Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Magical, Mystical Marrackech

We are in the land of the Beduoins, where the amazing night sky makes one think of Lawrence of Arabia, elegant women in veils and wandering desert nomads!

We arrived at our hotel just in time for breakfast after a sleepless night on the train. Every time that we started to drop off to sleep, the train would either stop (which seemed like every half hour) or toot its whistle or both! The train was clean and safe, though, and the beds clean and comfortable.

Our hotel was a welcome oasis at the end of a crazy journey, and we were thrilled to see that is was just as beautiful as promised, with a great patio off our room and lovely patios and pool.

It's a bit far from town, but that's a small price to pay for the peace and quiet! We caught a cab into town and spent the day at the Souk (market). This is a most amazing experience, as the souk takes up 25 square kilometers within the walls of the medina (town), with twists and turns and many branches. We were careful to keep our eye on specific landmarks, and to not take any branches, as people have reported getting lost in there!

Leather products abound, and we had fun shopping for shoes


figs and nuts.

We even visited the snake charmer! Bryce wasn't too impressed when the charmer wrapped the snake around his neck,

but it was pretty cool to see the cobra rise up as the charmer played his flute.

The cobra did strike at someone who got too close to take its picture. I sure hope it has been defanged!

Sights, smells and sounds assaulted us from every angle as the smell of rich spices intermingled with horse and donkey dung and the sounds of "madam, come look, it doesn't cost anything to look!" greeted us at every stall.

The magic of this place will stay with us forever!



Sunday, 28 September 2014

So Long, Spain. Now, North Africa!

Our hearts will always be in Spain, but adventure called, and we booked a ticket on the fast ferry to Morocco. We were up bright and early to catch the 9:00 am ferry, and caught a taxi to the dock. We enjoyed our first American breakfast of bacon and eggs since leaving home....Bryce always gets my bacon, since I don't eat beef or pork! We even had great wifi at the little cafe, which allowed us to get caught up on emails and Facebook.

Heading to our loading area with half an hour to spare, we were totally confused, as it wasn't clear which line we should be in. I finally found someone who looked official and showed them our tickets. We stood in the area and waited....

and waited.

Finally, at 10:00, they opened the gate and people pushed, shoved elbowed their way as close to the front of the line as possible, all the while carrying gigantic bags, boxes and babies! Amazing! This was crazier than getting on a Beijing subway! We found our bit of space in the madness and settled in to.....wait some more!

Finally, at 11:00, almost 2 1/2 hours after we started waiting in line, they let us on the ferry! It was a very nice ferry, and although we weren't sure whether the numbered seats were reserved, we found a nice window seat for our two hour journey.

Here's Bryce's version of the trip:

We finally dropped down in Tangiers long enough to have some Oriental food in a Muslim restaurant served up by Abdullah, who speaks German, French and Spanish better than either one of us knows. He understands our: "Je suis Canadiennes, Vancouver," and he gave us wifi pronounced "weefee". He just brought our food, chicken in a delicious sauce and guess what, more olives!

The trip from Spain to Morocco was amazing! I have never seen so many little old ladies stampede a wicket in such short order as these old gals. Men, women, children of all ages crammed through to get on the boat and then through all the turnstiles at immigration like it was $1.49 day at Woodwards!

Two hour wait in line to get on the ferry, still in Spain!

So, it was a couple of hours waiting in line for the express ferry. Silly us, express does not mean fast, it means comfortable, and it was! Starving for oxygen in the cramped pre-boarding area makes a fellow grateful for just about anything! Getting off the ferry, we had couple more hours in a crowd crazed stampede with the mob rules method to get through security. Fortunately we mastered the art of shoving through a crowd on the subways of Beijing, but this mob makes the Chinese look tame! The one and only scanner for the crowd of about 800 broke down when people in front of us started piling their suitcases up 6 deep on top of the belt and it looked like the crowd was about to go into a full on revolution.

In Morocco...hot, crowded, looking a little frazzled!

Iwobbled over on my cane to the security guy and he let Arly and I through out of pity.I did not think that we would make it in one piece. The Arabs are very clear in their threats when people with 6-8 suitcases on a luggage cart get in their face and top the load off with Grandma who sports a very attractive blue streak tattooed down her chin! One toothless snarl with a hairy eyeball from Grandma and you clear out, like now!

I did love the Rock of Gibralter and pulling into North Africa was a thrill in itself!

One never knows what is waiting around the corner for them, do they? We got off the ship with no dirhams, although we did raid the money machine before we left Spain, so we were loaded down with Euros. We found the exchange office and did a switch. Looking around for someone to ask for directions, we ran into the "Chef de Gare" (station manager), who took pity on me and pointed us toward a bus leaving for Tangier City, an hour away. "But run, he says, it's leaving right away!" Ya right!

When we arrived in Tangier, we were greeted by our new best friend, Hussan, who informed us that he would take care of us and not let us get ripped off by the taxis and other hustlers who were on us like flies on a manure pile. Being a tourist in this town, I felt more obvious than a turd in a punchbowl! We were the only non Arabs on the ferry, on the bus, and for all I could see, in the entire town!

Hussan wanted to give us a two hour tour of the city for only 6000 dirhams! (About $70) I greased him with enough dough so he would go away, but not before he found us a cheap taxi, which took us to the train station for about a tenth of what it would have cost us in Paris!

We now have sleeper couchette car tickets for the train that leaves at 10:00 tonight, and arrives in Marakesh at 8:00 am tomorrow morning. No sooner had we finished our purchase, and there's Hussan wanting to know if we want to go shopping and have a couple of beers with him? No, we're going to go enjoy a nice lunch and relax in a restaurant, but thanks very much!

Lots of love to all. We are not coming back, so send us Ricky Dog, and we will run a shell game in a small cafe somewhere between here and Casablanca! Love, Bryce





Saturday, 27 September 2014

Marvelous Mezquita

Just when you think that you have seen the biggest, best, most beautiful buildings, Spain offers up something that is even more wondrous. Cordoba is a short hour and a half drive from Sevilla, that is if you can figure out how to escape the maze of narrow, one way, blocked off streets to get out of Sevilla! After driving around in circles for a few minutes, we finally got smart and gave a taxi driver 10 euros to lead us to the highway! Why didn't we figure that out when we came into the city?

Once we were on the freeway, it was a nice relaxing drive, and our GPS led us straight to our hotel, which had a nice safe parking lot at the back. Better yet, it was free! We were checked in by 11:00 am and set off on a mile and a half walk to see the Mezquita.

I love it when you can see the castle or cathedral from afar and it looks like something out of a storybook! The Mezquita is set high on the banks of the Guadalquiver River, with a Roman bridge approaching it. At the other end of the bridge is a tower that has been turned into a museum, and in the river are ruins that have been left in their natural state.

We had to walk through this arch in order to entire the medieval city, which is now lined with souvenir shops and restaurants.

They sure liked to build those walls high!

Entering hrough the gates we came into a beautiful courtyard with fountains and pools. When still under the control of the Moors, this huge courtyard was used for people to do their ablutions before praying.

As you have probably gathered, there is a theme to these palaces....the site was originally a Catholic chapel, then the Moors moved in around 750, and brought a period of prosperity to the city, making it the most powerful in Spain. By 1236, the Moors were driven out of the area, and the Christian rulers decided to turn the mosque into a church.

Entering into the chapel, we were first struck by its incredible size. Although it looked like a giant hall, we could not see to the end. But, most awe inspiring were the rows of painted arches going in every direction.

I am grateful to those who took this mosque over for preserving the original design with the exception of the Catholic chapel which sits in the middle of this gigantic structure,

while the integrity of the original building has largely been respected.


Sensational Seville

Just a few hours down the freeway from Granada is the sweet town of Sevilla, although our introduction to the city was actually kind of sour. While the GPS helped us find our way into the center of town, it had a hard time finding our hotel, and we spent a very frustrating hour driving around in circles, going the wrong way down one way streets, and finally getting stuck in a street that was too narrow to drive through. (Many of Sevilles's streets are from the horse and buggy age, and are too narrow for cars!) At this point, a few locals took pity on us, and after backing us out of a spot that was so tight that the shop owners had to close their doors to make room for the car to pass, a young man jumped on his motorcycle and led us straight to our hotel. The next time we visit Spain, we are NOT renting a car!

This was our favourite town so far, with a lively atmosphere, friendly people, tapas bars and pastry shops on every corner, and the most unbelievable old buildings!

On the way into town we passed under the amazing Metropol Parasol, the world's largest wooden sculpture. This looks like a giant honeycomb, and was just completed in 2010. This was the only modern artifact that caught our eye in Sevilla, as the city is a treasure of old buildings, from the sweet shop on the corner

to the watchmaker's shop

to the lovely Spanish balconies overlooking the road below.

The shops were a visual delight, from the souvenir shops,

to the sweet shops

the flower carts

and perfumeria.

Naturally, we visited a few churches, including the small church on the corner

the Basilica de Macarena

and the Catedral de Sevilla.

This is the 3rd largest cathedral in the world next to the Vatican and St. Paul's. As with many Spanish cathedrals, it is built on the site of what was once a mosque.

There is a great system of ramps that led us up to the bell tower to enjoy a view of the entire cathedral and the city below.

We sure were glad that they didn't ring the bells when we were up there, as it would have been deafening!

We finished off a perfect day with the perfect night, enjoying the Flamenco dancers. They are amazing, and can they ever move fast on their feet!





Amazing Alhambra

We usually plan our trip as we go, leaving home with a loose itinerary, firming things up when we are about 5 days out, reserving our hotels and planning the sites we want to visit at the same time. While this flexibility has great advantages, there are some downsides, such as deciding that we want to visit the Alhambra, but finding that all the online tickets are sold out! What to do but pray and proceed on faith that everything will work out?

We booked our room in Granada for two nights, with the backup plan that we could extend our stay if necessary in order to see the Alhambra. The drive from Barcelona was very long but beautiful, past lovely beach towns, olive groves and rolling hills. After 10 hours, we finally arrived to our favourite hotel so far. It was in a great location, quiet, and had a rooftop pool. What could be better?

We asked for a 7am wakeup call, and when we woke up, headed straight to the Alhambra without stopping to eat breakfast. After parking, we walked quickly toward the first group of people that we saw, praying that by some miracle we would get in. God is good! Not only were we at the exact spot for buying tickets, but after a short wait, we were able to buy not one, but two sets, one to get to get into the grounds right away with a 1:00 viewing of the Palacios Nazaries (the main attraction!), and one to view it again at night. We were so happy that we could hardly contain ourselves! God is so good!

To see the Alhambra is especially exciting, as it is the site of a Moorish military fortress dating back as far as 899. It was established as a royal residence in 1238, when the first Nasrad sultan, Mohammad I chose this site high up on the hill overlooking the town to build his palace, a mosque, gardens, houses for his people and all other services needed to maintain the complex.The final conquest of the Alhambra took place when the patrons of Christopher Columbus, King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile unified Spain and drove out the Moors. The Iberian dynasy was the last group of Moors to rule in this area, turning over the palace and all other holdings to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.


As in all castles, the Alhambra is surrounded by a high wall with towers. The square towers date back to Moorish times, while the round towers were built by the Christian rulers. The low walls to the right are the remains of houses that the Moorish townsfolk lived in.

When Emperor Charles V and Queen Isabella of Portugal visited the Alhambra in 1526, they decided to build themselves a home within its walls. In order to do this, they destroyed a wing of the palace so that they could build their own Renaissance castle. The symbolic significance of this was that it showed the Emperor to be one of the most powerful figures in the world, owing to his grandfather conquering the Moors in this area.

While the outside looks like a giant decorated box, the inside looks like a Roman Coliseum. Unfortunately, the building was never used as a royal residence, because the roof was never put on! ....very leaky on rainy days, but very beautiful on starry nights!

The Alhambra has had many owners and gone through several facelifts over the centuries, as Spanish kings recognized the beauty of the Moorish structures, but wanted to incorporate Christian designs. Even Napoleon liked the Alhambra and used it as a barracks! Unfortunately, all of the Moorish art and decoration was removed, but fortunately the pools and fountains remain. Much of the Alhambra fell into ruin over the centuries but has been beautifully restored.

While the entire Alhambra is magical, the main attraction is without a doubt, the main palace, the Palacios Nazaries. Being inside conjurs up pictures of sultans sitting on silken cushions. The ceilings inside the palace were incredible mosaics of thousands of geometric prisms.

The gardens have also gone through a series of remodels through the centuries, largely retaining the designs of the Moors. I felt like playing hide and seek in the maze-like gardens that were created out of hedges, fountains, pools and flowers.

Although we loved our daytime visit, we were thrilled that we were able to return at 10 pm, as the magical feeling of being in the Palacios Nazaries without the crowds will stay with us forever. Having scouted out the palace earlier in the day, we were able to go directly to our favourite spots and quietly reflect on what the Alhambra must have been like in the days of the sultans.