets, along with everything hanging outside. The vendors, the food stalls, bakeries and barber shops, an artist working on stretched leather in the front of his stall - doing their daily tasks. It seems that everything is right there to see, buy or sample, its overwhelming as a first impression.

The extensive tile work or zellige is quite beautiful at the Saadian tombs, only rediscovered in 1917 from the Saadian rulers from 1578 - 1603. The quiet courtyards with embellished islamic geometric imagery, intricate carvings and the tiles add opulence to this austere space. It is spiritual and peaceful here, away from the noise and maddening crowds just outside the walls, in the courtyard, sweetly scented roses bloom profusely.

Visiting the Palais Bahia (royal palace of Bahia )is like peeking into an exotic world filled with luxurious gardens, intimate rooms lit up with intricate chandeliers. The lights illuminate detailed patterns with colorful islamic motifs in handpainted applications. The craftsmanship and details in each room is elaborate, even with no furniture in place. The ceilings are intricate patterns overlaid in continuous profusion of color.

The largest courtyard to this expansive palace shows the extreme wear on the exterior facades. Peeling paint, chipping tile work and non-working fountains allude to the past grandeur of these palaces. Although in this current and dilapidated state it still shows a regal past. Time has been harsh in to these buildings, which is recently undergoing renovations to bring these back to their full glory. Still, one can easy imagine how the pavilions will be once they are renovated.

Hand laid tiles individually cut in an ancient zellige technique, so detailed that you cannot even see the gaps and mortar bindings. Vivid patterns and geometric shapes create an intricate play only to be accented by the wonderful sounds of a fountain trickling water - a rare commodity in this dense city. Stopping to contemplate the Islamic version of paradise within these walls and gardens typify the earthly delights. This paradise was only the exclusive realm of sultans and powerful lords that ruled these kingdoms.

Peeking out from an enclosed room, the garden here is filled with blooming hibiscus, bougainvillea, mock orange, sweetly scented angels trumpets and the intense jasmine flowers - almost over powering in this enclosed space. One can imagine how beautiful this room and garden must have been during its peak while viewing paradise through cushioned settees. Tropical colors and plantings of lemons, oranges and bananas and palm trees accent this exotic space. Ancient sounds and whispers from the abandoned harem adjoining, allude to the pleasures in this secret place.

Finding a simple cafe in one of the many squares in town is a fun exercise where you are tempted by owners speaking French, German, Spanish and limited English - just enough to make you want to look at their menus. Observing the cooking with tagines over charcoal fires, you quickly see and smell an array of wonderful scents and aromatic spices over vegetables, meats and below, mounds of cous cous. Very simple and yet so delicious, full of flavor and a wonderful sauce. The dishes above are typical local dishes, including the sausages just made that morning.

Green mint tea is customarily served with each meal, complements the dishes being served. The hot tea helps to digest the spicy flavors and is nice to drink despite the hot weather. The intense sugared and mint flavors exude just the right blend to the exotic meal. It is easy to become addicted to drinking mint tea all the time now even in this warm environment. Its funny how one can readily adapt to new customs and ideas when one is open to trying something new.

We are served flat breads that are perfect for sopping up the delicious spices and sauces at the bottom of the tagines. They offer so much flavor and spice combinations that are hard to pin point, but oh, so good to taste.

Our tagine master is already preparing many dishes over the charcoal fire all at once. Its fun to see things cooking this way, especially when you get to peek into the dishes to see what’s cooking underneath. Lunch at these venues are affordable to locals and tourists alike, and speaking a little French can start some interesting conversations over many courses of food.

Right next door to the cafes, spaces for selling crafts and a moped garage compete for services. My eye is distracted immediately while we are waiting for our tagines to cook - I notice all the noise and sounds of the men talking and joking while working on various parts of these mopeds. You could tell that there is a lot of time spent enjoying each other’s company as part of the daily ritual here and stories always end up with boisterous amounts of laughter and shared food being brought from the neighboring cooking next door.

Enjoying a good conversation.

La Jardin Majorelle Paradise revisited

Yves Saint Laurent loved his home here at the Jardin Majorelle. It was his holiday retreat and I can see why he spent so much time here away from the bustling fashion world in Paris. It is a place to recharge, watch nature up close and take things slowly and simply. Although it seems now that this is a large attraction, there is an army of gardeners and docents to make this garden sparkle. And it does, even on a stormy day, you get a different flavor of what the garden looks like in the rain - I’m sure the plants are very happy today getting its water fresh from the skies. The garden is named for Jacques Majorelle, a painter who acquired the property in 1924 and began extensive landscaping and eventually opened the garden for public viewing in 1947. It is filled with an abundance of exotic and unusual landscape and specimens. The cactus/succulent garden is probally one of the most extensive and rare collections in Northern Africa. This garden is Majorelle’s true gift as an artist and the lasting foundation of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge is a wonderful gift to Marrakesh to continue its legacy.

Majorelle blue is the famous color of the garden and home, the various shades of blue accent this space along with strong solid colors dotting the landscape with the colorful pottery including these boldly colored doors. I’m glad to offer my own shade of blue to this wonderful landscape and asked my friend to take a photo - after composing the location and cropping. Attractive colors and bold colors always draw me in to visit and look at the compositions more carefully, it always makes for wonderful photos.

There is a wall of collage posters that Yves made here and converted to his annual christmas cards - here is one of his beloved Moujik.

Two scoops of any of the exotic fruit flavors are worth a break here.

You know right away that you are entering a very special place right from the ornate iron gate and scented roses lining the lush entryway. La Mamounia is the oldest five star institution in Marrakesh that deserves top billings of best hotel from many international publications - it is definitely worth a visit while in Marrakesh, Having a meal or in our case, coffee and snacks (mind you at five star prices which down graded our dining experience here) just added to the entire experience. Part of the pleasure of enjoying this special place was to just walk the grounds, enjoy the plush interiors that have just gone through a multi-million dollar face lift and soak in all the creativity to the lively interiors while listening to live entertainment at the various bars and venues. To see the combination of craftsmanship, art work, gorgeous interior and exterior spaces is really an exceptional experience. We even were amazed by the extremely fast internet wireless available. Even though it was raining outside, the grounds were still beautiful to visit. With hardly anyone outside, taking photos of the gardens was fun as if one had the luxury of the whole garden to one’s own - a rare experience in this crowded environment. The interior spaces are so luxurious and executed exceptionally by designer Jacque Garcia. He has captured the real essence of this Moroccan icon with meticulous details, beautiful craftsmanship, object d’art and luxurious public spaces - infusing Arabian and Andalusian design in a new and modern way.

Beautiful murals lit up with fanciful lanterns and crystal chandeliers above marble statues exudes a rich tapestry with ultra luxurious details. The dark wood paneling, exotic art and velvetly sofas add a comfort with simple elegance. The juxtaposition of old, new and re-purposed elements complete the look into a refined whole, it is a passionate place and I would love to stay a night...or why not a whole week?

Its so strange to go to Marrakesh and see a pool not being used in the summer, even though the rain was a little chilly and not expected. Taking photos outdoors though was quite a treat with no visitor venturing outside. The grounds are immaculate, with tropical plants and formal terraces and grand allees lined with ancient olive trees- it all adds up to a tasteful and reserved palate, quite elegant...even in the rain!

Evening time and everyone starts to head out to Djemaa el Fna, the largest and main square where all the activities occur at night time. Part outdoor market, live entertainers and local food venues along with the souk markets behind, this square has it all. Its lively, entertaining and mysterious all at the same time - you never know what to expect. Lit up at night time, the fortune tellers, henna artists, snake charmers, the busy food vendors and the souk markets create a fun atmosphere late into the evening. The sights and scents of different spices and food cooking draws you into the area of the food stalls. They offer many different local specialties, laid out for you to see and point out what will become your meal. Menus are in many languages, so understanding the menu is no problem. The most difficult task is choosing which stall to pick with fierce competition among the vendors to get you to eat at their stall.

Delicious presentations of partially to fully cooked dishes entice the visitor to check out each colorful presentation, believe me its not easy to choose. Each stall is numbered so remember the number if you make the rounds and finally decide on your favorite vendor. There’s plenty of choices and and the prices are reasonable enough to sample many of the delicacies.

A vendor offers samples of the many dried fruits and nuts at his stall, its hard to resist sampling everything. Trying the various varieties of dates, large almonds and plump apricots here is quite enjoyable and unlike and other market experience.

Beautifully lit lanterns offered in many sizes and patterns illuminate and add to the night time atmosphere in the souk markets. Shopping here at night is so much more festive and fun seeing the objects lit up magically.

Black and white studies at the food vendor stalls.

A various times of the day and evening the towers from all the mosques including this one across the restaurant sound off in loud and repetitious chants to Allah. They are a powerful call to prayer and for those that do not have time for their daily obligations to pray.

Its morning and the spice markets are busy. They are filled with so many exotic scents and unusual spices, its almost overpowering. But an easy way to absorb the different spices is to visit any of of the friendly vendors who will give you a tour. Its fun to smell the lovely rose, jasmine or sandalwood and get offered exotic tinctures or medicinal herbs to rub on the skin. Starting off with a complementary glass of mint tea allows you to partake in the experience. Have you ever seen, touched or smelled frankincense, myrrh or seen the golden stamens of saffron? Its easy to spend an entire morning here and learn something new.

Exotic and colorful piles of spices used for culinary cuisine is lined up next to potpourri, various types of grains, coffees and mixed herbs.

Its raining hard again, but fortunately most of the areas around these markets are covered and protected with overhead tarps covers - perfect rain or for shade. The common djellabas or robes worn are ubiquitous in Morocco and handy for covering ones head during a downpour and the wool effective to keep out the damp, no umbrellas necessary.

The rain subsides and golden light streams through the rafter openings and highlights an object that a visitor picks up to inspect.

The dining experience is well honed in an upscale restaurant like Le Tanjjia. Every corner is lit up with candles, large patterned reflections from ornate lanterns, scented roses all add to the ambience. A small band of singers perform with their mysterious instruments, they sing in melodic and somber voices and change to faster belly dance rhythm...we are just waiting for her to start now.

At last the food comes quickly in order, first comes some plates of local appetizers - a celebration of roasted vegetables and goat cheese. Then to be followed with lamb kabobs and grilled vegetables. Afterwards lamb and fish and chicken cous cous entrees. They are all delicious and we cannot eat another drop even dessert.

The Jewish synagogue is done in all shades of blue. with a beautiful fountain as a focal point. Jews immigrated to Morocco from their Spanish exodus and fared a better life under the protection of moderate sultans.

One last night walking around the grounds around the Koutoubia - the minaret to the main mosque which at 254 feet makes it the tallest structure in the medina. It is truly majestic seen at night time.

Another amazing meal here at a beautiful riad (old homes turned into B&Bs) serving contemporary Moroccan dishes in a fusion style. Blending old world spices and flavors with luxurious ingredients and incorporating novelle cuisine and techniques make the cuisine and presentations shine. What a better way to end a spectacular adventure in Marrakesh, wouldn’t you agree?

Friends and fellow travelers have come and enjoyed this journey with me. Merci beaucoup Kyna, David and Keith for the adventure of a life time and the shared experiences we had here in Morocco.

Copyright Š Erwin Noel Morata 2011

A Visit to Marrakesh  

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