Thursday, March 29, 2012

La Mamounia Hotel MARRAKECH - the most beautiful hotel ever!

The La Mamounia Hotel on the edge of the Medina in Marrakech would be the most beautiful hotel I have ever seen. We met with a staff member to discuss the possibility of running our conference there next year and were given a tour of the rooms, restaurants and pool area. 

The hotel was originally a palace given to Prince Moulay Mamoun by his father as a wedding gift and was converted into a hotel by the French in 1923. La Mamounia has won numerous awards over the past 2 years as it was closed for 3 years from 2006-2009 for a total renovation - yes, 3 whole years of full time renovation! The result is truly stunning. Every surface displays intricate handcrafted work traditional in Morocco for centuries. Zellige tiles abound, detailed carved stucco, carved, painted and inlayed wood plus beautiful marble and magnificent lighting. The traditional design individualises the hotel in the most magical way and even though it is large, all spaces feel intimate and personal. 

The Interior Designer was internationally acclaimed French designer Jacques Garcia - well known for his use of sumptuous fabrics, jewel like colours and beautiful lighting. The layering of texture, colour and craftsman ship creates an incredibly glamourous intimate space. This hotel is luxurious and gorgeous, a respite from the chaotic nature of Marrakech - breathtaking to wander around and I would imagine even more breathtaking to stay in! If you want to splurge on a holiday in a spectacular hotel, in an interesting and exciting city, this is definitely the place to go!

Each one of these mosaic tiles has been individually made and then inlayed into this water feature
This is the Italian restaurant and the design is superb - intimate and glamourous and a space where
I could happily sit for hours!
A detail of the wall in the restaurant - the silk wall panelling is finished with brass studs and inset into velvet. I am a huge advocate of multiple soft furnishings in restaurants (including carpet) as it creates an atmosphere of warmth and buffers noise - I intensely dislike noisy restaurants where you have to shout to be heard. This is a beautiful space which has been very cleverly designed - and look at the incredible detail in this fabric.
Again the spectacular zellige tiles - this time in a bedroom
A suite - magnificent intricate surfaces with gorgeous fabrics and beautiful textural variation
It's all in the detail - the lighting, the carved timber screen the beautiful marble and the magnificent hand made tiles
A Moroccan masterpiece!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Selling Tissues in Marrakech - a tough way to earn $

As you are probably aware from the posts I write, I truly love to travel and discover new places around the world. Travel highlights the contrasts in life, widens one's perspective and makes one more tolerant and understanding. While waiting for our local Moroccan SIM cards to be connected to data packages, I spent some time watching this young girl trying to sell her small packets of tissues to passersby. I watched her for almost 2hrs and she appeared to be by herself although she was known by the people in the surrounding shops. She seemed to have a quota of number of packets that she had to sell and eventually was able to pick up her 2 small plastic stools and wander away. Certainly a hard way to earn an income - particularly if one is only about 5 years old!!

I was told that a few years ago the King of Morocco made schooling obligatory and this has gone a long way to reducing the number of children begging and hopefully gives them a chance of better opportunities in life.  

Jemaa El Fna Square MARRAKECH, Morocco

Jemaa El Fna is undoubtedly the beating heart of the medina of this city. Visiting it feels like one has walked onto a movie set - complete with snake charmers, belly dancers, story tellers and acrobats - and that is only during the daytime! Each afternoon about 5pm, hundreds of temporary food stalls cooking a variety of local produce begin to invade the square. The spectacle in the evening is incredible and some of the best (free) entertainment you could imagine!! It is certainly something that must be experienced during a visit to this city - I know some people avoid 'street food', but if you choose wisely (fried food, no salad items), eat early (no refrigeration) and go the stands that are busy (good turn over of produce), you should be fine (we were!). For about $10 we ate a delightful meal whilst being entertained by the stall vendors trying to encourage diners to sit at their stand - they use every means they can to try to engage you in conversation, the first step to getting you to sit down! Go with a sense of humour, a sense of adventure and a camera and you will have a fabulous evening.   
The men who 'charm' these snakes make their living this way, so you do need to pay to take their photo. Our guide said the usual fee is about 10 - 20 Moroccan Dirham (approx 1-2 Euro) - and I was more than happy to pay them for such a memory!  

Note the other 2 pythons curled up here in addition to the Taipan which was being 'charmed' 
The stall vendors certainly have a sense of humour, so play along and you will certainly
enjoy the free entertainment of the evening!

This man is a water seller in the traditional Berber clothes. He carries water in a goat skin bag around his waist and sells it to the local people by the glass.  He also earns money through being photographed by tourists

Friday, March 23, 2012

Jardin Majorelle MARRAKECH, Morocco

We visited the Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech a few days ago and it is a gorgeous tranquil space in this city that has unexpected surprises at every turn. Without our guide I do not think I would have ventured to this garden in the "new city", so it was especially delightful. The land was originally purchased by artist Jacques Majorell in 1924 and after 23years of work, he opened it to the public in 1947. After the artist's death, Yves Saint Laurent purchased the garden and today, it remains open to the public through his foundation. The garden is a contrast of colour, shape and form through the use of hundreds of cactus plants set against strong architectural elements. The buildings are designed in the "internationalist style" and painted in a cobalt blue which the artist had noticed in the zellige tile work around the city and patented as "Majorelle Blue". I was reminded of the work of Mexican architects Luis Barragan and Ricardo Legoretta - the strength & contrast of colour & architectural building elements set against the backdrop of sculptural form in plants is reminiscent of their work. This space is an oasis from the frenetic pace outside the walls and at the same time inspiring and invigorating.  

Within the garden there is a boutique selling beautiful locally made products and although Western prices, the quality and diversity from what you will find in the souks, make the products worth it. The garden became the artist's major and most well known artwork, with every possible surface painted in a palette which plays with contrast, lifting the spirit and offering unexpected surprise.

These cushions are all hand embroided and as I find it difficult to resist superb hand detail,
the one in the centre has made its way to our Italian home!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Palais Bahia, MARRAKECH, Morocco

Today we spent all day with a private guide, Noura, touring this wonderful city by both foot and horse drawn cart. Using a local guide to discover a city gives a perspective that would be virtually impossible to achieve by oneself and we always find it worth the cost. We spent 9hrs with Noura, and the insight we achieved into the historical and cultural aspects of this city was enormous - she also took us to areas we would definitely have missed without her. 

The Palais Bahia, originally the home of the administrative head of the city, is a series of beautiful Riads with intricate plaster, painted timber and mosaic tile work. The word 'Riad' means Eden or Paradise, and refers to the style of architecture in these hot, largely Muslim countries where the focus was internal - presenting as bland to the street, once you step inside the thick walls there is a beautiful internal courtyard with trees, running water and small open alcoves to sit and avoid the heat. Once, they were largely homes for the wealthy within the old Medina (old area of the city with in the original 'Rampants' - walled section), but now the government has encouraged private investors to turn many into small hotels. Built in 1889, Palais Bahia is undergoing extensive work to the courtyard of the third Riad, but the first two Riads are a superb oasis of beautiful handcrafted workmanship - much of which is still done today.

Palais Bahia is filled with marble from Carrara Italy, which was traded for sugar centuries ago
Our wonderful guide Noura who was very knowledgable on historic & cultural aspects of Marrakech 
Palais Bahia has intricately painted timber ceilings - painted using natural dye colours
achieved with saffron, henna & mint
The internal courtyard is peaceful and calm - blocking out the noise and frenetic pace of the outside world

These ceilings would originally have been open to the elements in the top sections, but the stained glass panels were added by the French to make the place more hospitable in the months when snow covers the nearby Atlas mountains. The fireplace is also an addition by the French when they colonised this country from 1912 - 1956

MARRAKECH - The geometrical pattern of Zellige tiles & Plaster work

We are currently in Marrakech Morocco organising the events for a conference here in 2013. I love the passion that exists in this city - the way its African heart beats with intricate artisan detail at every turn, the handcrafted work, the geometric moorish influence in the symmetrical mathematical pattern detail and the intensity of colour and light. It is a designers paradise with such wonderful inspiration.

Here are a few photos I have taken in the past 24hrs of the geometrical pattern in everyday surfaces - from the floor of a former palace, to the pillar of a building along our busy street - all of these mosaic tiles, also known as "zellige", are individually made and separately inserted into the surface they sit upon. This beautiful artisanal craftsmanship is evident all over this city and I find myself continually stopping to admire the work that has gone into achieving it. It is also sometimes a stark contrast to the dusty, hot (and its only the beginning of Spring) street/market one finds these details, and the surprise in finding such amazing craftsmanship in  often everyday areas, is part of the reason I find Marrakech so fascinating.

I also love the detailed hand crafted plaster work that exists in so many buildings. Some are purely pattern, others are Arabic words carved into the plaster. The hours that have gone into achieving these surfaces is amazing and the result, quite memorising.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


For the past (almost) 2 weeks I have been attending Italian language school at Il Sasso Language school in Montepulciano, Italy, and it has been such a fabulous experience. I know learning a new language is supposed to be serious and studious, (and I am doing that) but I don't think I have laughed as much in years! For the first time since beginning the job of trying to become proficient in this language, (and that is some time ago) I am able to seriously laugh at the ridiculous mistakes I make in the process of trying! Being at this school has made me less concerned about sounding bad (but no doubt I am still doing a very good job of that) and more concerned about trying. This new found freedom in the process of learning is a combination of a number of things - firstly the teachers at Il Sasso are fabulous and totally geared towards students learning in an easy and positive environment, secondly, I have a fabulous class mate, my new friend Amelia from NZ, (the only other person in my class) who is heaps of fun and together we find the mistakes each of us make incredibly funny (in fact our laughter at each others errors, reminds us not to repeat them), and thirdly, the after school activities organised by the school are a wonderful addition to the whole experience as I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting the other students in various levels. I have learnt an incredible amount in the 2 weeks and am disappointed I do not have the time at this point to do another 2 weeks - immersion is certainly the boost one needs to jump a number of steps in the learning curve!

In the afternoon, after our 'study' sessions finish, we have been on cooking classes, trips to other towns in the gorgeous surrounding Tuscan countryside and a fabulous hike to a nearby village. I have always claimed my Italian language skills needed "head space" and I am now convinced that immersion allows a focus which is unable to be achieved in my normal weekly classes - it makes an enormous difference to the end result. With the apartment we have recently bought in the centro storico (old area) of nearby Citta della Pieve (a 40min drive away), there is no doubt I will return to this language school to further my learning curve. 

They also make the superb wine, Vino Noblie di Montepulciano here - in itself, a wonderful reason to plan a visit to this part of the world! 
Our Cooking class
This was a serious cooking class (we made gnocchi, stuffed zucchini + more) - though this photo does not look so serious!

The view on our walk from Montepulciano to Montefollonico 
Silvia & Costanza from Il Sasso Language - this was taken on our hike to Montefollonico with
Montepulciano in the background
The centro storico area of Montefollonico is delightful
The conclusion of our 2 hour hike from Montepulciano to Montefollonico
A view of Montepulciano as we walked towards Montefollonico