Monday, 30 June 2014

Tilework and intricate carvings: the astonishing architecture of Marrakesh

Marrakesh is famous for its souqs and for Jemaa el-Fna, the big square where every night performers show their talent and street food is at its best, but there are many other things to see in this magic city. If you know where to look, you'll find ancient palaces and buildings straight out of Arabian Nights, the classic collection of tales set in a harem. If you liked Granada's Alhambra, or Istanbul's Topkapi Palace, a visit to some of these treasures is almost compulsory.

Medersa Ali Ben Youssef

I fell in love with Islamic and Mudejar architecture during a visit to Andalusia, in southern Spain, a few years ago. The whole of Córdoba but also the Alcázar in Seville are excellent reminders of the Arabic domination of this region of Spain. Horseshoe arches, really impressive decorative tilework, peaceful and shady courtyards with pigeon fountains in the middle are the main features of this colourful traditional style.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

On gorges, desert camps and grumpy drivers (my Sahara trip)

"You have 15 minutes to walk until the end of the canyon and come back!", the driver shouted at us. He sounded like a prison warden allowing an hour outside of the cell to his prisoners. Astonished, we looked at each other, the Brazilian guys just shrugging their shoulders and having a look around, while some sellers tried to lure us into buying scarfs and hippie pants. Once again, I had to look at my battered Lonely Planet book to find out where we were. It was a gorge, that much I could see, and it must have been somewhere between Dadès and the dunes of Merzouga. We didn't have a tour guide, and our driver was grumpy, with limited English, and not much of a help in puzzling out the mysteries of the pre-Saharan region of Morocco, with its unfamiliar architecture and weird rock formations.

Todra gorge, Morocco
Where were we?

It took me just a minute to realize that we were inside the Todra Gorge, but as soon as I got this, I closed my book and admired the landscape around me. The gorge was wide, the rocks of a brown rusted colour, with a small stream flowing in the middle. School children on a field trip, and Moroccan families camping with small stoves and colourful Tupperware containers completed the picture.

Camping at the Todra Gorge, Morocco
Camping at the Todra Gorge

"At least we got to visit THIS gorge", I thought, thinking of the place where we slept the night before, another amazing gorge that we got to see from the terrace of the hotel but never got to explore properly.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Why Pisa (mostly) let me down

When I saw the cheap fares Ryanair was offering from Pisa to Marrakesh (35€ for a one-way flight), I had no doubts: Pisa it would be for my outbound flight to Morocco. I'd take the time to visit this city in northern Tuscany, of course, and then fly out the following morning. In Italy we say "prendere due piccioni con una fava", which means to catch two birds with one fava bean (English has a more gruesome saying: "to kill two birds with one stone").

The baptistery in Piazza dei Miracoli. In the background, the cathedral and leaning tower.

Unfortunately, Pisa disappointed me for the most part. Don't get me wrong: if you've been living in Pisa for a while, or if you grew up there I'm sure you know little gems, such as good osterie and cute little churches that are worth stopping by. The average tourist, nevertheless, might feel a bit disappointed with the general atmosphere in Pisa.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Like a mirage in the desert: Aїt Benhaddou

For many people the highlight of a visit to Morocco is a trip to the Sahara, the biggest desert on earth and a natural habitat that every traveller wants to see once in his life. I was a bit different from the others who only want to see the dunes, nevertheless. I hoped to see the desert of course, but I knew that I wanted to explore all of this fascinating region of North Africa, and especially to see with my own eyes that legendary citadel in the desert that seems to be made out of sand: Aїt Benhaddou. It's been used in dozens of movies: whenever they need an exotic city in the desert that barely seems real, they use it. It had been a dream of mine for some time to visit it, and so it was very high on my list of places to see in Morocco.

ait benhaddou
Ait Benhaddou
Because the actual sand dunes are very far from Marrakesh - about 350 kilometres to Zagora and 550 kilometres to Merzouga - the tours from this city usually offer multi-day trips to the pre-Saharan region, with visits to kasbahs, gorges and Berber villages, as well as the classic camel ride  and camp night in the desert. An alternative is to take a bus to Ouarzazate and then explore from there hiring a taxi or a private car, but seen the prices of the small-group tours I decided to join one. In this way, I also made many new friends from all over the world!

Monday, 2 June 2014

Essaouira: a tale of white and blue

If I had to name my single favourite place in Morocco, I could easily say Essaouira. This seaside town is not even in the top-20 experiences on my Lonely Planet. Tant pis, as the French say, I'll keep it for me!

Streets of Essaouira
Beautiful Essaouira

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