Wednesday, April 8, 2015

And now for something completely different: Morocco!

A view down a major street in a new part of Marrakech
It seemed only appropriate. I got ripped off by the taxi driver when we arrived in Marrakech and tricked out of my change by the taxi driver who took me back to the airport. But other than these taxi drivers, and the many merchants who would usually ask for ridiculous prices to start a negotiation, the people we dealt with in Marrakech were generally quite wonderful and considerate.

Sally and I came here with Carol and Richard Henriquez. Since we generally travel on our own, this was a new, but very good experience that we will most definitely repeat.
My only real problem during the trip was that my new Microsoft Surface PC crashed on the third day and so I was not able to blog and post photos as we went along. So this post and the following stories are being written on my phone, to be transcribed later.
In total we spent 11 nights in Morocco-5 in Marrakech,  2 in Essaouira, 2 in Fes and 2 in Tangiers. I counted the nights rather than days since time was spent driving from Marrakech to Essaouira  (about 2 1/2  hours); Essaouira to Fes (about 8 hours); a train from Fes to Tangier  (about 5 1/2 hours since we hit a cow and seemed to stop for far too long at every station); and 4 hours flying from Tangier back to Marrakech. 
The train stations, like this one in Marrakech, were attractive modern facilities
We booked everything in advance from Canada except for the train which was a last minute decision. We found the train and plane travel reasonable. Although it was more expensive to arrange for a car and driver than a car rental, having watched the traffic chaos within the walled cities, I have no regrets about that at all. I could NOT have driven here!
The first time I have stayed in a hotel sprinkled with rose petals. Reminded me of a movie!
The price of accommodation varied, but was generally quite reasonable. Had we been 30 years younger we could have got charming accommodation in many riads for significantly less a night. But we didn't try. Instead we stayed in some very luxurious places for much less than we would have paid in other countries.

What most impressed me with the riads, (A riad (Arabic: رياض‎) is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard. The word riad comes from the Arabian term for garden), was their juxtaposition with their surroundings. It was often hard to accept that such elegant accommodation could be located in such run down locations. It was like walking through a doorway in the 100 block East Hastings into the Four Seasons Hotel

Richard observed it will be interesting to see if these beautiful riads will one day gentrify their surroundings. Somehow I doubt it but who knows what might happen over time.

It is trite to say but it is hard to come to Morocco and not be overwhelmed by the contrasts. While we came here thinking desert we're leaving thinking agriculture and farmers. Carol could not get over how lush and green so much of the countryside appeared. 
Some other highlights were the beautiful restaurants we experienced although we will be happy to avoid Moroccan food for a while; the expansive Jewish cemeteries which reminded us of the significant Jewish communities that once lived here. I say 'once' since most Jews have left . 
While our guides often talked about the harmony that exists between the various religions here, in fact the Jews often lived and worked in the Mellah or ghetto outside the main community. Many worked in the jewelry business and today many of the small jewelry shops remain in what were the Mellahs.

Other highlights included the kind and exceptional service we generally experienced. When we went out for dinner the last night at a restaurant recommended by the hotel, staff walked us to the taxi who drove us to the restaurant and then picked up afterwards.We paid when he brought us back. With only one or two exceptions, we generally felt very safe.
As I wandered around the streets on my own, it was obvious I was a tourist, but people were kind with directions
While there were occasional glitches in our travel arrangements it is a fairly manageable place to visit. I constantly wandered off to explore, but rarely felt any sense of danger. Although you do need to kept your wits about you, especially amongst the street vendors in the souks who constantly hassle you whenever you start looking at their products.
You also have to be aware that the kids in the market area who offer to help you with directions, will expect payment. Moreover, whatever you give them, they will usually respond "That's nothing!"

You also have to be prepared for those who offer to take you to the tanneries or some other part of the markets. They can be very persistent and invariably when you arrive you're shown pictures on the wall of their supposed family who run the business. Maybe it is their family, but having had too many similar experiences in Thailand, Indonesia and elsewhere,  I became very suspicious.
But if you are in the market for Moroccan style goods, there are a surprising number of talented artisans making beautiful things by hand in tiny storefronts. Sadly, Sally and I are now in a disposition mode-not an acquisition mode-so did not buy the things we would have loaded up on 30 years ago!

While I will not rush back to Morocco, hopefully one day I will return. It is a fascinating country where you can enjoy good food, good accommodation, incredible sights and smells, and kind people. Just don't assume it is always hot and sunny. It isn't!

Opinion: From Paris with love for city planning Vancouver Courier March

I spent the last two days exploring Paris with a former Vancouver city planner. We were looking for ideas to improve our city. We found some. We also discovered some good things about Vancouver that Paris needs to copy.
Since the transit plebiscite is top of mind, there is no doubt that Vancouver could learn from Paris when it comes to public transit. Their Metro system is extremely comprehensive, with many connections between the different lines. The stations are attractive; the service is frequent and efficient.

There is also an expanding tram system that in some locations runs along a grass corridor. We thought this would look wonderful along Broadway Avenue.

The big idea that we both focused on was the benefit of large scale comprehensive planning. Anyone who has been to Paris cannot help but be impressed with the grand tree-lined boulevards and master-planning so evident throughout most of the city.

I say most since we spent our time in the city centre. Once you get outside of this area, the Parisian suburbs are not much better than the suburbs of most Canadian cities. Indeed, they are often worse.
But the city centre, with its grand edifices and carpet of beautiful mid-rise buildings, constructed from the same stone, is magnificent.

There are highrise buildings, some of which are completely out of place, but most are concentrated in La Defense, the city’s business centre. While many of these buildings are impressive and shout out “look at me,” at night the area is deserted.

French planners need to visit to Vancouver to see how we mix commercial and residential developments to maintain a more vibrant city centre during the day and night.

While Vancouver deliberately did not copy Paris, which destroyed many neighbourhoods in the 19th century to create its grand streets and neighbourhoods, there is something to be said for a more coherent approach to city planning.

Over the past few years, Vancouver has approved new neighbourhood plans along Cambie Street, in Marpole, and the West End. However, we have been very shy when it comes to master-planning the city with established design guidelines.
My colleague noted that we simply do not have an overall vision for the city. However, we have often been spot-rezoning when it has been financially advantageous to do so, and applied a network of somewhat arbitrary view corridors resulting in some ugly new buildings.

He asked, do we really still need to see the Lions from the mid-point of the Granville Street Bridge?
While views are very important for Vancouver residents, he thinks it is probably time to reconsider the view corridor policies that most Vancouver residents know nothing about. I agree.
Another thing in Paris is its historic focus on celebrating the arts. This is evident in the number of museums and artists and art vendors on the streets. Sadly Vancouver, like most Canadian cities, does not hold arts and culture in such a high regard. Our artists struggle to find affordable studio space and living quarters, and the city struggles to fund an art gallery and museum.
While Vancouver will never be Paris, we need to do more to celebrate the contribution of art, artists, and other forms of culture to the life of a city.

Another noticeable difference is the landscaping and gardens. Yes, we have Stanley and Queen Elizabeth parks and many beautiful residential streets. But just look at the condition of Kingsway or Broadway or the new median at the south end of the Burrard Street Bridge filling up with weeds.

One area where Vancouver is far ahead of Paris is graffiti control. Like so many European cities, Paris is suffering from graffiti abuse in a most disgusting way. It’s tragic. Hopefully local officials will realize it’s time for something to be done. They can learn from Vancouver.

As we walked around Paris browsing the many street vendors, we could not help but think they too offer lessons for Vancouver. Yes, we now have food trucks. But there’s so much more we could do to enhance our street life and pedestrian experience. 

Hopefully one day Vancouver will become a bit more like Paris. And Paris will become a bit more like Vancouver.

The French still have an Edifice Complex

It is the symbol of Paris, for good reason!
En route to a ten day trip in Morocco last month, I decided to take a side trip to Paris for 4 days. I love the city, especially the overall architectural harmony resulting from the consistent scale and use of materials in much of the city.
I stayed at L'Empire, a small boutique hotel in the 1st arrondissment very close to the Louvre. I can recommend it as a comfortable place in an excellent location with a good breakfast....although the rooms are small. www.l'

Long time Vancouver planner and development consultant Chuck Brook, who now keeps a home in the south of France, joined me for 2 days. We wandered through the city, visiting his favourite spots, including Le Marais where we looked like a couple of aging North American Jews trying to dress as French men.
We also toured 2 new architectural tours de force: Jean Nouvel's still under construction Philharmonic Hall, (It strikes me as a colossal waste of money....and it's not even beautiful) and Frank Gehry's Louis Vuitton Foundation gallery. I call it a gallery but it is intended to be much more....although I'm not exactly sure what! It does have a cafe called Frank which features flying fish, fish being a Frank Gehry trademark.

Unfortunately, I inadvertently deleted most of my Paris photos, thinking I had transferred them to the Microsoft Surface that I took on this trip in lieu of my computer. The Surface then crashed after Chuck transferred some of his photos, so this and subsequent blogs are being written after the fact. However, I hope you enjoy some of the photos, and appreciate why I am delighted there is now a non-stop Air France service between Vancouver and Paris.
I was astounded at how many people were shopping at Printemps and Gallerie Lafayette

Why don't we have street kiosks like these? They add pedestrian interest and are very convenient.
Moulin Rouge is still there! And always will be!
The train stations in Paris are spectacular. Gare de Lyon above, Gare de Nord below
A good friend hoped he would see some good photos of French food. Here's my souffle
I have always been intrigued by French cars. This is Renault's latest electrical vehicle....a 2 seater (one behind the other)
In addition to bike-share there is now an electric car-share network of vehicles around Paris
Chutzpah! William Saurin tells you to eat fruit and vegetables to be healthy, while advertising its pate!
Chutzpah? a fellow places this yellow card on the seats in front of travellers on the train in from the airport
Whenever I can, I take a river/water cruise in every city I visit. Why don't we have more readily available cruises around the waterways in Vancouver?
I love this...he has his own amphibious car on his barge!
I would have thought the Brigitte Bardot would be a more beautiful, curvilinear boat!
I watched these Chinese tourists (and there were a lot of Chinese tourists in Paris) taking dozens of selfies as we cruised down the Seine
On my return to Paris before catching the inaugural non-stop flight to Vancouver, I took Chuck's advice and stayed at the CitizenM hotel at Charles de Gaulle airport. It was very impressive.
The rooms are small, very small, but state-of-the-art from a technological point of view. From a bedside tablet you control everything, including the mood lighting!

I completed my trip with a night-time cruise along the Seine
It offered an opportunity to see what is described as the smallest building in Paris. (I suspect they mean the narrowest in the city)

Nice touch. French attendants greet passengers on the inaugural non-stop Air France service to Vancouver.