My grandmother, Mama Sargeant, was the Matriarch of Mom’s family and the Queen of Regifting. She asked us not to give her gifts and truly meant it. We learned that when we didn’t listen, gifts we bought ended up in her upstairs bedroom–unopened. When we needed to buy a gift for someone, she’d send us upstairs to choose from her collection.
What she really wanted was us at her table weekly for Sunday lunch and surprise visits any (ok, every) day of the week. As a mom myself, I don’t want things from my adult children. I want experiences. Time with them sharing something that we love.
And if you’re looking for a way to bond beyond one experience on one day, I have more unique ideas… they are in this month’s newsletter along with suggestions for summer entertaining, travel planning, and other May fun.
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Disclosure: Thank you, VisitSarasota.com and partners, for the hospitality, education, and fun. Readers, as always, the opinions here are my own.
This last feature of a 3-part series celebrating Florida’s Cultural Coast pays tribute to Sarasota’s crown jewel, The Ringling. The 66-acre complex of world-class art and circus museums, an educational center, a glass pavilion, historic theater, arboretum, gardens, and palatial mansion is a place where lovers of all kinds can wander away from crowds. More a destination than an attraction, The Ringling alone is worth a trip to Sarasota County. It’s also a cultural center for local members and a dream venue for romance and weddings.
I took a three-hour private tour with Virginia Harshman, Ringling Public Relations Head, M.A. Harvard University in Museum Studies. She gave me a behind-the-scenes look, unlocking secret areas with keys, masterful storytelling, and passion for the property and the people who built it. I left wishing that I’d explored this hidden gem and national/global treasure a long time ago and looking forward to a future visit.
The Ringling is beautiful in any season. It’s not too late to plan the perfect Valentine’s, Spring Break, Remote School, or Summer Getaway.
Who loves The Ringling?
I Do! I Do! And if you’re one of these 10 Kinds of Lovers, you will, too…
1) Lovers of Love Stories & The 1920s American Dream
Even before I heard the love story of John and Mabel Ringling, American Royalty who owned the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, I fell in love at first sight with their home. Ca’ d’Zan transported me to my favorite era, the Roaring ‘20s, and two of my favorite places on earth. Its Moorish arches took me back to Morocco
and its overall design to Venice where I started another new year. Inspired by the Doge’s Palace on the Grand Canal, the five-story Venetian Gothic Revival mansion overlooks Sarasota Bay.
The exterior’s stucco as well as many glass windows and bedrooms are pink hues. My favorite color, the breathtaking property, and John Ringling’s story reminded me of one of my favorite characters, Jay Gatsby, and his pink suit. John Ringling, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s protagonist, had humble beginnings and both tenaciously pursued The American Dream. I could imagine Jay Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce, called a “circus wagon,” parked in the driveway beside John Ringling’s Rolls-Royce, now on exhibit in the Sarasota Classic Car Museum.
Walking the grounds, I could imagine legendary ‘20s parties around Gatsby’s and on the Ringling terrace. John and Mabel frequently entertained celebrities, like Will Rogers who had his own guest room, movie directors, politicians, and actresses, such as Billie Burke, better known as Glenda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz.
Jay was “The Great Gatsby”and “John was King of The Greatest Show on Earth.” Both built romantic palaces for the women they loved, but here the parallels end. Daisy rejected Jay and his new money. John and Mabel had similar values–maybe because she, too, came from a modest family. They were kindred spirits in their shared love for culture, art, and travel, as well as their desire to give back. Their legacy is now the State Art Museum of Florida administered by Florida State University.
Though Ca’ d’Zan means “House of John” in the Venetian dialect, it has been called John’s “love letter” to Mabel. They built it together, getting ideas as they traveled the world for twenty-five years buying art and new circus acts. She collected in an oilskin portfolio photos and sketches of architecture, gardens, and design. See the video below of my behind-the-scenes tour where I learned more about Mabel and why everyone at The Ringling adores her.
2) Lovers of Architecture and Design
In 1911, John and Mabel began spending winters in Sarasota on 20 acres of waterfront property they purchased. They continued buying real estate and at one time owned 25% of the town. In 1924 they hired architect Dwight James Baum to design and Owen Burns to build the 36,000 square-foot Mediterranean Revival of their dreams. In addition to the Doge’s Palace, Ca’ d’Oro and the Grand Hotel d’Italie Bauer-Grünwald inspired the plans.
The roof was made of 16th century tiles John found in Barcelona and sent home in two cargo ships. The marble bayside terrace –now used for weddings, yoga classes, and other gatherings– was used by the Ringlings for entertaining. The orchestra played for guests from their yacht, Zalophus, beside Mabel’s gondola which bobbed in the bay. Their dining room table seated 22, and cocktails were served in style at parties and in John’s Man Cave.
Virginia gave me a look at the upper floors of the house which were closed due to Covid. I felt like I was a kid again–Nancy Drew on a snoop–when she showed me the secret Playroom. Overlooking Sarasota from the 82-foot tower is a moment I won’t forget. (See video below.)
3) Lovers of Art and History
After Ca’ d’Zan was completed, John built a 21-gallery museum modeled from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. In the courtyard stands a cast bronze replica of Michelangelo’s David purchased from the Chiurrazi Foundry outside of Rome, Italy. It’s now the symbol of the City of Sarasota on Florida’s Cultural Coast.
Inside are collections of Classical and Modern Masters. In 1931, two years after the death of Mabel, John opened the museum to the public to promote “education and art appreciation, especially for our young people.” In 1936 he left it to the state of Florida upon his death. See the video above on the Rubens Gallery, the family crest John had designed, and Modern Art exhibits, such as the photography series, A Girl and Her Room . A world-class cultural center, The Ringling Art Museum was just awarded another grant–this one from the Andy Warhol Foundation.
It has been restored and moved into the John M. McKay Visitors Pavilion, designed by Yann Wemouth, architect for the Pyramide du Lovre, East Wing of the National Gallery in D.C. and the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. See performing arts schedule here.
5) Lovers of Glass Art
Grouped by country of origin, works of art from the studio glass movement from the 1940s to the present are in the Glass Pavilion here.
Ok, I admit it. I’ve saved the best for near-last. One of my favorite movies as a child wasThe Greatest Show on Earth which I watched again this week while writing this piece. Director Cecil B. DeMille traveled with the circus for research and John North, John Ringling’s nephew, plays himself in the film as he tries to save the show in changing times. I loved seeing Sarasota where it was filmed–especially the parade down Main Street which included locals as extras. When it was made, there was no Walt Disney World; time under the Big Top was the premiere happy place for children. The movie was the highest grossing film of the year. Though some critics didn’t agree with it winning Best Picture, I’m with Stephen Spielberg, another fan. He said it was the first movie he ever saw and it inspired his film career. Since my mom’s generation, kids would say, “I’m goin’ run away and join the circus!” Swinging from a trapeze in sequins and feathers still looks pretty fun to me.
John was one of eight children of a German immigrant. Mabel grew up in a small farming community in a family of eight. John began in a small circus as a clown.
After making his fortune, he bought Saint Armand’s Key to develop it into a center for shopping, restaurants, and art. Though the Great Depression deferred his dream, it was fulfilled later by others. Today his statue overlooks Saint Armand’s Circle, a global destination. Here statues he donated to the city transport visitors to other cultural centers, like Rome and Athens. Other plans he had for Sarasota were thwarted by the times, such as a residence for a U.S. President and a Ritz-Carlton on Longboat Key. The statues today in The Ringing Art Museum Courtyard had been purchased for the hotel. One thing is for sure. He shared his love for mythology and was a muse and myth maker himself.
Disclosure:A big thank you to VisitSarasota for the gracious hospitality. As always, the opinions here are my own.
Please note: Decisions about traveling during the pandemic are important and personal. CDC guidelines are here. As I do when home, I take precautions, such as choosing restaurants and activities with outdoor seating/spaces, and on planes wearing a mask, sometimes with a shield. When planning a trip, check for the latest updates on what is open and closed in Sarasota County due to Covid-19 or weather conditions here.
In this series I’ll explain just a few reasons why Sarasota County has won so many awards. In 2020 Tripadvisor’s Traveler’s Choice™ Awards ranked Siesta Beach #11 of the Top Beaches in the World and #1 Beach in the US. In 2020-21 Sarasota was named #1 Best Place to Retire and #16 Best Place to Live by US News and Report. In 2020 Southern Living ranked it #7 Best Beach Town for Retirement. In 2019 Conde Nast Traveler ranked it #2 for the Best Places to Retire and Rent.com named it the #1 Best City for Vegans in America.
I was swept away by Sarasota County on a quick trip there last summer when I saw its beauty and learned that it is Florida’s Cultural Coast.
I wanted to start 2021 in this sunny place for a brighter year. I especially looked forward to returning after quiet holidays when my family couldn’t gather as usual because Nashville was too cold for us to meet outdoors.
Snowbird friends nest in this area yearly. My sister and brother-in-law spent their honeymoon in Sarasota, and we hope to gather our adult children, cousins, and moms for a multi-generational reunion there one day. Since I was a child, Florida has been my Happy Place. My children loved it too. The Destin area is only 7 hours by car from Nashville so many families from here make it their go-to vacation spot. But over the last couple of years, I’ve been working my way down the west coast. Sarasota County truly offers the best of all worlds—the most beautiful beaches in the country, a welcoming community of locals focused on health and fitness, AND a big city art and culinary scene.
When planning a vacation, we can feel forced to choose between two types we love– exploring a new city or relaxing on a beach.The liberal arts instructor in me likes to nerd-out in artistic centers.
I’ve been moved by paintings in Paris, Amsterdam, Rome…
ballet in St. Petersburg and Bratislava… theater in New York and London…
Sarasota County also makes the ideal remote classroom. It’s why some parents working from home have moved their children’s virtual learning to Florida’s west coast. Here family bonds over all kinds of field trips–opportunities providing education and wellness for mind, body, and spirit.
Research shows that just planning a trip makes us happier. Even just a long weekend away can reduce stress. Sarasota is only a 2-hour flight from Nashville and much of the southeast. I flew Allegiant as I’ve done in the past and been very pleased. Last fall Allegiant added 8 new cities with flights to Sarasota/Bradenton International Airport. Other departures include Asheville, NC; Fairfax, VA; Louisville, KY; and Knoxville, TN.
Below is my 3-day itinerary of starting 2021 in Sarasota County. Please check out highlights in the video below.
The Pineapple Drop was cancelled but should be back to bring in 2022. Ubers were booked for the weekend. I had better luck scheduling ahead with Lyft. Other than wanting to stay longer…like a month…a year…I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
(Those I recorded in video removed masks for interviews only).
Art Ovation Hotel is located in downtown Sarasota, the heart of world-class culture and cuisine. Florida Studio Theatre, Sarasota Opera House , other venues and Main Street are steps away. The boutique hotel itself celebrates and inspires creativity with exhibits of contemporary artists throughout. I felt at home the minute I stepped out of the taxi when I heard salsa music playing throughout the lobby and Overture Bar where rotating art exhibits represent global cultures. Cuban art was in the spotlight while I was there– inspiring workshops, the menu, and the playlist.
Upon arrival I was given a guide inviting guests to ten events over the weekend including the New Year’s Eve party on the rooftop, tours led by cultural curators of art galleries throughout the property, live musical performances by Motown and jazz artists, and the weekly Vino Y Arte class where a local artist paints live, then teaches participants her/his techniques as they sip wine and create masterpieces of their own.
The hotel provides courtesy bikes and beach chairs. After the New Year’s Eve party I was tempted to grab a cabana poolside but instead took a bike to my yoga class, to lunch, and to check out the neighborhood.
The staff are consummate professionals. They were gracious and helpful with ordering a quick breakfast in the room, scheduling rides, and and providing insider tips on venues for Latin dance. My King Guest Room was on the 6th floor with a view of the city lights. In addition to luxurious bedding, walk-in shower, and bath products, in each room is a ukulele for find your musician within. Their commitment to inspiring creativity extends to all ages, even after you’ve returned home.
Since taking a quick spin around St. Armands Circle last summer, I was on a mission to eat at this award-winning institution. Being there on NYE was a real treat. Columbia’s, founded in 1905 by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., has additional locations in Tampa, St. Augustine, and Clearwater. It has been owned and operated by 5 generations and is known as Florida’s oldest restaurant, the largest Spanish restaurant in the world, and was named one of the most historic restaurants in the country by USA Today. Like the food and service, the guest list is stellar– Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Marilyn Monroe, Liza Minelli, Bruce Springsteen, Steven Tyler, and George Clooney.
After living in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic I miss favorites enjoyed in my Piantini neighborhood and at Pat’s Palo in the Colonial Zone . Columbia’s has empanadas, croquettes, paella, sangria –oh my!–and so many other choices on the dinner and wine menus choosing is difficult. My server, Roxy, helped with this. I had the Ybor City Devil Crab Croquettes, the Original 1905 Salad, the Filet Mignon, and a glass of Don Cesar 2011 Ribera del Duero Spanish wine. Roxy recommended for another day one of their most popular dishes, Salteado . Was I pleased with my experience? See the highlight video above. Reservations recommended, and they offer catering.
I can’t believe they share recipes for their signature salad (above), popular Cuban sandwich, Mojitos and more here! Columbia’s makes not only guests happy but also servers and management who stay. Manager Richard Appelgren told me he came here from Chile in 1984: “It was my first job and I never left. I love it here.” When I asked how Covid-19 has affected business, he said they adhere to all safety measures and fill tables at 50%. He added, “People trust us, and that’s why they keep coming back.”
Around here exceptionally talented creatives aren’t just found on stages. They are found behind-the-scenes making magic. I love the stories of Executive Chef Nils and Chef Michelle . These culinary artists, a top-tier staff, an extensive wine list, and gorgeous setting make Element a favorite of local foodies and out-of-town guests. The modern dining rooms and candle-lit terraces make this restaurant a haven. Manager James Harries makes sure all feel welcome. My fun server, Phillipe, suggested the scallops. They were served on parmesan farro risotto with a citrus herb crumb topping and cucumber mint relish. The dish was incredible, and so was the white wine he turned me onto– a Sancerre named for the Upper Loire Valley in France. See highlights in video above. Recommendations recommended.
Morning Check out of Art Ovation Hotel
Private 3-hour tour of The Ringling with Virginia Harshman
An incredible behind-the-scenes look at the museums and Ca’ d’Zan will be featured in Part 3 of this series.
My condo was spacious–perfect for a family vacation. As always, my favorite room was the screened in lanai overlooking the pool, beach, and sea. I wasn’t there long enough to buy groceries or grill out, so for lunch I took a trolley a couple of miles down Midnight Pass Road to Siesta Key Village for oysters. (See video for highlights.) The sunset behind the Club was beautiful as expected, and I hear there’s a drum circle on Siesta Key Beach on Sundays at sunset. Check out other things to do here.
8:30 Dinner Ophelia’s on the Bay on Siesta Key
Ok, this is a Must-Do. Please see the video above with highlights. I understand why Ophelia’s on the Bay has received recognition from magazines such as Gourmet and Food and Wine. And why it is a popular wedding venue. In fact, a ceremony had just ended before I arrived. Owner Daniel Olson started working in his father’s restaurant in Maryland at age 14. In 2000 he moved to Sarasota and in 2004 became Executive Chef. His passion and creativity sustains a loyal following of locals and of tourists who always come back.
I loved eating under twinkling lights and a full moon reflected on the bay. I was thrilled to learn that my server, Cassy Belliveau. lived in Nashville six years and worked at one of my favorite restaurants there. She recommended what I believe was the best salad I’ve had in my life. The lobster and pasta made in-house are perfection. The creamy Champagne sauce made the dish so rich and delicious that I saved a bit to carry away for breakfast. Other recommendations are the Maryland Crab Cakes and the Eggplant Crepes, made with Mascarpone, Ricotta, Fontina, spinach, basil, and San Marzano Pomodoro Sauce–staples on the menu for twenty-five years. Reservations recommended.
Morning Check out of Sarasota Surf and Racquet Club
See the calendar of annual events in Digital Guide mentioned above — Pages 36-37. Below I’ve highlighted a few festivals and events happening in the next few months (one in November below) to get you started…
Once upon a time… before watching Game of Thrones or touring castles in Europe… I taught my children and literature students tales of fairies, dragons, and knights. That chivalry must never die and dreams do come true.
There I tried to teach my son and daughter archery as my dad had tried to teach me. I still remember the archery tournament in Kentucky where he’d won the “Robin’s Hood Award” for hitting the bull’s eye with his first arrow, then splitting that arrow with his second shot. He wanted me to compete in contests, too. No pressure. 🙂
Two decades later… a couple of weeks ago my daughter chose to celebrate her birthday at the Fest where we watched jousting and my son handed me a bow and quiver of arrows to see if I could still hit a target. Last weekend I returned to finally meet the man who created the beloved tradition that throngs of folks enjoy–many in costume–yearly.
Mike Freeman greets guests outside Castle Gwynn, located on forty acres he bought in 1976 near Triune. Friendly, fun, and sincere, he tells the inspiring story of a lifelong quest:
The first two most commonly asked questions are, ‘Do you live here?’ Yes I do. For the last 31 years I’ve lived here with my wife, Maggie, and our 2 dogs. The 2nd most commonly asked question is, ‘When are you going to get it finished?’ The answer: ‘When one of you wins the lottery, please remember me!’ I’ve been doing that for the last 34 years. It hasn’t worked yet. (laughs)
In 1970 I was a senior in high school who drew my dream house, a castle, in architecture class. Being a poor boy from Flat Rock, the only way I could do it was to build it myself. I am proud to say I built something from scratch, which means I started with zero. I did have a lucky break. By chance I got into photography my senior year of high school. My next door neighbor had been in Viet Nam and won a camera in a poker game and had forgotten how to work it. The deal was to learn how and teach him.
He did, and by graduation of his senior year, he photographed senior prom. Next he worked for a photography studio that needed 13 high school composite shots done in a month.
I got it done for them, and it only took me only 360 hours—90 hours a week. I used to think that was a lot of hours until I went into business for myself. (laughs) It you are willing to work 12-18 hour days, I guarantee that you can do absolutely anything in the world if you want to bad enough. I proved that, but to say I did this all by myself would be a gross exaggeration. I had a whole lot of help from a whole lot of people to make this dream possible including yourselves for coming out to the festival this year.
He gives credit to his wife, Jackie Harmon, who he married in 1988, the first wedding held at Castle Gwynn; to his parents, and to a master mason and his four sons who worked with him weekends for almost two years laying the brickwork in the kitchen. They started with 8 brick arches, but by the time they finished, they had 60 of them. 14,000 bricks Hosting four weddings helped with the cost. For the full story and credits of building the castle, go here.
I asked Mike what inspired a high school senior to want to build a castle. He said when he was five, his father returned from WW2 with a book of postcards of castles along the Rhine River. I asked if any movies or books were influential, and he immediately said Charlton Heston’s The War Lord, a 1965 film about Medieval warfare in 11th century Normandy. His interest in history and sense of humor can be seen throughout the property.
No costume? No worries! But if you want one… there are many on site.
I confess I returned, too, to stop by the Lady Smith Jewelry booth to look again at her cameo mermaids and sterling silver Celtic pieces.
The Fest runs yearly every weekend of May through Memorial Day. Check schedule for jousting, shows, and castle tours. Vendors for food, beverages, rides and games accept cash only though the admission gate and some vendors accept credit cards. Other Rules of the Realm are here. Stop by, sit a spell, and enjoy the magic.
Your heart knows the way. Run in that Direction.–Rumi
Write what should not be forgotten.–Isabel Allende
Travel to have more to remember.–Cindy McCain
Have you vowed that writing will be a priority in the new year? Do you have travel tales you would like to tell? Are you ready to make new memories and create the ultimate souvenir–remembrance–of a time and place you never want to forget?
Whether you are just starting to write or a pro honing your craft…wanting to journal your journey in a an exotic land or transport others with a travel narrative piece… this writing retreat is for you.
Though I’ve journeyed across 27 countries, nowhere like magical Morocco provides me with as much rest, adventure, and inspiration. While living there 2014-16, I fell in love with diverse landscapes, rich cultural experiences, and wonderful people. I returned Summer 2018 to some of my favorite writing spaces to prepare this retreat to share them with you. I hope you’ll join me for a Beauty Break for the Soul.
Journaling beside mosaic courtyard fountains, writing in the salon and outdoor terraces of a private riad, and reading your work on the rooftop overlooking the medina.
Truly, Morocco has been a creative hub for generations of artists, each meeting his or her respective Muse there. Edith Wharton, Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles… Josephine Baker, Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens … Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, George Lucas. Here Laurence of Arabia, Indiana Jones, Gladiator, and Game of Thrones came to life. Teaching, writing, and wandering there, my life felt epic, too.
Join me in Morocco for my favorite local experiences from the Atlas Mountains to Marrakesh to the African coast. Choose what your soul needs:
photo walks with a community of explorers
prompts for journaling your journey
beautiful spaces to recharge, relax, reflect, create on your own
study of the craft of travel writing, analyzing works of master storytellers inspired by Morocco who infused elements of journalism, personal essay, narrative, and poetic prose.
workshop and instructor feedback
a rooftop/salon reading
5 Sessions: Craft/Prompts/Workshop with Feedback
One-On-One Session with Instructor
Rooftop or Salon Reading of Your Work on Final Night of Retreat
7 Nights in Private Suites (5 in Marrakech in Private Riad and 2 in Essaouira
Private Transportation to Essaouira and Berber home near Toubkal, largest mountain in northern Africa, for mule trek, class, and lunch on terrace
4 Dinners (one in the former palace of “Lord of the Atlas,” Pasha of Marrakech from 1912-1956)
Spots are limited. Contact me at email@example.com to reserve a place or ask questions.
Not Included in Package/Paid by Participant:
Proof of Travel Insurance
4 Lunches, 4 Dinners, Tours/Activities during Free Time
Local hotel tourist tax collected by riad and villa
*Signifies lunches and dinners not included in package price
Arrive in Marrakech by Noon
Transport to Private Riad/Welcome with Moroccan Tea and Pastries
Lunch together at Amal Women’s Center
Neighborhood walk (We are located near some of the best spas, shops, and restaurants in the Medina.)
Dinner Together at Riad
Breakfast at Riad
Guided Medina Tour/Photo Walk
Lunch Together at my Favorite Rooftop Lunch Spot near Koutoubia Mosque and Jemma el Fna Square
Dinner in the Former Palace of the “Lord of the Atlas”
Resort Pool Day with Lunch—Palais Namaskar or La Maison Arabe Cooking School/Country Club
*Dinner on own (May be ordered at our riad for 20 Euros. Many other options including fresh produce, local bakeries, groceries, mall food court, and restaurants/cafes at all price points. Next to our riad is the iconic La Maison Arabe and its jazz bar.)
Private transfer to Berber Village near Toubkal, highest point in Atlas Mountains and Northern Africa. We’ll mule trek to a Berber home where lunch and class will be held on the terrace.
Medina and ramparts walk (*Lunch on your own—many cafes and fresh seafood served at port stalls)
Dinner on Rooftop above the Sea
*Lunch and *Dinner on Own
Return to Marrakesh
Free day to write or explore/*Lunch on Own
Suggestions: Shopping, Yoga, Hammam/massage, Pool Day (resort or near riad near Medina), Jardin Marjorelle. Contact me prior to trip if interested in volunteer opportunities in Marrakesh, such as Project SOAR or Mule and Donkey Rescue .
Dinner together at Riad—Salon or Rooftop Readings of Your Work
Transfer to Airport
About Your Instructor:
I live in Nashville, Tennessee where I’m a writer and have taught university writing and literature courses for thirteen years. I’ve led educational trips abroad for over two decades, and my Travel Tales course at The Porch, an independent writing center for adults, has been a best-seller. Please see my portfolio for links to freelance publications and Southern Girl Gone Global collaborations with travel brands and tourism boards. Southern Girl Gone Global was named a Top 50 Travel Blog of 2016 in the UK and has been featured by Yahoo! Travel, US News and World Report, Expedia and Orbitz.
When not on the road or in the classroom, I’m spending time with my grown kids, the loves of my life; dancing salsa with friends; storytelling about my travels ; and writing my No-Mom-Left-Behind memoir, Roses in the Desert. More of my story here.
Know someone who may be interested in joining? Please share this post and brochure below.
Nine trips to Italy and I’ve just planned the next one. This year I spent New Year’s Eve in Venice, my birthday in Tuscany (below), and Easter in Rome, but I’m asking Santa for an extended holiday in the land I love.
Thanks to Chef Paulette‘s just-released book, Italian Cooking Party, this tour will last for years to come with 100 of her recipes, tips on how to stock an Italian kitchen, and secrets to throwing Italian parties anywhere. Details of how to order her book are here; and if in Nashville, you can purchase copies for the cooks in your life in time for Christmas at Parnassus Books.
Many know Chef Paulette from Channel 4 WSMV’s More at Midday and Today in Nashville (see her making Walnut and Chocolate Biscotti below) and have traveled with her to Italy. Or they’ve seen her perform with Duane in Duette. Upcoming shows in Music City are January 1, 2017 at Brown’s Diner and January 6 at The Frist Center. I met Paulette many years ago in one of her cooking classes in her Bellevue home. As Diana Krall crooned, the chef who had migrated from New York City from the kitchens of Mario Batali and Micol Negrin and learned from cooks in six regions of Italy impressed me with her signature recipes and soulful teaching. I knew we were kindred spirits when she sat with strangers as if family, lingering over the meal the class prepared. Her home soothed, transporting me to summers spent with Italian friends in Piedmont. Students left warmed by the wine and conversation.
Multiple cooking classes and a friendship later, I’m still drawn, wherever we meet over dinner, to her heaping hospitality and wisdom cultivated at her parents’ table. She laughs: “I always want to sit at table longer than anyone else. I don’t want to clear the dishes but keep hanging. I grew up in that. Mom would do the dishes but I sat listening to my dad. Dad was a philosopher. I remember crying at his philosophical life stuff. Coffee and cake would come and we’d still be sitting there.”
Jack Canfield, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul, advises: “Make a conscious effort to surround yourself with positive, nourishing, and uplifting people–people who believe in you, encourage you to go after your dreams, and applaud your victories.” Paulette is what southerners call “good people.” I asked her once if she ‘s a romantic. She said she takes chances and is generally optimistic–good traits for a time when nothing globally or personally seems certain.
This year the decision to sell our family home of 21 years was one of the hardest of my life. Leaving Morocco was difficult, too, although I wanted to be nearer family. Last February I had no idea when the house would sell nor where I’d end up working or living. When I told her my concerns, she wrote: “Isn’t that great? All sounds great — even the leap into you-don’t-know-where back home. Sorry about your house but maybe that was the only way for you to move from it and into this newer part of your life. I’m so glad Morocco was wonderful for you — (how could it not I guess!)…but what a way to evolve and find more of yourself.”
That’s Paulette Licitra, the consummate Renaissance Woman. Her story is the Portrait of an Artist who never stops growing, learning and laughing. A lady who reminds me that challenge brings change… reinvention…and despite growing pains it’s a good thing.
The Brooklyn-born Italian-American wrote novels and plays produced in New York City. When she won the Phoenix Theater’s national playwriting contest, her hip my heart premiered in Indianapolis, receiving nods for its multicultural casting and a “haunting ballad” she wrote. She also boosted women’s literacy rates in Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco with an Arabic version of The Electric Company while writing and producing for Nickelodeon and Children’s Television Workshop.
By September 2001 Paulette was on top of the world…literally. Perpetually peaking, she had climbed through a Costa Rican cloud forest on an Earthwatch Expedition to study the mating dance of the long-tailed manakin. Bound for the Northern Cape on a Norwegian cargo ship, she’d crossed the Arctic Circle prowling for Atlantic puffins. Trusted with national treasures in over twenty states, she had researched and recorded audio scripts and podcasts for land, sea and air: the Sky Tour at the John Hancock Observatory, Royal Caribbean cruises, the New York Botanical Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Pearl Harbor, and the CN Tower Observatory in Toronto. Her expertise earned her the job of writing the audio script for a tour atop Tower Two of the World Trade Center, what would be “the tallest rooftop terrace on the planet.” In her New York Times piece, “The Tour That Never Was,” she later lamented: “I spent a few weeks haunting the observation deck, looking out the windows, spacing out the tour stops and figuring out how to direct a visitor’s gaze… (they) were setting up the kiosks that would hold the headsets when the attacks came.”
After the tragedy of 9/11, tourism tanked so Paulette Licitra decided in her 50s to become a chef and worked in New York kitchens alongside Mario Batali, Micol Negrin, and with cooks from six regions of Italy. Re-charting her professional course, she became Editor-in-Chief of the award-winning Alimentumand moved to Nashville. She also reunited with a high school friend. After graduation they had gone to Woodstock together as purely platonic buddies. After years of living separate lives, they met again and something shifted. The intensity of this Duette is clear on and off stage. She showed me once the prophetic photos used by Joel Makower in his Woodstock: The Oral History of the soulmates’ teen faces peering at the camera from the crowd.
Juliette Child said, “Life is the proper binge.” A journalist, novelist, playwright and painter…chef, singer, tour guide and candlestick maker…. Paulette inspires me. I asked her about the courage it took to live the life of an artist–something I’ve always longed to do. To have the freedom to focus on creative projects–to make one’s own schedule–to give your first love first place until it’s time to return to an old love or try something new. She said:
“I was ALWAYS attracted to the road less traveled. The idea of a suburban life in a house with a husband and 2.5 children made me squirm a little. Somehow I think I was always afraid that my brain and spirit would be lulled to sleep and all my creativity would be silenced. Probably not true, but the idea pushed me in another direction.
From a little girl I wanted to be a dancer. In high school I wanted to an actor. In college I wanted to be a writer. All the things I’ve wanted to do—the things that compelled me forward– were always endeavours that didn’t make money unless you were a star and involved a big population that was trying to do the same. I really think an artistic life is like a calling. It comes from inside. You can try to ignore it but it is very insistent. And if you leave yourself open to listening and following its call then you’re always off the beaten path. Some people have to ignore it because of commitments. There’s a great book about women who have had to do this: Tillie Olsen’s Silences. I was always so afraid of being silenced, of not getting my visions made into something out there…and still…I feel like I really haven’t done it yet! SO many stories and ideas still jam my head constantly.”
She said career highlights were interviewing survivors for the Holocaust Museum tour in Houston. There was also the day Israeli and Jordanian producers were in the NY studios together. Paulette smiled and said, “It was fine. I remember thinking, ‘You see. It doesn’t have to be the way it is. Everyone is into creating great stuff for kids.'” She recalls making a video for choreographer Loretta Thomas: “We shot on the streets of NY for 24 hours straight. At 3 AM Martin Scorsese pulled up to his apartment in a limo in Tribeca. We made eye contact and he smiled!”
Christmas is a great time to thank those who call us to taste la dolce vita. The new year is a great time to host others at our table and celebrate the good together. Her book offers more than amazing Italian cuisine. It offers soul food meant to be shared.
*Chef Paulette’s winter cooking classes are sold out. However, you can buy friends gift certificates or contact her for information for the spring classes starting in March here.
When people ask How? Why? I moved to Morocco sight unseen, I think to myself, I didn’t. Though I’d never been to Africa, my soul brimmed with vivid images from exotic Arabian tales my grandmother read to me from my dad’s childhood book.
I was lured by sultry desert tents, regal riads, and secret gardens where princes and princesses lounged in plush, cushioned comfort. In my imagination birds sang- by- day and lanterns glowed- by- night in arched Andalusian courtyards of fabulous fountains, mosaic tile, and intricately carved woodwork. I was meant to come here–a place where so many desires of my heart have been fulfilled for which I am forever grateful.
Likewise, for some time I felt drawn to Riad Star, former home of Josephine Baker, Queen of the Jazz Age. I was first attracted by the place and a moment in time–the blending of beautiful Marrakesh design with an era I’ve loved since I was a little girl dressing up in my grandmother’s drop waist dresses and pumps. As an adult obsessed with Post- World War I Paris expats and Harlem Renaissance artists, I teach The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and Jazz, and when living in the US had students play dress up, too, for annual ’20s Day events.
Recently I finally stayed at Riad Star and met “Jazz Cleopatra,” the legend for whom the boutique hotel is named.
I now realize that what drew me there was more than one period of history. It was a Renaissance Woman who before and beyond Harlem and the 20s never stopped changing, growing, giving, and overcoming. A woman of tenacity and tenderness.
When Aziz greeted me at the taxi, walked me to the riad, and placed my bag in her very suite, The Josephine Room, I was in awe. There, under a photograph of her close friend, Grace Kelly, my favorite American Hollywood actress since I was a teen…
I devoured Josephine’s biographies found in my room and the library downstairs.
In the afternoon sun on the rooftop
near the cool courtyard,
and under the covers at night,
like Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris I was transported to another time.
There I discovered a new treasure in Marrakesh..the “Black Pearl”…the “Bronze Venus” who Ernest Hemingway, her fellow expat in Paris, called “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”
Or Angelina Jolie…
A dancer, singer, movie star, and mom energetically entertained crowds for fifty years and raised her “Rainbow Tribe.”
Baker was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, Zouzou(1934) and to become a world-famous entertainer. A superstar before Marilyn or Madonna, Josephine was named in 2012 Time magazine in the Top 100 Fashion Icons of All Time.
Likewise she was muse for artists and intellectuals of the 1930s such as Picasso, Pirandello, Georges Roualt, Le Corbusier, and e.e. cummings. Dance Magazine explained the allure of Josephine –the “geometry” of her oval head and lithe body–during the Cubist and Art Deco movements, both influenced by African art and sculpture.
A World War II spy for the French Resistance, Josephine Baker was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d’Honneur by General Charles de Gaulle and the Rosette of the Résistance. At her death she was mourned in Paris by 20,000 people including Princess Grace who gathered for her funeral procession. She was buried with military honors in Monaco, a place she and her family visited often as guests of the royal family.
A civil rights activist, she was the only woman who spoke at the 1963 March on Washington alongside Martin Luther, King. She told the crowd that day: You are on the eve of a complete victory. You can’t go wrong. The world is behind you.
Later she said of her personal victory:
Until the March on Washington, I always had this little feeling in my stomach. I was always afraid. I couldn’t meet white American people. I didn’t want to be around them. But now that little gnawing feeling is gone. For the first time in my life I feel free. I know that everything is right now.
And for a time, she lived in Marrakesh in a room I just stayed in.
Mike and Lucie Wood, British owners of Marrakech Riad, added Riad Star in 2010 to their collection of boutique hotels in the medina. Mike explained their mission:
We bought our first riad (Riad Cinnamon) in 2005 after I was introduced to Marrakech by a Moroccan friend. We are passionate about introducing our guests to Moroccan culture, especially first time visitors. As well as the riads we are very involved in a charity which we founded with another English couple. It’s called Henna Cafe and has an active programme of education.
The Pasha Thami el Glaoui formerly owned what is now Riad Star, a guest annex to the palace which is now the Marrakech museum. Mike says he learned Josephine Baker stayed there when talking to a neighbor. The people of Derb Alilich still remember her warmth and she appreciated theirs. In the Josephine Room there’s a window looking onto the street–nonexistent in most riads where windows, doors, and balconies face inward toward private courtyards. It is believed the Pasha of Marrakech paid children to sit outside Josephine’s window and read for her while she was convalescing after a nineteen-month stay at a hospital in Casablanca in 1941-42.
Mike Wood says of the purchase:
The restoration was extensive and took two years with a team of highly skilled local craftsmen. We did not really change much except adding the rolling roof which is very practical and putting in more bathrooms.
Ah, but the details the Woods added are symbolic of a spirit whose beauty, sensitivity and toughness transcended adversity. There are nine rooms at Riad Star, each named for a part of Josephine’s life, such as the Jazz room, Paris room, Chiquita room, and Rainbow room. Though historically themed, each room has modern conveniences, such as refrigerators, WiFi, and flatscreen televisions.
Josephine was born in 1906 in St. Louis to Carrie McDonald, daughter of former slaves, and vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson who carried her onstage when she was a toddler but left the family soon after. She cleaned houses and tended children for white families who told her not to kiss the babies. One mistress burned her hands for using too much soap when washing clothes. At age twelve she began a waitressing job at The Old Chauffeur’s Club which led to being married off unsuccessfully at thirteen. At fifteen she was noticed for her street dancing and recruited for vaudeville. After witnessing the St. Louis race riots and experiencing abusive treatment which led to a time she lived on the streets and ate from trash bins, she moved to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance and performed at the Plantation Club. As the last girl in the chorus line, her role was to make the audience laugh–something she loved doing her entire life. But in 1925 Paris she moved from last to superstardom overnight when she opened in La Revue Nègre at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. Continuing to amaze crowds with her sensual dances, costumes, and charisma, by 1927 she earned more than any entertainer in Europe. And then she took on another continent…
In Josephine: The Hungry Heart, Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase wrote of Josephine’s “Arabian Nights” when “she came to Northern Africa with twenty-eight pieces of luggage and her animals.” Before she adopted twelve children from various countries (she suffered miscarriages and “many surgeries” trying to have her own and a complication that confined her to the Casablanca hospital ), she had a menagerie consisting of Chiquita, her famous leopard she walked on a leash; Ethel, a chimpanzee; Albert, a pig; Kiki, a snake, and a goat, parrot, parakeets, fish three cats and seven dogs. In Morocco her monkeys played in the orange trees.
Baker records accounts of his mother’s time at Riad Star :
Every morning, as soon as the birds started singing, Josephine was up and running around in the buff going to the kitchen to help the servants cook… The house had four bedrooms—one which had her big brass bed from France… She adopted Arab customs. She liked eating with her hands, wearing the loose djelleba, going with her maids to the hammam, the Turkish baths, once a week.
….And wasn’t it queer that Josephine, who had spent her childhood dreaming of kings in golden slippers, should find herself there? In a place where, even more amazingly, racial discrimination did not exist? Thami el Glaousi, pasha of Marrakesh and the most powerful tribal chieftain in French Morocco at that time, was himself black.
From northern Africa Josephine was safe from Nazi racism. Langston Hughes wrote she “was as much a victim of Hitler as the soldiers who fall in Africa today fighting his armies. The Aryans drove Josephine away from her beloved Paris.” Nonetheless, while in Africa as she’d done throughout Europe, Josephine continued entertaining troops for Charles de Gaulle and carrying information for the Allied forces from Spain. Among dignitaries who visited her while in the hospital in Casa was Jacques Abtrey, Head of Intelligence against the Germans. Outside as a military parade with American, French, and Moroccan troops marched by, he and Josephine toasted with champagne. He recalls: “We raised our glasses to America, to England, and to our eternal France.”
Bennetta Jules-Rosette, Director of the African and African-American Studies Research Center at the University of California – San Diego and author of Josephine Baker in Art and Life: The Icon and the Image wrote of Josephine making Paris her home and learning not only French but Italian and Russian:
As a black woman, had she stayed in the United States, she could not have accomplished what she did….She never made a Hollywood film. But at the same time she was recording in France, you had the likes of Hattie McDaniel playing maids in Gone with the Wind…[She] was among the early path-breakers to use performance celebrity for political ends.
When in the US she refused to perform in venues that did not admit minorities. Says Jules-Rosette: “She was the first person to desegregate the Las Vegas casinos, not Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.”
Still, in 1951 she was refused admittance to some hotels and restaurants, and when she charged the Stork Club in New York City of racism when the owner would not serve her, she was placed on the FBI watch list and lost her US citizenship rights for over a decade. In 1963 she returned with the help of Attorney General Robert Kennedy to speak at the March on Washington. She told the crowd:
You know I have always taken the rocky path…I never took the easy one, but as I get older, and as I knew I had the power and the strength, I took that rocky path and I tried to smooth it out a little. I wanted to make it easier for you. I want you to have a chance at what I had.
Summing up her journey, Josephine said: “I did take the blows [of life], but I took them with my chin up, in dignity, because I so profoundly love and respect humanity…I believe in prayer. It’s the best way we have to draw strength from heaven.”
When not reading at Riad Star, I chatted over dinner with a lovely group of ladies on holiday from England. All moms, they had decided to treat themselves to a girls’ getaway. For information on package deals including a Girls Getaway and other specialty escapes, go here. I spent breakfast with a little bird by the pool, then took off with Aziz to see two other properties owned by the Woods.
Though all guests are provided a downloadable App and cell phone to navigate the medina, after two years here and still taking wrong turns at times in the medina, I was thrilled Aziz was happy to walk me to and from the taxi as well as show me two other riads.
Riad Cinnamon has five suites, each named for a city in Morocco: Fez, Essaouira, Chefchaouen, Casablanca, and Meknes. Since I’ve been to all but Meknes, four of the rooms transported me to fine Morocco Moments across the country.
After raiding my grandmother’s trunk for dress up clothes, I’d wear them out into her garden to watch butterflies playing in the flowers. At Riad Papillon (Riad Butterly), imagination takes flight in rooms named for blooms, such as Bougainvillea, Jasmine, and Rose known to attract those feathery-winged wonders. The riad is just off Dar El Bacha, one of my favorite shopping streets in the souks, while Star and Cinnamon are just around corners from Merdersa Ben Youseff, a medina must-see. All are also near the Spice Square and Henna Cafe.
I enjoyed the morning and my Midnight in Marrakesh experience. HBO’s 1991 movie, The Jordan Baker Story, winner of five Emmys and a Golden Globe now tops my list of Must-see films. In “My Josephine Baker” her son explains in The New York Times how and why he had to write a biography of her: “When she died, something was taken from me. I suffered a loss and I wanted to know who she was, that woman I had seen in so many ways, sometimes a criminal, sometimes a saint.”
When she passed away in 1975, no doubt there were mixed opinions of her because she was– and her critics are– after all, human. Her legacy lives on in Riad Star in the Red City where others find rest and shelter and at the Henna Cafe that promotes appreciation of diversity, cross-cultural communication, and understanding. Though Josephine left school to work as a child, she later learned French, Russian, and Italian, an inspiration to language learners everywhere.
Thank you to Riad Star for the hospitality. As always, the opinions here are my own.
There’s a power struggle going on across Europe these days. A few cities are competing against each other to see who shall emerge as the great 21st century European metropolis. Will it be London? Paris? Berlin? Zurich? Maybe Brussels, center of the young union? They all strive to outdo one another culturally, architecturally, politically, fiscally. But Rome, it should be said, has not bothered to join the race for status. Rome doesn’t compete. Rome just watches all the fussing and striving, completely unfazed. I am inspired by the regal self-assurance of this city, so grounded and rounded, so amused and monumental, knowing she is held securely in the palm of history. I would like to be like Rome when I am an old lady.
—Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love
‘I sometimes fancy,’ said Hilda, on whose susceptibility the scene always made a strong impression, ‘that Rome–mere Rome–will crowd everything else out of my heart.’
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance
I first met her in the movies in the ’60s when my family spent Easter week watching Ben-Hur and The Robe. Later I sighed at her heroes in Gladiator and King Arthur, and still turn to Roman Holiday and Three Coins in the Fountain for escape, classic style, and fun frocks. And though recently I giggled at Brit wits, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip to Italy based on their pilgrimage to places Shelley and Byron lived, I do love teaching literary legends–particularly The Romantics–who moved to Rome. Long before the Left Bank of Paris brimmed with expat genius, Rome was muse to so many who for centuries have transported readers to the The Eternal City via memoir, fiction, and poetry. Still, nothing is like being in Rome for real. I was there last week on a detour; but as with many of life’s detours, I realized Plan B was To Be.
Since moving to Morocco in 2014, I began planning my Dream Week for Spring Break 2016. I didn’t know if I’d stay abroad after my initial two-year work contract, so I saved the best for last. I’d fallen in love with Italy in 2000 and have since returned eight times; but in 2004 I was swept away by the Amalfi Coast and hoped this year to perch on a Positano terrace across from Capri, the island that enchanted me more than a decade ago. A Mermaid in Marrakesh, I felt I’d find my muse staying between the Path of the Gods and the ocean below. Nothing moves me like the sea, and I couldn’t wait to live like a local and go no farther than a boat ride to a restaurant I’d read about. I’d write in the sun. I’d breathe.
I had booked the perfect villa last August beside the iconic Le Sirenuse, the set for Only You, a 1994 film my sister and I love . The plan was to join friends from the US in Tuscany the first week of the break, then travel alone by train to the coast. Sadly, an unforeseen circumstance that has caused much stress forced me to cancel that second week, but a colleague offered a Plan B. She suggested I stay with her in Rome and catch the Ryan Air flight on Tuesday for $26. My flight and stay at a hotel inspired by my favorite painter, Modigliani, cost less than changing my original ticket.
Lately I’ve been faced with huge decisions and it seemed all roads were, indeed, leading to Rome. I’m passionate about several paths–family, travel, writing, education–and have been praying for a way they can all convene. Birthdays are when I pull over to reevaluate the map of my life journey. While in Tuscany I celebrated the one that was my father’s last. He died at work. So young. So missed.
Roaming, resting, relaxing in Rome in my favorite neighborhoods (near Piazzas of Spagna and Barberini) proved to be poignant. I loved seeing friends in Tuscany (many pictures to come), but I’d spent the week fighting the flu. Being in Rome on Easter and finally visiting The Keats-Shelley House—where Keats, too, came to Rome seeking a kinder climate for his health—moved me. I’d always loved Keats’ “When I Have Fears I Will Cease to Be” where he confesses concern that he’ll die before writing all he felt placed on earth to write or before marrying his beloved Fanny Brawne. I thought, too, about Lord Byron who said “If I don’t write to empty my mind I go mad” and Henry David Thoreau, an American Romantic, who said, “the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” I’ve never wanted to be one of that mass. Keats died after just three months in Rome beside the Spanish Steps at twenty-five; Shelley was living in Tuscany when he drowned off the coast of Italy at twenty-nine. Byron died from exhaustion in Greece at thirty-six. All so young. So much more to write. To live. I returned to Marrakesh with a renewed gratitude for my health and the warm climate I enjoy daily. And I continue to seek the best way to live what’s left of my life.
Second generation Romantics Percy and Mary Shelley, Byron, and Keats followed fathers of the movement, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Blake, in philosophically opposing tenets of the previous period, The Enlightenment– institutions, tradition, conformity, science and reason. Romantics were (and are) the Carpe Diem Crowd, idealists who value individualism, democracy, experimentation, emotion, imagination, social reform, change, and nature. Other European Romantic artists were Pushkin, Hugo, Turner, Beethoven, Schubert and Berlioz–all influenced by the philosophies of Goethe (who lived in Rome for a time), Locke, and Rousseau whose tabula rasa (man is a blank slate made by society that writes his story) meant respecting the “noble savage” be he a Native American or Mary Shelley’s creature in Frankenstein who became a monster by the doctor who recklessly created and abandoned him and villagers who feared and abused him, and the social contract (fair play between the governing and governed which fueled the French and American Revolutions).
I thought about how the tension between Reason VS Emotion, Duty VS Passion, Fact VS Feeling VS Faith affects decisions. Just as I lived the questions while wandering Venice three months ago, I roamed Rome believing I’ll live into the answers. Meanwhile I’m learning to wait in passionate patience.
I brought back writing inspiration from the vibrant literary landscape that is Rome. I walked the streets off Via Condotti where writers gathered around wine at restaurants and coffee at Antico Caffè Greco. In the area around The Spanish Steps known in the 19th century as the “English Quarter” lived not only the Shelleys, Byron and Keats but also Sir Walter Scott, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and William Thackeray, Henry James, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne, the subject of my Master’s Thesis, wrote The Marble Faun based on the Faun of Praxitelesdisplayed in Capitoline Museum. I returned and read Wharton’s “Roman Fever” and plan to read Dickens’ Pictures from Italy and Henry James’ Italian Hours.
I loved studying filmmaker Federico Fellini in grad school who said:
Rome does not need to make culture. It is culture. Prehistoric, classical, Etruscan, Renaissance, Baroque, modern. Every corner of the city is a chapter in an imaginary universal history of culture. Culture in Rome is not an academic concept. It’s not even a museum culture, even though the city is one enormous museum. It is a human culture free from cultural faddishness, or neurotic trendiness.
One thing is for sure. From the bizarre to the sublime, Rome is human history. I’d enjoyed seeing the Forum, Pantheon, Colosseum, Catacombs, and Vatican City on two prevous trips, but this time it was nice to do what Romantics do best. Feel. Truly Rome is an Ode to Joy, a Sonnet called La Bella Vita.
Near here in Palazzo Barberini was the home of William Wetmore Story, an American sculptor, poet, and art critic, where expats gathered from 1819-1895.
I’m grateful for roaming Rome which confirmed two things. I’ve been missing my children since December and want to travel and do life with them again more than anything. In Positano a gorgeous villa awaits, but I hope to go when they or my sis can join me one day. And, like it or not, the only constant is change. The Romantics knew this and thus seized the day knowing too soon the day ceases. I’ve experienced adventure, beauty and new relationships aplenty. So much in my life has changed in the last two years. Places. People. Paths. My comfort is knowing the One who holds this gorgeous globe, my family, and me. He has already picked our next path. It’s good to be at peace with peace.
Some use walls to keep people out. Others use them to invite people in.
“Inclusion rather than exclusion is the driving force behind the festival,” says MB6: Street Art Curator Vestalia Chilton of ATTOLLO. Responsible for a myriad of murals in the medina created for the Marrakesh Biennale Edition 6, Chilton said the global collaboration began at the Marrakech TED Talks a year ago. There she asked Vanessa Branson, founder of the Marrakech Biennale in 2004, if she’d be interested in adding street art to the event ranked in the top 20 Biennales worldwide. The answer was yes, launching another first for Morocco.
Already a big year for the country, 2016 began with Morocco opening the world’s largest solar farm in the Sahara, and in Essaouira, unveiling North Africa’s largest mural (6400 square meters) painted by Italian street artist, Giacomo Bufarini aka RUN.
The 6th edition Marrakech Biennale–Not New Now– running until May 8 with free admission celebrates the city’s artistic and cultural leadership in building bridges between the Islamic world, the Pan-African diaspora and the West. The event is overseen by Reem Fada, Curator for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, who believes the multi-disciplinarian approach connects local and international audiences to “new ideas and artistic visions from Morocco and abroad.”
On display for MB6: Street Art in the Marrkaech Medina, the “Galery in the Sky,” are murals by Mad C (Germany), Dotmaster (UK), Giacomo RUN (Italy), Dag Insky (France), Kalamour (Morocco), Alexey Luka (Russia), LX.ONE (France), Lucy McLauchlan (UK), Remi Rough (UK), Sickboy (UK) and Yesbee (UK).
On a press tour led by Vestalia and a lunch interview at Kosybar following (video below), I saw the gifts left to the city and learned more about the genre.
A study in contrasts, the works convey not only innovation and change but also universal, timeless values. They juxtapose human diversity with commonalities.
“Street art has no ego. If people like it, it stays. If not, if goes. One mural is already gone,”Chilton explained.
Once graffiti artists on the run, painting where they weren’t allowed, this new generation of contemporary urban artists are critically acclaimed agents of restoration rather than rebels. The independent spirit and creativity of the underground scene which produced works accessible to the general public in urban environments has risen to become the biggest art movement since Impressionism.
The work of Alexey Luka, progressive Russian artist, can be enjoyed in the square of Café des Epices. His work have been exhibited in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Amsterdam, Lyon, Paris, Portland, Rotterdam, and San Francisco, and Rome. Alexey is a member of the creative association ‘Artmossphere’ which organized the 1st Moscow Biennale of Street Art in 2014, supporting Russian street artists and graffiti writers. Photo by Ian Cox
Worldwide acceptance has led to commissioned public works and inclusion in high profile galleries and art festivals. Mainstream culture and media has created demand for the sale of originals and multiples, which allowed street artists to break into the art world with access to galleries, museums and auction houses such as Christies and Sotheby’s.
Morocco’s Renaissance Man and the Biennale’s Native Son, Kalamour, has been passionate since childhood about drawing, photography, painting, and music. His paintings and sculptures have been exhibited in Canada and his home country. Also an award-winning video artist, Kalamour’s releases have been featured at festivals in Morocco and Portugal.
British born artist Lucy McLauchlan (below) has work in galleries and museums and on multi-story buildings throughout Europe, gigantic billboards in China, on walls outside Moscow’s Red Square, and on New York subway tunnels. She deeply respects nature and uses etches of leaves and other elements of her environment in her paintings.
Just outside the gate of Dar El Bacha is the work of the most famous participant in the project, MadC. Despite being booked five years out, Claudia Walde enthusiastically joined the Marrakesh project and created a fan frenzy on social media. Her mural was created with seventy cans of colors. Born in Bautzen, GDR and currently based in Germany, she holds degrees in Graphic Design from the University of Art and Design, Halle, and Central Saint Martins College, London. Her two books on sticker art and street fonts published in 2007 and 2011 are praised for their anthropological insight into the graffiti art movement. Her name, derived from her childhood nickname, “Crazy Claudia” encourages all to live their creative dreams.
RUN, Italian-born Giacomo Bufarini, is a beloved muralist of international street art. His Marrakesh mural is outside Palace Bahia. A lover of travel, the London resident’s epic-sized murals distinguished by detail and complexity, colorful faces and interlocking hands, stretch from here to China and attest to his playfulness and commitment to communication. His characters speak languages of diverse audiences, and while painting in Essaouira and Marrakesh, the artist impressed Moroccans with his willingness to take time for friendly chats. His measure of success? He says if a child likes his work, he is happy.
One of the most dramatic moments of the tour was turning a corner off frenetic Mohammed V into an alley car park and seeing the works of LX.ONE and Remi Rough canopied above.
In one week eleven painters completed the MB6 Street Art exhibition, but their contribution to the city and the world that enjoys it will be appreciated long after. Below Vestalia, joined by a member of her team, Elena Ivanova, speaks warmly of Moroccan hospitality, kindness, and the human spirit inherent in this city and this global collaboration.
Making a grand entrance must have originated in Marrakech. Crossing that first threshold from the manic Medina into a roofless riad respite– blue skies or stars above—is a moment no one ever forgets. I am still thrilled every time I follow surreptitious streets snaking through the medieval city… duck archways and dodge motorbikes, donkey carts, and darting cats… then knock on a heavy wooden door that slowly swings open into a secret, peaceful place.
One of those surreal experiences when so much of what my heart loves to see, hear, taste, and touch materialized like magic. Here classic French Elegance, Hollywood’s Golden Age Glamour, and Desert Dreams meet…a rhapsody in blue.
Welcomed warmly by owner Alexandra Richards, I could hear past the streaming foyer fountain Mancini crooning “Moon River” to a chirping courtyard chorus. Named for the Emberiza family of birds indigenous to South Morocco and considered sacred in Marrakesh, the boutique hotel that took two years to renovate was guarded by these feathered friends. They had comforted Alexandra who moved from Melbourne and found the process, like other expats building a new home in a foreign country, fraught with frustrations. A Barrister of Queen’s Counsel, the highest appointment and level of professional recognition in Australia, the Human and Civil Rights attorney is, no surprise, a strong, smart Leading Lady of her new life. But she is also a woman of beauty, style, wit and grace and reminds me of Big Screen legends like Lauren Bacall and Faye Dunaway.
When I asked what moving to Morocco taught her, she replied:
“One thing I have learned here is to ‘never say never and never say always.’ I believe Talleyrand said this of politics and war. I would say it of everything here.”
To a musical mix of Moroccan, French, and Frank (Sinatra), I wandered the riad as slowly as the turtles who live there, delighting in the details—gorgeous artwork, antiques, bedding, and baths. As I climbed the stairs to tiered terraces, then the rooftop, I could imagine Truman Capote working or Holly Golightly playing here. Riad Emberiza Sahari is a venue for artists’ retreats, weddings and social gatherings, solo or romantic escapes, and the ultimate girls’ getaway. Offerings include excursions, cooking classes, massages, yoga, or meditation.
As darkness descended the riad became even more magical–the pool and fountains dancing, flickering, reflecting lights and candle flames to classical music. We talked at table under orange and lime trees about our love for our children and for this strange, irresistible city.
I would return months later for Kate’s birthday and always look forward to seeing Alexandra. She inspires me as a woman of reinvention, as one who followed her dream and created an oasis where others can rediscover theirs. Riad Emberiza Sahari is the manifestation of who she is and what is right with the world– a dramatically beautiful, comfortable, and peaceful place.
Alexandra: “I agree with Winston Churchill that ‘Marrakech is the most beautiful place in the world.’ But a place of great beauty AND great ugliness, a place of contrasts and contradictions. Therefore it never lets you alone and you always know you are alive.”