Souks & the lessons

November 18, 2010 in SWEDEN | Comments (0)

For a little summary of lessons learned see http://binah.nu/orbit/?page_id=1986


Eyes in the Kasbah

in MOROCCO | Comments (9)

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Last day in Marrakech, and don’t want to go. Feel I should float here forever, on the rooftop of our riad, in the hot sun of this November day. A rooster crows from the Kasbah, among the washing on a rooftop. Today cars inched into the souk below, carrying boxes of vegetables. Usually it is just donkey carts or hand drawn carts making deliveries. But this is Saturday!

The mosque was our view over breakfast in the sun, the date palms, and a crumbling tower full of pigeons in pigeonholes….old crumbly holes no doubt worn by pigeons wiggling. Below the Saadian tombs are deserted – too early for the tour groups (image from La Sultana rooftop taken previously).

I don’t want to go. I just want to be in Marrakech.

Probably the most magical thing about Marrakech is the women in their caftans, shawls and veils.

Only one in a hundred women is wearing Western dress in the Kasbah, many with niquabs, and in the souks most are wearing long caftans and head shawls. People-watching at the Square from Café Glacier is something to remember forever.

Flowing past in their caftans, gliding silkily, mysteriously. All colours, all patterns, matching head scarf, sometimes a niqab, seldom a real burqa…

Far from threatening. Far from tragic, to an onlooker the veils just hold the power of exotism and unknown things. We are strangely sisters…as she finds weight in choosing vegetables and her dreams in the most lustrous fabric spilling out onto the pavement.

Where do men fit in her real intimate world?  The younger men have all gone to Western clothes and noisy bikes. Just the older men are left in the world of the women, at least it seems to me as onlooker, the world of caftans and hoods, shawls and niqabs. And slow pace…

I imagine it is going to change fast, as in groups of teenagers up in the Square there are usually one or two girls showing their hair.

Many young women in the evening are out with a man, eyes duskily ringed with kohl, but beautifully covered up in exquisite caftan and head veil.

Later Saturday.

We went “window”-shopping just outside La Sultana. Busy day in the Kasbah, goods everywhere. Fresh meat, Berber teapots, luminous pink washing powder in buckets – children’s clothes and gauzy cloths. And piles of herrings, bananas and oranges. We bought a hunk of amber and crumble of lavender (5 euro note), aromatic spices (ridiculously low prices –20 dirham note –  for almost half a kilo of spice). Each bag of fragrant spice in picture below cost 5 dirham (0.5 euro, 5o cents).

Bought two Berber teapots (one new and reported to be silver 🙂 and one old (referred to as antique) for my last 500 krona note (worth close to 600 MAD).

The Kasbah no longer felt threatening. We had grown used to the crush, the bikes, the donkey carts. It felt more gentle and somehow familiar, yet intriguing still.

I walked slowly, trying to see the world of the women, the things they buy, the clothes they wear, and their eyes.  To see peace, concentration or whatever.

Just once I was terrified. She has haunted me ever since. She was so worried, that slender dark-eyed young woman, with frowns roaming around that small part of her face that showed above her niqab. As if there was nowhere safe to go for her on this earth.

Who or what was terrifying her? If I devoted the rest of my life to it, and roamed the Kasbah day after day, would I ever find her? And would I ever be able to help?

MAJORELLE GARDENS

Later we took a horse-drawn carriage ride. Whether to go back to the Square, or see something new?

“Have you seen the Gardens?” asked the helpful front desk manager at La Sultana. He found us a horse drawn carriage ride at only 150 dirham for a little excursion to the Gardens, and back either to the square or the hotel. He explained to the driver that we would decide en route whether we wanted dropoff at the Square or return to the hotel.

The Majorelle Gardens lie out of the Medina near its northern end. That is a long way. So the horses went at top speed, as if in a chariot race, down rue de la Kasbah, out though the Kasbah gate, along a major road Avenue Mohamed V past the Katoubia mosque (the very road we had tried to cross on Thursday, when timorous as a rabbit I quivered on the pavement waiting for a non-existent stop in the traffic).

The driver had no mirror. So when turning he would give an effective jerk of the head and take in the traffic situation in an instant. Our carriage raced alongside donkey carts, cars, motorbikes and gigantic buses that were completely stuffed with passengers.

Yet after the terrors of crossing roads on the way to the Square and back, it was much more relaxing to be in the perhaps illusory safety of our carriage. You get used to Marrakech.

Our driver gave us 20 minutes to see the gardens. A short wait in a queue to pay and get in, and then entry into a lush garden, rather full of happy snappers, but quite beautiful with paths wandering through areas devoted to giant cactus, banana palms and bamboo. Used to belong to Yves Saint Laurent and he has a memorial there. The Islamic museum was closed for renovation, otherwise only 20 minutes would have been just too frustrating.

Just outside the Gardens the area was under a lot of development, and a shiny chrome and plastic, but stylish minimalistic coffee bar had apparently just been opened.

We took a different route back to the hotel …through the New Town, which was still largely rose-tinted, but straighter, cleaner and quieter and rather less interesting, at least on the route we took. The driver remarked: “rich people” – as he pointed at a newly painted block of flats. In this area there is an increasing number of hotels, some very luxurious (like Sofitel and Le Meridien). We passed the grand entrances of La Mamounia, just inside the Medina.

Back in the Medina traffic, we trotted past a three wheeled motorcyle with a platform on which lay a sheep. I saw so many of these sheep on the back of donkey carts or mopeds, their horns tied against something, most standing and fighting to get free.

Our driver to the airport explained why there were so many sheep being transported at present. They were sheep for the sacrifice – a special Islamic day was coming up – something to do with Abraham, he explained, reminding of our common Judaic heritage.

However, as a non eater of meat, I have a tendency to take the animal’s side in situations like this. A little more towards Confucious I believe. I felt a helpless empathy for those frantic or resigned sheep.

I was reminded of all the people on this earth entrapped by circumstance, or believing they are. Fighting furiously or sinking down, giving up. And the black eyed woman in the Kasbah still haunts me.

This is not meant to be my last note about Marrakech. It is just one of the shadows. Along with the begging of children and irritating hustlers.

Mostly I see Marrakech in the brilliant light of the sun, the rose-tinted city glowing. Exotic, vibrant, pulsating Marrakech, with all its romance and intrigue. Its glorious upredictability and its 1001 caves of hand-made goods in the souk labyrinths.

My only regret is I took so little home with us, thanks to the folly of thinking plastic money and the wall would do.

I have summed up our Marrakech experiences much more succinctly under Articles.

Exotism in Marrakech, and under Luscious Luxury (Amanjena, La Sultana, Dar JL).


Hammams & couscous

November 13, 2010 in MOROCCO | Comments (1)

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Entering the refuge from the bustling street

La Sultana hammam & spa

An Arabic style “meditational corridor” takes you past the lush courtyard with heated pool to the spa. Here there is another pool with Jacuzzi style bubbles.

Massage was fabulous. First the hammam …lie down, have warm water thrown over you…then the scrub. Vigorous. Till you almost feel you will be peeled like a raw potato.

But no, you begin to glow. Lying in the humid warmth – no fierce heat like a sauna, just a blessing of gentle moist heat.

Then a massage wow…and wow. It felt like a redefinition of my shape, as if she would make me, into more woman than a woman. Super woman. I was stretched, I was taller…I was certainly more supple, like butter, so soft; I could hardly climb the stairs afterwards.

Couscous: 30 vs 230 dirham

We tried to book dinner at the La Sultana restaurant 7pm – the first table we could get at this tiny exclusive restaurant was at 9.30. Again the romantic setting by the pool and palms, but the live music was not as magical as the night before, when I felt I was being entertained by the master. Whether it was a new man, or a more tired man, or whether his son who was accompanying him was adding a bit of untidiness….

Still very pleasant sound. I had couscous with vegetables, also very nice

230 dirham’s for the cous cous – only 200 more than the cous cous at lunchtime. 🙂

Our couscous in the Medina for only 30 dirham’s was perhaps the best thing I tasted in Marrakech. But to give the true picture, I should mention the table cloth was a piece of paper with the last guest’s bill scribbled on it – he did change the paper and our bill got scribbled on that — but torn off and handed to us for convenience. The other possible negatives if one must mention them – apart from paper plate, paper cloth and close proximity of other guests at the long trestle, was the authentic banging of hammers at two shops that were making Moroccan lanterns. Further a 3 legged cat limping by, and then a four legged cat digging in the sand under the palms to perform his toilette…

Finally though I ordered vegetable couscous, a “carrot” underneath felt strange to my metal spoon, and I dug out a drumstick and a wing from under my mound of vegetables. Vegetable obviously does not mean vegetarian. I popped my chicken bits onto Pelle’s plate – and when I pointed the chicken out to the waiter he indicated a kind disinterest in changing my dish, pointing to the remaining vegetables with the words “vegetable”. I think they do cook the vegetables and chicken separately, and compose each meal with chicken, vegetables and couscous just before serving, that way being fair and giving equal though small quantities of chicken.

Trying to identify the locality on my map, it was I think Qzadria.

Our not very adventurous morning took us out towards two palaces between Kasbah and Medina. Passing little shops for spices, mats and lanterns.

We were advised to rather see the extraordinary Bahia Palace, but chose the closer El Badii Palace. Because the day was so hot for Northern blood, that I felt I was close to fainting. Dizzy with heat…

El Badii was an ancient palace – more of a ruin than anything – with gigantic outer walls, and some orange gardens in an unpaved basin. Five storks up there on the ancient walls watching a few tourists crawl around in the heat. Imagine so hot. In November….one month before midwinter. Cannot imagine how hot it must be in the summer.

Hot but content to just soak in the space and shimmer of heat, ancient walls and the storks watching us.


La Sultana courtyards & hideaways

November 12, 2010 in MOROCCO | Comments (1)

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Friday. Sitting right now on our wonderful rooftop garden at La Sultana. It’s so much quieter today, a public holiday. The sky is blue and the air feels light. Sun drenches the roof garden. Doves are nesting in holes in the old stone turrets adjoining us. Cooing. A stork sits on a chimney top – ah two of them. It is full of life up here in our castle world.

We see a group of tourists down by the Saadian tombs of ancient kings…it is tempting never to go out again, just stay here. After all we can see three tourist attractions from our rooftop – one in constant dynamism…

Our little souk down in the Kasbah below Sultana has been cleaned after the late night chaos yesterday. Fewer wares are out.

Looking down from our “castle”

La Sultana hotel inspection

Tropical exotic view from the bar on the rooftop – and from the restaurant and the chill area.

La Sultana has 28 rooms in five riads or town houses each with one or two traditional courtyards open to the sky in good weather (in bad weather plastic screens are folded out). All the rooms open into these inner courtyards.  There are very few windows outwards, in the tradition of Moroccan town houses, a way of keeping cool and preserving peace and quiet. Some of the courtyards have gardens and water features, including the heated swimming pool. And all are decorated with traditional mosaic tiles or intricate plaster work and woodwork.

Original art and antiques further decorate the rooms and public areas. Little lounges and cosy corners for tete-a-tete abound on every floor.

Probably as many little conversation places in the courtyards as there are rooms.

If you want to loll, there are sunbeds by the heated pool in the restaurant courtyard.  And more sunbeds on the roof by the plunge pool, today full of sunbathers in glorious sunshine, as well as big comfy chairs enfolding people with laptops.  (A  bit dazzling on the screen today, and the wi-fi is down.)

A third pool (a roomy Jacuzzi) is in the spa, between marble pillars.

All rooms feature a fireplace, dressing room or large cupboard, king bed, bath and separate shower, double basins. Suites feature marble floors, and rooms feature tiled floors. Seven of them have balconies.

View through inner hatch to bathroom of Tiger suite with ample bathtub (marble and Tadelak), golden hand basins and fluffy gowns and slippers. Below lounge section.

Apart from our own delightful Tiger suite, we saw three others.

Ocelot suite deluxe  lies in the Sheherazade riad, where it has a private “balcony” at a higher level than the courtyard. This suite is popular with business people because of its separate office.

Dromedaire suite is fancifully decorated with a camel table and other eccentricities including a secretive kind of walk in cupboard and pillars around the bath, which is meant to resemble the traditional bridal carriage on a camel’s back.

The most popular suite and a favourite with men is the Puma suite, which comes in dark colours spiced with red or cerise for vivacity, and has separate sitting room and bedroom. This is a suite deluxe and as such has a balcony, hanging out over the riad’s upstairs courtyard.

The sales manager Julie explains that since every room is so differently decorated people actually like to move, and even book a series of different rooms for their stay.

The spa sports the aforementioned Jacuzzi between marble pillars, as well as relax beds, 3 hammams, hair salon, 2 aesthetic cabins for facials, and 3 treatment rooms for massage.  Sometimes the whole spa is booked for a wedding party and the women for example may take over one of the hammams. Modern exercise equipment is found in a tent on the flat roof.

The bar is upstairs on the rooftop. Dining: breakfast and lunch within view of the Kasbah mosque on the uncovered rooftop, indicating the low chance of rain in Marrakech. If it does come then breakfast happens downstairs in the main restaurant round the heated pool, lush with palm trees. At night this is a very romantic setting, with lanterns and live Moroccan music. Booking a table essential.

One of the slower inhabitants of La Sultana lives in the banana palms of a courtyard 🙂


Souks & the happening

November 11, 2010 in MOROCCO | Comments (0)

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We saw them. Or should I say got saturated by the overwhelming experience of the Square and the souks. The square, the people, the haggling, the demand for money after a snap of the camera. The man in the corner of this pic circled in like the advance guard when I aimed my camera at the snake charmer in the serene afternoon before arrival of the crowds.

Another man appeared somehow to protect us from him and shouted louder. So we tell him that no, we don’t want to go to the leather souk just now – have no money just now – will come back tomorrow. Wander over the serene square. And then in great libertarian folly, take another snap of a very jolly dancing man in red – he is so happily smiling and dancing and his son joins…and then comes the demand for money again. But we have come unprepared. Smallest note 100, in my budget too much for a photo… so try to drift off but are pursued by angry man and pleading child, fixing me with accusing sad eyes and quivering lip. Suddenly our savior appears again and shouts them off.

Now he owns us, he is sure. He wants to show us his Berber treasures. We saw the Berber exhibition we say (which ended also with a very stiff and disappointed man when we said we have no money to buy). The word buy is starting to feel like a button for bile release or HCl upsurge. But our savior wants to show us something or anything. I would like to have a cup of coffee and study my map, I say – point at Arcana café (which had been ringed on my map by the hotel) more as a landmark than a suggestion. I think Café de France was more of a suggestion but couldn’t see it.

No said our new man – you must come to drink tea (pronounced French way) in a tea salon – (that’s authentic his tone said, and he was no doubt right). However we felt the need to escape and waved our way into café Arcana. We were not allowed to sit on the balcony which was reserved for meals – but were waved up into a rather second rate room with plastic chairs – nevertheless fine view of the square. Coffee only 13 dirham (one third of the cost at our hotel).

Via the toilet and now armed with some change we dared into the market, still feeling the opposite of buying mania. Up comes another man. Very nice face…I can’t be nasty, and I answer his questions though Pelle is showing the stiff lip that is necessary to move an inch through this terrain. Turns out the man can speak some Swedish…who knows the history of that….but now he wants to take us on a tour to see various souks he thinks we want to see (or where he has contacts, who knows). We manage to get out of that, though he has made his tour sound more exciting than the previous man and his easier tone is less frightening…

But Pelle’s frozen lip gives a faint smile and we manage to part with our new friend reminding him we cannot buy today – we have no money (in fact we have only altogether 300 MAD, not planning to shop at all really) (in fact longing just to go back to our hotel)

But no we should at least see the souks.

And then they start to weave their spell…

Immediately on entering a narrow passage, there is a new mood, lavish, vibrant, with colour and aroma, among a changing array of goods, from cloths to jewellery, mats to lanterns, people moving slowly, ladies in gowns, scarves and veils…shopping down the narrow walkways, crowded but not too crowded at 3pm.

I buy a “silk & cashmere” scarf like this for 90 dirham.

I have firm instructions from Pelle not to talk to anyone, but I cannot help it…they talk to me.

And then to escape I turn to him, knowing he will freeze them gently out and move on.

But one lady gets me. Or I get her. She is hidden behind a niqab, with dark eyes glinting over it. She offers me a bracelet for 20 MAD. No money. 5 for 100. No money. 6 for 100. I cant help smiling though Pelle is nodding at me to stop this …

I only have 20 dirham I tell her at last. Ok 2 for 20, 4 for 20….she does acrobatics among numbers till it has no sense to me. But I have a new idea. I don’t care how many bracelets. I just want to photograph her – 10 bangles for 20 dirham and I photograph you.

Ok she says: you take 3 photo and get 5 for 20 dirham. Ok, I say. Pelle is so happy this spectacle is over so he gives her the money as I snap – she is immediately gone and I miss 2 of my snaps…

Here is the one I did get.

Then we made it back to the Square.

“Just wait till 5pm – then it comes alive!” we were told. Indeed…and by 8pm it’s hard to leave the Square.  More ad more people are arriving.

It feels you have been there forever listening to drums, watching the dancers, the snake charners and the veiled ladies drifting by in all colours of the rainbow, with matching headscarves and robes, plus tourists that in November are perhaps less intrusive than in high season.

Sunset behind Katoubia mosque is part of the view.

There goes a real old style hippie, newly dusted, straight off the shelf.

Sitting right now on our wonderful rooftop garden at La Sultana. It’s so much quieter today, a public holiday. The sky is blue and the air feels light. Sun drenches the roof garden; the plants are wreathed in light. Doves are nesting in holes in the old stone turrets adjoin us. Cooing. Birds are flying. A stork sits on a chimney top – ah two of them. It is full of life up here in our castle world. We see a group of tourists down by the tombs…it is tempting never to go out again, just stay here.

Our little souk below in the Kasbah below Sultana has been cleaned after the late night chaos yesterday. Fewer wares are out.

La Sultana hotel inspection – next post

La Sultana has 28 rooms in five riads or town houses each with one or two traditional courtyards open to the sky in good weather (in bad weather plastic screens are folded out). All the rooms open into these inner courtyards.


Tea & oranges in Marrakech

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Starting a visit in Marrakech as always with the ritual of peppermint tea.

Lunch at Villa des Orangers

11 November 2010, 6 Rue Sidi Mamoun – Medina

We expected that oranges would be featured somewhere in Villa Des Orangers.  And we found some. But first we walked along a chaotic street in the Medina with its pavement lined with men fixing motorbikes and selling tyres. What a dramatic contrast when you entered the door into the peace of the Riad.

Wow, we said…its so different in here…

“Yes,” said Director Jean-Paul Compagnon. “Didn’t you know  – every door in Marrakech has a surprise behind it.” (Said with charming French accent, and smiles in green eyes.)

The Riad was built by wealthy residents in the 1930s, and has a really authentic feel despite intense renovations by new French owners. Plenty of chiselled white plaster decorating walls and arches. Its main features are two lush inner decorated courtyards and a garden of olives, flowers and, yes, orange trees. Here is a restaurant, a world away from the hustle & bustle but just 10 minutes walk to the famous and ebullient Square.

There is also another indoor restaurant in traditional colonial style, and public lounges with a deep and weighty colonial feel. All with fireplaces.

Our meal was served in style, with explanations from the Maitre’D.

Starting with mint tea, samoosas, olives and nuts, went on to a special kind of white fish in a roll and then a dessert to remember forever. On a shortcake base, there was a chestnut cream and on that another (vanilla) cream.

This is probably the closest place to the famous Square for a delicious meal in peace and wonderful quiet.

Hotel inspection Villa des Orangers

Of course, Villa des Orangers is not just a restaurant but a five star hotel offering 27 rooms and suites, with the top of the range featuring balconies over the garden. Rooms on the top level have little private areas on the roof each with two sunbeds (semi-private – not secluded). There is also a smaller swimming pool on the roof, surrounded by a public area of sunbeds. Up here on the roof you have views over the rooftops of the Medina and Katoubia mosque. Downstairs in the garden is a long lap pool also with comfy sunbeds around it. And lounging corners tucked away here and there inside and in the courtyard gardens.

A third smaller pool is private, within a walled area, shared by just two suites, along with solarium. These suites also have the privilege of a balcony over the garden.

Of course any establishment of class in Marrakech offers steam treatments. In addition to a hammam, Villa des Oranges also features two massage cabins, beauty treatments and fitness equipment.

A serene place to stay exuding Marrakech style, a few strides from the hectic life of of the city. A favourite of English and French, newly discovered by Americans, Germans, Scandinavians.


Dar JL: more gardens than guests

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An oasis in the Palmeraie district of Marrakech.  Out of rush hour this riad-style resort is just 10 minutes drive from the Medina.  We entered another world. An enchanted world, with hundreds of lanterns glowing under palms and olive trees that stretch through a vast 13 acres of grounds.

A blaze of lanterns leads you up stairs to stepping stones over water into the inner sanctum of Dar JL.

A sense of discovery prevails. We came out onto the main pool area which at night was impossibly romantic, with a sculpture apparently dancing in the flickers of a fire.

You won’t see too many people here at Dar JL. All this space has actually only 10 bedrooms spread out in various residences, fancifully decorated in a homely and colourful way.  Lounging areas are spread out too, with plenty of space to get away from the other guests, should you want to. Wall hangings, carved lanterns, rugs, cushions and hand-fashioned furniture evoke an exotic mood, with themes from as far afield as Sweden (deluxe room Mora with a private terrace), Italy (deluxe room Milano), Asia (suite Cashmir) and Africa (suite Mali) (all in residence Dar Limoon).

Three of the bedrooms lie in villa Dar Jennat which can be rented for sole use – a popular venue for parties and weddings with its large living room and extended terrace area – including plenty of outdoor dining space, sitting space and potential dance platform.  Two Superior Rooms (Fez and Toubakal) lie in residence La Tour – a tower that offers a view and colourful chillout areas.

Yet another room quaintly called Hippie Village is a dream-like walk (or perhaps a dance) over and up a stone path, between the shadows and flickers of lanterns. It was a love affair with Morocco’s colour and textures, woven mats and wall hangings. By contrast, this faraway room features a modern kitchenette.

In this more isolated setting there is an attractive ornamental pool with live fish. Stairs take you up from the pool to the equally hip chillout area. This is a great party venue says Salma Bennani Manager of Dar JL. Among the magic of the trees, lanterns and pool, you won’t disturb anyone. On normal evenings it is open to all guests.

Dar JL is owned by a Swedish couple, who opened it to the pubic some 18 months ago, creating a little stir among those who follow luxury. One extraordinary fact about these gigantic gardens and the handful of rooms is that gardeners outnumber guests. An amazing 80% of the food on the table is organic, produced on the property, says Salma with obvious pride.

Our dinner gave witness to the care and style devoted to food. It also gave a taste of the rare individuality and magic-maker quality of Dar JL. Set up in a tent in the garden, surrounded by the flicker of giant candles in rows of lanterns under the spectre shapes of olive trees. We sat on what I imagine are Bedouin-style cushions by a low table. Our waiter, with infectious friendliness, brought three courses that would delight beyond delight. First a sophisticated kind of spring roll, that sparkled on the tongue with flavours, followed by exotically presented salmon – baked or grilled under a half mango succulently sauced, and then a dessert to remember, chocolate cake hot enough to melt the icecream.

At the end the waiter asked if he could bring the cook to meet us, so there was really an intimate family feeling. Our tips to both seemed to surprise them, almost “no no – you don’t have to” –  demonstrating their genuine friendliness.

Other delights and finesses at Dar JL are the little spa, with hammam and two treatment rooms, tennis court, and a jogging track through the olive groves. Despite the faraway feel it has hi-tech at your fingertips with wi-fi throughout the 5.5. ha estate  – and the hotel loans a Moroccan mobile phone to guests to keep contact with staff.

The other nice thing is the warm welcome of Dar JL Manager Salma…and her staff.

This is also presented with images in:

DAR JL – HOME AMONG PALMS


KASBAH RETREAT: LA SULTANA

November 10, 2010 in MOROCCO | Comments (7)

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Picture 1 of 10

Easy chairs in roof garden

La Sultana roof garden, 2 pm, Wednesday. The perfect hideaway close to it all.

From our peaceful vantage point, we look down into the Kasbah and a chaotic souk selling dried fish and oranges. Men in robes, women in veils pushing modern prams, bikes and very few cars – for they have to move the whole market to get by.

Plenty of atmosphere but certainly no hassle up here in this five star enclave – La Sultana. The rooftop after lunch today is deserted except for the odd pigeon, starling or sparrow. The sounds of birds mix with floating shouts of merchants down in the souk, and then, a voice calling the faithful to sala…

This rich and melancholy sound floats with stirring harmony from the beautiful Kasbah mosque. Up on the rooftop at Sultana is a pagoda providing half shade and comfy chairs, a bar, the rooftop restaurant – and a plunge pool giving the raison d’être of a the sun beds.

On the ground floor is a larger swimming pool and second restaurant.

This five star boutique hotel with its 28 rooms was created by a Frenchman from 5 riads – the typical  extended family establishments of the better off citizens of Marrakech. Each riad has a courtyard that is open to the sky. Most courtyards have a garden, in La Sultana one courtyard has the pool. Rooms open inwards with doors and windows into the courtyards. Seven suites have balconies – some privately hanging above the inner courtyards.

Nowadays the better off people have forsaken their riads in the medina and moved out to the newer surrounding suburbs where luxurious but sometimes less exclusive hotels have also been established in quieter cleaner areas. The locals moving out means the French have been moving in, our driver told us, with apparent amusement .”The French like to live in the Medina,” he said. Other nationalities have moved in too and turned riads into little hotels, smooching the atmosphere.

Atmosphere….certainly Marrakech has atmosphere, it boils over and up to our rooftop from the Kasbah.

As we drove from Amanjena. from the rare calm and aesthetic devotion to perfect symmetry  – we felt the atmospheres change and dunk us…

You held your breath, for the smell of smoke from a burning grill, for the life spilling onto the streets. But a couple of minutes later, we entered this quiet enclave of authentic and extravagant Moroccan elegance, overflowing with hand-worked details. La Sultana. Each Riad has two floors and two lounges, differently decorated, with themes as fanciful as Africa or India. More about that later.

Shown round by a young manager with greater command of French than English, I missed a few facts and will have a second showing later on. But what I did learn from him, as he kindly pointed at a map on where to go, was “Don’t go to the Kasbah…go to the Square”

“Turn right turn left … turn …” but later after our serene and romantic experience on the rooftop (described above), his instructions flipped over to become turn right and turn left – and we emerged  from the serene calm and fanciful universe created by the French owners…into a blast of humanity in rue de la Kasbah. It all mixed together, an onslaught of human life from every direction…bikes, motorbikes, horse drawn carts…so you were stepping sideways to avoid dung and puddles, and then back again to avoid motorbikes, and sudden appearances of luxury cars driven by smart people pushing their way as speedily as possible through the blocked street…you leapt out of the way like everyone else, and then there was a bike in front and a bike behind…and another puddle. The puddles come, we discovered later, from early morning washing of the streets. They normally dry fast.

Now (following instructions from several locals who had already begun directing us) we turned back into our side street and then a quieter narrow street and …. were amazed.

We were suddenly in the little market or souk that we had seen from La Sultana rooftop. We looked up, and our castle of security towered above us, with the palms and flowers of the roof garden reminding us of the peace of the little paradise up there.

Herrings were being shoveled from a big container, fruit…shoes…all lay amid the little square. Immediately a young man was talking to us, giving us directions. “No don’t shop here, it is too expensive… (As if) … follow me we go to the Jewish markets and the old palace is here too…”

He had nice eyes. Nice full deep eyes, you felt you could trust. But my heart was still thumping from the need for alertness to leap out of the way of bikes and puddles. So I looked kind of lovingly up at our fortress of calm up there, La Sultana.

“La Sultana – that is a five star hotel,”  he told us with the authority of a guide. “Yes, we know,” we said….”we stay there” (to give ourselves a kind of secure identity). Then afraid we sounded rich we added – we just guests.

Ah he said…

He did seem nice, so we wandered a little towards his promised Jewish markets (much much cheaper than this already cheap market) …the streets squiggled this way and that…somehow skirting round our five star fortress, “swimming” in its moat of turbulent life…

Bikes shot past rather close to my handbag, and I realized my vulnerability as the two men had walked ahead. “Let’s go back to the hotel,” I said, remembering our dinner date.

I was shaken. Marrakech seemed so raw, I wondered. Fruit, sardines, piles of aromatic spices…bikes and puddles, and electric wires, narrow streets, rooftops full of washing.

Is this what the tourists came for? It was both inspiring and remarkable.

Since everyone has been telling me that Marrakech has become fashionable in the last 2 or 3 years, I had expected it to be somehow spoilt, overflowing with curios.

But then the simple truth emerged. We had taken a wrong turn. We had not gone into the Medina. We had gone where he told us not to go, into the Kasbah…

Fortunately! It was in the end such a special experience.

ADDENDUM: Later our feelings changed. The Kasbah grew into a gentle place. Quite simply … we grew to love it.

Amanjena – Arabian night days

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10 November, Morocco.

Amanjena

Breakfast is the most popular meal to eat in the accommodation, but nevertheless we chose to eat by the pool.  The “Amanjena breakfast”  had everything a normal person (like me) ever wants to eat at breakfast (i.e. no eggs). It included home made bread, home made croissants of the most deliciously buttery sort, creamy home made yoghurt in a bottle, home made strawberry jam, fresh fruit cut into a swirl of colourful design, musli (and other cereals) and café latte without any fuss over a supplement.

It dawned a hazy day, and clouds came and went. This lead us away from the pool to the Thai restaurant for breakfast.

Oh its cold I said (complaining of some 16 degrees), and like magic the waiter stretched out his hand and set the fire going in the fireplace almost instantaneously…

This is the kind of thing that makes the Aladdin or Arabian nights touch of Amanjena real.

Soon the sun came out. We wandered around the symmetry of the grounds taking last pictures and then off to Marrakech with another informative driver.

Learning from the driver is an excellent thing for a traveler who is too busy to do homework.

So we heard about daytrips to the Atlas mountains and the Berber peoples who live there and make up about one quarter of the population. We heard about the very high rate of illiteracy. We heard about the rich people moving out of the Medina to Marrakech Newtown, and the French moving in …

Hotel inspection Amanjena

See photos. We saw a pool pavilion – like ours, except the garden is larger and contains a swimming pool. Pool pavilions can connect with pool pavilions to make rather luxurious two bedroom accommodations (with pools). Then we also saw a Maison. This was on two levels, with a sitting room overlooking the pool, and a second bedroom downstairs with private entrance. Upstairs is devoted to the master bedroom with a huge bathroom including his and hers dressing rooms, and a long dressing table cum desk with view into the courtyard. Amanjena has six of these two-storey maisons. Maison Jardin differs in that it has a private garden and butler service. The prime accommodation is the Al-Hamra Maison, with an extensive garden and the bedrooms both on the same level, along with butler service, indoor and outdoor dining areas and pool of course.


EXOTIC PERFECTION: AMANJENA

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Magical symmetry

Tuesday, 9 November, Amanjena, Marrakech

Marrakech is a byword in exotism, intrigue and chaos.  Or has it changed?

We haven’t arrived in chaos yet. We are starting in pure serenity.  Reclining in pure luxury.  Our room is a “pavilion” at Amanjena – and a place of perfection. With serene distance, 20 minutes from the turbulence of the Medina, Amanjena wraps you in a romantic and exotic cloak of well-being with its theme of water, rose tinted domes, palms and Moorish arches, surrounded by the green of a golf course. The resort is an interpretation of the exotism of Marrakech – architect is Ed Tuttle – and in the manner of Aman Resorts as much as possible is sourced locally both in terms of building and décor.

We arrived as all guests do nowadays at Amanjena – by complimentary VIP transfer. It was quite a decision to make, explains Mafalda, Sales Manager – as it is an expensive inclusion to give everyone a complimentary VIP transfer.  But then – all guests at Amanjena are to be VIPs from start to finish, she adds. And should perhaps be given special treatment at the price.

Before even reaching the door into the airport, we were waved into a VIP lounge.  If you knew the chaos that can be Marrakech, you would know what that means for peace of mind. Juice, water, snacks and quiet while other people run around with your passports.

Then we were shamelessly lead around the queues at passport control into the arrival hall, where both our driver and the man from the VIP lounge waited as we tried to get money from the ATM. Queues and a broken machine, meant a problem with cash lay ahead, which stalked us throughout the five days and four nights in Marrakech.

But soon we were sailing along with more snacks and mineral water in the Mercedes transfer vehicle. Exotism touched the skin with its first gentle breath, as we drove along the rosy terracotta city walls and fringing parks, with couples enjoying the benches in romance that has a mysterious touch – the girls were all wearing long gowns and headscarves or veils.

Now we are here at Amanjena. Coming down, chilling out.  It’s like being inside a giant artwork. You move to see it, to be part of it. Walking round a square central lake (bassin) reflecting domes and palms, with radiating waterways. You follow tiled walkways lined with palms, constantly meeting symmetry as you cross from one side to another. It’s meditational.  Zen…always in movement…always finding the centre.

Around the garden and everywhere there are Moroccan lanterns burning. Laid out along white stone walkways, all symmetrical. And all reflected. Except the moon – just one sickle moon…

On the way you meet friendly staff. Extraordinary. Every one gives the traditional heart signal – till you feel you must be truly warm and wonderful. Or is it all imagination? It is certainly a fantasy world created out here at Amanjena. All that is good and pure, yours if you can afford it. Or if you deserve it…

The pavilions, or rooms, like our room where I am sitting now, are painted rose-tinted terracotta and have domed roofs and private gardens. A fountain is tinkling in our very own garden, and wails of music from the Moroccan soul come from the gentle loudspeakers. Lighting superb. Everything superb.

Our bathroom is big with a separate green marble “his” basin and a “hers” basin, plus a his dressing area and a hers…and a toweling dressing gown and a cashmere cloak each for colder nights, and terry slippers and flip-flops (big flops and dainty little flops) laid out by the bath with view of the back courtyard and orange trees. In our front courtyard garden we have two sunbeds, with a her hat and a his hat (out of straw). Plus a huge white sofa under an open pavilion in the courtyard. And all the time the music gently wails from the soul and the fountain tinkles…

I am sitting here knowing I don’t want to forget these perfect moments…

Terres Rouges wine laid out with glasses as welcome amenity, tastes very rich and good.

Amanjena has three restaurants – a casual one around the pool, a Thai restaurant, and a French Moroccan. But the most popular dining place is actually in your own accommodation. I can understand that. It feels like your own private kingdom – even at the “starting” level of a pavilion you have that magical courtyard garden with orange trees, colourful bougainvillea and palms, and can take your pick of reclining on the vast sofa or sitting at the garden table, while the fountain tinkles.

We chose the poolside restaurant for lunch. The price of one of my best aubergine dishes ever (layered with cheese, tomato and herbs) was only 140 dirnham. And eaten in the sun by the pool, where as the day got hotter people peeled off garments and lay on sunbeds.

In the evening we (or rather I) vacillated between the Thai and the Moroccan. The Thai waitresses were so smiling and friendly despite my pickiness over the lack of vegetarian options, but the music was canned and a little too jolly, while the Moroccan had the allure of live Moroccan music, rich, soft, stirring and melancholy. I chose the ambience of the Moroccan for couscous with vegetables 260 dirnham.

Though Amanjena was 65% occupied, you hardly saw a soul. Either dining romantically in the accommodation or doing the big Marrakech thing at the Square, as we will discover soon…

Afterwards we walked around the serene and magical property, it was so heart rendingly romantic. Lamps reflected in the bassin. Again we were walking along paths weaving in and out in perfect symmetry, white stones in the moonlight, pale tiles, and the moon.

Appropriately…the sickle moon.