At the Medrassa Ben Youssef

After my morning wander through the alleyways of the Medina in Marrakech, and a visit to the Maison de la Photographie, I headed out towards the Place Jemaa El Fna (the huge square in the centre of the Medina) aided by a scribbled map given to me by one of the curators at the museum. It wasn’t long before I was lost again.

I was pretty sure I’d done my best to follow the directions to the square, but the alleys weave and wander, sprouting offshoots, and there isn’t a sign anywhere to help you orient yourself. Despite the offers of a “guide”, I declined, not wanted to have another argument about payment, and, after passing by construction sites (Marrakech is changing by the minute)…

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… and men laying out leather to dry in the sun…

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…I eventually found myself at the Medrassa Ben Youssef — an Islamic college founded in the 14th century and named after the great Almoravid sultan Ali ibn Yusuf (reigned 1106-1142) who expanded the city and its influence.

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I paid my 60 dirhams (a combined fee to visit the Medrassa and the Musee de l’Art de Vivre de Marrakech) and entered into the vast, cool interior.

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The Medrassa was reconstructed in the 16th century and this is the building which now stands in the Medina. One hundred and thirty student dorms cluster around the courtyard (above) which is richly carved in cedar, marble and stucco, consisting entirely of inscriptions and geometric patterns.

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The student rooms are tiny and dark, with small windows letting in a sliver of light. It’s thought that around 900 students stayed in these rooms while studying at the Medrassa.

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The Medrassa was closed in 1960 and is now open to the public as an historical site.

Medrassa Ben Youssef, Kaat Benahid, Marrakech 40000, open 8:30-6:00 daily.

 

Wandering in Marrakech

I’d heard about the Maison de la Photographie in Marrakech awhile ago and I thought I’d head through the winding alleys of the medina in search of it. It wasn’t easy to find — I kept circling around the maze of alleys, noticing an anachronistic Christmas tree in the window of a dress shop…

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…passing the same dozing cat twice (he hadn’t moved a millimeter)…

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…and then, instead of getting anxious, I just started taking photos of anything that caught my eye — I wasn’t in any rush, was I?

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I eventually admitted defeat and resorted to asking someone to show me the way, careful to negotiate a price first (it cost me 50 dirhams, about £4.50 — far too expensive but I was getting hot and tired).

I got there though, and the breezy white interior of the lovely riad which houses the extensive collection Moroccan photographs dating from the 1870s was a welcome respite from the busy alleyways outside.

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The photos on display showed examples of the daily life of Berber and Jewish men, women and children from the late 19th century and early 20th century — women fetching water from a well, children sitting under a fig tree, a man selling disks of bread from a wooden cart in the souk (which you would still see today), and portraits of proud turbaned men staring fiercely from their framed past.

There is a large collection of 4,500 prints, with the exhibit changing regularly. Copies of the photos are available to buy (I intend to do just this when I get my own little flat in Marrakech enshallah), and the curators are very eager to answer any questions about the pictures and the photographers. Upstairs there is a running French colour documentary of a visit to the High Atlas filmed in 1957 which, from my own visits to the area, looks little changed, the Berber villages’ only concession to the 21st century now the satellite dishes sprouting like mushrooms from the rooftops.

On the roof of the riad there’s a small restaurant…

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… and I rested up there in the cool shade, filling up on aubergine salad…

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…followed by chicken tagine (tangy with preserved lemons and olives). Forgot to take a photo of it because I was so hungry! Then followed up with home-made yogurt with honey and a traditional Moroccan mint tea.

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The Maison de la Photographie, rue Ahl Fes, 46 rue Bin Lafnakek, Medina, Marrakech 400030, Tel: 212 5243 85721. Open daily 9:30am – 7pm. Cost: 40 dirhams (keep your ticket and you can come back as many times as you like during your stay in Marrakech).

Lunch at the Amal Women’s Training Centre and Moroccan Restaurant

The other day, after spending the morning in the Jardin Marjorelle in Marrakech taking photos, I hopped into a taxi to Gueliz — the section of the city built by the French during the Protectorate in the early 20th century. I got out at a fork in the road in search of the restaurant run by the Amal Women’s Training Centre. And I got lost. I haven’t yet found an English map of Marrakech and I’m not sure it would do much good as most of the streets have no signs or an occasional sign in Arabic or French.  I think its the kind of place you learn to get around by trial and error. And I’ve been making a lot errors. Moroccans are very helpful when asked for directions — although I’ve been perplexed to twice have people smile and nod and say “droit, droit” while gesturing left, left.

Anyway, after a phone call to the Association Amal, I was given very clear and friendly directions in English to the restaurant — I was only about 20 yards away from the front gate!

The reviews on tripadvisor were almost uniform in their praise at the quality of the cooking at an extremely good value, so I was eager to stop by on this trip and try it out for myself, as well as supporting a cause which is close to my heart.

I found out about the Amal Women’s Training Centre about a year ago when I stumbled upon a blog called “Life in Marrakesh” written by a remarkable woman named Nora who was born and raised in Morocco to American parents: http://moroccomama.wordpress.com/?blogsub=confirming#subscribe-blog.

Nora started up the nonprofit Amal Women’s Training Centre when she felt compelled to do something about Morocco’s marginalized women — the single mothers, widows, and girls who’d never had access to any education. Many of these women are illiterate and have struggled with poverty. The Association Amal’s goal is to improve the quality of life of these disadvantaged women by giving them the tools they need to start supporting themselves, beginning with cooking, hygiene and literacy skills.

Behind the leafy hedge, off the hot and dusty streets of Marrakech, I found a cool and inviting patio shaded by umbrellas and orange trees. It was buzzing with people, and a couple of hopeful cats, and a menu chalked upon a large board tempted me with Moroccan salad, grilled chicken and chocolate mousse for dessert. Except for the chocolate mousse (which made me oh so excited), it wasn’t an unusual menu for Morocco. So I wasn’t expecting what I got.

A girl with a charming smile took my order in perfect French, and a short while later brought over a large bottle of water, a basket of fresh bread and a plate of warm delights that was nothing like any Moroccan salad I’d ever seen before. There were light and flavourful marrow and carrots (sweet!), and tiny herbed potatoes, an aubergine puree, and several filo-wrapped vegetarian parcels. It was a feast for the eyes as well as for the palate, and I ate every last morsel. Even the cats didn’t get a nibble.

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I was excited now. This was far beyond what I’d been expecting. Then the main course arrived — the grilled chicken with chips.

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The chicken was succulent and lemony with an edge of charcoally crispness and sat on warm pureed tomato with grilled chicken livers. It was accompanied by a grilled tomato covered with seasoned breadcrumbs, a silky garlicky aubergine dish and a handful of crisp french fries. This was no simple lunch — this was a feast! And I was enjoying every moment of it. Okay, I relented. The cats got a couple of the chicken livers.

I was getting full, but there’s always, always room for pudding — especially if it’s chocolate. And the mousse arrived, garnished with a sprig of fresh mint. Oh joy!

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I ate it and I was happy. All for 75 dirhams (about £6 or $12 Cdn).

The Amal Women’s Training Centre & Moroccan Restaurant, Angle rues Allal ben Ahmad et Ibn Sina, Quartier l’Hopital Tofail, Marrakech 40000, Morocco

T: 212 604 238860 or 212 524 446896

Follow it on Facebook!  https://www.facebook.com/AmalNonProfit

The Jardin Marjorelle Part 2

I was so captivated by the sites at the Jardin Marjorelle in Marrakech the other day that I stayed there for hours taking photos (see yesterday’s blog for more photos). As lunchtime approached the crowds of tourists thinned out as they were shepherded out by their guides to pre-arranged lunches, and suddenly it was just me and a handful of intrepid travellers doing their own thing. Worth knowing that lunchtime is a good time to go.

Here are some more pictures…

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And then it was my lunchtime…. (see tomorrow’s blog).

 

 

 

 

 

The Jardin Majorelle Part 1

I am back in Marrakech again. It seems I can’t stay away. The clear blue skies, the muezzins’ calls echoing across the city, the swifts diving across the evening sky, the intermingled scent of spices and roses… it has an allure which intoxicates me every visit.

I spent the day in the Jardin Majorelle yesterday, a place I have visited on many occasions, but one where I had always wished I had longer, and a good camera. It’s one of my favorite places — cool, colourful and calm. A real oasis in the middle of buzzy, dusty, cacophonous Marrakech.

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The garden was designed by the French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and 1930s and he built the small terraced house on the property as his home and studio which he painted a vibrant blue, now known as Majorelle blue. He’d fallen in love with Morocco back in the 1880s (I can understand this…) and spent the last 40 years of his life there, and the final 30 years creating what has become his legacy — the beautiful Jardin Majorelle. He lavished his greatest love on the vast garden of cacti, palms and succulents which he collected from all over the world. “This garden is a momentous task,” he wrote, “to which I give myself entirely. It will take my last years from me and I will fall, exhausted, under its branches after having given it all my love.”

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After his death in 1947 the garden and house fell into disrepair until Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge rescued it in 1980 when it was under threat of being turned into a hotel. They moved into the villa, restored the garden for the public and opened a Berber museum on the property. There is a memorial to Yves Saint Laurent in the garden…

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…and, owing to the efforts of Saint Laurent and Berge, Jacques Majorelle’s greatest work is now enjoyed by thousands of Moroccans and tourists every year.

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More to come tomorrow!

 

http://www.jardinmajorelle.com

Doing the Best I Can

It was one of those days. You know the ones. You take one step forward and two steps back. The email demands ping relentlessly into your inbox. You feel unappreciated. By the end of the day you’re so tired you can barely think. You stop at the convenience store on the way home and buy ice cream (Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food)…AND Green and Black’s Milk Chocolate bar — large size. Then you walk into the Tube station and you see that someone has written this on the Tube station notice board:

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