The Occasional Tales of Ailsa B du Bois

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My impressions of Hobart & past observations…

Posted by Ailsa B du Bois on January 3, 2011

When I was last in Hobart (circa Oct 08) I had dinner with some work colleagues, one of whom was a quiet mannered Scot.  We were sipping pre-dinner bevvies on the upper deck of Mures Seafood Restaurant on the waterfront, and I was waxing on about how gorgeous Hobart was, when he suddenly announced “I dooooh-n’t like it”.  The Scots can be masters at brevity.

“But what about the stunning landscape and the wealth of heritage buildings? Doesn’t it remind you at least a little of Scotland?” I asked.  “Yeeees,” he said “That’s exaaaactly… thaaaaat’s the raaaay-zonnn I doooon’t like it.  It’s too much like hoooome – except that it feels waaaarmer, safer and cleeenarrr.”  Puzzled I thought “What’s not to like?”, but he was adamant it was too similar to his homeland, and too out-of-date.

Granted, the apartment complex I stayed in that trip did appear to have been decorated by my Auntie Pat, which is fine if you’re partial to conservative touches that have not altered one bit since the very early 80s.  The thing that struck me as most odd was that all the appointments were clearly very new, less than 18 months old at a guess, yet all the choices were so plain and dated, tipping over into drab.  I found it odd to think that the owner or managers had purposefully gone out and spent a whole lot of money on making the decor look a time capsule from 1981.  Despite this proliferation of old-fashioned, conservative interiors though, it seemed to me that where pockets of new century (naughties) built and social culture existed, they were right on the money.

I’ve long felt that Tasmania doesn’t quite fit with the geo-physical genre of the rest of Australia.  It has so much more in common with New Zealand I think, and I recall being told in year 12 geology that there’s some speculation that the fragments of land, or tectonic plates to be more precise, upon which Tasmania & NZ rest may possibly have floated over from the South American sub-continent many eons ago, as apparently may have the Philippines, which resonated with me. It could be a bunch of baloney, but I’m inclined to see it as feasible.

I should mention at this juncture that I failed Year 12 geology miserably, having a far keener interest at the time in the extra-curricular pursuits while on geology camps and excursions.  I paid very little attention to the formal scientific instruction I was meant to be receiving. So grankly this little gem of unsubstantiated hear-say is the only thing I really gained from the whole year of geology studies.  I’ve always been a A grade arts & social sciences student, but suffering  a big mental block with regard to natural science and mathematics.

In any case, when I reflect on my visits to Hobart, twice on business and once on a shoe-string budget holiday, I always have it in my mind that there are some quite slick cafs and restaurants about the place, though I must admit that my business trips to Wellington & Hobart often blur in my mind, so maybe when I’m thinking about Hobart I romanticise it, and unwittingly and very generously extend the cosmopolitan merits of New Zealand’s capital city to Hobart, which is simply wrong.  It’s the landscape that does it – so similar environmentally as cities in so many ways, yet clearly Wellington offers a vastly more diverse array of shopping, cultural and employment opportunities.  I adore Wellington, and if I were a Kiwi, that is where I’d choose to live.  I’ve been there about 6 times, so I have a reasonable handle on it, and one thing I do know both cities share is the intensely ferocious winds that come of the respective harbours.

I do however get a bit weary of the predictable tourist goods that Hobart offers visitors: a dozen varieties of fudge springs immediately to mind.  And the real estate prices are so inflated… I mean it’s definitely worth the money in world terms for the stunning views, the over-all charm and character of the city, the convenience and user-friendliness of the place, and so on, however in the context of the very limited earning capacity most people would have once living there, it really makes no sense to me.

I know that a significant amount of retired academics, antique dealers, government policy administrators, gourmands and the like have shifted to Tassie from major mainland capitals in the past 10 years or more, and have been able to pay the price, thus rationalising it, but at the end of the day I can’t see how the real estate values make sense within the Tasmanian economy.  But that’s just my take on it.  Maybe there’s something I don’t know…

It will be interesting to review the place while on holiday for a change, and with my hub with me, and get his take on it.  My hunch has always been that he’ll be entirely seduced by the place, as I have been, despite its provincial shortcomings (which in turn feed into its very sweetness), so it will be interesting to see what he thinks.  We’re not about to pack up and move there, but the sheer beauty of Tasmania is tantalising.

All of that said, in just 5 more sleeps we’ll be there, and I can reappraise it all.  Knowing that January is their warmest month & its forecast to be 16 to 24 degree with rain forming, which is probably as sunny and bright as it gets… Tasmania is known to be green for a reason.  It’s a wee bit wet a lot of the time, I do suspect.

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Packing for Tassie…

Posted by Ailsa B du Bois on January 2, 2011

For my hubbie Laurie’s big 50th birthday milestone, I asked him what he wanted to do in celebration.  To my considerable surprise he chose a holiday, specifically a relaxing get-away with a handful of long-term friends to Wineglass Bay on the stunning natural coast-line of Eastern Tasmania.  (I expected him to want a big party, but clearly age has brought him to his senses at last – I’m really not sure if I should be pleased by this pragmatic approach or slightly saddened).  Anyway, as we’re DIWOOKs (Double Income With Only One Kid)… And yes, I just made this acronym up because I’m a bit of a cad…, we figured most of our single friends wouldn’t want to come on this sort of trip with us, and we don’t know any couples with kids that would either, so we decided it made most sense to invite Laurie’s two oldest pals that are in long term relationships and who we suspected might be likely to find the tranquil pleasures of the Island State appealing and furthermore might be interested in spending precious holiday money doing it: Cam (who was Laurie’s share house mate in a Redfern terrace when we first met, and Laurie’s best man at our wedding) and Ali (who actually introduced us to each other at a Darlinghurst bar in Sydney about 15 years ago).  Another consideration was how many people we could possibly fit in a hire car, and most importantly in a nicely appointed rental holiday house.  7 seemed to be the magic number.  So, as it turns out there’ll be 7 of us at Wineglass Bay: One DIWOOK couple, two DINK couples (hetro & gay respectively), our adorably chatty 7 year old daughter and a new game of Cleudo.

I guess this is what middle age is all about.  And yes, I do think it’s just possible (however ambitious) that Laurie could to live to be 100 (His father is currently 79 and globe-trotting about constantly, on all manner of indulgent cruises through Alaska, Central America, Asia and the Mediterranean, and annually spending time in LA hanging out with the family of Flea from the Red Hot Chile Peppers.  When at home, he’s still off travelling all over the state, when he’s not in Queensland of course, or shopping at organic farmers markets or playing gulf or renovating houses – In a word he is ‘fit’).  I DO hope Laurie has his genes.

So,we’ve booked 3 nights accom in Hobart at Somerset on the Pier (a posh wharf apartment style number on the waterfront), then 3 nights at Freycinet Haven (a 4 bedroom holiday home elevated above Coles Bay, in the Wineglass Bay region), then finally 2 nights accom at Somerset at salamanca (perfect for tumbling out of the front door directly into the hum of the Saturday morning Salamanca markets).  All the accom pics look gorgeous, and I eyed off Salamanca on the Pier with close range interest last time I was in Hobart on business (for a deadly dull psychology conference), and told myself this was where we should stay if we visit on a family holiday.  The Henry Jones Art Hotel looks great too, and I’ve had dinner there, but as it’s all ambient lighting & sophistication, I figured the idea of an apartment on the pier is a much brighter option for a kid.  There’s only so much art Jemima can stomach – We drag her to enough gallery launches as she can stand, so Somerset on the Pier it is.

We land in Hobart a day before one couple and two days before the others, so we’re doing our own thing in the beginning – Taking a day trip to the Huon Valley south of Hobart.  I visited Cygnet and surrounds about 13 years ago, with a Uni friend, and thought it was stunning, so at last I’m able to show it to my loved ones.  I like the fact that it’s making a profile for itself on the Australian gourmet food circuit.  My recollections of the Huon from last time are very positive, though shrouded in cool misty fog.  It seemed wet a lot of the time.  I saw fresh oysters clinging to the rocks in the estuaries there, and the old apple barns made an impression on me as well.  It should be a very nice day drive in our hire car meandering from berry farm to apple orchard to quaint country bakery – that’s the spirit of the ‘sneak peak at the Huon Valley’ plan anyway.

And now to packing…  Well that starts tomorrow, but for now I have a list scratched on the back of a torn old energy bill (paid of course), and that’s a good start. Item 1, tick… Item 2, tick…

More from me later… 🙂

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Gold Coast Trip Coming Soon…

Posted by Ailsa B du Bois on May 5, 2010

I find it kind of hard to believe that we’re actually doing it – the seemingly obligatory Australian holiday ritual for families with young children…  We’re flying to the Gold Coast in Queensland for 5 nights in the July school holidays.   On one level it seems so mainstream and cliche, but then it also seems to me that it’s a great privilege to be going at all.  For many  families it’s a heart-felt aspirational dream that may never be accessible, because it is really a rather expensive extravagance, all things considered. Thus, I’m quietly pleased that we’re able to do it for our daughter.  In any case it’s ‘payolla’ for leaving her behind when we went around the world a year ago.  The poor love deserves a reward, and this trip is it.  I just hope she remembers it in years to come – after-all she’s only 6.5 years old.  But those that know me are aware that I’m a crazy keen documentary photographer of family outings, so there’ll be a mass of photos to prove to her that she really was there, and to encourage her sense of recollection.

A long time ago, in January 1974 when the Gold Coast was just a row of tall buildings one block deep astride a quiet beach, and an ageing Elvis Presley crooned on high rotation in cassette players all over Australia, and no-one even had seat-belts in their cars, my parents miraculously managed to drive me across the country, in their white Cortina, to the Gold Coast for some time in the sun.  And sun I did receive…  In that pre-sun-block era before skin cancer awareness, and before widespread use of sun-hats and sunglasses for children, I spent an entire  afternoon on the beach frolicking about with a pale blue polystyrene floatie borbel strapped to my lily white back, sizzling my delicate skin stupid in a pair of kiddie bikinis’.  Within a few hours I was victim to the most enormous array of blisters imaginable, and they took days to deflate.  I vividly remember us pricking them with pins, to release the steaming guk inside.  It was really rather disgusting and hideously painful.  To this day I blame the Gold Coast for all those freckles splotched over  my arms and shoulders…  To hell with ‘sun-kisses’.  Needless-to-say, I do intend coating my daughter in tube loads of sun-block, and we won’t be going out on the beach during the peak sunburn & UV damage risk times: of that you can be sure.  By some random coincidence I was also six years old when I went to the Gold Coast, and though I had a sibling, he was too young at that time to bring along, so my parents left him at home with Grandma.   So, it will be sort of similar for our daughter, minus the sunburn episode!

So anyway, we’ve booked a self-catered apartment on the Esplanade, in the heart of Surfers Paradise, which looks really slick and recently renovated in the contemporary style (if we’re to believe the marketing material and the handful of on-line photos exemplified below), and we’re going to spend a day each at Sea World & Movie World respectively.  That’ll be sufficient – We don’t want to spend the whole time in fun parks, and just because there’s a lot of them there does not mean we feel compelled to visit all of them.  Some dolphin watching is fine with us, but as our poor little love will be on her own, without any siblings or play-mates, I think there’ll be only so many kiddie rides we can take together!  We’d also like some time to just read magazines on our balcony after-all…

Prior to the Gold Coast, we’re also spending two nights with friends (from my Flinders Uni days – Gosh that’s a long time ago)…  on the Sunshine Coast…  Which will be great.  They have two daughters, and so it should be fun to see them all again.  We’re going to catch a train from the SC south to the GC via BrisVegas central train station.   I spend almost a week a year in Brisbane on business anyway, so I don’t mind missing it really.  Maybe if our daughter was older, we’d spend some time there, but 7 nights away in total is about enough for a family get-away, we feel. I do quite like Brisbane, but we’ll have to save that thought for another time.  Right now, I’m more than satisfied with the prospect of the quintessential Gold Coast family escape.

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Musings on where to stay in Manhattan…

Posted by Ailsa B du Bois on January 25, 2010

A friend of mine (a Singapore born Australian currently living in London) is visiting NYC soon, and put out the general Facebook call asking for recommendations on where to stay.  The first thing I always want to ask in response to this question is “what are you looking for?” as I notice that, strangely, no-one ever volunteers this sort of information up front.  Knowing where you place your greatest emphasis is so important, as it will give the ‘advisor’ an idea of what you’re hoping for in your holiday, and they can tailor trheir advice accordingly.  Is it sight-seeing, architecture, galleries, shopping, fashion, theatre, night-life, film classic spots, cultural history, particular sub-cultures that you’re interested in, or what exactly…?  Anyway, I started typing a rather long email to my friend, before thinking, well, I really should just put this up on my blog (yes, I’d almost forgotten I had one!), so it’s out there for others to read if relevant.  So, in an attempt to answer some of my friend’s questions, and maybe offer something of interest to others along the way, here goes…

I think the first question you need to ask yourself when visiting NYC, and a relatively easy one to resolve quickly, is whether you want a hotel or an apartment.  Apartments can offer greater savings, especially for families, and there’s a massive range of options available on-line. It seemed like there are quite a few good ones in Chelsea, which is a quiet sort of district (well, by NYC standards only, I suppose) with a lovely village feel.    However, if you’re visiting Manhattan sans child, you may want to indulge more in eating out, and experiencing all the diverse food options NYC presents, and if so why bother having a kitchen of your own?   As I stay in self-contained apartments quite a lot across Australian capital cities, for business and recreation, the idea of a hotel seemed quintessentially ‘special’ and therefore the obvious choice for my much anticipated dream visit to the mega-metropolis.  For me, the ambience and character of my hotel is also almost as important as the city itself, so I guess you could say I’m rather particular.  We stayed at 3 different hotels in Manhattan, so as to survey the 3 different parts of town, and of those my favourite was definitely the Hudson Hotel, which is pure Phillip Stark in interior appointments and probably a tad too dimly lit, all things considered.  For a temporarily childless couple such as us, this was perfect for what we wanted: very sensuous, urban cool and sexy.  The rooms were tiny, but very thoughtfully constructed, making sensible egonomic use of the teeniest of spaces.  Interestingly, of all the hotels we stayed at, the Hudson gave us the best view, over the city streets, looking back down-town toward Hells Kitchen (disarmingly now being renamed Clinton in the city’s attempt to gentrify this authentic and slightly gritty NY district: personally, I like it just how it is).

But ultimately the most important question when planning your trip to NYC is where on the island to stay…  Up-town, Upper Mid-town, Mid-town, Lower Mid-town or Down-town…   In relation to transport though, this question is fairly irrelevant.  If you’re just worried about how you’ll get yourself to and from places of interest, you shouldn’t be: almost everywhere on the island is a very short walk from a subway entrance, and the subway is good value and very easy to use.  Taxi’s are plentiful and cheap.  And you’ll probably want to do a lot of walking around to see things anyway, and Manhattan is a highly walkable city.  It’s really well laid-out, and you can walk across the island from side to side in less than two hours.  You’d probably only want to walk North or South for a few distrcts though before you find yourself in a daze, and needing to sit down.  It’s not so much the distance that knocks you out, but all the visual and emotional stimuli that you find yourself confronted with that takes it’s toll.

As for what defines the three main choices of regions to reside in (down-town, mid-town, up-town), it’s really the pace and tone of these regions that you need to pick between.   And it’s also the sort of question you’ll need to be able to answer socially as well…  Everyone seems to imply that you can define yourself (or at least that they can define you) by which region you like the most.  This is, of course, ridiculous, but you know how people like to categorise each other, or at least try to.

Down-town is jam-packed with interesting things to see, and is fairly diverse in its environmental offerings as well: Seaport, Civic, Tribeca, Soho, Greenwich Village, Chinatown, and so on are all so different to each other.  There’s a hotel in Tribeca that several work colleagues of mine (all publishing folk like me) have stayed at and rave about, called Duane Street Hotel, and it looked gorgeous, but a little exxie.  The definitively hip, star spot to stay down-town is of course the Mercer in Soho, which you’d need Scarlett Johansson’s income to be able to afford, of course.  Being not at all shy, I had no qualms about inspecting it’s uplifting lobby, divine bathroom, inviting restaurant, and all parts that are accessble to the public.  I loved it, but back to reality…   Where I actually stayed was the far more humble Washington Square Hotel in Greenwich Village .  The Village is sweet, and nice and close to Soho which is great because we loved all the private art galleries in the old cast iron district, and could have happily spent half a day just in Dean & Delucca’s (Manhattan’s main gourmet providore mini-market).     The hotel was also really close to the Comedy Store where ideally I’d love to go once a week, for tension relief.  I’ve never laughed so much in my life.  Anyway, I liked the Village, and the whole Washington Square NYC University scene, but I wouldn’t stay there again, to be honest.  Truth is I’m probably a bit to old for the Village!  If I were staying down-town again, I’d choose Tribeca, partly because it actually feels like you can taste the sea breeze from there, and I absolutely love its fashionista edge, and its clean streets.  You really do see film crews crossing the road holding naked manneqins, and there’s lots of great design warehouses in Tribeca as well, for window and ideas shopping…  It’s the sort of neighbourhood where they have parking bays for prams marked on the pavement outside cute as a button cafe’s.

Mid-town is very, very racy, and a lots of the eateries are pricier than they should be, just coz they’re close to Times Square & Broadway. We thought it was that bit too intense. Amazing to visit, but not the best spot to stay: sort of Kings Cross (Sydney) multiplied in intensity 3 dozen times over, mixed in with a sort of corporate, concrete CBD feel (if you can picture this strange combination!).  The Theatre District is simply unbelievable: teeming with people every afternoon and evening, like a surreal, glittering ant-hill.

The part of the Island that really captured our hearts, and where we will definitely stay again one day, is Upper Mid-town, either west or east, because it’s so close to all the art galleries and cultural spaces, the endlessly enchanting Central Park, interesting boutique stores, as well as still being close to land-mark sky scrapers.  So it’s ‘leafy’ and upmarket, while still being close to a zillion things to see and do.  The Buckingham Hotel was recommended to me by a friend, and looks like a really great option – I think I might stay there next time in fact.  More writing on this to come – I just need to do something else for a few hours now!!!

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The Palace, an Epicurean Market & the Thyssen

Posted by Ailsa B du Bois on June 7, 2009

Spent our last day in Madrid gazing, with dropped jaws, at the extraordinary opulence of the Palacio Real, built for Joseph Bonaparte (Napolean’s bro) several hundred years ago.  It really defies desciption, as it is just so over the top.  The porcelein room is unbelievable, as is the throne room, and the likely value of the bulding and contents is completely beyond my comprehension.  Suffice to say that the current Spanish royals can’t bring themselves to live there, as it is clearly way beyond acceptable levels of indulgence for these curent times  (That said I’ve just spotted a bottle of whisky worth more than my whole home here in the Hong Kong Airport, so I suppose I’m just to poor for words, really…)  In any case, the Palacio Real offers a fascinating insight into the splendour of previous dynastic tastes in interior decorating.  It’s a must see in Madrid.

After that we wandered over towards the Plaza Mayor, and chanced upon a very civilised epicurean market-place at Plaza de San Miguel, on the way there.  You can buy modest sized rations of exquisite seafood bruscetta, or huge individual oysters, and all sorts of delicious delights, with a vermouth to wash it down.  Aside from being  a sort of epicurean fast-food emporium for well-heeled folk on the run, it also doubles as a fresh food market.  After examining all the fare on offer there, we went for a sav blanc in Plaza Mayor, and thought about how much nicer it is to sit in a plaza in the sunshine in Madrid on a Friday afternoon, than it is to spend a Friday working…  As this was our last day in Spain, such thoughts naturally cross one’s mind.  Irk…  That’s right…  Life is not an endless world tour – What a shame!  So, with that disturbing realisation in mind, we scurried off to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum to view yet more art-works while we still could.  A wide ranging collection, with some great cubist works.  What was particularly striking about the Thyssen was the colour of the walls throughout the space.  They’ve used a peachy rose colour throughout, which is an odd choice but it really works.  Being owned by a female entrepreneur, Baroness Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, one might presume that this colour choice is her point of differentiation.  It does create a memorably warm ambience, albeit in a slightly claustrophobic 1980s fashion.

For our last night in Madrid, we went to Bar Labra for battered cod and vermouth, both of which were outrageously good, and then on to another tapas bar for the most succulent calamari we have ever tasted.    Madrid has won my heart – quite honestly.  We will be returning to Spain – no question about it.  Viva Espania, I say.  And now, as I peer out over the misty Hong Kong landscape from the confines of this pristine glass and steel airport transit lounge, I look forward to nothing more than a good lie down!  These long haul flights really are hideous.

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Arte Reina Sofia, The Crystal Palace & Other Observations…

Posted by Ailsa B du Bois on June 4, 2009

This morning we´re off to the contemporary art mecca here, the Reina Sofia, which will likely eat up several hours.  Picasso´s Guernica is the star piece there, but there´s all sorts of other jewells as well.  They have a feature exhibition on at the moment of the sculptural work of Juan Muñoz.  He makes strange and amusing people who are slightly shorter than real people, in dark grey fibreglass, and there is a whole room full of about 70 or more joyous looking Chinese men in Red China uniforms (they´re all sculptures) and you can wak in amongst them, and imagine you´re hanging out with Mao´s army during a uniquely happy moment.  Sounds simultaneously spooky and uplifting to me, so I must experience it.   After that we´re going to check out the Crystal Palace in Parque del Retiro, and then view the antique Railway Station, which is said to  be fabulously  evocative of a far grander period of train travel.   After that Laurie wants to go for a late luch back at our new favourite Huertas taverna, Maceiras, for seafood paella and cerveza.

Last night we had tapas ol fresco, as it was such a  warm night, and the food was outrageously good.  We had mussels in provencial sauce (the best I´ve ever tasted), grilled mushrooms with speck type ham & herbs, and honey glazed aubergine, which was the just the best.  We are also finding the quality of the wine here to be very good; both affordable and deliciously velvety.  I now fully understand why the Brits love Spain.  It is a sort of paradise, it seems to me.  The locals are quite irreverant and quirky, which I like.

One thing I meant to mention when in Paris is how gorgeous it is to find men playing the accordian in the plaza´s and in the metro.  It really adds an overt European charm to day-to-day life, and while I realise its a bit cheesy, I really like that they hold to these traditions.  I also really like the fact that they let real ´live´painters sit in the Prado, and create copies of their favourite master-pieces.  It´s amazing to watch these people work, and really good for the children to witness how its done.  Madrid is a really lovely life-style city.  I passed a jazz band playing ´Summer-time, and the living is easy´in the park yesterday, and I think that sums up the mood here perfectly.  Off to a photographic exhibition in Centro tonight, then for a stroll up into Chueca, the gay barrio of Madrid, with bars galore.  Window-shopping and sight-seeing is always fun.  Even from our little Juliet balcony, outside our 3rd floor hotel window, there are interesting things to see happening down below on the street.  If only we didn´t need to sleep!

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The Magic of Madrid: City of the Garden of Earthly Delights

Posted by Ailsa B du Bois on June 3, 2009

Here in Madrid, Laurie and I have found a city that we love and claim as our type of city…  Madrid is a lovely size, with gorgeous grand green boulevards, beautiful architecture, happening lane-ways, very warm and sensual climate, and the people are so relaxed and sexy while barely being conscious of it.  The food is delicious here as well, but then we do love tapas, and especially authentic tapas, like we had today at an old socialist institution of a Galecian tapas bar.  The octopus in quality olive oil with paprika was the best thing I´ve ever tasted, and sincerely melted in your mouth.  The music everywhere we go is great too.  Just walking along the streets is such a delight, because no-one cares what you´re doing, and people are just doing their thing, it seems.  The pace of this city is just right, in our opinion.

We arrived yesterday at about 6pm, and from the minute we disembarked at the architecturally hip airport, and taxi´d into the city, we knew that we´d made the right choice in stopping off here, and that this will be a really enjoyable 4 nights.  It actually reminds us a lot of Melbourne, if you can imagine Melbourne being sultry, sexy and Spanish speaking, with Museo Jambon (Ham Museums!) every block or so.  Today we went to the Museo de Prado, and saw their lush collection of classic art, most of it from the 1400s to 1600s.  Goya, Velazquez, Rubens, Raphael, Caravaggio etcetera, and the prize for me was seeing Bosch´Garden of Earthly Delights. I feel somehow that although this complex and intricate painting was by a Dutch artist, it has found it´s home in the perfectly appropriate city for a work of this type.  We´ve seen numerous trannies, tattoo parlours, impressively clean looking street hookers, and Ramones style rockers that look like they´ve just stepped out of the Tardis, along with oh so civilised string quartets busking in the streets, homeless men asleep in door-ways with literature half read in their laps.  Tonight we´re going back into Huertas for tapas then on to a jazz bar.  We´d love to see flamenco but the price is steep, so we´ll do that next time we visit Spain (yes, always planning…).  We went to the tranquil Real Jardin Botanica today, and also saw a punkie girl photo exhibition. All very interesting.

Tomorrow, or Friday, we´re off to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Palace, and I´m running out of Euro coins now, so this blog is about to end abrubtly!

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The Marrakech Express & Sizzling in the Souks (Markets)

Posted by Ailsa B du Bois on May 31, 2009

On Friday we boarded the train to Marrakech, which was a 7.5 hour affair, so hardly an express!  It felt a bit like a black’n’white Hitchcock film, for some reason; Islamic women in full Purdah, American Marketing Managers, French and Spanish tourists and us, set against a passing landscape of parched tones.  The most notable thing about passing city after town after village across Morocco is the proliferation of satellite dishes astride each building’s roof-top.  Each building, including those make-shift shelters in shanty towns, has at least half a dozen dishes crammed onto the roof-top.  As we travelled further south, the physical beauty of the land became quite similar to that of out-back Australia.

On arrival in Marrakech we were collected and transferred to a beautiful Riad hotel (a very secure 3 story house with an internal garden, and intense decorative tiling), just a few minutes from Jemaa el Fna, the great square.  In the evenings this enormous public space comes alive with snake-charmers, musicians, story-tellers, fire-eaters, henna hand-painters,outdoor restaurants, and eye-sizzling smoke fumes from the barbecued meats.  It’s a blaze of sounds, sights and smells.

On Saturday, we met our Marrakech guide, Mustafa, who was an absolute hoot; very candid and entertaining.  He took us to the run-down Bahia Palace, once a splendid mansion built in 1866 for a former slave who had risen to a position of importance in the government of Moulay Hassan. We explored the tranquil inner courtyards, fragrant with orange blossom, and the many salons and chambers.   We listened to stories of live was there; a man with 5 wives and 24 concubines, belly-dancers fattened with suet, young and old eunuchs, and musicians forcibly blinded to ensure their attention to the quality of sound…  It was very interesting, but needs a lot of money poured into the rejuvenation, curation & decoration of the space to really bring the past to life in a more compelling fashion.  We then walked to the Marrakech Museum, itself a former palace, and in far grander repair.  This space remains truly beautiful, and houses a fine collection of Morrocan art.  Largely though, and with few exceptions, I’ve noticed that while the Morroccans are very good indeed at creating exquisite furnishings and finishes, they then leave the splendour to decay, with no attention whatsoever to maintenance.  It’s such a shame, because everything starts of in finest form, and then it’s all down-hill there-after.  That said, though, they are at least relatively clean in terms of sweeping the streets each morning, and as far as developing nations go this is kind of like the top-shelf option.  The taste and wealth is very discreetly kept behind locked and guarded doors.  It’s an intriguing dichotomy.  And the French have a very big hand in the tourist economy, that is for sure. Marrakech really is a play-ground for the wealthy French.

Today we’re heading back to the souks, despite the intense afternoon heat, to ponder the treasure-trove of goodies within.  Thank Gosh we didn’t come here in Summer – it would be an intolerable furnace.  When all is said and done, there’s really not a great deal to do here other than walk around the streets of the old medina and browse the souks, and that’s really what it’s all about – just being here amid this exotic culture.  Tomorrow we’re going to see a garden owned by the late Yves Saint Laurent, and then spending the balance of the daywandering about and relaxing in readiness for our flight to Madrid on Tuesday.  Morocco has been both fascinating and fun, and I’m glad we came.  It’s a visual feast.

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Snails, Caves, Flora and Decoration in Northern Maroc

Posted by Ailsa B du Bois on May 28, 2009

This morning we drove to a village 30k from Fez, and walked through a food market selling various things, most notably baskets and baskets and yet more baskets of live snails, all slithering hopelessly, with the fattest girth’s and the biggest shells I’ve ever seen.  After a stop for a strong café au lait at an outdoor café by a river in a fragrant garden, we drove to a mountain and went into some caves where poor Berber families live.  It was very cool in there, and smelt delightfully minty thanks to the Morrocan penchant for endless cups of extremely sweet black tea, with 3 or more sprigs of mint squished into each little glass.

Driving back to Fez, I observed yet again how rich and fertile this land is; so Mediterranean after-all.  There are endless orchards of olive trees across the land, and so much citrus: particularly orange, lemon and apricot.  Orange trees even decorate city streets.  Along the side of rural and city streets alike, there are beautiful Jacaranda trees everywhere, with their lavander flowers, and underneath these are endless Bouganvillia bushes and Oleander bushes, and so everything seems peppered with vibrant pink and purple.  There are also lots ond lots of little red flowers eveywhere, and on country roads lots of tall single stemmed white flowers, standing upright sometimes as high as two metres, with the white flowers as wide as saucers.  It is really a very beautiful landscape.  There are many grand boulevards in the nouvelle sections of the city of Fez, and more money being spent currently on further public infrastructure such as this.  It is a lovely city, and it is easy to appreciate why the Fessi people (as they call themselves) are so proud of their city. Culturally, this is a land of Arab and Berber people, with a surviving Jewish minority, but predominantly it is of course an Arab Muslim Kingdom.  It is fascinating, and we are learning a lot about Moroccan culture, or at least from a lay-person’s perspective it seems like a lot, yet obviously it is just the tiniest glimpse at the surface.

The intricately detailed mosaic tile work, the hand painting and the carving of wood and marble here is absolutely extraordinary, and everything is adorned with almost insane attention to detail.  The artisan work here is honestly the very finest I have seen anywhere in the world, and of course this is why I’ve wanted to come here for so long.  It is such a pleasure to see this sort of work displayed everywhere we go.  The tile work and wood work is so complex and multi-faceted, and the repetition and symmetry of symbolism and colour is truly striking.  There is also an obsession here with grand gate-ways and door-ways, so you could easily take endless pictures of just gates and arches to fill a coffee table book.  Also, the sandstone fortress walls encasing so many ancient Imperial and Medieval cities here are so romantic, in that very exotic fashion that so influences our child-hood understandings of the tales of the Arabian nights, and it is all real.  Morocco is a beautiful and richly coloured nation.

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Inside the funky, cool medina…

Posted by Ailsa B du Bois on May 28, 2009

Yesterday we spent the majority of the day within the 16 (distinctively un-) square kilometres of the ancient medina in the oldest part of Fez.  Fez was settled in 808 A.D. and it really does show: there are 9,400 known streets within the medina, and it is a medieval maze of the purest surviving type.  These alley-ways are very narrow, and often covered or semi-covered with an ensemble of bric-o-brac wooden planks.  The walls that enclose each building within the medina tower up about 3 to 4 stories, at all sorts of irregular angles.  Everything is crumbling, and the pathways are cobbled and uneven with broken and dishevelled sections underfoot.   One must tread even more carefully than in a New York street, and putrid waste is often under-foot.  It is a step way back in time, to a genuinely medieval way of life that you rarely witness elsewhere; except maybe Cairo or Calcutta by memory, or possibly also Damascus, I’m told.

I could not tell you how many thousands of people live their lives in there, but I can report that every little merchant shop is 2 metres-wide and maybe 2.5 metres deep, and they go on and on beyond the stretch of imagination, each competing for the surely finite local consumer dhurum.  There are an enormous range of goods and services within the medina; whole alleys of the most ornately embroidered and glittering wedding jalaba’s, and huge glitzy wedding chariots and oversized thrones for the married couple, made of tin, it seemed to me, but covered in the sparkliest of adornments.

The Moroccans are oustanding artisans and craftspeople, and countless people toil by hand on the most detailed of repetitive tasks: some highly skilled, and others not so skilled.  We observed carpet makers, tanners (sulpher and natural dye), silk threaders, ceramacists, tailors, barbers, jewellers, goldsmiths, tile makers,copper-smiths, dentists (eek…),  sweet-makers, cherry sellers, nougat-makers, nut and spice sellers, fish-mongers with their unrefridgerated seafood crawling with flies, chicken and pidgeon breeders, butchers with whole marinated raw ram’s heads hanging from their stalls, and so on and so on…  Merchants, vendors, tradespeople, and the poor, all sênd their lives in this congested environment, scratching a living together.

As you trudge through the medina, up sloped paths and around sudden corners and down steps in the dark, and momentarily out into a shot of blinding sunshine, and back into the yellowed half light again, one must be ready at any moment to stick quickly against the cold, dank, side walls to avoid the poor, wretched mule or donkey that charges past, wobbling with a body loaded with potatoes, or carting a large metal carriage of bags of rice or cous-cous, or one must make way for the grisly motor-bike laden with bags of fresh mint, or tobacco or whatever else they may be carrying along somewhere in a great hurry, to service someone.  And be careful not to step on an old one eyed cat, or a litter of adolescent kittens, that slink about, keeping the potential rat problem under wraps.  Elderly Berber women with their facial and hand tattoos indicating tribal affiliation and marital status sit cross-legged under foot, peeling vegetables or stringing beans,  and all in all this is a very fascinating place to visit.  The Arabic music plays and the aroma’s of all varieties, add to the experience.  So many people living their lives inside the medina, down darkened alley’s and behind grand closed wood and metal gates that are often over 1,000 years old.

Gorgeous, dusty looking children run past you constanatly, some saying ‘Bonjor Madame’ as French is taught here as the second language fro, Grade ” onward.  Blind men beg of course, and some entertain in traditional Berber dress, with swirling bells on their lttle hats, hoping for baksheesh.  Many women of the veil wear their scarf over their face often to protect themselves from the dust it seems to me, as many carts clatter past with loose plaster and concrete dust aboard, and you never know what you might inhale next.  Most of the homes here do not have internal water, so women and children collect water from the communal pumps.  You could get seriously lost in the medina, and frankly anything could happen to you.

I could type on for hours about the medina, but this tri-lingual key-board is rather challenging: part French, Arabic and English in lay-out and conventions – It’s a bit of a brain-twister for me.  And so, I conclude that the funky, cool medina is a sincerely fascinating place to visit, and everyone should do so, at some point, to get things into perspective!

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