Category Archives: Unesco World Heritage Sites

Cordoba and Once Upon a Time

pretty door - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To GoOur arrival in Córdoba didn’t go exactly as planned and reminded us, once again, that the travel gods have a sense of humor even if we don’t.  We’d arranged a swankier than usual room at a small boutique hotel through hotels.com since one of our nights in the city would be free with their loyalty program and, following the hotel’s instructions, arrived mid-afternoon to check in.  Since the hotel was in the historic part of the city, a maze of winding streets with many only wide enough for bicycles and pedestrians, the taxi driver dropped us off and pointed the way down a cobbled path.  We found the correct address along a whitewashed wall of connected two-story residences, took hold of the heavy brass knocker, and rapped, a loud and hollow sound that seemed to echo down the narrow lane.  We waited a bit and tried again (and again) with similar results.  Finally giving up, thoroughly out-of-sorts, grumbling and dragging our overnighters behind us, we managed to plaster smiles on our faces as we asked for directions and followed the pointing fingers of a few helpful people until we found a street busy enough to hail a taxi.  Fortunately, we had the name of a place to give to our driver, Hostal La Fuentes, where a friend of ours was staying.  Now that the travel gods had had their fun, they decided to smile on us and we were happy to find a clean and comfortable room for three nights at half the price. A call by Skype to hotels.com resulted in the cancellation of our reservation and a refund of both our money and the free night to use in the future.  Travel is a good way to remember that, contrary to our illusions and the plans we make, we really don’t have control over much!

street scene - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To GoWith the detail of where to stay for the next three nights resolved, we turned our attention to making the most out of our visit to the historic area of Córdoba. Its history stretches back over two-thousand years and includes a population who practiced three major religions: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994, you can bet that the city has many fascinating stories to tell.

Roman Bridge - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To GoOnce upon a time, Córdoba was a Roman city.  Founded around 152 BCE alongside the Guadalquivir River, the Romans constructed a wall around the city and built a bridge.  Known as El Puente Romano, the Roman bridge still spans the river and has been restored and renovated numerous times. The Romans shipped Spanish olive oil, wine and wheat back to Rome and the city was the capital of the Roman Province of Hispania Ulterior (the southwest corner of modern Spain) which translates rather poetically into Further or Thither Spain.

Roman Bridge - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To GoOnce upon a time, Córdoba was ruled by the Visigoths. After Nero fiddled and the western Roman Empire collapsed, and despite invasions by several tribes of Germanic origin, Córdoba continued to flourish.  The Visigoths brought Catholicism with them when they conquered the city in 572 CE and built a couple of churches over their relatively short rule of 150 years.

Once upon a time, Córdoba was a major Islamic center. The Moors invaded and conquered the city in 711 and occupied it for the next 525 years.  In its heyday, the city became the capital of the Caliphate of Córdoba, governing almost all of the Iberian Peninsula.  As one of the largest cities in the world with a population estimated around 450,000, as well as one of the wealthiest in Europe, Córdoba was a haven with a reputation for progressive thought.  Here, Muslims, Jews and Christians coexisted, more or less amicably, in a spirit of religious tolerance.  During this time, the city became a center of Moorish philosophy, architecture, mathematics, arts and poetry. And thriving alongside the Muslims, the Jewish community also became an important seat for Jewish scholarship, medicine, learning and culture. Perhaps most notably for us travelers, this was the era of some of the Moor’s greatest architectural glories.

Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To Go The Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos or Royal Palace is an enormous complex with multiple towers and a fortress begun in 785.  It has a complicated history beginning as the home for Caliphs (leaders of the Muslim community), Spanish Kings and Queens, the Headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition, a garrison and military prison as well as a civil prison.  Now a national monument, it’s not hard to imagine the history that played out within its maze of mostly empty rooms, halls and towers. Outside, are the patio and magnificent gardens laid out in three terraces with ponds and fountains, boxwood hedges, cyprus and citrus trees and flowers, few of which were in bloom since it was winter.

gardens - Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To Go

Alcazar de Reyes Cristianos - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To GoConstruction on The Great Mosque of Córdoba (now called the Mosque-Cathedral) began in 784 and continued over two centuries.  Without a doubt, the most stunning religious monument we’ve ever seen; we devoted our last post to this magnificent building that you can find here.

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To GoA reconstruction of the Albolafia Water Mill (1136) is next to the Roman Bridge on the northern bank of the River Guadalquivir.  Water was drawn up by a chain pump and carried through a series of aqueducts to the Alcázar Palace Gardens.  Legend has it that Queen Isabella ordered the water wheel dismantled since its noise disturbed her.

Albolafia Mill - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to GoThe Caliphal Baths, also known as the Arab Baths, were built in the mid-tenth century and are adjacent to the Alcazar.  The pools reproduced the Roman series of cold, warm and hot water baths and were an important part of social life as well as the ablutions and ritual cleansing mandatory before prayer in the Islamic religion.

The Calahorra Tower - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to GoThe Tower of La Calahorra, the oldest defense building in the city, is located on the far side of the Roman Bridge. Built towards the end of the twelfth century as an arched gate between two square towers, a third cylindrical tower was added a couple of centuries later and connected the original towers for additional fortification.  Past use has included a prison as well as a school for girls (an eyebrow-raising perspective on a previous educational system) and currently it houses a museum with interesting exhibits of Cordoban life and history.  A climb up to the roof is worth the effort as there are spectacular, panoramic views of the Roman Bridge, the city and the Mosque-Cathedral.

Once upon a time, Córdoba was the home of the Catholic Monarchs: Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon.  After centuries of warfare between the Christian Kingdoms and the Moors known as the Reconquista, Córdoba was conquered by the Christians in 1236. The splendor of the era and progressive thought under Islamic rule vanished with the expulsion of the Moors.  Over the next two centuries, the economy weakened and a series of epidemics including the Black Death (aka the Plague) in the spring and summer of 1349 led to a decline in the population from Córdoba’s heyday of 450,000 to 25,000.  Ferdinand and Isabella used the Alcázar as one of their primary residences while they set about ridding Spain of the last of the Moors in Granada (1481-92).  Any Muslims allowed to remain in the city were forced to convert to Christianity and were known as “Moriscos” although they fared better than the Jewish community who were labeled “a scandal against Christianity.” During this time, Jews were either forced to convert to Christianity and become “Conversos” or flee, culminating with the final order leading to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1483.   Here is where Ferdinand and Isabella met with Christopher Columbus to discuss the little detail of financing his expedition to the “New World.”

Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand and Isabella - photo by No Particular Place to GoAnd here is where they launched the Spanish Inquisition, lasting over three centuries, that strengthened the Church and enriched its treasuries. The Royal Palace was converted into a tribunal with interrogation and torture chambers and many of its first victims were the Moriscos and Conversos.

Note:  We don’t usually say to flat out avoid a museum but that’s what we recommend regarding the Gallery of the Inquisition.  This horrifying museum is located in the heart of the historic Jewish quarter (the Judería) and has several rooms filled with various implements and devices used in the Inquisition that are designed to inflict the maximum amount of pain, cruelty and humiliation upon its victims. Many methods of torture made burning at the stake a favorable alternative.

Once upon a time, and over the next few centuries, Córdoba became something of a cultural backwater. Although Spain was at the peak of its power, Córdoba retreated into the background and many of its buildings fell into decay with little business or commerce to entice new residents.

The Caballerizas Reales de Córdoba, translated as the Royal Stables, are located next to the Alcázar and were built in 1570.  Home to the magnificent Andalusian horses, we devoted a whole post about these magnificent animals here.

view from the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, Cordoba, Spain

Caballerizas Reales de Cordoba, SpainPuerta del Puente or Gate of the Bridge was built in the late sixteenth century (circa 1576) in an urban renewal project and effort to spiff up the city with a ceremonial gateway.  Located at the opposite side of the Roman Bridge from the Tower of La Calahorra, the gate is a beautifully elegant structure built in the Renaissance style.

Puerta del Puente (Bridge Gate) - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to GoThe Plaza del Potro is one of many public squares in Córdoba.  Once a horse market, the plaza has a Renaissance fountain dating from 1577.  Off the plaza is the Posada del Potro, a legendary inn described by Cervantes in his book, Don Quixote (1605) as a “den of thieves.”  The inn is now home to the Centro Flamenco Fosforito, a museum which has the reputation as “possibly the best” flamenco museum in Andalucia.

the Plaza del Potro - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to Go

 

Flamenco Fosforito - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to Go

 

Flamenco Fosforito - Cordoba, Spain - photo by No Particular Place to GoOnce upon a time, Córdoba was sacked by Napolean.  During the Napoleonic Wars, the “Nightmare of Europe” fought Spain, Britain and Portugal for control of the Iberian Peninsula.  His armies sacked the city (1808) and for a time were garrisoned in the Alcázar.  Before leaving Córdoba, they seized the Andalucian horses, long prized for their reputation as adroit war horses, to use in their own invasion, which almost led to the demise of the breed.

Once upon a time, Córdoba sided with Franco early (1936) in the Spanish Civil War.  Someday we hope to delve into this subject but for now, it’s definitely another topic and trip.

And they lived happily ever after ….  Well, maybe not all the time but our visit had us describing the city in long lists of superlatives to friends and trotting out the words “picturesque” and “charming” way too often.  Córdoba is a city that had us at hello and left us with the feeling that we had to say goodbye too soon.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nashsteet scene - Posada del Potro, Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to Go

 

Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to Go

 

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba: An Architectural Allegory

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To GoEver since we’d seen pictures of the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, aka the Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba, we’d known that it would be at the top of our “must see” list when we returned to Spain.  Quite simply, there’s no other building like it in the world and if we had to describe it in less than ten words we’d say, “a sixteenth-century cathedral inside an eighth-century mosque.”  But that doesn’t even begin to convey the ten-plus wow factor of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, without a doubt the most stunning religious place we’ve ever seen.  Nor does it suggest the promising symbolism of two major religions, Islam and Christianity, coexisting in one shared space.

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To GoCórdoba’s history stretches back for more than two thousand years to its founding in the second-century, BCE and the land upon which the Mosque-Cathedral was built has long been sacred to many religions.  Originally there was a Roman temple dedicated to Janus, the two-faced god looking at both past and future.  When the Visigoths invaded Córdoba in the sixth century, they converted the temple to a cathedral dedicated to the gruesomely tortured martyr, St. Vincent of Saragossa.  Next came the Moor’s invasion at the beginning of the eighth-century and, for a time, the worship space was divided between Muslims and Christians before the cathedral was demolished to build the Great Mosque of Córdoba at the end of the century.

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

The construction of the Great Mosque of Córdoba began in 784 CE and lasted for over two centuries resulting in what UNESCO refers to as “the most emblematic monument of Islamic religious architecture.”  Thousands of artisans and laborers were employed. Only the finest materials were used: stone and marble quarried from the mountains of nearby Sierra Morena and columns of granite, jasper, marble and onyx recycled from the original temple and other Roman ruins around the Iberian peninsula.   Upon the columns were the double arches which allowed for support of the higher vaulted ceiling.  The lower horseshoe-shaped arches were made of red brick alternating with white stone that continually draws your eye.  The décor was fashioned from ivory, gold, silver, copper, brass and mahogany and intricate mosaics from azulejos (glazed, colored tiles) were designed. Interestingly, the mihrab or prayer niche, a piece of ornate artwork in dazzling colors that stands out among all the other splendidness, faces south rather than the traditional placement towards Mecca.  A remarkable and unique creation, the Great Mosque of Córdoba held a central place of importance among the Islamic community and was a major Muslim pilgrimage site.

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To GoFollowing the Christian invasion of Córdoba in 1236, the mosque was preserved as a very visible trophy of Castillian Spain’s victory over a former Islamic land.  Besides the symbolism, the Reconquista and kingdom building was a spendy proposition and Spain, not wanting to divert its money from conquest to building places of worship, spent some of its energies converting mosques into churches.  The former Great Mosque of Córdoba was renamed the Church of the Virgin of the Assumption, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and consecrated with the sprinkling of holy water which allowed the transformation of religion from Islam to Christianity.  Over the years a couple of chapels were constructed to the side of the vast space and the four-story minaret, from which calls to prayer were previously heard, became a tower for tolling bells summoning faithful.  For nearly three centuries, no major alterations were made because the church was a little occupied with imposing the one, true religion upon the land. In between converting Muslims and Jews to the correct religion or expelling the lucky ones altogether from the realm, they occupied themselves with the horror called the Spanish Inquisition.Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that the reigning monarch, King Charles V (also confusingly known as King Carlos I) turned his attention to the former mosque in response to a proposal by the church to build a cathedral within the center.  Overruling the objections of the people, the King, completely ignorant of the building’s unique beauty because he’d never visited Cordoba, backed the church’s request.  The heart of the Great Mosque of Córdoba was demolished and over the next couple of hundred years (1523–1766) the cathedral was built in a variety of styles ranging from late Renaissance, Gothic, and Spanish Baroque.  Like many cathedrals, it’s breathtaking with its ornately carved mahogany altar and the plunder from the New World gilding surfaces in silver and gold.  A variety of semi-precious stones are used throughout the area and oil paintings of notable events and personages are abundant.  It is however, bizarrely at odds with the original architecture of what was once Islam’s crown jewel.Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To GoThere is one more strange and short chapter in the story of the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba.  In 2006, the diocese of Córdoba dropped the Mezquita (Mosque) part of the building’s name and began to simply call it the “Catedral de Córdoba” in what was seen by many as an attempt to hide its Islamic origins.  In 2013, an online petition garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures protesting the omission.  Finally, in April of 2016, a resolution of the dispute between the local authorities, the regional government of Andalusia and the Catholic Church was reached and the building is now referred to as the Mosque-Cathedral Monument Complex or Conjunto Monumental Mezquita-Catedral.

We started out this post by writing about the hopeful allegory of two major religions, Islam and Christianity, coexisting in one shared space.  In medieval times Muslims, Jews and Christians lived side-by-side and perhaps the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba might be seen again as a symbol of religious tolerance, diversity and multi-culturalism.  We can only be optimistic …

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

 

 

 

All Roads Lead To Seville

Visits to the city of Seville, Spain, bracketed our year of 2016 neatly, highpoints on either end.  Our first stay in January had us wowed and promising ourselves we’d plan a return to see more of the city.  Our visit in December, had us feeling the same, leaving us with the anticipation of more to see when we go back. And during the year, we skirted the city several times on our way to other places in Spain.  In fact, the joke seemed to be that, from Lagos, Portugal, all roads lead to Seville.street scene - Seville,Spain photo by No Particular Place To Go

One thing we’d learned from our previous visit to Seville: a car was more hassle than it’s worth.  With an historic area that’s compact and walkable as well as daily parking rates that can go upwards of €30, taking the bus was an easy decision to make.  We bought bus tickets, packed our bags, obtained the phone number for a taxi driver and set our alarms for an early Sunday morning departure.

Note to Selves:  Reserve a taxi for early Sunday morning getaways.  We’d made many early morning taxi rides previously but failed to realize that Sunday mornings are sacrosanct to Lagos taxi drivers.  After being turned down cold by the gentleman we’d been assured would drive us, we went down our list of phone numbers with a growing sense of unease.  And at 06:15 in the morning, it wasn’t much fun rousing hard working taxi drivers from their sleep only to be told a groggy “no” for a ride to the bus station.  We came up with a hasty Plan B (and a Plan C should we need it), drove over to our friend’s home who was coming with us and hitched a ride with her pet sitter who’d just arrived. He at least was happy to accept €10 to schlepp us to the station.

The previous week had gifted both Portugal and Spain’s southern coasts with several inches of rain and, because the Algarve is a rural province, the fields were varying shades of green.  The rain followed us all the way to Seville but, after our first day of playing enthusiastic tourists braving the occasional rain showers (and minus one umbrella at the end of the day) the weather changed to cool and partly sunny, perfect sightseeing conditions.  And, for self-professed history geeks and wanna-be culture vultures, Seville is the perfect place to indulge your interests.  There are endless things to see and do in the city but here are 9 things we can recommend:

Real Alcazar of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go1) Topping our list for a revisit, The Real Alcázar of Seville is a group of palaces over a thousand years old dating back to the 11th century.  The upper levels are still occupied by Spain’s Royal Family which makes it the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe.  We have to agree with Lonely Planet who said they hoped that “heaven looks a little bit like the Alcázar”  and we were head-over-heels wowed during our first visit in January.   A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, one, two, three pictures and more are worth a thousand words. Real Alcazar of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Real Alcazar of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Real Alcazar of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To GoWe paid the extra money for the self-guided audio tour but, after only a half hour of listening, left the earphones dangling around our necks because (we can’t believe we’re saying this) the didactic, historic monologue proved to be a huge distraction. This is a place to stop and stare, listen to the fountains and breathe in the scent of sour oranges – a place that really just needs to be enjoyed.

2) For those of you thinking, “Seen one cathedral too many,” the Cathedral of Seville or Catedral de Sevilla is an awe-inspiring, tremble-at-the-knees, kind of place. Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

The third largest church (a football field would fit inside easily) and the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world, it’s also registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We’d visited the cathedral during a service the first time (the organ music was sublime) which limited what we could see and a return was also high on our list of things to do.  Built between the 15th and 16th Centuries, the body of Christopher Columbus is entombed here in splendor and, should you wonder where all the gold Spain plundered from the New World ended up, the 20 meter (66 feet) altar would be a good start. Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Crypt of Christopher Columbus

Crypt of Christopher Columbus

The bell tower of the Cathedral deserves a special mention below.

3) The Tower of Giralda was built in the 12th Century as a minaret of the Great Mosque which formerly occupied the site of the Cathedral of Seville.The Tower of Giralda, Cathedral of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

At 105 meters (343 feet), the tower is an iconic symbol in the city.  Topped with a 16th century belfry and a weather vane of a huge bronze, statuesque beauty nicknamed “El Giraldillo” bearing a cross, there’s no mistaking which religion is on top of the tower now.  There’s a separate charge to climb the tower and, as you climb the THIRTY-FOUR ramps up, there are alcoves along the way to (pretend) to admire the incredible views while you gasp for breath.  And bells that vibrated us right down to the soles of our shoes when they tolled.   Giralda Tower-Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

View from Giralda Tower - Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See. Photo by No Particular Place To Go4) Lest you think that Seville is only full of centuries old palaces, mansions and churches (and it is, it is!) the Plaza de España was built for the Ibero-American Exhibition of 1929, a kind of World’s Fair. Located in the city center in the middle of Maria Luisa Park, the brick monument is an exuberant combination of Art Deco, Renaissance and Moorish Revival architecture, embellished with exquisitely painted ceramic tiles.Plaza de Espana, Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Plaza de Espana, Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To GoThe enormous brick buildings form a semi-circle around a plaza complete with a moat-like canal running through it and crossed by four gaily-painted bridges.  To say we were captivated might have been an understatement and, with the blessing from the warm weather gods, we decided to nix our plans to visit the museums originally on our itinerary and instead spent hours wandering around the grounds, watching inexpertly rowed boats float by and soaking up the feeling of stepping back to the previous century.The Tower of Giralda, Cathedral of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Plaza de Espana, Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go5) Seville celebrates all things Flamenco, an intense dance linked with Southern Spain’s Andalusian Roma, aka the Gypsies.

Flamenco dresses displayed in a shop.

Flamenco dresses displayed in a shop.

By chance, we happened upon a street performance with a thin and wiry dancer who struck theatrical poses, clapped her hands and finger-snapped, swirling and stomping her feet upon a wooden platform.  Her male companions played the guitar and tambourine, while one cupped the microphone in his hands and sang mournfully. Flamenco dancer and musicians. Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go We were so intrigued by the street dance that we followed a friend’s recommendation (thanks KemKem!) and bought tickets for an evening concert.  The flamenco conjures up enough intense emotions to satisfy any drama queen and we also fell under the spell.   In fact, when we did a little more reading about the art form the next day, we learned that UNESCO had “declared flamenco one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” in 2010.

A slightly blurry but nonetheless stirring performance.

A slightly blurry photo but nonetheless, a stirring performance.

6) We’re not quite sure how the massive and very contemporary (2011) Metropol Parasol came to be built in the old quarter of Seville’s La Encarnación square but we appreciated the jarring contrast between the ancient and ultra-modern sights of the city.  Claiming to be the world’s largest wooden structure, we had no trouble imagining the controversy its construction would have roused since its six parasols have earned it the less-than-stellar nickname, “Incarnación’s mushrooms.”  However, we loved its sensuous curves and swoops as well as the walkways on the highest level which gave us an amazing 360° view of Seville. Metropol Parasol. Seville, Spain. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Views from the Metropol Parasol. Seville,Spain. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Views from the Metropol Parasol. Seville,Spain. Photo by No Particular Place To GoWe came to Seville with a map and list of things to do and see but it seemed that the city set its own pace.  We saw more than we realized but found that we also slowed down to enjoy:

7) random and rambling walks throughout the historic city,

8) sharing a cone of roasted chestnuts and stopping at sidewalk cafes to savor tapas and lingering meals with friends and

9) absorbing the sights and sounds of an ancient city coexisting with a metropolitan city of modern and sophisticated people.

At the end of our second visit to Seville we were unsurprised to count the many things we’d seen and done but, like all great experiences, we were left wanting more.  We have many more trips to Spain planned for 2017 (Madrid, Salamanca, Bilbao, Leon…) and, since all roads east of Lagos, Portugal lead to Seville, Spain, it won’t be hard to talk us into making a third visit to a city that’s got a piece of our hearts.street scene - Seville,Spain photo by No Particular Place To Go

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

A note of thanks to our awesome friends Kiki Bridges, and Tim and Anne Hall who blog at A New Latitude who made this trip even more fun by sharing the adventure with us!rainy day in Seville, Spain. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Once Was Enough: A Visit to Marrakesh

In the Medina-The PlazaWe took the train from Casablanca to Marrakesh. We gazed out the windows at the dusty, brown landscape, piles of trash here and there and shabby towns passing by and we talked about a song from the late sixties, Marrakesh Express, sung by Crosby, Stills and Nash.  For us, the city symbolized some of the spirit of the sixties and seventies, attracting rock bands like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, celebrities and the wealthy from all over the world as well as the young and adventurous.  The city sings its siren song to travelers like us, older with many experiences behind us but still eager to explore its souks, gardens, ancient streets and history.In the streets

We climbed into a taxi and set off for our lodgings located within the Medina of Marrakesh, the older, walled portion of the city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like Fez and Casablanca, the streets were teeming with people in western and traditional dress sharing the thoroughfares with bicycles, scooters and motorcycles, trucks, mules, horses and carts.  Here and there we spied some of the many scruffy cats that slink about the streets, lingering occasionally to enjoy a bit of sun.  Our attention was drawn to two mules, hitched together alongside the road and a man beating one frantically with a stick who had his teeth sunk into the neck of the other.  And then, in an unexpectedly shocking act of violence the man picked up a large rock and hit the offending mule savagely in the head.  Shaken and a bit sickened by what we’d seen we continued on, our anticipatory moods subdued by the event.Dar NaJat

For our living arrangements we had selected the Dar Najat, a traditional hotel, featured on Trip Advisor.  A dar is similar to a riad in that it is a three to four-story residence organized around a central courtyard but it lacks the interior garden and fountain. Our host, an energetic and dreadlocked young man with a wide, welcoming smile showed us to our small but clean room with rock hard beds and vividly colored bedspreads and pillows. The vibe was most definitely young and hip (in fact, we got the feeling that a joint or chunk of hash could be ours for the asking) but we felt comfortable and joined the few other travelers on the roof top dining and lounging area.  During our stay, we started each morning with a vast assortment of Moroccan pastries, eggs, freshly squeezed orange juice and bitter, strong coffee to fuel our adventures.In the streets - Medina wall

Today, Marrakesh is a huge draw for tourists all over the world and consists of its old city, the Medina, fortified by the (not so) red sandstone wall which gave it the nickname, “The Red City” and is surrounded by modern neighborhoods.  However, it should be kept in mind that it is one of the world’s most important trading centers, stretching from antiquity to the present day drawing merchants and buyers from the Maghreb (all of North Africa west of Egypt), Sub-Saharan Africa and, most recently, Europe. One of Morocco’s four former imperial cities built by the Berber empire, its history stretches back over a thousand years to its founding in 1017; a city that has survived feasts and famines, plagues, anarchy, the plotting of feudal lords, military coups and political intrigues.in the Medina

We spent a couple of memorable days in the company of our driver, Taoufiq, who showed up our first morning at Dar Najat promptly at 9 to collect us and walk us the short distance from the Medina to the square where his van was parked. His older brother Daoud, an erudite and well-spoken gentleman, accompanied us and shared the history of this fascinating city.  The following are some of our favorites:

  • The Ben Youssef Madrasa was founded in the 14th century and was one of the largest theological colleges in North Africa.  An interior courtyard let in the day’s weak sunlight and featured intricately carved stucco walls, marble floors and ancient, hand-worked cedar trim enclosed by a warren of dormitories.  It was fascinating to imagine the lives of its male inhabitants, as many as 900 at a time, who studied in its environs over the years.  The madrasa closed its doors in 1960, underwent extensive refurbishment and was reopened to the public as a historical site in 1982.Medraza de Ben Youssef
  • The El Bahia Palace, first begun in the 1860’s, was completed a couple of decades later by a former slave who rose to wealth and power, Ahmed Ibn Moussa, who brought hundreds of craftsmen in from Fez to lavishly embellish it.  Intended to be the greatest palace of its time, Ahmed Ibn Moussa lived there until his death in 1900 with his four wives and an entourage of twenty-four official concubines as well as the multitude of children who accompanied them.  With 160 rooms of reception halls, private quarters, interior courtyards with fountains and the two acres of gardens surrounding the palace, the place is a mouth-dropping delight of carved stucco panels, zelig tiles, arched doorways, carved cedar and painted ceilings.Palais BahiaPalais Bahia
  • The twelve-acre botanical garden, Jardin Majorelle, was designed by the French landscape artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and 1930s and has been open to the public since 1947.  In 1980 the garden was bought by Yves Saint-Laurent (whose ashes were scattered there after his death in 2008) and his partner, Pierre Bergé, who continued the efforts to preserve the garden and share the artist’s vision with the public.  Bird song and the play of water trickling from fountains accompanied us on our walk and voices were hushed, much like being in a church.  An astonishing variety of cacti, some fifteen to twenty feet high, are included among the three-hundred plant species from five continents. The buildings on the grounds are painted a bright blue that is named after the artist, bleu Majorelle.Jardin MajorelleJardin Majorelle
  • We’d missed seeing a working tannery during our time in Fez so a visit to the Tannery District was high on our list, a chance to see how leather has been processed for well over a thousand years.  Our guide, Dauoud presented each of us with a large clump of mint and told us to breathe through the leaves while we were there.  The noxious stench was visceral.  The animal skins are brought by mule or donkey from the slaughterhouse and then piled high awaiting their turn.  Men worked in and near vats filled with various mixtures of diluted cow urine or pigeon feces (ammonia cleans the hide of remaining fat, flesh and hair) and the hides are spread out to dry.  A ghastly pile of scrapped-off animal hair stood to one side.  Then the hides are immersed in other vats filled with natural vegetable dyes (indigo, henna, poppy, cedar wood, etc.) and at some stage the men knead the skins with their bare feet to soften them further.  The process was fascinating to watch but we definitely wouldn’t recommend it to anyone with vegetarian preferences.tannery
  • We’re not shoppers by anyone’s definition but a stroll (if you can tolerate the aggressive vendors who surround you whenever you pause to examine an item) through the Souks of Marrakesh are an integral part of experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of the city.  Here it seems like everything you can imagine is for sale from slippers to jewelry, medicinal herbals to geodes, leather goods to carpets.In the medinaIn the medina
  • Lastly, the heart of Marrakesh, the Jemaâ El Fna (historically used for public beheading by rulers seeking control) is the center of Marrakesh’s activity, tourism and trade.  We’d thread our way through the narrow streets of the medina and throngs of people at the end of each day to sit on the second-floor balcony of one of many restaurants overlooking the huge square and meeting place of the Medina. We could easily have been transported back centuries as we ate lamb, chicken and sausage dishes along with the ever-present hovis, round unleavened bread, washed down with a-ti’, sweetened mint tea. Below, unfolded a tapestry of musicians, dancers, snake-charmers, henna artisans, food vendors, alms seekers, magicians, acrobats and hucksters out hustling the masses that flowed through and around the square striving to make a living.  Wandering through the surging throng seeing what was to be seen took fortitude to ward off the persistent vendors who weren’t turned away with a polite headshake or firm “No.” It soon became apparent that when one’s camera was raised what quickly followed was a hand insisting on a small remuneration for the privilege. It seemed that everywhere we turned there was a demanding hand or a wheedling voice trying to sell us something and it didn’t take long before we’d decide to forego the fascinating scenes playing out before us and tire of the intimidation and harassment of the vendors and flee.In the medinaIn the Medina-The Plazain the medina plaza

In 2015 Marrakesh was named by Trip Advisor as its most popular travel destination in the world.  That fact alone should have served as a warning to avoid the city…  While we enjoyed much of our time there we found that we were also uncomfortable many times with the repeated demands for money and pestering to sell us goods in which we had no interest.  At the end of our third day in Marrakesh a full moon hung low in the sky and we boarded a night train heading back to Tangier and home to Portugal.

By Richard and Anita

 

 

Precious Oil, Argan Trees and the Tree Climbing Goats of Morocco

goats in Argan trees - On the road to EssaouiraWe were in an herbal shop in Fez, Morocco sipping sweet mint tea while the owner opened up jar after jar of medicaments and shook bags filled with loose herbs.  We sniffed and listened while he expounded upon the healing properties or cooking wonders that each provided and then he gestured us towards a corner where a couple of women sat roasting and cracking nuts with rocks.  To our shame we paid these hard-working women scant attention because we’d totally focused upon the poster behind them of a tree.  And not just any tree but one filled with goats, happily standing on the branches like oversized Christmas ornaments.  Cooperative-Argan oil & spicesA few days and questions later, after a bit of online research and some money that crossed our driver’s palm, we were on our way to the area near Essaouira, about a two and a half-hour drive east from Marrakesh.  Besides being a name rich in vowels, the coastal city of Essaouira is a popular vacation area for European beachgoers and surfers with a rich history dating back to the Carthaginians and Berbers.  Surprisingly though, that was of little interest to us as we were on a mission that had to do with the argan trees and the tree climbing goats in the Sous Valley.  And this day trip would take us to the only place in the world where these trees are to be found, the reason why the southwestern region of Morocco became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1998.

Our drive led us through several, micro eco-systems, both artificial and manmade.  Leaving Marrakesh behind, we encountered crop lands of varying sizes. The majority were small family plots while others appeared to be mid-size fields of wealthier land-holders as well as some walled and guarded properties of seriously, major players or corporations. The signs of irrigation and intensive fertilization were abundant. Concrete aqueducts, modern spreaders and workers bent over hand weeding were only the most obvious. The vibrant greens of the abundant and healthy vegetable crops were the ultimate give away.On the road to Essaouira

In short order this lush, verdant land gave way to what could have been called The Big Dry, where piles of rocks appeared to be the most abundant harvest. Our guide, Daoud, explained that Morocco was in the midst of a multi-year drought. There had been only two or three days of rain in the new year; totally insufficient to replenish the land. The effects of the previous years’ calamities stood in stark relief before us. Homes appeared to be abandoned in piecemeal fashion on both sides of the road. Crops were stunted or dead in the fields. Whole stretches of land were tilled but left unplanted. This was not land lying fallow; it was land farmers would not waste the seed upon, in plots destined to be barren because of the lack of moisture, a harbinger of want, hardship and destitution.

Then, climbing slightly in elevation, we crossed a ridge and descended into another landscape, the only place on earth where the fabled argan trees exist, the Sous Valley. Here in this hard-scrabble dirt grow the trees which for centuries have nourished the local Berber people who inhabit this land.On the road to Essaouira

The argan tree (argania spinosa) grows up to 30 feet in height and lives up to 200 years. It is well adapted to its harsh environment with its widespread root system that allows it to retain moisture and withstand the temperature extremes providing an important defense against erosion and the encroachment of the Sahara Desert, to the immediate south. In a land where not much else grows, the argan tree with its thorny branches and twisted trunks has been used for centuries by the Berber as building material, fuel and food.  And in a splendid example of environmental adaptation, the hungry goats learned to climb the trees to eat the walnut-size, yellow-green fruit.goats in argan trees - On the road to Essaouira

 

goat in Argan tree - On the road to EssaouiraHistory does not record such prosaic events as to who went through the goat droppings and discovered the prize after the fruit passed through the goat’s digestive system.  Who wants to think about such things anyway?  (Okay, we confess, we do and we had several entertaining scenarios envisioned!)  The goats obviously provide the easiest and most efficient way to extract the highly valued kernel but workers can also dry the argan fruit and then remove the pulp or remove the flesh mechanically.

The tan colored nut that remains though, contains one to three oil rich argan seeds and when processed this is the reward which has sustained the Sous Valley Berber for generations. One of the rarest oils in the world, high in vitamin A, vitamin E and essential fatty acids, the extracted oil can be used either as food for humans (the nuts are roasted first to enhance the flavor) or as a medication to heal acne, psoriasis, eczema and inhibit scar tissue formation. It is also becoming increasingly well-known for its cosmetic and anti-aging properties.

goats and argan trees - On the road to Essaouira

 

goat in the argan tree field - On the road to EssaouiraAfter watching the fabled tree-climbing goats and exchanging smiles with a goat tender who brought one of the long-haired creatures over to us to pet, we stopped by a small building on the side of the road, the La Cooperative Feminine Argan Majji, to learn how the oil is processed. nuts to make Argan oil - The Women's Cooperative

Following the removal of the fleshy pulp (by goat or other method) the women begin the labor intensive process to extract the oil. To get to the kernels, they crack the nut open the time-honored way, between two stones, with the leftover shells being gathered for later use as fuel for fires. This tedious work requires stamina, dexterity and finger protection for rocks are hard and fingers ain’t.  Argan nuts rank among the hardest nut in the world and this first stage of breaking them open is the most difficult part of the process. So far a machine hasn’t been developed that splits the nuts reliably and the traditional method, combined with the womens’ skills, remains the most effective way to get to the kernels. Once the kernels are extracted they can be crushed and pounded into a paste or fed into machines that pulverize, press and extract the valuable argan oil. The remains come out in long thin ropes of gray pulp that are fed back to the goats (an elegant cycle) for their second enjoyment of the argan fruit.cracking nuts-nuts to make Argan oil - The Women's Cooperative

 

processing nuts to make Argan oil - The Women's CooperativeMuch of the argan oil produced today comes from over fifty women’s argan oil cooperatives like La Cooperative Feminine Argan Majji that were first formed in the late 1990’s and operate under union protection. The work provides income which many of the women have used to educate themselves and their children, provide healthcare for their families and also gives them economic freedom in Morocco’s traditional society.  And, although the men’s part might be overshadowed by the success of the women’s co-ops, their role is equally important in tending the goats and argan trees, many of which are individually owned.  After all, goats are intelligent animals, but also greedy and rapacious creatures by nature, and need a goat herder to dissuade them from feasting upon other’s trees.

And when we left the Majji Co-operative to visit the coast before returning to Marrakesh we’d exchanged some Moroccan Durhams for a small bottle of oil, soaps and lotions.  We had a new-found appreciation of the argan trees, their valued oil and happy memories of seeing the tree-climbing goats of Morocco’s Sous Valley.

goat in the argan trees - On the road to Essaouira

By Richard Nash and Anita Oliver

 

 

 

It’s FEZinating! Ten Things We Liked About Fez, Morocco

Even though the sun was out and the sky was a deep blue, we were cold as we stood on a barren, windswept hill overlooking the ancient city of Fez.  To our backs were some crumbling ruins with sections of an original wall and a free standing gate and on either side of us, climbing up and down the hills were whitewashed grave markers dating from eons ago. old cemetery overlooking Fes

We watched some men below us carefully spreading out animal hides to dry in the sun before taking them to the tanneries, just like their ancestors had done for centuries.  Our surroundings felt timeless but, in a jarring contrast when we looked below us at the thirteen-hundred year-old, walled city of Fez, we noticed the satellite dishes, all faced in one direction awaiting the magic signals that would bring them to life.

satellite dishes

The feeling of stepping back in time and watching things done just as they’d been for centuries past juxtaposed against the bustle of daily commerce followed us during the days we spent in Fez.  As the oldest imperial city of Morocco it was a major market located along the Trans-Saharan trade route connecting the empires of Western Sahara to the Atlantic and Mediterranean shipping lanes.  Goods like salt, cloth, beads and metal were exchanged for gold, ivory and slaves and caravanned by the Berbers of the Atlas Mountains, first in two-wheeled chariots pulled by oxen, donkeys and horses.  But, as anyone who’s watched an epic desert movie knows, it was the introduction of the camel, probably from the Levant, which revolutionized the industry of desert transport.  Even some of the various names by which Fez is known reflect the mix of civilizations passing through:  the French spelling of Fès, the Berber name Fas and the lacy script of the Arabic culture.

The days spent in Fez flew by quickly as we tried to pack in as many sights and sounds and tastes (and smells!) as we could. However, even self-professed history buffs and aspiring culture vultures have limits and we soon realized that one visit could not cover everything.  The following is our list of recommended favorites:Ryad Ayla

1)  Stay in a Moroccan Riad. These traditional houses of two or more storeys are built around a courtyard with a garden and fountain and are decorated with carved stucco and colorful tiles in geometric patterns.  Once the homes of the wealthy and powerful many of these have been renovated into fine hotels like the Ryad Ayla where we stayed and wrote about it and our next listed place herestreet market in Medina-UNESCO WHS

2) Wander about The Medina of Fes.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this was one the highpoints of our stay and later we had to laugh when we recalled various guidebooks and posts we’d read that suggested “Get lost in the Medina” as a chosen activity.  Once you enter this maze of narrow streets and alleys twisting in various directions there are no other alternatives.  With its shops and bustling souks (an Arab market or bazaar) bakeries and restaurants, crumbling architecture, many historically recognized buildings, mosques, museums, schools and homes, visiting the Medina is an unforgettable experience and a great example of full sensory overload. La Belle Vue de La Tannerie-refurbished tannery

3) Visit the Chouara Tannery in the Moulay Abdellah Quarter of the Medina.  Unfortunately for us, a major renovation was just being completely at the time of our February stay including the restoration of the earthen vats.  In fact, the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, was scheduled the very next week for a dedication of this site that dates back to the 11th century.  A later visit to another tannery convinced us that we may have been lucky to see the Chouara Tannery at its cleanest as the stench from the centuries-old tanning process which includes vats filled with pigeon feces, lye baths, various natural dyes and piles of animal skins is not for the faint-hearted.  But the proximity of the tanneries leads to our next suggestion …La Belle Vue de La Tannerie

4)  Shop in a Leather Souk.  Here’s a much better way to appreciate the smell of leather and the luxury quality of handbags, coats and jackets, vests, shoes, wallets, hats, furniture and poufs.  The leather goods are all beautifully handcrafted in their original colors or rich with the brilliant hues from the dye baths.  And, despite the hard sell tactics, we managed to escape with just a reasonably priced pair of slippers.pottery shop

5)  Watch a master potter and artists at Art D’ Argile.  Visiting this ceramics shop gave us a true appreciation for the artistry and craftsmanship that goes into making the beautiful quality Moroccan pottery found in reputable shops.  We watched a potter making the conical shaped tagine dishes using a foot-driven wheel and women hand-painting ceramic bowls, cups and dishes with beautiful designs.Ceramic factory

However, far and away the most impressive sight was watching the three men seated on the floor chiseling away with small hammers at the colorful, glossy, enamel-painted zellige tiles and patiently chipping them into precise forms. The tile shapes are put together like puzzle pieces using a template to form a geometric pattern that becomes a larger tile, tabletops and other mosaic works of art.  There was a bit of a soft sell here but really, the pieces sold themselves.mosaic

 

Jardin Jnane Sbil-Royal Gardens-Royal Gardens

6)  Stroll through Jardin Jnan Sbil. Sitting just outside the Medina walls, the gardens were once a part of the Royal Palace and were donated to the city of Fez in the 19th Century.  Although it was a cold day we still saw people walking about admiring the grounds and enjoying the open, green space with its towering palms, fountains and other plantings.  However, it took us a while to figure out what was missing but in this traditional Islamic country there were no young lovers strolling about hand-in-hand or seated on the benches, canoodling.King's Palace (one of them)

7)  Admire the exterior of Dar el Makhzen, Fez’s Royal Palace with its seven massive, bronze doors.  Built in the 17th century the mansion covers 80 hectares, about 200 acres and is the (humble) abode of the Moroccan royals who stay here when they’re in Fez. One important note is that, while we had no problem with taking photos of the palace at the elaborate entrance of the seven doors the guards in another area several block away indicated that no photos were allowed.building details in Medina

8) Find your way to the Mellah, the Jewish Quarter of Fez dating back to the 15th Century and follow the winding lanes past homes with intricately carved balconies.  For centuries Jews lived peacefully alongside Muslims in this once vibrant community, now with only about fifty families remaining.  Once there were several synagogues within the quarter and we recommend a …carved doors Jewish synagogue

9) Stop at the 17th Century Aben (Ibn) Danan Synagogue.  This 17th century synagogue is reached by climbing a short flight of stairs and appears almost plain when contrasted to other much more extravagantly decorated Moroccan buildings.  However, this only highlights the beautifully decorated Torah Ark, a huge cupboard of carved wood also dating back to the 17th century which houses a centuries old Torah Scroll.  The building was placed on the 1996 World Monuments Watch which provides funds to help preserve cultural heritage sites at risk.  And we can’t forget to mention the Jewish Cemetery nearby which can be seen through slits in the Medina’s walls or from the rooftop of the synagogue.weaving a traditional rug

10) Practice saying “No.”  A-L-O-T.  Perhaps we should have written this advice first …   No matter where we went in the marvelous city of Fez, there were shopping experiences galore whether we wanted them or not.  At one point we found ourselves in an enormous two-story carpet emporium where it seemed hundreds of rich wool and shimmering silk carpets in deep hues and intricately woven patterns hung from every surface – ceiling, walls and floors.  Any comments we made of appreciation resulted in them being rolled out in front of us with a flourish while the vendor began a steady barrage of offers and counter offers. Saying “no” seemed to amp up the hard sell even more and we finally escaped (or rather skulked away) feeling a bit cheap and ungrateful for not supporting the artisans’ cooperative but with our hands empty and wallets intact.  Shopping in Fez requires enormous willpower and is not for the faint-hearted!handwoven traditional carpets

Our list is, of necessity, limited to the amount of time we had to invest in this marvelous jewel. We’ve only mentioned some of the many things to do and places to go to when visiting Fez. The hardest part of any traveler’s stay might be selecting among the myriad of choices.  The three days we had allocated were totally insufficient to the task. We resolved to make another visit and immerse ourselves, again, in this fascinating cultural milieu.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

It’s All Relative: Old and “New” Fes, Morocco

narrow passages in Medina-UNESCO WHSWe arrived at Ryad Alya in the old Medina of Fès long after the sun had set, following a couple of young men who “offered” to show us the way to our hotel down the dimly lit and narrow lane and piled our small suitcases in a hand cart.  After tipping them and then upping the tip a bit more when they made the face that we became very familiar with during our time in Morocco – basically a grimace conveying the meaning that we were stingy foreigners who had shown disrespect for those who had labored diligently to meet our every need, whether requested or not – we finally escaped into the opening door of our hotel and into another world.

Hassnae, an attractive young woman dressed in skinny jeans like any university student in her 20’s, welcomed us into the riad, a traditional Moroccan house of three stories built around a courtyard.  Furnished with linen-draped dining tables, the large space had a comfortable feel with couches here and there along the walls for enjoying both the bubbling fountain and a garden with orange trees.lute player in Ryad Ayala

An elegantly dressed gentleman in a suit and polished black shoes was seated unobtrusively in a corner, plucking at the strings of a lute producing a soulful melody for the only couple dining.  Hassnae seated us in a lounge off to the side of the courtyard and served us little cups of mint tea, heavily sugared and pretty cookies that, since it had been awhile since our last meal on the road, we wiped out without much ceremony. lounge-Ryad Alya

She then showed us to our room, thankfully equipped with its own heater as the rooms around the garden were all open and it was cold.  Finally, we were able to shed our fleece vests, scarves and coats which we’d worn during our day of travel from Tavira, Spain to Tangier, Morocco and then to Fès. The beds were rock hard and weighted down with heavy blankets that kept us pinned beneath them but we had no complaints.  Actually, despite the late night sugar, we slept like we’d been heavily drugged.Ryad Alya

A tour of the riad the next morning, led by another friendly and pretty staff member named Shaimae, filled us in on the details of the paradise in which we’d found ourselves. Riads, once the fine homes of a city’s wealthiest citizens, lack windows on the exterior walls.  The architectural style is what Wikipedia calls an “inward focus” and opens onto the interior courtyard which provides the family complete privacy from the outside world.  Our riad, Ryad Alya, was originally built in (no typo!)1363.

Riad Ayla

The current owner whom we met that evening, Kholid Filoli, was an articulate, well-traveled Moroccan who spoke glowingly in English of his visits to the US.  He’d bought the riad in 2003 for his wife, an accomplished painter and his daughter, an architect living in Geneva.  The ancient house was renovated by skilled workers who spent three years returning the home to its current glory and converted it into a hotel with five beautifully furnished suites and three less expensive, but no less comfortable, rooms with their own private baths. The walls were embellished with designs in the carved plaster and zellige tilework, “a form of Islamic art” that features geometrically patterned mosaics.

Rooftop terrace of Ryad Alya

Rooftop terrace of Ryad Alya

During our stay in this Moroccan oasis the staff introduced us to many traditional three and four-course meals of unfamiliar and delicious foods, including our first taste of fava beans.  This had (one) of us cracking up intoning Hannibal Lector’s famous line, “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” UNESCO WHS-old city walls - Medina

We’d decided to explore the Medina on our own the first day and we set off with maps in hand.  The Medina of Fès was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 and is said to be the best preserved old city in the Arab world.  Covering 540 acres, it’s also the world’s largest car-free urban zone and goods are brought in by donkeys, mules and hand carts. Called “The Mecca of the West” and “The Athens of Africa,” this ancient walled city is actually divided into two medinas, the Fès El Bali or Old Fès dating back to the 9th Century and the “new” part, Fès Jdid, which dates to the 15th Century.  In this area that surrounded us with its sense of ancient history and present activity are great open spaces of gardens with sparkling fountains and avenues.

Jardin Jnane Sbil - The Royal Gardens

Jardin Jnane Sbil – The Royal Gardens

These skirt narrow streets funneling foot and animal-drawn traffic into lanes and crooked paths where it feels like a great crowd of humanity is pressed around you, engaged in the business of daily living.  Surrounded by walls, the Medina’s space has remained the same for centuries as the number of its inhabitants has increased exponentially resulting in overcrowding – probably not the best experience for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia.  The passageways wind around in a labyrinth with age-old buildings of three and four stories abutting them and as the streets twist the sunlight overhead is partially blocked. building details in Medina

Behind the walls of these ancient buildings in various states of crumbling disrepair and ongoing attempts at restoration, are other warrens of buildings built around interior courtyards where thousands of people preserve customs and traditions passed down through the millennia.  In contrast to other parts of the world, Jews and Arabs have coexisted peacefully for hundreds of years; there’s an old Jewish quarter occupied by a dwindling population as well as the Ibn Danan Synagogue dating from the 17th century. Throughout the Medina are schools for secular learning and madrasas where the religion of Islam is taught.  Groups of children passed by us greeting us in Morocco’s unofficial first language, French, with “Bonjour Madame et Monsieur,” the boys in street clothes and the girls uniformed in white coats resembling lab jackets worn over their street clothes.

Medina of Fes-UNESCO WHS

 

Jewish Quarter Bakery

 

Jewish Quarter

Open shops on the ground floors offer anything a shopper could want: leather goods, jewelry, dried fruit and herbs, ceramics and metalware, every day and finely embroidered clothing for special occasions.  There are bakeries where families bring their bread daily to bake in communal ovens and butcher shops with fish displayed on ice next to pharmacies, barber shops, small cafes and restaurants.  Lining several of the twisting lanes were other vendors conducting an informal farmers’ market with brightly colored fruits and vegetables piled on makeshift tables.  Heavily laden donkeys and mules led by men in peaked hooded djellabas passed by and there were women completely veiled as well as those wearing robes and headscarves along with many younger women in western style clothing.   street market in Medina-UNESCO WHS

 

street market-Jewish Quarter

 

burrow - In the Medina

We were completely lost and completely caught up in the full sensory overload of sights, sounds, smells and tastes of different foods that we tried here and there.  We gave up on trying to figure out where we were on the map and wandered for a few hours trying to absorb the completely exotic, chaotic and alien world.  And finally, after brushing off multiple offers from the unofficial guides that appeared here and there with offers to show us selected sights and shops with “special” bargains, we struck up a conversation and agreed on a payment with a young man who pointed out places of interest as he helped us find our way back to Ryad Ayla for some much needed tranquility.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Next post: Sights to see in Fes, MoroccoJewish Quarter-women in djellaba

 

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