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Marrakech Moments: Tea at the Café de France

Every city has an iconic café. It’s not always the fanciest, or the most expensive or the most beautiful, but it will be the place with history, with a notorious clientele, and a spot beloved by locals and tourists alike. In Marrakech, that place is the Café de France. Located at the bustling heart of the Jemaa El Fna, the iconic market square at the centre of Marrakech, it is simply the perfect ambience to take a Moroccan mint tea and watch the world go by.

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But as with all such iconic places – we’re talking the level of Florian’s in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Caffé Greco in Rome – the best tables are hard to get. When we arrived in Marrakech, a very friendly steward in our Riad told us that the most sought after table was the one up on the first floor terrace of the Café in the most south western corner, with a perfect view of the Koutoubia Mosque at sunset. When we arrived at the Café de France, it was so crowded that we would have been lucky to get a table at all, let alone get the table most coveted of all. But suddenly, as if by magic, and at the precise moment when the lingering clouds of the afternoon cleared and sun rays flooded the terrace of the café, the very same corner table became free and we swiftly occupied it, and soaked in its very enticing view.

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The recommendation was correct. It really was the best table. From there we could enjoy the sunset, the Koutoubia tower, and the bustling Jemaa El Fna square at this time when it transformed from day time market place to a huge open air eatery and evening performance venue. There is where the stories of ancient sand dunes and shifting deserts are told, where serpents uncoil out of baskets and monkeys are trained to dance. This exotic space is the centre of the city for a reason, and we had the very best view of it, from above.  Determined to enjoy the table, we took endless photos, reflected upon the ever changing view, sat back, read, and enjoyed a perfectly fresh mint tea. An iconic moment fit only for the café of all Marrakech cafés.

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Marrakech on Canvas: Rose City Rooftops

I always find it interesting to observe a city from above. It offers something of a backstage perspective on people’s lives; the washing hanging out to dry, the old furniture dumped up on the roof forgotten, or the private pride which may be someone’s roof top garden, hidden from view from the streets below. I have already said that Marrakech is a city of extremes, and that somewhat bipolar personality extends to its buildings too. While the city has become a hotspot for those seeking Arabian luxuries in marble clad spas and lavish Riads, it is interesting to see that so often that extreme of wealth and aesthetic perfection extends to what is seen only. Viewed from the roof, you see the city’s theatre for what it is: those posh patios are mere smoke and mirrors. What you can’t see is the back yard, barely built, with crumbling plaster and propped up with rough wooden supports. There too you can see the roof terraces strewn with weakly installed cabling and rusty satellite dishes, with age battered plant pots and pink plaster facades left to crack and fade in the sun. Marrakech from above is a fascinating mess, a hodgepodge of unplanned construction and time-weathered dilapidation. But unifying it all is the rose-tinged colour of the whole jumble of construction, together with the occasional beautiful mosque tower which punctuates the scenery.

Rose City Rooftops

Rose City Rooftops (2017 ©Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, acrylic on canvas)

This enthralling city vision was the inspiration for a small painted study which I completed just a few days ago. Focusing on a very small cut-out of a wider landscape, it is an almost abstracted focus on the criss-cross of tumbling, crumbling pink blushing walls, together with the satellite dishes and cables and old plants peppering the scene. It is characteristically Marrakech. An unplanned mess which exudes beauty as a result.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. For more information on the artwork of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, visit http://www.delacybrown.com 

The Colours of Marrakech, Part 1: Rose City

Colour, smell, thunder, stares, snakes, spices, the sound of birdsong, the call to prayer. Morocco is a country of extremes and its dazzling city of Marrakech all the more so. Those extremes began as soon as we entered its airspace, as desert planes and mighty big African clouds overhead gave way to one of the most sparkling fancy airports I have ever set foot in. A further transformation manifested as we took a taxi into town. On the left, a modern city, its roads neatly paved and lined with illuminated orange trees. On the right an old city crumbling, smelly, loud, maze like. Children begged around our legs, women enveloped in veils eyed us suspiciously and the use of donkeys in the place of vehicles marked a return to centuries past. Marrakech is different from any place I have ever visited before, and the next few weeks on The Daily Norm will bear testament to our time there; a trip which tantalised each of the senses and engendered the thrill of the different and astonishment at everything we saw.

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A focus on the visual is what will shape my tale of Marrakech, as I take inspiration from the colours which were visible in such extremes across the city. Known as Rose City, by far its most prominent colour is the peachy shade of soft terracotta which characterises its ancient Medina. Stemming from the red tint of local stone and mud, the colour is a naturally occurring bi-product of the city’s quasi-desert location. In fact the rosy hue became so synonymous with the city that when in modern times concrete started to replace traditional mud construction methods, the former French rulers decreed that all such buildings must be painted in the same colour of pink.

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The result is a city almost universally sculpted from rose, a place where nature itself provides the rose-tinted glasses through whose sheen Marrakech can be seen to glow a warm shade at all times of the day. But as we will see from later posts, the city’s characteristic hue changes as it reflects the light, and when an intense sunset reigns in the skies, the resulting reflected pink is like nothing I have ever seen before.

But for today, and by way of introducing to this incredible Moroccan city, I give you photos of Marrakech in its most iconic warm terracotta glow, ranging from sunrise in the morning to full sun as the baking semi-desert conditions almost cooked the city streets below. This is Marrakech, Rose City, Daughter of the Desert, and it’s going to be a wonderful Daily Norm ride…

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Norms in Siena

Readers of my post a few weeks back will remember my reaction, close to ecstasy, when I sat with my Partner in the Piazza del Campo in Siena at sunset and sipped upon a frothy prosecco and savoured several balls of stracciatella ice cream as around us the bustling city relaxed and wined and dined its way into the end of the day. In their parallel little world, the Norms enjoy very similar tastes to myself – who frankly could not – and sunset in Siena suits them down to the ground.

The Norms love ice cream. Its soft roundness reminds them of their dulcet gelatinous forms (not that Norms would go as far as eating themselves, perish the thought!). They adore prosecco too, the bubbles increasing ten-fold the bounce which characterises their unique Normy gait. But best of all the Norms are number one fans of the sunshine, which warms their blue blood and makes them glow like high wattage lightbulbs. That’s why, in this happy little depiction of the Norms in Siena they all look so very healthy and content. Saluti to that!

Norms in Siena

Norms in Siena (2017 ©Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, pen and ink on paper)

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. For more information on the artwork of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, visit http://www.delacybrown.com 

London, Rediscovering My City: Battersea Park

It’s no wonder I was moved to paint the great green expanse of Clapham Common in my new painting, Green in Common. Spring really has been a verdant one in England, and while sunshine has been somewhat lacking recently (remind me to make an official complaint to the Met Office about that), when its rays have shone down upon us, we have been afforded an ideal opportunity to enjoy what England does best: its green and pleasant land. And while London may be the country’s greatest urban conglomeration, there is certainly no shortage of green space to enjoy. Just look at my posts on Wimbledon, Richmond and Hampton Court, and that’s just for starters.

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Recently we discovered that there’s a no less worthy green expanse even closer to our home in the form of Battersea Park. Since I had long ago dismissed it as something of a mediocre patch of land next to the river, I had no idea about the treasures which were hidden inside. These began just metres from the entrance with a set of swirling, curving boating lakes interlaced with cosy pathways crossing and edging the water, designed to make the visitor feel lost in a great wetland well out of the city. With not a straight line in sight, these beautifully cared for wetlands are every bit the reserve of a booming wildlife habitat as they are the favourite haunt of visitors who sat picnicking in the shadow of sculptures by Henry Moore or romantically boating upon the lake. Our romantic stroll was no doubt enhanced by the bubbles we sipped at a surprisingly chic café by the water’s edge. This set us off in fabulous shape to explore the rest of the park, which included vast flower beds bursting with tropical plants, tulips in every conceivable colour, and all number of paddling pools and picnicking areas much frequented by visitors and Londoners alike.

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But the pièce de la résistance had to be the riverside walk, which contains probably the most distinctive feature of the park: a beautiful, sparkling Peace Pagoda. While it looks as though it has made its way from some ancient civilisation in the midst of a Thailand jungle, it was actually erected in Battersea in 1985 before soon becoming the park’s most iconic landmark. From its dazzling raised portico, you get the perfect view of the Thames, and my favourite bridge, the Albert Bridge. Dainty and elegant, this Thames favourite leads a perfect bath over to Chelsea, where we were promptly persuaded to while away the rest of the afternoon. Happy days.

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Green in Common

Sometimes it’s the simple things that are best in life: It’s a well known philosophy, and one which one does well to remember in this world of plenty, of multiple-distraction and rapid pace technology. Living in Mallorca it was a sensation I knew well, as my favourite moments would be sitting on a sunny bench besides the harbour side with a book and my beloved by my side. No music, no gimmicks, just the sound of water and the bobbing up and down of boats. Now I’m back in London, I feel the same when I’m enjoying the great expanses of green which we city dwellers are so fortunate to have on our doorstep. Right where I live I’m a mere stroll away from Clapham Common, Wandsworth Common, Battersea Park to name but a few. And in those spaces one can strip back the protective urban layer and enjoy the simple pleasures.

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Green in Common (2017 ©Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, acrylic on canvas)

Such was my inspiration for this piece, my first completed work on canvas since I returned to this mammoth city, an urban conglomeration so large that perhaps this small painting speaks in protest. Inspired by the sight of a vast beautiful tree, I planned a work for which this simple landscape of trees and clouds would form the backdrop for a more dramatic tree portrait. But when I walked away from the canvas, with the protagonist still unstarted, I revelled in the simple beauty of this mere line of trees. So I declared this painting finished: my ode to verdant simplicity, and the moments I most cherish, wherever I happen to be.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. For more information on the artwork of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, visit http://www.delacybrown.com 

Norms in Tuscany

Take a ravishing view of rolling Tuscan hills, a freshly patterned blanket, the distinctively shaped Chianti bottle, a ciabatta loaf, a crostini tart, and of course some good smoked cheese and pesto, and you have just about the best picnic set up in the world (with the exception of course of Glyndebourne, but who can compete with the crème de la crème). Mix in an iconic vespa (for transportation reasons as well as Italian chic) and you’re set. Or at least the Norms are set. For while we may have left Tuscany, the Norms are continuing to chill in Italia, to revel in the seductive landscape, indulge in the region’s plentiful wine production, and live la bella vita in a way that the Tuscans do best.

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Norms in Tuscany (picnicking with a view of Volterra) (2017 ©Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, pen and ink on paper)

Here are the Norms enjoying just that same perfect picnic we have described, with the addition of a good book (coincidentally Proust…like me!), a view of Volterra, a good snooze and even a visit from the region’s favourite mascot, the furry cinghiale. Looks pretty darn idyllic to me.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. For more information on the artwork of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, visit http://www.delacybrown.com 

Siena: Doing the Duomo

In choosing Siena’s most iconic building, there are two clear contenders. Sat at the pithy core of the citrus-sliced semi circle of the Piazza del Campo, the Palazzo Pubblico is a clear contender. With its soaring bell tower of red brick characterised by medieval power status and the objective to outdo rival Florence, the Palazzo is in every way iconic as a symbol of Sienese politics and ambition. But while for me the Palazzo and surrounding Piazza may be the brains of Siena, its beating heart and most charismatic structure of all is its Duomo. With a lavishly intricate facade made of blackish green, coral pink and creamy white marble, together with a multitude of gold enhanced mosaics and relief sculptures, the Duomo looks good enough to eat – a minty humbug and a prize wedding cake al rolled into one.

The Duomo and its facade

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But to focus on Siena’s exterior would be to miss the treasures on the inside, which range from Michaelangelo’s treasured sculpture of Saint Paul, Nicola Pisano’s impressively intricate Carrara marble pulpit, Donatello’s bronze relief, The Feast of Herod, Bernini’s sunburst lantern atop the dome, and an incredible marble floor depicting a series of biblical tales with pristinely cut delicately interlaced pieces of multicoloured stone which was the life work of some 40 artists across 200 years. What’s more, in the Piccolomini Library off to one side of the main nave, there is the staggering feat of Bernadino di Betti’s ceiling and wall frescos whose multiple areas of gold embellish the room with a lavishness equal only to a jewellery shop.

The Piccolomini Library

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Interestingly however, the Cathedral might well have been far greater and even more exorbitantly lavish had a planned (and commenced) extension in the 14th century, intended to more than double its size, been completed. Sadly owing to the onset of the Black Death in 1348, the work was ceased, and the evidence of errors in the construction meant that it was never continued. All that remains of the plans today is a the large outer shell which helps to illustrate the scale to which the Duomo extenders aspired and the power and ambition of the city.

The interior and the incredible pictorial floors

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So with those unbeatable views I’m brining this Siena and Tuscany series of posts to a close. They’re photos which capture a region of outstanding natural beauty, and hold the memories of adventures which I will long cherish… until the next time I’m lucky enough to visit the home of my in laws.

Up in the gods… and the views of Siena from the top

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Tuscan Towns #5 – Siena

Of all the towns we visited during our last trip Tuscany, with Siena I have saved the best till last. More of a city really, this glorious product of the golden age of Renaissance is disproportionately heavy on art historical treasures, elegant shopping streets and stunning piazzas culminating in the most magnificent of them all – the Piazza del Campo. Siena’s geographical position, up on a steep hill and surrounded by verdant rolling countryside, is no doubt both the reason for its untouched beauty and for its prowess as a self-defended city. Today the city is almost intact in its historical architecture, with barely a modern blemish staining its golden walled, silver cobbled streets. The only embrace of modernity has been the emergence of super chic boutique shops and cocktail bars serving plate upon plate of tempting aperitifs, best enjoyed with an Aperol Spritz amidst the bustling atmosphere of locals filling out these packed social hang-outs.  Siena is a place of vespas and La Bella Vita, of large sunglasses and shopping bags, of that irrefutable union between seductive Italian passion and the innate elegance which can be found in every street. It is Italy at its urban best, surrounded by the most beautiful rural landscapes imaginable.

The seductive streets of Siena

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We entered Siena up a set of steep staircases, arising, blinded by the light, as though from a cellar onto the reflected glory of the Duomo, its black and white stripy façade literally glimmering as the sunshine hit the golden details of its external mosaics. What an entrance to a city! It was the ultimate precursor to a place whose treasures fill the senses like tree blossom swept liberally into the wind. A stunning mosaic here, a mighty altarpiece there. Cafes that dazzled, sculptures to inspire, street corners whose tangible charm roused the soul and inspired the mind. We went, of course, into the heart of the Duomo, but that adventure I will leave for the second part of this article. Rather today I want to concentrate on the soul of this ravishing city which, quite justifiably, has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site and is one of the most visited in all Italy.

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Getting lost in Siena’s uniquely sloping cobbled side streets is one of the greatest joys that Tuscany can offer, but after a time, the idea of being lost here becomes something of a fiction. For just as all roads in Italy may lead to Rome, as though in defiance of the expression, all roads in Siena lead to the magnificent Piazza del Campo, whose enormous semi-circular construct more or less dictates the layout of the remainder of the city.

The Piazza del Campo

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It was in that delightful main square that our visit concluded. As we approached, the atmosphere of a thousand visitors lying out on the sloping pavements to enjoy the sun, or sipping upon spritz and bubbles in one of the many cafes which line the square was highly tangible. It was like human electricity, building up in the semi-circular square before finding occasional release as it leaked into the side streets through the Piazza’s odd openings. Once in, the space literally dazzled as before us the enormous scale of the campanile of the Palazzo Pubblico unveiled itself and the Piazza, which is famous for the annual Il Palio horserace which plays out around the square, glowed as sun rays met red and ochre brick. There we sat, at one such café, as the sun swept a shadow across the curve of the Piazza much like the effect of a sun-dial. Soaking in the last of the rays, as golden sunlight reflected against the prosecco and gelato on our table, we people watched and soaked in the atmosphere, and observed a city which seemed to exude contentment. We were certainly contented in turn. It was a visit which would provide the highlight of our year so far. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were return again, before the year is even out.

The highpoint: Prosecco on the Piazza

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Painting my travels: Castagneto Carducci

Painting is slowly re-entering my life. It’s been a long few months without it. As many an artist will tell you, it’s difficult to find inspiration when life is unstable, and an international move, a new London job, plus a mammoth redecoration project has done few favours in terms of my artistic production. But how could I not be inspired by my recent venture to Tuscany? The photos I have been sharing over the last couple of weeks go far in demonstrating just what kind of a place it is. As soon as I awoke on the first sunny day, the birdsong, fresh air and sunrays combined to fill my mind afresh with hypothetical paintings. And this one is the first to result from that round of preliminary creative ideas.

My 2016 collection, interpretative abstract, instigated a new abstract language in my art, one which has followed through to subsequent creative projects, and even the way I choose to capture landscapes in my photography. This meant that as I wandered the towns of Tuscany, I saw the sunlit streets not as townscapes, but as a series of abstract compositions. I was aided in this interpretation by the stark contrast between shadow and light, often casting distinct geometric patterns and lines across monotone building walls, and likewise by the nature of Tuscan streets which are inherently narrow resulting in a more dynamic composition of vertical and horizontal planes.

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Castagneto Carducci #1 (2017 ©Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, watercolour and gouache on paper)

The result is this painting, entitled simply Castagneto Carducci #1, after the town which inspired it and which was featured on Wednesday’s Daily Norm. It uses watercolour, which is not a medium I utilise often, but whose transparency leant a very authentic depth to the depiction of the texture of Tuscan walls. But it also uses gouache in creating flatter colour planes, and the combination of media, together with an angular geometric finish to street-inspired constructs, forms a landscape which is at the same time an abstract composition.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. For more information on the artwork of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, visit http://www.delacybrown.com