Sunday, 9 December 2018

Postcard from Marrakesh, Morocco

Greetings! Last month I took a trip to visit Morocco. My itinerary included Rabat, Volubilis, Fez, Marrakesh, and Casablanca. You might like to read my posts on Rabat and Volubilis here, and on Fez here. 



Today I'm sharing the top eight sights that I've visited in Marrakesh, one of the four imperial cities in Morocco. It is known as the City of Gardens or the Red City.

QUICK FACTS:
  • Marrakesh is located 327 km (203 miles) south west of the Moroccan capital of Rabat.
  • Marrakesh was founded in 1062.
  • The Medina of Marrakesh is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
  • The population of Marrakesh is about one million.
  • Marrakesh main colour is red sandstone or terracotta. Buildings are not allowed to be taller than the mosque in Marrakesh.

TOP EIGHT SIGHTS IN MARRAKESH (Click to enlarge the pictures):

1. Koutoubia Mosque: Koutoubia Mosque is the largest mosque in the city. It is made of red stone and brick and measures 80 metres (260 ft) long and 60 metres (200 ft) wide. The minaret is constructed from sandstone and stands 77 metres (253 ft) high. The spire atop the minaret is decorated with gilded copper balls that decrease in size towards the top, a style unique to Morocco.

View of Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakesh, Morocco

Koutoubia Mosque has inspired other buildings such as the Giralda of Seville in Spain (photo #14 in my Seville post), and the Hassan Tower of Rabat (#3 in my Rabat post).

Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakesh, Morocco

2. Saadian Tombs: Saadian Tombs were built in the 16th century as a mausoleum and final resting place for numerous Saadian sultans. The building has three rooms that contain the graves of about sixty members of the Saadi Dynasty. The main room displays fine Islamic architecture with marble columns, mosaic tile work, floral motifs, calligraphy, cedar wood carving, and stucco.

Saadian Tombs, Marrakesh, Morocco

Outside the building are unnamed graves of soldiers and servants and a garden with orange trees.

Soldiers and servants' graves at Saadian Tombs

3. The Bahia Palace: The Bahia Palace was built in the late 19th century by the Grand Vizier of Marrakesh, Bou Ahmed. Bahia means brilliance.

The Bahia Palace, Marrakesh, Morocco

The palace took seven years to build, with hundreds of craftsmen from Fez working on its wood, carved stucco, and mosaic tile. It is a stunning palace that can easily take hours to see all the details.

A ceiling in the Bahia Palace, Marrakesh, Morocco

The rooms in the Bahia Palace were designed to capture the essence of Islamic and Moroccan architectural styles. They open to courtyards such as the one in the photo below.

Back courtyard in the Bahia Palace, Marrakesh

4. The Medina of Marrakesh: The Medina of Marrakesh, a World Heritage site, is a labyrinth of small streets and alleyways leading to schools, mosques, souks, and houses. It is protected by the ramparts of Marrakesh, which stretch for some 19 kilometres (12 miles) around the medina of the city.

Built by the Almoravids in the 12th century, the walls are made of a distinct orange-red clay and chalk, giving the city its nickname as the "red city". They stand up to 5.8 meters (19 feet) high and have 20 gates and 200 towers along them. One of the gates is Bab Agnaou Gate. It's now a passage connecting both the medieval and modern parts of Marrakesh.

Bab Agnaou Gate, Marrakesh

5. Jemaa el-Fnaa (or La Place in French): This is one of the best-known squares in Africa. It's a place where there is something to see and do from morning to night. By day, the square buzzes with snake charmers, henna-tattoo artists, and various other entertainers. At night, there are countless food stalls selling traditional dishes and fresh orange juice. It's a busy place so be vigilant of your belongings and surroundings.

Jemaa el-Fnaa, Marrakesh, Morocco

6. The Souks (or Local Markets): Marrakesh boasts a full medina with traditional winding souks and countless treasures. Whether you're looking for food, cooking ingredients, household supplies, lamps, carpets, handicrafts, or literature, there's a street and alleyway for everything. Visitors can get lost for hours in the labyrinth of captivating streets.

Items for sale, Marrakesh, Morocco

Dried herbs and spices, Marrakesh, Morocco

Items for sale, Marrakesh, Morocco

7. Jardin Majorelle: The Jardin Majorelle (or Majorelle Garden) is a beautiful oasis in a bustling city. It was the creation of French painter Jacques Majorelle, who spent forty years injecting his passion and creativity into this magical garden. He painted the garden walls, fountains, features and villa in a fresh and intense blue colour, for which he trademarked the name Majorelle Blue.

Famed designer Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé bought Jardin Majorelle in 1980 and restored it. They transformed Majorelle's studio into a museum open to the public, and dedicated to Berber culture. It's now called the Museum of Islamic Art.

Museum of Islamic Art

Fountain in Jardin Majorelle

Similar to the Bahia Palace, visitors can easily spend a few hours at the Jardin Majorelle to enjoy its beauty and tranquillity, as well as visit the Berber museum, and the Yves Saint Laurent boutique that are located in the garden. I've taken many photos in the garden that deserves a blog post on its own.

8. Ville Nouvelle: Outside the ancient walls of the Medina of Marrakesh is the newer part of the city. There are gardens, villas, museums, and shopping centres to explore. The sidewalks are clean and I like the green palm trees that line the main avenues and the red sandstone walls.

During my stay in Marrakesh, I met four American travellers from New York. We shared a horse carriage ride from Marrakesh main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa, to Ville Nouvelle area.

It's easy to find a horse carriage from the square and negotiate the price, just like you would with a taxi. As the horse owner and I conversed in French, he told me that he owned four horses, two of them work the morning shift, and the other two work the afternoon shift.

Horse carriage ride in Marrakesh

Ville Nouvelle, Marrakesh

MY CONCLUSION:

Marrakesh is a very captivating city with its ancient history and architecture. The souks alone offer incredible sights, sounds, smells, and textures. The Ville Nouvelle area seems to have more European presence than Fez, likely due to a large number of French people who have bought properties in the city.

I would have liked to stay longer to explore more sights and the museums in Marrakesh. However, it's time to move on to Casablanca, my last stop in Morocco before heading home. It's been so awesome to visit Rabat, Volubilis, Fez and Marrakesh up to this point on my trip.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your comments.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

November in a nutshell


Greetings! November was a month less ordinary since I spent part of it in Morocco. I had fair weather the entire trip, with high around 20C (68F), low around 15C (59F). All the amazing sights that I've seen and the delicious food that I've tried in Morocco gave me tremendous energy when I returned home.

Without further ado, here's my November in a nutshell, in alpha order :)

ARTS:

I viewed three art exhibits: The Community Film & Arts Festival in Toronto, Hiraeth solo exhibition by Judith McKay, a Toronto artist, and an art exhibit in Morocco.

In addition, I admired beautiful Moroccan architecture in Rabat, Fez, Marrakesh, Casablanca, and ancient ruins in Volubilis. The medinas (old towns) and souks (local bazaars) in Morocco were living visual arts themselves.

Community Film & Arts Festival in Toronto

Just Being There by Judith McKay

Painting on display in Marrakesh, Morocco

BLOGGING:

November was a month with plenty of visual attractions that I captured through my lens. I published seven blog posts with many photos in each. Thank you to everyone who read and commented on my blog.

BOOKS:

I enjoyed reading four thriller novels The Twenty-Three and Never Look Away by Linwood Barclay, Glass Houses by Louise Penny, and Sleeping in The Ground by Peter Robinson. The last two authors are new to me although all three authors have won numerous awards, and several of their books have been bestsellers.


CONCERTS:

I attended six wonderful concerts performed by Christopher Slade (solo piano), Tristan Savella (solo piano), Maithena Girault and Jeannie Chung (violin and piano duo), Jean-Samuel Bez and Jean-Luc Therrien (violin and piano duo), Tomson Highway, Patricia Cano and Marcus Ali (piano, vocals, and saxophone), and Olivier Hebert-Bouchard and David Dias da Silva (piano and clarinet duo).

FITNESS:

According to my November tracking sheet, I completed nine workouts at the gym, seven yoga classes, four swimming sessions, and three 5K runs. I also walked at least 45 minutes and meditated 15 minutes daily.

FOOD:

It's a good thing I completed the above fitness routine because I certainly ate well in Morocco as posted here. The beef tagine in Fez was foreign, authentic, and absolutely delicious.

Beef tagine in Fez, Morocco

LEARNING:

I continued with my daily French and Spanish online lessons on Duolingo. While in Morocco, my knowledge of French helped me understand the signage around me and converse with local people.

I also learned words such as Medinas (old towns), Madrasas (religious schools), Djellaba (traditional Moroccan long, loose, hooded garment with long sleeves) and what they look like in real life.

Below is a photo of a Moroccan man wearing a white djellaba with a traditional Arab red fez hat, and soft yellow babouche slippers.

Man in traditional clothing in Rabat, Morocco

MOVIES:

I watched four movies Shock and Awe, Casablanca, Mission Impossible Fall Out, and Little Italy. Casablanca was a refresher before I visited Casablanca in Morocco. Such a classic movie! I did stop by Rick's Café by the way. Mission Impossible Fall Out helped me pass the time while flying from Frankfurt to Toronto. Little Italy is a cute comedy filmed in Toronto.

SOCIALIZING:

I met with my friends in Toronto for coffee once, dinner once, and lunch four times. While in Morocco, I met other travellers during my walking tours and some of us went out for meals together.

Margherita pizza in Toronto

One of the most beautiful spots to rest while sipping fresh mint tea and admiring my surroundings is in a carpet shop in the Medina of Fez in Morocco.

A magical sitting room

TRAVEL:

My trip to Morocco was fantastic, with so much to explore and experience. To say it was a good kind of sensory stimulation is an understatement. I wrote a post about my visit to Rabat and Volubilis here, and Fez here. My upcoming post will be on Marrakesh, known as a city of gardens in Morocco. Here's a preview:

Marrakesh, Morocco

OVERALL:

November was an excellent month for me. I'm grateful to be in good health, to have the ability to travel, and to have so many good things available to me at home. I'm enjoying the holiday season in Toronto at the moment.

How was your November? What good things happened? I'd love to hear your comments.


Sunday, 2 December 2018

Postcard from Fez, Morocco

Greetings! Last month I took a trip to visit Morocco. My itinerary included Rabat, Volubilis, Fez, Marrakesh, and Casablanca. You might like to read my post on Rabat and Volubilis here.

Today I'm sharing the top twelve sights that I've visited in Fez, one of the four imperial cities in Morocco. The other three imperial cities are Rabat, Meknes (near Volubilis), and Marrakesh. In my opinion, Fez is a must see destination, especially for first-time visitors to Morocco.

QUICK FACTS:
  • Fez is located east of Rabat, about 200 km (125 miles) in driving distance.
  • Fez was founded in 789 A.D. by Moulay Idriss II, the son of the founder of modern Morocco. It served as the capital of Morocco for more than 400 years.
  • The Medina of Fez is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the University of Al Qaraouiyine in Fez is the oldest operating university in the world.
  • Fez is divided into three sections: Fes el-Bali (the original old town), Fes el-Jedid (built to accommodate the city’s expanding population in the 13th century), and Ville Nouvelle (the contemporary quarter).
  • The population of Fez is about 1.1 million.
  • Fez main colour is yellow sandstone as seen in the panoramic photo below. Buildings are not allowed to be taller than the mosque minarets in Fez.

Panoramic view of Fez, Morocco

TOP 12 SIGHTS TO SEE IN FEZ (Click to enlarge the pictures):

1. Fez el-Bali Medina: Medina means Old Town, behind the ancient walls. The Medina of Fez, a World Heritage Site, is a labyrinth of narrow, winding streets and alleyways. It's thought to be the largest intact surviving Medina and one of the largest urban pedestrian zones in the world.

Narrow street in Fez medina

Since the entire Medina is pedestrian-only, donkey carts are used to transport trash collection. The donkeys wear rubber shoes to protect their joints and hooves from repetitive injuries. This means you will not hear them approaching. When you hear "Balak! Balak!", which means "Clear the way!", just step to one side.

All over Morocco, but particularly in the medinas, cats are well loved by local residents as they keep the mice away, a natural way to control diseases or plagues. Can you see the cute cat in the lower right corner of the photo below?

A cat watching a donkey at work in Fez Medina

When you walk in the Medina of Fez, it is cool as the walls block much of the sunlight. Behind its walls, you'll find architectural landmarks, bustling squares, and souks lined with shops whose interiors resemble Aladdin's cave. Windows are designed so that one can see out but not in, to ensure maximum privacy.

2. Attarine Medersa or Madrasa: In Morocco, all educational buildings or religious schools are known as medersas, or madrasas. The Attarine Medersa is one of the finest in Fez.

Commissioned by Marinid sultan Abu Said and completed in 1325, it was originally intended to house students from nearby Quaraouiyine Mosque. Today, it is one of the city’s most impressive examples of Maranid architecture.

The rectangular courtyard displays a masterpiece of intricate zellij tile work, carved stucco and ornate cedar wood carpentry. Elsewhere in the medersa, you'll find fine marble columns and graceful Arabic calligraphy.

Attarine Medersa in Fez, Morocco

3. Al Qaraouiyine Mosque and University: Al Qaraouiyine Mosque is home to the University of Al-Quaraouiyine. Founded in 859, it is believed to be the world’s oldest continuously functioning university, and remains a vitally important center of Islamic learning.

The Al Qaraouiyine Mosque is also one of the largest centers of worship in Africa, and can accommodate up to 20,000 people during prayer time. The university's library is one of the oldest surviving libraries in the world, and includes amongst its tomes a 9th-century Qur’an.

Although the Mosque itself is not open to the public, you can view its minaret and green tiled roof from any of the Medina's rooftops. Click to enlarge the photo below and spot Al Qaraouiyine Mosque's green tiled roof, with the white minaret on the right side of the photo. I caught a glimpse of the Mosque’s courtyard through the main door.

View of Al Qaraouiyine Mosque, upper right

Al Qaraouiyine Mosque's courtyard, Fez, Morocco

4. Place Seffarine: This square is one of the oldest squares in the Medina, with little shopping stores full of Moroccan handmade goodies.

Seffarine Square, Fez, Morocco

5. An authentic Moroccan carpet shop: Morocco is known for its carpets and the merchants who sell them. There are many carpet shops in Fez Medina. Behind some of the rustic, simple-looking doors, the building interiors are often spacious and jaw-dropping gorgeous.

Take a look at the sitting area of the carpet shop that I visited below. I think it fits for a king or a queen! Fresh mint tea is served with shiny silver pots and colourful tea glasses.

Sitting area in a carpet shop, Fez, Morocco

There are five common elements to a Moroccan 'house' in the Medina, usually three-storey high: 1) The roof opens to the sky (skylight) for natural light, 2) The ornate wood carvings, 3) The white carved stucco, 4) The tiled fountain, and 5) The tiled floor that is slightly recessed to drain rain water. In the photo below, the roof is covered with carpets since this is a carpet shop.

Carpets on display and house structure

6. Chouara Tanneries: The tanneries have been in operation since medieval times and have not changed much since. In the photo below, you can see the vats filled with colourful dyes and the skins laid out to dry in the sunshine.

I visited Morocco in their cool season so the tanneries did not smell too much. The shop owners hand out small bouquets of fresh mint to offset the smell. Colourful Moroccan slippers, pillows, ottomans, and many other leather products are available for purchase.

Chouara Tanneries, Fez, Morocco

Leather pillows and slippers, Fez, Morocco

7. Moulay Idriss Mausoleum: The Mausoleum is open only to Muslims. Non-Muslims may not enter but can get a glimpse of the beautifully-designed entrance. I had mentioned Moulay Idriss city in my previous post.

Moulay Idriss Mausoleum, Fez, Morocco

8. The Nejjarine Museum displays Moroccan wooden arts and crafts. It is actually an old fondouk (a hotel or caravanserai), which has been transformed into a museum.

Here, in the salons where traders once slept on their trips to town are displays of engraved granary doors, dowry chests, and mashrabiya (lattice screen) window frames.

Below is a photo of the central courtyard of the fondouk, with its sturdy pillars and balconies decorated in carved wood and stucco detailing. Just outside of the Nejjarine museum is a public square and a beautiful tiled fountain.

The Nejjarine fondouk/ museum

Fountain in the Nejjarine Square

9. Mellah (Jewish Quarter) and Aben Danan Synagogue: The Jewish Quarter or Mellah, as it's known locally, is located In the newer section Fes el-Jedid. Of the 250,000 Jews that once lived here, only a handful remain and have since relocated to the Ville Nouvelle area.

The Mellah, dates back to the 14th century, is full of history and Jewish-style architecture, such as the Aben Danan synagogue located in the heart of the Mellah. The synagogue was built in the 17th century by a wealthy merchant called Mimoun Ben Sidan.

Inside Aben Danan Synagogue, Fez, Morocco

10. Merenids Tombs: The golden-stoned tombs are located on a hill, just outside of Fez Medina. On a nice day, you can keep heading up the hill to the summit for the views, which take in the entire walled Medina area and out to the green hills beyond.

Alternatively, you can take a taxi to get there. A small taxi (petit taxi) can take up to three passengers. A big taxi (grand taxi) can take up to six passengers. Always negotiate the fare before getting in.

Merenids Tombs, Fez, Morocco

11. The Royal Palace (or Dar el Makhzen): The Royal Palace is not open to the public but is definitely worth seeing. The royal family doesn’t live there, but they maintain a palace in every city for each of their visits.

Truly an impressive sight, it features gigantic doors made of brass and gold, surrounded by zellij tile work and carved cedar wood. The detailed mosaics and bold colours make for beautiful pictures that play with light.

The Royal Palace, Fez, Morocco

12. Ville Nouvelle: This is the new town or contemporary part of Fez. Below is a photo of Hassan Avenue, one of the main avenues in Fez, early in the morning. During the day and in the evening, the middle section is filled with families and vendors. There are many shops and restaurants lined the avenue as well.

Hassan Avenue, Fez, Morocco

MY CONCLUSION:

I enjoyed my time in Fez very much. It is a mystical, ancient city with so much history to explore. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the textures are incredible attractions. Words are not adequate to describe the architectural details and workmanship found in buildings in the Medina.

Fez gives its visitors a lot of sensory stimulation. Come with a sense of adventure, a decent amount of energy, pay attention to your surroundings, and you'll love it.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your comments.