Marrakech, Morrocco- Part One

“Africa was the most exotic place I could conceive of—the end of the world—and I knew I would go there one day.” ~ Henning Mankell



Ever since I was a teenager in the late 70’s, the desire to visit Morocco has been strong. The exotic countercultural appeal to artists, writers, rock stars and adventurous travelers always stirred an urge to immerse myself in this place. I knew it was somewhere I would fit in, but wondered if it was too late for me, now in my late fifties, to experience Morocco as I always wanted to. Having lived the last 3 decades as a wife, mother and homemaker, I was no longer the carefree Bohemian young girl who envisioned herself traveling the hippie trail in search of spiritual enlightenment. Perhaps it was best that I was on the cusp of being not quite old enough to head off on my own during that era, but had I been past my teenage years, I have no doubt that I would have found my way there.

In my head, I romanticized about nomadic Kerouac and the rest of the beat generation, traveling, documenting, sketching and having intoxicating intellectual discussions in hidden corners of the souk. I longed for the richness and diametrically different culture and the freedom it represented.

Needless to say, this Wandering Artist’s heart leapt when I finally found just the right journey to Morocco. It started nearly a year before I actually went on the trip. Reading a blog post on social media, I saw a friend had shared an announcement about an art retreat with an artist I always admired and wanted to learn from, Orly Avineri. The combination of Northern Africa and this amazing Israeli artist was too tempting to pass up.

You would think it would have been easy to make the decision to go, but I agonized for several days. I drove everyone crazy with my “should I do this?” questions and my back and forth “I’m going” and “I’m not going.” That Bohemian girl who once would have stuffed a toothbrush and change of underwear in a backpack and taken off in a heartbeat had since experienced over thirty years of doing the responsible thing and bending to what others expected of her. Not to mention I had grown accustomed to 700-thread count sheets, hot bubble baths and a blow-dryer!

But there were three defining moments that made me take the leap…

#1 My friend who originally shared the trip on social media, told me she was going. That ticked off the box that said, “Okay, I know at least one person on this trip.”

#2 My future daughter-in-law not only said GO, she also reminded me that my late husband would not have batted an eye, nor would I, had he still been alive.

Michelle Fletcher (photo taken from website)

Michelle Fletcher (photo taken from website)

#3 The woman hosting the retreat, Michelle Fletcher was perhaps the greatest draw. I didn’t know her yet, but I looked at her eyes in the photo on the blog post and I read her description of the trip. Her eyes said “I know you” and her words said, “come be with me.”

I hit the SIGN UP button. Non-refundable deposit paid. Done. I was going to Africa.

And 10 months later, the day arrived . . . I flew from Orlando to Boston then boarded my overnight flight to Paris. A four hour layover at Charles de Gaulle and then another 3.5 hour flight to Marrakech. Although I should have been tired, for some reason I was full of energy. Adrenaline was coursing through my body the entire trip as I anticipated the adventure ahead.

My heart was racing as I watched the terrain change on our flight from Europe to Africa - a new country and a new continent for me in my travels!

Marrakech was surprisingly flat and from the air I was mesmerised by the vastness of it all. There was literally nothing as far as the eye could see surrounding Marrakech. Finally, after 35 hours of travel, I arrived.

Past the intimidating security, long immigration lines, a confusing currency exchange, another bag check on the way OUT of Marrakech Menara Airport, and I was finally stepping foot on African soil. By then I had met up with 3 other women attending the retreat and we chatted on our brief ride into the Medina to our Riad.

Marrakech Menara Airport

Marrakech Menara Airport

The ride from the airport gave us a brief feel of the city - I was surprised at how much green there was . . . I can’t imagine the engineering feat it took to get irrigation to this desert. I would soon learn how scarce water really was here.

The pulse of Marrakech began to pump through me as I had my nose glued to the window of our van. Honking horns, foreign tongues, people, cars, bikes and tuk-tuks all racing in different directions!! There seemed to be no traffic patterns and several times we were so close enough to a scooter beside us, I could have shaken hands with the driver. Not for the faint of heart, this crazy circus made me laugh out loud. WELCOME TO MARRAKECH!

And the color! Marrakech, known as The Red City, {although I would argue that it was more pink than red} was at first glance, a plain, walled city. Most buildings were only 3 stories at most, with the exception of the minaret tower of the Koutoubia Mosque which overlooked the city from the South West corner. It wasn’t until I was up close, within the walls, that I was blown away by the architecture, art, tile, doorways and sculpted wood. Fascinating and beautiful, gorgeous and asymmetrical in every way, I was moved by how different it was from anything I had every seen.

Arriving at our Riad [Riad Houma], we stepped out of the van into a cacophony of young men grabbing bags and arguing with each other over who was doing what. I had no clue what these men were shouting in Arabic, however based on the body language and shrillness of the noise, there was definitely an argument over who was carrying what. Bags were thrown willy nilly into carts as we were gathered and rushed through an alleyway. I glanced quickly back at the men still arguing and wondered if I would ever see my suitcase again. We turned several corners and the anxiety was building while I made a mental list of my computer, jewelry and other valuables I had just been whisked away from. Suddenly, a large wooden door opened before us, and I felt like I had just walked into a secret, sacred place. Inside the Riad, the open-air courtyard was lavished with low couches and giant pillows while sheer, billowy curtains fluttered around us on tall columns leading up to the sky. I could hear faint music, water trickling and the scent of incense erased every bit of worry and anxiety I had experienced just moments ago. Ahhhhh, Marrakech, I love you.

Mint tea was poured, introductions were made and platters of dates, dried fruit and nuts were passed. A gentleman appeared and handed us each a beautiful key with embossed leather strap and he pointed us each in the direction of our rooms. Mine was on the second floor, overlooking the beautiful courtyard. My luggage was already waiting for me, neatly placed just outside the door, fully intact. Whatever confusion and insanity it took to get it there didn’t matter . . . once inside the Riad, everything else just faded away.

My bedroom at the Riad - shared with my sweet new friend, Stacey!

My bedroom at the Riad - shared with my sweet new friend, Stacey!

And then there was Michelle, our host [and my girl crush.] I was instantly mesmerized by her. From her hair tumbling down her face from the knot on top of her head, past the dozens of necklaces and bracelets that jingled as she moved, over her chic linen sheath falling off one shoulder and down to her slippers made from embossed leather and exaggeratedly curled at the toe. She was about the coolest chic I had ever seen. Wait a minute . . . SHE was ME! The “me” that I wanted to be 30 years ago when I dreamed of traversing through Morocco! I found her, my kindred soul sister and I could not wait to get to know her better and follow her like a puppy dog across the Sahara!

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After an hour or so to freshen up, we were invited to the rooftop where a beautiful table was set under a full moon and stars where we could overlook all of Marrakesh. A fire burned, scenting the night with a smoky fragrance and the call to prayer filled the evening air. This was a beautiful moment, and again, I stopped to make myself be present - to feel it, breathe it, take it all in.

We spent the evening dining on couscous, nightshades and lamb while animatedly conversing and telling stories. What a spectacular group who I adored instantly! A lovely local woman decorated our hands and arms with henna as we drank good wine, laughed and told stories and I knew I was among a beautiful tribe of creatives. This was the Marrakesh I had dreamed of so many years ago.

And so ended my first day in Morocco . . .

To Be Continued.

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Bath, UK

The next stop on our UK adventure was Bath. We were so surprised at how tiny the area was and absolutely loved our Bed and Breakfast, Gray’s Bath. Our room was lovely and though Grays was a 20 minute walk into Bath, it sat up on a hill with a beautiful view of the city. This was our gorgeous room for a few days . . .

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We spent our first day doing cheesy, fun and touristy things and had a blast! The Hop on/Hop Off Bus is always a good starting point to get your bearings in a new city. And of course, obligatory selfies by the iconic red phone booths!

We spent our first day in Bath moseying around the city and stopping in places that looked interesting to us. First stop was the Fashion Museum of Bath for an exhibit of gowns of the Royals. Chelsea and I are real “royal geeks” so we didn’t want to miss this collection from Queen Alexandra, Victoria, Mary, Elizabeth and Princess Margaret! We dashed into a nearby, obscure restaurant and were treated to an unexpected phenomenal lunch at The Circus Restaurant. A beautiful dining room and superb lunch! We made our way to the Jane Austen Centre for a kitschy tour and a little Jane Austen history, but alas, no sightings of the elusive Mr. Darcy! Of course we couldn’t miss afternoon tea at The Pump Room Restaurant which was fun but a little touristy - we will be looking forward to more elegant venues when we reach London. After a long, hot day, we made our way up the long hill to our B&B and our cozy room.

After an amazing breakfast in the gorgeous dining room at our B&B, we made our way out for another day of touring and sightseeing in the July heat. The Roman Baths were surprising and the museum and tour was exceptional. We never could figure out just how the Roman’s ended up there and built such an elaborate “spa,” and we also never could find out why they left! Never the less, it is quite a unique find and worth a few hours to visit and photograph! Although we missed seeing the inside of the Bath Abbey, the facade was beautiful and I was able to get a few sketches done.

We ended our day with a dinner at Sally Lunn’s, the oldest house in Bath. Be sure to stop in to have a favorite meat pie served up in a “Trencher,” the famous Sally Lunn Buns used as a plate/bowl for your meal! A final walk along the River Avon at Sunset was a perfect end to our day and our time in Bath.

The Cotswolds, UK

We left North Cadbury just after breakfast and drove slowly through the Cotswolds admiring each little town and narrow road. Our goal that day was to find a local Pub to have our lunch! We heard that on Sundays, the neighborhood pubs serve up a “carvery” or “proper Sunday roast” for their local clientele. We passed pub after pub, town after town, until we found just the right one . . . The White Post Inn at Stratton on the Fosse!

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It was the sweetest pub, immaculate and cozy. Fortunately an English friend told me that when you go into a pub, you go straight to the bar and order a pint. I was overwhelmed by choices and the owner instantly started pouring me several glasses of the different beer on tap for me to sample. He obviously recognized that we were visitors and asked if we were from America when he heard us speak. We were instantly welcomed by him and all the locals sitting at the bar! The patrons struck up conversations, all wanting to know where we were from. When they heard Orlando, Florida was our home base, of course they had all been there to Disney World! We became a bit of a novelty in the tiny pub and instantly had a dozen new friends, all asking rapid-fire questions and wanting to know about our journey.

You are also supposed to order your food at the bar and go sit down, which we eventually did. Sitting next to us were two elderly couples who said they had just had “the loveliest roast” so we were glad we ordered that!

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We enjoyed our meal; a gorgeous beef with gravy complete with roasted potatoes, carrots, peas, broccoli and Yorkshire pudding! As we ate, there was great conversation with the locals, including introductions with their full names, who genuinely seemed to want to get to know us. I was once again struck by the fact that we are all on this journey through life together and generally, most people are kind and friendly. I love these reminders when we have so much division and vitriol in our own country. They gave us tips on traveling through the Cotswolds and also recommendations for the rest of our trip as they bid us the fondest farewell.

It was the ‘loveliest’ day with the ‘loveliest’ roast! I am so glad we stayed off the beaten path, chose a place that ‘felt’ right to us and not something we found recommended online. Sometimes when you travel, you just have to trust your gut! Another perk to being a spontaneous and accidental tourist!

North Cadbury, Somerset UK

Who doesn’t want to fly off to the UK for a country wedding in the Costwolds? My daughter and I jumped at the opportunity to enjoy a charming wedding of a dear friend in beautiful North Cadbury in Somerset. And since we were going all that way, we might as well spend a few days in London as well, right?!

Before I leave for any trip, the first thing I do is prep a Travel Journal! I like to make a sketch book and create a few sketches so I don’t face that blank page on my trip. I do a little research and then include a few iconic images and some facts about where I am going - maps, and such.

Our journey started with an overnight flight from Orlando with some sweet upgraded seats on British Airways thanks to me accumulating over 20 years worth of American Express points! A champagne toast, then we bedded down for a few hours sleep!

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On arrival in Gatwick, we rented a car and drove the few hours to North Cadbury. The traffic was horrendous but we eventually got away from the city and began to enjoy the lovely country roads. While planning this trip, my daughter and I had a massive list of “must do” things while in the UK. Unfortunately, with only 8 days for our visit, we had to cross off some things and Stonehenge was one that didn’t make the cut.

As we were making our way through the countryside, much to our delight and surprise, we began to see signs for Stonehenge up ahead. Laughing, we said, “wouldn’t it be funny if Stonehenge was just on the side of the road and we could see it as we drove by?” Well that’s exactly where it is . . . on the side of the road! We did a drive by of Stonehenge and got one blurry picture - but technically, we did see it! These are the accidental things I LOVE about traveling! I used that blurry picture to sketch and paint a picture later on . . .

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We arrived late afternoon to the wedding venue, North Cadbury Court. It was a lovely old estate, more like a castle, with 23 bedrooms, a ballroom, several dining rooms, a game room, theater, disco and a casino that resembled something you might see in a Christian Grey novel! The grounds and gardens were spectacular and we were so excited to have the entire weekend to stay and explore!

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It was a fairy tale setting with a beautiful bride and happy family and friends! I always have so much fun with my daughter and I love the way the English celebrate weddings!

Asheville, North Carolina

Before heading home from Western North Carolina, I decided to stop in Asheville for a few days to celebrate the 4th of July.  That's one of the things I love most about being an accidental tourist, I can stop wherever and whenever - pulling off the highway, or making a detour.  I love the unexpected, random and spontaneous types of trips the best.

I managed to get a beautiful room at the Omni Grove Park Inn.  I have been pretty fortunate with getting last-minute rooms at a great deal - another advantage to spontaneous travel, although it isn't always guaranteed!

The Grove Park Inn is an historic hotel, over 100 years old.  I spent hours walking through the lobby and hallways, reading the history and impressive list of authors, poets, artists, politicians and screen stars who have stayed there over the last century. It sits on a hill overlooking Asheville and it was a perfect place to watch the fireworks on the 4th.

One of the biggest reasons for stopping in Asheville was to see the  Chihuly Glass exhibit at the Biltmore .  What an incredible explosion of color and shape!  I love the man-made mixed with the natural in the gardens of the Estate.  I took my time walking through the pathways and discovering the surprise glass sculptures embedded throughout. 

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Even though the temperature was over 100 degrees, I did sit for a brief time to do a quick sketch of the Greenhouse, one of my favorite spots on the property.

I loved my few days in Asheville - I also made some time to head to the River Arts District and stroll through the galleries and admire other artists' work. The Busker's downtown gave the city a party vibe as I stopped to listen to their music and made my way in and out of the shops and breweries. Don't miss the Sierra Nevada Brewery with its fine food, incredible selection of crafts and IPA's and the grounds complete with gardens, live music and a tour of the brewery!  I definitely plan to return to Asheville - next time with a group of girlfriends to enjoy the city with me!

Western North Carolina

In my mind, I'm going to Carolina . . .

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Summer begins with a few weeks in Western North Carolina, where I rented a house to find some peace and inspiration in the Smoky Mountains.  There is no better cure than a little solitary time in a rocking chair on a porch surrounded by a continually moving landscape.  You can't help but feel alive when you breath in the fresh air and listen to the nature sounds and birdsong.

I packed my car with art supplies, books, the coziest clothes I had and a hankering to run away to a remote place.  I searched for a lovely home on top of a mountain with my only criteria being something clean, cozy, and with an unobstructed view of the mountains.  I found this home.  Lovingly referred to as , "Waynesville Gem," this cabin exceeded my expectations.  Just one thing to note for solo travelers . . . it is ISOLATED.  Which means if you get freaked out alone on top of a mountain with nothing but the stars to guide you, this might not be your type of adventure. I admit to taking a few days to get used to the night mountain sounds, but after that, I felt right at home!  I rented this larger home so family and friends could come and go, but most of the time I stayed by myself. I highly recommend this type of travel if you need some peace and solitude.

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In my never-ending search to find that one perfect spot where I want to spend the final season of my life, I thought this town might be it.  It crossed off most of my "must haves" on the list, however there is nothing like actually living in a place to see if it fits.  While Waynesville and Maggie Valley North Carolina are certainly quaint vacation spots, they just didn't have that "I could live here forever" tug for me.

Once I ruled out the fact that it wouldn't be my new home, I was able to settle in and just enjoy the vacation.  Mornings were spent with coffee on the porch, sketching and painting and listening to music.  Why don't I do these things at home? I loved that I was able to truly unplug and spend time on introspection.

For some unknown reason, I was inspired to sketch and paint seascapes, lighthouses and bathing beauties . . . go figure!  I created over 30 paintings while in North Carolina, working on direct watercolor skills - no sketching!  I was so happy to have such a large body of work to stretch my artistic muscles.

My son and his girlfriend came to stay for a few days and they got me off the porch and out and about.  We hiked some waterfall trails in the Pisgah National forest, packed picnics and explored our environment.  We went fly fishing, hit many micro-breweries and tested out the eateries.  It was great to laugh and adventure and after so much solitude, the company was so welcome!

As all good things must do, the trip came to an end but we left refreshed, rejuvenated and happy.  I'm filling up my basket of memories, keeping mental, visual, and written journals of these lazy summer days.

What are you up to this summer?

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