Into the Tanneries of Fez, Morocco

Travelling, one accepts everything; indignation stays at home. One looks, one listens, one is roused to enthusiasm by the most dreadful things because they are new. Good travellers are heartless.
~
Elias Canetti, The Voices of Marrakech

Hides at the tannery

Hides at the tannery

Death hangs constantly in front of us as we visit the Chaouwara tanneries in Fez. In the West, we rarely see where our food comes from, or our leather products come from. But here in Fez, we confront the truth directly as an aspect of life in Morocco.

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

We wind our way upstairs through the leather shop onto a large terrace overlooking the tanneries. Our guide/salesman gives us a bit of mint to hold in front of our noses to mask the acrid smell of skin, lime, urine and pigeon dung. What’s transpiring in the tubs below is far less glamorous than all the colorful leather products on display inside.

The process of tanning leather by hand is arduous and toxic. Hair and flesh is removed from animal hides (mostly goat, from what we can tell) through techniques like soaking, salting, liming and scudding (trimming). Hides are submerged for hours or days and treated with enzymes and acids. In a sort of morbid, closed-loop production process, the natural byproducts of life — salt, urine and dung; from numerous sources — is applied to the hides to preserve them, make them pliable, and condition them for their end use.

Only some of the men working these tanneries wear gloves and boots. Others are submerged thigh-high, unprotected into watery contents of every color. No one wears a mask. This is a job that endangers and shortens lives.

What looks like mad chemistry to us surely has order and process from centuries of practice. Each man carries out his task alone. Hides go in, hides come out. Hides are dyed in various hues and set aside to dry. Nature holds an entire palette of plant-based, natural dyes but these days many colors are achieved through the use of unhealthy synthetic chemicals that pollute bodies and environments.

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

Dry hides are carried out and somewhere in some room within the labyrinth of Fez, workers are busy sewing the skin into shoes, skirts, jackets and handbags — made to order if you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for in the shop.

Wandering through Fez the following day, we meet a boy on the street who offers to show us another tannery. We follow him down a few narrow paths to a sturdy wooden door. Behind the door we find more death — enormous piles of hides with the hair still attached, somehow seeming more alive than the hides from yesterday.

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

This tannery is a smaller operation. The tubs sit at ground level surrounded on all sides by stairs, balconies, drying racks and doorways leading to the unknown — maybe housing for the men who work here. Most men working the tanneries are born into the job and carry it out for a lifetime. But many of them suffer from exposure to toxins through their skin and lungs. Breathing at a tannery for just ten minutes is proof enough that this a dangerous job. But for these workers it’s a way of life in an industry that shows increasing worldwide demand for beautiful leather goods from companies like Coach, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Prada and even VF Corporation (a company I used to work for).

We climb the stairs for an overhead view into the stewing maze below us. Two men seem to be debating an issue in one of the tubs. “What do you think? Is it ready? I don’t know. Do you like the color?”

At the top of the stairs we emerge onto a rooftop where more skins are drying but the view of the blue sky feels hopeful and fresh. Our young guide shows us the bags of pigeon dung on the way out — collected and sold to the tanneries from a town nearby.

As always, traveling has taught me another lesson: be aware of the lives you affect by the choices you make. Do I really need a pair of those blue Moroccan slippers? Judging by their pretty design, one would never suspect the pain behind the product.

Local Color Miscellaneous Photography

A Thousand Shades of Chefchaouen

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Near the northern tip of Morocco, in a pocket of sunshine at the base of the Rif mountain range, we arrive at Chefchaouen. Often called the Blue Pearl of Morocco, the town is a collage of blue and white against the earth tones of the landscape.

Since its founding in 1471, Chefchaouen has felt the influence of neighboring countries and cultures. Portuguese, Spaniards, Arabs and Berbers have all contributed to the town’s eclectic character and, according to many, the earliest Jewish residents left the most lasting, visible effect on Chefchaouen through their choice to paint the town blue — symbolic of sky, heaven and god above.

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Wandering through Chefchaouen, the variations of blue feel cool and calming, aligned with the psychology of this color choice. Robes and rugs in warm hues contrast against the walls and the whole medina feels like an exercise in color theory. Johannes Itten would have loved this town.

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

 

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

A shopkeeper, dressed in a shade of indigo, sits in front of a composition of orange. It’s as if he’s been surrounded by blue his entire life and has staged an unspoken revolt, creating a complementary universe.

 

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

The beautiful imperfection of Morocco continues throughout Chefchaouen. Everything is handmade and nothing is a standard size. It’s fun to speculate what’s behind each door, especially this tiny work of art. Probably not a king-size bed!

The shades of blue shift lighter and darker as the sun comes and goes, shining into each narrow lane only for a brief amount of time each day. We wander downhill and eventually find Plaza Uta el-Hammam where everyone is passing through and hanging out on a peaceful afternoon in Chefchaouen.

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

We meet a man who tells us he’s a trader from the Sahara desert. He has a stunning collection of jewelry, talismans and silver boxes. We’re drawn to a particular charm that he claims is a Bedouin compass. We buy it and he makes me a necklace for free. We’ve either paid too much for the compass or we’ve been given the gift of his kindness. I like to think it’s the latter.

The following day we take a day off from traveling and languish in our room. We’ve been on the road exploring for more than two weeks and it feels great to stop and rest for an entire day — something we rarely do. Perhaps the calming blues of Chefchaouen have had a deeper effect on us than we expected. It’s nice to sit and stay awhile.

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Miscellaneous

The Fingerprint of Fez

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

Throughout this post you’ll find the words of author Paul Bowles, an American expatriate who lived in Tangier, Morocco for 50 years. He wrote an essay called “Fez” in 1984. His thoughts on the city still ring true today. I’ve interwoven my story with excerpts from his essay, noted as italic quotations.

***

We ride the train from Tangier to Fez on a rainy afternoon in Morocco. If we’re going to spend a vacation day inside, it might as well be on a train moving across the countryside. We pass hills of green and gold which hint at the Atlas Mountains and Sahara Desert beyond.

Upon arrival at the station in Fez, we find a taxi and ask the driver to call for directions to our riad. It’s low season and we made a reservation just two days earlier after I searched obsessively online for a bit of affordable luxury, as much as that sounds like a contradiction. If there’s anywhere worth splashing out for a night or two, it’s Morocco. The experience of staying in a beautiful riad has a permanent place on my bucket list.

Our destination is Karawan Riad. A man with a wheelbarrow meets us at the taxi drop-off. We push our bags through the busy paths of the medina until we arrive at a dark little doorway so unremarkable I don’t even think to take a photo. The door opens and we’re welcomed inside.

Karawan Riad :: Fez, Morocco

Karawan Riad :: Fez, Morocco

“From the street a house is a high wall with a door somewhere along its uneven length and possibly a handful of tiny grilled peepholes sprinkled in a haphazard design across its surface … With the exception of the door … there is no suggestion of decoration … The inside of the house is another matter. When you step into the glittering tile and marble interior of a prosperous Fez dwelling, with its orange trees and its fountains, and the combined pastel and hard-candy colors glowing from the rooms around the courtyard, you are pleased that there should be nothing but the indifferent anonymity of a blank wall outside – nothing to indicate the existence of this very private, remote and brilliant world within. A non-committal expanse of earthen wall in the street hides a little Alhambra of one’s own, a miniature paradise totally shielded from the gaze of the world.” ~PB

Karawan Riad is a gorgeous discovery – grand and beautiful while authentic and understated. My favorite feature is the five-fold geometric design in the floor tile of the inner courtyard which opens to the sky.

We’ve been upgraded to the extravagant Dzhari suite. We have no idea why until later when we talk with an American couple on the rooftop terrace who tell us they requested to move OUT of the Dzhari suite because the floor plan was too big and unmanageable with an upstairs bathroom. Thanks for the unexpected gift!

We stand at the edge and get our first panoramic view of Fez. The city is sprawling, endless and so tightly packed that not even a single road draws a line through the density. How and where do we begin to explore this anomaly?

Fez, Morocco

Fez, Morocco

“Fez was built at a natural crossroads, the spot where the route from the Sahara to the Mediterranean coast intersects the east-west passage between Algeria and the Atlantic … Civilization ended at the gates of the medina; outside was the wilderness.” ~PB

Idris I, the first dynastic ruler of the area that would become Morocco, designated Fez as the capital city. The year was 798 and Idris I died shortly after this, leaving his son Idris II to carry out his plan. In the centuries since, the walls of Fez’s medina have been torn down, expanded and rebuilt with some still standing since the 13th century. Throughout its history, Fez has been the site of frequent conflict between Arabs, Berbers and Jews living in the city, with additional periods of Ottoman and French control during the past several centuries. The French moved the capital to Rabat in 1912 and Morocco became independent in 1956.

“Fez is a relatively relaxed city; there is time for everything. The retention of this classic sense of time can be attributed, in part at least, to the absence of motor vehicles in the medina. If you live in a city where you never have to run in order to catch something, or jump to avoid being hit by it, you are likely to have preserved a natural physical dignity which is not a concomitant of contemporary life; and if you still have that dignity, you want to go on having it. So you see to it that you have time to do whatever you want to do; it is vulgar to hurry.” ~PB

We dive in the next morning after a lovely breakfast at the riad. There is no good way to begin exploring the medina other than by just walking into it. With wide-eyed, curious expressions on our faces, a few people offer to show us around but we have all day to be lost and found on our own.

“The street goes down and down, always unpaved, nearly always partially hidden from the sky. Sometimes it is so narrow as to permit only one-way foot traffic; here the beasts of burden scrape their flanks on each side as they squeeze through…” ~PB

We pass small doorways and alleys leading to even smaller doorways and alleys. We navigate by curiosity and intuition, and with every turn we feel one more step away from knowing how to get back to where we started.

“There is a good deal of frustration involved in the process of enjoying Fez. The blank wall is its symbol, but it is this very secretiveness which gives the city its quality.” ~PB

Deeper into it with every step, we get bolder and braver – peeking our heads into doorways and climbing stairs to see where they lead. The reward is the discovery of incredible interiors – some old and rustic, others elegant and refined. There is certainly an exotic other world behind these tall, quiet walls.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

Eventually we come to a long passageway with latticework shading the interior. We’ve arrived at a major artery of the medina which leads us to a maze of vendors who lure us with all kinds of things for sale — textiles, rugs, lamps, leather goods, ceramics, clothing, baskets, spices and more. Fez is far less aggressive than Marrakech and there is no hard sell.

We wander through the henna souq, Brassmaker’s Square and the Jewish quarter. By this point we have no idea where we are in relation to where we started. The medina is vast and the walls are just too high to glean any true sense of direction. But we’re finding more and more pockets of life and beauty that pull us through the maze. The deeper we go, the more textures and colors we see. The medina blooms around us.

“The visitor senses something in Fez which he describes as a feeling of mystery; that is as good a way as any of describing the impression the city makes. There is no doubt that to the person with a little imagination that impression is very strong; the city seems inexhaustible, incredibly complex, and vaguely menacing. It is possible that the visitor will also find it beautiful, although this is by no means certain. Fez is not a city that everyone can like. Many travelers have a negative reaction to its dark and twisting alleys, teeming with people and animals. Anyone subject to claustrophobia may well find it only a nightmarish welter of tunnels, dead-end passageways and windowless walls. To grasp the fascination of the place one has to be the sort of person who enjoys losing himself in a crowd and being pushed along by it, not caring where to or for how long. He must be able to attain relaxation in the idea of being helpless in the midst of that crowd, he must know how to find pleasure in the outlandish, and see beauty where it is most unlikely to appear.” ~PB

Fez has cast its spell on me. The artistry of the city speaks through the bespoke quality of every single door, window, design, pattern, display and handmade item. Every element of this city has a human fingerprint. Nothing is manufactured and in this way Fez feels truly unique. I cannot walk into a shop and buy eight of the same bowls, four of the same pillows, or two of the same rugs. They simply don’t exist. I can look through a stack of 20 plates and no two will have the same pattern and color. It’s easier to have a pair of leather slippers custom made than to find my size and favorite color among a wall of one hundred choices. Craftspeople here can make one hundred of whatever you like — but the end result will still be one hundred handmade things, each imperfect and unique.

In a manufactured world, Fez is an astonishing city of authentic art and identity.

After a long day on our feet, we finally sit down for dinner at a pretty restaurant smothered in tile overlooking the medina. We’ve been unknowingly sucked into a tourist trap with an expensive fixed menu in a bunch of languages. We hurry through our tagines so we can get back and relax in our palatial room at the riad.

The next day we embark on another adventure through the medina. We find more doorways and details around every corner and spend quite a bit of time exploring the tanneries (an experience of such impact I’m doing a whole post about it, coming soon).

We find ourselves at Bab Bou Jeloud square and walk through the produce market nearby. Much like Tangier, the variety on display is as surprising as the verdant countryside we saw from the train.

We squeeze into two plastic chairs at a stall serving some kind of meat sandwich on Morocco’s traditional bread, which kind of looks like a Frisbee. We share with the cats and kittens lingering in the lane behind us.

We continue our journey, intent on finding a “set” of plates to take home with us – knowing each piece of the set will be unique because … Fez. We step down into a shop filled wall-to-wall with beautiful ceramics.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The shop has been family-owned for several generations – son, father, grandfather and beyond – and the entire three-story structure above us is part of the family home. It’s more than 100 years old with intricate detail in the carvings going up one wall. The father recalls being a little boy, climbing high up the woodwork. While we assemble our set of plates the son asks us if we’d like to see the view from their home.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

“The people of Fez are not ashamed to be hedonists … they have a passion for sitting on a high spot of ground at twilight and watching the slow change of light, color and form in the landscape.” ~PB

He takes us across the footpath in front of the store, up a tiny, dark staircase to an adjoining part of the house that opens onto a balcony. The day is coming to an end and we see several people who have found their way to the upper reaches of the medina for the sunset. For the second time in Morocco, we’ve been treated to an unexpected view through the gracious gesture of a local.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

Fez is a grand world city unlike any other — a work of art and life from centuries of self-expression. We look out over the cityscape, share the experience with our new Moroccan friend and his brother, and are reminded again of some of the simple things in life that bring foreigners and locals together: sunsets, beautiful views, friendship and cultural differences which inspire us to invite each other into our homes to talk, to learn and to know respect for one another.

***

Miscellaneous
Tangier, Morocco

Tangier: A Visual Feast to Start the New Year

Happy New Year, everyone! I’m kicking off 2018 with a post about a city I visited last spring. I hope you enjoy this portrait of Tangier, Morocco.

May, 2017

After two weeks in Portugal and Spain, the exotic allure of Morocco has my full attention. It’s been ten years since my last visit to the country but Morocco’s gypsy ambiance has never lost its grip on my heart.

We park the rental car at a long-term garage in Algeciras — nearly getting scammed in the process, but ultimately we outwit the jerk who is trying so desperately to usher us into a particular parking space. Basta! He runs off, pretending he’s calling the cops. The car is stored and we’re on our way to Tangier, the first stop on our week-long jaunt through northern Morocco.

As we ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar I wonder at the ocean water — apatite blue and as calm as Lake Tahoe. We begin to see the shore of Tangier stretching along our view to the east in a thin, bright line. The light seems magnified, one tiny step closer to the equator, with a palette devoid of the bright greens of the Algarve from where we’ve just come. It’s intriguing to imagine the Sahara desert not too far beyond us … an adventure for another time.

The Medina :: Tangier, Morocco

The Medina :: Tangier, Morocco

At the moment, Tangier is our adventure. The city climbs the hill in front of us like the San Francisco of Africa. Tangier is a melting pot and crossroads at the edge of the continent; a city of highs and lows as time and people have passed through it for centuries. At the moment, Tangier is revitalized and ready for the future with a huge new port, a beautiful beach promenade and all the culture a city needs to attract an international community.

Our riad is somewhere in the middle of this hillside collage. Within minutes of docking we’re in a taxi on our way around the medina.

We find our way to the kasbah and arrive at the side street where La Tangerina is high on the hill, tucked behind a grand wooden door. Typical of Moroccan architecture, La Tangerina is several stories tall with a central courtyard. Our room is a small, split-level unit overlooking the walkway out front.

Mint tea upon arrival :: Tangier, Morocco

Mint tea upon arrival :: Tangier, Morocco

We unpack a few things and retire to the rooftop deck where mint tea and cookies are waiting for us in a stylish assemblage which reminds me that even the smallest things in life can be done with great artistry. We feel sincerely welcomed. We toast to an exciting day, with a view of the Atlantic on one side and the medina on the other.

Our taxi driver returns at 5:00 p.m. for an hour-long walking tour of the medina. He’s a university student and earns extra money by giving tours, during which he can practice speaking English. For the next hour we wend our way through the maze of footpaths among the buildings, so tall on both sides it’s impossible to tell where we are. It feels a little like snorkeling — we come up for air and try to get our bearings each time a path emerges into an open space.

The medina is a study in textures and colors, and I find myself navigating by the most memorable of them. A yellow and blue wall with a row of plants on a doorstep is a favorite passageway.

The Hand of Fatima

The Hand of Fatima

The khamsa, or Hand of Fatima, hangs from more than a few doors as a protective symbol to ward off the evil eye. The khamsa is also a contemporary symbol of peace.

What I love most about Morocco is the endless embellishment of even the most mundane surfaces. Walking through the medina offers an endless display of intentional artistry. Doors and windows almost always have elegant, hand-hewn designs within the confines of plain rectangles. As I learned in Islamic geometric design class, the best designs (and most designs here, really) are made-to-measure. The starting point, ending point and placement have been carefully considered to avoid the odd cut, loose end or messy composition. Moroccan design is deliberate design at its very best.

The streets outside the medina are wider and easier to navigate, running down to the port and across to the Ville Nouvelle. But old city or new city, temptation exists at every doorway. The crafts, textiles and antiquities inside the shops speak a vibrant, expressive language and the much-loved neutrals of western palettes have little voice here.

Tangier, Morocco

Tangier, Morocco

We step into a shop with room after room of rugs, ceramics and home accessories. Overwhelmed with patterns and choices, the salesman leads us upstairs to share something he seems to know we’ll find of more interest.

Tangier, Morocco

Tangier, Morocco

We emerge on the roof to another perspective of the medina. The midday sun strips the shadows from the mass of shapes on the hill and the call to prayer begins. This moment feels more valuable than any rug or accessory we might have had our eye on so we take it in and thank him for showing us.

We explore the fish market as well as the fruit and vegetable market set up along a street in the medina. The bounty of Morocco creates a variety of traditional dishes, including a sardine stew simmering in open tagines at a street-side cafe.

Berber woman at the market :: Tangier, Morocco

Berber woman at the market :: Tangier, Morocco

At every destination, the reaction to being photographed is something a photographer must explore and be aware of. In Mumbai, people loved being photographed but here in Morocco the general feeling I’ve gotten so far is total aversion. This is confirmed when I talk with a Berber woman about the cheese she’s selling at the market. She’s happy to show and sell her product but dips her hat to hide her face when I ask if I can shoot a photo. No matter — every culture is different and deserving of respect. I find myself shooting almost entirely with my phone because it’s faster and less conspicuous. Even still, and for this reason, most of my photos do not include people.

The indoor market holds even more piles, bins and boxes of Moroccan staples like lemons, olives, dates and nuts. For being so close to the Sahara desert, Tangier’s markets look surprisingly plentiful.

We stop for an afternoon coffee at the Grand Café de Paris. We choose a table along the back wall and watch the the world go by through the high windows overlooking the street. The brown leather chairs and buttoned-up waiters give an atmosphere of old elegance. No one moves too quickly — this is a place to meet and relax but an air of sophistication holds court over every customer. It feels as if anyone in the world might walk through the door.

To end our day we take a walk through the historic El-Minzah Hotel which opened in 1930. The walls are covered with photos of famous people who have come to the hotel including Rita Hayworth and Yves Cousteau.

El-Minzah Hotel :: Tangier, Morocco

El-Minzah Hotel :: Tangier, Morocco

The inner courtyard gives another nod to old elegance. In a quiet corner almost out of view, a bold antique sofa sits against a blue tiled wall under a framework of iron scrolls over a window. It is yet another effortless composition of pattern on pattern, color on color, that creates the singular sense of place that Morocco so clearly communicates.

Tangier, Morocco

Tangier, Morocco

As we end our time in Tangier I capture one more photo of my favorite discovery within the medina. Down a dusty road in an unremarkable spot, this profusion of Islamic geometric design sits in solitude with chips and cracks that show its age — wabi-sabi in Tangier. Perfect, symmetrical, made-to-measure and stunning. It is my favorite discovery of our whole trip.

It’s time to catch the train and move on from Tangier. We taxi to the station and make a run for it, reluctant to leave this charming, rustic city. It’s been so fun to explore … and only just a warm-up for the coming labyrinth that is Fez.

Culture Miscellaneous

Making Paper in Bhutan

Thimphu, Bhutan

Thimphu, Bhutan

From the Archives: Bhutan, 2013

The Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory sits on a hill overlooking the mountainous terrain of Thimphu, Bhutan. The paper factory illustrates the government’s resolve to support the local economy by preserving the country’s traditional arts, including paper making.

Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory, Bhutan

Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory, Bhutan

Jungshi means “natural” and the entire paper making operation is true to that name. Bark from several species of Daphne and Edgeworthia shrubs goes through a process of transformation from bark to pulp to paper, known as deh-sho. Bhutan’s Forestry Department uses sustainable practices to farm the shrubs and supply the bark to several paper making operations around the country, including Jungshi. Jungshi produces about 1,500 sheets of paper per day.

Bark from the shrubs is soaked in water to break down its structure, then strained from the liquid and brought inside the factory. The stringy mass is fed into a grinder which spits out the pulp into a big vat, like a giant bowl of oatmeal.

Fiber to Pulp :: Bhutan

Fiber to Pulp :: Bhutan

The next step is where the magic happens. I was at the factory in the late afternoon when golden light was pouring in the windows as this woman worked with the paper screen. Watery pulp is spread evenly across the screen, then the screen is lifted out, aligned with the growing stack of wet paper, released on top of it and peeled off from the opposite edge, leaving behind the new sheet of paper.

Preparing pulp on the screen

Preparing pulp on the screen

Lifting the screen to the stack of paper

Lifting the screen to the stack of paper

Aligning the screen with the stack

Aligning the screen with the stack

Releasing the screen on top of the stack

Releasing the screen on top of the stack

Peeling the screen away from the opposite edge

Peeling the screen away from the opposite edge

Revealing the new sheet of paper

Revealing the new sheet of paper

Stacks of paper sit throughout the factory — some of them wet, some of them dry, some of them sandwiched and pressed for flatness.

Sheet by sheet, dry paper is hung from an easel where it’s brushed off and inspected for quality.

The finished paper is stamped with the Jungshi logo, then either shipped out from the factory or placed in the paper shop at the site. According to the U.N., demand for handmade paper from Bhutan comes mainly from Sweden and the U.K. Paper is used for greeting cards, gift wrap, stationery, books and certificates.

The Jungshi paper shop offers a nice collection of sheets and paper products, some of which contain additional leaves and flowers that grow wild around the landscape of Bhutan. Perhaps you recognize what’s been added here?

Art wpc

Lisbon Life

Praça do Comércio, Lisbon

Praça do Comércio, Lisbon

Portugal sits at the western edge of Europe, with Spain along one side and the Atlantic Ocean along the other. With a stunning coastline, beautiful capital city and world-class food and wine, it has all the elements of a perfect European destination. But in the world of travel and tourism, Portugal is almost always overshadowed by its more popular neighbors. Spain and France together attract more than 150 million foreign tourists every year while Portugal only recently surpassed 10 million in 2016.

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

This is good news for anyone going to Portugal, as we discovered last spring. We enjoyed uncrowded streets and affordable accommodations throughout our trip. We started in Lisbon, where the history is serious but the attitude and terrain feel a lot like San Francisco. The city clings to a hillside overlooking the mouth of the Tagus river. Coming and going from our apartment in the Chiado district, we were always walking uphill or downhill on our way to the next stop.

Through the centuries, Lisbon has succumbed to the control of Berbers, Arabs, Norwegians and Spaniards, as well as the destructive forces of fire and earthquakes. All of these influences are still visible in Lisbon’s architecture, tiles and cracks in the walls.

The city’s location on the Atlantic seems to have influenced its color palette, with all the soft shades of water, sky, sunshine and sunsets applied along every street. The joy in the colors and patterns feels unique to Lisbon. A lot of time and thought has gone into embellishing this city.

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Stepping into Palácio Chiado for lunch was unexpectedly cool, not only for the unique dining areas arranged on two floors but also for the contrast of chic and antique interiors among them. Lisbon’s casual style is an eclectic mix of old and new. It never feels constructed or fake, and whether you’re dining at an up-and-coming restaurant of a Michelin-starred chef (Mini Bar; José Avillez; wonderful) or just having an afternoon beer at the Praça de São Paulo (on draft, with service and good people watching), you’re welcomed with genuine hospitality.

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

With so many hills, Lisbon has lots of viewpoints where you can take in scenic views of the city. A walk up the hill to Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara gave us our first vista across the city toward Castelo de Sao Jorge.

Feira da Ladra, Lisbon

Feira da Ladra, Lisbon

Feira da Ladra, Lisbon

Feira da Ladra, Lisbon

We took a Sunday stroll around the Feira da Ladra, Lisbon’s twice-weekly flea market. Any good traveler knows that market days are the best days to see local color, and the Feira da Ladra was no exception. Locals were out with a million things for sale including clothing, dishes, artwork, antiques, old tiles and Barbie dolls. I picked up a pair of Roy-Bom (Ray-Ban) sunglasses and an old brass plate with an etched design.

Lisbon Taksi

Lisbon Taksi

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Another walk took us up another hill to Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte where we could look west across the whole city to the l bridge, the largest suspension bridge in the world (and very similar to the Golden Gate).

Castelo ds Sao Jorge

Castelo ds Sao Jorge

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Back down the hill and around the Castelo de Sao Jorge, we arrived at the edge of the Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood. Buildings are packed onto the hillside with narrow walkways leading down to the main street bordering the river. This is the best area in Lisbon to experience Fado, the historic art of singing traditional Portuguese songs with trademark melancholy.

The Alfama, Lisbon

The Alfama, Lisbon

At the Praça do Comércio, the sun finally burned through the haze and brightened up the afternoon. With baton twirlers and bubble blowers around, we sat and rested our feet before continuing on to the Time Out Market.

Time Out Market, Lisbon

Time Out Market, Lisbon

Madeira Wine

Madeira Wine

What would a visit to Portugal be without a little Madeira wine? How amazing to see such a wide range of vintages at the market. We enjoyed a small sample poured from a bottle that was corked in 1972, the year my grandmother was traveling Europe.

The Time Out Market opened in 2014 after renovations to the complex, which has been around for more than a century. It’s a great place to grab a coffee or a gourmet bite to eat after picking up some local produce or flowers at the mercado next door. Kitchens in the market cook Lisbon’s authentic, best food (as tasted and confirmed by local experts), for affordable prices, under one roof. You can also find fresh seafood and really good charcuterie among the many delectable things to eat.

The concept has revived the neighborhood and given tourists and locals a communal place to experience Lisbon’s characteristic cuisine. And this is really at the heart why we found Lisbon so livable and lovable. The city has loads of history and beauty, but the focus really seems to be on enjoying some very basic things in life: a nice view, a good glass of wine and a great meal with friends. Who doesn’t love that?

Miscellaneous

World Textures

Gathering of Nations :: Albuquerque, New Mexico

Gathering of Nations :: Albuquerque, New Mexico

This week’s photo challenge: textures, one of my photography addictions. Hope you enjoy this amuse-bouche of textures from around the world. Next post on Portugal coming this Friday! See you then!

Bali

Bali

 

Yogyakarta

Yogyakarta

 

Vietnam

Vietnam

 

New Zealand

New Zealand

 

Oman

Oman

 

Vietnam

Vietnam

 

Vietnam

Vietnam

 

Bhutan

Bhutan

 

France

France

 

Bali

Bali

 

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

 

Myanmar

Myanmar

 

Vietnam

Vietnam

 

Cambodia

Cambodia

 

Maldives

Maldives

 

Borneo

Borneo

 

Morocco

Morocco

 

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

Miscellaneous wpc

Azulejo and Zellige

Azulejo and zellige. I know, readers! These are tough words to get your mind and mouth around. But they’re relevant terms if you’re traveling through Portugal, Spain and Morocco which is what I did last April and May. Before I share a bunch of new posts with you about this region of the world, it’s important to understand the meaning and history behind these two related words. You’re going to see azulejos mostly in my photography of Portugal, zellige mostly in my photography of Spain and Morocco, and the influence and presence of both throughout my photography of the whole region. So let’s get it all started at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Tile Museum) in Lisbon, Portugal.

Queen Leonor's Chapel, The National Tile Museum

Queen Leonor’s Chapel, The National Tile Museum

The building that is now the tile museum was originally the Convent of the Mother of God (Madre de Deus), founded in 1509 by Leonor, Queen Consort of Portugal. Through the centuries, tile was brought to the convent for decoration but little of it was applied to the interior. In the 1950s, the convent was annexed by the National Museum of Ancient Art to house its ceramic displays (along with tiles that were already stored at the convent) and eventually the annex became the National Tile Museum.

The museum tells the history of decorative tile that likely originated in North Africa in the 13th century and reached across the Gibraltar Strait into Spain and then Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries. Initially, decorative tiles may have been a reaction against horror vacui — fear of the empty, a Greek term that has been applied to numerous styles and periods of art.

Moorish influence on early azulejos

Moorish influence on early azulejos

The museum offers this definition of azulejo: From the Arab word azzelij or al zuleycha, which means ‘small polished stone’, refers to a ceramic piece, usually squared, with one side glazed. Zellige is a similar Arabic word, meaning “mosaic,” particularly with geometric tiles of the style seen throughout Morocco. Because zellige is a form of Islamic art, its designs are purely geometric with no portrayal of living things. In contrast, the azulejos found throughout Portugal are painted with patterns, design motifs and scenes of life.

The National Tile Museum :: Lisbon, Portugal

The process of Azulejo

The National Tile Museum holds a historic collection of azulejos, assembled in vignettes on the walls and also applied throughout the former convent’s church, chapel and cloisters. A display case at the entrance of the exhibition explains the process of making azulejo: A tile is cut from a slab of raw clay; one side is covered with a layer of powdered glass and tin-oxide; a line drawing is made on tracing paper; the paper is flipped over and pricked along the lines with a sharp instrument; the pricked tracing paper is placed over the tile and brushed with powdered charcoal to transfer the line drawing onto the tile in a process called pouncing; a rabbit’s tail erases any charcoal mistakes; the tile is painted with color and fired at a very high temperature to create the saturated, polychrome beauty of the finished piece.

The National Tile Museum :: Lisbon, Portugal

Azulejos were sometimes assembled together to look like tapestries, known as tapete (carpets). In the 15th and 16th centuries, the azulejo color palette was limited to blue, yellow, brown, green and white. In the 17th century, the color trend turned toward a simplified blue and white palette in the style of Chinese porcelain which was popular around the world.

The museum is arranged chronologically which helps with understanding how tile design, color and illustration evolved over centuries. The AzLab, an organization of the museum, is working to identify, date and catalog the vast tile designs of homes, buildings and churches throughout the country. AzLab also has a great interactive timeline of important examples in the history of azulejos. Only some of Portugal’s tiled works of art have been signed by the artists, several of whom were master oil and ceiling painters: António de Oliveira Bernardes, Manuel dos Santos and António Pereira.

Nossa Senhora da Vida, 1580

Nossa Senhora da Vida, 1580

Scene from the Hunting Room

Scene from the Hunting Room

Lisbonne au Mille Couleurs, 1992

Lisbonne au Mille Couleurs, 1992

The National Tile Museum :: Lisbon, Portugal

Crates of tiles are stacked along the interior hallways of the museum and restoration appears to be ongoing. What a huge job to reconstruct the tiled history of an entire nation, one small square at a time from the past 400+ years.

The Manueline Cloister is beautifully decorated in 19th century tiles with a diamond pattern which complements the arched ceiling.

The Church of Madre de Deus is a surprise within the tile museum, a remnant from the former days of the convent. Gilded at every glance, it’s a vibrant expression of a Baroque Portuguese interior. Upstairs the Chapel of St. Anthony is similarly covered in opulent paintings.

Ending the museum tour, the Great Panorama of Lisbon wraps half of the room in a blue and white pictorial of the city before the devastating earthquake of 1755. Each tile is delicately painted with detail showing homes, ships, life along the coast and scenes from the countryside.

Manueline Cloister and 19th century tiles

Manueline Cloister and 19th century azulejos

Traveling this region that straddles the Strait of Gibraltar is like taking a visual safari through the worlds of azulejos and zellige. Colorful and intricate, one cannot walk much more than a block or an alley’s length without stopping to admire the beauty of so many tiles and mosaics, as you’ll see in my upcoming posts.

If you’ve ever tiled a floor then you know the painstaking, backbreaking effort it takes to properly cut, mortar, assemble and grout a tiled surface — even with power tools, let alone manually as in past centuries. So it’s pretty easy to conclude that in the heyday of azulejos and zellige, beauty and craftsmanship must have been valued tremendously in spite of the time and pain involved in creating these works of art. No wonder the WINE of the region is so good and such an important part of Portugal’s culture! Saúde!

Culture Miscellaneous