Friday 22 February 2013

Magical Marrakech

With a few days of school break, any place within close range that was warmer and dryer than England in February seemed a good destination ... but Marrakech, only 3 and a half hours flight from London, has been high on our travel wish list for ages.

Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakech Medina

And three and a half hours is enough to transport you to another world entirely. We arrived at night, politely turfed out of the airport taxi on the edge of the huge, busy square - 

Djemaa El Fna - in the heart of the Medina, Marrakech's ancient walled city ... 

Seller of flat-breads and donkey pulling wares

Gateway to Koutoubia Mosque and one of many snake-charmers in Djemaa El Fna

This square buzzes with life all day and all night - 

There are people on foot, donkey carts, horse-drawn caleches

 and Vespas weaving wildly, driven by men and women of all ages in all kinds of dress, from jeans to djellabas. 

There is drumming that increases in intensity as the night wears on, jostling at market stalls, the wailing of traditional Berber instruments

and smells of spicy meat cooking on open fires

We are guided through all of this by a porter on foot who has come to help with our bags, and led, dodging Vespas, through the square and then away from it, down a series of increasingly darker, winding and narrow medieval alleys.

Sidestepping scrawny cats and bits of rubbish, our kindly porter points out landmarks. Remember this mosque, this fruit stall, that door, you will need to find your way back. 

We stop finally at a low unmarked door in yet another narrow alley, through which we duck our heads and bend to enter

And find ourselves in our Riyad - a marvel of ingenious Arab architecture in which solid walls enclose an inner space that is a peaceful sanctuary ...

There's an interconnected maze of rooms and smaller courtyards 

                                        all surrounding a central inner, tree-filled courtyard.

There are private alcoves, lanterns and rose-petalled fountains.

 It is so insulated from the noise of the outside world that all you can hear here is the sound of doves, water running ... and five times a day the mournful sounds of the muezzins' calls to prayers from the city's mosques - the equivalent of southern Europe's church bells.

                                                  There is a roof terrace to catch the sun

and watch it set over the city's rooftops

with views to the Atlas mountains ...

We might never leave the Riyad. But then again, there's too much excitement waiting outside that ancient heavy door ...

Monday 18 February 2013

The most beautiful garden in Africa

A hundred years ago, a dedicated botanist called Harold Pearson began the task of transforming a huge, overgrown and neglected tract of land on the slopes of Table Mountain into the continent's most beautiful garden.

Pearson saw the potential for a spectacular indigenous garden under the mountains to display the Cape's floral kingdom - the richest variety of plant life in the smallest area existing in the world.

In a time before excavation machinery, the job was undertaken manually with spades, shovels and mule carts, Pearson labouring alongside a team of only a handful of men after work and on weekends.

He channelled the water that cascades naturally in waterfalls down the mountainside into streams and ponds ...

to provide irrigation for the Cape's indigenous flora ...

Cycads that survived the dinosaur area, and tree ferns (Cyathea dregei below...

Proteas - one of the oldest species of plant life in the world, its ancestors going back 300 million years ...

Pelargoniums, one of many species indigenous to this area that have given rise to popularly known plants in the rest of the world (where they're often wrongly called geraniums) ...

Stone Age people inhabited these mountains aeons ago, and since then Khoi and San people and European settlers have all left their mark.

It's also home to protected bird and animal life. Walking round the gardens with my mother on my last day in Cape Town we watched an Egyptian goose dive-bombing another from the air ...

Harold Pearson died young, before he saw his vision to completion, and is buried in the gardens. Today the Kirstenbosch botanical garden is a UNESCO World Heritage site and rated one of the seven top botanical gardens of the world.

There's a fragrance garden, a Braille trail for the blind, a garden of plants threatended with extinction, a garden  featuring plants used by traditional African healers ... and a fabulous collection of Mambo stone sculptures from Zimbabwe as well as sculptor Dylan Lewis's famous animals in action ...

Photos on display for this year's centenary celebrations show some historic moments in the garden's (and the country's) history ...

These ladies are horticulturalists (with what must be one of the best jobs in the world) and the only ones who are allowed to pick flowers here.

I was lucky to have a solo walk with my mother as a guide. She is one of Kirstenbosch's leading guides and last year was awarded an honorary life membership in recognition of her work and botanical knowledge.

Thanks for the tour, mum, and I hope you enjoyed the pics!

Thursday 14 February 2013

Vineyard escapades

On freezing winter days do you dream of lying on a four-poster bed in a summer garden?

The Alphen, Constantia, Cape Town

You can, if you like, in these rose, herb and lavender filled gardens where a duel was once fought between an army captain and a doctor named James Barry, supposedly over the affections of a daughter of the house. Both missed, happily - and probably intentionally, since they were actually best friends! James Barry went on to a celebrated career as a surgeon, performing the first Caesarian section in South Africa.

The twist in the tale is that on 'his' death in 1865, James Barry was discovered to be a woman. A petite, fiery redhead, she had disguised herself as a man in order to be accepted into Edinburgh's medical school and later as a surgeon with the military in India and South Africa.
Look at her - good grief, surely somebody must have cottoned on?

The Alphen manor house and wine cellars (below) are part of the Constantia Valley vineyards, only 10 miles from the city of Cape Town.

Hydrangeas are called 'Christmas flowers' here, and already just past their best by late January

Today the Alphen is a beautiful hotel for people visiting Cape Town, though for Capetonians it's a place to go for breakfast under the trees after a walk through the vineyards -

My niece and I met up here for a drink looking over the pool right here one evening

and another friend and I for tea and carrot cake in the garden

 Besides pistol duels and famous cross-dressers, this area has seen a lot of colourful history. Nearby at Groot Constantia is where the wine-making all began, in 1685, when Dutch colonists found this lush valley to be perfect for growing vines ...

Napoleon supposedly had 30 bottles of Constantia wines shipped over to Elba once a month to ease the pain of exile (that's a bottle a night, which would surely have done the trick). 

King Louis Philippe of France, Frederick the Great, England's George IV and Bismarck all dispatched emissaries to fetch crates of the stuff, and Dickens, Baudelaire and Jane Austen waxed lyrical about them. (Austen recommended 'a glass of Constantia' for 'its healing powers on a disappointed heart', she and Napoleon clearly both knowing a thing or two about drinking for solace). 

You can drink Constantia wines here too, at The Cellars (above and below), down the road

which is where my friend Lorelle and I met one evening for a glass of bubbly

and had this terrace with a view to the mountains all to ourselves

barring a few ducks and a curious cat

Lorelle gets to come here for a morning coffee or an evening glass of Constantia wine whenever she likes

... lucky fish.
Happy birthday and Valentine's day, Lorelle xo

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