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Marrakech Gardens


Follow me to...Marrakech!

After our fist attempt at navigating the Medina in Marrakech, I was left a bit overpowered. Yet, stubborn as I am, I was determined to get out there and see all of the marvellous and intriguing monuments that make up this city. 

My travels through Asia have taught me that if you are in need of some peace and quiet, head to ticketed monuments, they tend to be more relaxed once you are inside and you get the chance to look around without worrying about acting too obviously as a tourist.

So, once in Marrakech, we started at Bahia Palace.
The first thing to know about the Palace is that it is nothing like the western-style palaces; there is no impressive front and no towering elevations, as a matter of fact, the entrance is a simple gate with a walkway surrounded by orange trees.
Instead, the palace is a labyrinth of rooms built around little courtyards; the "Coeur de la maison" or "heart of the house", perfectly small microcosms of quiet and greenery. In a way the Palace reflects the centuries-old  lifestyle of Morocco. Houses are inward looking, they offer little escapes from the otherwise busy and commercial Medinas.
"Coeur de la Maison"...first courtyard we got to visit in the Palace, a little oasis of orange trees and birds singing.
One of the state rooms in the Palace, impressive fireplace, only to be topped by the intricate ceiling.
Afternoon sun through the Palace's windows...
We waited and waited for people to move on, so we could take this one... while waiting we had all the time in the world to examine the intricate floor, walls and ceiling mosaics...silver linings! 
Gorgeous, colourful Moroccan mosaics around the water fountain in another of the Palace's courtyards.

The Palace left us in a very calm mood, so out in the busy street of the Medina, into a taxi for the new town and onto the very different neighbourhood of Jardin Majorelle.

The new town of Marrakech could almost be a neighbourhood in any Mediterranean city, it did remind me a bit of Athens to be honest. So, we grabbed an ice-cream each and headed for the entrance...we certainly didn't expect the very long queue outside the gardens in Rue Yves Saint Laurent, which seemed to be particularly populated with some very fashion-conscious tourists. For a second I did think that maybe this is a different "Jardin" to the ones we are used to and that we should have dressed up... but then I realised that it was probably a nod to Yves Saint Laurent, hence they all looked ready to attend London Fashion Week, in contrast to the rest of us, trying to look respectable in the afternoon heat!

When I shared this picture on Facebook someone asked if this is a painting... fair question, we did spend a lot of time just staring at the colours, bold and relaxing at the same time - and no, this is not a painting. 

This garden is a sanctuary of all strange and unusual plants that you wouldn't normally expect to see together in one place: cacti of all sizes, colours and shapes, alongside bamboo lined paths and vibrant lilacs, bright yellows, all showing off in the afternoon sun!
This is a creation of Jaqcues Majorelle, a french painter, who moved to Marrakech in the early 1900's and made this plot of land his life's work. Then Yves Saint Laurent bought the Jardin in the 1960's and raised its' popularity, he even lived here in the villa that is now converted to a Berber museum.
I've always thought that you have to be a particular type of person to like cacti... there's something very independent and lonely about them. 
Left: the last afternoon sun-rays playing through the cacti. Right: One of Yves St Laurent's New Year's cards.

Yves Saint Laurent used to create his own collage cards to send to his friends every New Year, the cards were always themed around love. I'm going to leave you with this lovely thought... off for shisha and cocktails in the sunset, over Jamaa El' Fna.

Ouarzazate Kasbah - The Gateway To The Sahara

This is one of my favourite photos of the whole trip to Morocco; Standing in the Kasbah dinning room, listening to stories about Caravans and sailing the Sahara!
 
Ouarzazate is the last big city you meet before going into the Sahara. That's why caravans have come here for centuries to get supplies, which they would then use to trade with, during their encounters in the desert. 
The Pasha of Ouarzazate, controlled a strategic point on the edge of the Sahara, with links to the Atlas mountains and Marrakech. The Kasbah, his palace, still stands, with its' red mud walls and simple interiors. Only a few of the rooms are decorated though, we were told that even when the Kasbah was in full use only rugs and low furniture would have been used.
 
The dinning room walls are covered in blue and white tiles, the Pasha's lounge is adorned with a wooden green painted ceiling and the Pasha's first wife's chambers are also decorated with colourful wooden ceilings. The rest of the rooms are left white. Some low passages take you to the Pasha's lounge..."why so low" I asked..."prepares you to bow to the Pasha" I was told!  
 
Up until a few years ago caravans from South Morocco would be able to travel the Sahara freely, to Algeria, Mali and Mauritania. Sadly, this is no longer possible as Morocco is trying to protect its' borders. Still, this is the stuff movies are made of: nomads of the moving sand, Bedouins and Touaregs - the blue people of the Sahara - extended families living together in oasis, proud of their hospitality and keen to trade. 
 
The Kasbah stands in the centre of Ouarzazate, a great example of traditional south Moroccan architecture.
A courtyard, in the heart of the Kasbah, loved the colours; pink-reddish walls, changing as the sunlight moved and clear blue skies.

Film studios in the desert? Well yes! Tom Cruiz, Samuel L Jackson, Jake Gyllenhall and so on, have all been here apparently. Our guide just couldn't stop himself from namedropping the whole time we were walking through the Kasbah. He claimed to have worked in many famous movies as an extra, too!
"You know...Alexander the Great was here?" he said to me.
"I wasn't aware that Alexander came all the way to Morocco" said I.
"Yes! Colin Farrell", he quickly said, smirking away. Cheeky. 

Just across from the Kasbah's entrance we spotted the top of a church with a cross, right next to the minaret tower of a mosque. Intrigued? They were props for movie sets! Made out of pre-fabricated material, standing there to confuse visitors since the 80's.

This window looks out of the Kasbah's dinning room.
I stood there looking at the rooftops, thinking that it all looks so familiar; it can't be off course, I've never been here before. And yet!
Well, these very rooftops were used in filming the Prince of Persia movie! Hence the familiar feeling!

What a lovely way to finish off our daytrip from Marrakech. As we were leaving the Kasbah, the heavy gates were closing behind us. Time for our four-hour drive back to Marrakech.  
 

Beyond Marrakech - High Atlas, Berbers, Nomads and Gladiators


Ait Ben Haddou: A medieval fort on the edge of the Sahara desert: a movie set, a tourist destination or ...sandcastles in Babylon?

We arrived in Marrakech late in the evening, so we couldn't really see much; we could feel the warm breeze though and sat at our balcony under the clear sky full of stars eager to explore this exciting place!
The next morning I run outside to our balcony and whoa...glorious sunshine, palm trees and roses, the hotel pool hiding amongst the palm trees and beyond this colourful summery-looking landscape, the High Atlas - covered in snow, glistening blueish-white in the sunshine. What a contrast! I immediately decided that we must visit the Atlas Mountains!
If you decide to take this day-trip from Marrakech to Ouarzazate, be warned that you'll spend most of your time in the car. It costs around £45 each and includes lunch and entry with a guide at the Ouarzazate Kasbah. It takes four hours to go and four to come back, but it's worth it! Let me tell you why.
Berber Villages

One of the first Berber villages we encountered during our drive onto the Atlas Mountains

Twenty minutes or so after leaving Marrakech, we already reached the first Berber villages. 
The road is uphill, but Marrakech is already at almost 500m altitude above sea level, so the slope isn't that steep initially. The Berbers are the original inhabitants of this area and their language is completely different to Arabic. It's closer to ancient Egyptian and I even recognised some Greek letters in there, too. Hmmm, now I'm intrigued!
The view from our first stop at 1800m on the Atlas Mountains

First stop to stretch our legs was at 1,800m altitude for a mint tea, at a road-side café.
The air up there was so clean and a little bit chilly, but the sunshine cheered everybody up. We had a lovely view of the reddish valley and the villages we had just driven through.
Berber villages are a bit hard to spot as they consist of cubic houses made of local reddish mud, blending perfectly into the sides of the Atlas. All houses are built very close together, so that a traveller's eye will initially think it's one big house (Kasbah). They rarely have a second floor and the only building pointing to the sky is the white-painted mosque minaret.
Tichka Pass

As the climb continues, the road runs alongside Oued Tichka (River Tichka), a river that carries water from the snowed sides of the Atlas all the way to Marrakech. This time of the year, you'd expect it to be full, as the snow starts to melt, but at times it turned to a stream, leaving the riverbed dry and rough-looking. 
Villages were dotted along the side of the river all the way up to Tichka Pass, only, they were on the opposite side of the road, making me think that they still remain untouched by tourism and outside influences.

Tichka Pass is the highest pass on the Atlas Mountains, at 2,200m altitude.

The road becomes windier closer to the top, but it's wide and safe, so nothing to worry about.
The landscape is barren and lonely up there. We stopped right on top of this endless curly road, just on the side, to take in the view. WOW!
It takes a minute for your eyes and brain to co-ordinate and accept that you are now at 2,000 altitude. It looks like one of those Lego structures, perfectly constructed road dotted with white lines, in this harsh and almost other-planet-looking landscape.
After the Pass, the road becomes even more windy, although the villages are now small towns and being Saturday we were caught up in a few market-traffic situations. It was lovely to see life unfolding, you could buy anything in these markets from hens and sheep for keeping, to fruit and veg. We stopped at a local co-operative to taste Argan Oil, it's a local produce mixed in almost everything. I got some almond butter with argan oil, try it on multi-seed toast with honey - delicious! Then, there are also quite a few highway patrols and stop-and-search situations. Don't worry, all tourist vehicles have special permission and you'll get through quickly.
Ait Ben Haddou Ksar 


This is where Gladiator meets Saharan nomads and mud Kasbahs transport you to a biblical-like setting. Ait Ben Haddou is a Unesco heritage site. The Ksar, a fortified city, is built entirely out of mud and natural material like hay and horse hair. It is often used for  shooting Hollywood movies too, the latest being Game of Thrones and a few oldies such as Indiana Jones, Gladiator, the Jewel of the Nile; but forget all that, touch the walls, peek inside the houses and stand on top of the Ksar to look around the Valley, this is what you are here for.
Looking at Ait Ben Haddou from a distance

As we arrived at Ait Ben Haddou, we were told that we'd meet some nomads and have the chance to talk to them. Perfect.
What that really meant was talking to this Touareg merchant, who started off with offering us mint tea and narrating some amazingly interesting stories about life in the Sahara; then we had to spend most of the hour trying to politely explain that we didn't drive for 4 hours to come buy jewellery or a rug for 450 euros! As a result we had 20 minutes left for lunch and another 20 to visit Ait Ben Haddou Ksar. Tourist pitfalls - frustrating to say the least!
His stories however, assuming they were true, were fascinating. He spoke of Touareg people, or the blue people of the Sahara, because of their usual blue head attire, still living in oasis in the Sahara. They are renowned for their hospitality and travel in caravans for most of the year to exchange goods with other nomads, then once a year they come to Ouarzazate to sell their goods. He even mentioned that Michael Palin spend three weeks with his family touring the Sahara a few years ago!

A word of advise: no matter how determined you are to avoid the tourist traps, unfortunately the driver will stop at various spots where you'll be politely "enticed" to buy something. When we have our own car, we make it clear to the driver at the beginning that there's a nice tip for him at the end if he doesn't stop at all those nic-nac places. It's a bit harder when you are in a group though. Thankfully, all 5 of us, who were in the tour together, agreed to take our time in the Ksar beyond the allocated 20 minutes and that signalled to our driver that he cannot take the mickey with these pointless "random" stops any more.

Left: the windy streets in the Ksar. Right: our colourful lunch
Behind me: the top of the Ksar and on the right: Berber Omelette with saffron cooked in a tagine!

Finally, some lunch. We were shown to the beautiful terrace of L'Oasis D'Or, overlooking the Ksar. We were offered a colourful mixed platter of freshly chopped vegetables, that included beetroot salad and potato salad, followed by a Berber Omelette with saffron cooked in a tagine and finally chicken brochettes. What a lovely spot of lunch!
But I just couldn't wait to have a peek inside the Ksar, so off we went!
Crossing over the river that separates the new settlements from the Ksar feels like a passage to a different era, like in Ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia.
It's very muddy with bright green palm trees popping up everywhere. The Ksar is a sleepy town, with narrow streets and tall houses, remember to look up, some corner houses feature tall towers for protection. Birds nest in their little crevices. The paths spiral up, past shops and houses and there are even two or three hotels in the Ksar, where you can actually stay at.
Half-way up we found the ruins to an old Synagogue! Wait what? Well, it turns out that Jewish people arrived in Morocco centuries ago as merchants and have worked side-by-side with Berbers in this area, so it's only normal that you find Synagogues all across Morocco, if you look a bit closer!


At the top of the Ksar you have to stop and take it all in.

I mean, here we are: standing in a medieval Ksar in Morroco, looking down at the Ounila Valley, over these real-life sandcastles, on the doorstep of the Sahara.
Feeling excited and thankful and all loved up, grateful having my husband here with me to share this moment ... and absolutely convinced that travelling is one of the best ways to give meaning to life, as long as you keep your eyes, mind and heart open!

Opening Night - Italian Job, Notting Hill


 
"Boutique Beer" is a new term for your up-to-date London vocabulary. 
The Italian Job in Notting Hill is home to the Italian Ducato microbrewery beers, but that's not all! 
There is a larger selection of craft beers on offer downstairs in the traditional pub setting, all originating from Italy. 
 
The interesting fact about this place is that it's the result of very successful crowd-funding. This is not new off course, but the success of it, does point to the fact that there is interest out there to encourage smaller production units.
 

If you are not a "beer person", just like me, then head upstairs to the little lux den, home to decadent cocktails, reminiscent of the classic Italian 50s flavours...Campari, Martini and all the rest of it! 
I think that this room would make a lovely spot for a small gathering!
 

Traditional Moroccan Hammam




















Who would have thought that hammams give me the giggles?
Having a hammam in Morocco is one of those things that you have just to experience; and although I had mine in a perfectly nice spa, it still made me feel like a little child being washed by nanny!
The lovely lady at the Spa, took me to a private hammam room, with dry, warm walls and floors. It's not as hot as a sauna and not as humid as a steam room either. She let the tap run for the whole time in a marble cistern, which was both a distraction and a relaxing background sound, in the otherwise sombre room. She told me to stay there for 5 minutes to get used to the heat and relax.
Ok. So there I am, looking around, thinking about the architecture of the room, wondering what to expect...oh and I'm supposed to be relaxing. And then I started giggling. It was just a bit awkward, sitting there, almost naked, trying to relax and look natural!
Right. I though  that a cross-legged position would be the most appropriate, given that the stone bench was too warm to lie down on; so, when the lady walked back into the room, I had finally found peace with the fact that I sitting in a room, by myself, down to my undies.
I was chuffed with myself for managing to look dignified, given the circumstances, had my eyes closed and a little smirk in my face until... she took a little silver bowl, dipped it in the stern of water and emptied it all over...me! Wait, what? And again, this time on my hair. Awkward!
Then she thought she'd cover me in oil, little did she know that as soon as she got close to my neck, I started giggling. I nodded to say I'm ticklish (what's the word for ticklish in French?) and she laughed. Every time she'd get close to my neck I'd cover it with my hands and turn my head to the side and giggle. 

Then came the scrubbing! Word of advice, if you have been even slightly exposed to the sun and feel some irritation don't have a hammam. The heat and the scrubbing will only make your skin hurt. On the other hand, if you are at the beginning of your holiday, do give it a try because you have all of the dead skin removed and you'll tan deeper and it will last longer.
Next thing that made me giggle was sitting there been bathed by this lady.  She had to wash all of the black salt and dead skin off, so I had a "Downton Abbey" moment when she even shampooed my hair and washed it for me. Not to mention that she even scrubbed my ears! I know the whole process is meant to be relaxing but it just felt so childish! I don't think I would have cut it as a lady of leisure in Downton! 
I felt such a fierce rush of blood in my head! The heat and the scrubbing increase blood flow, so you might feel like you want to lie down for a bit afterwards. Finally, another round of oil, another round of giggling and at last, time alone to have tea by the spa pool. Finally, some relaxation!
 
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