Due to the recent freak severe hurricanes which lay savage to the West Indies, our original cruise plans were promptly postponed. So with the best part of three weeks booked off and now free, the world was our oyster.

We touched down in Marrakesh, Morroco just after 9pm – for once not too confused about what time zone we’d landed in as the country shares the same zone as the UK. Our airport pick-up dropped us off at the Savoy Le Grand – our home for the next six nights. True to its name, a grand hotel with a cosmopolitan bustle and a distinctly arabesque aesthetic. The absolute giant pool was essential for acquiring an important sunkissed glow before W-day.

The following morning, we decided to take a taxi into the city’s Medina. Marrakesh is loosely divided in two – the Medina, which can trace its roots back to the original settlement of the Berber Sanhaja tribe and its Almoravid Berber leader, Youssef ben Tachfine. And the Ville Nouvelle, the city’s growing new town.

When the Berber leader and his savvy wife, Zainab, stopped off after a successful campaign wiping out their opponent tribes in the 11th century, they pitched their campsite in a spot that had good strategic benefits in a swath of desert. They built ramparts in 1062 AD and the following dynasty established the city’s underground irrigation canals, khettara, and the signature pink mudbrick architecture – giving Marrakech its ‘red city’ title.

No ordinary taxi ride

I’d read the ‘taking a taxi tips’ in my Lonely Planet and new that as a party of five, we’d need to take a ‘grand taxi’ rather than a more common beige ‘petit taxi’ which only seats three.

I also knew that we should hail one from the road rather than head to a rank or pick one that sits outside the tourist hotspots – like the Savoy, if we were to get a reasonable price.

And I’d accepted that it was unlikely we’d get a metered taxi.

Yeah – we still fell for the bunkum some cab driver told us about our destination choice being shut at the weekend and an alternative market for exploring.  We ended up having an extended tour around the city’s perimeter, with an unscheduled stop at his friend’s shop.

Eventually, we negotiated our way to the city’s Jewish quarter in the old city. Lesson learned. To be fair it still cost us less than eight quid (which would only get us halfway to Banbury back home.)

The Bahia Palace

Lonely Planet sums up the Mellah, or Jewish Quarter, like so:  

‘With palaces (and a mausoleum) belonging to by-gone pashas and sultans, this area puts the bling in the medina. When your neck aches from all the ceiling gazing, seek out the alleys of the Mellah – the Jewish quarter, a contemplative contrast to the razzle dazzle.’

These alleys and streets, or derbs, simply groan under the weight of shop sellers, donkey carts, scooters and street hawkers overlooked by the area’s mudbrick houses – the tallest in the city. Many of the Jewish families moved from the area in 1960s, but this quarter is still home to the Bahia Palace. An unobtrusive sign and the few tourists queuing to pay their entrance fare – 10 dirhams, about 80p – just gives its location away.

This is a floor-to-ceiling masterpiece created by artisans using intricate marquetry and zouak, painted wood ceilings. The palace was originally commissioned by Si Moussa, a slave who had risen to become the Sultan Moulay Hassan’s chamberlain and grand vizier. The palace was then occupied and extended by his son, Bou Ahmed, who also held the title of chamberlain.    

We wandered around a series of interconnecting courtyards, each more brilliantly decorated than the last and boasting lush green foliage with elaborate central fountains. The ‘Le Petit Riad’ is the first enclosed garden visitors reach and part of Bou Ahmed’s extension, leading through to the Grand Riad, part of the original Si Moussa Palace.  

In 1894 Bou Ahmed managed to stage a coup after he concealed news of the Sultan’s death until he could declare the Sultan’s 14 year old son heir, with Bou Ahmed as regent, effectively gaining complete control of the state. It was in the Bahia’s ‘Le Grande Cour’, a huge expanse of Italian Carrara marble, that poor subjects would wait in the baking sun to plead for the regent’s favour, mercy or whim.

From the Grand Riad, also lies the harem – home to Bou Ahmed’s four wives and 24 concubines, and the rooms of the regent’s favourite wife, Lalla  Zineb, denoted by its awe-inspiring ceilings.

Saadian Tombs

We refuelled in one of the many tourist and local-frequented cafes dotted around the Place de Ferblantiers, tucking into a plate of vegetable couscous; we then ambled round to the Saadian Tombs.

This is a mausoleum is like no other, and was built to honour the splendour of Sultan al-Mansour after his death in 1603. Al-Mansour wasn’t expecting his legend to be cut short when one of his predecessors, Sultan Moulay Ismail, walled up the tombs some decades later, only for it to be rediscovered in 1917. A mere pound will gain you entry.

The Chamber of the Twelve Pillars is the resting place of several royal princes and the Sultan’s most trusted Jewish advisors. Whilst his wives were relegated to garden plots outside. Says a lot I think… 

Whilst Tom and I headed to Marrakesh for some much needed R&R, Amy and her mum headed to the New Theatre Oxford on behalf of the Weekend Tourist to catch the new Dusty Springfield musical, Son of a Preacher Man. Here’s what she had to say… 

Son of a Preacher man

My mum and I headed to the New Theatre in Oxford this week to enjoy ‘Son of a Preacher Man’, a new touring musical featuring the music of 1960s icon, Dusty Springfield. Directed and choreographed by Craig Revel-Horwood (who I embarrassingly bumped into as I walked to my seat) and starring recognisable faces such as Debra Stephenson (The Impressions Show, Coronation Street) and Ian Reddington (Eastenders, Dr. Who), we were excited to see the show.

Son of a Preacher Man is a jukebox musical set in present-day London. Three random strangers, generations apart but all in need of help with their hopeless love lives, go in search of ‘The Preacher Man’, a swinging 1960s Soho record shop where the legendary owner, The Preacher Man himself, gave advice to cure the loneliest of hearts. Unfortunately, The Preacher Man has long gone, so the three strangers beg his son, and the wonderful Cappuccino sisters, to help.

The lead role of Kat, the youngest person looking for The Preacher Man’s help, was billed to be played by Diana Vickers, an X Factor finalist and West End star. However, due to illness, the role of Kat was played by her understudy, Jess Barker. Barker gave a standout performance and her powerful vocals matched up to those of Dusty’s. A particular highlight was her rendition of ‘I Only Want to Be With You’, which was packed with humour as she lusted for a kilt-wearing plumber she’d found online.

As someone lacking a musical gift, I’m always blown away by the talent of an orchestra. What made the usual orchestra even better, however, was that the majority of the instruments were played on stage. The concentration it must have taken to be able to play a flute while dancing and also acting as part of the onstage ensemble is enormous and I was thoroughly in awe.

Craig Revel-Horwood’s choreography was rather different to what we see from him on Strictly Come Dancing, with a strong emphasis on the contemporary genre. Although at times this felt a bit strange when contrasted with the strong 1960s feel of the show, it definitely helped convey the emotion of unrequited love felt by the main cast.

You can catch Son of a Preacher Man on tour in the local area at High Wycombe and Aylesbury, as well as other areas across the country, until July 2018.

Franco manca Oxford Tom and I were invited to a special sourdough pizza masterclass last month to celebrate the opening of Franco Manca Oxford. You can easily find the restaurant as there is always a selection of couples, students and families forming an orderly queue outside to get in. 

Franco manca Oxford

This Thursday the restaurant was packed, with tables spilling over into the gangways as friends crowded round to tuck into some almighty pizzas. It immediately threw me back to 2001, when the Friend family went to discover our Italian ancestry in Tuscany and quickly found our favourite pizzeria near Loro Chuffenia. We were the only Brits that year, doing our best to decipher a menu in a place packed with locals.  Did you know we’re descended from Italian gelato connoisseurs?

Franco manca Oxford

In Oxford, the Italian chefs shout across the hubbub at waiting staff desperately attempting to get pizzas out from the floured benches to feed many hungry mouths. Our masterclass took over one corner with three long tables filled with foodies enthusiasts with salivating taste buds. We were a touch late, so we squeezed on the end of a table – luckily for us the wine tasting.

Our guide, the buyer for the restaurant, shared his favourites. Tom’s was definitely the biodynamic Folicello Il Rosso, Lambrusco Emilia – a sparkling red.  

The founder of Franco Manca believes that good pizza needs to be made with good ingredients. The first restaurant opened in Brixton Market in 2008 and was named after an institutional pizzeria from the late eighties, called Franco, owned by Franco Pensa.  The founders named the restaurant Franco Manca – ‘Manca’ a common Italian surname and which also means ‘missing’. So Franco Manca means ‘missing Franco’ or ‘Franco is missing.’

The first restaurant included a wood oven built by a Neapolitan artisan, Mastro Ciccio and the restaurant trained local British producers to make their own mozzarella with Albino Scalizzitti, an artisan cheese maker from the Molise region in Italy. With each restaurant opening, the team at Franco Manca, they aim to wipe out any memory of second-rate pizza you may have been unfortunate to consume from chain or supermarket. They succeed exceptionally well.

FlashdanceAs we march in October, things are beginning to get pretty busy – first W-Day is now only 72 days away, plus there is the small matter of our next trip to West Indies for the best part of this month.

However, despite that Tom and I have still had time to pop to the theatre and last week we saw Joanne Clifton (of Strictly fame) in Flashdance at the New Theatre in Oxford.  It was everything you’d hope for – gloriously 80s.

As any child of the 80s will remind you (Tom and I both just creep into that bracket), Flashdance joins Footloose, Fame and Dirty Dancing to make up classic dancing quintet and I believe, has one of the best soundtracks. (It did sell 700,000 copies in just 2 weeks after it was released)  Think ‘Maniac’, ‘Manhunt’, ‘Gloria’, ‘I Love Rock & Roll’ and the award-winning title track ‘Flashdance – What a Feeling’.

This is the story of flashdancing welder, Alex Owens, (standard musical affair). 18 year old Alex dreams of going to the prestigious Shipley Dance Academy and becoming a professional dancer.  Cue much dancing snobbishness and some excellent routines in legwarmers.

Joanne Clifton, is both World and European Champion ballroom dancer and 2016 Strictly champ with Ore Oduba,  and I foolishly just wasn’t expecting her to sing. (I’m sorry about that Joanne, should never have doubted you.) Joanne has some of the best vocals of the show. I wish I’d seen her as Millie Dillmount in the UK Tour of Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Ben Adams plays Joanne’s love interest and boss, Nick Hurley. Ben’s had an interesting career singing for the pope as head chorister at Westminster Abbey and as lead singer of Norwegian group, A1. He also has strictly background – reaching the finals of the Norwegian show!

The pair headed up a great cast and for me the stand out numbers were Holly Ann Lowe’s (who played fellow flashdancer, Gloria) ‘Gloria’ and ‘Manhunt’ belted out by Sia Dauda playing Kiki.  The ensemble numbers definitely made use of all of Joanne’s skill on the ballroom front and I definitely spotted a bit of paso in their, which I’m sure is a new addition since the film was released in ‘82.

The only small bug bear would be that I felt that Joanne’s Maniac – you know that bit where she pulls the water over the chair – felt slightly skimped on, a tad underwhelming. The routine was broken in half, with a reprise before the interval.  It was lovely to get it twice, but I’d rather see Joanne strut her stuff in one go – but that’s just me and I’m no choreographer.

You can catch Flashdance on tour in our area in Alyesbury, Birmingham, High Wycombe, Cheltenham, Bristol and Milton Keynes right through between now and July 2018.   Get tickets here: http://tidd.ly/ba305f35

 

This weekend we ventured, in between the epic downpours, to the Forest of Dean, just at the bottom of the Cotswold escarpment, for a true foodies day out. We were invited to try out an experience day at Hillside Brewery and Harts Barn Cookery School, firstly trying our hand at our own Indian takeaway and then sampling the brewery’s award-winning beers.

We rocked up at Harts Barn Cookery School just after 10am, meeting our tutor for the morning –  Versha Patel. The cookery school is part of Harts Barn Craft Centre and run by the Forest of Dean champion, Yvette Farrell, the cookery school principal. With its wall-to-wall windows, it was incredibly hard to keep up our concentration on Versha’s demonstrations rather than gaze straight out onto the spectacular Forest of Dean landscape.

It’s clear that Versha has a passion for straightforward Indian cooking (she introduced us to more than one excellent chopping gadget – and if you’ve ever seen my try and chop an onion, you’ll know it’s painful process that has lead to more than one ‘blue plaster’ scenario – we’ll definitely be getting one of these). Her enthusiasm was infectious. In pairs, we settled down to make our own naan dough and then let it prove for an hour whilst we tackled the rest of our menu.  

Tom sliced an onion and mixed up our onion bhaji batter before deep frying, whilst I mixed ingredients for our very own chicken tikka masala. We’d been for the worst curry the night before and we were amazed at how different the two could be and how we, two very much amateurs, could put something together which put the previous night’s affair to shame.  

Versha also made a really versatile Bombay potato dish which we will definitely be doing back home. Lastly, we both had a go a rolling out our own naans using a special rolling pin – velun, I definitely had a better rolling knack to Tom!  The best bit – that we were able to pack up everything we made and tuck into it when we got home. Best curry we’ve had in an age.

Following our morning’s cookery class, we had a quick bite of lunch at the Old Dairy tearoom at Harts Barn Craft Centre. It was super quaint with a vintage vibe, but they had the BEST scones as light as air and melt in the mouth.

We then headed to Hillside Brewery just down the corner. The name definitely comes from the geography as the brewery is nestled in the Forest of Dean Valley. It’s run by father and son team – Paul and Peter Williamson – and founded in 2014. Since then they’ve gone from strength to strength, clocking up some 28 award for their beers and although they may be a self-confessed small brewery, they have eight beers currently in production (they’ve been advised by the accountant that they should probably stick at four – that doesn’t seem to stop them!)

A large of the brewery is sourcing their key ingredients as locally as possible – their hops are just 18 miles away from Ledbury. In fact, so keen to support local it has been selected by the Co-op as one of just six suppliers to provide a special traceability case study tracking the beer from the field to glass.

And what makes the beer so special? Well, the secret Hillside Brewery has its very own water source – a 60m bore hall reaching the underlying aquifer, a mineral rich H2O. Each award-winning bottle of beer is hand bottled, capped, labelled and shipped to local pubs or one of the 100 co-op stores in the vicinity.

In fact, you can tell a special Hillside Brewery pub by the artisan wooden bar pulls supplied. Teaming up with a local group of woodturners, the brewery runs an annual competition to design the bar pulls – the winner featuring in each pub which has a Hillside tipple on tap. And I hear you ask, but what does it taste like… Tom’s favourite ‘Legless Cow’ is described as a best bitter with a rich caramel flavour with a smooth citrus hop’ with ‘Over the Hill’ described as ‘a full bodied, single hop, malty dark mild with our Bramling Cross hop complementing a cocoa and roasted malt character.’

So there you have it, a perfect foodies day in the forest of dean. To find Hillside Brewery visit: https://www.hillsidebrewery.com/ and Harts Barn Cookery School http://www.hartsbarncookeryschool.co.uk. Hillside Brewery has a number of experience days on offer including Archery Tag and several events. Tom’s keen to visit again for the Bottomless Beer and Brunch – guess I’ll be the designated driver then.

Thanks to Harts Barn Cookery School and Hillside Brewery for looking after us, of course, all taste buds are our own!