Thursday, 30 April 2009

Smells of home

The palmeraies of Morocco sometimes remind me a little of the oases of Oman. But one thing is very different; the air. Oman has a dry spiciness that makes my nose prickle; Morocco's air is softer, less pungent.

Few travel writers are much aware of smell. The smell of a latrine, the smell of a good meal, perhaps; but the hints of ozone and salt in sea air, the smell of decaying seaweed on a beach, or the smell of dry earth when the rain hits it - those are so often forgotten.

I was reminded of that out jogging this morning by the Wensum. As I ran over Whitefriars bridge, I smelt soggy cardboard, a smell like that evil glue on old envelopes when you've just licked it, warm and wet, the effluent from the packaging factory. And I realised, for me, that's one of the smells of home.

When I was a child in Ipswich I loved passing the Pauls maltings, for the rich, sweet smell of roasting cereal. It was like breathing in a Christmas pudding. That smell, alas, has been chased out of the docks by commercial development. (A malt floor is an amazing place; hot and wet like a rainforest, with a moist breath that blasts you in the face when you enter, and the fulness of the aroma. You shiver when you come back out, even in the middle of summer.)

You can even smell the weather, and the season; the grassy smell of spring, the heavy, almost rotten smell of hawthorn in a good May. Hints of woodsmoke in the air herald the winter.

And the other smell that lets me know I'm home; warm cat fur...

Monday, 27 April 2009

A baby sister for Chartres cathedral

We didn't mean to find a cathedral. We were only looking for an ATM.  Jacques had run out of money, and we needed a bank.

But as we drove into Gallardon we realised we had found rather more than just a branch of Credit Agricole. A fine Gothic choir and a marvellously high spire, and a strange, huge, relic of upthrust wall crowning the hill, gave this town a striking silhouette against the low spring sun.

As soon as we saw the apse of the cathedral I knew where I'd seen it before. The flying buttresses, simple buttresses like semi-circles drawn with a child's compass; the simple, wide lancet windows, without tracery; it was exactly like Chartres cathedral.

The silhouette of the church is as striking as that of the town. The choir is gloriously high; the spire, at its north west corner, soars up to heaven. But the whole thing seems to be cut short. Then you realise the nave is there, after all, but it's so low its roofline is hardly visible above the houses of the town.

We went in, of course; after all, the church was next to the bank.

Even with that hint of Chartres cathedral I wasn't prepared for what I saw inside. Beyond the long, wide, rather low nave, steps led up towards the glowing light of the choir; the bleached white of fine, porous limestone. It was like a path of revelation; through darkness to light. I had to raise my head to look at the choir; the whole church is laid out on the slope of the hill,  rising and rising again towards the east. It is an amazing place.

Of course, the effect would have been rather different had any of the original stained glass been left in the choir windows. The clear glass floods the apse; it was almost as if the light had become tangible, so strong did it seem.

And a baby sister for Chartres? Well believe it or not, I was right.  It was built around the same time, and even the stone used to build the choir may have come from the same quarry, according to a note in the church.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Noises of home

I had a strange experience in the orchard today. I walked out, in the early evening, and the plum tree blossom was drifting slowly down, and the tree was humming.

It was the bees. When there's a single bee near me, I can hear it; the individual quality of its buzz is clear, as if there's a tiny silence between the infinitesimal moments of sound. It has a definite pitch, a definite texture almost.

But when there are so many bees, their sounds all mingle together into a huge hum, like the aftertone of a peal of bells, or a roomful of Tibetan singing bowls. It was magnificent. The sound of a French orchard in April.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Walls, Walls, Walls

Walls in the West have a bad name. The Berlin Wall, symbol of oppression. Prison walls (Stone walls do not a prison make / Nor iron bars a cage). The most frightening thing for many of us is a wall without windows, a room from which you can't see out on to the street.

In the other hand, in Morocco walls seem to be a joy and a delight. In Meknes, Moulay Ismail's great buildings seem to be nothing but walls. Walls around the royal palace, walls around the Dar-el-Kebir. Walls that stride a kilometre without a break. Walls that are by now built into the structure of the city, so that houses are built against them, and streets flank one side, so that sometimes the only time you see the wall is in the tiny gap between two houses when you catch a sudden glimpse of crenellation. The huge open space in front of the Dar el-Kebir is hardly a real square, as it would be in Italy, say; it's just the result of building two huge sets of walls a little apart from each other.  The walls are the point - the space is just what happens once you've built the walls.

Now here's another thing where the idea of Moulay Ismail's Meknes as the Moroccan Versailles breaks down. Nowhere at Versailles are you aware of walls, as such; indeed the front wall of the courtyard is made transparent by railings, and the frontage of the chateau is a deep U that draws you in, not a flat wall that holds you off. You are meant to see the splendour; you are meant to guess at what's inside. And in the gardens, it's the avenue that dominates, the panorama controlled by perspective - you are meant to see all the way to the horizon; walls are banned, as they'd impose an end to the view, implying that the King's dominion was limited and his reign impotent.

But at Meknes the whole point is that you don't see anything of Moulay Ismail's palace. The walls exclude. It's an inward-looking culture; the palace has to be guarded against attack, against impurity, against the quotidian. There are no windows in the walls; who wants to see the chaos of the streets outside? The dirtiness of the gutter?

So the symbol of Moulay Ismail's rule is the blank wall. No windows.  Gates where the ornamentation privileges the flat surfaces of the wall, rather than the arch of the gate. Walls that surround, that blank out the exterior world. There are no vistas, no panoramas, and that may be why so many of these Moroccan walls are determinedly un-picturesque, unphotogenic. The walls at Avila make you want to take pictures; the walls at Meknes don't.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Empty space - the mechouar

One of the things that most surprised me about Morocco was the huge empty spaces. For instance at Fes, the Mechouar (parade ground) in front of the walls, between Fes-el-Bali (old Fes) and Fel-el-Jdid (new Fes); or the Djemaa el Fna, in Marrakech; or the huge expanses of the Place el Hedim, the square containing the Qubba, and the massive area in front of Dar el-Kabir at Meknes.

Moulay Ismail's work at Meknes is said to have been inspired by what he had heard about Versailles, and it's often compared to Versailles. But in fact the comparison is instructive mainly because although Moulay Ismail achieved bigness, he did not achieve greatness. There appears to be be no significance to the walls and spaces he laid out; they do not create axes, do not relate to each other, do not create an organisation of space.

Place el Hedim (admittedly changed since his time) for instance appears to be a huge, regular rectangle laid out in front of the great Bab el-Mansour. But if you look carefully, Bab-el-Mansour is off-centre - it has no relation to the space.

Nor is there any attempt to regularise or articulate the space. The big square in front of the Dar el-Kabir is not given any organisation by the buildings that face on to it - there are no regular arcades, no features that could make it a focused space rather than just an empty area.

The huge long corridor that runs from past the Zaouia in Meknes is nearly a kilometer long (my reckoning, based on pacing it) - yet it runs from one little gate in the wall to a blind corner. It is not an axis; it doesn't go anywhere. In Versailles, an alley like this would be an avenue, leading to a viewpoint, to a focal monument; here, it's just a long dog-leg with nothing at the end.

This is characteristic of the Moroccan city - though I'd hesitate to say it is a characteristic of Arab cityscapes as a whole. Only in the work of Moroccan architects post-colonisation, borrowing from the repertoire of the French-designed villes nouvelles, do you find regular spaces, articulated by the architecture that surrounds them.

The big squares are empty spaces. They come alive, as the name of Djemaa el Fna ('assembly of the dead') suggests, only when people assemble in them. No people, no meaning. No people, no articulation. No people, no need. It's the people who define the space, and not the other way around.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Glimpses of Morocco

Just back from three weeks in Morocco - and it was a fascinating visit, not least in glimpses of a different cityscape.

The European city is a city of open spaces, that don't change their character, that relate to each other logically. Since the Renaissance, there's been a rationality to the way cities are put together.

That logic doesn't happen in Arab cities. Seville, for instance, is the one city I always get lost in, even with the best map I can get.

Arab cities seem to be built around private spaces. The streets are simply the gaps between the buildings. They don't run straight - they run via crooked corners; one street near Dar Si Said, in Marrakech, goes round five right angle bends in less than a hundred yards. Where the map shows them running straight across a grid, in fact you'll find a staggered junction, with a little kink in the street.

The idea of following the 'main street' becomes ludicrous. A main street can simply filter away into tiny passageways leading to the dead ends of a kasbah. It's only wider because it leads from the individual houses to the souk - but it does not go from A to B, so to speak; it simply feeds a drainage system, so that the flood of people going down the street turns into a number of trickles feeding into impasses that contain two or three house doors, and that's all.

And you see the buildings, the real heart of the city, only in glimpses and glances. For instance in Fes, as a non -Muslim, you'll only see the Kairouine mosque or the central Zaouia through gateways, obliquely. You can walk round them and trace their pattern, but you cannot enter; and they are intended to remain private spaces, unlike the western Cathedral with its open parvis, its facade, its spires and towers, or the baroque church which announces itself with a facade that is a piece of public drama.

It's this that marks the mysterious appeal of Moroccan cities. Morocco takes this strand of Arab architecture to its extreme - far more so, say, than Oman. Everything is secrecy and indirection.