Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Weekend in Marrakech

Morocco is a surprisingly easy jaunt from London. Just 4 hours and you don't even have to fiddle with your watch -- same time zone. So in continuance of our program of meandering around the Arab world while revolution is afoot, Pam, Simone and I took advantage of the winter-break weekend and visited Marrakech.

Local opinion on the unfolding situation in Egypt was varied: different perspectives were proffered by young vs. old, male vs. female, level of education, etc.: just like politics anywhere. But everyone was definitely paying attention -- you almost had to tear the shopkeepers away from the Al Jazeera broadcast in order to conduct business.

It turned out that we were in Marrakech the night that Mubarak stepped down. This was received with general jubilation. But alas the excitement spilled over into some gang violence that we were unfortunate to witness while walking home from dinner. No guns, just fists; some blood though. Despite the pall this encounter cast over the evening, our visit was otherwise without incident.

The walled-in core of the city, the Medina, is a crazily convoluted network of ancient streets and souks. During their brief period of colonization the French eschewed the old city and chose to build anew, outside the walls. A fortunate decision, leaving intact a marvelous labyrinth of medievalism. Wandering the passageways you feel transported in time, yet it is behind closed doors that you find the true delights: inventive modern extrapolations of the indigenous design and color.

Here Simone lounges at the Cafe Arabe, a hip hangout overlooking the souks:

This is the beautifully rendered islamic courtyard of the legendary Mamounia Hotel:

Our somewhat more modest accommodation was a renovated Riad -- a traditional Moroccan home with inner courtyard. Well-located with a vibrant food market just outside the door, and decorated with a very refined (i.e. Pam-worthy) sense of style:

The dining room at the Riad Kniza:

And beyond these modern interpretations, a true highlight was a visit to the Madrasa Ben Youssef, an islamic college built in the 16th century.

The inner courtyard:

A scholar's "cell", with desk and other implements:

Detail of the central courtyard's elaborate bas-relief calligraphy and zellige tile-work:

Just outside the Medina wall is the Jardin Majorelle, later acquired and tended by Yves Saint Laurent. Complete with a succulent landscape rivaling Santa Barbara's Lotusland:

Typical street within the Medina:

Donkey caravans apparently replacing the camel caravans of old...a concession to modern times?

We shopped for ingredients with our cook, who later instructed us in making pastilla:

After lunch it was time to do some serious shopping. We strategically disguised ourselves for better bargaining power. As you can see, this shopkeeper was completely taken:

Sampling the goods:

Antique dealers Mustafa and Abdullah, my new best friends (post-transaction):

On our last day we took a brief excursion into the Atlas mountains, just 50 km from Marrakech. Beautiful and geographically similar to the Eastern Sierra, but with the added interest of Berber villages.

-- fin Maroc --

Monday, February 7, 2011


With the unrest in Tunisia having spread to Egypt, it seemed inevitable that Jordan would be the next to fall. Coinciding with the mid-winter lull, we perceived an optimal time to visit the Kingdom...no crowds!

So Pam and I flew to Amman with a group from London, soon finding ourselves in a jeep heading out to Wadi Rum – one of T.E. Lawrence's favorite slices of desert, located on the border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

The landforms are magnificent, the sand is an intense red, and the only inhabitants then and now are Bedouin nomads.

Being February, the temperature was cool-ish – actually very comfortable. We had a chance to climb some of the rock outcroppings. Here yours truly crosses a natural bridge:

Before long we spotted an accomodating beast of burden:

I was too busy wrestling the monster to the ground to take any photos of that action, but suffice it to say, Pam soon had her saddled-up:

We 'camped' in the desert that night – it was incredibly peaceful and fun to hang out with a small number of fellow travelers and local Bedouins.

Later, we followed the path of Indiana Jones (and innumerable camel caravans before him) to Petra. Walking through a narrow slit canyon or "siq" for 2.5 miles, we suddenly arrived at the fantastic "Treasury":

Carved in-situ, from the solid sandstone somewhere between 100-200 B.C., it truly is one of the most fantastic sights in the world. Just incredible that the Nabataeans were able to create it with the most primitive tools while achieving such perfect symmetry and detail. The contrast with the curvy, natural forms of the unadulterated sandstone is sublime.

We dismounted our trusty ride...

... and went forth on foot along the formerly colonnaded main street of Petra, studded with relics from Roman and Byzantine eras.

Interestingly Petra became lost to history before the dawn of Islam (622 A.D.) hence has no islamic buildings nor motifs. For more than one thousand years it was known only to the Bedouins who kept it a close secret. First discovery by the West was in the early 1800's, by an intrepid Swiss explorer who promoted himself as an indian muslim to obtain access.

We hiked up to "The Monastery", so-called as it briefly functioned in this role in byzantine times. (Though like the other magnificent facades in Petra, it was built as a Nabataean tomb.)

After all this excitement, we took a day off to 'chill' on the shores of the Dead Sea:

Doing what we do best, just frolicking happily!