Domus Aurea | Domus Aurea visit

Domus Aurea

The Domus Aurea – The Golden House –  now sits beneath ground level just above the Coliseum on the Via Celio Vibenna side. It was buried after the death of the Emperor who had it built, the infamous and wildly unpopular Nero.  In its glory it was a vast entertainment palace surrounded by extensive and gorgeously landscaped grounds.   When the underground are was discovered in the early 1500’s by a farmer whose shovel broke through the ceiling of one of the immense galleries, it was explored by Raphael and other artists, who were infatuated by the art they found, and so the Domus came to influene European art for the next 500 years.  Thanks to the high tech 3d goggles included with the entrance fee, you get a good sense of its beauty and scale. 

One of the domes galleries of the Domus Aurea

One of the domes galleries of the Domus Aurea

The complex extended to the Palatine, Esquiline, Oppian and Caelian hills, although the exact extent of the development is not known.  It included a man made lake in what was before a marshy valley, located where the Coliseum is now; the latter was built to replace the lake.  There were groves, vineyards, and pastures and a huge bronze of Nero, called Colossus Neronis, last mentioned in the 4th century.  It was placed at the end of Via Appia, about a kilometer from the current visitor’s entrance, but later moved to where the Coliseum is now located, and to which it gave its name.  

There were some 300 variously designed rooms, none of them sleeping quarters, and neither were there kitchens nor latrines. Nero’s residence remained on the Quirinali Hill.   The walls were covered with polished white marble.  Openings lit the pools, fountains and the frescoes that fascinated Raphael and his colleagues 15 centuries later.  An interesting tidbit-   Nero’s chief artist for the complex was called Fabulus ( presumably from Latin fabulosus “celebrated in fable;” also “rich in myths,” from fabula , story or tale) or Famulus.  This suggests that our use of ‘fabulous’ was changed from having to do with fables to being wonderful, as a result of the discovery of Domus.

Fabulus and his assistants painted on wet plaster,  a method we call ‘fresco,’ meaning ‘fresh, that yields such permanence that we still have good images from 2000+ years ago.  The exposure to the cool (you need long sleeves even in summer) damp air of the caverns caused significant deterioration to the frescoes once the dome was opened.  The massive numbers of 20th century visitors just about finished them off.  Now they severely limit the numbers by allowing only weekend visits, to preserve what is left.

When Domus was rediscovered at the end of the 15th century in the farmer’s field on the Esquiline hill, artists climbed down ropes into the richly frescoed caves- grotta in Italian.  They called the frescoes grottesche, from which we get the word ‘grotesque,’ which we now use to describe something ugly but these frescoes were anything but.   The impact on the artists was powerful.  You can see it best in Raphael’s work in the Vatican, their influence spreading from there.

Some of the wall frescoes: 

Artist's rendition of portion of Domus Aurea complex

Ceiling fresco

Artist's rendition of portion of Domus Aurea complex

Wall fresco


There is a slide show during the tour and we managed to get a couple of photos from it:

Artist's rendition of portion of Domus Aurea complex

Artist’s rendition of portion of Domus Aurea complex

Artist's rendition of portion of Domus Aurea complex

Artist’s rendition of frescos in the complex


Walking around the interior can be disappointing as it is dark, there are few frescoes to see and they are not in great shape. However the 3d goggle production, in addition to the slide show and the guide’s comments, make the visit one of the best.  The goggles show you the chamber you are in as it was at its peak.  You look up, right, left or ahead to see the dazzling white walls and their frescoes, statues and other wonderful decorations. The most stunning moment comes when they virtually take you outdoors, through what is now a filled in opening, but what then was a beautiful terrace with a massive view of the artificial lake, the forum and the Capitoline Hill.  From the latter a huge temple overlooked the area, as its ruins still do, below the Roman city senate building, from whence you gaze through the ancient columns over the forum.  

View from the hillside approximately where the entrance to the Domus Aurea now sits

View from the hillside approximately where the entrance to the Domus Aurea now sits

For those who are fans of antiquity, or who would like to see what the brouhaha is all about, a visit to the Domus Aurea is a must!



Photos from the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museum, and a bit about the Vatican | Sistine Chapel visit

Some background

Small (as in Vatican City) can be beautiful and that the Vaticano is.  The Vatican Museums house some $15 billion in art, although some of it is way beyond a monetary evaluation.  The popes who built the art collection, as well as the Basilica and the rest, were scoundrels who engaged in deception, fornication, thievery, hypocrisy and much more including the sale of what I call ‘get out of purgatory free’ cards:  you contributed in some fashion and in exchange the Church guaranteed you would be more leniently treated by the celestial powers that be.  But no one can deny that the legacy they left us is a storehouse of treasure that has enriched the world.   As much as I detest those people and hate to admit it, but we are indebted to them, yet own allegiance to their means. 

Vatican City is a country officially recognized by treaty between the Vatican and the Italian government since 1929 when Mussolini and the Pope came to an agreement.  Before the reunification of Italy in 1861, the Pope ruled much of Italy from the Vatican,  but the Risorgimento, as it is called in Italian, reduced the papal state to a mere 44 hectares, and it remains the smallest country in the world both in size and population.  

You may have heard the term “The Holy See” and wondered about the meaning.   The Holy See governs the religious life of the world’s 1 billion Catholics.  It is the arm of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) that has diplomatic relations with other countries, not the Vatican City.  It’s an odd arrangement, indeed,  but there you have it.  Another tidbit-  the word ‘see’ in “Holy See”comes from the Latin ‘Sede,’ meaning ‘Seat,’ so has nothing to do with seeing and thus not as presumptuous as it seems. 

Many people confuse the Museums (there is just one entrance to all of them) with St Peter’s Basilica.  Each has its own entrance-  if you standing on line in front of St Peter’s you are not going into the Museums.  The Museum is not free except for the first Sunday, while the Basilica is always free, though given the costs involved I would not blame the church if it decided to charge.  It’s houses amazing art, including Michelangelo’s Pieta, completed when he was just 23 years old. 

There is additional background information following the next section.

About the art of the Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel was completed in 1477 by Sixtus IV, for whom the chapel is named.  It remains the setting for formal deliberations naming the next pope.  Michelangelo, primarily a sculptor, was hired by Julius II to paint the ceiling, which he did from 1508-1512.  He started with the center piece, The Creation of Adam shows Yahweh, surrounded by his buddies, injecting life into Adam. Once Michelangelo completed this section he realized the scale was too small, and it would take him too long to finish the immense project.  Therefore the remainder of the work is in larger scale.  He painted nine scenes in all from Genesis, and also painted the Last Judgment on the sanctuary wall.  

Here’s a view of the hall.  Photos are not permitted but people manage to take ones anyway.  I found this one on the internet, one of the better and more interesting ones.  The chapel is hard to photograph well due to its size and the side lighting.

Sistine Chapel

Sistine Chapel


The Creation of Adam, one of the most famous paintings of all time, and the first to be painted in the ceiling project:

The Creation of Adam

The Creation of Adam, one of the most famous paintings of all time

This next is one of my favorite paintings in the Chapel.  From the far side of the hall his legs appear to be dangling in space.


A little more background

Pope Julius II, aka Giulian della Rovere (1443-1513), aggressively sought to unite Italy, to the point where he led troops in battle on at least two occasions.  He engaged in an active building program, most remarkably the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica, and invested heavily in the arts, such as the decoration of the ceiling of the Chapel.  His uncle, Pope Sixtus IV, had first made him a cardinal, assuming the position his uncle had vacated to become Pope.  Although unmarried Giulian fathered Felice della Rovere in 1483.  

He began the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in 1506, the same year he conceived of the ceiling for which he would hire Michelangelo.  Michelangelo was not interested in the project, saying he was a sculptor not a painter, and besides he was already at work on the Pope’s own tomb.  The latter project was set aside and remains uncompleted, housed in St Peter in Chains near the Coliseo and Domus Aurea; more about this in a coming article.   The Pope prevailed but went to war for the next two years, delaying the ceiling, during which time Michelangelo continued to work on the tomb, giving us what we have today, the Moses in St Peter in Chains, the center piece of the installation in that church. 

Michelangelo wanted no restrictions imposed on the project and he was granted complete control.  He eventually painted some 300 figures over the course of the four years it took to complete the ceiling.   He worked standing, not laying down as most people believe, using wooden scaffolding.  The scaffolding was held by brackets extending from openings at the top of the windows, and allowed for work on half of the ceiling at a time.  A lightweight screen below to prevent damage to the artwork and flooring below.  The openings were employed for the scaffolding used in the recent restoration, which turned a much darkened ceiling into a brightly colored one we see today.

At first he encountered mold problems in the plaster, into which paint was mixed to produce what we call ‘frescoes,’ coming from the Italian for ‘fresh.’  (I often hear Italians using the word ‘fresh’ for ‘cool’ as in ‘temperature.’)  An assistant developed a formula that is mold resistant, after the first applications had to be removed.  This formula is still in use.

Fresco painters employ a detailed drawing into which small holes are punched to transfer the design to the plaster. Michelangelo, however, drew directly on the plaster.  Each day a new section of plaster was laid, the edges of the previous day scraped off, being too dry.  As a result you can still see the daily progress of the work.

The final result is greeted by some five million visitors a year, paying about 15 euros each.  The Pope’s grandiose plan appears to have paid off, but I yield nothing to his immorality nor the Church of his time. 


Rome at night

These are from the top of Vittorio Emanuele monument in the heart of ancient Rome.  The monument is from the late 1800’s, commemorating the unification of Italy, but it is in the heart of things, with the Roman forums to its rear and sides, the historic center where you find the Pantheon, with St Peter’s Basilica in the background–  although with my excellent Canon telephoto lens you can get quite close.  Photos below the video.

Teatro Marcello from Vittorio Emanuele

Teatro Marcello from Vittorio Emanuele

St Peter's at night from Vittorio

St Peter’s at night from Vittorio

St Peter's at night from Vittorio

St Peter’s at night from Vittorio

Roman era frescoes at Tor di Argentina

Roman era frescoes at Tor di Argentina

Pantheon from Vittorio

Pantheon from Vittorio

Forum from Vittorio

Forum from Vittorio

Coloseo from Vittorio

Coloseo from Vittorio

Cats at Tor di Argentina

Cats at Tor di Argentina

Campodolgio from Vittorio - this is where the current Roman senate meets

Campodolgio from Vittorio – this is where the current Roman senate meets

St Agnes at the Track – Piazza Navona, with pen and ink drawings of Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi | Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi drawings

Chiesa Sant’Agnese is a small domed church designed by Boromini, a contemporary of Bernini and a rival who never made it to his competitor’s stature.  In my book he had nothing to be ashamed of, he just had a competitor that was outstanding and well connected.  The work he was assigned was smaller in scale but he did a magnificent job of making the interiors zoom in space.  

Chiesa Sant’Agnese is often termed “St. Agnes in Agony’ but this gives an incorrect translation of ‘Agone.”  Agone means ‘games’ and also refers to the stadium built by Diocletian starting in 80 AD, with a circle track.  So perhaps we should say “St Agnes at the Track,”  as irreverent as that may seem.

The church sits on what we now call Piazza Navona, originally called “Circus Agonalis” (circus is a circle, just like Circo Massimo, Circus Maximus).  Apparently the name Agonoalis morphed into Navona.  Aside from the track shape of the plaza and the buildings facing it, the main feature of the plaza is Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers).   Continue reading

A Summer of Music in Rome’s Fabulous Venues

Every summer the Italian government sponsors outdoor music events as part of a broader cultural initiative. The Polo Museale del Lazio (Museum Center of Lazio) put together one hundred activities for this summer’s entertainment.  See

To date we have attended three concerts, one at Castle St Angelo and two at Piazza Venezia.  The former is in Vatican territory and the latter overlooks the Roman forum and the ‘centro historico’ of Rome.  Two more fabulous venues would be hard to find.  

From the Castle you have a great view of St. Peter’s Cathedral as well as the River Tevere and it’s many summertime tents, where patrons sip cold beverages or have a plate of pasta while sitting on the banks of the river that divides Rome.  

St Peter's from Castle Sant'Angelo

St Peter’s from Castle Sant’Angelo


We were privileged to enjoy the Barcelona Gypsy balKan (sic) Orchestra seated on the upper levels of the monument, erected circa 139 as Hadrian’s tomb.  You too can watch the performance we did, without the venue unfortunately:

Barcelona Gipsy balKan Orchestra, pen ink brish, mini done in audience

Barcelona Gypsy balKan (sic) Orchestra, pen ink brish, mini done in audience

Barcelona Gipsy balKan Orchestra

Barcelona Gipsy balKan Orchestra, pen ink brush, done in audience

Their lively performances fuse Roma and Klezmer.  Klezmer is a musical genre created by Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe.  The groups are called klezmorim and originally it was largely dance tunes and instrumentals that they played for weddings and other celebrations.  It is every bit as energetic as Roma music and likewise there are dances that go with some songs.  When we were in Budapest one summer we watched a band and dance group performance, men in traditional black hats and suits dancing on an outdoor stage along the Danube.  It was impressively athletic, including bottles balanced on heads.

The concerts at Piazza Venezia take place within the monument to Vittorio Emannuel II, made king of Italy at the time of unification in 1861.  (You may recall that in 2000 Peg worked with the nephew of Lampedusa, who wrote the Leopard, a novel about Sicily at the time of reunification-  Gigi was working on a novel).  The monument overlooks Piazza Venezia on one side with great views of the historic center, and portions of the Roman forums on the others.  You can easily see Trajan’s column.

While waiting for the concert to begin, I sketched Trajan’s column.  The column recounts the conquest of Dacia, in what we now call Romania.  Romanian is a romance language, adopted as a result of the conquest depicted here.  The sculptors who did these columns came to be called columnists, from which we get our use of the word.

Trajans Column from Vittorio Emanuelle

Trajans Column from Vittorio Emanuelle, sketch

Romans are not fond of the monument, pejoratively calling it The Wedding Cake for its many layers. That you have to climb 260 stairs to get to the terraces does not make it any easier to like.  They say it is two floors to the terrace, which is true I suppose, it’s just the ceiling height that kills you.  There is an elevator to the highest level but you pay for those amazing views, but there is no stop on the level where they hold the concerts.

One evening there was a jazz band that whose offerings were too far from melodic for us.  The second night was Bach.  There were a flutist and a violinist, each accompanied by a virtuoso pianist, and a cellist who joined the rest for a third piece.   Fortunately I am a Bach fan, but if I were not, there would have been far too many notes for comfort.


These concerts and other events continue until September.  What a pleasure! 

Rome Struggles, Rome Beckons | Rome’s modern struggles

Rome Struggles, Rome Beckons

We landed in Rome’s Ciampino airport.  We are barely on the ground and already Rome’s disarray hit us.  

The last time we landed here there was only one bus to Termini, Rome’s central transit point.  We presumed that was still the case when we bought our tickets from the vendor in Valencia’s airport, thinking what a good idea it was to sell tickets ahead of time.  But then we walked out the front door, saw the bus platforms and four bus lines” names, but the name printed on our ticket was not there.  I asked several staff and passengers to find which line was ours. We stood in that line for 15 minutes (at least we were shielded from the hot sun).   The confusion was not over, however. as we were told to get in another line, whose placard was for another company. Indeed our bus appeared but as we waited we wondered if we had been mislead.  Then there was getting on the bus.  Italians do not stand in line, they crowd around the door, outflanking you. Eesh-  I was already exhausted.  And the struggle goes on and on.  Why?  Because Rome is chaotic like a turbulent fluid.    

Traffic moves like a raging river one moment and a logjam in the next, herking and jerking until the wee hours.  Yet like the fluid that finds its level, people get to where they are going, eventually, competing with each other and the buses and trams.  The latter are what the drivers avoid using, but once in their cars they spend lots of  time trying not to hit them and the other cars and the jillion darting scooters.   Everything would work better if most everyone used mass transit, or the recently added bike lanes which they might do if there were enough buses, subways and bike lanes,  but there aren’t since people spend money on cars instead.  

The enormous trash bins are another sign of chaos.  They are emptied daily yet each day overflow in an unsightly mess.  Rome city government is getting advice on how to solve their trash mess from Palermo, of all places- that’s how bad it is.  Even the upscale neighborhoods of the city have these problems, such as on Viale Giulio Cesare, which runs past the windows of our summer abode.  Down a bit from our place tourists by the millions line up for St. Peter’s and the Vatican Museum.  The back streets are lined with upscale stores, wine bars, restaurants and made to measure shops.  But trash mars the area.  The platforms upon which the containers nicely sit hold four dumpsters, one for household trash and three for recycling.  They need perhaps two more but there’s no room on the platform and cars take up the room otherwise available.  

Rome’s other issues contribute to the strain.  Refugees, street people, tax avoidance, pollution, street trash.  The list is seemingly without end-  this is not an easy place to run, so no wonder there’s so much dysfunction.   And yet people come, because Rome eternally beckons.  Where else would you find an Eternal City,  a city of such high art?  There are countless richly decorated and appointed churches, public buildings and monuments, private palaces such as the Pamphili Palace, still occupied by the family but mostly a museum.  There are Egyptian columns and Roman era ones such as Trajan’s which tells the story of the conquest of Dacia, modern day Romania.  And there is ancient Rome. Every shovel full brings up a history lesson, it seems.  This is why Metro Line C is not yet done after so many years, delaying one of the remedies for the chaos.  There is plenty of cultural modernity to bring you in and keep you here.  Wanted in Rome publishes huge lists of things to do-  concerts, expositions, talks, walks, plays and of course opera.  The Italians invented this high soap.  Good grief, are they melodramatic or what?  


Summer brings the Music Fest, starting June 21.  Nighttime is filled with outdoor concerts and plays and acrobats and who knows what else, all free, and all the ones I have seen have been very good.  My favorite venue is atop Castel San Angelo.  Order a glass of wine and enjoy the music and the view of St Peter’s!!  And of course any time of day or night have a cappuccino.  Maybe you’ll find a delightful something to draw.

Then there’s the odd public service we ran across.  At Ottaviano metro, where you exit the subway for the Vatican, there is a free water spot.  Rome has had public drinking fountains, these little green creatures called ‘nasoni, for eons.’  They run constantly.  But this fountain is different, like the old milk dispensing machines, standing some 2 meters/7′ tall.  You put your bottle under the spout, press the button showing the size bottle you have and presto!  You can get fizzy water as well, yet it is totally free!   What?  

Only in Rome would you get free carbonated water.  How do they manage this and yet not be able to adequately handle the trash and sweep the streets?  Or perhaps more importantly, why bother with this at all? Perhaps it has something to do with the trash.  Millions of plastic bottles filled with water fill landfills and float in the Tevere that winds through the city.  Can we help if we give away the sparkling water?  I’d say so.  

The government is trying.  You can see that with this strange giveaway, with the trash platforms, another metro line.  But you see the challenges everywhere you go, the trash strewn streets, the refugees, the homeless, the African street vendors.

June 2016

The Sunni Side Up– on the Berbers and the museums of Marrakesh | Marrakesh tour

The Sunni Side Up

Visits to the Casbah, the souks and the museums mentioned below, as well as the aromas and flavors of the cuisine, made me want to know more about the people of this land.   The Berbers that founded the city of Marrakesh circa 1200 were members of that ancient ethnic nomadic group occupying many areas of North Africa.  They were Christian under the Romans but converted to Islam with the Arab conquests.  With the Arabs they formed what we came to call the Moors- thus not are not sub-Saharan Africans, contrary to some popular conceptions associated with the term ‘Moor.’  Today there are some 25 million Berber speakers in Morocco, Libya and Algeria, but the number of ethnic Berbers is greater as most now speak Arabic, constituting to this day the majority of the population of North Africa.  

Moroccan Souk, pastel, alcohol blends

Moroccan Souk, pastel


Their occupation of Spain, headquartered in Granada’s Alambra but covering nearly the entire peninsula, was the most northern permanent excursion of Islamic culture into Europe and it was through this expansion that Europe received the advanced knowledge possessed by these peoples at the time.  It is in that epoch that the glory of Morocco and Islam resides, a glory that contains the extent of their innovations.  

Both guides we employed told us that the people of Morroco are very tolerant.  I can not tell if this is a tolerance founded in the nomadic past, its interpretation of the Koran or the result of, say, French liberalism or other source of humanistic philosophy, but the claim does seem to bear up under what scrutiny I was able to bring to the task.  As I noted in my first post, there are no visible tensions between tradition and modernity when it comes to dress. Some women walked around in jeans and other in the hijab without active confrontations or shunning- some even walked together chatting.  Men wore kaftans or western dress with equal comfort.  These days Jews are actively encouraged to immigrate-  most left after the formation of Israel and the last of them after the ’67 war, but Jews have a long history in the country.  

As an example of tolerance at the edge,  a lesbian woman was jailed but later released after an international outcry, for open affection with another woman.  Elton John is being permitted to perform at a spiritual fest, the king saying what Elton does in private is his business, according to the Fes guide.  

The King, yes there is one and he is an active ruler.  His family claims of direct descent from Mohammed puts the the Sunni side up in this country. 

Jardin Majorelle

After our guided tour of the souks in Marrakesh we visited two of the few local museums.  One is in the Jardin Majorelle.  It was founded by Yves Saint Laurent, who bought the gardens with his partner Pierre Bergé  in 1964,  later gifting it to Marrakesh,.   The original owner was the landscape painter Jacques Majorelle in the 1920’s.  In the garden there are 300 species from five continents, along with various ponds laid out along the winding paths.  The art deco style Musee Berbere that was Majorelle’s studio now contains an excellent collection of Berber arts and crafts.  It is small but the collection is excellent.  Note that vibrant blue paint on the exterior.

Musee Berbere, Marrkesh

Musee Berbere, Marrkesh

Berber jewelry

Berber jewelry

Berbere Woman, 1921

Berber Woman, 1921

Berber clothing

Berber clothing



Also an excellent visit is the MACMA,  a private museum  that opened in February, 2016.  The owner is Nabil El Mallouki.  He dedicated the museum to Morocco’s artistic heritage with a 20th century focus on paintings, some by Moroccans, others by French or European painters.   The museum captures what is exotic about Morocco, at least from a European viewpoint, with a collection of quality portraits, casual life and battle scenes.  

Portrait of Guard in Tangier Palace

Portrait of Guard in Tangier Palace

Portrait of Guard in Tangier Palace


Marian Bertuchi, Le Cafe, 1941

Marian Bertuchi, Le Cafe, 1941

The Heritage Museum

There are two other private museums worth a visit.  The Heritage Museum is in the narrow alleys that define the Marrakesh souk. At the desk we were met by a woman who is the daughter of the owners, the second we met was her sister and upstairs we met their mother.  It’s a family affair,  They are happy to share their collection with visitors.  The museum is in the riad – a house built around an open courtyard – previously owned by the daughters’ deceased uncle filled with the family collection.  There are Berber, Arab and Jewish items.  The jewelry (a specialty of the Jews), clothing and furniture are delightfully displayed in the beautiful surroundings.  

Heritage Museum entrance


The rooftop cafe offers a fabulous view of the Medina, the souks hidden by the tall walls of the houses.

In a visit of about 10 days you can see what Marrakesh and Fez have to offer, including a side trip to Meknes, interesting enough if you have never seen Roman ruins before.  The train between Marrakesh and Fez takes almost 8 hours.  There is a sandwich cart in case you’ve not brought food with you, lots of desert countryside dotted with small structures and shepherds.  Bring a book since you’ll probably want some diversion.  

Lessons from our travels in Morocco | Morocco travel

Lessons from our travels in Morocco

Morocco left me with eight main impressions.  First, the  contrasts in technology – delivery by donkey and by truck/motorcycle – and second, in cultures- modern dress next to traditional Berber next to conservative Islam.   Third is the intricacy and extensiveness of the decorative architectural designs. Fourth is the daily prayer calls, a strange concoction of sound; perhaps more strangely is that people dis not seem to particularly notice.  Fifth, the cuisine can reach impressive heights although it is mired in sameness on many levels. Sixth is the friendliness of the people we have met and the apparent tolerance.  Seventh is the level of poverty and, finally, that its glory is largely in its past.

Contrasts in technology

As we walked in the souks (markets) and even in modern areas we would encounter donkeys hauling delivery carts and the modern version, which is a motorcycle rig with an integrated covered bed.  There are men pushing delivery carts in the narrowest parts of the souks, or men carrying bundles.  Sometimes loads would be strapped to the backs of a donkey for delivery.  In larger areas you see large modern trucks transporting goods.

In the souks small stands are the norm, but in the modern areas you can see larger shops, super markets and international chains, some quite upscale.  


Contrasts in Culture

Women are everywhere,  and dressed in everything from a full covering hijab, only eyes peering out from black robes making for a mysterious appearance both intriguing and chilling simultaneously, to jeans and blouse.  The only women not very modestly dressed might have been foreigners.  I saw few women working but there were some.  The manager of the Orange shop we went into in Fez is run by a woman, and in the modern areas there women working in shops, cafes and restaurants.  In the souks almost everyone in the stalls and shops is male.

The intricacy and extensiveness of the design

Here are some examples of the design features you find in old buildings.  Islamic art is noted for this design, of which the Moroccan is a variation.







Here’s a modern rendition:


The University in Marrakesh

As you can see above, in some buildings the decoration is from floor to ceiling.


arch at Museo de Mouassine, Marrakesh

arch at Museo de Mouassine, Marrakesh

Daily prayer calls

These happen 5 times per day and at odd hours-  not say at the top of the hour but at say 522 am.  Once these calls to prayer begin they rise to a crescendo, starting with a call from a single mosque but soon joined by the other mosques in the area.  In Fez we stayed in a poor neighborhood, although the accommodations we stayed in were comfortable enough provided you can climb three flights of very steep short staircases.  There were about a half dozen mosques in the area, and the sound echoes off the mason surfaces.  It was eerie.   Here’s a pretty good rendition:

No one seems to run to the mosque for all this praying.  We could see groups of men in the mosques but not in  large numbers.  Both of the guides we employed talked about the religion.  One explained the ritual washing you do before you go into a mosque and how it was not required to do your daily prayers in a mosque nor to assume the bowing posture unless you were in the mosque.  But everything revolves around devotion to Allah.  

This is a religious country but not fundamentalist as a whole.  Islam is pervasive but other religions are tolerated and the king is encouraging the re-immigration of Jews, many of whom left for Israel after a long and prosperous history here.  Homosexuality is illegal but violations are sporadically enforced. Two girls photographed kissing were arrested but release without trial after an international outcry.  One of our guides said the king does not want bad publicity and prefers to overlook things of this sort.  Elton John was invited to perform at a festival celebrating spirituality and after some protests the king said he writes and sings about spirituality, his private life is his own affair.

Alcohol is forbidden in Islam, but you can buy it here and they produce wine in the country.  

The cuisine

I have already written on this topic.  Here is the link.

The friendliness of the people

In our interactions we had in restaurants, shops, hotels and on the streets we found the people to be universally friendly.  I saw one conflict with foreigners and that was a metal worker objecting to being photoed by a tourist.  The military waved us off when we tried to photo a wall that turned out to be part of a military installation, but entirely understandable from their point of view.  Many people talked to us as we walked around, and some have tried to get us to visit a shop to ‘just browse.’ Sometimes they help us find our way just being considerate.  A 10 year old boy guided us out of our neighborhood that first day in Fez and insisted on being paid but several adult men wanted nothing for pointing the way. 


This is definitely a third world country so it is obvious that money is in short supply.  There are many old taxis, for instance, with broken seats and no window cranks, although there are some brand new ones.  The public buses are in decent condition-  we have used several in Marrakesh.   The population is young, with an average life span of 73, ranking 80th in the world.  Dental care is rare, judging by their teeth.  The food is plentiful and of excellent quality, fruits and vegetables are part of the daily cuisine.  They must not be coming from far away.  The cuisine is tasty and reasonably varied.  Alcohol is in short supply and expensive where available.  There are huge vineyards near Meknes.

Glory is largely in its past

The glory of Morocco, as in all of North Africa and the Middle East in general, lies in its past, and of which they are proud.  Don’t expect a balanced presentation from people you meet casually.  It’s a ‘show me the good parts.’ 

The Moors who invaded Spain in 711.  The name ‘Moors’ comes from the Berber tribe called the Mauri (do not confused with the country of Mauritnia).  At that time the Islamic culture was a main source of knowledge for the Mediterranean countries and Europe.  Medicine, astronomy agriculture and more were absorbed into European culture as a result of the take over of Spain.  It is this of which they are perhaps most proud, but now the main product of these cultures is Islam, in which they seem to place a great deal of hope.  Both of our guides witnessed their faith to us, and probably presumed we are Christians.  At least we all have the same God, said one.  The other suggested that there would be no modern medicine if it weren’t for the Moors and Arabic culture in general.  There is something to be said for this, but on the other hand, what have they done since?

Their ancient markets are a huge attraction. Leather production is still done in the same way and at least in Fez in the same location since the 14th century.   They use natural dyes only in the craft markets, and are prohibited from selling anything other than traditionally made items.  In the leather area they still use pigeon droppings and other traditional processes to treat camel, cow, goat and sheep skins.  Goat is the best, we were told, as it produces the softest and most water resistant product.  Carpets and scarves are made from traditional materials in the traditional method, using hand looms.  We bought some scarves made of agave, the cactus, that you would swear was silk.  They preserve their past.  What of their economic future?

Processing skins in Fes

Processing skins in Fes (photo by Peg)

Traditional carpets in Fes

Traditional carpets in Fes


Moroccan Souk, pastel, alcohol blends

Moroccan Souk, pastel, alcohol blends


Moroccan cuisine | morroccan cuisine

Tagine, couscous and ‘salads,’ as they call them in Morocco, are main features of the cuisine here, along with ‘pastilla,’ a pigeon pie. These dishes are often intriguingly spiced.   Spices-cumin, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, cilantro, saffron, paprika, cardamom, nutmeg, mace, anise and more-  came from India in the old days, via camel, stopping in caravan serai, finding their way across North Africa and into the cooking utensils of millions of homes over the eons.

My first exposure to the cuisine came in a small hotel across the street from our pretty fancy digs, the Diwanes hotel. Zaalouk is made with eggplant (aubergines), tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, cilantro, paprika, cumin, cayenne, olive oil and lemon.  I was immediately won over.   It is served with the local bread, which you find just about everywhere.

Zaalouk, fabulous eggplant/aubergine dish

We used the following recipe and found it to be super:

We also had a tagine at this meal and like the bread it too is ubiquitous.  A tagine is a cooking vessel made from terracotta.  Meat is on the bottom and, when included,  vegetables are teepee’d above, then the vessel is placed in an oven and brought piping hot to your table. Some versions have no vegetables but cooked with prune or perhaps a dried apricot instead.  In restaurants the beef is cooked beforehand as it is everywhere super tender.  This can only be accomplished by slow cooking, but in a restaurant they bring tagines out in about 20 minutes.  I had one tagine in a very fancy place where the chicken was hard as a brick but otherwise they have all been very good but very much the same regardless of price.  Fancy places have better and more ‘salads’ and better surroundings.  With very few exceptions fancy restaurants serve no alcohol like the cheaper places.  It’s soft drinks, water, lemonade and everywhere there is mint tea made with fresh mint leaves stuff into the glass.



Tagine in foreground, couscous

Tagine in foreground, couscous

Aside from Zaalouk I ran across two other outstanding items, both in inexpensive places.  At Bab r’Cif there’s a place facing the gate.  They have a flat bread that is spiced and interlaced with some cheese.

onion flatbread

onion flatbread

The other version of this flatbread we tried at this same cafe at the Bab r’Cif is this onion version, also fabulous and very cheap, and even cheaper in the small stands, I bought two of the onion and a plain bread for $2.00, half of what they charge in this inexpensive place.  For a recipe try  For olive flatbread try

We have seen a flat bread cooked on the grill.  Here’s the recipe:   In the fancier place we stayed in for breakfast you could have this bread grilled as you wait, along with white beans, grilled red, yellow and green peppers, cucumbers, olives, tomatoes fresh and grilled, fruit, juice – orange juice is everywhere and is excellent- as well as fried eggs.

Couscous is a Berber dish of steamed semolina.  Traditionally the couscous is made by hand by combining wheat flour and water, and rubbing the mixture between your hands until the small balls fall out.  The mixture has to be fairly dry.  It is usually served as a stew, which would include either beef, lamb, kefta (meatballs), or chicken as well as vegetables- carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini.  It is generally mild with a thin but flavorful sauce.  You can ask for harissa, a hot sauce.  The ones at restaurants vary in flavor from one to the next.   

The ‘salads,’ which in Spanish would be called ‘tapas’ and in the US might be called simply vegetable side dishes or something like that, are outstanding and complex offerings or, in less expensive restaurants, simple affairs over which you might pour a white yogurt dressing.  But when prepped more elaborately the spices can really bring you flavors that as a westerner you have never experienced and will most likely enjoy greatly.

After a week of tagines and couscous I am ready to move on-  they are much the same no matter where you go. 

These are referred to as ‘salads.’ But they are in many cases much more than just a salad- fabulously spiced!

In a place called Le Table Bio- the French influence on the language here is unmistakable – I had the most fabulous kepab ever.  It was a chicken version.  I have no idea how they spiced it but here’s to them.  And it was just $2.50.  Peg’s avocado/shrimp salad was beautifully presented.   139 Blvd. Mohamed Zerktouni, Marrakesh. 

There are definitely epicurean reasons to visit this ancient land.  And visitors need not spend a fortune.  The most we have paid for a meal is $40 for two.  Wine is expensive, but only by comparison with the rest of the offerings.  In our fancy hotel we paid $14 for a mediocre bottle, and twice that for a better offering. 

A decent Moroccan red from Meknes

If you tire of traditional Moroccan food – after a week we did –  then there are pizzas, pasta, panini, hamburgers, and more from the West.  I even saw an Indian restaurant. 

Come with me to the Casbah | Medina, Morocco

“Come with me to the Casbah” is the famous pickup line that we all think came from a movue.  It was in fact never spoken in a movie– it was in the trailer of the 1937 movie Algiers (Heddie Lamar and Charles Boyer).  A casbah is a high walled fortification without windows, and it is here we began our explorations of Morocco.   The entire area behind the  walls is called the Medina, which is the oldest part of Marrakesh, while the market areas within are called souks.

The Almoravids,  a Berber tribe, built the city in the 11th century and ever since there’s been a whirlwind everywhere. Narrow alleys lead to more, not even those born here escape without at least the occasional bout of befuddlement.  Small motorcycles and scooters, not to mention the bikes and the principal delivery transport, donkeys pulling carts, wiggle through somehow yet no one is run down nor even has their toes smashed while we were there.   The only incident we encounter involves two boys wrestling, one having a choke hold on the other who apparently knocked his load of bread to the ground.  A kaftan wearing older male was breaking up the fight with remarkable patience.   What a kind soul he seemed.

Delightful aromas abound, coming mostly from the vast mounds of spices and if not from them then the vast quantity of fruit.  An exception is the area where they slaughter the chickens.  The foul fowl odor stuck to my nose for much too long.

Street scene Morocco, water color 13.5x 21 cm, 5 x 8"

Street scene Morocco, water color 13.5x 21 cm, 5 x 8″

Spice aromas fill the air 

Bright colors in the narrow alleys


Along the way we came to the university,  which claims to be the world’s first (so do universities in Fez and Timbuktu).   It had 900 students at one point but is no longer in use.   There is exquisite  decoration thanks to Unesco although the rising damp from underground waters continues to cause problems.  These extensive waters are what gave rise to the city- they giveth,  they taketh away. 

Peg shoots the University in Marrakeesh

Calligraphy from the Koran

The souks (market) of the Medina make any Walmart tiny by comparison, as its surrounding walls measure 12 kilometers in length.  There are shops by the thousands, most run by 1 or two people, and manufacturing zones as well, leather production among them, where workers still use plant dies and pigeon poop in the process.

Souk Semmarine sells everything from brightly colored bejewelled sandals, slippers and leather pouffes, to jewellery and kaftans.  Souk Ableuh has lemons, capers, pickles, chili peppers, and olives, as well as mint, which they use in cooking and the sweet tea you find everywhere.  Souk Kchacha specializes in dates and other dried fruit and nuts. Rahba Qedima has  perfumes, hand-woven baskets, scarves,  knitted hats, scarves, and the skins of alligators and iguana.  Famous for jewelry is Souk Siyyaghin, while Smata it’s belts and babouches, a slipper with no heel.  Cherratine has leather while Belaarif has modern consumer goods.  The Haddadine has ironware and lanterns.

The intense activity and I suppose all its newness tired me out and I was glad for the quiet of the lushly appointmented restaurant where we enjoyed the fabulous Moroccan “salads.”  More of this anon.