Monday, 28 July 2014

a palace, a garden and the Saadian tombs

Here, we explore three buildings which have cultural and historical relevance to the city of Marrakech. 

El Badi Palace

El Badi Palace, now somewhat in ruins, was built in the 16th Century under sultan Ahmad al-Mansur, who lavishly clad it in marble, gold and ivory. What we see nowadays is a palace stripped down to its bare skeleton, yet is still remarkably grand and beautiful. 

Designed around a huge open courtyard with sunken gardens and a pool, the palace walls contain halls and meeting spaces. Whilst it was not designed for living but for entertaining, plenty of storks have now made its parapets their homes. 

Nowadays, the palace is a tourist attraction, and holds the annual summer folklore festival, that we can guess is the reason for the stage scaffolding in the courtyard. The juxtaposition against this ancient backdrop is charming.

Two exhibitions located across from the entrance, are free to enter and create a sense of intimacy where the vast vacant courtyard lacked. On display were photographs by photojournalist Don McCullin, and whilst unrelated to the palace itself, are relevant for their political expressions.

A dungeon is also housed within. It is interesting to note the difference in scale, from grandness to near-claustrophobia. Cells can be accessed via the long corridors, and it is quite meditative to go inside and think about how prisoners must have felt in their time. The floor space is roughly square, about big enough to sleep in. Light comes in through a high opening, and as a result so does sound. Perhaps sound-proofing isn't a prisoner's biggest problem, but imagine.

Jardin Majorelle

Cacti scar too.
A stunning retreat from the sand-coloured visions that we were becoming accustomed to. This garden is the product of the artist Jacque's Marjoelle's love and dedication to creating a botanical haven, inspired by his years travelling. 

Concrete walls are painted a cobalt blue, a shade that became referred to as 'Marjorelle bleu'. 

A fun fashion-lover's surprise: the ashes of Yves Saint Laurent actually rest here, as this territory came under his ownership in 1980 until his death. It is said that the garden provided him a great deal of inspiration, no doubt. 

The Berber Museum housed within is worth popping into. There isn't a great deal of information on the plaques accompanying artefacts, but most is self-explanatory.

Saadian Tombs

The Saadian tombs are home to members of the Saadi dynasty, housed within three interior spaces. The tombs were actually only discovered a century ago after having been hidden away during the dynasty that followed, as a means to protect them from being found and destroyed. The entrances were blocked off; they were eventually discovered from an aerial map, showing the gardens enclosed within.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

setti fatma

In an excursion organised by our riad, we spent a day up in Setti Fatma, a Berber village in the mountains. 

After being informed by practically everyone that we met that we "must see the desert," and reluctantly not having enough days free to go, we decided to head to the mountains for a day, and see what life was like up there.

The drive lasted about an hour, which went by trying to learn some handy Arabic phrases. The first stop off was to an argan oil producing site where we were taken through the process of extracting oil from the argan nut and offered various oil based products to try. Whilst everyone knows the benefits of argan oil for hair, it also comes in an edible form and can be used for dips and to dress salads. It has a distinctive - er - nutty flavour.

Moroccans rarely pass up a chance to offer you tea. Standard tea here is of the mint variety, with the occasional Berber tea thrown in.

Berber tea looks just like potpourri. There are loads of colourful herbs and bits of flowers mixed in; it has an aniseed-y quality to its taste.

Berber Interiors

Following on, we were invited to nose around a traditional Berber house. Mud is used for the construction of the houses in this village, giving them a colouring like that of the surrounding mountains. Their layout comprised of a central courtyard from which the various living and sleeping rooms were connected. The hammam, or bathhouse, functions much like a steam room for its users. A fire is lit beneath a bowl of water, which rises up as it heats. The room itself is very small, to maximise efficiency of the process.

Villagers use man-made streams that run below their houses to manage the workflows, such as milling flour. Running water can be stopped, and started as and when required. These houses have been thoughtfully designed to make use of local resources, minimising the need for dependence on other trades. Irrigation systems have been set up so that water from the river can be directed to the village farms during summer months, when rain is scarce.
Ceramic rainwater pipe: how beautiful and practical!
Colourful patterned carpets cover large portions of interior spaces. 
I couldn't resist myself a Berber bathroom selfie
Up the Mountain

It soon got to lunchtime and we stopped off to eat quite literally on the Ourika River. Stunning.

Some spiced omelettes, tagine and cinnamon-dusted fruit later, we continued on. Our stomachs now satisfied, our walking guide introduced himself and began to lead us up the mountain. One thing should be pointed out - in the description of this trip, "walking" was the referred to exercise. However, "hiking" is more fitting. Thank goodness we were in appropriate shoes!

The Atlas Mountains have seven waterfalls which can take over a day to climb; our trek lasting a few hours only covered two of them.

The hike itself was relaxed; our guide would point out places for good views, places that we would soon reach across the gap, "that tree way over there!", and was very upbeat and attentive. A Berber native of the mountains, he had spent his childhood exploring these very routes and seemed to know them like the back of his hand. We found it entertaining how he would skip gracefully over the rocks like they were stepping stones.

The trip was definitely worth being away from the hustle and bustle of Marrakech, for a while. A breath of fresh air!

A Berber refridgerator
Notice that the graffiti is in the Berber script!

Thursday, 24 July 2014

meandering through the medina

Now that we had settled into our hostel, we were ready to explore the city. We zigzagged our way towards Fna Square, pausing at all the delights and surprises the souks had to offer. 


Souks are designed long and narrow, not only to encourage commerce, but so the buildings on either side keep them shady. Palm leaves are spread overhead forming a canopy to combat midday sun, when rays begin to trickle through to the souk floor.

There is everything that you might ever want to see. Ovens baking bread, the traditional Moroccan bread that is round and somewhat dome-shaped. This was our staple breakfast food, and is served in all the restaurants and markets. Here we are waiting to eat it with tagine!

Further down, there are people working silk and metal. Fabulous aladdin lamps (containing genies?) adorn some stalls, and ceramics and leathers others. Tinny clangs can be heard amongst donkey hooves and the bustle of people going about their days.

There are ripe smells in the air, always. It's as if you become consistently conscious of your ability to smell. The stench of the sewers usually pops up between wafts of aromatic cooking and musky incense.

The fruit is ripe always, too. There's no green banana syndrome. Buy batches of ripe figs, prickly pears for a dirham each. Or chunks of watermelon. There's fresh orange juice everywhere too; notice that orange trees line the streets about town.

Djemaa el Fna

Djemaa el Fna is both an obvious highlight of Marrakech, and a good navigational point of reference. At first though, I couldn't see why it was so special. Yes, there are monkeys and charmers seducing snakes, and tattoo artists who will henna you without your permission, but... not a lot of life:


Little did I realise what a party they throw when the sun goes down. The food market opens; people swarm, like flies swarm over candy. It wasn't even Ramadan yet.

We took our seats on a market stall, where we enjoyed the best tagine that we would enjoy for our entire stay. For some reason no other tagine compared. Watch it sizzle!



We were actually directed to our seats by a man who had been showing us his kaftan shop, just off the square. There, we were given demonstrations of how to wear various styles of kaftans and scarves.

The Moroccan way of dress is interesting. There is a mix of western and traditional Moroccan style on the streets. The kaftan and djellaba - a hooded kaftan - is worn by men and women alike. Though obviously differing. In fact, I was quite impressed at how chic they all look, with all that long draped material effortlessly flowing around them. And I'm not sure how much these traditional garments are inspired by the catwalk, but the split sleeve and button-through details on some looked particularly current!

I ended up - somehow - buying a pair of striped pointed leather sandals. I don't know... they look good on my feet.

I have seen a lot of these parading around town. Typical slippers are flat with rounded toes in the Berber style, or pointed in the Arab style. They are usually worn in the home, but these heeled ones are for wear out of doors.

Moroccans are proud of their trade, and will go to lengths to persuade you of their product's authenticity. In an alarming flash, the shopkeeper flicked his lighter on across the surface of my new shoes to prove they are real. So it happens, real leather doesn't alight when burned, and that's how you know!

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

marhaba marrakech


This is the first in a series of travel posts documenting my thoughts and experiences traversing Morocco... Two cities, two friends and an eagerness to explore.


On touchdown, a warm welcome greeted us in Marrakech, as the sun kissed our noses and the palms waved us over. If only the entire world was one big Marrakech of a welcoming place. Stepping off the plane, you realise that you are no longer in the lush landscapes of Europe but have now met a climate of dusty sunbaked surroundings. Arid, some might describe it, but I say let's take a moment to check out the architecture...

Airport architecture is funny because it is the first impression foreigners get of the city they are about to meet. Being such, it is the perfect opportunity to understand how the city wants to be perceived...

The extension pictured here at Menara, which is designed by E2A Architecture, stands rooted to Moroccan traditions. Design choices, such as the photovoltaic lights on the roof, double as a means to create shadowy mosaic patterns across the interior surfaces. Screened glass panels create a variable transparency, offering a chance to steal glimpses through to the outside. Touching on Islamic traditions, the structure is geometrically articulated throughout.

Having filled our eyes with arch-candy, we stepped outside to hail a taxi. Or rather get hailed by one. The driver dropped us off in the medina, where our first challenge was to find our riad..!

"I'll show you"

Unless your sixth sense is GPS or you are a man, strangers in a strange land sometimes resort to asking locals for directions. There are two things that could happen at this point. 

  1. a local will point you in the right direction, then offer to show you their pottery or spice shop
  2. they will "show you" the way

The first situation can be quite pleasant and interesting, before you have been in several spice shops and can recite all the spices by scent. There is no obligation to buy, but it can be difficult to avoid if, like me, you're susceptible to shopaholism and warm quickly to accommodating strangers.

The second situation requires a bit of caution as, what appears to be a kind gesture, often comes at a price. Depending on your budget, this may or may not matter very much. The best advice here is to be clear up front that you are not prepared to pay for directions; they will likely help you anyway. Of course, we weren't this savvy on arrival in the medina, but never mind, we arrived at our riad eventually...

Riad Itry


Riad Itry is located about a half hour's walk from Djemaa el Fna, the city's central square. A good distance away to allow trekkers to explore the narrow souks and areas a little less touristic and a little more local.

Riads are typical Moroccan houses designed around a central courtyard or garden. Their design in this way serves a purpose to maintain privacy in the household, whilst keeping it shady and cool. The design works well for use as a hostel, gathering like-minded travellers in a central chill-out space that each room has direct visual and vocal access to.

A fountain is the feature of the ground floor, and acts to provide a natural air-conditioning for the space. There are no windows except those facing off into the atrium which allow natural light to enter the rooms, reasserting the importance of privacy in design.

There is definitely a sense of community - I could even say family - here. The friendly and helpful hosts made each return at the end of the day feel like coming back to a home. There is even the added homely touch of having to wait around to use the shower at busy times!

The icing on the cake, the roof terrace is open all day and night, and is perfect for the stargazing or the sun-watching among us.

Image courtesy of Lindsay Oldham

Saturday, 8 March 2014

john henry brookes building opening

Here are a few snaps of our new library and union building: it is an architectural beauty which finally opened last week like a glorious gift of gargantuan proportions. And it's had everyone talking, there's a real buzz about the place. 

The building is generous, beautiful materials have not been designed out on account of budgeting and it really makes such a difference in the overall impression of the space. It's all about the detail, after all.

Friday, 7 March 2014


pick me up from 
deadpan boredom  
and throw me at the wall 

move into a place that resonates 
with my veins and with my soul 

what is life? 
I feel alive when I choose to break the chain 

predict nothing; 
with an open mind 
your choices create your sane

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

"animals get diseases, but only man falls radically into sickness"

This quote comes from a book, which I have not read, but heard several references to before: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

It stuck with me because of its evident truth; that humans are the only living creature who have to deal with mental illness. With the great power of our minds, comes the responsibility that many of us don't even realise we have, to keep them healthy.

And whilst I can't even begin to go into the complexities of the mind, I believe it is important for everyone to have an outward expression of thoughts and feelings, through sharing. Whether its written, spoken, painted or performed, to have a creative outlet in which to express yourself is freedom, and is the beginning to the freedom of the mind.

To let go of the negative and openly accept the positive, is something of a struggle, for certain. But it is a struggle that can only take us to a healthier, happier place.