Approximately halfway between Marrakech and the Sahara Desert, through the Atlas Mountains, near the southern town of Ouarzazate is an old Berber village called Ait Ben-Haddou. Entering this fortified village is like taking a step back in time several hundred years. In fact, the authenticity of this village, otherwise known as a ksar is the reason why several movies have been filmed here. It was designated a UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) world heritage site in 1987 because it is a well-preserved ksar with many of its architectural details still intact. It requires maintenance, though, because, over time, the wind conditions of this region erode the earthen material that the buildings are made of. This particular ksar was important because it is located along a trade route that was once heavily traveled between Sudan and Marrakech. Very few people reside here any longer because, in recent years, many have been moving to newer, more modern homes. While it is mostly abandoned, some merchants still sell their wares to the tourists passing through the area.
A visit to Jardin Majorelle is a must, while visiting Marrakech. It is the lushly planted, brightly painted garden that was designed by the French painter, Jacques Majorelle in the early twentieth century. It fell into disrepair after his death, but was restored by the designer Yves Saint Laurent and his boyfriend Pierre Berge. Many of the structures on the property are painted in a hue of cobalt blue, aptly named Majorelle Bleu. It is an eye-popping color and, in my opinion, it is the reason that the garden has become so easily identifiable. There are over 300 specimens of plants in its twelve acres, including cacti, bamboo, palm trees, anthurium, and bougainvillea. Yves Saint Laurent loved Marrakech, especially this beautiful sanctuary that he called home.
A country may be beautiful and it may be fascinating, but it is its people who make it warm and inviting. Fortunately, the people of Morocco are friendly and, therefore, hospitable. From the alleyways of Marrakech to the deserts of the Sahara, we encountered many affable Moroccans. Eighty percent of the inhabitants are Berbers, the ethnic population of Northern Africa. The official language is Arabic but many people speak Berber and French, as well. They work as farmers, shepherds, craftsmen, manufacturers, and miners. People are religious, yet tolerant. They wear traditional garments such as djellabas, which are hooded cloaks and gandoras, which are caftans, but others wear western clothing. I love capturing the faces of a nation people, because it makes their culture and lifestyle come alive for me.
Marrakech is one of the top tourist destinations in the world and it is easy to see why. Flying in by plane, the first view that visitors see is the old part of the city bathed in a beautiful rose glow, standing in stark contrast to the snowcapped Atlas Mountains in the distance. The buildings of the Medina, or old city, and the 12 miles of rampart walls surrounding it are built using a reddish earth. Stepping through one of the impressively large, beautiful gates is like stepping back in time a few centuries. There is a marketplace, otherwise known as a souk, with miles of narrow alleyways. The alleyways house endless stalls that sell typically Moroccan wares such as rugs, spices, lanterns, leather goods, and a wide array of other items. There is a large square called the Jemaa El Fna where snake charmers and entertainers engage tourists with their many talents, food vendors cook up typical, delicious Moroccan dishes at inexpensive prices, and people mill about, enjoying the excitement of the late afternoon and evening activities. Near the entrance to the Medina is the Koutoubia Mosque, which is the largest, tallest, and most important mosque in the city. Fine examples of Moroccan tile work are on view at the Ben Youssef Merdersa, which is a Quranic school dating back to the 14th century. One could spend days meandering around the souks of the Medina, soaking in the views, aromas, and the excitement and never grow tired of it.
My visit to Cape Town was a wonderful experience for so many reasons. The city and its surroundings boast some of the most spectacular beaches and coastlines in the world. The climate at this time of year is nearly perfect. The mountains that form a bowl around the city, especially Table Mountain, are breathtaking. Additionally, we enjoyed seeing penguins, seal, ostrich, baboons, and buck, in the wild. The Stellenbosch Winelands are reminiscent of Napa Valley and Italy. The colorful neighborhood of Bo Kaap is bright and cheerful and the houses along the coast are beautiful.
However, it is hard to separate the Cape Town that I have described from the realities of its ugly history under apartheid rule and the extreme poverty that still exists for so many today. Nelson Mandela was jailed for 27 years, much of it on Robben Island, right off the coast of Cape Town. He was released in 1990 and helped dismantle the apartheid rule that he fought so hard to end. He became the first black president of South Africa a few years later. Black people were given the right to vote, as they should have had all along. People of different races were no longer subject to strict curfews or relegated to certain neighborhoods. Much has been accomplished but more needs to be done. There are far too many people living in poverty, in shanty towns without running water. The unemployment rate is way too high and violence is rampant in some areas. South Africa is blessed with an abundance of natural resources and it has an active tourist trade because of its beauty and wildlife. These resources need to be put to better use to improve the lives of those who need it most. The past 25 years have brought a lot of positive change. Let’s hope that the next 25 years continue to bring more.
Located a short jaunt from Cape Town is the beautiful winelands of Stellenbosch. Stellenbosch is a quaint, old town with wineries and beautiful mountain ranges surrounding it. We visited two vineyards, one owned by the world renowned golfer Ernie Els and another owned by the owner of Graff diamonds. The wines that these vineyards produce may be great, but the views and the ambience make them truly worth the visit. There are rolling hills and picturesque vistas, which can be seen while dining on the alfresco terraces of the restaurants. A visit to this town promises a relaxing, delicious, and enjoyable afternoon.
South Africa is often called the ‘Rainbow Nation’ because it is a melting pot of many ethnicities and nationalities. The cuisine is just as colorful as the nation is because it borrows flavors and cooking styles from a wide range of nationalities from the indigenous people of Africa to the Malay, the Indians, the Dutch, the English, and many others who have settled there. However, Cape Town, like all other urbanized, cosmopolitan cities, offers fine examples of some of the food that everyone from anywhere can appreciate. I had pizza at Bocca that rivaled those you might find in Italy, fries at Delaire Graff Winery that were crisp, and infused with truffle oil, and gelato at Gelatomania that I couldn’t eat often enough. Cape Town is a dining Mecca, whether you are eating the local rainbow cuisine or any other cuisine that you might crave.
Color abounds in Cape Town. The Bo Kaap section of town is a neighborhood with vibrantly painted houses in hues such as cobalt blue, lime green, and hot pink. This hilly neighborhood with cobblestoned streets is home to descendants of Malay slaves who were brought to Cape Town hundreds of years ago by the Portuguese. There are several theories about the genesis of the brightly painted houses. One theory is that the people who reside there were called “colored” during the apartheid era, when South Africans were forced to live in different sections of the city based on their race. Another theory relates to the Muslim culture of the residents of this neighborhood. Whatever the origins of the tradition, Bo Kaap is a beautiful and cheerful neighborhood and well worth a visit to see.
South Africa has some of the greatest variety and abundance of animals in the world. Most of the game viewing takes place in the northern parts of the country near the borders of Botswana and Zimbabwe, where elephant, lion, hippo, zebra and many other animals roam freely. Cape Town, a beautiful and cosmopolitan city in the southern part of the country, is known for its coastline, mountains, and winelands but not, typically, for its wild life. Most of the wildlife that we spotted lived on or near the ocean.
On a daytrip to the Cape of Good Hope, we saw groups of seals and penguins, the latter of which I had never seen, before, in the wild. While the population of penguins seems plentiful, sadly, their numbers have dwindled from 3,500,000 at its high in the late 19th century to a mere 44,000, today. Waste from ships, predators feasting on eggs, and human interference in the breeding process, have all had a negative impact on the penguin population. If conservation efforts do not reverse this decline, South African penguins could be extinct within the next 10 or 15 years.
Also spotted in the parklands near the Cape of Good Hope, were baboons, ostrich, and buck. We kept our eyes peeled for zebra but they are elusive in this part of the country. So, for an area that is not known for its animals, we certainly saw more than our fair share of them.
The sprawling metropolis of Cape Town, on the southwestern coast of South Africa, is ringed by some of the most beautiful mountain vistas in the world. Table Mountain, the city’s iconic plateau, Lion’s Head, the mountain resembling a reclining lion, Devil’s Peak, and Signal Hill, form the boundaries of the main part of the city.
A trip to the top of Table Mountain is imperative during a visit to Cape Town. Hearty adventurers might choose to climb to the top, but most tourists take a quick cable car ride up to the 3600 foot high plateau. The cable car whisks visitors up in less than five minutes. However, a trip up is dependent upon weather conditions and in Cape Town, the weather can change on a moment’s notice. Visitors must seize the opportunity of a calm and sunny day to make the ascent.
Seize the opportunity, we did. Despite jet lag, after a long flight from New York City, we decided to make the trip up on our first afternoon in town. The conditions were perfect, with sunny blue skies and little wind. We did not want to risk the possibility that the weather, over the next few days, would prohibit us from going to the top. Ascending up in the cable car, it felt as if we might slam into the rock face. Upon arrival, we were greeted by the exquisite vistas of the nearby cliffs, the beautiful cityscape, and the sea below. In the distance, we could see Robben Island, the island on which Nelson Mandela was confined for much of his lengthy and unjust imprisonment.