Thursday, August 25, 2016

MARRAKECH, MOROCCO: BAHIA PALACE AND BEN YOUSSEF MADRASA

1.  THE BAHIA PALACE                                                                                                                      In the mid-19th century, the grand vizier of Morocco (essentially the prime minister) began construction of a home for himself in Marrakech. When he died, his son replaced him and took over the home, expanding it greatly and bringing in the best artisans in Morocco to make it the most beautiful building in the world. He named it Bahia Palace, "Bahia" meaning "brilliance" or "beautiful." Altogether, it took about 50 years to build, being completed in 1900. A sprawling, irregular structure, it covers almost 20 acres and includes multiple courtyards and extensive gardens. In my trip journal, I wrote that the Bahia Palace was the prettiest building we had seen so far on our trip. 
These days the Bahia Palace is a museum, but it's also used for formal government events, such as visits by foreign dignitaries and special guests. The Moroccan Ministry of Cultural Affairs is also housed in the Palace, and while we were in town, it was being used as one of the exhibition sites for the Marrakech Biennale.

The first courtyards we entered were stunning, the enclosed greenery providing a transition from the outside to the inside:



 

Monday, August 22, 2016

MARRAKECH, MOROCCO: LAZAMA SYNAGOGUE

Bob is a terrific trip planner and really hit the jackpot with his guide selections for Morocco. He researched the best guides on the internet, relying especially on Trip Advisor recommendations. The best of all our guides was Abdul, our guide in Marrakech.

We were so impressed with not just Abdul's knowledge about his city, but also his thoughtful approach to planning our time. He assessed our interests as we went along, and he adjusted his plans for us accordingly. A very intelligent man, he also has a good grasp of historical and international issues, and his English is excellent.

The first place Abdul took us was to the Jewish quarter, which was quite close to our riad. Jews were once 10% of the population of Marrakech, but the total Jewish population is now only about 200. Abdul said that there is no discrimination in Morocco based on religion, but I wondered why, if that were the case, there weren't more Jews in Marrakech. Abdul said that had to do with past issues and with the gathering of Jews in Israel.

Anyway, we visited the old Lazama Synagogue, which is now a museum. It is unmarked on the outside and located down a narrow side street, and it would have been a challenge to find on our own.
The first Jews arrived in Marrakech as early as the days of King Solomon, and the population grew slowly by steadily through the centuries. In the 15th century, the sultan moved the Jews into what is known as the "mellah," or walled Jewish quarter of the city. There were as many as 35,000 Jews in Marrakech, and there were many synagogues and great rabbis in the mellah, as well as a complete array of shops, craftsmen, and schools.

Friday, August 19, 2016

THE MARRAKESH EXPRESS

Our next and final main stop on our Grand Moroccan Tour was the fabulous city of Marrakech (the French spelling that we saw more often in the country than the alternate spelling "Marrakesh").  With a population of just under one million, Marrakech is the 4th-largest city in Morocco and perhaps its most important. Its main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa, is the busiest in all of Africa.

During our long drive from Skoura to Marrakech through the Atlas Mountains, we had a lot of time to chat with our driver Aziz. Bob and I do our best to absorb the culture of the places we visit, but we also feel a responsibility to spread the best of American culture. Our driver Aziz shared all his favorite American pop music with us--Rihanna, Celine Dion, and Adele, and we asked him if he had ever heard of Crosby, Stills and Nash or the song "Marrakesh Express."  When he said NO, well, we knew we had a mission. After all, Marrakech was our next destination! He pulled up the song on YouTube on his phone (yes, even in Morocco in the middle of nowhere you can do that), and he was quite taken by it. 
Yes! Success!

If I could go back to any place in the world we have been, Marrakech (and Fes) would definitely be on the list. Marrakech is the Rio version of Sao Paulo-like Fes. It is full of energy, crowded with people, and bursting with color. It's a party city, and we loved it.

I'm going to start my series of Marrakech posts with a photo overview of the city itself. I'll insert some commentary here and there, but the photos can mostly speak for themselves.

Let's begin by opening a few doors of Marrakech:


Friday, August 12, 2016

MOROCCO: DRIVING THROUGH THE HIGH ATLAS MOUNTAINS AND RIAD BADI IN MARRAKECH

The High Atlas mountain range is the Rockies of Morocco, but where the Rockies run North-South, the High Atlas creep out from the Atlantic Ocean on the west Moroccan coast and stretch eastward towards the Algerian border, a harsh, spiky demarcation between the Sahara and the Mediterranean. The only way to Marrakech from where we had been in Skoura and Ouarzazate was across, through, and up and down these bad babies.

The road led up up up and the trees disappeared, but the land was anything but barren:


Salmon sandstone, grey granite, and green fields fought for space on the landscape canvas:

Mountain after mountain flecked with snow kept appearing when we rounded the bends of roads about as wide as bicycle paths:
What a formidable barrier! No wonder the north and south sides of the country have such different cultures.

Monday, August 8, 2016

MOROCCO: AIT BEN HADDOU

Ait Ben Haddou is:
     - a really big fortified city made of mud bricks
     - built on the southern slopes of the High Atlas Mountains
     - a caravan stop between Sahara and Marrakech
     - a collection of six kasbahs and 50 palaces
     - a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1987
A ksar is a fortified village
     - home to several families who still live there although everyone else has
       moved to modern accommodations in a nearby town
     - a film site for twenty movies (mostly as a replacement for Jerusalem),
       including:
          * The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
          * Marco Polo Mini-series (1982)
          * The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
          * The Mummy (1999)
          * Gladiator (2000)
          * Prince of Persia (2010)
     - located 32 miles from the city of Ouarzazate in the middle of Morocco


Local legend has it that Ait Ben Haddou was founded in 757 AD by Ben Haddou, who is supposed to be entombed somewhere behind the city, but none of the structures date prior to the 17th century.

And who was Ben Haddou? I have no idea. I couldn't find any info on the mystery man.

The old city is accessed by a long bridge that crosses a wide wadi that is usually dry . . .

. . . but which had a bit of flowing water the day we were there:

Saturday, August 6, 2016

OUARZAZATE, MOROCCO: A MOVIE SET, A LITTLE SHOPPING, AND THE TAOURIRT KASBAH

Ouarzazate--just the name conjures up exotic visions--is a city of about 60,000 inhabitants in south-central Morocco on the north edge of the desert. The word "Ouarzazate" comes from a Berber word meaning "without noise" or "without confusion." That's not exactly how it appeared to us.

For example, I was a bit confused when we drove into town and saw this interesting art in the roundabouts and intersections:


Huh? It looks a little like Hollywood!

And yes, indeed, that's just what it is--the Moroccan Hollywood. One of the largest film studios (acreage-wise) in the world is here: Atlas Studios. Our guide had intended to take us on a tour, but the studios were closed for filming. (Oh, darn.)
Darn. 

Some of the famous movies shot here include Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Patton (1970), the Michael Doughlas/Katahleen Turner movie The Jewel of the Nile (1984), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Jesus of Nazareth (1997), Gladiator (1999), Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ (2004), and Kingdom of Heaven (2004), to name a few.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

SKOURA, MOROCCO: L'MA LODGE

I don't normally devote an entire post to a hotel-stay, but if there is ever a place where I wish I could spend another day or two (or ten), it is L'Ma Lodge in Skoura, a unique, well-designed riad that combines the best of Morocco with the best of France.

I must admit, when we arrived in Skoura and made our way to the riad via a narrow dirt road in what didn't look like the best of neighborhoods, then pulled up in front of a mud wall that didn't look very promising, I was feeling a bit disgruntled. I'd just spent two nights in a tent in the Sahara, for heaven's sake!

But like all our riad experiences, when the front door opened it was like leaving Dorothy's tornado-tossed little gray house and stepping into Oz, a metaphor I've used before but which was never more true than at L'Ma. L'Ma means "water" in Arabic and pays homage to the critical role water plays in this desert region. The owners are a French couple who had been living in nearby Ourzazate and had purchased the property and then built it from the ground up.

Rather than a single building with a central courtyard, the typical riad architecture, L'Ma is two stand-alone buildings surrounded by gardens and enclosed by an adobe wall, creating an environment meant for strolling, exploring, and relaxing. 

The lodge, where we checked in and where we ate dinner and breakfast, was a cross between a luxury ski lodge and a Moroccan palace:

It included several areas for lying lazily about, sipping juice and popping olives into one's mouth. Unfortunately, we arrived just before 7:00 p.m. and had plans for an early departure the next morning.

We made our way to the guest house, which includes four regular rooms and three suites.  I love the wooden railing on the stairs: