Friday, June 20, 2014

Dr. Plotnick's Moroccan Cat Adventure - Day 2 – Marrakech

Day Two – First full day in Marrakech (Continued from Day 1)

Friday morning.  Woke up feeling refreshed and ready to explore the city.  After a great breakfast of eggs and a huge assortment of breads, pastries and jams (these folks are into carbs), we got ready to hit the town.  But first, I had to play with the riad kitty.  I knew the place had a resident cat, so I brought him a catnip toy from my hospital.

 
He’s pretty cute, no?



We followed the usual path to the main square, but when we reached the Souk Kessabine, rather than take a left into the square, we continued straight, then took a right and started walking north.  We passed some nice looking cats along the way, like this handsome boy,


and this group of kitties down an alley.


Notice the bag of treats I’m holding.  Cats really seem to live in peace and harmony with the residents.  I saw a lot of cats just strolling along the streets alongside the people, just as if they were people themselves. Check out this cat just moseying down the alley, like he’s heading to work.

"Morning Sam."... "Morning Ralph"
One scene I saw a lot was that of a cat hanging out by the butcher stall, waiting to be tossed a scrap of meat.  On our stroll, we passed by this stand, and Mark and I took some photos.


Well, the proprietor (not the guy in white, but the kid behind the counter, just above the woman with the black dress on the right) became enraged and leaped out from behind the stand and insisted that we not take photos.  In fact, he made Mark show him the photo he took on his iPhone, and made him delete it right there in front of him!  He didn’t realize that I had taken one, too.  So…just to spite him, I’m posting it online here for everyone to see.

As we strolled through this neighborhood, Mouassine, passed by the Mouassine Mosque, for which the neighborhood is named.  A right turn at the mosque led to a small plaza that contains the Mouassine Fountain, a fountain with four bays – three for animals and one for humans.


We finally arrived at the most beautifully decorated building in Marrakech, the Ali Ben Youssef Medersa. 


The Ben Youssef Medersa was a koranic school that was attached mosque. Here, students learned the Koran by rote.  Non-Muslims cannot enter the mosques, but they can enter the medersas.  It was built in 1565.  It has all the amazing decorative details that define Moroccan architecture: zellij (glazed) tiling,

 
stucco plasterwork,

 
and carved cedarwood.

 
On some of the tiled pillars is stylized Koranic text calligraphy.

 

Here’s me and Mark at the end of the courtyard.  Notice the eight-pointed star motif commonly seen on the tiles.


Right next door to the medersa is the Marrakesh Museum.  It is housed in a magnificent late 19th century palace called Dar Mnebbi.  It was neglected for a while, but it was restored and opened as a museum in 1997.  In here you’ll find both traditional and contemporary art. I really liked this mosaic,


and this fountain,


but the most impressive part was the inner courtyard with its huge brass lamp hung above the central fountain.


Our next stop was the Maison de la Photographie.  But first, I had to say hi to this cute cat hanging out on the hood of a car.


To get there, we had to stroll down a winding street, the Rue du Souk des Fassis.   This street is lined by beautifully restored fondouks.  Fondouks are one of the most characteristic types of building in the medina. They are inns that were originally used by visiting merchants when they visited Marrkesh to trade their wares in the souks. They have a courtyard in the middle, surrounded by what were originally stables, with the upper level housing the rooms for the merchants.


Marrkesh’s fondouks today are in varying states of repair.  Some are homes.  Others are stores. Many of them leave their doors open, and don’t seem to mind if tourists wander in.


I wanted to wander into this one,


but I chickened out.

At the end of the street was the Maison de la Photographie.


I’ve gotten interested in photography recently, so this was a must-see for me.  Like the riads, this museum had a nice central courtyard,

 
while on the balconies, where you might expect to find bedrooms, there were galleries instead.


The museum houses an interesting collection of early 20th century photographs of Morocco (some older), some of which were made from glass negatives.  Pretty neat.

After the museum, we continued down the street, took a left up Rue de Bab el Khemis, which led us, of course, to Bab el Khemis, one of the many gates to the medina.   On the way, I stopped to pat a donkey


and took a great picture of a cat hanging out by a fruit stand.



We exited the medina, grabbed a cab (after much haggling with the stubborn drivers at the taxi stand) and visited the wonderful Majorelle Gardens.


Marrakech has many gardens, but these are the most famous. They’re the legacy of a French painter named Jacques Majorelle. In 1924, he created a garden around his studio.  He opened these gardens to the public in 1947.  They were a popular attraction for the next 15 years, until he died.  The gardens then fell into disrepair, but it was rescued and renovated in 1980 by the French designer Yves Saint-Laurent!  When Saint-Laurent died in 2008, he had his ashes scattered in the gardens.

After spending a hectic morning in the medina, we really appreciated the tranquility of the gardens.  Lots of groves of bamboo,


cacti,


and lily-covered ponds.


It was really lovely. Many of the structures in the garden are painted a striking cobalt blue,


which seem more vibrant in the bright Moroccan sun.  There’s a memorial to Saint-Laurent on the grounds,


and the street leading up to the gardens was renamed in his honor.  Look how beautiful the place is.

 
We needed a cab after visiting the Majorelle Gardens, but I took the advice of my guidebook and avoided the cabbies right outside the entrance, as they charge two to three times the appropriate fare.  Instead, we strolled down the street (which was named after Mr. Saint-Laurent), which allowed me to make friends with this cute kitty outside a store on the street.


Our destination was Gare ONCF, the train station.



We needed to buy our train ticket to Fes, as well as our bus ticket for our daytrip to Essaouira.   Buying the train tickets was easy (and inexpensive).  One way to Fes, first class, costs $36 per person, for a seven hour train ride.  Round trip to Essaouira in a comfortable bus was even cheaper. (The bus depot was just next door to the train station)  Across the street from the train station was the Theater Royal.


This theater was designed by Tunisian architect Charles Boccara and took 25 years to build. Apparently, the Theater Royal is a sore subject for Marrakshis who are still waiting for the interior to be completed.  Apparently the work wasn’t done to specifications, and there’s no money to get it done.  In any event, it’s a pretty nice looking building.

I wanted to see Marrakesh’s most famous, most expensive, and most exclusive hotel, La Mamounia.  Jacques Majorelle (of gardens fame) did the art deco mural on the ceiling of the extended lobby, as the request of fellow painter Winston Churchill, when they met in 1946. In fact,  Winston Churchill was one of the most celebrated guests to have frequented the hotel. Sean Connery, Catherine Deneuve, Bill Clinton, Kate Winslet, and Will Smith, too.  Several scenes from Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” were shot at the hotel.  Apparently there’s a lunchtime buffet served beside the swimming pool in the gardens, and non-guests are allowed to visit, but alas, the snooty woman at the door wouldn’t allow us in.  Snob.

The Koutoubia Mosque was nearby and easily seen in the distance. This guided us back to the main square (the Jemma el Fna), as the Koutoubia is just south of it.  While walking in a courtyard near the mosque, a very scrawny black and white kitten meandered in front of me.  He was a tiny little thing, and his protruding ribs spoke of malnourishment.  I scooped the little guy up.  You can see the Koutoubia minaret behind me.


Yikes.  This little guy had a raging conjunctivitis, caused by the feline herpesvirus, no doubt.  I had some kitty food with me, so I put some down in front of him.


He was starving.  After he ate it all up, I put some antibiotic drops in his eyes.


Sadly, one application of eye drops probably didn’t do much for him. In the blog posts to come, you’ll see a few pictures of cats with runny eyes and snotty noses.  I hope this doesn’t upset too many readers.  It’s frustrating, because so many of the sick cats and kittens that I encountered could have been easily treated, with just a few doses of antibiotic and some eye drops.  Unfortunately, the veterinary care in Morocco is prioritized toward working animals, i.e. the horses and donkeys.

There was still an hour or two to fill, so we headed to Dar Cherifa.


It’s a beautifully renovated townhouse that can be tricky to find. You need to find the signs at the head of the alley opposite the side of the Mouassine Mosque.  Then you go down the winding alley, and voila! Here’s Mark standing next to the Dar’s lovely Moroccan door.


Inside is very nice woodwork and carved plasterwork, some of it dating back to the 16th century.


It’s now a cultural center that hosts shows by local artists.



They also serve light meals, and teas and pastries.  It had a laid back and relaxed yet sophisticated feel.  I took these shots of the white chairs in the interior, trying to achieve a dramatic effect with the shadows.

 The roof above the central part of the room was open, with strips of cloth across the top. These cast dramatic shadows on the interior.

We were getting hungry, so we made our way to Café Arabe.

This is a sophisticated restaurant in the heart of the medina, with a great menu.  There were lots of seating options, like in the funky salon, or on the terrace, which is where we sat.  I was dying to try the pastilla already.  Pastilla is a meat pie.


The crust is phyllo dough, and then dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon (!) The classic filling is pigeon.  Most menus offer chicken as the filling, but authentic restaurants offer pigeon as well.  I tried the pigeon.  What the hell.  Well, it turned out to be fantastic.


At Café Arabe, they serve it on a plate with lemon sauce, which made it taste even better.  We had pastilla twice more while in Morocco, but no other place served it with lemon sauce. I’ll never look at New York City street pigeons the same way again.

The pastilla was the appetizer.  The main course was the tagine.  Probably the most common tagine served in Morocco is chicken with olives and preserved lemons.  That’s what I ordered.  They bring it out with the tagine lid still on, and then they take the lid off at the table.


It was really spectacular. The pulp of the preserved lemons is discarded; you eat the skin, which is now soft.  It’s both sweet and tart, and it really makes the dish.  I had this dish a few more times during my stay in Morocco.  Café Arabe’s was second best.  The best was in Fes, as you’ll read soon enough.

I wanted to check out a particular fountain nearby, so we headed in that direction.  As we strolled, I spotted a tiny little black and white kitten.


This one was in much better shape than the one outside the Koutoubia mosque.  She was all clean and fluffy, and turned out to be one of the cutest kittens I’d see on the entire trip.  Forgive me for putting three photos of her in the blog post, but c’mon… is this not the cutest kitten ever?




I spotted the Chrob ou Chouf Fountain up ahead. 


The name means “drink and look”.  There’s a big cedar lintel covered in calligraphy.


It’s a relic of a rime when providing a public source of clean drinking water was considered to be a pious act.  Frankly, the guidebooks made it sound much nicer than it turned out to be.  Judge for yourself.

The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering the souks.  The covered souks seemed to be more interesting. 


Some of the merchants were busy making their wares in addition to selling them. 


The colors were amazing.


Slippers and sandals were very popular items, and you can’t help photographing the rainbow on display.


The danger here is stopping for two seconds to take the photo.  That’s long enough for the more aggressive of the merchants to start up with the hard sell tactics.  “La, choukhran, la choukhran” (“no, thank you), I had to continuously say as I strolled.   We reached the alluring “Souk de Teinturiers”, the Dyers’ Souk, a tangle of narrow alleyways just east of the Mouassine mosque. Hanks of just-dyed wools are hung out to dry across the alleys, adding to the explosion of color that already characterizes the souks.



They say that you can identify the dyers, as they are the guys with red, blue and green dye up to their elbows, but we didn’t spot any.  I did spot this guy affectionately hold a cat that was hanging out in front of his store.


She looks like she’s in an awkward position, but trust me, she was loving the attention.  I asked if I could take a photo, and he said yes.  This was merely one of the many demonstrations of affection toward cats on this trip.  The rest of the stroll was through the uncovered souks, which were just as colorful, like this guy’s lantern ship just outside the covered area,


and this carpet shop, with brightly colored rugs hanging on the awning and draped from the roof.  


We finally reached the start of our path back to our riad.  I passed this group of kitties just chillin’ near a motorcycle, 


and this one, enjoying the view from a chair.  


This long day of sightseeing has finally come to an end.  Tomorrow: more interesting historical sites (palaces and museums), and many more cats, of course.

Day 3
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