Eyes in the Kasbah

November 18, 2010 in MOROCCO | Comments (54)

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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?


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).

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.


May 7, 2010 in Spain | Comments (266)

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Westin Palace Madrid 4.30 pm


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Westin Palace cupola - a magical place

Under the domed glass roof of The Palace. Commissioned as a “royal palace for visitors”, it trails glory and extravagance from yesteryear. Now it is Westin Palace Madrid, a jewel in the Starwood and Westin crown. Truly royal, apart from the eager customers at reception hoping for upgrade based on loyalty. In those days you didn’t upgrade so easily to this.

In front of me as I write, a woman poses for a photo, and demonstrates that The Palace is a landmark or even a destinatsion in its own right. In the middle of La  Rotunda restaurant, under  the centre of a stained glass cupola, she sits on a circular bench facing outwards, to the circle of classic columns that hold the glass dome up like a temple to Art Nouveau.

The lobby leads up steps  towards this “holy” space, harking back to Royal times, with inlaid marble floors, glittering chandeliers,huge tapestries  and inlays of patterned glass. Sitting in the Westin Palace lobby is an experience in itself, watching not just overnight guests but society belles of Madrid come and go.

Spanish high society comes here for weddings, debutante balls or whatever needs exquisite romantic surroundings and international service. Like flipping through a Vogue catalogue we saw  girl after girl walk past in killer heels, long glossy legs and bare arms, attired in rich colours, glossy satins and sometimes strapless mini evening dresses, bare shoulders gleaming with young skin.

Apart from the Rotunda restaurant, public spaces include the cosy Asian Gallery restaurant , a traditionally dark bar lounge serving tapas, a stylish business centre, and a gym. The Asian restaurant was a good choice for a late arrival to Madrid last night – thus avoiding cutting evening winds outside. Attracting people from the city with its cosy Oriental ambience and food, it offers quite reasonably priced dishes, main courses from around 15 eur, some starters for 7 eur. Bamboo shoots and brown mushrooms was a bit boring, but shrimp rolls (starter) very nice.

Obviously since the days it was created to serve kings it has been renovated to create more uniform size bedrooms (468 rooms and suites).  But the feel of those days is sacred – not just because it is a good business idea. This building is protected by law as a cultural treasure. The spa for example has been a long time coming because of regulations (now planned for 2012).

All over the place is antique furniture from those palatial days, or copies in the same style.

Our newly renovated room (Executive room) on the 5th floor gives an inviting olde-world feel in warm and sandy beige, with a combination of striped wallpaper and medallion fabric on head board and surrounding wall , along with old prints, and a few items of classic furniture. Of course, as the Westin brochure will tell you it has a heavenly bed (with trademark), not forgetting a delicious marble bathroom in the same warm beige with toilet and bidet (hand shower and overhead shower on bath).


We were shown a few more rooms by Isabella (senior international sales manager). Premium with view (30?) were very desirable  – especially because of The View and two chairs and table in the bay window. Most overlook the Fuente de Neptuno, a generously gushing fountain in the middle of a traffic circle that still bears the grand name of Pl Canovas del Castillo.  A table and couple of chairs in the bay window have the pleasure of that view.

Then if you need more room and can afford it ( c. 3000 eur/night) you can upgrade yourself to an executive suite (c. 180sqm  – also with a view but perhaps not of Neptune). Some features include separate shower, dressing room, office, lounge/dining room. Then with a Royal Suite you really go palatial with original furniture and effects. Nowadays it is celebrities  and ambassadors who stay in the Royal Suite – there are more of them than there are kings – but is fine enough for a king too. Very traditional, the Royal Suite has a master bedroom with drapes, lounge, separate dining room gleaming with black and gold, library with beautifully bound books, and a few modern things like Jacuzzi bathub, separate steam shower and a kitchenette.  That is for the butler of course – unless you are a celebrity chef.

There are two room types below our Exec room which we did not see.


hospes view fr senzone-2

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We had lunch today at Hospes Madrid, on Pl. de la Independencia.  Fine buildings surround the traffic circle and on the traffic island in the middle is a big ornate arch. Not yet sure who they were independent from – was it from the Ottoman Empire? The only information I can find is that the arch in the middle was once the gate into Madrid and is called Puerto de Alcala; it was ordered by Carlos III because he thought that the previous gate was not fine enough.  The Puerta de Alcalá that we know today was completed in 1769.

The Hospes  hotel restaurant (called as in all Hospes hotels Senzone) is intimate and paneled in dark wood, with a view out through French balconies of the “square” (round).  A special Spanish style lunch had been prepared for us, and served with easy and leisurely pace along with friendly personal attention, over a period of more than an hour. Pelle reported that the Spanish style beef dish was superb – braised (I guess) topside (I guess) which in its succulent darkness just feell apart.

The Hospes Madrid lies close to Buen Retiro park – a huge green area comprising some 100 or so city blocks – guests can order a hamper for a picnic lunch in the green park with its romantic lake, stylishly clipped bushes and tall leafy trees plus a multitude of pathways (round what would have been city blocks). I imagine in the old days the elite rode around savouring neatly nurtured nature in horse and carriage.

Talking to Hospes Madrid’s front desk (Alvaro) armed with a map and a pen we discovered: It is also close to a big attraction: the posh area of designer shops north of the park.  It is also close to ( c. 10 minute walk) the Prado and its fabulous Renaissance  art collection (walking south), or walking west  the entertainment area  (Madrid’s Broadway), the gay area and the heavy metal area.  It is a little further to the traditional area where the tourists usually go, with its tapas bars and sights of old Madrid.

The hotel is built in a fine residential block, so it is very much part of old Madrid. We were greeted by the GM Maria Ripoll – redolent of the charming hands-on feel for which the hotel is known. Only 40 rooms, the Hospes is very personal and very pleasant, full of cosy corners, angles, stairs and surprises. There is a terrace eating or sitting area encircled by walls, and a couple of cosy lounge areas, a spa, fragrant with delicious incense, tiny gym.

We saw a Junior Suite with view (four of them have views out of a total of seven Junior Suites). Downstairs is a lounge with white furniture. Upstairs is a really charming attic bedroom with dark beams contrasting with bright white walls. Space is tight and used to the utmost … inventive, cosý, charming.  The bath on the landing is in full view of the bed, and there is a separate shower and toilet.

The deluxe room (like the standard room but with view) number 103 had a French  balcony, I  noted. Diego, the sales manager who showed me the room, corrected me with a smile. “No not a French balcony – a Spanish balcony”, he interjected. (In other words not a real balcony, but a balcony railing enables you to open the doors  and stand in the breeze admiring the view). Nice marble bathroom with shower (no bath tub).

It is now 1855 hours. It’s been raining and thundering. We sit in eternal afternoon under the cupola at The Palace with areas of transparent glass that show the brightness of what might be sun returning. Longing to go out and explore…


Now we sit at Westin  in El Bar del Palace.

A man trails sound around us from his clarinet. A girl in a very short black dress displays smooth brown legs in killer heels – silver and black. She is one of four Spanish girls living it up with a sortie to The Palace. They present a  classic sight.

The Leg

The high Heel

The slender Ankle

The Shine

The Youth

The Body creating angles that speak about love that might be and dreams that might take shape. A man joins them and his smile is so vivid you see he is charmed…

Nice thing about Westin, it is placed between two worlds of  Madrid. Like an island, taking up its own small city block, it looks over the enchanting Neptune sculpture and fountain. This belongs to grand, majestic,  Imperial Madrid with its avenues sweeping through, its treelined boulevards, eruptions of art in sculptures adorned with angels and other myths or certainties. It’s a clean and open Madrid. A splendid triumphant Madrid that ruled an empire.

Within a few steps up the hill from The Palace the old Madrid closes in. Intricate wrought iron railings, narrower streets, atmosphere  and signs distinctly foreign.  As you get higher the tapas bars increase. There is a square Plaza Santa Ana with open air cafes  – then more tapas bars and now a bit more decrepit, a bit less smooth. Next square has a Two star hotel. Turn right – very cheap cafes and No-star hotels. Around the large square and Puera del Sol metro there are swarms of people (always there I was told) – a general darkness in their clothes (brown black) giving a drabness edging on draining to the spirit. We saw crowds in a street coming down to the square – reminding of  black ants swarming in a line. Suddenly I realized my imagery was going sinister due to hallucination from hunger.  It was now around 8pm and I had not eaten since lunch.

We crossed the crowded square and I confessed: I am terribly hungry. Began peeping into all bars and restaurants no matter how much graffiti or other signs of neglect. Suddenly magically, as if a line was drawn, we were in an area of almost no people – austere street of banks and offices guarded by people in uniform.  We had made Calle Alcala. No tourists, just some respectable locals. On the left (according to our source at Hospes) if one crossed Gran Via one would come to the heavy metal area and trendy, Bohemian, Gay area. Now we were along a wide clean area of jewellery shops. But I wanted only food…

Let’s head back to the hotel I said and find some tapas bars nearby.

It was 830pm when we got to the Westin Palace and too hungry to go any further I agreed to have the longed for tapas and beer there. The aubergine and paprika tapas I had was unforgettably delicious (5 euro). The beer did not seem that reasonable but was no doubt a fine brand (10 euro/33 cl).

Saturday 8 May

A long day of exploration… see next page

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