12 September 2017

Utrecht, Netherlands 2016

A beauty of a July morning to herald a day trip to this old Netherlands city, one of the most historic and picturesque in the country. At this time of year, many other tourists had the same idea, yet the streets and cafes are filled with local inhabitants too. Utrecht is a university town; youthful energy and resonance predominate. One thinks of Amsterdam as the ultimate Dutch canal city: Utrecht is more compact and possibly even more scenic.

In the mediaeval centre of town, the deep canals are a magnetic draw. They bear witness to the city's historical importance as a trade centre once on the Rhine River (the main course of which eventually strayed away). Warehouses for storage were built into the canal banks; now the canals are what remain of once-great commerce. But their presence enables a vibrant string of restaurant and entertainment venues along its reaches.  

To reach canal-side, you descend stairs from the main streets above. A boat tour on the oldest canal (the twelfth-century Oudegracht) took us past centuries-old Dutch institutions and mansions. This is a must to fully appreciate the historical past. The day became colourlessly overcast although still warm and muggy.

Originally a fortified city, the walls and a moat helped protect and preserve the mediaeval structures. Utrecht is a great walking town as well; a great religious centre for a long time, the gothic St Martin's Cathedral on the central square stands among several churches in the old town. Near the fourteenth-century Domtoren bell tower, tallest in the country, the cloister garden of a former monastery is a quiet spot to sit apart from the general melee of narrow streets. 

All this leads up to a search for coffee and lunch. The streets were packed by then; sitting space was at a premium. The past and the present happily contrast each other.

.We settled at a cafe on a bridge over a canal. Somehow it did not seem odd to have chicken-lady statue in our midst. Yes, those are chickens she is clutching. The sculptor Van de Vathorst has many statues located around Utrecht. We were seated on the site of a former fish market which he commemorated with this "Sale Woman" although why the chickens was my question; gripping a couple of eels or carp might have been more appropriate.

Even more interesting was the world's tiniest washroom on the premises. It has two cubicles ( and ) and a sink between. I'm guessing the whole works, all three spaces, was about six feet wide and four feet deep. Each space is large enough to hold one very slender person but not all at the same time. There are three doors. Opening any given door will impale someone at the wash basin and/or jam up the opposite door. By the time we figured out the mechanics and stopped feeling trapped, three of us were in helpless hysterics.

Did I see enough of Utrecht? No. Below is a professional photo (postcard) with optimum lighting conditions.

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman

28 August 2017

Camel's House, Merzouga, Morocco

In the cluster of terra cotta-coloured mud brick buildings called Merzouga, Morocco something between a village and a town Moha Sahlouai Sct (http://www.saharacameltrips.com/) lives and works. His home welcomes camel-trekkers at the beginning and end of a desert adventure. Here our luggage was safely stored while we ventured into fabled lands.

Merzouga is located at the edge of the famous Red Dunes of the Sahara; you may not find the place on a map. Look west, down south near Taouz. Algeria is just a camel ride away. Moha is a Berber, and this is his country.

There are no precise statistics, but the Moroccan population is overwhelmingly mixed Berber and pure Berber descent. True Berbers (or Amizighen) speak a related variety of languages quite different from Arabic; it is only in the last generation that the alphabet (Tifinagh) and writing of Tamazight has been standardized and recognized as a "national language."
The unofficial Berber flag displays the Tifinagh yaz symbol "free man," representing their nomadic heritage.

Moha is one of a handful of entrepreneurs who offers overnight desert camping. And the only way to reach the camp is by camel. His camels, our new best friends, were also waiting to greet us. While torn jeans are often young Moroccan men's choice of garb, Moha did not disappoint in traditional dress and hospitality.

Built around the customary courtyard, a Moroccan home insulates inhabitants from outside noise and passing commotion. Here one is meant to relax. In Camel's House, note the simplicity of typical tiles and ornamentation, the whimsy in the homemade camel toy. A characteristic Moroccan home has a stairway to the roof to enjoy sunrise or sunset (unfortunately no photo to show here). Mint tea is de rigueur for guests who, after their camping experience, can use WiFi to regale their friends with stories.

We were taken to a neighbour who stocks gifts of every descriptionsouvenirs, clothing, beauty productsas well as offering an internet café. Easy to succumb to temptation, lingering and browsing shelf after shelf.

In the winter off-season, Moha and his father work at building the ancient technique of mud brick (adobe) construction. The desert camping enterprise has brought new life to Merzouga. A few more shops now entice visiting tourists.

It's a magic world away.

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman

17 August 2017

Fes, Morocco 2017

Fes redux! The city that most captivated me in 2005. Although this time we stay in a regular hotel, we spend little time there. Musicians in the lobby were largely ignored by passing guests (why?).

Our local guide Wafi takes us first to the old Jewish quarter, the Mellah, and its remarkable cemetery ... greeted by trees blooming with fragrant orange blossoms (sold in the markets for adding to food dishes). A vendor with enormous strawberries stands outside; we see these giant berries everywhere we go.
Someone special is buried here: Solika/Solica. Most tombs are simple, rounded white cylinders unlike hers. A man was huddled at her tomb praying, blocking the little doorway so we couldn't see inside the tiny space. Historical accounts vary, but governing authorities seemed to believe this woman converted to Islam and then recanted, so she was arrested and judged by sharia law. Originally from Tangiers, she was beheaded and buried in 1834 in Fes for refusing to declare she was a Muslim. She is considered a Jewish saint. (More: http://hatchuel-hatchwell.net/solika/solikas-full-story/)

From there we ambled across the street to (one of) the royal palaces. Dear King, sorry we missed you. Fabulous brass work on the doors. Then drove up the hillside to get a panoramic view of the city including the medina and another nearby cemetery. Muslims do not do cremation, so a great deal of space is taken up everywhere by burial grounds. There are fourteen gates into the old medina and something like 9,500 streets within!

Next to the tile factory. A leisurely time here: the process being explained, workmen demonstrating various steps from shaping to painting to kiln. Absolutely gorgeous products, mostly large and weighing a ton. No pressure to buy. Sipped mint tea with Mohamed and Doug while those purchasing made arrangements to ship items home. Stab in the dark: I ask Wafi if he knew of a fellow guide called Raschid? He knew a couple of Raschids but we both doubt think our guy of twelve years ago is still around. I explained how thoughtful he had been to follow up and visit our sick tourist in Meknes hospital, that his kindness would always be remembered.

It's time to plunge into the medina, entering through their food/meat area. Wafi shows us the "river" that feeds and carries away; it is now being treated. Not much uphill on our route al-hamdullilah nevertheless it's not easy to catch all the details Wafi is dispensing as we hustle along. We see a LOT of the 9,500 streets. Nothing looks familiar from before. Wafi points out architectural decor, various mosques. I score some of the well-remembered and sweetest clementines on earth.

We get to look inside the widely-believed "oldest (working) library in the world," Quarawiyyin (I beg to differ that the St Catherines Monastery library is older but this is not the time to bring it up). Only newly renovated but established in the 9th century, it holds some 30,000 ancient manuscripts. A wealthy woman from Kairouan (Tunisia) founded/funded it as well as the Quarawiyyin mosque and university.

Then to the oldest madrasa where we could climb to the second floor, admiring the magnificent typical Moroccan mosaics and tile patterns everywhere. Along our wending way we pass working souks brass, leather, wood, textile workers. Entertainers. We visit a wonderful old building of many storeys with random staircases and showrooms for weaving and carpets. Heather gets right into the weaving process with a woman at a loom.

Lunch at 2 p.m. finds us all starving at Restaurant Asmae. Generous servings, no matter what you order. It's becoming my habit to share with Doug or Mark or Mohamed. Lovely man pours tea and cookies after.
Next stop is the Coura Tannery where I do not join them because I recall going up at least four floors of narrow twisting staircase and being greeted by the overpowering smell of the dye vats. So I hang in the entranceway having a smoke with the boys who want to practice English. Being in the alley outside the door makes me prey for creeping souvenir vendors whom the tannery boys do nothing to discourage.
We end up at a clothing emporium where Wafi says goodbye and leaves us at their mercy. A grand scarf demonstration begins. You have but to mention an item and quickly dozens upon dozens of goods materialize to choose from. Or climb stairway after stairway to a display room. Oops, I mention caftans and get shown a zillion things I don't want. The pressure is relentless, exhausting. Thankfully the others in my little group are buying! I buy an ornamental tassel for an outrageous price. But definitely you need to experience the full-bore treatment at least once!

When we set off this morning we had no idea it would be such a jam-packed day. It felt like we saw everything but of course it's endless and mesmerizing.

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman

31 July 2017

Imperial Palaces, Russia 2006

No expense was spared when imperial Russian rulers decided to build. Celebrated international architects, sculptors, craftsmen, and landscape designers were employed to showcase opulence and power. The attention to detail is overwhelming; they all took years of construction plus subsequent additions or improvements. Such monuments inevitably suffered during the Revolution and the Soviet era, but restoration has been careful if not to the same degree at every site.

Tsarskoe Selo is/was a town south of St Petersburg meaning "Tsar's village." Before actually seeing it, my mind was brimming with romantic Russian tales and novels―this was the magical place where generations of royal family and nobility came to the country to play. For me the words triggered imagined scenes of nineteenth century summer frolics and intrigue. For once, the image came true to life, only lacking the live, historical figures.

Two imperial palaces dominate the "village" ... the Catherine Palace and the Alexander Palace. The first was commissioned by Peter the Great for his wife Catherine in 1717 but reconstructed by Empress Elizabeth I in the mid-1700s. The second was built later by Catherine the Great for her grandson, the future Alexander I. It is not possible to see or appreciate both palaces in one day, nor indeed the full extent of even one. One, on our tour.

On my way to the Amber Room!
Catherine Palace, aka the Summer Palace, is the rococo architectural style. Probably the most-viewed treasure of all is the famous, unique Amber Room. Installed by 1770, the panels were fragile and had a dedicated caretaker for maintenance. In 1941 Nazi troops dismantled the room into crates that were hidden no-one knows where now. For the Tercentenary of St Petersburg in 2003, recreation of the Amber Room was completed after twenty years of labour. It was as stunning, as lush, as brilliant as the eyes could absorb.
In 1917; Wikimedia Commons
Just one corner of the restoration

Also in the country, on the Gulf of Finland, the Peterhof Estate is another major tourist draw. Peter the Great began the creation of one of the world's most spectacular parklands. The renowned fountains are the most memorable features in acres where you could stroll all day, coming upon one scene after another. Peter's descendants continued to add further water features of engineering ingenuity. "Peterhof is like an encyclopedia of park design through the age of empire."[1] 

The most famous ensemble of fountains, the Grand Cascade, which runs from the northern facade of the Grand Palace to the Marine Canal, comprises 64 different fountains, and over 200 bronze statues, bas-reliefs, and other decorations. At the centre stands Rastrelli's spectacular statue of Samson wrestling the jaws of a lion. The vista of the Grand Cascade with the Grand Palace behind it, the first sight to great visitors who arrive in Peterhof by sea, is truly breathtaking. The Grotto behind the Grand Cascade, which was once used for small parties, contains the enormous pipes, originally wooden, that feed the fountains. 
Elsewhere in the park, the range and diversity of fountains is astounding, from further monumental ensembles like the Chess Cascade and the Pyramid Fountain, to the ever-popular Joke Fountains, including one which sprays unwary passers-by who step on a particular paving stone.[2]


The Winter Palace complex in St Petersburg includes the Hermitage Museum among its many buildings. Constructed in baroque design under the extravagant eye of Elizabeth I, it was Catherine the Great who added the neo-classical Hermitage and Nicholas I who opened it to the public as a museum. I visited the Hermitage only, a wonderland of art collections that it's estimated would take a person eleven years to explore each exhibit. Endless galleries represent the finest artistic masterpieces the world has seen.

Sprawling across the connected buildings of the Winter Palace, the Small Hermitage and the Old Hermitage, this vast, chaotic and incredibly rich collection is unquestionably the biggest draw for visitors to St. Petersburg. Founded by Catherine the Great who bought up artwork en masse from European aristocrats, embellished by each of her successors, and then massively enriched by Bolshevik confiscations and Red Army seizures in conquered Germany, the Hermitage collection is incredibly varied, ranging from ancient Siberian artifacts to post-impressionist masterpieces by Matisse and Picasso. Equally impressive are the lavishly decorated State Rooms of the Winter Palace, testament to the incredible wealth and extravagant tastes of the Romanov Tsars. [3]

What a privilege to see these historical treasures and revel in beauty while marvelling at the hubris of humankind.

[1] Saint-Petersburg.com (http://www.saint-petersburg.com/peterhof/fountains-peterhof/).
[2] Saint-Petersburg. com (http://www.saint-petersburg.com/peterhof/peterhof-park-and-gardens/).
[3] Saint-Petersburg.com (http://www.saint-petersburg.com/museums/hermitage-museum/winter-palace-and-main-museum-complex/).

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman