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OK, so that's not a very clever title, but an expedient one: you already know what you will find here! I thought it was a very picturesque place and a workout for the wide angle lens. Because I had a problem culling the pics -- there were too many I wanted to share -- I didn't want to combine a post about it with any other sights.
The Palace was listed in guidebooks as one of the top sights to see in Marrakech. The proprietor at our guesthouse also circled it as an important stop on the city map. I figured we would enjoy it, but first I had two other priorities, the Saadian Tombs and the Majorelle Garden. I almost came to specifically not want to see it on account of all the people annoyingly telling us, "The palace is that way!" as we walked past, hoping we'd stop to ask more about it so they could attach themselves as our guide. It also annoyed us that everyone presumed we were wanting to see the palace. So when we ran across it, just by accident of covering so much ground, we decided to check it out, though it didn't look like much of anything exciting from the street. Admission wasn't too expensive so we paid it to see what all the fuss was about.
Well, I'd say the fuss is well-deserved. I consider it very serendipitous that we came across it, because I don't know if I would have taken the effort to find it and it ended up being a highlight for me. In our travels, we often come across things in a way that makes Erik say, "We were meant to see this," or "to find this," when we look for something without directions, just winging it. It's probably simply because we are wanderers by foot and by car, so odds are in our favor of running across cool stuff. The architecture and the detail in the wood, stucco, painting and tilework were as mesmerizing as at the Saadian tombs, but there was much more of it. Courtyard after courtyard and room after room. We certainly didn't see all of them but the entire palace complex has over 150 rooms.
There weren't many plaques inside the palace, we weren't given a brochure guide and the rooms are all empty, so we weren't given much context to decide what any given room was for. This is a rare time when a guided tour might have been enjoyed (not usually our style), because I can't find much information on the internet either about what the various rooms are called. I often do my research after I get home from a place to be able to label photos with more information than I documented at the time. So there's not much I can say about most of these except "a pretty room," "impressive ceiling," over and over.
Below, notice the level of detail in the door, the ceiling, the archway, the floor, the stained glass ... every inch of this palace is covered in exquisite detail. It took thousands of craftsmen to render this dazzling opulence, working for seven years. Materials were transported here from throughout Northern Africa and the finest Italian marble was imported from Carrara.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the palace is that it was not built by a king (a sultan) nor by a wealthy merchant -- by far the two most common builders of ancient splendor. No, built in two phases in the second half of the 1800s, it seems like a fairy tale or a story extracted from 1001 Arabian Nights. Born as a slave and growing up with the heir to the throne, when said heir became sultan, he promoted his slave, Si Moussa, through the ranks to eventually become Grand Vizier. Once he reached this status, Si Moussa commissioned the Bahia palace for himself.
But the real depth of splendors were added when his son, Bou Ahmed, succeeded him as Grand Vizier to the next sultan and served as regent of Morocco while that sultan was still a child. Bou Ahmed added many rooms including ones to accommodate his four wives and harem of 24 concubines. Many of my friends who have been to southern Spain have commented that what they see in my photos reminds them of sights there. And indeed the renowned architect hired by Bou Ahmed had worked in Andalusia, and the Bahia Palace is considered an excellent example of Andalusian and Moorish architecture.
The Grand Vizier Bou Ahmed died in 1900 and his splendid palace was quickly looted, his treasures stolen. Morocco was then a French Protectorate and Bahia Palace was the centre of the new French administration. The most famous official of this era was General Hubert Lyautey, who played an important role in the cultural history of Marrakech. It was during his tenure that the Saadian tombs were rediscovered. Now the palace belongs to Morocco’s royal family and has received a UNESCO World Heritage designation. At the beginning of the 2000’s the palace was extensively restored.
Every surface from the floor to the ceiling is remarkable, but I found the ceilings to be the most notable. All the rooms and nooks had gorgeous cedarwood ceilings hemmed with excruciatingly detailed stucco work. Here's a sample of them.
Now how about some doors .....
Fancy a fountain, anyone?
Just another crazy-fancy room below. I can't imagine actually living in this place -- the rest of the city, the largely monotone pinkish-orange medina, the gray cobblestone streets, would seem so drab and bland and boring. If I were the palace's resident, I think I would feel scared of the dullness of the world outside and rush back home as quickly as possible to the comforts of color and design.
But now, dear readers, we must leave this delicious grandeur and go back to our simply decorated lives. I wonder how the grand vizier and his concubines would feel being lifted up and plopped into a minimalist-designed house. I think it would feel like a lunar landscape! Or in my house they would just feel disoriented and confused by the widespread randomness and pockets of chaos and wonder when I was going to get someone in to paint those plain wooden beams.
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Our first steps into the medina are chronicled in the Tuesday Tale, "How We Found Our Riad in the Marrakech Medina." In this post I'll share some pics from the labyrinth known as the medina. We'd been to medinas and souks in Tunisia and to bazaars in Iran, both of which presented us with the feeling of being a rat in a maze. In Iran we were with our guide the whole time, so we did not get lost. In Tunis, we got lost and couldn't find our way out and I desperately had to pee, like I mean I thought I might die or else pull down my pants and go right there on the cobblestones, we kept running into dead ends where there were no shops. We made it out barely in time for me not to burst. Usually we enjoy getting a little lost in these types of places, but that became painful! We've meandered medieval labyrinths in old quarters of several European towns, as well. So I can't claim to have been to *tons* of these types of places, but a fair number. The Marrakech medina was on a whole new scale from anything we've previously experienced.
Our first day there, we meandered with little point ... i.e., just for the sake of meandering. At the time we finally stopped for lunch about 2:00 p.m. and asked the waiter if he could point out on a map where we were, because we had zero idea, we were shocked to see how little ground we had covered from where our riad was. It seemed like we must have crossed vast distances. But though we walked a lot, we made little progress as the crow flies. But that was no problem, our goal was mere exploration. Later, when we had goals, it was more unnerving to have been walking for ages and have no idea where we were. Paper maps are useless. Google Maps was helpful only when we got reception on our phone (we had purchased a SIM card at the airport), and it often cut out deep in the medina. We also were sure to take the business card of the riad with us when we went out walking precisely so we could pay someone to take us back if absolutely necessary.
One time a British girl came up to us as we were trying to consult the phone and asked if we knew where we were and how to get to the big main square. Although we had come from the square an hour or two earlier, we had absolutely no idea how to get back, and we were trying to head the opposite direction of it to our riad, but we weren't getting a signal, so we had no clue about anything, not even if we were doing what *we* wanted to be doing. We felt badly but we could not help the girl, she was alone, I said she could come with us until we found our bearings, but she opted to keep going on her own. It's definitely more scary to be lost alone so I was glad to have a teammate and Google Map reader.
I regret not buying some strawberries. We ultimately didn't buy anything in Morocco except for two bracelets I picked up near the end of the our last day as we straggled home after a lot of walking. At that time we didn't know that we had 24 hours to get out of the country, so I'm glad I made that one little purchase or I would have nothing at all to show from the brief trip. But anyway ... the strawberries looked absolutely divine and there were tables and tables of them throughout the medina.
I've never seen such piles of herbs before. I would get hit with overwhelming olfactory sensations from time to time, and usually it was in passing a mound of herbs. The most common smell punches were mint and cilantro.
We noticed that for such a crowded place with so much raw food, so many stray cats, no real drainage systems we could see, often patchy roofs, we really didn't encounter unpleasant smells -- even passing by the raw meat and the exceedingly fresh chicken (which kind of made me sad).
I've spoken before about how my dad's exotic travels for work when I was a kid and teenager inspired my desire to see the strange wide world for myself. One of the places he went was Morocco. I still have the souvenirs he brought me back. I remember him talking about the raw goat carcasses hanging in stalls along the roadsides. By now I've seen this many times in various countries, but seeing it here specifically reminded me of my dad's tales and how at that time I couldn't imagine this.
So what else do they have to peruse there in the maze? Well, shall we take a little stroll to see a teensy fraction of the things available?
Mounds of olives.
A fair number of items mysterious to us. Sometimes as we stopped to ponder, the seller would point things out to us in English or explain what they were used for, which of course was always a prelude to trying to make a sale. So unfortunately we could not stay very long at these places and learn very much -- the longer you stay the harder the sell.
Dried flowers, roots and herbs.
Craftsmen and things like hardware and appliances, scooter parts, etc., seemed to clump together in little sections. We watched some men carve designs into wooden posts and dowels using a tool with their feet. Here's one of the wood shops.
Most of the medina is simply where people live. The marketways, shall we call them, are like arteries through the medina, and off of them are the countless quiet little capillaries lined with residences that often dead-end at a home.
The capillaries are filled with wandering kitties. They wander and sleep in the market areas, too, but they were much more accessible to the stalking tourist who wants to pet them in the residential areas. They seemed very fond of sitting on the seats of parked scooters and mopeds. Notice in the painted mural above that there are two cats on the back of the scooter.
Lots of kittens, too. Here was a mom nursing her kiddo. In the back you can just see the white tummy of another kitten stretched up against a gate. He wanted to come out so very badly. He cried and cried and bit at his metal prison. Surely he was safer inside, but I finally had to move on because his desperate little pleas were killing me.
This was sweet, in a random corner, somebody had set up a little place for this momma and her kittens ... a rag and a piece of glass that was probably both a wind shield and a solar panel. A plastic dish of water nearby. The kittens were so precious sleeping in the sun, oh how difficult it was not to reach around and snatch one up to snuggle. The people probably really need to be fixing the cats not to breed so much, but if they're gonna breed, at least they take good care of them. We saw extremely few cats in questionable health.
We had lunch that first day beside this paved street. Wise kitty across the way diligently looks both ways before crossing the street.
Should you visit Marrakech (if you haven't), you can see the tanneries if you want, but find them yourself, don't let anyone tell you they're walking home or to work and it's just on the way, they'll lead you no problem; that there is a special market today, an auction, a berber auction is ending in an hour, hurry come see!; that street is closed, come this way. Also find the palace by yourself -- 1,800 people will want to show you where it is. No one is doing anything for free, either they will ask for money or they're getting a kickback from whomever they lead you to. It's a shame but the occasional genuine person gets lost in the sea of scammers and unwanted guides who try to force themselves upon you. After awhile, Erik was just waiting for the next guy to tell a lie or try to lead us somewhere, they were going to get some schooling!
He also stood his ground about paying the tannery guy who never said there would be a charge. A passerby with better English stopped to moderate the scene. In the end we paid the guy 20 dirhams (basically 2 Euro). The other people staying in our riad, a British foursome, fell prey to the same scam and paid 250! So we got off OK but I was kicking myself for being so stupid -- usually Erik is more susceptible to these things but this time it was me because of my glee at the prospect of seeing "a Berber auction" with camels and stuff ... the promise of which turned out to just be a lie.
We had been strolling along -- with our fair skin we simply can't hide that we're tourists -- and some guy lounging on his moped struck up a conversation and told us about the supposed market. "Just go down there, then turn right, and then left, and then after the square another right. Oh heck, I'll just show you, my house is over there, I'm going home anyway." We suspected a scam immediately and told our impromptu guide who led us there over and over and over that we were not going to pay him money, but he insisted he was just on his way home, "No no! I'm not asking for money." After many more than three turns, he dropped us off at the tannery without a charge. So it was a two-part scam and by the time we were inextricably inside the tannery, it was too late. A man ushered us inside immediately and began walking us around like a tour guide before we could say "boo," crushing mint leaves into our hands to breathe in as "a gas mask" to dilute the smell. Over and over "a gas mask!" As if we didn't get the joke because we didn't laugh. I didn't laugh because I was already simmering at how we'd walked right into this, for clearly we would have to pay this guy. So I kept waiting for the admission price but one never came as he tugged at me, "Over here, over here, take a photo."
So we did follow him around for about 20 minutes and listen to his script explaining the process. I already knew that goat hides were soaked in urine to remove the fur, and to be honest despite the raw hides and the ones soaking in urine it didn't actually smell that bad. So below, a pile of hides and the various "tubs" used to soak the hides in either urine or dye.
So tannery toured, he then led us inside a big shop to see the finished products. I was surprised he didn't ask for money from us when he turned around at the door. It is of course a three-part operation, because now they want you to buy something in the store, so I figured this was the end of the "scam" being dropped off here. Gratefully, the people in the store were not actually hard sells, we told them several times we weren't interested in buying anything, we just wanted to look, as they tried to interest us in this and that. In a place like that, having to give only *a few* brush-offs was refreshing, even relaxing. They did have lots of really cool stuff, leather and otherwise, but we were not there to spend money and didn't have a lot anyway.
I was just about to think that maybe I had been too cynical, so far nobody had asked us for money. But a few steps after exiting the store, our tannery man came up asking for the money. We were annoyed but saw it coming, though we didn't expect it this late in the game. If he had asked a reasonable price, we wouldn't have made a fuss. But when he asked for 250 dirham for his unsolicited services, that was a step beyond annoying. I'm sympathetic to the idea that Western tourists in developing countries should not haggle the vendors to death because a few dollars isn't much to us but can be a lot to them. I don't like being taken for a ride in the markets either, and maybe I should relax on that and actually I have compared to how I used to bargain, but at least you are presented with a price up front, nobody is trying to pretend they're giving it to you for free or waiting until you're already walking away with the merchandise to mention that there is a price on it. This is what was annoying. If he had said a price up front, we may have chosen to pay it. Not the equivalent of 25 Euro, to be honest, but it would have been honorable to give us the choice. He could have bargained with us for a price we thought was worth it. For some perspective, the entry fee to places like the palace and the tombs and the gardens was 70 dirham per ticket, so 140 total for an actually amazing experience lasting several hours each. For additional perspective, we paid the guy whose help we desperately needed and asked for who spent a lot of time with us to get us to our riad 300 dirham.
So as mentioned above, after some heated arguing with the man for misleading us and never stating a price, the passerby mediated and we paid 20 dirham. We were pretty sure our first unsolicited "guide" had purposefully led us on an unnecessarily circuitous route, probably hoping we would need help from someone to get back, for a price of course. But we actually found our way and eventually walked by that guy standing in the same spot where we "met" him, obviously nowhere near his home that was supposedly by the tannery, looking for his next victims. We didn't confront him but had a good chuckle since we only paid the tannery guy 20 dirhams, he didn't get much of a kickback from us.
Another guy attached himself to Erik so relentlessly, professing he just wanted to practice his English, but just by coincidence of course offering to show us the way to various places. Erik finally had to literally tell him to leave. I was already sick of people coming up to us and just walked away leaving Erik to fend for himself. It's exhausting, but if you know it's going to happen, I think it helps you brace yourself and maybe brush it off better. But again, it's a shame because the occasional genuinely friendly person cannot be discerned from the overwhelming number of disingenuous and scheming people who see you as just a dollar sign. I read warnings from other travelers about Marrakech, but it was hard to truly understand the scope until experiencing it myself.
Here are a couple photos I snapped as I wandered off by myself while Erik was weighed down with the "English practicer."
One thing I did not get good photos of was all the donkeys and donkey carts. The medina is full of them and especially the streets and parking lots surrounding it. Even in sub-Saharan Africa and China I never saw so many in one place. There were truly gobs of them. So it's kind of weird that I didn't end up with any good photos, but here's one beside some street art, which we did not see very much of, at a wide spot in the medina. He looks a bit thin to me, but most donkeys seemed quite healthy.
So all in all we really enjoyed the medina, though it was trying at times. If we get to come back to Morocco someday and complete our aborted itinerary, I think we will feel we have done Marrakech enough and move on down the road. I'll tell you about our last night there in another post. I'm still pining for those strawberries!
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So, I consistently read from numerous sources -- travel blogs, travel guides, friends who had been there, etc. -- that Essaouira was a lovely seaside town to visit and that the blue boats were a notable feature. And I'd seen plenty of photos of said boats, but to be perfectly honest, I never found any of the photos particularly captivating, technically or artistically proficient as they might be. Nice, sure, but the pics alone weren't drawing me in. But being based in Marrakech for a few days, it seemed like a sensible place to go to see the sea from, a straight shot west, and everyone else's excitement over the place intrigued me.
The drive out was nice to see some scenery outside the city, a variety of landscapes. We were particularly entertained by a section of road where all the trees seemed to have goats in them. Erik said, "They have some mighty strange birds here in Morocco!" I don't know how goats climb trees. I half suspect the shepherds put them up there in the middle of the night for the benefit of the tourists driving by. They've probably got a cherry picker stashed away somewhere, somehow invisible on the flat, barren landscape, that they use to place and remove the goats. (haha) And of course we liked seeing camels along the road. Reminded us of Tunisia. Here's a pic with both tree goats and camels!
Nearer to the outskirts of Marrakech, a number of terra cotta and pottery stores, lamp stores and other large displays of goods.
So we got to the town in the afternoon and were pretty peckish, so the first thing we did upon entering the old town medina was look for some grub. We were passing by this place, I stopped to take a picture of the kitty, and a man came out of a restaurant across the way beckoning us inside. We trundled over and peeked at the menu, looked good enough to our hungry tummies, so in we went, figuring it was probably an overpriced tourist-trap kind of place, but oh well, we didn't feel like searching around, we only had a few hours to spend in town before we needed to head back home if we wanted to get back by dark.
They offered us beer (another indicator of a tourist restaurant), and we happily ordered a local brand. Ordered food, which turned out to be Grade A delicious. Maybe our best-tasting meal. The room was kind of like a cavern. There was only one other table of patrons, speaking a range of European languages, including English. In the corner of the restaurant was a three-stringed guitar-esque instrument: a traditional Moroccan instrument called a sintir, and a set of castanets. One of the Europeans was interested in the sintir and this eventually led to two of the waiters playing the sintir and the castanets, which was really cool. And then an old man sitting in the corner, the guy who had beckoned us into the restaurant, got up and started dancing. There was no one else in the place, it wasn't a contrived scene for tourists, just the people having fun. Some of the Europeans tried playing the instruments, too. We just sat back and enjoyed the merriment and food.
We didn't have tons of time to explore the old town, so we stuck to the main thoroughfares which were lined with only souvenir stalls. But it was still pretty and much more organized than the medina areas we had explored in Marrakech. And scooters were not racing past every 10 seconds, which started to get on our nerves in Marrakech's medina in the super narrow streets.
So when we were in Tunisia, we visited a number of Star Wars filming locations (also in Guatemala). I read somewhere that Lucas's inspiration for the Tuskan Raiders came from the Bedouin (nomadic tribes in North Africa), so there's absolutely no way it's a coincidence that the Jawas wear the same cloak as these guys, whom we saw a lot of in Essaouira.
Essaouira was a filming location for Game of Thrones. In 2015 we were in Girona, Spain, which was another filming location, and we were also at one of the locations in Iceland, though before those scenes were part of the show. Essaouira was the setting for the scenes in Astapor. If we had gotten to finish our itinerary (hopefully in the future) we would have visited other GOT locations, too. I'm a fan of the show, but not one of those know-everything-there-is-to-know-behind-the-scenes fans, so outside of knowing Iceland was a prominent filming location, I have learned about others by happenstance as I am visiting them myself. I think it's rather interesting to see what real-life places capture the imagination of filmmakers.
But foremost on my mind was finding the seashore and blue boats. So we easily found the promenade out to the shore. Lined with sea birds and a nice look back to the city.
Ah ha! A blue boat! And someone repairing a blue boat!
Then we passed a stone tower and found a bunch of blue boats and young men jumping down into the water next to them as if in a competition. OK, so I found the clumps of blue boats everyone raved about. Still didn't really see the big deal, but they were pretty enough, and it was a pleasant day out.
We continued walking and soon the promenade opened up into a vast fish market of people selling whatever they had just caught.
I inspected some of the items for sale. I think ocean dwellers are really cool, but once they're up land, I find them a little creepy.
And then. OH. I guess *that's* the collection of blue boats everyone talks about. I didn't make a nice photo, but it shows you there are a quite a lot and why this city is known for them. They stretched on to the right past the limit of my wide angle lens.
So it turned out to be a really neat place! Kind of overwhelming for us land lubbers, with all the boats, all the birds, all the dead fish on display, all the people -- unlike any other place we have been. Here are some shots taken while walking around the pier.
Naturally, kitty cats find this place extremely beneficial to their taste buds and tummies. And I find kitties extremely beneficial to my sense of joy, especially while traveling.
We didn't make it back to our guesthouse in the medina in Marrakech until after dark. Erik drove admirably working our way through thick traffic of cars, trucks, buses, mopeds, scooters, bicycles, donkey carts, people, coming back into the city, none of whom acknowledge there are actual lanes marked on the road. But fortunately we had open road to pass this truck quickly ... looking just a little lopsided!
Oh, I'll pass on one thing about our drive out from Marrakech. I had already been warned by another Facebook friend that the cops were real sticklers about speed in Morocco, and that in a two-week visit he got two speeding tickets -- he was driving an SUV with his wife and baby, not really tearing it up. So I told Erik that and we were already prepared and committed to obeying the speed limits. At one police checkpoint, which are routine in many countries just to check paperwork, the policeman seemed to see dollar signs (dirham signs) when he looked in and saw foreigners. He gave Erik a ticket for speeding in a school zone (neither of us saw a lowered speed sign, and this school, if functional, was a lone building in the middle of nowhere) and charged 150 dirhams, roughly USD$15. But Erik was skeptical of the legitimacy of the "crime" and when the policeman asked if he wanted a receipt, he said, "Yes, I want a receipt so I know that money isn't just going into your pocket." Well, in the end he did not receive a receipt, but he did receive 50 of the 150 dirham back. So I guess it paid $5 to stand his ground. Word of warning to fellow future driving visitors.
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I decided to check out the Saadian Tombs in Marrakech based only on the fact that I love cemeteries and tomb stuff and a recommendation from another FB friend. But I really had no idea what they were, so I was stunned to find something so grand and lavish beside the crowded cobblestone alleyways of the medina.
On the way in, we read some information panels on the walls along the tunnel that led into the necropolis about how the tombs were discovered in 1917 and restoration work began, etc. This didn't really help me imagine any better what we might see, and it certainly did not prepare me for the soaring ceilings and incredible craftsmanship ... how could something so spectacular be lost in this crowded ancient city such that it was then "discovered?" I mean, usually underground chambers and buried treasure are "discovered," or buildings that lie deep deep in a jungle or mountains.
Evidence suggests that the area might have been used as a burial ground from as far back as the 1300s. But the large mausoleums were built in the late 1500s by sultans of the Saadian dynasty (also spelled Saadien). The founder of the Saadi dynasty rests in one which was built by one of his sons (a subsequent sultan). Then progressively more elaborate mausoleums were added, the last and most magnificent one was built by Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur who died and was buried there in 1603. As I have not been a student of Moroccan history, the name did not mean much to me, but apparently he was the most renowned ruler of the Saadian dynasty and gained control of the desert caravans which supplied Europeans with sugar at exorbitant prices -- funding his ability to make opulent tombs and palaces -- as well as other high-demand commodities like gold, slaves, ivory, and ostrich feathers.
So this is Ahmad al-Mansur's tomb in the middle, in the room called the Chamber of Twelve Columns.
The elaborate cedar wood ceilings of the chambers were high achievements of Moroccan and Saadian art. It's hard to tell the difference sometimes between the materials all carved with similar intricacy -- carved stucco is perhaps the most prominent material, but also parts of the Chamber of Twelve Columns have marble carved with the same detail. Add in the meticulous use of colored tiles, and the artistry and craftsmanship represented is truly overwhelming.
In the whole of the burial complex, which is relatively small (just a few mausoleum buildings and small courtyards), there are about 160 people buried, I think a large number having some relationship to this al-Mansur ... wives, sons, advisers and trusted officials. Naturally, there are plenty of kitty caretakers roaming the courtyards keeping watch over the graves.
By the year 1672, the Saadi dynasty was over and a dude named Moulay Ismail came to power in Morocco and went about constructing his own legacy, in the pursuit of which he had the Saadian Badi Palace destroyed, but fortunately he seemed to have scruples about demolishing a place of burial. So instead, he simply sealed all the entrances, walling it off, which ultimately achieved the same aim -- out of sight, out of mind, the neglected tombs were largely destroyed by the indifferent forces of weather and time. And so the beauty of the detailed wood and stucco work started to slip from memory until it was completely forgotten, even though the necropolis is adjacent to the Kasbah Mosque, one of the main attractions in the city. Of course we could not visit inside the mosque as we are not Muslim.
Then in 1917 a plane was flying over the city taking aerial photography and saw this space from above. Imagine, you'd be like, "Holy cow! What is this?" I can imagine a bit of explorer adrenaline rush. This is a picture of what the place looked like when they first started restoration work in 1917. We watched a video of the restoration process, which is impressively painstaking and completed with admirable patience.
I could just stare at the details for ages, imagining the time, effort and skill it took, mesmerized by the patterns. This is the Chamber of Lalla Mas'uda, the oldest mausoleum in the necropolis, built over the tomb of the founder of the Saadian dynasty and includes now the tombs of the son of the founder who commissioned it and the mother of Ahmed al-Mansur.
I wanted to share the really impressive stuff first, but the day we saw the tombs began with a jaunt through the Jardin Majorelle. It's a short walk outside of the medina. It's a small botanical garden but full of color and variety and water features. It was put together over several decades by French painter, Jacques Majorelle. He referred to the garden as “vast splendours whose harmony I have orchestrated… This garden is a momentous task, to which I give myself entirely. It will take my last years from me and I will fall, exhausted, under its branches, after having given it all my love.” He acquired the land and built the gardens for his own pleasure, but the upkeep was costly and so he opened it to the public in 1947 as a way to pay for the maintenance through entrance fees.
At its "height," I believe it was about 10 acres. But after suffering some accidents and a divorce, he was forced to subdivide it on several occasions, and eventually sell what remained to pay for medical expenses. He died in France in 1962 after he was taken there for medical treatment, sadly separated from his beloved garden. His passion, essentially abandoned after his death, fell into disrepair.
Then, much like the happy fate of the Saadian Tombs, the garden was "discovered" by the fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent, and Pierre Bergé. Enchanted with it, they bought the garden in 1980 and saved it from being razed and the land used for a hotel complex. The new owners undertook the restoration of the garden, respecting the vision of Jacques Majorelle.
In 2008, Bergé donated the garden to a Parisian foundation after the death of Yves. At two and a half acres now, new plant species have been added since 1999, increasing the total number from 135 to 300, and a team of 20 gardeners works to maintain the garden, its ponds and fountains.
The proprietor of our guest house suggested we couldn't walk to all the primary tourist sights, most of which ring or are inside the medina, as they are too far apart and we should take a guided taxi tour. As guided tours are just not our thing, we ignored the advice, but if you're trying to see the city in one day, she absolutely has a point, but if you have a few days (as we did) to delve into the city, I think you will find your feet can cover a lot of ground, particularly if you have Google Maps to help you navigate expediently. We didn't hit everything I've seen on "best of" and "top 10 lists" for the city, but the tombs and the garden were two things that I set out with intent to see; we did them both in one morning and I recommend them to other visitors!
My time in Armila was made possible by the La Wayaka Current residency program.
During our stay in Armila, we took an overnight trip to Anachakuna, another Guna village on the mainland. They are on the cusp of welcoming tourism to the village, but as of now, do not have experience in visitor accommodations. So we stayed in the very large house of the village headman. The house has a huge kitchen and a chef who cooked us a most excellent dinner. It was nice of them to accommodate us, and for me, I managed OK in this house because of my pretty extensive experience staying in remote, and shall we say "rustic," places. But probably the average tourist won't be thrilled with the crude plumbing (single outhouse toilet that didn't actually flush), unlaundered bedding and such. In relation to the non-flushing toilet, we asked our host where the toilet paper was for the loo. This caught him off guard, apparently not something they normally use. He quickly summoned a young man and sent him off with some money to go buy some for us. This made me laugh.
The lack of a shower, though, gave us the opportunity to see and experience how the locals bathe -- in the river (really more of a stream). Basically, you want to be the guy the furthest upstream above everybody else, haha, so you don't get their soap or dirty water. I actually appreciated this opportunity.
Just like Armila, Anachakuna is laid out against the ocean so that the villagers have the ocean bounty in front of them and the jungle bounty behind them.
It is a very neat and tidy village, and planned out along a grid. So whereas Armila is kind of a random meandering of paths, Anachakuna has straight paths like a modern town would. In the background of the photo above, you see a round thatched roof right next to the water. This is a village bar. Whereas Armila decided to limit alcohol sales in its village to only the weekends, Anachakuna decided to allow sales every day, but only between 9:00 p.m. and I think it was midnight, or maybe 11:00 p.m. And unlike Armila that had a couple places that sold only one brand of beer and that's it for alcohol selection, this bar had many kinds of beer including my favorite. (um ... leaving space here for when I remember what it was called, haha.) In fact I bought a few extra and took them with me back to Armila. It looked like it could be a lively place, with a big open floor which could be used for dancing or whatever.
Here are a few photos from the "streets" of Anachakuna. Although it has a very different feel from Armila, it still has the same Guna style ... if that makes sense. I think you can even discern that from comparing photographs of the two villages. But here is Anachakuna:
And of course I had to take a picture of the kitten! But it was a funny exchange asking the family to whom it belonged if I could take its picture. Cat in Kuna language is "misi." So when I held up my phone camera and asked to take a picture, I wanted to make sure they understood I wanted it of the cat, not of them. So I kept saying, "misi?" "Misi?" It took them awhile to understand my request, and when they did, they had a hearty laugh. What weirdo wants a picture of a kitten?
And on the other end of the cute scale, is this crazy huge bug hanging out in the dining area of our accommodations.
One of the best things I witnessed in this whole trip was a little scene in the dining/common area of the headman's house, where we were staying. I think it's just because it was so removed from my world and at first appeared so random. We were sitting quietly at a table, I think probably drinking some water or something, and across the room several Guna women were gathered around the headman. He had what appeared to be a ledger in his hands and they were all calmly discussing something in the Kuna language. The women in their beautiful molas and legs and arms full of winis up to their knees and elbows, some of them wearing headscarves. I was thinking what a pleasant scene it was to witness, something nobody back home of my acquaintances could imagine, when suddenly -- and I mean very suddenly, at the drop of a hat -- the women all jumped up out of their seats and sprinted out of the house, clearly very excited about something. It left us all a little stunned. Whatever could have happened?
They returned awhile later and we learned that the politician who had won the recent election in their district came to the village by boat to say hello and thank his constituents. I've never seen people more involved in politics than the Guna. They take their elections very seriously and apparently are ecstatic when their man wins. I've also never seen a group of people vacate their seats with such alacrity. Truly impressive.
The other seemingly random sight, and very unexpected and anachronistic in this traditional village of wooden canoes and bamboo, thatch-roofed huts, are these rusting remains of machinery. In the 1940s there was a large banana business based here, even with a train running through the jungle, to service this banana trade. We visited a place upriver from Armila where there used to be a large cement office building beside the railroad tracks. The jungle has digested pretty much every trace of the building, and it was rather shocking to learn it had been there.
Then we took a jaunt to some Edenic hideaways ... beautiful sand beaches, clear blue water, lots of shells to collect. A cold drink made it perfect as we just sat in the water like castaways. (and notice my wini on my wrist!)
Interesting interior of a seashell:
That beach above was an island, whereas this beach was further down the mainland from Armila. The sky was stormy and eventually it rained on us. In weather as warm as it was, being rained on in the water was perfectly delightful. This beach had some interesting tidal plants and driftwood.
We traveled (by boat) down the coast from Armila to a small tourist town, La Miel, pretty much on the border with Colombia. An unexpected sight was a large boxy building that was a duty-free shop. It sold a lot of beach-oriented items, clothes, lotions, toys, etc. and of interest to some of our crew: wine! I personally didn't buy some, but others generously shared their loot with me back at our hut in Armila. This was also our first contact with other beers besides the one in Armila. So, I pretty much had to try them all. Cold drink in hot weather, perfect ocean temperature and gently undulating water to float on your back in ... really hard to beat. Even motivated me to a few selfies.
So we climbed up a huge number of stairs to the border at the top of a hill and back down the hill into the Colombian tourist town of Sapzurro.
On the coast of a lovely bay, there were many bars and stores and hostels. A far different atmosphere from the Guna Yala villages just a short distance away on the other side of the hill. The very best thing I purchased in this town was a super cold bottle of water. Super cold is not something you get in Armila. It was absolutely delightfully divine.
And so this wraps up the summary of my time in my 3-week artist residency in Armila. See the archive to learn all about Armila. I enjoyed these daytrips to see more of what surrounds Armila, and it helps confirm the reality of this slice of the planet, its serene beauty and bounty blessings in ocean and jungle: a special place indeed.