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 --

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