Saturday, 29 January 2011

City of Secrets

Essaouira is a city of secrets. For every door that is open onto the narrow, labyrinthine streets of its Medina, four more are closed. From behind them I can almost hear the past whispering... How beguiling is the hidden from view! The tale not told. A closed book.

Just now and then a door is left inadvertently ajar. An open page, a few lines of the story. A rich, gold light, illuminating the dark inside; a column, an archway; an exotic rug, or painting hanging on the wall. And then, curiously after all the intrigue, I avert my eyes, anxious not to intrude upon a private world.

To be invited in, though, ah, that is different! And when something is for sale, even a private world becomes the public domain!

The vendor was as eager to show off his wares as we were to glimpse life from the inside. The house, he said had eight rooms on four floors, set around the traditional courtyard of the riad. The entrance hall was flooded with light from a large, glazed roof-top dome, visible if one tilted ones head as far
back as it could go. Entering was like stepping into a fantasy sweet-factory, a house embelished with piped pastel icing, sugared almonds - marshmallow pink, lemon yellow, apple green! As far as traditional went, the concept of an inner courtyard was as far as this house was prepared to go! Mystery and intrigue were left firmly outside in the narrow cobbled street.

But what fun to be inside! Winding our way up and up, we peeped into tiny rooms, each more flamboyant than the last, until we reached the top. And here we stumbled upon Essaouira’s biggest secret of them all! A whole new world! Climbing out onto the roof into the dazzling light, we caught our breath! A whole sea of terraced roofs spread out around us, flanked on two sides by the mighty ocean. Here in the realm of the birds - huge sea-gulls and tiny, fluttering swifts - life was going on as if the clouds weren’t just an outstretched arm away, curiously without reference to the bustling world of commerce below. Here was a place for contemplation, reflection and wonderment - or simply stretching out beneath the Essaouira-blue sky.

For a few moments it was our world. And with our breath we drew in as much as we could hold insde, to carry back down with us into the rabbit warren below. So now you’ve shared our secret.

But shhh! Don’t tell a soul...

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Going Home

My mission: 
1/2 kilo cous-cous
1/2 kilo rice
1 packet of cigarettes



It was dusk as I skipped out through the enchanted gate. The wind was warm and soft and full of rain not yet spent.

This was rush hour. Donkeys with carts, or a solitary rider; sheep with their dogs; camels and goats; charming old bicycles with charming old cyclists and, as I neared Ali’s open door, two Arab horses, coats gleaming even in the fading light, frisking and cavorting against the strain of their leading rein... Everyone was out to race the sun home..!

Ali was standing outside his Emporium. With his beaming smile, he was wearing his best Wizard Gown; as blue as the Essaouira sky, its pointy Jedi hood lifted up by the spirited wind.

Three minutes later, mission accomplished, I was back on the highway, to be greeted by the first drops of rain - and the jaunty serenade of a familiar banjo! Hassan! Indeed, there in the hedgerow, in the last light of the day, sat Hassan and four friends, strumming up a storm! And before you could say, “Berbers
Rock!”, I was dancing and they were singing and passers-by stopped passing by, to share in the joy!

Until the rain was really raining and the day was really night-time and I was going home...

I love this place!!!

Or did I tell you that once before..?

Friday, 21 January 2011

Sidi Kaouki

The abandoned old fort captured our hearts and imaginations from the first.

Jutting out so far into the sea as to be almost one with it and the ancient rocks at its foot, the crumbling walls exude an almost tangible air of romance. The weather beaten stronghold still ‘holds strong’, though today it is only the chattering sea birds for whom it affords safe haven.

Why, we puzzled, had no-one taken up this ravished and ravishing building as their home? Surely, we answered ourselves, because it was waiting for us!

Having realised the answer with such certainty (!) we ceased enquiring. Each day we clambered over the rocks beneath our one-day-home, knowing that ‘Inch Allah’ (God willing) time would see us, like the birds, looking down from the high, narrow windows to the breathtaking sands below. We would, in time, wake each morning to the roar of the ocean and each night survey with wonder the blazing sun as it slid down behind our sea, just an arms reach away...

Well today our dream was dashed. And had it been for any other reason we might have been sad. But instead we were moved to visit our dream home, after my sleep today, to pay homage to the man who got there before us. More than 100 years before us, in fact.

Before it was a village on the edge of the sea, Sidi Kaouki was a man; an exceptional man, a renowned healer, so much so that a shrine to his sainthoodwas established and its site named after him in his honour. Once a year, pilgrims from all over Morocco visit this small dome-roofed shrine, at the heart of ‘our’ fortress, to bring their prayers to God through Sidi Kaouki.

This afternoon we did just the same. And God was there in the miracle of friendship. With open arms, the ‘guardians’ of the shrine welcomed us into their tiny room alongside, with honey to taste and tea to drink and smiles to share. In that dark little room, over mint tea and embraced by the spirit of Sidi Kaouki, we became friends... When faced with the glorious impulse of humanity, even the most formidable language barrier comes tumbling down!

And when we left, with promises to return, it was with smiles in our
hearts - and the certainty that Sidi Kaouki was still making miracles...

Monday, 17 January 2011

The Riad

Stepping through the high wooden gateway of our Paradise Garden into the outside world really is like passing into another realm. Crossing the threshold of Rebali’s inner sanctum feels curiously intrepid, as though her walls are releasing me from their safe haven to embark upon a lone adventure out in the Big Wide World.

Returning conjures the same conceit in reverse; a sense of returning to the fold, of being received into a private sanctuary, sheltered physically and spiritually from the wilderness beyond. Even the wind seems reticent to intrude! What wondrous fuel for my vigorous imagination!

This feeling of having been accepted into an enchanted cloister, with the unspoken promise that, so long as I am inside its walls, it will safeguard me from all harm. The stuff of fairy-tale, indeed!

How fascinated I am, then, to learn on investigation that this very semblance of an inner sanctuary, the almost religious aura of peace and harmony, is not purely the creation of my over-exciteable imagination(!) but has been the deliberate contrivance of Moroccan architects (specifically Berber) for millennia!

In designing their beautiful hideaway, the Ribali Riads team have drawn upon a style of architecture which, though distinctly Moroccan, has its origins in ancient Rome. 

Traditionally, a simple but geometrically precise floor-plan of rooms surround a central courtyard or garden, the latter providing a contemplative, private space, insulated from the bustle and commerce of the world without. The word ‘riad’, indeed, comes from the Arabic word for garden, so much is this area integral to the architectural style. Traditional design incorporates high arches around a rectangular garden, with all rooms opening onto this central atrium. These elegant archways deliberately echo the ‘mihrab’, the prayer alcove in a Mosque’s ‘quibla’ wall, a wall orientated towards Mecca.

Similarly traditionalis the concept of a plain, unostentatious exterior, blending seamlessly with its environment, giving way to a richly decorated interior, often characterised by mathematically precise geometric patterns and exotic floral designs. Highly developed craftsmanship and glorious colour combine to create an interior style that is at once eclectically traditional and stunningly contemporary. Behind the aesthetic beauty, though, lies a profound spiritual inspiration. An integral part of the creation of this private, internal world, is, as Islamic law teaches, a celebration of the family as at the heart of all.

So the Riad offers more than simply shade and shelter from the African heat and dust. It proffers beauty and elegance, harmony and peace, and most of all, I can’t help but feel, as I step once more through the enchanted gateway to be embraced by our garden walls, a wondrous sense of coming home...

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Every day...

"There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle;you can live as if everything is a miracle."

(Albert Einstein 1879-1955)

Monday, 10 January 2011


I saw the White Witch again yesterday. Just outside our garden gate. She was carrying a bundle of twigs.

When she saw me she put them down on the ground and reached up to touch my face.

She makes me want to be the best that I can be.

I love words. But sometimes, I most of all love not needing them.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Berbers Rock!

My hands are still tingling! My feet are still tapping! And my heart will never stop singing..!

I only popped round to the kitchen to ask for a new tea towel. And it turned into the coolest jamming session ever!

Ever since the impromptu Christmas concert in our garden, we have been keen to learn more about the local music scene. Morocco’s music, we realised early on , is tightly bound with a strong sense of cultural and ethnic pride and is an integral part of a profound spiritual tradition. So far we have only just begun to understand the interplay between the Arab Moroccan and his Berber compatriot. Though, crucially, as Muslims, they share the same religion - Islam - each group have their own distinct cultural heritage. 

When we discovered that Hassan, an exuberant member of the Rebali team and a proud Berber, had been the Maestro behind our Christmas revelry, we were in no doubt that this had been a Berber celebration. The instruments, format and even the rhythms, we learnt, were quite different to those of the ‘Chaabi’ (‘pop’) scene, sung in Morrocan Arabic (Darija) and largely influenced by Western Rock. They differed too to the Andalusian blend of Arab and Spanish music, dating back to the 9thcentury. Known as El-Ala this is considered to be the country’s classical music, usually accompanying religious ceremonies. Then there is the Gnawa, a potent fusion of Arab, Berber and African rhythums, dating back to the 16th century and associated in particular with Essaouira.

More later...

This evening was about Berber!

Hassan’s instruments were piled up in the corner of the kitchen. Each of the three Berber regions in Morocco posess their own language and rhythms, but all Berber music, like Hassan’s, centres upon the round drum (Bendir) and the Banjo. 

I started tapping on the table. Hassan grinned. I upped my rhythm. He upped his smile! In an instant the Banjo was lovingly unfurled from its wrap and the drum was on the table. And then between my knees! And then we were rocking - and I was utterly possessed! Fantastic! 

There in that tiny, kitchen outhouse, with the Chicago and Jedi Mohammeds providing a cool chorus-line we were our own music festival!

Glastonbury eat your heart out!

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Just for Today...

Just for today, my heart isn’t here in our Paradise Garden.

Today my heart is in East London, in a beautiful, historic church with my brother,Will, as he makes the most important promise of his life. 

Today William Alexander Bowes takes Louise Heskett to be his lawful wedded wife and the only thing that could make me happier would be if I could truly be there to tell them how much I love them... And to tell them that being married feels like you have stumbled upon the most brilliant game plan/ruse ever. You get to do, see, hope, dream, discover, reflect, decide, laugh, cry, quarrel, make up - and simply BE! - with the coolest person in the whole world!  Home is no longer a place, but is wherever they are. Life is no longer about you, but about making them smile. The road ahead is wider, brighter and more exciting than anything you might have embarked upon alone - and if you get lost there is always someone to come and find you...

Darling Will and Louise, hold on to the love and ideals that brought you this far. Life is just about to get more awesome than you ever imagined!

And expensive! (Lorenzo told me to say that) Hee! Hee!

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Happy Epiphany!

"Home James! And don't spare the camels..."

This morning we met a good witch. 

She met us on the path down to the beach. And the moment she smiled and wished us well we knew.

She might have been a hundred years old. Or perhaps a thousand. Her wizened face and shining eyes were surely fashioned by many lifetimes of joy and wisdom. How curiously blessed we felt when she turned her gaze to us, as we approached hand-in-hand, As though she had imparted something of that joy and wisdom to us, with an unspoken promise that all would be well... Sometimes when you meet a stranger on your road, you nod or smile and they pass by still a stranger. And, just now and then, they become a part of you for always...

Jeeves was waiting for me on the sand. He kissed my cheek and blew soft and warm into my face. To say “Hello” and to tell me I could be his friend. So I climbed aboard . 

And Lorenzo rode beside me. All the way home.

We knew there was magic in the air...

Essaouira - Chapter One

The Enchanted Gateway

If our home here is from the Arabian Nights and the world just beyond our garden wall is an Advent calender, then Essaioura is a whole volume of Fairy Tales - a source of endless wonder and delight! And I have just begun to turn the pages..!

Once upon a time, about three thousand years ago, there was a small fishing village on the coast of Morocco. It took its name from the island that protected it against the strong marine winds - Mogador. In the 5th century BC, the Carthaginian navigator, Hanno, established Mogador as an important trading post, and, over time, the peaceful harbour became a powerful strategic stronghold. Over centuries, then, many nations would do battle over our small fishing village that would become a mighty sea port.

In 1506, the King of Portugal, Manuel I, ordered a fortress to be built there, the Castello Real de Mogador, as part of his ambition to establish numerous settlements in Morocco. Only 4 years later, his grand fortress fell to the local resistance fraternity, the Regraga. During the following 100 years, Spain, England, the Netherlands and, then, in 1629, France, under Cardinal Richelieu, all made attempts to make our little-village-made-big, their own. 

And while they fought, the sea pirates and traders in sugar and molasses continued to take advantage of its safe harbour. Until in the 18th century, King Mohammed III, decided that he too would like to make his bid in an effort to reorient his trading routes towards the Atlantic for increased sea trade with the European powers.

Envisioning great things for our still small harbour town, he directed the construction of a beautiful fortress built on modern lines, by the foremost European architects and engineers of the day. Originally called ‘Souira ‘, ‘The Small Fortress’, its name became, ‘Es-Saouira’, ‘The Beautifully Designed’.

So now our little fishing village had The King on its side. and that is when the magic really began. Southern trade was re-directed from Agadir to Essaouira and new areas were built, fashioned for Christian and Jewish merchants and diplomats. For over 150 years, the sheltered harbour served as Morocco's principal port, offering goods of the caravan trade - silk, salt, gold, ivory, pottery and exotic Indian spices.  And so wares from sub-Saharan Africa which were brought over the Atlas mountains, into Marrakesh were from thence exported across the wide world.

Essaouria, “The Beautifully Designed” - how apt the royal name remains. As we crossed through the magnificent outer gateway into the labyrinthine streets and alleyways of King Mohammed’s medina, past, present, reality and faiytale were made one. Dazzling shafts of sunlight played amongst the shadows, shooting down between the close set rooftops and making jewels; cobalt, emerald, ruby; of the painted shop fronts, carts and stalls. As we passed deeper into its heart, I had the
The Princess and The Shoe Maker
curious sense that, once entered, this was a world one could never leave, such was the aura of enchantment that drew one through the endless warren of intricately-paved passageways. How unexpected to find exquisite marquetry and hand-tooled leather work, timeless examples of craftsmanship and artistry, interspersed with
glitzy, fake designer wares, designed to net all manner of tourist magpies’. What fun to peer through grime-blackend windows and
Pages of Enchantment still to be turned...
speculate as to what might lie inside, whilst just next door the exuberant art gallery throws without its vibrant canvases for all to see.

The senses reel still further at the potant brew of scents. Glorious flower oils and pungent spices blend with the smokey inklings that lunch is on its way. And, just as it has done since the beginning of time, the thunderous roar of the ocean provides a continual soundtrack to all... 

But wait! Lunch! And we had still not had breakfast! Lured by our tummies to request of the Enchanted Gateway that we are released into the elegant, wide boulevard of the town outside, we step out into the sun,
vowing to return just as soon as I am strong enough.

But for now we leave the bookmark here to mark our place. And dream of Kings and castles, fishing boats and camel trains and, binding all, the mighty roaring of the sea... 

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Please Park in Designated Area...

I skipped along to Ali's this evening for Lorenzo's cigarettes.  Parked outside were a bicycle, a donkey and a camel!

I love this place!!

Happy New Year!

Thursday, 30 December 2010

The Princess and The Camel

When you’ve been anticipating something for the whole of your life, the last thing you’d expect is that it takes you by surprise. Indeed, this morning had begun just like many others. I had rescued five ladybirds from the doorstep (like helping old ladies across the road who don’t want to go?!), skipped joyfully through our garden oasis, waved cheerily to Chicago Mohammed and collected Lorenzo’s missing sock from the laundry.

Our before-breakfast expedition - on foot or by bicycle! - is the happiest time of the day for me, before the pain has had chance to catch up with me and remind me that,

whilst I am so very much stronger, my fragile body still has a way to go before it can keep up with my spirit. For a wonderful half hour I can fool the world and, in doing so. fool myself.  Hoorah!

Sometimes, when we step through the high wooden gateway to the outside world, we make a left and head inland for Ali’s. More often we take the little track down to
the beach. Regularly the rough, stony track is a bustling 
highway, with goats, donkeys, cows, dogs, cats, horses and camels meandering down to the shore. Occasionally we've even spotted a person!

We weren’t surprised, then, when this morning, on entering the thoroughfare we were met by a particularly large camel. Nor, though I was exceedingly happy, were we surprised to see that it was Jeeves, who lived in the field next to Ali’s and so was a familiar face on our morning jaunts.

No, none of that surprised us at all. It didn’t even surprise us that the boy who was leading Jeeves on a short, thin rope tried to entice me to climb up; we had become accustomed to, smilingly but firmly, declining the numerous invitations to exchange 100dhms (£10) for one hour’s ride-of-a-lifetime. We hadn’t yet worked out the sign language for “It would be a dream-come-true but I could only manage a few minutes - how about it?” so negotiations had thus far proven fruitless.

So can you imagine my surprise when, before you could say Humph!, Jeeves was sinking courteously to his knees to invite me aboard?! Wow! Then my surprise at finding myself sitting comfortably on his vast multicoloured saddle?! Awesome! 

Neither of these, however, quite 
prepared me for the biggest surprise of all. Standing up! In fact here my surprise was so great I almost fell over Jeeve’s head! Re-seated and reassured as Jeeves and Lorenzo shared a mutually trusting nose-bump (how could I have thought of leaving him behind?!) I gave the big furry neck an affectionate pat and we were off! And never had our short amble down to the beach been more momentous as Jeeves ‘Humphed’ and I smiled and a lifetime’s dream became a reality.

And boy! was it worth the wait!

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Moving House

Meryam and Fatima, The Flower Fairies

This morning we moved house. Only two doors down - from Number One to Number Three - but it is surprising how much we seem to have accumulated over the past few weeks that needs re-locating. Admittedly a large proportion of our new acquisitions are pebbles re-located from the beach and it is, I feel warmly, a measure of how very much I am loved that Lorenzo takes such trouble in moving them across to our new home rather than politely suggesting that I re-locate them back whence they came. 

I also marvel that we managed to fit all of our original possessions into these two, miniscule suitcases. Short of an Alice-in-Wonderland ‘Shrink Me’ spell, there was no way more than one-third of my luggage was going to be accommodated by my stylish - but miniscule case. The equation was utterly baffling until Lorenzo reminded me that most of his case had also been filled with my ‘essentials’ and that he had been wearing the same outfit since we arrived. Hee! Hee!  Frankly its a measure of how very much I am loved that Lorenzo does not politely suggest re-locating me whence I came. (Though I am not altogether sure they would have me back!)

Anyway, the main point of telling you about our move, is not to highlight how impossible I am - or, indeed, how wonderful Lorenzo is, although this is a point that could not be overstated, - but about how remarkably lovely our hosts here are.

“Just wait and see what they have done for you in our new bedroom!” Lorenzo smiled, as he woke me, on his return from an early foray into Number Three.

If his smile had been wide, then mine was wider than my cheeks as I peeped in through the bedroom door. Writ large across the starched white counterpane, my name, EMMA, was spelt out in myriad tiny pink petals!  Hundreds more formed exquisite border decorations, hearts and flowers...

Well, we may be sleeping on the floor for the next 8 weeks, but I know that, whenever I am afraid, I can look at that counterpane and know that with so much love, beauty and magic a miracle can only ever be just around the corner.