19 June 2017

Rabat, Morocco 2017

Whereas Casablanca is a bustling, mainly modern-looking city, Morocco's capital RABAT, a short drive from Casa, is a good introduction to some of the country's exotic flavour and its living historical evidence. And that began with late-day checking into a riad ... the traditional guest houses about which I've already written. Dar El Kebira was a revelation behind an unprepossessing door in the medina (old town).
Reception area; photo Mark Charteris

Bathroom sink ceramics: photo Heather Daveno
The bathroom sink shows the care and craftmanship that goes into riad hospitality. The bedrooms and the service were equally impressive. Once tried, a standard hotel can never hold a candle to such cultural immersion. Staying at a riad or dar usually places you within the heartbeat of a Moroccan city's medina and souks.

Heather enjoys sunset in Rabat: photo Doug Baum

Sunset overlooking the Atlantic, just outside the medina walls and over the hill from our riad; so many people out strolling. Burial stones were scattered over the slope, on both sides of the road; we were to see many such sights (cremation is not an option in Islam). As dusk fell we walked around part of the medina walls to find a recommended restaurant.

Harira soup is one of several Moroccan food specialties and the one I found most pleasing. Variations occur regularly this one with a hard boiled egg but all are pleasantly spiced. The appetizers aka mezzes present the most variety in taste, always including the customary assortment of olives. Traditional tagine meals are a work of art, basically a small mountain of meat and vegetables, but rarely seem to have unique spicing. I crave more traces of their preserved lemons and cinnamon, lovely cinnamon. Glasses of mint tea, of course, are de rigueur everywhere.

Next day to the old Kasbah Oudayas, a UNESCO World Heritage site, at the height of the city. Restoration work on the main gate is underway to preserve its 12th century origin. Some families still live here within the kasbah, plying their trades, generally tolerant of tourists as a market for their wares. Pride in their heritage is obvious. The use of the gorgeous blue colour, sometimes called Majorelle blue, has become a tradition, although we will see it at its most prominent in Chefchaouen. The rampart area is magnificent with a view to the maritime setting.

Photo: Heather Daveno

The tomb of Mohamed V, grandfather of current king Abdullah, is always on the tourist route. The vast space of sheared-off columns formerly supported a mosque, destroyed by an earthquake. Only the unfinished minaret tower still stands. Particularly notable are the fabulous decorative lanterns. Lots of colour in the beautiful interior tomb and the ceremonial guards. 
Photo: Doug Baum

Photo: Mark Charteris

More than one earthquake has afflicted Rabat. We visited anciently-inhabited Chellah, once a Phoenician, then a Roman site. Little is left of what they abandoned; later the 14th century Marinid Muslim dynasty rebuilt the complex as a royal necropolis. Ruined buildings after a 1755 earthquake are being restored from that period. It makes a stunning venue for concerts and festivals, contained within the existing surrounding wall. Storks have claimed the site as nesting grounds and add to the other-worldly atmosphere. Descent into the site is through well-maintained gardens, an attraction in themselves.

2nd century Roman Base; photo Doug Baum
Photo Heather Daveno

As I said, a perfect introduction to the mystery and magic of Morocco. A special thank you to my esteemed travel companions for sharing their expert photographs (uncredited photos are mine).

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman

06 June 2017

MOVIES, Part Two

Since Part One about foreign-made films, I snagged a DVD of Queen of the Desert on Amazon. Nicole Kidman does a creditable job but the script ignores a lot of what Gertrude Bell accomplished ‒ her cartography, her archaeological finds, her founding of the great museum in Baghdad (where she died) ‒ and seems to end with her initial posting in Cairo. Absolutely spectacular cinematography, though.

Hollywood (and other first-world film studios) has also produced its share of movies that involve camels or deserts or Middle East settings. Leaving aside classic biblical epics, herewith a few that I have seen (the country in parentheses is the story's setting):

A Hologram for the King (Saudi Arabia) 2016
Overexposure of Tom Hanks as American salesman falling for forbidden Saudi beauty; waste of time and credibility.

The Hurt Locker (Iraq) 2008
Hyper new guy in the army's bomb disposal unit disrupts their routine, putting them all at risk. Oscar winner.

The Kingdom (Saudi Arabia) 2007 
Americans investigate terrorist bombing of their Riyadh compound; muddled politics; echoes of Nelson DeMille's novel Panther that was set in Yemen.

Syriana (an oil country) 2005
Iran or an Emirate-like setting; complicated petropolitics and story lines; George Clooney is prominent.

Sahara (W. Africa) 2005
Clive Cussler action; search for hidden treasure in desert sand; Matthew McConaughey. Several previous films of the same name (with Bogart in 1943).

Black Hawk Down (Somalia) 2001
Many awards for the film based on the American raid on Mogadishu.

Three Kings (Iraq) 1999
Soldiers after the first Gulf War hunt for Kuwaiti gold supposedly hidden in the desert; they discover their humanitarian consciences. George Clooney stars.

The Man Who Would Be King (India) 1975
Beloved movie of Kipling's tale of two British soldiers who take over fictional Kafiristan; sneaking it in here because what's not to love with Connery and Caine chewing exotic scenery?

Jesus Christ Superstar (Israel) 1973
Andrew Lloyd-Webber's rock opera in a mesmerizing take on Holy Week.

Lawrence of Arabia (Jordan) 1962 
Who hasn't seen this classic? O'Toole sweeps to victory (and cinematic history) in the 1917 Arab Revolt as the Ottoman Empire declines.

A few I've missed:

The Little Prince (Sahara) 2015
Animated version of the delightful Saint-Exupéry story; previously made in 1974 with Gene Wilder as the fox. 

The Men Who Stare at Goats (Kuwait/Iraq) 2009
Reporter George Clooney pursues strange story of a sci-fi army on a mission to establish world peace. A real box office bomb?

Cairo Time (Egypt) 2009
A gentle, brief romance between an American woman and an Egyptian man.

Sand and Sorrow (Darfur) 2007
Documentary narrated by activist George Clooney; the humanitarian crisis in Darfur which was largely being ignored by the rest of the world.

The Sheltering Sky (Sahara) 1990
Has to be in here somewhere because Bertolucci-directed classic, but the aimless characters appear to be bleak, bleak, bleak.

The only remaining question is:
How many desert movies can George Clooney be in?!

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman

27 May 2017

Helsinki, Finland 2006

Helsinki was a bright revelation, although relegated to the initial meeting point and the terminus of our further destinations. It must be related to the clarity and energy of northern light! Hotel Scandic Grand Marina provided a night of rest before the next day's long drive. 

Enough time for a morning stroll, revealing our hotel could not have been more central. It was on the harbour and next door was a charming open air market. Shoppers have more than food to choose from!

Then we stumbled into a street demonstration, protesting or supporting lord knows what.

Much later, after thousands of kilometres driving through Russia and the Baltics, we returned by sea to Finland and Helsinki. We had a little more time then to sightsee.

The Church in the Rock (Temppeliaukio Kirrko) is probably the number one tourist attraction in the city. Finished in 1969, the circular Lutheran church is built into a natural, gigantic chunk of granite. The entrance would really fool you.

If you had a high external or aerial view, all that shows from the outside is the huge copper dome, forty feet above street level. Flying saucer deja vu, anyone?

The interior space was blasted out of the rock, leaving the stone walls as the natural finish. Light comes from windows between the dome and the walls. Concerts, as well as church services, take place here.

And speaking of music, Jean Sibelius, the native composer who died in 1957, is memorialized in a park named after him. The magnificent stainless steel sculpture reflects the beauty and colour of its outdoor surroundings, especially when the wind blows through the hollow tubes. The similarity to organ pipes (an instrument Sibelius never played) still causes controversy at home.

Of course Helsinki has much more to see than what we grabbed on the run, so to speak. Not necessarily top of a bucket list, but well worth more than casual attention.

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman

16 May 2017

MOVIES, Part One

A look at movies was prompted by the ignominious release to DVD in April of Queen of the Desert, Werner Herzog's ever-promised bio of Gertrude Bell. The film had no Canada and USA cinema release to speak of; it was said to be heavily edited after its 2015 film festival debut and never gained traction among critics. As one reviewer put it:
I suspect, alas, that despite the presence of big names upon which the film could easily be sold, no one knew how to market a movie about a historical female figure, Gertrude Bell, who is all but unknown to mainstream moviegoers even though she is almost singlehandedly responsible for the political shape of the Middle East today; she even foresaw the problems that would arise, the ones the world is trying to cope with today. 
It’s difficult not to feel like the way the industry has treated Queen of the Desert is just continuing the outrageous erasure of Bell from pop-culture consciousness.

I have written about Bell a few times (e.g. but the best biography is Queen of the Desert by Janet Wallach. 

To offset my deep disappointment, how about some movies that include ... deserts. Sometimes camels. Middle East cultures. Movies with people in love, in conflict, in weakness and strength ... in universal human conditions. I've had opportunity to see the following. The country in brackets is the setting of the story, not necessarily where it was filmed or the director's nationality. Most are unknowns to western eyes, foreign films found in out-of-the-way cinemas.

Sand Storm (Israel) 2016
A traditional Bedouin wife of today struggles with her husband's choosing a second wife while her daughter breaks with custom to choose her own lover. A favourite at many film festivals and Israel's Academy Award nominee. Powerful!

Theeb (Jordan) 2016
Another best foreign-language film nomination, difficult to find in theatres (YouTube offers no subtitles without subscribing to an online service). A young boy during the Arab Revolt of 1917 expands his horizons while guiding a British officer.

Timbuktu (Mali) 2014
Academy Award nomination for foreign language film. Daesh* invades the simple life of villagers in the remote desert, creating intimidation and oppression. Sobering, sad.
* Called ISIS in the west, the pejorative term is widely applied to the fanatics and assassins by those locally affected; Daesh deliberately does not confer "state" or authoritative status to the extremists.


Desert Dancer (Iran) 2014
Lyrical adaptation of a true story in a country that bans dancing; a young man persists in teaching himself, gathering a group of like-minded friends to study forbidden videos, practising secretly, performing in the desert.

A Separation (Iran) 2011
Winner of Golden Globe award and Oscar for best foreign language film. Family stresses: caregiving for a parent v. changing countries for a child's future.

Incendies (Lebanon) 2010
Canadian Denis Villeneuve directed this acclaimed Oscar nominee. A mother's dying instructions send her adult twins to discover their surprising family history in Lebanon's troubled civil war past.


The Band's Visit (Israel) 2007
Hugely well-rated on Rotten Tomatoes, an Egyptian police band, invited to entertain in Israel, ends up stranded in a remote village. Delightfully moving, full of touching characters and humour.

To be continued ...

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman

05 May 2017

Riads, Kasbahs, Lodgings: Morocco

Riad = originally a town house with rooms around a courtyard with a garden and fountain, of at least three storeys; without a garden and fountain it is a Dar, but the name riad is now generally applied to both. Some of these old structures in urban medinas (old towns) have been renovated to serve as guesthouses. Most riads have less than a dozen rooms to rent.
Kasbah = originally a fortified building that housed a ruling family or several families, so sizes vary. It is surrounded by high walls and has at least one impressive entrance gate. In these places, many have very old locks and keys to ornate bedroom doors.

I have had to borrow from my companion Heather Daveno (HD below) because her great interest in architectural detail, crafts, and textiles make her photographs beautifully precise. For further illumination, please visit her August Phoenix Hats albums: https://www.facebook.com/pg/AugustPhoenix2/photos/?tab=albums.

Dar el-Kebira in Rabat
Our first taste of living (sleeping) in Moorish architecture and Moroccan decor encouraging a princess feeling. El-Kebira is located deep in the very narrow, twisting alleys of the Rabat medina. To transport luggage from a car park way outside the medina, a Dar employee met us and used a hand-pulled cart (we were a small group). The entrance door gives no hint to the beauties inside (and this is true of most guesthouse doors in a medina). We were enthralled with the ambiance and furnishings, high ceilings and exotic textiles. Typically, all bedrooms open onto the central courtyard, now the reception area, with walkways around the upper floors. Breakfast was served on the rooftop patio to start the day perfectly.

Courtesy HD
Al Khalifa in Chefchaouen
Al Khalifa is actually a small modern hotel but its location on a mountainside steps away from entering the fascinating medina makes it special. It is adjacent to a little river that rolls and plunges toward the Atlantic, a river where women still find pools to do their laundry. Never mind I had to trudge to my room on the third floor (elevators are rare in small multiple-storey lodgings). Princess time in a king size bed and a bathroom with a lovely sink and fixtures of ornate design. The sliding pocket door into my bathroom was gorgeous.

Mohayut in Merzouga
This hotel on the edge of the Sahara is a recent build in a one-storey variation of traditional style, something akin to a kasbah. A swimming pool is the centrepiece of a large courtyard where guest rooms are accessed. Another courtyard serves as the outdoor dining area, a smaller one beside the dining room. Perhaps there are more; our stay was regrettably brief. A guardian camel helps circulate the pool water. From the rooftop you can see the desert in all directions; I watched a camel safari returning from a desert ride. The entire place exudes peace and privacy, a favourite with everyone.

Courtesy HD

Note the Berber symbols

Breakfast at Mohayut

Tomboctou in Tinghir
Tinghir is a town in the heart of the beautiful Todra Valley. Tomboctou is billed as a hotel but was built as a family kasbah in 1944, of traditional mud-and-straw brick construction. Converted now to a 16-room guest house, it's located in the central part of town (but not in the medina). Here a swimming pool dominates a courtyard adjacent to reception and dining area ― obviously new additions. On the left is the original kasbah, three tall storeys for guest rooms; here, the central courtyard (not open to the sky) displays a number of antique African carvings and art works. By the dining room, models of kasbahs have been set up. It has a roof terrace "to watch the stars" but we were very busy elsewhere that evening.
Entrance to the original kasbah; from the hotel website

Looking into the interior courtyard; courtesy HD

Some of the African exhibits

Tomboctou restaurant; courtesy HD

Kasbah Ait ben Moro in Skoura
A true kasbah dating back to the 18th century with the high fortified walls, originally home to several families who are still represented on staff. It has been fully restored for guests and is a pleasure to explore. You can see the height of its several storeys. Myriad passages and stairways open onto small courtyards, with lovely gardens and/or countryside views. Flanked at the entrance by a pottery business and a women's weaving co-op, Ait Ben Moro is one of the most popular kasbah destinations for tourists.
Photo from Ait Ben Moro website

Riad Dar Dzahra in Taroudant
Part of this riad is three hundred years old so again the sense of history is around you. Bedrooms are lavishly adorned with the expected Moroccan furniture and finishing touches; the bathrooms feature modern decorative sinks and hardware. The dining area, indoors and out, includes a house cat. A garden wall surrounds three sides of the pool with a variety of horticultural samples. Parking is available at the back and the medina beckons at the front doorstep with all its fascinating souks.

Riad Adriana in Marrakech
Perhaps the most memorable of all, this exquisite riad endowed the most "royal" feeling of all. Not the easiest place to find in the warren of the medina's little streets, but so well placed around the corner (or two) from the souks of the busy bazaar. Elegant rooms, mosaic floors, Berber carpets and blankets, carved pillars, copper bathroom fixtures, and scattered rose petals to welcome you. The open air courtyard with its fountain is a peaceful place to sit, as is the roof terrace where breakfast was served. Mint tea is customarily served in any riad or kasbah to greet new arrivals.

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman