The Cruise – Part 2

We left off leaving Turkey and heading westward back toward Greece.  The morning of July 24th we docked at Piraeus, the largest passenger port in Europe that sits a short distance away from Athens. The highlight of the trip to Athens was definitely going to be the visit to the Parthenon at the Acropolis, the gem of ancient Greek sites. We got to see large sections the Parthenon’s friezes and the pediments in the British Museum at the very beginning of our trip. We saw more in the Louvre in Paris. We had just recently been in Venice and Turkey, and the Venetians were responsible for bombing the Parthenon while it was under Turkish (Ottoman) control in the 1600’s. Despite its long and scattered history, it remains as the symbol of the idealized ancient Greek culture that gave us democracy and philosophy.

This entire gallery in the British Museum is from the Parthenon, full of things that the Greeks would very much like returned.

This entire gallery in the British Museum is from the Parthenon, full of things that the Greeks would very much like returned.

The day itself began with an early morning bus ride from the port into the Athens, where we got off and hoofed it up the hill into the historic site. The word “acropolis” simply means “high city” so while getting up there involves some leg power, the views of the surrounding city are impressive.

The stone used to build the Parthenon came from the pointy rock in the distance.

The stone used to build the Parthenon came from the pointy rock in the distance.

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Sadly, visiting the Acropolis wasn’t anywhere as romantic as its history. Much like our experience with the Mona Lisa, it was more about working your way around the other people than really getting anything out of the sights. And rather than seeing what you see on postcards, you see this.

Yes, that's the original crane.

Yes, that’s the original crane.

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Just as they were still doing excavations in Ephesus, they’re still doing work on the Parthenon. While it’s great that they’re trying to piece things back together and rebuild what they can, if you plan on visiting anytime in the next 20 or 30 years, plan on seeing lots of scaffolding.

Six (replica) sculptures

Six (replica) sculptures

The Parthenon (non-scaffoldy side)

The Parthenon (non-scaffoldy side)

The ground filled with grooved stones for easier walking

The ground filled with grooved stones for easier walking

After walking around the scores of other tour groups, we worked our way into the long line to head back down the hill. Back on the bus we drove around some of the other sites of Athens – the Panathenaic Stadium, Hadrian’s Arch, the Temple of Zeus – before making our way back to the ship. Maybe it was because we had to get up so early, or because it was too hot, or just in comparison to how amazing Ephesus was the day before, but we basically let out a “meh” after the visit to the Acropolis. Worth visiting the most famous of Greek sites?  Sure. Are we in a hurry to go back to Athens?  Meh…

July 25th – Katakolon, Greece (Olympia)

Our ship made its way back to the western side of Greece where we stopped at Katakolon. The excursion for the day was a trip to Olympia, famous for, of course, being the site of the original olympic games. When visiting these places, having a good imagination is important. You see quite a bit of this –

Crumbly rocks

Crumbly rocks

Dusty pathways covered with fallen stones that would have been resting inside building walls or columns had you visited 2700 years ago. Olympia was the site picked to hold the original Olympic games starting in the 7th century B.C. Every four years for over a millennium, athletes from around the Greek states would gather in the city to wrestle and race their way to victory. When the games were restarted in 1896, they returned to Olympia, as they do every Olympics, to light the torch before competition begins.

Other than a few bigger structures, most of the ruins are laying directly on the ground. Some have been organized well enough to show you where rows of columns stood and where the outlines of buildings were. Other areas look as if the archeologist said “I have no frigging clue where this goes” and started putting stone fragments in big piles.

Remains of the city

Remains of the city

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One of the draws of the ancient city was the Temple of Zeus and the gold and ivory statue of Zeus within. Named one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, all that remains of the temple is a bunch of sections of columns and walls. They rebuilt one of the pillars to give you an idea of scale.

Where the temple of Zeus once stood.

Where the temple of Zeus once stood.

For scale - people in front of the reconstructed temple pillar

For scale – people in front of the reconstructed temple pillar

After the temple of Zeus, we got to walk out onto the field where the sporting events were held. To get there, we walked through the same pathway that the athletes themselves would have taken to enter the stadium.

Entrance to the field of competition.

Entrance to the field of competition.

Sure the archway had been rebuilt, but stop to appreciate the fact that these games were held regularly for over 1000 years, and you can’t help but get a little chill as you walk down the path into the stadium. The stadium itself only had an open field where they would have the games. A bunch of crazy people were running from one end to the other, but it was definitely too hot for us to consider that.

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After the stadium we went into an archeological museum that had a few cool displays showing the pediment sculptures from the temple of Zeus.

Gods, centaurs, and combat

Gods, centaurs, and combat

They also had the helmet of Miltiades, a general at the battle of Marathon.

He didn't die in the battle. The helmet most likely had horsehair coming out of the top. However, he apparently had a tiny head.

He didn’t die in the battle. The helmet most likely had horsehair coming out of the top. However, he apparently had a tiny head.

After the museum we had a few minutes to shop before hopping on the bus back to the ship. We had some lunch at a small restaurant by the water. Steve was lured into a small grocery by an ancient, lightly bearded Greek woman, where he bought a bottle of whiskey with hopes of getting it on the ship using the same “I’ll just stick it in my bag” method as before. This time they caught it and made us take it out, saying it would be delivered to our room the following night. Oh well… That night the dinner dress code was “Formal/70’s Disco” which just confused the hell out of us, so we all enjoyed an evening at the buffet.

July 26th – Day at Sea

The last day of the cruise was spent on the water as we made the long trek back to Venice. After six busy and often early days, we were happy to get up late and relax on the ship. Steve went for a run, Jenny laid out in the sun. At 3:00 Steve went and entered a couple blackjack tournaments in the casino. On the last hand of the second round, he and another guy were tied for chip lead, so he doubled on his Ace/8 vs. dealer 7, dealer busted, and he won. After that we went and climbed the rock wall at the back of the ship. Jenny made a fine showing by climbing the medium difficulty path, which a lot of the guys seemed to have trouble doing. By dinner time, the (horrible) whiskey we bought got delivered to our stateroom, so we all met up for drinks and enjoyed one last meal in the dining room.

The cruise ship was docked in Venice before we woke up the next morning. We were up just early enough to randomly catch Steve’s parents getting on the elevator to leave the ship as we were heading for breakfast. We ate and dragged out our time onboard as long as we could until we felt guilty about keeping our housekeeper from being able to prep the room for the next trip. Then, like so many other times, we loaded up our big backpacks and small backpacks and giant bag of accumulated food, got off the ship, and were once again on our own and off to spend a few more nights in Venice.

The Cruise – Part 1

We were scheduled to meet Steve’s parents in Venice the night of July 18th. Doing so meant another long day of train travel with two switches and given our train mix-up a few days before, we weren’t super excited for the opportunity to repeat ourselves.

We took the tram to the Nice train station and found our regional train that would take us across the Italian border to Ventimiglia. The regional trains are frequent and don’t require reservations, so unless you get there and fight your way on right when it pulls in, you won’t get a seat for the busy stretches. From Nice to Monaco we stood shoulder to shoulder in an aisle. Thankfully, two thirds of the train unloaded at Monaco and we were able to get seats for the rest of the short ride into Italy.

From Ventimiglia, we went to Milan, the common switching point for international trains into Italy. Thankfully this time we had reserved seats in a first class compartment that we shared with a nice older couple from Sydney. They were on a six week trip all around Italy and had been just about everywhere else in Europe, so for two hours we swapped travel stories – where to go, where to avoid, where is overpriced (somewhere on the coast the guy ordered a gin and tonic that ended up being 44euro), where you want to eat or not (which somehow led to us all cracking up to the old lady doing her best impression of goat noises).  The conversation was interrupted for a few minutes when the lady checking everybody’s train tickets got into a loud argument with a girl a few compartments away, saying either pay a fine or get off the train (…the train was still moving at the time). The girl was apparently trying to travel on an expired Eurail pass. Needless to say, when the ticket checker came to our compartment all of our documents were ready to be presented.

We had to switch trains in Milan and had exactly 10 minutes to get off of one train and onto the next. Thankfully our train pulled in on time and we made our last connection (double checking that it was the correct train) and were on our way to Venice. It had already been a long day, so we both took naps and woke up as we were going over the water to the odd mass of land and canals that makes up the city.

Oddly enough, we pulled in about 15 minutes late, which ate into the half hour we’d given ourselves to walk to the hotel. Venice is a very small city, but you rarely go in a straight line to get anywhere. Instead of taking the easy option of paying seven euros each for a ride on the water bus, we trusted that the walking route shown by google maps (which we only had a picture of on Steve’s phone) would get us there. With only one small mistake, we found our way to the hotel and were greeted by the familiar faces of Steve’s parents. We went for a gondola ride and then had dinner along the Grand Canal before calling it a night.

The Grand Canal via gondola.

The Grand Canal via gondola.

July 19th – The cruise

After we told people that we were taking this trip, Steve’s parents put forth the idea of meeting and taking a cruise, something that we were all for. It would it be a nice break from the tedious parts of travel – finding trains, sitting on trains, scheduling check in times, unpacking, packing – repeating every few days. We would get to go further east to a lot of places that would have been impossible for us to squeeze in otherwise. And after more than five weeks on the road, it would be great spending time with family and being able to talk about familiar things back home.

We got a leisurely start on Friday morning and were eventually met by our escort and picked up by a boat right outside the hotel. We went along the grand canal to the port and waited while a line of other boats loaded and unloaded other people that were starting or returning from their cruises. Steve’s parents put their suitcases in a pile that they hoped was going to our ship and we all walked to the check-in area. After snaking our way through a line to get our boarding cards, we passed through security and climbed aboard the Royal Caribbean’s Splendour of the Seas.

The ship was, well, a cruise ship. It wasn’t one of the newer super-massive ships with bumper cars and an ice rink, but it carried almost 2000 passengers and however many crew needed to operate a ship/hotel/restaurant with that many guests. There was a small gym, ¼ mile jogging track, a rock climbing wall, a casino, a theater, several bars and restaurants, and a couple pools on top. Day to day was what you’d expect if you’ve been on cruises before – the regular shoveling of buffet food into your face, getting drinks, catching bits of entertainment, and heading out every day to visit whichever location you’d arrived at overnight.

The first night we gathered on the balcony to watch as the ship slowly glided out of Venice into the Ionian Sea.

Venice from the ship

Venice from the ship

On the way out of the city

On the way out of the city

July 20th – Dubrovnik, Croatia

When we booked the cruise, the first stop was listed as Bari, Italy. We were a bit confused, but pleasantly so, when later we saw that the stop had been moved to Dubrovnik, a city and country that none of us had been to. We took an excursion off the ship that started with a ride on a replica of a pirate ship, because what better way to travel to an old walled city than in a pirate ship? We drank a couple of Croatian beers while getting an overview of the very complicated history of the country.

Yay stuff we can't read!

Yay stuff we can’t read!

Why not?

Why not?

Pretty landscapes - check.

Pretty landscapes – check.

Passing through the walls we got so see a city lost in time. The limestone streets have been polished by foot traffic to resemble marble, giving old Dubrovnik a dirty white color that has been unique among the cities we’ve visited. It was actually used in the filming of Game of Thrones (which we haven’t seen, so somebody else can look that up). We took a tour through the city’s main church, which included a vault full of relics (meaning – body parts of saints and religious figures, supposedly including some of Jesus’ diapers.)

Shopping street inside the city

Shopping street inside the city

Alleys

Alleys

A square inside the city

A square inside the city

We had lunch at Nautika, which according to the tour guide was voted the sixth most romantic restaurant in the world. Eating lunch with thirty other people during a tour wasn’t super romantic, but the view over the water was gorgeous.

We walked out of the city and took a bus up to base of the cable car that ran to a lookout above the old city. Pictures do better than words at describing the view from the top.

Rooftops

Rooftops

Above the city

Above the city

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Once back on the ship we had dinner with a family from New Jersey (you get placed with people to fill up big tables on the ship). Steve’s parents went to a show and we won a few bucks in the casino to end the night.

July 21 – Corfu, Greece

We set our clocks forward and hour and got up early to catch our tour bus for the day. This one included a trip up to the top of the island to the second oldest monastery… which wasn’t original because it had all been rebuilt within the last couple hundred years. The monastery was still in use, and was kind of awkward to visit because it was Sunday and they were holding a church service. Imagine a tiny church filled with old locals being passed through by streams of visitors in the middle of service. Outside the church were gardens filled with grapes, beans, and wandering cats. A one-room museum with old religious texts and paintings rounded out visit before we boarded the bus to go to our next stop, the Achilleon Palace.

Three church bells at the monastery

Three church bells at the monastery

Grapes

Grapes

This palace was the home of the empress of Bavaria toward the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire. As might be expected, it was well decorated with paintings and sculptures throughout. The palace got its name due to the family’s love of Achilles, with one of the highlights being the statue of Achilles after he was shot with the arrow.

Everybody has paintings like this, right?

Everybody has paintings like this, right?

Death of Achilles

Death of Achilles

We made our way out of the palace and into old Corfu and ended our trip with a carriage ride around the town. It was as you might expect for an old section of city on an island – somewhat dirty with a lot of graffiti, but the ride was a nice change after much time on the bus.

That night we shared a table with a trio of blondes, a mother and her daughters from Scotland. When we could understand them through their extremely thick accents, they were pleasant enough, although one of the girls said that she wished she were American because she loved American culture… such as the Kardashians. Everybody – join us in a collective face-palm for the cultural message that America is sending the rest of the world…

July 22nd – Santorini, Greece

Santorini is a small island without a port able to accommodate cruise ships, so we stopped a little ways away and had to take tenders to land. We had flashbacks of Tarifa when our departure was delayed because the wind was making the water to choppy to load and unload people from the tenders. They eventually turned the entire cruise ship around to help block the wind on the loading side, so we were able to get ashore. We took a bus up and over the rocky top of the island and down to the southeastern shore where black, volcanic beaches awaited us. We grabbed a few beach chairs and umbrellas and ordered Greek beer from the bar staff running around. For the next few hours we lounged and went for swims in the chilly Aegean sea.

The top of Santorini (another monastery)

The top of Santorini (another monastery)

At the beach

At the beach

While we were at the beach, the cruise ship moved north along the island to stop just outside another port. Our bus took us to the top of the island that was filled with shops and restaurants overlooking the water. To get back down to the tenders, you could either walk the stairs (almost 600 steps), ride a donkey down the stairs, or ride a cable car. We opted to wait in line for the cable car and save our legs.

The cable cars

The cable cars

The top of Santorini

The top of Santorini

Another ship leaving the island

Another ship leaving the island

It was formal night on the ship, which we skipped because we didn’t want to carry “nice” clothes with us for the whole trip just for a couple of formal dinners. We met with Steve’s parents for a couple of drinks before parting ways, them heading to the formal dining room and us to slum it in the buffet. It was nice in the buffet, not crowded at all like it often got during breakfast and lunch.

July 23 – Kusadasi, Turkey

Turkey is one of those middle countries that is both in Europe and in Asia, but being that Kusadasi is in the Asian part, we got to add another continent to our list. North America, Europe, Africa, and now Asia. Not bad for being just shy of six weeks into our trip. The highlight of Kusadasi is Ephesus, the large expanse of roman ruins sitting a few miles inland. We had a guide talk us through the ruins of a large port city.  Once the host of the Temple of Diana, a wonder of the ancient world, the city was slowly abandoned due to a combination of frequent malaria and retreating seas.

Thousands of years later, still a busy town.

Thousands of years later, still a busy town.

The romans and their arches

The romans and their arches

Roman crapper

Roman crapper

We walked through a covered excavation of several massive houses. Inside they were trying to piece together the shattered pieces of marble that once covered the walls. Original mosaics floors were still intact. Frescoes covered other walls with pictures of gods and goddesses. Archeologists had uncovered shopping lists children’s drawings of gladiators on the walls. The scale of the excavation was immense, something that was hard to believe after seeing the picture of the site before they started. Time had covered this massive expanse of houses with dirt and plants so that nothing was visible.

Putting together the pieces

Putting together the pieces

Inside the house

Inside the house

Our group

Our group

Artwork inside the house

Artwork inside the house

At the end of one of the main streets through town, Austrian workers rebuilt the façade of the town’s library. Jokes were rampant about how the library was located directly across the street from a brothel. Just past the library led into the agora, where the reconstruction of the 120+ original shops had just begun. Above the open expense where the shops once stood was the city’s theater that faced outward toward what was once the sea.

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Ruins

Ruins

View of the theater

View of the theater

After a very impressive tour of Ephesus, we were taken back to the port where we endured a demonstration on Turkish carpets. It was basically a big showroom where they throw rugs everywhere with the ultimate goal being to get you to spend $700 on a bathroom rug. Nice as the rugs were, we left as soon as the demonstration ended. We walked around for a while, Steve and his dad sitting down with a giant beer while Jenny and his mom shopped.

Before getting back on the ship, Steve bought a bottle of Jameson in a duty free shop and figured he’d try his luck at getting it aboard. We managed to pass through security without getting stopped. Yay for cheap drinks for the next couple of days! We enjoyed pre-dinner contraband cocktails before heading to dinner with a Polish/Australian couple and a Canadian couple. After dinner, some more whiskey disappeared with the rest of the night.

Next up, in Part 2, Athens.

From Barcelona to Figueres to Valence to Nimes to Marseille to Nice

Barcelona to Nice. On a map it looks simple, just slide along the coast for a while and you’re there. This was another case where appearances were deceiving. We had originally planned for three nights in Barcelona, but changed that to two when we were told that there were no possible train combinations that could get us there on the day we wanted. Moving the trip up a day meant we could get there in a quick 10 hours making only two transfers. So that’s what we went for – Barcelona -> Figueres -> Valence -> Nice, leaving around 8am and getting into Nice at 6ish.

The day started easily enough with a metro ride to the Barcelona train station where we found our seats for the short trip across the French border to Figueres. We had a bit of a layover in Figueres before we caught the second train to Valence. There is where we would have to switch to another train for our last leg to Nice.

We found the platform, a train pulled up and we got on. Right after it pulled away Steve looked at his watch and knew we’d made a mistake. The train to Nice wasn’t supposed to leave for almost another 15 minutes, and most trains, unlike air travel, leave exactly on time. They don’t check tickets before you get on (sometimes not at all), our train wasn’t labeled on the inside and there were no announcements about its destination, but we knew we were on the wrong one. We spent the next few minutes looking at a rail map trying to figure out which train we might be on, where it might be stopping, and just how much of a pain in the ass we had just caused ourselves.

After what seemed like forever watching the scenery whip by at high speeds, the train slowed and we saw the sign for Nimes. Instead of getting on the eastbound train to Nice, we’d stepped on the one leaving moments before that was westbound for Montpellier. Rather than go further in the wrong direction, we jumped off and made our way to the ticket desk to see what we could do.

It could have been worse. They had a regional train to Marseille leaving in a couple hours, with another train from Marseille to Nice leaving shortly after that. We would get into Nice at just after 11pm instead of before 6 as originally planned. We walked out of the Nimes station to get a beer while we waited before getting on what we made sure was the correct train to Marseille. The final train to Nice was late in the evening and a horde of drunken kids got on for the final leg at Cannes. Listening to noisy booze-babbling after 15 hours of traveling wasn’t the highlight of our day…

Finally making it to Nice, we then had to go pick up the key for our apartment in one location before finding the apartment somewhere else. Getting the key wasn’t a problem, but trying to find an apartment in old town Nice after midnight, carrying all our junk, and with streets full of people eating and drinking was. We did laps around the area trying to make sense of a small cell phone map, poorly labeled streets, and the vague directions given by our host. After 45 minutes we finally found the obscure entrance between a restaurant and a tattoo shop. Needless to say, we went up to the room and promptly collapsed.

July 15th

Nice was a city where both of us didn’t really care to see anything at all. We woke up late and made our way out of the old town to find a big grocery store. We were in line for too long behind a large, hairy, and horribly smelly woman buying nothing but a piece of pizza. We made it out of the store a few minutes later to see her sitting on the curb chowing down on her purchase. She didn’t smell any better outside…  (Pizza lady had become a regular reference since then. We swear, we’re not bad people. If this were a smell-o-blog you’d understand.)

Later in the day we walked around town, eventually finding our way to the boardwalk by the beach. The long strip of ocean in Nice has alternating public and private beach areas. For 10 euros and up you can buy your way into one of the private beaches where you might get a chair, umbrella, and the privilege of buying drinks from their bar. The public beaches probably didn’t have bathrooms quite as nice, but we were only five minutes from the apartment anyway. We bought a big beach umbrella so Steve could sit outside for more than eight seconds without bursting into flames. That evening we went into all out party mode and got a pizza (delicious sicilian style with anchovies), some ice cream, and went back to the room to eat while watching the Simpsons.

The beach

The beach

Restaurants everywhere

Restaurants everywhere

Our apartment was a short walk from the Palace of Justice

Our apartment was a short walk from the Palace of Justice

The next two days can be described as sleep late, spend time on a rocky beach, get dinner, bed. Around noon we’d make our way out of the apartment, stop by a small grocery for snacks on the way to the beach, find an open spot on the rocks, set up our umbrella, and hang out for a few hours. The beaches are all rocks and can be uncomfortable until you finally get them aligned with your spine. They’re also impossible to walk on when they get wet, so going into the water really means falling into the water, and coming out means crawling out on all fours.

Rocks on the beach

Rocks on the beach

The public beach

The public beach

View of Nice

View of Nice

There are restaurants everywhere by the beach and in the old town, which makes eating for an indecisive couple a chore. They’ll post daily menus on boards that would be difficult to decipher even if you could read French. After settling on a place, Jenny got a pot full of mussels and Steve got a plate full of squid. On the 17th for Jenny’s birthday we went to an Italian restaurant with decent food, but service so slow that we were ready for bed before dessert came out.

"Yes, I'd like to order section IV, paragraph 2, line 16a."

“Yes, I’d like to order section IV, paragraph 2, line 16a.”

Italian eating italian in France the day before we go to Italy.

Italian eating italian in France the day before we go to Italy.

Once we finally got there, Nice was a great place to spend a few days breaking the “walk around the city for six hours a day” cycle we’d been on. We couldn’t get Jenny to Italy for her birthday, but the French Riviera wasn’t too bad at all.

 

Barcelona

If you’ve been following the blog, you’re probably asking “Hey, what happened to Pamplona?”  Well, that one is going to take a long time to write and we’re kinda lazy, so here’s a quick post about our two days in Barcelona.

It was an easy train ride from Pamplona to Barcelona on the morning of July 12th. The train station connected to the Metro so we hopped on a line going in the direction of our apartment in the gothic quarter. We got off the subway at Liceau on Las Ramblas, a long pedestrian shopping street full of restaurants and cheesy tourist stuff.  Our apartment was a clean, modern place on the 4th floor of an old building that had a bike rental shop on the ground floor. The powerful AC was a pleasant change after three sweaty nights in Pamplona.

As usual, we went right out and found a grocery store to stock up on cheap eats for the next couple of days. On our way back we made a pit stop at a little greek shop for some gyros and spanakopita. We snacked in the room with some beers and went back out to explore.

The gothic quarter is a collection of narrow streets full of shops and restaurants that is great for aimless walking. Pick a direction and go. When you hit a big street with cars, turn around and go a different direction. We zigzagged for a while before finding the path to the beach. One of the cool things about Barcelona is that one second you’re lost in medieval European streets, and the next you’re walking along in a modern beach town full of bicycles and street performers.

Into the sea

Into the sea

The sun was setting as we plopped down on the sand to open another San Miguel. Jenny ran into the water to take her first steps in the Mediterranean. After dark we walked back to the room along Las Ramblas, a much changed street in the evening with prostitutes hanging around outside sex shops and more than one offer for drugs…

The next day we rode the subway up to see the Sagrada Familia, probably the most famous church in the city. It’s still under construction (since 1882…) and defies any notion of what a catholic church should look like. You could go inside and climb some of the towers, but that didn’t sound like fun on a day pushing 100 degrees.

Detail of La Sagrada Familia

Detail of La Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

We made the long walk back from the church so we could see more of the city. Along the way we ran into another park with one of the most impressive fountains we’ve seen on the trip.

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That afternoon we walked down a street full of restaurants near our apartment and found a place serving delicious looking seafood paella. After questioning whether people in Europe ate vegetables other than potatoes, we finally got a salad before our paella.

Yum

Yum

Later in the evening we wandered around some more, going by the other main churches in the area, around the Picasso museum, and a few major squares. We snacked on pizza and ice cream and went back to pack up for what we knew would be a long trip to Nice the next day.

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Actual Duff beer! (Not actually licensed by the Simpsons)

Actual Duff beer! (Not actually licensed by the Simpsons)

 

Run, Fight, Bulls

We left Madrid on the morning of July 9th and used our Eurail passes for the first time in three weeks. The train was a comfortable high speed line where we were served wine and snacks during the three hour trip to into northern Spain. We arrived around 12:30 and walked for 15 minutes or so until we found the apartment we rented. Pamplona is normally a fairly small town, but it explodes during the eight days of the festival every July. The room we rented for three nights in a shared apartment was one of the most expensive of our trip, and it was at least a mile outside of the main part of town.

Our post-apocalyptic apartment complex

Our post-apocalyptic apartment complex

We were supposed to stay with a lady and her son, but the lady decided to take a last minute trip to Seville, much like how people in New Orleans leave town during Mardi Gras. The son was also away, leaving her 38 year old daughter to greet us and watch the place. This wouldn’t normally be an issue, but with the normal residents gone, there was some miscommunication about who got to take which keys, and they didn’t have an extra set for us when we got in. So basically – the daughter had to stay there the entire time to open the door when we got in. She grew up in the U.S. so spoke perfect English and was good to talk to, but I’m sure having to sit around to open the door for us sucked.

We didn’t waste much time before heading out to check out the town. We were getting in on the third day of the festival, so we had some catching up to do. First things to do – get into town, replenish our cash supply, get appropriate festival clothing, and find some sangria.  The route from our apartment into town took us back past the train station, across a small river, and alongside a park filled with improvised campsites and passed out festival goers, before finally arriving at the base of the cliff that separates the old and new parts of town. Here there was a small carnival with rides and games set up on one side, just opposite of the holding pen where the bulls awaited their turn for the next day’s events.  Heading toward the cliff there’s a split in the road, the left taking you up the steep hill that the bulls would take at the start of the run, the right taking you up a different (but still steep) hill that led into town. We climbed up and into the historic part of Pamplona.

Holding pens where the bulls await their fate

Holding pens where the bulls await their fate

View from the top of the hill

View from the top of the hill

The cheap rooms for the festival

The cheap rooms for the festival

The city was much like many other old towns that existed before modern urban planning – with the streets built to fit the terrain rather the terrain changed to accommodate a sensible map.

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We found our way to the main town square, a large area filled with people and bordered by shops, restaurants, and overpriced hotels named after Hemingway. Not having the traditional white shirts and pants, and red bandanas and sashes, we found a little store that was more than happy to outfit us, and soon we blended in with the other festival goers.

On the original list of main things we wanted to see on the trip was a bullfight, so we found our way to the arena ticket window to get seats for the following morning’s fights. I should say we found our way to the line – because a very long line it was. We waited and waited within the crowds and under the hot Spanish sun. Other people in line were getting impatient and eventually a scuffle broke out between a couple of men a little ways in front of us. Too much drink, too much sun, too much waiting, and these things happen…

Steve doing his Hemingway impression

Steve doing his Hemingway impression

Fights in line for bullfights

Fights in line for bullfights

After getting the tickets we kept wandering the town on foot. During this festival, the normally quite town was a writhing mass of people  – drinking, dancing, playing music, sleeping (or passed out) on benches, buying knockoff goods from Africans, throwing coins into the hats of traveling street performers. The end of each day is celebrated with a fireworks show along the river. We sat in the grass while screaming kids jumped around us and colorful explosions lit up the sky.

Groups dancing in the town square

Groups dancing in the town square

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Lots. Of. People.

Lots. Of. People.

Jenny considering buying some jerseys

Jenny considering buying some jerseys

*whistle *boom *sparkle

*whistle *boom *sparkle

July 10th – We were up “early,” got our festival clothes on, and raced out the door so we could see the day’s running of the bulls. We vastly underestimated just how early we would need to get to the fences along the route to actually see anything. The bulls themselves get released at 8am, and getting there at 7:30 meant this was our view…

Amazing!

Amazing!

Several layers deep, all along the course.

Several layers deep, all along the course.

So much for seeing the bulls. But we had the morning to walk the town and see it in a different way than during the night. Families were out and crews were busy scrubbing the evidence of last night’s partying from the streets. Traditional parades featuring giant costumes roamed the roads. We took in some of this before going back to the apartment area for lunch. We sat down at a table at one restaurant and waited for the waiter to come by. He saw us. He was serving other tables. He never came over. Weird. So we went to another place down the street and splurged on good food and wine.

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In the evening it was time for the bull fight. The tradition is controversial, and after seeing it in person we can understand why. Yet, it’s a famous piece of the culture, and we had to see it while we were there. The stadium itself is a big circle, and tickets are bought for either la sombra or el sol – the shade or the sun. The shade side of the stadium is where the old people and anybody actually wanting to see the fights go. The sun is cheaper, hot and sweaty. It’s full of brass bands erupting into song while crews of people shower themselves and everybody else in sangria.

We sat in the shade.

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Where's Waldo?

Where’s Waldo?

Looks sticky

Looks sticky

The fights themselves are well orchestrated events – or that’s the goal anyway. The six bulls that ran up the hill in the morning get to face off against different matadors. It sounds romantic – a man facing off against a giant, ferocious beast, and triumphing with style. In truth, by the time the matador goes on foot against the animal, it has already been worn down and speared by men on armored horses and by others aiming javelins at it’s massive neck to weaken the muscles. The matador’s job is to get the bull, by this point already bleeding significantly, to run after him, making him bleed faster and weaken to the point that he can go in for a kill. Ideally, the final blow is delivered by a well placed thrust of the sword over the head and through the heart. That’s easier said than done. We stayed for four of the fights, and three of them involved the matador missing the spot repeatedly, prolonging the bull’s suffering, getting booed, and having another team come in with daggers to finish the job. The clean strike we saw killed the bull instantly. It’s not a sport for the faint of heart or the hardcore animal lover. It’s not something I’d care to see again. But it was worth witnessing in person.

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July 11th – I think Jenny knew it was coming. I hadn’t actually talked about running with the bulls myself for the first couple days, but after seeing it in person, and knowing I’d probably never be there again, I had to do it. And I think she knew she wouldn’t be able to talk me out of it. So that morning we got up early, for real early this time. We got to the course by 6:30am and found a nice spot with a fence to sit on, and made camp. We sat together for a while as the workers put the rest of the fencing up that keeps the bulls on the path. The crowds started filling in. I assured her I’d be fine and headed off to find a good spot to wait until the run began.

The course for the run is something like 835 meters long, and you can start anywhere you want – at the very beginning where the bulls come out, at the end right before they enter the stadium, or anywhere in between. I picked a spot in a small square and huddled with some other American and Australian guys and waited for the rockets to go off that announce the release of the bulls. For how stupid of an activity it is (Yes, I fully admit that putting yourself in the path of frightened/angry bulls isn’t a smart thing to do) the course was heavily monitored by police and emergency workers doing their best to make things “safe.” The police controlled the gates into the course, checking for alcohol, cameras, and overly intoxicated daredevils. The emergency workers jumped to action to help with the inevitable trips, falls, tramples, and worst case, gorings.

I heard the rockets go off and started moving with the crowd. Adrenaline starts pumping pretty heavily at that point as now there’s no turning back. You wouldn’t want to turn back because there are a bunch of pointy-horned bulls behind you. We rounded a corner into a long straightaway. The street was wide enough that I could stay to the side and keep a person or two between me and the animals as they passed. There’s a buildup of anticipation as more time passes between the rockets and the present, as you know the bulls are closer and closer but even looking back you can’t see through the crowd to exactly where they are. Halfway up the street, the runners behind us start sprinting and shouting and pushing us forward. I could hear the cowbells clanging and then the bulls start going by. The truth is that you don’t really run “with” the bulls, so much as you run away from them, and they’re so much faster than you that you’re only near them for about 15 seconds. I was alongside them for a few seconds before a half dozen people fell down in a pile in front of me and I stopped short before going down myself. And just like that, the bulls were out of sight. A dozen steer follow the bulls down the course, so they came soon after, chased by wild men swatting at them with rolled up magazines.

The run itself goes straight into the bullfight arena. Going through the gates and emerging into a stadium full of people as the morning sun poured over cheering runners was a surreal experience. I stood and soaked it all in for a few minutes before strolling back out to find Jenny.

She had been perched on the fence taking pictures of the craziness, and had no idea where I was. With everybody in the same clothing, it’s hard to pick out individuals as they’re running, but I knew where she was, so I had raised my arms trying to get her attention. She didn’t actually notice me as I passed, but looking through the pictures, she managed to get one with me in it! Cameras weren’t allowed on the run itself, so luckily she was there to get proof of me doing stupid things.

"I'm smiling, but I'll kill you if you get hurt."

“I’m smiling, but I’ll kill you if you get hurt.”

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"Hey! Hey! Look at me!"

“Hey! Hey! Look at me!”

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Still euphoric after running from big animals

Still euphoric after running from big animals

We had the rest of the day to explore and relax and did nothing of note in comparison to what we’d already done. The next morning we watched the bull run on TV with our host. It had been a fairly injury-free festival through the day I ran. The day after was a different story. Gorings happened, and did happen that day. But we also watched live on TV as a freak mishap with the arena gates took place. The large wooden gates themselves make up a wall of the arena when closed, and open outward into the tunnel that makes up the entrance for the bulls and runners. Somehow, with the mass of runners flooding in, they started getting behind one of the open gates, slowly pushing it closed as more people filled in. With only one gate open, it wasn’t nearly enough room for everybody to get through, so a wall of people got stuck together, getting clogged and slowly forced through. To make matter worse, the dozen steer that follow the bulls down the course arrived at the gate and started pushing the mass from behind. Luckily the bulls had already gone through, because if they had gotten stuck in that mess, it could have been terrible. People were getting crushed and dragged from the pile passed out. Jenny and I were both glad I picked the day I did to run and not the day after!

Run with the bulls in Pamplona – checked off my list of crazy things in this world that I just had to do.

Madrid

Morocco was amazing in so many ways, but we were both relieved when we landed back on Spanish soil. A painless RyanAir flight and two metro transfers later and we were at the gate of the apartment building where we would be staying for the next five nights. And this is as good a time as any to digress about one of our biggest foes on this trip – doors.

You can plan for all sorts of travel problems, but it’s hard to image before leaving on a long trip that you’d encounter so many times when you just felt like a total moron because you couldn’t figure out how to open a door. Let’s see here – In Paris, the apartment building had a series of doors you passed through to exit. We spent a few minutes stuck behind one of these doors before we figure out that you had to push on the lock to open it.

In Bordeaux, the layout of the building we were staying in left us totally baffled as to how to get out. Leaving the kitchen took you to a courtyard with six doors and we could not remember which door we came in though. Were these other doors other peoples’ apartments? We spent a good amount of time staring stupidly at each other, trying to muster up the courage to just open random doors. One door was a bathroom, one was a staircase leading to a basement, two wouldn’t open, one was the kitchen we came from, so by the process of elimination we found our way out. Later we’d learn that our host couple had the entire first level.

In Tarifa, the room we had at our hostel was locked from the outside with a small padlock – a padlock that was missing when we arrived so the guy at the desk probably spent half an hour looking for a replacement. When the door was padlocked with the windows open, the horrible winds blew so hard that it made the door pound against its frame. One time Steve went to the bathroom (outside the room) and put the lock on the door with Jenny inside. The wind pounded against the door so much that other people in the hostel pulled the lock off thinking that Jenny was trying to get out.

Back at the gate in Madrid, it appeared to be locked because it wouldn’t open any way we tried. We sat outside staring at the building like “what do we do now?” until an old lady that worked in the building came out to ask what we were doing. She finally opened the gate by lifting a small latch on the top (it wasn’t locked…). The next day we got stuck trying to leave a bookstore through what looked like automatic doors (they weren’t).

Later in Pamplona, the host decided to go on vacation while we were there, leaving her daughter there, but not leaving an extra key. If the daughter left without telling us, we’d just be stuck outside. Thankfully that didn’t happen.

We won’t even start with the number of times we’ve run into barriers at metro stations. You get the point. We can reliably navigate our way from airports and train stations to anywhere in any random city, but we might not be able to operate the door when we get there.

Back to Madrid

We finally got in and made it to the apartment. Still worn down from our time in Morocco, the only thing we did the first night was make our way to a grocery store to buy supplies for the rest of the stay. We walked 10 minutes away to the closest store shown on Google maps, and on the way back walked by an identical store that was literally on the bottom level of our apartment building. Thanks Google…

July 5th – Steve’s birthday!

We went wandering around the city during the day, making stops at a few bookstores to look for some English reading options (getting stuck by an evil door at one of them). We walked by some of the sites – the royal palace, a small plaza de espana (nothing like the one in Seville), a couple of parks. After a few hours in near 100 degree heat, we went back to the room to relax before heading out to a flamenco show in the evening.

Royal Palace

Royal Palace

Gardens around the palace

Gardens around the palace

Hedge maze - that was closed...

Hedge maze – that was closed…

Plaza de Espana

Plaza de Espana

Lots of paintings like this on garage doors

Lots of paintings like this on garage doors

Covered pedestrian street

Covered pedestrian street

Happy 29th!

Happy 29th!

We found a restaurant with flamenco shows that was only a minute walk away from our apartment, so we went down there before the first show started to see if we could get in without reservations. They had one table open for us, so we got in for some sangria and food just before the lights went down. We’d definitely recommend seeing one of these shows if you go to Spain. It’s powerful music with powerful dancers that make you want to walk out clapping your hands and stomping your feet.

Inside of the restaurant

Inside of the restaurant

Olives, meats, and sangria

Olives, meats, and sangria

Music starting

Music starting

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On July 6th we stayed in during the heat of the day and went out in the evening to witness what was apparently the biggest LGBT event in Europe. We had no idea that this was going on, but did some research after seeing what seemed like way too many rainbow cupcakes being sold. There was an insane number of people out on the streets. People were out selling drinks on the sidewalks, running with rainbow flag capes, squirting water guns at crowds that seemed to be 30 people deep on both sides of the road. It definitely beat the pants off of any parade we’ve seen in terms of number of people, but New Orleans still wins hands down for best costumes.

People EVERYWHERE

People EVERYWHERE

EV-ER-Y-WHERE

EV-ER-Y-WHERE

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The following day we decided to start indoors. Madrid is known for several great art museums. The biggest is probably the Prado, but we passed on that to visit the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum just down the road. This museum is an amazing collection of artwork from the 14th to 20th centuries, all amassed by a couple generations of one family. Apparently during the great depression, a lot of people were offloading artwork and these guys bought up a ton of it. It didn’t have the number of old masters that the Prado probably did, but basically any more recent painter imaginable was represented. The collection was laid out well and wasn’t busy so it was one of our favorite museums so far. (No pictures though – Steve had to leave his camera in his bag at coat check).

After the museum we took a stroll through the Parque de Retiro, a large park full of trees, gardens, fountains, and an endless number of ice cream vendors.

Fountain in the park

Fountain in the park

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On July 8th we satisfied Jenny’s craving to see her favorite Picasso work by going to the Reina Sofia museum. In addition to housing Picasso’s Guernica, there was a temporary Dali exhibit set up which gave an interesting look into the work and mind of a famous surrealist.

Inside the Reina Sofia

Inside the Reina Sofia

Covert shot of Picasso's Guernica

Covert shot of Picasso’s Guernica

We stopped out for some traditional spanish food on the way back.

Spanish, Chinese, whatever.

Spanish, Chinese, whatever.

On the 9th, we got up early, packed our bags, and left for the next leg of the trip.

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Six nights in Morocco

The distance from Tarifa to Tangier is only 20 miles or so, but the cultures are worlds apart. That becomes immediately apparent after docking when the Moroccan border guards come aboard the ferry to check passports and immigration cards. Steve wrote “photographer” as his occupation and got a stern look and was asked what newspaper he worked for. “Not press, weddings mostly.” The guards said something, laughed, and handed over the passport. After walking off the ferry there was another guard to check that the passports had been properly stamped.

If you do any advance reading about Morocco, you’ll certainly hear about how people are going to approach you try to “help” you or “guide” you or be your friend and then expect money for it. Well that’s all dead on. Before we were even outside the port building we were getting approached by men asking us where we were going, what we were doing, did we need to exchange money, would we like a tour of Tangier, and everything else you could imagine. We approached a row of taxis and had an old man lead us to his unmarked car where he opened the door and beckoned us in. …No thanks, we’ll at least get into a marked cab.

We only had a few minutes to get to the train station if we wanted to be on the early train leaving for Fes. The taxi driver was initially insistent on going slow and pointing out the sites as we went along, trying to get us to bite on a longer tour of Tangier, guided by him, of course. After the third “no thanks, just the train station” he finally gave up on that and spent the remaining five minutes of the ride offering to exchange money for me. It’s illegal to take much Moroccan currency out of the country, so you can’t get it ahead of time. He seemed genuinely sad that we knew we could get a better exchange rate at the train station’s ATM. He tried one more “you won’t make the train, take my Tangier tour” before we paid him. Ten minutes later we were in our compartment on the train ready to start the five hour trip to Fes.

The countryside passing on the way to Fes was striking, in both good and bad ways. There were lots of great landscapes full of hills and cropland, but much of the infrastructure was in horrible shape. Maybe we should have expected that, after all, we were going to Fes, which was founded in 859. Things are bound to get run down in a country that old. The age of things can be understood, but what stood out to both of us was the garbage. It was everywhere. Maybe we take modern landfills for granted, things which maybe they didn’t have. It’s as if the norm in every little town we passed was to take the garbage and just dump it in piles at the edge of town. Morocco – land of rustic desert landscapes and garbage piles.

The train ride passed without issue and we emerged out of the Fes station to be bombarded with another row of taxi drivers. We found a driver who must have smelled that we just got into the country because he took us to our destination and charged us easily four times what the fare should have been. Note to other people – do a little research beforehand, or just be insistent on finding a driver that will use the meter, even though most will outright lie (meter is broken, we don’t use meters here, meter doesn’t get used before 2pm, etc.). Granted, getting ripped off meant we paid about six dollars for our cab ride.

We got dropped off at Ain Azlitten, a “car park” at one of the entrances to the Fes medina. Fes is basically divided into the medina and the new town. The medina is the ancient walled city with a maze of pedestrian streets that cars can’t enter. We were staying just inside. At Ain Azlitten, a “security guard” walked with us to a cafe where we were to get help finding the place we were staying. The people at the cafe made sure we paid the guard for his security services. We were offered some traditional mint tea while we waited for another guide to lead us to Dar el Ma, the riad we would be staying in for the next four nights.

Mint tea - like liquid mint gum.

Mint tea – like liquid mint gum.

A riad is a traditional Moroccan house with an interior courtyard or garden. Ours was a place that an English couple bought and put a ton of work into restoring, so it was a beautiful mix of old and new that we had all to ourselves. There was a housekeeper that would come in every morning to make us breakfast and we had dinner on the terrace. Of all the places we booked, this was one we had been looking forward to.

Looking across the courtyard

Looking across the courtyard

Looking down into the courtyard

Looking down into the courtyard

Kitchen

Kitchen

View from our terrace

View from our terrace

In the evening we ventured back out to the Cafe Khmissa, the same cafe where we first had tea. They had a rooftop dining area where we ate chicken tagine and turkey skewers and had a small bottle of Moroccan wine. We were still new in country so we didn’t argue when they charged us what seemed like more than the menu prices had stated. Over the next couple days, we quickly learned that inside the medina, you haggle for everything, including things that on the surface have fixed prices. Everything.

June 29

We got up slowly and heard Houda, the housekeeper downstairs preparing breakfast. She gave us a tray of Moroccan food that we can’t name – a crepe-like roll, a bread made from semolina, and a fried egg (ok, we knew what the egg was). The owners kept a photo album and notebook near the breakfast table, the album showing the extent of the renovation process, and the notebook full of messages from previous guests from such far away places as Dayton, Ohio.

After eating we made our first foray into the medina. We thought Seville was difficult to navigate, but Fes was downright labyrinthine. A long series of winding, hilly streets, branching every which way with unexpected dead ends. We didn’t have a map and don’t really think it would’ve been of much help as if the streets were marked (many were not) then they were often marked in worn down signs written in arabic. We did our best to follow a series of red and brown signs pointing in the direction of the major entrance and exit of the medina and even then, we still got turned around a number of times.

The smell of mule crap was a major part of the atmosphere in some areas.

The smell of mule crap was a major part of the atmosphere in some areas.

Adding to the confusion of the streets is the sheer number of people passing through. These are not sleepy neighborhoods, they’re lively and crowded, bordered on all sides with souqs (little shops) selling anything and everything you can imagine. If you stop to try to figure out where you are, you’re likely to get run over, by people or donkeys hauling leather to one of the tanneries. That or have some friendly person approach you and offer to guide you out, for a small fee (or a large one, depending on how well you negotiate).

Apart from always feeling lost (we’ve done that in plenty of cities) the atmosphere inside was so different than anything we’ve ever experienced. It was a people watcher’s dream. Never have we seen such a collection of interesting characters amassed in one spot. Old people in pristine white clothing struggling up the slopes. Women’s clothing ranging from what we might expect as typically attire, all the way to the fully covered garb that leaves only the eyes visible. All manner of infirm and disabled squatted in the streets waiting for alms. Little kids walked hand in hand dodging the regular piles of mule droppings… and occasionally not dodging them. A thousand faces leaned forward over stacks of books or spices or leather goods, as much eyeing us foreigners as we were eyeing them.

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The souqs seemed loosely arranged by the sort of product they were selling. One street had modern consumer goods such as cell phones and electronic gadgets. Other streets focused on metal work, with many of the shops having tools for vendors to make their goods right then and there. There were streets selling nothing but shoes, others selling nothing but carpets, some with meat and produce, others just selling leather goods. There’s surely a way to figure out where you are just by noting what “district” you’re in, but it’d probably take a while to learn that “hey, I’m in the yellow shoe block, I should go left past the book sellers and through the meat market to get to the clothiers.”

Spice seller

Spice seller

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Souqs

Souqs

Morning bread

Morning bread

One unfortunate thing was that people were generally not friendly to cameras. If you did take pictures, they wanted money. It was too crowded and busy to sit and people watch with a long lens, so most of the images taking inside the medina were shot from the hip (i.e. with the camera hanging on its strap and without looking through the viewfinder).  So despite all of the interesting people and sights, it just wasn’t worth the headache of having people hassle you for coins if you have a camera with you.

The tanneries of the medina were supposedly one of the things to see while in the medina, so we followed signs toward that. As you get closer the number of guys on the street trying to coax you into some terrace for a view increases dramatically. A whole row of men tried to get us up onto one rooftop or another. We made a turn down a street that led straight to the main tannery and quickly realized that it was a regular roadway for the mules that carry hides in and out for processing, because the whole street was covered in waste and was full of little alcoves where they dropped off fly covered skins. We turned back before long to get out of the smell and the filth. That was a little too authentic of an experience…

Piles of hides headed for a tannery.

Piles of hides headed for a tannery.

This mule was really fighting going down the steep street to the tannery.

This mule was really fighting going down the steep street to the tannery.

We eventually made our way out of the north end of the medina, stood and admired the view of the town from the outside for a moment, then headed back the way we came. It doesn’t really get any easier the second time through. More trying to follow loosely labeled signs through throngs of people without getting separated or run over. After about two hours on the streets, we went back to the room.

Phew…. The medina is not for the faint of heart.

After a little break, we decided to trek out to one of the several modern grocery stores in the city. We walked back out to Ain Azlitten with hopes of catching a taxi, but apparently it’s not that regular of a stop. We waited there for a few minutes before walking out to the end of the street outside the car park where we waited again. Eventually a cab pulled up and stopped. There was a tan but Caucasian looking man in the front seat that we looked over as Steve tried to say the name of the supermarket we were trying to get to. While the driver understood that we were trying to go to a grocery store, we didn’t understand that there were more than one, some closer than others to town.

After a back and forth with some hand gesturing leaving us at a point where we still didn’t understand each other, the man in the passenger seat said something to the driver who then gestured us into the car. We got in and the other passenger turned around and said “English?” in a thick accent. It turns out that he was a Parisian who came to Fes to retire. He apologized for his broken English, and asked us what we were looking for. “Wine.” He laughed and said that it would be a little difficult, but still possible to find because we were only a couple weeks away from the start of Ramadan, and then told us that there was another grocery store much closer than the one we knew of that would get us what we wanted. He told the driver the new destination, and we were on our way. We would joke about French people being rude or snooty, but once again, a French person helped us when we would have otherwise been stuck.

We bought some chicken and vegetables for dinner, a few snacks, and several bottles of cheap Moroccan wine before catching a taxi back to the house. Jenny cooked dinner that we ate on the terrace, accompanied by the resident rooftop cat that was desperate for some food. That evening we sat on top of the city with a bottle of wine, overlooking a vista full of crumbling and uneven rooftops.

We had both been impacted by just how different the day’s experience was from anything else we’d ever seen. The medina wasn’t some tourist attraction, it was every day life for a large number of people. It was hot and dirty and difficult and you could see it on the worn out faces of the older people that crowded the streets. We had come to Morocco to get something entirely different from the western European experience, and that we got.

The city at night

The city at night

Lower terrace

Lower terrace

The next morning is when it began. Steve started waking up early to go to the bathroom and Jenny followed. We knew that stomach problems and diarrhea were a possibility, but we thought we’d be ok by sticking to bottled water and fully cooked food. No such luck. Our second full day in Fes was spent in an aching, exhausted state, going between bed and bathroom. We stayed in for nearly the whole day. Only leaving in the evening because we knew we’d need to eat something, especially considering how…. empty…  we were.

Walking up the main street we found Café Clock, a place recommended to us by our French taxi companion. He told us it was owned by an Englishman and was a hangout for English speaking types. It was a three story building with dining on every level and a concert taking place at the bottom. We sat on the roof listening to the clattering music while we waited for our lamb and camel burgers. Steve at every bit of his, Jenny didn’t touch hers.

Delicious camel burger

Delicious camel burger

Musicians playing at the bottom of Cafe Clock

Musicians playing at the bottom of Cafe Clock

The next morning we still weren’t felling great, but the body aches had passed. We ate Jenny’s leftover lamb burger for lunch and went out for a short while to barter for a ring and a few postcards. And so went our time in Fes. We had hoped to hire a guide to take us around on one of those last two days, but the need to be within five minutes of a bathroom and constant stomach issues really hinders your willingness to go out.

Somebody's dinner

Somebody’s dinner

Getting scraps from the butcher

Getting scraps from the butcher

Vegetable seller

Vegetable seller

July 2nd.

We packed up and said goodbye to the lovely riad that was our home for four nights. An army of taxis awaited us outside the gate at Bab BouJloud, and before long we were at the train station getting tickets for the seven hour journey to Marrakesh.  We wish we could say that the ride was pleasant, but there was a problem with the air conditioning on the train. Problem being – there simply wasn’t any in the car we were in. We cooked in our compartment alongside a trio of French people and a Moroccan mother or grandmother trying to keep control of the young girl she shared a seat with. Marrakesh finally approached and we got out into a station that looked identical to the one in Fes.

There was another row of men waiting right outside the station jockeying for taxi passengers. We followed one of them to his cab where he opened the trunk and said 80 dirham. Had this been our first day in the country we probably would have been like “80 of your strange currency units? Super!” Seeing as we’d been dealing with people trying to rip us off for four days already, Steve asked the cabi to put on the meter. “We don’t use meter in Marrakesh” Bullshit. “Ok, 70 dirham.” No, put on the meter. “50 dirham?” Steve told the driver that we had paid 15 dirham for a longer ride in Fes this morning. At that point, the driver closed his trunk and said “taxi in Marrakesh too expensive for you. You take bus, 3 dirham.”

Immediately as we were walking away from the first driver’s taxi, another man walked up and asked for our destination. “Ok, 20 dirham together.” Good, take us there. If he had used the meter it probably would have been about 15, but 20 was at least a reasonable offer. A few minutes later we were dropped off at the Djemaa el fna square where we began our walk to Café France, which was the major landmark and start of the directions to our place.

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Steve had his phone out navigating with the instructions given on AirBnB and we were well on our way when a guy approached us and asked where we were going. We tried to brush him off but almost instinctively he seemed to know that we were looking for riad 38 and walked ahead of us in the direction we were already going. Without much choice but to “follow” him, we went in that direction and walked up to the door marked 38. Another kid on a bike came up and started asking for money. Steve pulled some change out of his pocket and they repeatedly asked for paper money. We Steve refused to give them anything besides the roughly $2 in change, the kid on the bike actually asked if he could have Steve’s sunglasses. Really? We didn’t want the first guy’s “help” and you didn’t do anything, get the hell out of here.

Eventually the housekeeper opened the door and guided us in to sit and wait for the guy who worked there. This place was basically a six room hostel with a nice courtyard area where you could sit and relax, a small pool in the center. Reduane, the hostel manager came out from his room wearing a long white robe with black wrap around sunglasses and greeted us with some of the most stoned speech imaginable. “You want beer, it’s possible. You want food sometime, it’s possible.” He asked Jenny if she was Spanish and said she had a Spanish looking face. “It’s very nice.” Then he grinned and showed us to our room. It was freshly painted with bright purple and orange, and despite not having air conditioning, a good bed made it one of the more comfortable rooms we’ve had.

We went out around dusk to see the spectacle that was the Djemaa el fna in the evening. Hordes of stalls set up to sell trinkets and food to tourists. Men with leashed monkeys would approach you offering to have the monkey sit on your shoulders (for a price). Groups of snake charmers set up areas with cobras and other snakes that men would let you hold (for a price). Groups with small acrobatic acts performed stunts in front of the restaurants around the square and came around for tips.

Tagine and couscous

Tagine and couscous

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In every way that Fes felt like an authentic experience, Marrakesh felt like a circus show. None of what was going on seemed real. The square was full of white girls in tank tops and shorts and guys trying to sell you orange juice or a photo op. We had dinner on the border of the square and watched all this happen for a while before heading back to the room to open the bottle of Moroccan wine that we had brought with us from Fes. Maybe it should have been obvious, but wine produced in a culture that doesn’t really drink was not good.

Snake charmers

Snake charmers

Fresh squeezed orange juice carts everywhere

Fresh squeezed orange juice carts everywhere

The mainstay of the Moroccan rooftop - the satellite dish.

The mainstay of the Moroccan rooftop – the satellite dish.

July 3rd

We were both tired. Tired of having stomach problems, tired of being approached by people for money or hissed at (a weird way of catcalling). We went out to the square to sit on the upper level of a pizza place for lunch, which actually ended up being fairly nice. We were the only people up there for a while and the pizza was decent. A tiny little restaurant cat kept us company while we ate.

So... we thought these would be smaller

So… we thought these would be smaller

After lunch we spent a good chunk of the day lounging around reading and down by the pool. We watched other travelers go in and out, some testing their bravery in the little swimming pool. Pools in Ohio get heated. I think this pool in Marrakesh was cooled because it was absolutely freezing. When first sitting down on a bench to read, we heard the sounds of a couple having sex. After it ended we saw Reduane come out and we assumed that some young lady would follow behind him. We could barely keep from laughing when we saw a giant, older looking woman(?) follow him out. We could only imagine that she was a working woman(?), because she certainly didn’t act or dress like your typical Moroccan lady.

In the evening we asked Reduane for a restaurant recommendation nearby and he directed us to Café Brahmin just a short walk away. This place had people on the street that had been trying to lure us in for the past day and a half and we finally did something beside ignore them. We got a window table upstairs in what was a really nice setting – candlelit with a pair of musicians playing quietly in the background. We got some very flavorful steak kabobs and chicken couscous that ended up being our favorite meal in the country.

July 4th.

After being woken by the 4:35am adhan (the first of five daily calls to prayer blasted over loudspeakers all over the city), we left our keys in the room and headed out to the main square to catch a cab to the airport. We purposely walked right by all the taxis waiting in the thick of the square to prey on departing tourists, and made our way to a busier area to catch a more reasonable ride. It was a short trip to Marrakesh’s small airport where we got in with enough time to spend our remaining dirham on sandwiches and coffee. Another series of RyanAir sales pitches later and we landed in Madrid.

The Windy City

It’s roughly a three hour bus ride from Seville to Tarifa, the southernmost tip of not only Spain, but all of Europe.  The town itself really has only two things – regular ferry service to Tangier, and wind. The stretch of beach going up the coast is a favorite location for kite surfers. As soon as we got off the bus, we understood why. The bags on our backs were big enough to act as sails and push us around when the wind gusted. After some staggered walking, we found our way to the Melting Pot hostel where we had a room for the night. Note to others – the location of the bus station on Google Maps isn’t where the bus station really is…

Tarifa is full of hostels due to the drifter/traveler/backpacker nature of its visitors. We’d stayed in private or shared residences through AirBnB for the entire trip up to this point, so this was the first hostel experience. It was nice to be in a place with some other people around. We checked in, dropped bags off, and the got word that the ferry service had shut down due to high winds. The guy at the front desk told us to call the port in the morning to see if ferries would be running again, but that it wasn’t looking promising.

Windy enough to destroy these flags...

Windy enough to destroy these flags…

So we wandered around for a bit. We’re not joking when we say this place is small. It was nice for a minute, realizing you could walk from one end of town to the other in about 15 minutes. But then you realize that there’s nothing there other than hostels and overpriced restaurants catering to the hostel guests. We found a couple of grocery stores that were both closed due to a power outage (most likely wind related) that we’d have to come back to for our usual cheap bottle of wine.

There are a few winding pedestrian shopping streets in town.

There are a few winding pedestrian shopping streets in town.

The tower of Guzman castle (13th century)

The tower of Guzman castle (13th century)

Guzman castle

Guzman castle

After an unimpressive meal we went back to the hostel for the night. We thought we’d try to be social and have our wine in the common area downstairs. Unfortunately, the common area consisted of a couch occupied by a sleeping man, one chair occupied by the resident sleeping cat, and a second chair with a guy reading a book. We ended the night watching the Hunger Games on Amazon and fell asleep to the wind wailing and knocking against the door.

View from our hostel

View from our hostel

June 27th

We got up early, showered, and were immediately given a look by the girl at the front desk like “What are you crazy? It’s way too windy for ferries to go anywhere today.” The port was closed for a second day due to even stronger “Levante” winds. So instead of catching the ferry and getting to Fes like we had planned, to be at the place we had booked, we were stuck trying to figure out what to do. The hostel we were at was booked solid for the night, so we had to check out, go up the street, and check into the Hostel Margaritas. We contacted the people in Fes we were supposed to stay with, and luckily they were kind enough to shift our reservation up by one day so we wouldn’t lose a night there. We’d just have to sacrifice a night in Marrakesh.

With logistical things taken care of, we were left with a full day in Tarifa. We had already explored the day before, so we went down to the beach, hoping to catch sight of some kite surfers. No luck. Walking along the beach here was like walking through the desert in a post apocalyptic movie. We don’t know if the wind was too powerful for kite surfing, but there wasn’t a soul on the beach. Pictures were impossible because the wind would have sandblasted and destroyed Steve’s lenses. The beach couldn’t be described as pleasant… just too windy to enjoy.  So we idled the day away; walking, looking at stuff in stores, the usual trip to the grocery store, an afternoon nap.

Some of the lovelier bits of town

Some of the lovelier bits of town

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Sorry Romeo, Juliet is out getting a tetanus shot.

Sorry Romeo, Juliet is out getting a tetanus shot.

We ventured outside at dusk to get some food and settled on falafel and kebab sold by a Nigerian turned Tarifan. We went to bed with the winds still howling.

June 28

All you can do is wake up hoping that you’ll get good news from the port. Steve got up early and went to the front desk of the hostel… which was empty. He made the 10 minute walk to the port to ask the people there if the ferries would be leaving as scheduled and got a shoulder shrug and a “maybe.” Checking out of another room, we hauled our bags to the port 45 minutes later and got good news. They were sending one ferry across in the morning and we could be on it.

The ferries are big pedestrian and vehicle transports that make the 45 minute trip across the straight to Tangier up to seven times a day. It was a comfortable ride and a relief to know that we wouldn’t be stuck in sleepy Tarifa for a third day. We had coffee and stuck up a conversation with a Canadian/Portuguese family and before long we were watching the approach of the sandy white buildings of Tangier.

Finally, Africa!

 

Expectations

 

When starting new things it’s always fun to come up with expectations or predictions of what you think will happen. Then, when things are over, look back and see just how wrong you were about everything. We took a few minutes while waiting for our flight to list some of what we imagine will happen during this 11 week trip to foreign lands.

  • Both: Expect to be sore from carrying our heavy bags around. (Day one and this has already proven true)
  • Jenny: Expect London’s weather to be equally or more crappy than the food. (Day one, and this has also already proven true)
  • We both expect to get lost, more than once, in multiple cities.
  • We both expect this trip to be good training for our future run on the Amazing Race. It could happen, right?
  • Jenny expects to get tan. Steve expects to get freckled.
  • Other than our skydiving birthday, we expect these to be among our most memorable. Steve will be in Spain during his, Jenny will be in Nice, probably by a beach.
  • We expect to get sick of each other at some point. (Insert joke about being day one and this expectation already proving true).
  • Steve expects to get cranky at some point. (Yep, this happened in a crowded London bar that was too much for him to handle after running on 30+ hours with only an hour of plane sleep)
  • Jenny expects to get homesick, to cry, and apologized ahead of time. (Day one, and we both miss our cats already. They probably already forget who we are…)
  • Steve expects to spend way more money than we had planned.
  • Jenny expects to want to eat out way more than we should, and to get shot down by Steve (see above expectation)
  • Jenny expects to get hangry often (see above expectation)
  • We expect these 11 weeks to fly by.
  • We expect that we’ll want to do this again…
We expect this guy to not get whatever part he's practicing for...

We expect this guy to not get whatever part he’s practicing for… (Times Square, NYC)

 

Packing for the trip

Not too far down the list of questions we get about the trip is “What are you packing?”  In lieu of my normal “socks, underwear, and camera gear” answer, I figured I’d show you. Jenny and I both have Kelty backpacks (hers is a bit smaller than mine) that we’ll stuff with what we need to get by between trips to the laundry. Keeping in mind that I’ll be wearing the shoes and a set of clothes, and that we’ll pick up consumables like shampoo when we get there, here’s what I’m taking.

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And, no, the cat won’t be coming with us.