The history of a city in its doors

Travelling through Morocco you soon sense that the architecture is a cosmopolitan cultural blend reflecting the country’s long and rich history of rulers and invaders – both Arabic and European – and that the doors in particular are very much a gateway to another world.  In Essaouira, once you are able to take your eyes of the array of blues, there’s some incredible history to discover.  And not all of it is blue.

For centuries Moroccans of Jewish and Muslim decent lived peacefully side by side in cities such as Essaouira, Fes and Marrakech, which is evident in the hallmarks on their doors.  These range from unique patterns and symbols to Jewish stars, some of which are even dated and evoke centuries of history.img_9908conv img_9907conv img_9906conv

But many of these Jewish familes fled the mellahs – the Jewish district in Arab cities – for Israel following the Six Day War.  Some have never returned and many houses like the one in Essaouira pictured below are locked up and have been left to deteriorate.  (Note the Star of David in the plasterwork above the arch, alongside the fading mosaics).

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Other more modern doors bear Moorish style motifs, delicate mosaics and ornate and interesting door knockers.

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Whether they are made of wood or weather-beaten steel, they all add to the charm of Essaouira.

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Then if you can drag yourself away from the doors for a few minutes you will find yourself in the middle of a typical street scene that could be anywhere in Morocco – the inescapable washing and arches and cats and faded reminders of a byegone era.

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Aït Benhaddou

As an unabashed Game of Thrones fan, I had been itching to photograph the earthen clay architecture of Ait Benhaddou, the famous Kasbah town along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech, which has also formed the backdrop of blockbuster greats such as Gladiator, Alexander, The Sheltering Sky and Black Hawk Down.

But even without the impressive CV, tucked away in the foothills on the southern slopes of the High Atlas mountains in Ouarzazate, the movie capital of Morocco, Ait Benhaddou is gorgeous.  The russet clay houses huddle together within the defensive walls which are reinforced by corner towers, and are a striking example of the architecture of southern Morocco and days of yore.  Interestingly, eight families still live within the city walls.

But first the snake man who holds court about 5km from the most famous and photographed ksar in the Ounila Valley, who makes a living posing for tourists adorned by snakes.  He was most upset because I didn’t pay to photograph him. The truth is I’d left my bag on the bus otherwise I would have.  That aside though, only minutes before a travelling companion had very generously lined the snake man’s Djellaba pockets with Dirhams, moved in close and handed me his iPhone to capture the encounter. My photos were basically an extension of that photo op, but the snake man unleashed a vitriolic stream of Arabic in my direction as I boarded the bus.  Tourists, I knew by now, are fair game at every possible opportunity.

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From a rooftop terrace overlooking Yunkai * (Ait Benhaddou in real life), it’s easy to fall in love with everything about this picturesque place and while it was remarkably cold, the snow on the High Atlas Mountains added to the charm.

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And then we crossed the river on stepping stones, entered the city walls and climbed to the citidel atop, where the sweeping views were equally breathtaking.

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*   Yunkai is the smallest of the three cities in Slaver’s Bay in Game of Thrones.  Scenes from Pentos, the biggest of the Free Cities, were also filmed in Ait Benhaddou.

 

Nightfall in Casablanca

The sky resembled a mammoth bruise as night fell on my last evening in Casablanca.  A city that is nothing like the 1940’s movie of the same name, Casa instead resembled many of the cities where old stands comfortably juxtaposed with new.  Here the 5-star Hyatt Regency vies for the title of downtown landmark with the Clocktower at the busiest entrance of the old Medina.  I know which I prefer 🙂

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The Granaries of Meknes

Although Meknes is overshadowed by Morocco’s other Imperial cities, it’s an amazing place to visit, just to experience the excesses of Moulay Ismail as 17th century governor and Sultan.

A contemporary and admirer of France’s Louis XIV, Ismail set about building an imperial city to rival the Palace of Versailles.

Reputedly a ruthless tyrant with a harem of hundreds of wives and concubines with whom he fathered hundreds of children, I’m in awe that he had time to realise his grandiose plan, which included 24 royal palaces with mosques, barracks and ornamental gardens, all set within defensive walls

The massive Heri el Souani granary – which also served as a feed store for the adjoining Royal Stables for 12,000 steeds – is an architechtural wonder.  Standing inside these immense vaults (beautifully preserved and restored) is breathtaking and humbling.

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It was raining when we visited, so I didn’t venture beyond this door leading from the granary complex to the stables, but the arches of the stables can be seen in the background.

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To end off this incredible experience in Meknes?  A camel burger in a crowded, muddy souk, while my trainers stayed behind at the Hotel Oasis Tafilalet to dry after the downpour in Rabat. The countryside surrounding Meknes is green and beautiful and ….. there’s a wine region here 🙂

 

Hassan II Mosque

I will say from the outset that Grande Mosquée Hassan II  is a spectacular landmark, standing boldly on a headland so worshippers can pray over the sea.the-streets-of-casa-39-of-40-2The ornate embellishments, mosaic work and the sheer magnitude of everything takes your breath away and nearly all the materials come from Morocco:  The marble from Agadir, the cedar wood from the forests of the Middle Atlas Mountains and the granite from Tafraoute.the-streets-of-casa-35-of-40-2the-streets-of-casa-34-of-40the-streets-of-casa-37-of-40the-streets-of-casa-33-of-40The problem I had with this massive work of art was feeling a little bit ripped off as a visitor.  Like the entry fee of 120 Dirhams (about $30) for a tour of inside and being charged to use the loo and then being shown to a squat toilet with nowhere to put my camera bag as the floor was wet.

I also couldn’t help noticing the opulence of the entire complex  – the mosque is said to have cost about $800 million – and its shimmering newness, in stark contrast to the simplicity of the surrounding neighbourhood.the-streets-of-casa-30-of-40That aside, if you are visiting Casablanca, you can’t not visit the largest mosque in Morocco, which also happens to be the 13th largest mosque in the world.

Muizenberg Landmarks

Although famous for surfing, Muizenberg is also full of interesting eateries and landmarks reminiscent of then town’s golden days, like the Edwardian-era red brick architecture of Muizenberg Station with its’ beautiful teak clock tower.  It’s easy to spend a morning wandering around taking it all in.

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The signage on Kent’s Stores made me laugh out loud.  What on earth were they producing at “The South African Toilet Requisite Co Ltd” back in the day?

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The heart of Sutherland

After a long and frustrating recovery from foot surgery, I’m happily back on my feet, camera in hand and this time my wanderlust has taken me to Sutherland, a small town in the Northern Cape about 4 hours drive from Cape Town.

Situated in the Karoo, an area renowned for it’s barren and arid landscape, and home to less than 3 000 people, Sutherland boasts the coldest temperatures in South Africa all year round.  It’s also home to SALT, the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere: It’s dry climate means cloudless skies and together with it’s flat landscape, it’s unobstructed skies make it one of the top stargazing spots in the country.  And indeed, it is the stars that have coaxed me to this chilly dorpie*, just as summer finally arrived in Cape Town.  But more about my stargazing escapades in a later post.

A walk around town before breakfast confirmed that in this typical dusty Platteland** townlife is simple, from the succulent plants to the architecture and décor:

02-IMG_063204-IMG_0646Sandstone buildings, corrugated iron roofs and faded paintwork add to the charm of a town where the Dutch Reformed Church was used as a fort by British soldiers during the Anglo Boer War. The metal roofs are seldom painted, so the harsh glare of the sun can be blinding, not to mention playing havoc with photographs!06-IMG_0665 08-IMG_067416-IMG_0747And then there is the omnipresent wind pump, synonymous with Platteland towns.24-IMG_0990

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* small town

** flat land

Phra Sumen Fort

Bangkok’s Phra Sumen Fort reminded me of the Crusades.  I went back a number of times to marvel at the architecture and the mysterious bright red doors in this unusual octagonal brick-and-stucco bunker.  Built in the 18th century, it was one of 14 watchtowers erected along the old city wall to defend against a naval invasion.  An adjoining small park with an open-air pavilion and views over the Chao Phraya river is a popular reading spot for tourists.

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A Walk in the Park

Flanked by several gorgeous historic buildings such as Parliament, the Supreme Court and the Centre for the Book, the Company’s Gardens in the Cape Town city bowl is a great place to spend a Sunday or even a lunch hour.  Dog walkers, starcrossed lovers, the resident squirrels and pigeons, choral groups and wedding parties share this tranquil escape from the inner city concrete and glass.  Renowned for  its’ gardens, water features, surrounding archtecture and statues, it’s a perfect escape from the buzz of one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

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