Images from Marrakesh, Morocco – Or Why I Would Return

On my recent trip to Morocco, I spent two overnights in Marrakesh on either end of my visit to the country.  It certainly was not the right amount of time to spend there, especially given that I loved its architecture and would have enjoyed seeing more of it.  However, it was a good amount of time to sample the city.  So, I thought I’d share some of the images that stuck with me so you can get a sense for the town.  Of course, I witnessed beautiful sunsets in Marrakesh but I will share those separately from these!

Airport

The airport in Marrakesh has a good number of international flights.  It must be very new and it is very modern indeed.  I loved getting off the plane after an overnight flight from the U.S. to Amsterdam and a 3-hour layover before heading to Marrakesh.

Marrakesh, Morocco, airport, photo, travel

The airport terminal as I deplane

Marrakesh, Morocco, airport, photo, travel

The departures area on the day I left Marrakesh – pleasing to the eye.

Our riad

A typical place to stay while visiting Morocco is the “riad.”  A riad is a home with a small inner courtyard or garden that offers quite a few benefits for its residents such as privacy and an outdoor space with little to no direct sunlight which helps deal with the high heat of this type of locations.  Riads remind me of the centuries-old houses in places like Old San Juan, which also had inner courtyards.

Marrakesh, Morocco, riad, hotel, courtyard, photo, travel, Olympus

View down towards the ground level at Mon Riad

Well, riads nowawadays offer a great design for small places of lodging and so it was with the one where we stayed in Marrakesh:  Mon Riad.

Marrakesh, Morocco, riad, hotel, courtyard, photo, travel, Olympus

Mon Riad

With a small courtyard with a small pool in which one could dip one’s feet, it certainly was a nice place to get to after a long trans-Atlantic trip!  I immediately dropped my bags, started meeting my future fellow trekkers (more on my trek along the Camino de Santiago soon!), enjoy a welcoming cup of hot tea (yes, that is actually the best thing in hot weather!), and taking my shoes off so I could refresh my tired legs in the small pool!  The staff and accommodations (great A/C in the rooms!) were phenomenal.

Marrakesh, Morocco, riad, hotel, courtyard, photo, travel

My welcome hot tea – nice touch!

I enjoyed the rooftop terrace where we had dinner one night and where I got to watch some very nice sunsets and sunrise!

Marrakesh, Morocco, Mon Riad, view, medina

View from Mon Riad’s terrace

Marrakesh, Morocco, riad, hotel, courtyard, photo, travel, Olympus

Perfectly set up for dinner up in the Mon Riad’s rooftop terrace!

Marrakesh, Morocco, Mon Riad, alley, medina

The alley where Mon Riad is located – quiet and clean!

Red everywhere

Most structures in central Marrakesh are red or pinkish-red.  The same red is visible in the pottery typical of the area.  It is a neat color especially in contrast to the beautiful blue skies, the sparse but present green of the palm trees, and the color of the desert that kisses the city.

Marrakesh, Morocco, medina, photo, travel, Olympus

Driving in towards the medina from the airport

Marrakesh, Morocco, minaret, Koutoubia mosque, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Minaret of the Koutoubia mosque

Marrakesh, Morocco, Palace Gate, medina, architecture, travel, photo, Bab Agnaou, Olympus

Right before entering the medina, we passed this beautiful gate: the Palace Gate (or Bab Agnaou).

Marrakesh, Morocco, medina, photo, travel, Olympus, red walls

Going around the medina, looking for the entrance!

Marrakesh, Morocco, medina, photo, travel, Olympus, red walls

The outer walls of Marrakesh’s medina.  Red on the walls, red on the stop sign, and red on the curb!

Marrakesh, clay pot, pottery, handicrafts, souvenir, market, Morocco, Olympus, travel

Presumably the same clay that is used for walls is used for these clay pots – more red!

Decorations and architectural details

The best images I take away from Marrakesh (sunsets aside) are these.  I have always found Arabic architecture (if that is the right term) beautiful since the first time I saw Moorish Spain’s legacy to the current architecture of places like Granada and Cordoba.  In Marrakesh, everywhere I turned there was an interesting architectural or decorative element.

Marrakesh, Morocco, tile, colorful, Smasung Galaxy, photo

Though worn by time and feet, this tilework is still beautiful.

Marrakesh, Morocco, design, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Great patterns

doorway, Arabic, Moorish, design, architecture, architectural detail, design element, Morocco, Marrakesh

Incredible detail above a doorway – exquisite

mosaic, engraved doors, Arab design, Marrakesh, medina, Morocco, Olympus, photo, travel

Entrance to a building in the medina. Great mosaic and metal work

As I said earlier, I wish I had had more time to explore this exotic town but hope these images begin to convey the beauty to be found in the town.

A True Representative of Its Hometown: Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia

After having had some challenges getting out of Egypt, my arrival in Istanbul continued to offer “experiences” as there was an unexpected change of plans that I shared in my Boarding Pass Series post about Istanbul.  Since I had to find a place to stay all of a sudden, I opened my guidebook and fished around for some hotel that looked well situated, cheap enough, and nice enough. And that’s how I found the Hotel Pierre Loti, a small but well located hotel that became my source of accommodations for 5 days.  It was definitely an easy walk to the main historic sites, like Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque, and a score for the price point.

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A city that straddles Europe (foreground) and Asia (background), divided by the Bosphorus

Each of the places I want to share with you deserves its own post, not only because of what I want to say about them but also because of the photos I want to share.  If you are visiting Istanbul, one thing to keep in mind is that most of the places I write about are within walking distance of each other so it is only a matter of how much you can or want to cover in one day.

In this first post, I will share what I consider to be the crown jewel of Istanbul as a history and architecture lover –  its “grand dame”: the Hagia Sophia, or Holy Wisdom.

Istanbul, Turkey, Hagia Sophia, church, mosque, museum, dome, minaret, Justinian, Great Schism, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, travel, history, architecture

Without further ado, the Hagia Sophia

A church is born

This is one of the most amazing structures that I have seen.  It is not imposing in the same way that, say, Versailles is amazing.  But if you hear or read its story and consider how old that structure is, it is nothing short of incredible.  I stood in the center of the museum looking around in awe and disbelief that I finally got to see in person this unique piece of architecture and history that I had learned about in high school days.  The ability to build a structure that could support such a large dome back when the church was built is incredible in and of itself (the dome has had repairs over the centuries).

The current structure with its massive dome has its origin in the 6th century when it was built by Roman emperor Justinian as a Christian church (it was the third church built on that site).  It was one of the most magnificent churches in the world at that time and for centuries to come.  In fact, it was the world’s largest cathedral for a thousand years!  (You may wonder “who” dethroned it… the Cathedral of Seville built in 1520).

Istanbul, Turkey, Hagia Sophia, church, mosque, museum, dome, minaret, Justinian, Great Schism, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, travel, history, architecture

A massive base was needed to support the dome

Hagia Sophia was decorated with mosaics all around and it is said to have re-defined the course of architecture.  While it remained an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral for close to 900 years, for a very brief period (at that time scale), it served as a Roman Catholic Cathedral.   In a way, Hagia Sophia was at the epicenter of the Great Schism that resulted in the split of the Catholic Church into Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox “versions” around the year 1053.

Transformation into a mosque

The Christian church was converted to a mosque when Constantinople fell to the conquering Ottomans who came from what is today Asian Turkey in 1453.  Lovers of history (or those with good memories of their world history class) know this was a key turning point in history.  This event ended the existence of the Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine eastern half of the former Roman Empire).  In essence, this killed off the last remnant of the Roman Empire which had existed in one form or another for around 1,500 years.

Istanbul, Turkey, Hagia Sophia, church, mosque, museum, Justinian, ablution, fountain, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, travel, history, architecture

Ablution fountain added in its conversion to a mosque for ritual purification

As part of the conversion to a mosque, minarets were added to the church so it would be a proper mosque and the mosaics were covered up or removed as images of people are not appropriate in a mosque.  While I realize this goes with the belief system, I am saddened to think of all the beauty we don’t get to see.  But at least the beautiful Islamic features compensate the loss of a good number of the mosaics.

Istanbul, Turkey, Hagia Sophia, church, mosque, museum, Justinian, mosaic, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, travel, history, architecture

One of the mosaics of the Hagia Sophia (Virgin and Child flanked by Justinian I and Constantine I)

Its current state

Eventually, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire (around World War I), Turkey moved to a more secular state under the guidance of its modernizing leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (my visit coincided with the 60th anniversary of his death hence you will notice flags at half mast in photos I may show in other posts from this trip).

During his presidency (he founded modern Turkey and was its first president), the Hagia Sophia was secularized by being converted into a museum.  Like with any of the places on this list, a guided tour or audio guide (if available now) are the way to go; you will not truly understand the significance of the place without getting all the background.  But the good news is that, so we can appreciate the history of the place, a few of the mosaics have been exposed.  Impressive.  The Hagia Sophia had fallen into disrepair but, mercifully, thanks to corporations and governments, the various issues are being worked through.  One key item that was addressed was the potential risk to the dome’s long term viability.

Istanbul, Turkey, Hagia Sophia, church, mosque, museum, Justinian, urn, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, travel, history, architecture

Ritual purification urn brought in during its time as a mosque

For me and my interests, nothing beats the Hagia Sophia as the number one sight to see in Istanbul.  And the day I return to Istanbul, you can be sure I will be going again.

Before you go, which days it is open (as with anything).  Last I checked it was closed on Mondays.

A structure that represents its city

Istanbul, like the Hagia Sophia, has gone through a lot of “conversions”:  Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul.  Due to its location at the crossroads of the “world” for many centuries, Istanbul has had a part in or been affected by most events in that part of the world.  I am still fascinated by this incredible city that has seen so much and serves witness to all it has seen and by this structure that reflects all that perfectly.

I would really enjoy returning and spending another week exploring the many things I still did not get to discover in my only visit there.  Stay tuned for more posts about the sights and sites of this great city.  I leave you with a rewarding view of the Bosphorus.

Bosphorus, Bosporus, Istanbul, Turkey, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, travel, sunset

The sun sets on the Bosphorus and Istanbul

 

Unexpected Opportunities in Bulgaria: the Rila Monastery and Plovdiv

Going to Bulgaria and only seeing Sofia is a crime, in my book – Plovdiv and the Rila Monastery prove my point.  Sofia has some of the key sites to see in Bulgaria for sure but it is only but a fraction of what a visitor should experience.  I did not have ample time to travel around Bulgaria but wish I had been able to.  I hear folks in the smaller towns are very hospitable and that the natural beauty of the countryside and the large number of monasteries and churches around the country are worth seeing.  And let’s not forget wineries!

Our time was limited in Bulgaria since we were there for a wedding but was expanded courtesy of the volcano in Iceland that shall not be called by its name.

CNN anchor talking about the volcano – or about to eat Iceland

That presented us with an unexpected opportunity…  So we decided to explore more of this interesting Eastern European country!

Side street in old Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Side street in old Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Rila Monastery

Since our time was limited, we made the Rila Monastery our top priority for being the largest monastery in Bulgaria and being a beautiful one in a beautiful location, about 73 (117 km) miles from Sofia in the valley of the Rilska River and at an altitude of over 3,700 ft (1,100m +).

We got a car and a driver as we did not have time to figure out other logistics given how busy we had been with the wedding events.  This allowed us to recover from the wedding party the night before but also to soak in the scenery.  We drove past apple orchards (I had never seen one) and small towns on our way to enter the Rila Mountains area where the monastery is nestled in.  This part of the drive was simply beautiful full of green and tracking the river most of the way.  With the snowmelt from the mountains, the river was fast and it was a sight to behold.

We arrived at the monastery and seeing it blew us away.  What an incredible structure!  It is not ancient (reconstructed in the 1830s; the tower dates from the 14th century) but the site has been in use for centuries as a monastery.  St. Ivan of Rila lived in a cave about an hour’s walk away from the monastery many centuries before.   One can make the hike to the cave and it surely is a beautiful walk through the forest but we didn’t have time to do that…

Inside the monastery’s courtyard is a beautiful church.  Its architecture seems an interesting mix of what I understand Orthodox church architecture to be but also with elements that reminded me of the Mezquita de Córdoba in Spain (and, thereby, of Arab architecture as in the columns and arcs on the perimeter of the church).

Rila Monastery church in Bulgaria

Rila Monastery church in Bulgaria

Rila Monastery church portico ceiling

Church’s portico ceiling

Old tower at the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria

The old tower

Rila Monastery hallway in Bulgaria

Around the halls of monastery

Plovdiv

As we looked into how to spend an our final day in Bulgaria, Plovdiv was brought to our attention as worth seeing so, since it wasn’t far from Sofia (about 90 miles), we decided late that morning to go for it.

Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city and has a population of over 330,000, was something unexpected to me.  It is a very charming town, with a large pedestrian area in the old part of town.  It has seemingly a different climate than Sofia and I do not mean just in meteorological terms:  it felt happier, livelier.  Not being the capital city, it didn’t seem to have the weight that title may impose.  While there were definitely buildings that carried Soviet-bloc stereotypical architecture, there did not seem to be much of it in the city center – I am glad they did not raze parts of old town, like in Bucharest, for grandiose communist projects!

Pedestrian area in the center of Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Pedestrian area in the center of Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Mosque in the center of Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Mosque in the city center

The city center teemed with life, people were out and about, and the open spaces seemed more inviting and taken advantage of than in Sofia.  To be fair, it rained most of the time I was in Sofia but somehow, I think Sofia is more of a “city” and Plovdiv more of a “town” where I give the town label a more positive meaning.  In the city center (which reminded me of Bratislava and maybe Salzburg, a little bit), there are some Roman ruins, cleverly revealed in the midst of the pedestrian area.
Roman ruins in Plovdiv, BulgariaThe hill (one of 6 around the city; a seventh was removed early in the 20th century) in old town Plovdiv is definitely a must-see.  It has some of the best views of the city but also some neat architecture.  It also offers views to excavations of Roman ruins and a Roman theater near the appropriately named Yellow School.
Ruins of a Roman theater in Plovdiv, BulgariaWhile some of the old buildings need repair, restoration work is evident in many of the structures, which are very interesting architecturally.

Building in need of repair in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Beautiful even it its disrepair

Home on the hill in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Colorful home on the hill in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

I wish we had known about Plovdiv before going to Bulgaria.  I would have really enjoyed an overnight stay to relax in a cafe and watch life go by…  If you go to Bulgaria, do not miss spending some time in Plovdiv!

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