Colours of Marrakech

I know it’s only February, and we can’t expect too much sunshine at this time of the year in the UK; we’ve been lucky – we’ve had relatively mild weather so far this winter, and some days we’ve even had clear blue skies and bright sunlight! Glorious!

But this afternoon has been horrible; we’ve had icy winds, sleet and hailstones – one of those bleak, miserable, grey days that just makes me pine for warm sun, blue skies and….well, a bit of colour. Anything but grey! As the wind howls through the trees outside, and dark clouds race across the sky above muddy brown fields, I remind myself that this time last year I was planning a break to Morocco.

Morocco is anything (and everything) BUT grey. Morocco attacks the senses like …..a charging camel, a sandstorm, an explosion in a spice factory; the moment you step into the streets you are bombarded with the sound of car horns and people shouting, the smell of spices and donkeys, the searing sensation of the sun burning your pale skin. And colour everywhere.

Even the ‘dull’ colours in Morocco are stunning. Many of the ochre-coloured buildings have a pinky-orange tinge to them, which glows as the sun starts to set. Vibrant flowers spill from pots on rooftops and vivid tiles decorate doorways, adding bursts of clashing colour to the warm walls.

The sun casts sharp shadows, so a row of sand-coloured buildings is punctuated with contrasting dark shapes. Shops and market stalls spill out onto the roads, displaying their wares on every possible surface – cumin, paprika, cinnamon piled high on wooden trays, scarves and carpets hanging from rails, IMGP0190babouches (leather slippers) in rainbow colours on racks against the walls, silver jewellery, copper pans, candles, perfumes….we even saw a huge tray in which about 40 live chicks, all dyed pink, green, blue and yellow, squeaked and flapped tiny wings.

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Black and green olives, lemons, oranges and dates are everywhere.

Bottles filled with colourful oils and potions line shop windows, many decorated with brightly coloured tassels hanging from the stoppers. Soft leather bags and purses, ceramic pots, hand made bangles and bracelets catch your eyes from every nook and cranny. Blossoms and fruit sit among rich green leaves on trees whose gently swaying branches make dappled patterns on dusty tiled paths.

 

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The Medersa Ben Youssef was founded in the 14th century as a place of religious learning. It was rebuilt around 1565 by the Saadian sultan Moulay Abdellah, and you can wander through this beautiful building and see the 130 dormitory cells where 900 young students studied the Koran. But it’s most famous for all the wonderful examples of traditional architectural details throughout the buildings and courtyards. As well as the carved stucco panels on the walls and the ornate arches and pillars, the lower sections of the walls in the courtyard are covered with zellij tiles – multi-coloured tiles laid out in complicated geometric patterns.

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The students’ dormitories are small and sparse.  Most contain two to four alcoves cut into the stone walls in which  the students would sleep – presumably with some sort of thin mattress for comfort. The rooms are completely bare, although the floors of the corridors between the rooms are decorated once again with brightly patterned tiles. The thick walls help to keep the building relatively cool, and the hustle and bustle of the Medina just outside seems far away. The mixture of plain white plaster and areas of brilliantly coloured tiles and paintwork is stunning – monk-like simplicity blended with the exotic feel of a harem!

I found the same sense of exotic tranquility in the beautiful Bahia Palace, built in the 19th century for Ahmed Ibn Moussa, who brought in craftsmen from Fez to create a home for his concubines. The name means ‘Palace of the Beautiful’, and the 160 rooms are lavishly and colourfully decorated.

Ceilings in particular are intricately painted in jewel colours, and windows and doorways look out onto pretty, cool courtyards with marble fountains, ponds and rich green foliage.

It’s amazing what a difference a little greenery and running water makes – you instantly feel refreshed and a little calmer! I loved the courtyard in the Bahia Palace; it felt like a scene straight out of ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, with the cool marble, the fountains, the dazzling colours of the tiles and the paintwork. Around the Palace are beautiful gardens with orange and lemon trees, palms and rose bushes. Several cats lay sprawled in the dappled shade beneath the trees, ignoring the tourists and the tiny birds that flit around in the branches.

No visit to Marrakech would be complete without a visit to the famous Majorelle Gardens. This amazing space is in every Marrakech guide book’s Top Ten, although prior to our visit, I wasn’t too sure that I’d enjoy it; the photos I’d seen showed beautiful colours and lots of cacti and palms, but it all looked somehow a bit arid and modern – not the ancient, busy, bustling Middle Eastern mish-mash that I expected of Marrakech. But it gave us an excuse to wander into the New City, and in spite of getting completely lost (for about two hours, at the hottest time of day…), we finally found this colourful oasis in the middle of the town.

The shady little courtyard at the entrance is gorgeous; we’d have happily just sat there for hours, enjoying a rest in the dappled coolness, but through the gates we could see tantalising glimpses of the gardens beyond. The 4-acre plot was bought by French artist Jacques Majorelle soon after he arrived in Morocco with his wife in 1917. His passion for botany led him to fill the gardens with plants that he brought back from his travels around the world, looking for inspiration for his paintings. In 1931 he commissioned a cubist villa to be built in the gardens, which he used as a studio and workshop. He continued to lavish attention on the gardens between paintings, composing plants, trees and ponds into works of art, and using strong, vivid paints (including the brilliant cobalt blue known as Majorelle Blue) on the walls and plant pots.

The gardens were opened to the public in 1947, to help pay for their upkeep, and soon Majorelle was earning more from the gardens than from his art work. He said “The garden is a momentous task, to which I give myself entirely. It will take my last years from me and I will fall, exhausted, under it’s branches, having given it all my love.”

Following his divorce – and then finding a new partner – Majorelle had a serious car accident in 1956, which led to the amputation of his left leg; he was forced to sell off part of the gardens to raise some money, but after a second accident just months later, he was sent to France to recover. He died there in 1962, never seeing his beloved Marrakech or his beautiful gardens again.

The famous fashion designer, Yves Saint-Laurent, and his partner Pierre Bergé fell in love with the now dilapidated and overgrown gardens when they first visited Marrakech in 1966. The land was due to be bulldozed to make way for a hotel, but Saint-Laurent managed to prevent this, and the couple bought the gardens in 1980. They set about restoring Majorelle’s vision, installing complicated irrigation systems, adding new plants (there are now 300 different species) and employing 20 gardeners. The cubist villa now houses a Berber museum. When Saint-Laurent died in 2008, his ashes were scattered over the rose garden, and a pillar brought from Tangiers stands as his memorial, surrounded by palm trees and bamboo.

As well as the stunning plants and flowers, the gardens are home to chirruping small birds and cooing doves, humming bees and croaking frogs. Butterflies flit above the blossoms, and water trickles from fountains and over stones. It’s a world away from the harsh, dry tourist trap I’d expected; the Moroccan sun beats down, accentuating the bright colours and stark shadows, but you can also find lush, green avenues and cool, shaded benches; little wooden bridges looking out over still, lily-covered ponds, and tranquil pergolas draped with leafy green fronds. Bliss!

Back in England, opening the curtains just after dawn onto another cold, grey English winter morning, I try to remember those scorching, mind-melting days in Marrakech….the smells, the sounds….but most of all, the incredibly vibrant colours….

 

 

Info: The Majorelle Gardens (Jardin Majorelle) – http://www.jardinmajorelle.com/ang

Medersa Ben Youssef – http://www.medersa-ben-youssef.com/en

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arriving abroad….

The tower of the Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakech.
The tower of the Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakech.

Don’t you just love that moment when, having left behind a dull and breezy spring day in the UK, your flight Captain announces that the local temperature is 39 degrees?

We landed in Marrakech-Menara airport at 8.40pm. It was already getting dark, but the heat that hit us as we stepped off the plane was almost tropical. The muffled voices echoing around the Arrivals hall were mostly speaking French, and signs in French and Arabic added to that lovely feeling you get when you’ve just arrived somewhere new and exciting. After the compulsory visit to the loo, we joined the queue for passport control (had my passport stamped – yay!) and went to collect our suitcase from the carousel. Then changed British money into Moroccan Dirhams, and headed out to our transfer driver, Faisal, who had been waiting patiently.

The roads of modern Marrakech are wide and busy; while Faisal told us all about the trips he would be happy to arrange for us, we watched as modern buildings, billboards and palm trees sped past in the dark, and we clung on to our seats as Faisal cut up every vehicle that tried to pass us on either side. Marrakech – so far – looked nothing like I expected, until Faisal pointed out the approaching walls of the Medina (the old town) looming in front of us. We pulled into an entrance to the city at exactly the same time as about 3 other vehicles, all with horns blaring, but Faisal, un-phased, just continued his commentary, narrowly missing a parked donkey cart. This was the Marrakech I’d imagined: increasingly narrow streets, tight corners, roads lit by lights radiating from tiny shops and stalls, boys on bikes, old men sitting on the pavements, dark doorways, and noise – everywhere, noise: car horns, bicycle bells, cart wheels, motor bike engines, shouting…..

Suddenly we stopped, and in the same breath as pointing out his ‘Travel Agency’ close by (“…where I will meet you first thing in the morning to book all your excursions…”), Faisal was barking instructions and passing our luggage to a teenage boy who turned and started walking off down a smaller lane, among several cyclists and people pushing carts along through the dark alleys.

Tiny alleyways to get to the Riad...very strange in the dark!
Tiny alleyways to get to the Riad…very strange in the dark!

We hastily tipped Faisal and followed after the boy, turning into smaller lanes and then yet smaller and darker ones. A group of young children crouching on the corner watched silently as we passed.

 

The doorway to our wonderful Riad.
The doorway to our wonderful Riad.

Finally we were at an impressive, open doorway. The sign above showed we’d arrived at the Riad El Youssoufi, and a young man of about 27 was standing in the warm light just inside. “Welcome,” he said, “and mind your heads!” Julien took our luggage from the boy and stood back to let us stoop carefully down into the calm, cool oasis that was to be our home for the next 6 days…..

A typical alleyway in the Medina of Marrakech
A typical alleyway in the Medina of Marrakech

There’s something very magical about that first couple of hours when you arrive at a foreign destination. Something extra special about that first sniff of foreign air, that sensation of being in a different climate, the sound of a different language being spoken; seeing signs in different alphabets, faces with different features, cafes serving different food. As you leave the airport for your hotel in a car, taxi, minibus or coach, you see different shops, different brand names above petrol stations, unfamiliar road signs and place names, buildings that could be schools, clinics, libraries, police stations. Or you take the metro, watching locals get on and off, immediately recognising you as a tourist with your map and suitcase, as you pass through stations with unfamiliar names.

The beautiful central courtyard of the Riad El Youssoufi.

Then you arrive at your hotel or lodging with a feeling of trepidation. Will it be as nice in real life as it was in the photos? Have they given you a decent room? All the other guests know their way around and look at your untanned skin and travel-crumpled clothes (flight socks under sandals – good look!) with curiosity as they amble through the lobby on their way to the pool/the nightclub/dinner.

The view from the bathroom.
The view from the bathroom.

You spend half an hour unpacking the essentials, finding places for everything, checking out the bathroom, reading any guest information, logging on to wifi, locking and unlocking the safe (if you have one) – not sure how much cash to keep on you for your first night, not sure where to keep your camera/ipod/documents….Within a couple of days, it will all be familiar; your room will feel like home, and you will know exactly where to go for a bottle of water/the best spot by the pool/some great local street food.

But for now, it’s all out there, waiting to be explored, waiting to be discovered…..exciting, uplifting, exotic; and you relish that tingle of expectancy that runs through you as the adventure begins.

 

A Surprise Holiday!

I had dreams that our 30th wedding anniversary would involve my husband whisking me off to an exotic island –I have been hinting about Bora Bora for an awfully long time, after all! But deep down, I knew this was never going to happen – for several reasons:

  1. Bora Bora is VERY expensive to get to.
  2. Despite leaving suitable travel brochures laying around, with pages turned down and hotel descriptions heavily ringed in black biro, my husband has not noticed that Bora Bora is El Numero Uno on my bucket list. I suppose the fact that there are always numerous holiday brochures, travel magazines and guide books covering every surface in our house may make it easy for these to be overlooked….
  3. Bora Bora is VERY, VERY expensive to get to.
  4. My husband – bless him – readily admits he would have no idea of where to start when it comes to booking a holiday, even though I have travel agent friends who would hold his hand and gently guide him through the whole process! My fault, I know; having had a travel-obsessed travel consultant as a wife does rather mean he has had no involvement in organizing any of our travel plans…
  5. My husband would be terrified of Getting It Wrong….he knows there would be dire consequences if he booked the wrong flights/airlines/hotels!!!
  6. Bora Bora is NOT CHEAP.

An expensive trip to a tiny speck in a distant ocean on the other side of the world merits a stay of at least two weeks; Hubby would have to clear it with my employers behind my back and it wouldn’t be easy for him to take time off (he’s self employed…)

So…..it was up to ME to surprise HIM.

And now the tables were turned, I realised that it’s actually not quite that easy to organise a surprise holiday; I asked him if he’d be happy for me to surprise him, and gave him some rough dates. Yes, that was fine, he said (with a slightly worried expression).

So; where to go? Bora Bora is out of the question until we win the lottery. We couldn’t be away for more than a week due to work constraints. We both hate the idea of spending all day, every day on a beach. I didn’t want to stay in a bland hotel.

My first thought was Madrid. I love Madrid with a passion, and I’ve been there several times, although Hubby has never been. But I’ll be going again in September – maybe better to look at somewhere I’d never been before. Cordoba? Granada? Seville…?

I looked at Seville; cheap flights, some beautiful, Moorish hotels….which made me think of Morocco. Marrakech – perfect!! Both our son and my aunt have been to Morocco and loved it. It’s very cheap to get to, it’s a perfect destination for a shorter break, it would be a new experience for both of us and it would be full of colour and noise and smells and…..well, exotic-ness!!!

I found the flights. I found a BEAUTIFUL Riad within the walls of the Medina – small and romantic, so perfect for the occasion. I booked the airport parking. I organized the travel insurance. I checked our passports…….Oh dear: Hubby’s passport would expire less than 3 months after our return date, and the Moroccan websites all told us that he’d need at least 6 months remaining. I told him he’d have to renew his passport.

I spoke to a nurse at our local GP surgery to check that we were up to date with our travel vaccinations. Although not compulsory, she strongly recommended that we had the appropriate jabs, although she couldn’t fit us in for the same appointment. I had to explain that my husband had no idea where we were going, so she was under strict orders not to give the game away! So off he went, bless him, to be prodded and pricked….he came back with a glint in his eye, though; “Well, that rules Madrid out!” he said.

Then, as the holiday got nearer, I asked Hubby to get together some clothes that he might like to take; I could help him decide what would be suitable and what else he might need to buy. “Will I need beach clothes?” he asked. “…..Possibly,” I told him, mysteriously (I knew we might have a day trip to the coast). “Will it be hot?” he asked. “Hmmmnn…hotter than here, I expect,” I said, trying to look as though I’d had to think very hard about that one. “How much money will I need to take?” he asked. “Well, just enough for food, and a little extra in case we take an excursion, and some more for bits and pieces, ice creams, souvenirs, postcards……” “OK; Euros….?”

In Morocco the currency is the Dirham. It is possible to use Euros in a few places over there, particularly in Marrakech, but it is expected that visitors bring Dirhams – which you can’t get until you arrive in Morocco. “Maybe you should just bring all your currency in Sterling?” I told him. “But you always tell me it’s not safe to take too much cash on holiday,“ he said; “Will I be able to use my cards while we’re away? Shouldn’t I advise my bank in advance…?”

With just a few days to go, I realised that it wasn’t so easy to keep everything secret. Perhaps, if we’d been going off on a standard package tour to a Mediterranean beach resort, it would have been simpler. Regardless of which country you’re in, you kind of know what to expect from a beach package. But I was beginning to realise that he needed to have an idea of the destination; even though I could tell him what clothes, toiletries and currency to bring, he needed to mentally prepare for where we were going – just as I would have wanted to. It also gave him a chance to read a little about Marrakech, to get an idea of what he might not want to miss when we were there. Perhaps keeping the whole thing secret was more for my own benefit – it gave me total control, and I had an excuse for not sharing the planning and the details with anybody else. But it can’t have been easy for him. So, two days before we left, I told him that we were going to Morocco. Which he’d already guessed, anyway.

An olive stall in Marrakech.
An olive stall in Marrakech.

I still had the satisfaction of knowing that the location inside the Medina walls would be a surprise, as would the tasteful, romantic and exotic Riad that I had chosen. I knew the holiday would be special, because of the occasion it was celebrating. And to an extent, it would be a surprise to both of us – however much I’d been told by other people, however many photos I’d seen, however many books I’d read, I knew Marrakech would be different to anywhere I’d been before, so I hoped and expected that it would still surprise me.

And I’m still hoping that, one day, he’ll tell me to book two weeks off work and to stock up on sun cream, ready for when he whisks me off to…….well, hopefully it’ll be a surprise…!!!