03 December 2012

Anyone for Méchoui?

Did any of you watch the TV programme about 2 years ago called Jamie Does Marrakech where the said chef, Jamie Oliver, wanders round Marrakech looking at the everyday life of people living here and the types of food they eat? Well, I did. Ever since then I've wanted to seek out some of the places he visited for myself. And today I have stumbled across one of these whilst shopping in the souks. This is the area fondly known as Méchoui Alley.

It's nearly 1pm and we are certainly ready for a bite to eat. It's hard work wandering amongst all these shops selling beautiful goods such as colourful swathes of fabric, babouches (slippers), djellabas, Berber teapots with glasses, wooden boxes so intricately carved, belly-dancing costumes - and even mops and buckets if you're desperate! Oh, and of course not to mention the latest must-have - Dr. Dre headphones - 'genuine fakes' we are informed with a smile from a friendly young shopkeeper. So it is we head off in the direction of the spicy smells wafting through the air.

We wander down a narrow alley, dodging the motorbikes and the men carrying sacks on their backs, until we see ahead of us a line of three or four stalls which seem to be serving the same thing - lamb in all its glory. As Jamie explained, as many as 30 lambs at any one time are cooked underground here just behind the stalls in a hole in the ground. They are roasted on a spit which the assistant then brings to the stall where the meat is taken off the bone and served along with some freshly-made flat bread to hungry locals - and now to the more adventurous tourist also. We see some people buying the cooked lamb by the kilo, no doubt to take home and share with their families. This is weighed out on old-fashioned brass scales using heavy metal weights, a real blast from the past.

A freshly cooked lamb just taken off the spit


Having requested some bread and meat, one of the assistants leads us to a nearby café and up a rickety staircase to the terrace where he gestures to us to sit down to eat our lunch. (NB In Marrakech you need to have long legs to climb some of these steps - they are so high it's ridiculous!) A tray soon arrives laden with the most succulent lamb I have ever tasted! People here don't believe in wasting food, so we have not only the meat on our plate but also the pure fat of the meat, bones and the skin. Served with a glass of Berber Whisky (Mint tea), we are in our element as we allow the lamb to slide between our fingers and strip the bones bare. There's no way one can eat this in a civilised manner!

Me digging in!

From our high vantage point we have a fabulous view over the Djemma El Fnaa and can also look down onto the many olive stalls below where people are gathering to buy a selection of the finest-looking olives and preserved lemons I've ever seen, no doubt to add to their tagines this evening. Alongside the olive stalls is another stall selling fresh mint, a delightful accompaniment.

Olive stalls

Anyone for mint?

How many olives can be eaten in one day?

Nuss kilo? (Half a kilo?)

From the rooftop terrace we can also see down into the square below as people mill around the shops and partake of a thirst-quenching orange juice, freshly squeezed by the amicable juice sellers - a bargain at 4dh a glass (approx 30p). Thirsty work all that shopping!

If you fancy a peek at Jamie Does Marrakech, I'd highly recommend it. This is a link to the programme: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/jamie-does/4od

In the meantime, I shall continue to dream of that succulent lamb.....mmmmmmm..........

08 November 2012

Medersa Ben Youssef


Who'd have thought a school could look like this?! The 16th-century Medersa Ben Youssef  (Koranic school) really is a spectacle to behold. As we enter through the door and walk along the narrow corridor taking us into the central courtyard, we wonder what all the fuss is about - but then we hit the courtyard! To say it is stunning does not describe the scene before us. At the centre of this enormous courtyard lies a rectangular marble pool lined with zellij tiles, reflecting the amazing intricately-carved cedar wood and plaster of the walls which surround it. Archways are to be seen all around the courtyard, each appearing more decorative than the last. The colourful wall tiles complete the picture.

The grand central courtyard
Detail of zellij tiling and stucco

Stunning facades and columns

Structural diversity

As required by Islamic law, the carvings on the windows and doors bear no reference to animals or humans, but rather consist of inscriptions and repeated geometric patterns. Motifs of palms and pine cones are also used to adorn the walls, apparently to serve the purpose of providing a three dimensional surface to the walls.

Through the arched window

As we look up we can see many ornate arched windows which look out onto the courtyard. One might be fooled into thinking these were the students' rooms and thinking how wonderful it would have been to study here..But no. These serve merely to throw light along the narrow corridors...the students' rooms, of which there are more than 100, are clustered in sixes and sevens facing inwards onto inner lightwells. It's hard to fathom how over 800 students at any one time were housed and educated here. 

Internal corridor

We climb the internal stairs and find ourselves looking across the courtyard through some of these ornately-carved arched windows situated along the corridors.

The upper level

Detail of an archway

The students' rooms themselves are very small and dark, appearing very medieval, almost like the cells of monks. It must have been a frightening place for those children who were away from home for the first time.

Two rooms are set up to show how the students' rooms would have looked in the 16th century - except of course the artifacts are now set up in well-lit rooms so visitors can see clearly and gain an insight into how life must have been. Students from the city and also those from the surrounding villages would have the following items in their room: a small writing desk with ink well, a quill to write with, a copy of the Koran and other manuscripts, a candle or oil lamp,  a tea tray with glasses, a tagine to cook food in, a pot of water for ablutions, a sheepskin prayer mat, a small cushion and a sleeping mat. For the city student the items would have been made of ceramics and bronze; the village student would have items made of pottery and clay. The distinction was made between rich and poor at every turn.

A room for a village student

A room for a city student

A window grille

Artwork on a pillar

 It is hard to believe that this school was still in use as recently as 1962 despite its lack of modern facilities. In 1998 the building was used in the making of the film Hideous Kinky starring Kate Winslet where it served as an Algerian Suffic retreat centre - a film well-worth seeing for those interested in life in Morocco.

29 October 2012

Storks galore

Walking around the Djemma El Fnaa in the evening at dusk is a wonderful experience. The food stalls are arriving as carts pulled by barrow boys - only to be transformed within minutes to fully-functioning instruments of food heaven whose smoke wafts through the air calling people to sample their delights. The day shift of henna tatooists, medicine men and palm readers all depart, leaving room for storytellers, dancers and musicians to take their place as the evening encroaches. 

But if you look upwards you will see amazing birds circling up and up, higher and higher into the sky, their vast wings outstretched...these are the most revered birds in Marrakech, the storks. There are many stories told as to why they are to be found here and why they demand such a revered status...but whichever is true, the fact remains...the offence of disturbing a stork carries with it a three-month prison sentence.

Soaring overhead

One such story told is that of a local imam (islamic priest) who gets very drunk and then climbs the minaret of the mosque, blaspheming as he goes, thus committing two grave sins. Instantly God's wrath is poured out on him and he is transformed into a stork. The stork is white and black owing to the colours of the djellabah and robe the imam was wearing at the time of committing these most vile sins. Believers of this story would claim that this is why storks are often to be seen with a prayer-like posture when at rest. Even before the arrival of Islam, however, an old Berber belief was held that storks are really transformed humans. In fact, up until recent years, there was even a hospital in Marrakech which cared for ill or dying storks, so strongly held was this belief!

It is with eagerness then that I set out to find these beautiful birds at close quarters. I'm told the best place to see them is at El Badii Palace. We make our way down dusty narrow roads, dodging the ubiquitous menacing mopeds, until we arrive at an opening - high above us we can see a giant nest straggling the wall, craggy twigs hanging down...but the nest is empty. We continue further until we reach the entrance to the palace. El Badii translates as The Incomparable - and indeed we can see that we are now standing in the ruins of what was once a magnificent palace. Not much is left to see, just an enormous courtyard which houses a large rectangular pool (now empty of course) and the remains of an irrigation system which served to water the four sunken gardens which still remain today. The crumbling walls glow a wonderful ochre colour in the early evening sunlight and even now the gardens are full of orange trees, lemon trees and beautiful flowers. How much more beautiful would this garden have been when complete with the turquoise filled pool, I wonder.  Apparently, so the story goes, this palace was built in the 16th century by Ahmed El Mansour and the walls and ceilings were encrusted with gold from Timbuctoo. When the sultan saw how wonderful it looked he asked his fool what he thought - the response was somewhat prophetic - that the palace "would make a fine ruin." And indeed his words ring true. Sadly, the sultan died soon after the palace was complete (it took 25 years to build!) and after only a century of standing tall, the Merenid sultan, Moulay Ismail, had it stripped bare and removed all the riches, transferring them to his new capital at Meknes. What a sad ending to such a beautiful place. Climbing up the steep steps to the ramparts, this is what most visitors now come to see - the storks who nest along the walls.

El Badii Palace

Evening glow on the walls

Up close and personal

In flight

Lined up on the walls

I gaze out over the rooftops of the medina, pondering what has gone before, when suddenly a stork swoops low and lands perfectly on its target - a giant nest not far away from where I am standing. Such grace and ease of flight astounds me. As I watch, others come into land, and before I know it, they are lined up along the wall in their various nests and poses - probably just waiting for the throng of visitors to get snapping. I am one of those! Unfortunately, all too soon we are ushered out as the palace is closing...so we continue on to another haunt of the storks, so we are told...Kosybar. This is indeed a place of comfort with soft seating, low lights and a lovely ambience - though the prices are a bit high! From the terrace we look out over the Place des Ferblantiers, the square where the beautiful lanterns you see everywhere are made, and watch as the storks swirl above our heads. George Orwell once described them as "great white birds...glittering like scraps of paper". I sort of know what he means. The word for stork in arabic is laq-laq and this sure describes the sound they make. It is like a moped idling or castanets being clattered together. If you repeat the word laq-laq aloud repetitively, I'm sure you'll get the idea. This is the sound to which we fast become accustomed as dusk falls.


Detail of lantern

Stork and palm trees

Huge nests they build

View towards the mountains


Whether the visitor to Marrakech likes these majestic birds or not, one thing is for certain...they are here to stay!

16 October 2012

The Man with the Fez

Almazar is the name of the shopping mall in Marrakech which houses the giant supermarket, Carrefour, along with many trendy stores such as Benetton, Pizza Hut, TGI Friday's and Virgin Megastore, as well as many other local stores selling all manner of goods from clothes to nic nacs. It also houses places to eat and cafes to chill out in, not to mention the wonderful 'les maitres du pain' which sells the best cakes in Marrkech (in my humble opinion). It is here that hubby and I often spend a little time on a Sunday afternoon, enjoying a coffee, browsing around the stores, doing the weekly main shop (only the things we can't buy at Tahannaout market, of course)...and finally we may occasionally treat ourselves to a take-away pizza for tea from Pizza Hut. Sometimes, it's nice to have a taste of home!

So it is that today we find ourselves once again browsing the stores; hubby has his eye on the new iPad 3...hmmmm...'for his work' no doubt! I just want to get the shopping and go home and bathe in the afternoon sun. Our attention is drawn, however, by a gentleman wearing a fez who is sitting at a table and attracting quite a crowd around him. As we approach I see a sign written in several languages stating 'Names in arabic - free for a smile'. Men, women and children are all taking it in turns to sit down at the table for a chat with the gentleman and to request their name be written for them. This is not just a quick inscription though - the gentleman, who later tells me his name is Baba, is a Moroccan Calligrapher who has travelled all over the world, writing the names of hundreds of people every day in the most beautiful handwriting, both for common people as well as heads of states, princes and princesses and presidents. The tools of his trade are ostrich and eagle feathers and ink. We watch as he dips the feathers in ink and then, with a steady hand and a few flourishes, he writes names on the patterned paper requested by each person, finishing them off with a swirl here and an extra flourish there. He makes time for each person, presenting them finally with their unique handwritten souvenir.

Filali Baba

When it is my turn he speaks to me in perfect English - 'Where are you from? What is your name? I've just returned from England, I attended the Olympic Games!' It evolves in conversation that Baba is a friend of Martin's boss, he knows my home town of Birmingham ('Ah, New Street Station', he says - as if it is the most wonderful place...I beg to differ!) Then he proceeds to tell me about a beautiful pen museum located in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter - this man knows places in my home town that I've never heard of! I write down my name for him and choose a mosaic patterned sheet of paper for my script. Deftly he begins to write. I wonder at first what he is writing...that isn't my name...but then I realise he is writing something in French. Now he is writing 'Katherine', my full name, but he has written the sound rather than the actual spelling...'Kh' instead of 'K'...it all adds to the uniqueness of my souvenir. Then he writes my name in Arabic beside it, and with a few flourishes it is complete. He turns it around for me to see the final masterpiece...It says in French 'Queen Katherine', followed by my name in Arabic and two hearts. He proceeds to put it in a silver frame for me as a special gift. What a beautiful souvenir. Each person is also given an additional gift...girls receive a small bracelet, boys and men receive what I assume to be a text from the Qu'ran - in calligraphic writing of course, women receive bookmarks with 'Bonne Chance' (Good Luck) inscribed on them. And all this is for free from a man who is passionate about what he does: "It is nice that names in the calligraphy of my design reaches thousands of homes everywhere," he says with a smile. He always writes titles such as 'Sultan', or 'Queen' or 'Princess' because he likes people to feel special. Well, it has certainly made my day meeting such a lovely gentleman!

My beautiful handwritten inscription

25 September 2012

Settling in

We've been back in Tahannaout for just over a week now and are settling back into life very quickly. There's been the usual household tasks to do of cleaning, washing, cooking and ironing - and, of course, not forgetting food shopping, all the things that need to be done when you are living in a house - but a fact which people seem surprised to hear that we do - I'm sure lots of people think we are on a permanently holiday and someone else does all the dirty work for us. Well I can tell you that really is not the case. My role here is very much as a housewife - though I do concede I have a husband who is a great cook so I do get out of that one where main meals are concerned!
Of course it would be very remiss of us not to enjoy the beautiful country we have made our temporary home at the same time!

To give us an even nicer view from our lounge, Said has offered to cut the monstrous hedge back - using traditional methods. This evidently means he climbs a ladder, jumps into the middle of the hedge and begins to hack away at the branches using a scythe that has seen better days. Martin holds the ladder :)

Cutting the hedge

Said with his scythe

So far we have spent time wandering around the souks of Marrakech, drinking copious amounts of coffee as we play 'guess the nationality' of tourists passing by. We have stumbled upon a Norwegian student male choir (Pirum) who spontaneously burst into song as we emerge from one of the ornate archways, much to the amusement of local kids and shopkeepers alike. We have enjoyed a scenic drive to Amizmiz, about 50km from Tahannaout, driving along mountainous roads, barely meeting another car en route. And we have just enjoyed the prospect of this being our home for another eleven weeks. Not to mention of course the antics of 'our' pets. 

The Norwegian choir

Bemused onlookers

Our scenic drive

Crossing the Oued N'Fis

Ouirgane reservoir -very atmospheric in the early evening light

The kittens have proved to be a great source of amusement. If they are not chasing each other, rolling over and play fighting, they are being played with as a toy by Scruffy, the youngest dog here. He picks them up carefully in his mouth and delivers them to the middle of the courtyard where he proceeds to 'paw' them, roll them over and playfully gnaw at them. They try to escape but he's too quick for their little legs and soon he ensnares them again, showing them who's boss. At other times, as I mentioned before, he acts as mother to them, allowing them to cuddle up to him and suckle the pimples on his belly, obviously a great comfort to them. It really is a delight to see such tenderness shown by a dog to two tiny kittens. The other dogs tend to ignore them - though will put up with these tiny, squeaking things that get in their way and try to eat their dog biscuits!

Cat in a hat

Double trouble - Cat tagine anyone?

As we drive along the 500m track to our house on the way back from Amizmiz, I suddenly spy movement out of the corner of my eye - not unusual as there is always an array of birds, sheep and donkeys moving about in the fields. But this is different. Animals, bigger than cats but smaller than sheep or donkeys are walking through the field right beside us. My husband is convinced they are just wild cats, but equally I'm convinced they're not as I've caught a glimpse of their cute, grey rounded faces. I pass him the camera as quickly as possible to try to capture an image of these creatures which I'm sure I've never laid eyes on before. He manages to take a picture as they disappear over the brow of the hill. We ponder what they could be, searching the internet for any clues. Finally a friend confirms that they are mongooses. How amazing to spot these elusive animals right beside our house!


Our eyes will definitely be more alert from now on as we walk or drive around the area - who would've thought we'd casually stumble across such amazing creatures.  Apparently, mongooses are good at killing snakes - a skill that might come in handy!

This morning, after yesterday's rain, we awake to see a fresh dusting of snow on Toubkal, the highest peak of North Africa...can't wait to see more - as long as it remains in the mountains and makes them look so spectacular!

First glimpse of snow in the mountains