Prague

August 10th – Vienna to Prague

Our train ride to Prague was one of those where reservations were “optional.” This means that you can either pay to get a reserved seat or just try to be first on the train to get one of the unreserved seats. The system sounds nice – be spontaneous, save a few bucks – but the reality ends up being a mad dash by the unreserved masses for the few available seats left on the train. You still get to ride if you don’t get a seat, but you might be sitting on the floor in the baggage area. We worked our way through several cars before jumping into some open seats. We made it one stop before another lady got on and said that Steve was in her seat. He got up and found another one, but this process of people getting on and kicking people out of their reserved seats continued for the nearly five hour trip to Prague.

From the train station it was only a 10-15 minute walk to the apartment. After the cleanliness of Vienna, there was a noticeable difference in Prague. Things were dirtier and a little more run down. The people were sketchier and there were far more “characters” (e.g. drunken bums) roaming around. But it’s the characters that make a place interesting, right?

Just before 2pm we arrived at the gate and were met by a young guy who spoke little English, but let us into the apartment. This was one of the biggest places we’d had all summer, so we got to spread out, do some cooking and laundry for a couple days. Sleeping was cut short by a construction crew getting started by 8:00am every day, but all in all it wasn’t a bad place.

That first night we went wild. What else can you do in Prague? We went to a club, got wasted, and emerged a sweaty mess when the sun came up.

Obviously that’s not true. We went to a grocery store to stock up on things, went back out later, picked up Chinese food, and ate in the apartment. Party – Jenny and Steve style.

Wild night! WOOOO!!!

Wild night! WOOOO!!!

August 11th – Wandering around the old country

Well rested and fueled by a breakfast of leftover Chinese food, we set off to explore the town. We went up our street a short way into Wenceslas Square. Set between the old town and new town, the square is full of huts selling trinkets and Czech fair food to the crowds. From there, we headed toward the astronomical clock.

Wenceslas Square

Wenceslas Square

Every hour, crowds gather to watch the figures around the clock come to life. The skeleton rings a bell, other characters move around. It’s actually not that exciting, but the clock is complicated enough to be an oddity worth catching while in the area.

Astronomical Clock

Astronomical Clock

No idea what all this says...

No idea what all this says…

We made our way to the Charles bridge. You can find beautiful pictures of the Charles bridge in the morning fog, lined rows of black sculptures. During the day, it is full of people and street performers.

Charles Bridge

Charles Bridge

If you follow the hills up the other side of the river, you’ll slowly approach the Prague Castle. We stopped into a bar claiming to be the oldest medieval bar in the country, serving beer daily since 1300 something. They made their own dark and light beers that were extremely heavy, but it was a nice stopping point as we made our way up the hill.

Beers by candlelight

Beers by candlelight

Yep, we're awesome.

Yep, we’re awesome.

Inside the bar

Inside the bar

The Prague Castle itself isn’t a single building, but a walled complex full of structures. The entrances are still guarded by soldiers, but you can freely enter and walk around (or take a paid tour of some of the buildings if you’d like). The “don’t miss” church inside the castle is St. Vitus, a gothic cathedral founded in 1344.

Front of St. Vitus cathedral

Front of St. Vitus cathedral

Interior of St. Vitus

Interior of St. Vitus

From the height of the castle, you can get some great views of the surrounding city.

The Charles Bridge as seen from the Prague Castle

The Charles Bridge as seen from the Prague Castle

We left the castle and made our way back to Wenceslas Square where we ate some sausage and ham that was being smoked. We also got some sort of ringed donut thing that was covered in sugar and deliciousness.

That evening we went back to the square to check out the Ambassador Casino. We’d seen signs for casinos all over the place, but this one seemed to be central and easy to get to, so we figured – why not?  Well the casinos in Prague aren’t what we typical-Americans thing of as a casino. After going up some stairs and getting our IDs checked at a door, we were buzzed into a single room that had maybe four poker tables, one blackjack table, a couple of roulette tables, and 15 or so slot machines – half of which seemed to be broken. Through the thick cloud of lingering cigarette smoke we found our way to a blackjack table where Steve sat down for a while. Needless to say, this was no Vegas.

August 12th

We spent most of the day inside catching up on writing and work. When we did venture out, it was only for a short while to walk around. Neither of us had anything that we really cared to do, so we took it easy, made dinner at the apartment, and got ready for Berlin the next day.

Overnight to Vienna

August 7th – Overnight to Vienna

We were due to hop on a train at 7:12 in the evening. While it seemed good that we’d have all day in Rome to do whatever we wanted, there were a few practical problems that we didn’t think about ahead of time.

(1)          It was horribly, uncomfortably hot out.

(2)         We had to check out of our room at 11:00am, with all of our bags

Problem two we could deal with – storing bags at the train station wasn’t cheap, but we could do it and still go out and see stuff if we wanted. Problem one left us few options. We were already soaked in sweat just getting to the station, and we were about to board a 13 hour long overnight train where we didn’t have the option to shower. Even without our bags, going out to do anything would have left us feeling disgusting, and we probably would have killed our host in Vienna with our stink.

So we sat in the train station. Not the best way to spend a day, but we avoided the heat, and Roma Termini is a large station full of shops and restaurants so we were able to wander around and occupy ourselves before getting on the train. Needless to say we were ready to go when just before 7:00 our train’s platform assignment popped up on the departure screens.

This was our first overnight train of the trip, so it was kind of fun getting on and being welcomed to our little mobile hotel room with small bottles of wine and water, and washcloths to clean up with in our tiny sink. The train was unbearably hot until we finally started moving and the air conditioning turned on. They came by and gave us little fruit cups, which – yay fruit! – but turn on the frigging AC.

Inside our cabin

Inside our cabin

We spent the evening on the train eating junk food and drinking wine, watching as our last views of the Italian countryside passed into darkness. Our gruff Austrian cabin steward came by to turn our beds down around 11, and we got what sleep we could. Between the shaking of the train as it passed through the Italian-Austrian border, and the constant rattling of tracks and creaking of the cabin, even a sleeper car offered only slightly better rest than you might get on a plane.

August 8th – Vienna

In the morning, we woke up to announcements of upcoming stations. We were brought a breakfast of coffee, juice, bread rolls, a couple slices of meat, and some yogurt. The train made a stop at one station that didn’t look like ours, so after we stayed on, we looked around anxiously hoping that we had made the right choice. It didn’t help that our train was running late. Finally at almost 9 am, thirty minutes after we were supposed to arrive, we saw WIEN MEIDLING signs approaching. The Latin portion of the trip was over, and the Germanic adventure had begun.

The public transport system in Vienna, while extensive, is a mess to decipher at first. A mix of underground, tram, and bus lines lay over the city. The subway actually leaves from a train station platform, not a separate subway stop. Weird. It took us a while to figure that one out. We took a line to what we thought would be close to our apartment, got out, and had no idea which direction to go. Thankfully as we stood there turning a map over and looking around, an older man walked up to us and asked us where we were going. He was an Austrian guy on his way to a doctors appointment, but was apparently going the same direction as us, so he actually walked us down and got us onto another subway line, rode the train with us for a couple of stops and then pointed us in the right direction. He spoke English like an Australian and talked about his extensive travels in southeast Asia.

Only an hour late, we found the buzzer for our apartment and we soon ushered up by Leo, a Ukrainian born, American immigrant, now living in Austria for school. We were sharing his place for two nights and he ended up being an extremely nice host. The apartment was simple, but just outside the city center and right down the street from a supermarket.

We were tired and hadn’t showered in over 24 hours, so first order of business was a nap and a bath. After that, we ventured out into Vienna’s inner city.

Why Vienna? Honestly, we knew nothing about this city when planning the trip. It just looked like a direct route between Italy and Prague.  Walking around the inner city, we quickly remembered that Vienna was once the capital of a little thing called the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It had all the fancy buildings you’d expect from an imperial center. In notable contrast to many places we’d been in Italy… it was clean. You could eat off of these streets.

St. Stephen's, an interesting church, too big to get a wide shot of in the cramped streets

St. Stephen’s, an interesting church, too big to get a wide shot of in the cramped streets

Another church... (whose name was blocked by scaffolding on the front)

Another church… (whose name was blocked by scaffolding on the front)

We walked by St. Stephen’s cathedral, the Hofburg, saw the Rathaus, saw many of the museums in the area. We walked through a park near the Hofburg where a lady let out the most insane belch imaginable, right as we walked by. Eww… Maybe Austria isn’t so clean…

Goethe chillin

Goethe chillin

The Rathaus

The Rathaus

Hofburg

Hofburg

After taking in our loop around the city center, we stopped by the grocery store for lunch food before heading to the room to chill out. Between being tired and it being 100 degrees outside, we both needed a nap.

We woke up in the evening and tried to come up with something to do. Food being first on Jenny’s mind, she looked up Anthony Bourdain online and he had done a No Reservations show in Vienna. We lounged in bed watching a guy with the best job in the world drink and eat his way through the city. Afterwards we were inspired to venture back into the city center to find a place to get some beer and sausage. Stands selling all manner of sausages are plentiful in the city, so before long we had a couple of beers and plates of cheese sausage and bratwurst sitting in front of us. Yes, it was delicious. Passing on the ever pervasive gelato, we found a frozen yogurt shop and got some froyo for the first time since Madrid.

Yes - this.

Yes – this.

These sausage stands were all over the place in Vienna's inner city.

These sausage stands were all over the place in Vienna’s inner city.

Full of meat, beer, and sweets, we made our way back to the apartment to call it a night.

August 9th – Shonbrunn Palace

After a slow breakfast and some good conversation with our host, the goal for the 9th was to visit Shonbrunn Palace, the summer home of the empirial family. Shonbrunn is often called a “Little Versaille” due to the similar layout of the house and extensive gardens. That comparison is fairly accurate. Shonbrunn and the gardens are impressive, but not on the same scale or level of gilded ostentation as Versaille.

The palace courtyard

The palace courtyard

Jenny classing up the joint

Jenny classing up the joint

Entrances to the palace are timed so that you buy a ticket for a specific entrance time. Ours gave us over an hour to explore the gardens. Open to the public, the gardens are full of rows of sculpted trees and are dotted with sculptures and fountains. Unlike the previous 100 degree day, rain was moving in and our time in the gardens here were totally pleasant.

Long rows of sculpted trees

Long rows of sculpted trees

Carriage rides

Carriage rides

Carriage in front of the "Roman Ruins" (built as ruins in the 1700s)

Carriage in front of the “Roman Ruins” (built as ruins in the 1700s)

Inside the palace is a basic tour of the rooms, largely focusing on their use by Franz Josef and his wife Sisi. We had seen Sisi’s summer home, the Achilleon Palace, at our stop in Corfu, Greece. Unfortunately – no pictures allowed inside the palace.

Later that evening, we headed out to find a restaurant recommended by Leo. He had given us directions – walk to underground station, take one line to a stop, get off and transfer to a different line. Or was that line a bus? Or a tram? We had no idea. We spent a good 15 minutes walking around an intersecting stop of several tram/bus/underground lines and never found what we were looking for. Jenny got directions from a newspaper seller… which made no sense at all.

So we walked. Maybe 45 minutes later was found the restaurant, Fischerbrau. It ended up being worth the wait. We drank local beer and ate goulasch and a plate of mixed meats. We were finishing up our plate of fried apples with mixed berry sauce when the rain that had been threatening all day finally started coming down. With full bellies we headed in the direction of a subway stop a couple blocks away that took us directly back to our apartment. If we’d only known that there was any easy, direct way to get there in the first place. Our rainy run home was our last outing in Vienna before leaving for Prague in the morning.

Finally made it to the restaurant

Finally made it to the restaurant

Rome

August 3rd – Florence to Rome

The Florence to Rome was a comfortable ride on one of the newer high speed trains that goes well over 200 mph. An hour and a half after we boarded, we emerged into Rome’s central station where we found our way to a subway map so we could figure out how to get to our apartment. Our place was in a great location in the historical center just south of Piazza Navona, but Rome being Rome, the closest metro stop dropped us about 1.25 miles away. We took the metro as far as we could and then used the river to guide us as long as we could. Half an hour later and we were at the door of the building where the host came up and let us in. Thankfully, this place was clean, had working internet, a washing machine as advertised, so it was a relief after the rough stay in Florence (Yeah, after this long on the road we want a clean place and a good bed.)

We went out for another over-priced, mediocre meal to get some food in our stomachs before going to the grocery store. After eating and shopping we came back to the room to cool off for the afternoon. In the evening, we went exploring to a couple of the main sites that were a short walk from our place. First stop – the Pantheon, an amazing domed building that we’ll talk about more about later. After a few minutes walking around the square, we walked west to Piazza Navona, a long square full of fountains, portrait artists, and street performers.

Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona

Caricature artist in Piazza Navona.

Caricature artist in Piazza Navona.

Each end of the square has a fountain, but Bernini’s impressive Fountain of the Four Rivers dominates the center, topped by an Egyptian obelisk.

Didn't really get a good picture of the fountain...

Didn’t really get a good picture of the fountain…

August 4th – The Colosseum and the Forum

We got an early start (for us – early meant getting out the door before 10) and walked the roughly 1.25 miles to the Colosseum. There are a few sites in the city that you have to see, and the remains of an arena that saw the slaughter of scores of animals and people, and has survived wars, earthquakes, and being scavenged for building materials – is definitely one of them. Outside the building we waited for 1.5 hours, the longest line of our trip, before finally passing through the gates and into the Colosseum.

Inside the Colosseum

Inside the Colosseum

Even for all that remains of the structure, it’s still tough to visualize exactly what is what. This might help you imagine what it would’ve looked like in its prime.

Sketch of the complete structure

Sketch of the complete structure

75,000 people could fill the seats to watch men fight animals, animals fight animals, men fight men, and any other combination of man/beast/machine combat. Sailors were employed to work the ropes on the retractable cover, while more people worked the underground systems that raised men and animals from beneath the arena floor.

Probably a bit wilder than your average football game.

Probably a bit wilder than your average football game.

The hypogeum beneath the arena

The hypogeum beneath the arena

Looking from the Colosseum to the Forum

Looking from the Colosseum to the Forum

Where seats once were.

Where seats once were, before the “let’s use this as a quarry” phase in the Colosseum’s history

The day we went to the Colosseum was empty of clouds and full of August sun, so the few shady spots were crowded with people and the metal railings at the lookout points would give you a hot wake up call if you made the mistake of touching them. We did a loop around first level and then a loop around the second. The upper level had displays of stones and sculptures leftover from the period. Some of them showing what graffiti looked like in the days before spray paint. In addition to the regular information about the Colosseum, there was a temporary exhibit about Constantine, showing the transition of the empire from pagan to Christian belief systems.

Old school graffiti

Old school graffiti

The ticket into the Colosseum also gets you into the Forum and Palatine, so we left the Colosseum and made our way down the street to the entrance of those sites, stopping at a food cart along the way for a much needed beverage. The Palatine, which we didn’t go through (Steve was there years ago) is a hill where the first Romans lived and where the palaces of several emperors once stood.

What remains of the forum is a long stretch of buildings and ruins that once comprised the main street during the height of imperial Rome. Like so many other ancient places, over the years the streets of the forum were used, reused, repurposed, abandoned, used as a quarry for other buildings, and eventually just buried with generations of garbage and neglect. Archeologists came along and gradually pealed away the layers of dirt, returning the street level to that of the late empire.

On the hillside above the forum

On the hillside above the forum

Among the ruins are temples, houses, shops, and churches. Lots of churches, as once Christianity hit full speed they took over and converted large numbers of buildings into places of worship. Walking along the route, it might be helpful to imagine yourself in the scenes in Gladiator when the victorious Roman armies are marching in formation down the streets. That’s the Forum.

Street level at the forum

Street level at the forum

Looking back into the forum

Looking back into the forum

After the forum we went back to relax and wash the layers of sweat and salt off (did we mention that it was hot?). In the evening we met Vahid, the friend of a friend who happened to be living in Rome, and Megan, a coworker of Vahid’s that just arrived in the country the day before. We met in Piazza Navona and walked down a side street to Ristorante del Fico. We’d had a pretty bad record when it came to picking restaurants on our own, so having the recommendation of a local was very welcome. The restaurant had great Roman pasta dishes, and between us we had carbonarra, amatriciana, and cacio de pepe, along with some nice wine, fried zucchini, and melted cheese topped with prosciutto. Good food and good company definitely made this our best meal in Rome.

After dinner we walked to a busy gelato shop for dessert before parting ways (this was a Sunday night, they had to work).

August 5th – The Pantheon and the Basilica di San Clemente

We had no set plans for this day, so we took our time in the morning and decided to make a couple of stops outside. First, we went back to the Pantheon. When we went the previous time the inside was already closed, so this time we were able to go inside.

The Pantheon

The Pantheon

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The Pantheon was originally built around 27 bc (later rebuilt after fires), originally as a temple and later converted to a church, which it remains today. The structure itself is a marvel whose design has been mimicked over and over again. The pillars in front are 39ft tall pieces of solid granite from Egypt. The main feature of interest is the domed roof, which to this day is the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The Florentines actually tried to copy the design of the Pantheon’s dome for use in the Duomo, but the recipe for the concrete used had been lost and others were unable to support the weight. The dome itself has a hole in the center that opens to the sky. The floor has drains to disperse the water that comes in when it rains. This is one of those buildings that make you go “wow” when you first walk inside.

Light coming through the oculus.

Light coming through the oculus.

Inside the Pantheon

Inside the Pantheon

Raphael's tomb

Raphael’s tomb

The pillars

The pillars

After the Pantheon we made the long walk past the Colosseum to the Basilica di San Clemente. On the surface, this is an 11th century Catholic church, decked out with all the fancy finishings and paintings you’d expect. But go into a side room and buy a ticket to the excavations, and you get to see what’s hidden beneath.

The Roman’s method of dealing with old buildings was generally just to build a new structure right on top. So a level beneath this 11th century church, there were excavations of what was a 4th century church. Some of the mosaic floors and frescoes are still visible, as are the many rooms and archways that made up the different sections of the church. Interesting, right?

Well it keeps going. That 4th century church was built directly on top of a 2nd century Mithraic site, of which the original Mithraeum can still be seen. (Mithras was another religion popular before the wide acceptance of Christianity, and this was a place to study and worship Mithras).

And below that – the Mithraic site was built on top of a roman house that they suspect burned down sometime in the first century AD. (Unfortunately – No pictures allowed inside the church or the excavations.)

August 6th – The Vatican

We walked across the river and used the high dome of St. Peter to navigate our way into Vatican City. We planned on going into the museum, which is notorious for its incredibly long lines, so when we got into St. Peter’s square and saw a line wrapping from the basilica along the columns around the square almost all the way back to the basilica, we figured we had found the right place. For 45 minutes we inched forward with the crowd until getting to a row of metal detectors and x-ray machines. After security, we realized that this was just the line for to go into the basilica, not the museum.

Waiting in (the wrong) line in St. Peter's Square

Waiting in (the wrong) line in St. Peter’s Square

*Insert frustrated swearing here (but done quietly, it was a church after all).*

Oh well, going into St. Peter’s is a must-do while in Rome. Even after being in so many churches on this trip, nothing compares to the scale you encounter here. The top of the dome looks impossibly high when you stand beneath it, and becomes a more impressive feat when you consider the technology available at the time of its construction.

Inside St. Peter's

Inside St. Peter’s

Immediately after the entrance you can stop to look at Michelangelo’s Pieta, the sculpture of Mary holding the body of Jesus (now behind glass so people can’t get close.) Other sculptures fill every corner of the church. The bodies of several popes lay in state.

Pieta

Pieta

Directly under the dome is Bernini’s bronze baldachin. Directly beneath that is the entrance to what we can only imagine are the tunnels and catacombs where countless popes and church figures are buried.

Looking up to the dome

Looking up to the dome

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After a couple laps around the church, we wandered outside in hopes of finding the line that we were looking for in the first place. We found our way to familiar walls of the city and followed some signs for the museum. Not surprisingly, the line was went along the entire length of a wall. What was surprising, is that we ended up being right around the corner from the entrance and only had to wait about 20 minutes before being inside.

The Vatican Museum houses fantastic examples of art and historical pieces. Other museums might have pieces of ancient Egyptian jewelry, but the jewelry at Vatican is actually clean and in good shape. Sculptures from the Egyptians and Greeks and Romans fill the halls, and Raphael’s paintings cover entire rooms. Even though it was extremely crowded, it wasn’t a museum to miss.

Sculptures

Sculptures

So...many...sculptures

So…many…sculptures

They've got mummies!

They’ve got mummies!

Amazing paintings covering the walls

Amazing paintings covering the walls

More work by Raphel

More work by Raphael

Supposedly the Council of Trent forbade the display of genitals in artwork... leading to the loss of man parts on most of the statues in the museum... poor fellas.

Supposedly the Council of Trent forbade the display of genitals in artwork… leading to the loss of man parts on most of the statues in the museum… poor fellas.

There are various paths you can take in the museum, but most of them point to the crown jewel at the end – the Sistine Chapel. Another example of what papal orders and artistic genius can accomplish, you could easily spend a day staring at all scenes that cover the walls.  The inside was filled with the murmur of the crowd and the constant demands of the guards to be quiet and refrain from pictures.

Oops, totally didn't mean to take this picture. Three times...

Oops, totally didn’t mean to take this picture. Three times…

After leaving the museum, we made our way north of the city walls and toward another food recommendation, Pizzarium. Most of the pizza we’d had in Rome (or everywhere else in Europe) was more or less the same – thin crust with a couple of ingredients. Pizzarium had specialty gourmet pizzas, sold by weight, with eclectic mixes of toppings. We caught them when they only had vegan pizzas ready, so there was no meat or cheese, just different combinations of crusts with fruit and vegetable toppings. We sat on the curb, fighting off the occasional pigeon, and ate what was surprisingly good pizza (despite its lack of meat).

Yum yum goodies

Yum yum goodies

And then we got lost. Not lost like “I have no idea where I am” but lost like “on the map, this road takes us where we need to go, but in reality there’s a giant, impassible hill here.” It took us a while to find our way back to the Vatican city walls which we followed to what we thought should have been a turn to the river and wasn’t. Jenny finally asked (after the Steve gave up trying to navigate (silly men)) some German tourists with a map where we were and we were able to make our way back from there, an hour and a half later… for what should have been a 25 minute walk.

After that we were drained. We went back to the apartment, drank some beer, and went to bed early. The next morning would start another long travel day.

Florence and Pisa

July 30th – Venice to Florence

We took a final boat ride down the grand canal to the train station and jumped on our train. Our last two train travel days were marathons with at least three switches each, so we were looking forward to having a simple, two hour direct shot from Venice to Florence. No missed connections, no wrong trains, and we were soon carrying our bags to our apartment on a busy street in Florence.

We’d used AirBnB to book almost all of our stays for this trip and almost all of them have been surprisingly good. That streak was somewhat interrupted here as our place had some issues. For building that’s about 800 years old, we’ll accept some little problems, which this place had. The bathroom sink was the only thing that would trigger the hot water heater, so to get a hot shower you had to keep the sink running. Flushing the toilet involved pumping the flush button five or six times in rapid succession until it finally went. We can deal with that. Other things, like having a pull out couch instead of the advertised bed – not cool. Telling us to get close to the window and use the wifi from the cafe across the street – not cool. Having to wash all the dishes before we used them because they definitely were not clean – not cool.

But hey, the location was good, perched on a busy street halfway between the river and the Duomo.

The first day in we wandered around the area until finally finding a decent sized grocery store. We did some laundry. Eventually we wandered down the street to a restaurant called Yellow Bar that had been recommended by our host. They had some amazing homemade pasta and pizza that we devoured before calling it a night.

Gods

Sculptures in the Piazza della Signoria

Replica of David

Replica of David

Can't remember what this one was called...

Can’t remember what this one was called…

Rape of the Sabine Women, Giambologna

Rape of the Sabine Women, Giambologna

July 31st – Da Vinci and David

The touristy part of Florence is small and densely packed with old buildings, sculptures, museums, restaurants, and shopping of all sorts. Being so small and walkable made it easy to get around, but it also meant that the streets were filled with more giant tour groups than any city we’d seen. People barely pay attention when they walk around as it is. When they’re being led by somebody talking into a microphone, they’d mindlessly walk in front of a bus if you didn’t stop them. Once you squeeze and push your way through the crowds, you can actually see a lot of impressive things in the city.

Perhaps the most famous piece of art in the city is Michelangelo’s sculpture of David that was moved from an outdoor square into the Accedemia Gallery in 1873. We went out and eventually found the museum, not by using signs or a map, but by seeing a line of people snaked around the corner of a building. Waiting in line for who knows how long in the sun didn’t sound appealing, so instead we walked around the corner to find a small Da Vinci Activity Museum.

Leonardo Da Vinci spent many of his younger years in Florence, so naturally there are places around the city trying to cash in on the history. This “museum” didn’t actually house any works of art or anything original at all, but had an array of machines constructed from his mechanical drawings. We know that a lot of his designs didn’t actually work, but the variety of projects he was involved in was immense, and seeing approximations of what some of these things might have looked like once built was neat.

One of his designs for a weapon

One of his designs for a weapon

He had everything from flying machines to dredgers to olive presses. A lot of things he did had fairly simple purposes, often trying to automate processes, reduce friction, or redirect forces, things that could be used (and some still are) in larger and more complex designs.

Machines that we could play with

Machines that we could play with

After we finished playing with Da Vinci’s contraptions, we decided to check the line for the David, and sure enough, the wait was down to a more reasonable 45 minutes. Once inside the museum (where photography wasn’t allowed – boooo), we worked our way through a line of unfinished Michelangelo sculptures before approaching the David.

You’ve all seen David, probably on postcards or cooking aprons or the million other products that he’s used on. Much like the Mona Lisa, David is immensely famous and reproduced constantly. Unlike the Mona Lisa, David is actually worth seeing in person. The first thing you’re struck by is the size. David is 17 feet tall and carved from a single block of marble that had been abandoned by another sculptor. It’s when you’re only a few feet away, looking up at the giant from human heights, that you come to fully appreciate the combination of power and grace that Michelangelo was able to achieve. Oh, and to make you feel less accomplished as a person, Michelangelo was only 26 when he started on David.

After the main sculptures, there were many old paintings in the museum, followed by an enormous gallery of sculptures and plaster models, mostly done by Lorenzo Bartolini. (Bartolini is the maiden name of Jenny’s grandmother. Jenny sculpts. Coincidence? Probably.) This guy was busy. If you were wealthy in Italy when Bartolini was around, you probably had him do portrait bust of you.

After a morning and afternoon full of museums, we went back to the room to do internet stuff. As mentioned before, stealing the internet from the cafe across the street didn’t really work that well. We tried to actually go into the cafe to order a coffee and hopefully get closer to the source, but their network just sucked. Down the street we found a nearly empty bar and spent the next couple hours drinking Peroni and catching up on work.

Around sunset we walked around the Duomo (formally – The Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower), a massive, domed cathedral with an exterior covered in colorful pink and green marble.

The Duomo

The Duomo

It's hard to show how big this place was with pictures

It’s hard to show how big this place was with pictures

August 1st – Pisa

In less than an hour’s train ride from Florence, we found ourselves in Pisa for a day trip to the famous architectural screw up. Jenny has some ancestors that came from the Pisa area, so in a sense she was back in the homeland. On the walk from the train station to the field of miracles, we were looking at names on doors to see if we could find any long lost relatives. Nothing exact, but there were a couple of close ones.

Most of Pisa seemed to be a quiet town, with crowds picking up on the main road that leads to the tower.

Crossing the Arno river in Pisa

Crossing the Arno river in Pisa

Eventually you reach the Field of Miracles which is home to the cathedral, the baptistery, and of course, the leaning bell tower. And yep, that tower is really leaning.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Up close

Up close

We went and bought tickets to climb the tower, because how could we visit Pisa and not climb the tower that should have fallen over hundreds of years ago. The number of people in the tower at any given moment is limited, so we ended up with a couple of hours to kill before our scheduled time. We had lunch a short distance away from the tower and then went inside the cathedral. Churches are often amazing structures.

See? Amazing.

See? Amazing.

But frankly they sometimes have some creepy shit in them.

Like pieces of dead popes or saints, or sometimes whole bodies.

Like pieces of dead popes or saints, or sometimes whole bodies.

When our time came, we went inside the tower and made the climb. The walk up the enclosed spiral staircase to the top plays tricks on your mind. You lean forward, then right, then backward, then left, then forward again as you go up and around.

The stairs are a bit worn down

The stairs are a bit worn down

From the top you get some good views of the area before they quickly send you back down to the bottom.

The top of the cathedral

The top of the cathedral

By late afternoon we had seen the sights, climbed the tower, and made our way back to Florence for the evening. We (we being Jenny) cooked some pasta for dinner and we watched Kitchen Nightmares on the one english TV channel we had.

August 2nd – Relaxing in Florence

We didn’t do much on the 2nd. You have to take a break every once in a while, even from visiting pretty places. Jenny went shopping in the morning while Steve did some writing. We spent more time at the bar to use their internet and get beer. We tried to go back to the Yellow Bar for more delicious pasta, but as we found out, they basically closed for the whole month of August. Noooo!  We picked a random restaurant and ended up with more of the overpriced, subpar food that you get in tourist towns if you don’t know where to go. In the evening we went out visit the Ponte Vecchio, an old bridge covered with a mess of shops. We stopped by a gelato shop on our street that had more flavors than we could count.

Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio

Next up – Rome!

Venice

July 27 – Off the cruise ship and into Venice

We were off the ship before 10 and weren’t scheduled to check into our apartment until 12, which gave us plenty of time to get there (i.e. get lost on the way). We took a water bus from the port to St. Mark’s Square and twisted through a series of streets and canals until we found Campo Manin, a main square by our apartment where we were to meet our contact. As it turns out, we managed to get there by 10:30, so we had some time to kill. We were going to sit on the shady side of the large statue in the center of the square, but the best spot was already occupied by a filthy looking sleeping man. We opted for a nice spot next to a bank where we were able to watch people wander by with large maps in their hands, stopping to examine them, going a few more steps, stopping, turning the maps over. The layout of the city makes it very easy to get lost. At one point, Jenny got up to go find a bathroom, which turned into a 45 minute tour of the city…

A little before noon, a tan woman approached us and introduced herself as Francesca, a friend of our host. She guided us down a couple of side streets to the apartment and showed us how everything worked. The place itself was small, but had everything needed for a few nights in the city. The biggest bonus was that it had a window overlooking a small but popular canal that was regularly crossed by gondoliers. From 10am to just after sunset you would hear music slowly passing by. Vocal soloists, guitars, accordions, and other combinations that all managed to sound really good. Some distance away from our window was a bridge, so we were able to take fun pictures like this.

Our spot on a canal

Our spot on a canal

Looking toward the bridge

Looking toward the bridge

Gondolas passing

Gondolas passing

We don't know what this is, but it was right outside our apartment.

We don’t know what this is, but it was right outside our apartment.

We went out and found a grocery store, did some shopping, and more or less spent the rest of the day getting caught up with writing, email, and seeing what happened in the world during our eight internet-less days on the cruise.

July 28 – Walking through the city

We spent most of the day just walking. We crissed and crossed our way through more streets and across more tiny canal bridges than we could name. Through countless little squares with their now unused central wells. Through crumbly brick passageways lit up by green light reflected off the water. Every turn offers another picture-worthy view that makes for very slow going.

Not a bad place for an office.

Not a bad place for an office.

Door knocker

Door knocker

Venice - Easiest place in the world to be a postcard photographer?

Venice – Easiest place in the world to be a postcard photographer?

We took a break in the afternoon to cool off and relax. In the evening we went back out to find some dinner. We walked through St. Marks Square, a large open area bordered on one end by a cathedral and the former palace, and on the other three sides by buildings now housing museums. Like the other major squares of Europe, it was full of tourists and those people catering to tourists. Jenny had a fantastic moment where a man approached her trying to hand her (sell her) a rose, and she matter-of-factly said “Nope!” The change in expression on his face was priceless. Needless to say, our tolerance for people trying to sell us junk is rather low after a couple months of it.

St. Mark's Cathedral from across the square. Surprise - there's scaffolding on it...

St. Mark’s Cathedral from across the square. Surprise – there’s scaffolding on it…

 

Pigeons are everywhere, despite that fact that you're not really supposed to feed them.

Pigeons are everywhere, despite that fact that you’re not really supposed to feed them.

People still feed them and let themselves be covered by them. Fact - Pigeons are disgusting.

People still feed them and let themselves be covered by them. Fact – Pigeons are disgusting.

We went on to find a restaurant that had inside seating and air conditioning. Jenny ordered a spritz, which was recommended by Francesca as what the Venetians drink, and was a nasty bitter drink that made us not want to be Venetian at all. After some pizza and lasagna we made our way back to get some sleep.

July 29th – Sweet, refreshing rain!

We had planned to get up early to go to the palace and other museums around the square, but “early” doesn’t seem to happen unless we have a train to catch. The line for the palace was way too long to be worth the wait (plus, Steve had already been there and Jenny didn’t really care) so instead we opted to take the elevator up the campanelle, the bell tower overlooking St. Mark’s Square. We got into the building just as rain came in and sent crowds fleeing for cover. The rain was a very welcome sight, though, because it helped cool off a day that was originally predicted to hit 102.

Even with intense winds blowing rain all over us, the bell tower offered some good views of the city.

Rooftops of Venice

Rooftops of Venice

The domes of St. Mark's Cathedral

The domes of St. Mark’s Cathedral

We made pasta at the apartment for dinner and went back out for a little while at sunset.

Venice is pretty at sunset...

Venice is pretty at sunset…

Storms moved in as it got dark.

Storms moved in as it got dark.

We left the Rialto Bridge just as the rain really started coming down and had one last, very wet, stroll through the streets before making it back to the apartment.

The next day – onward to Florence!

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.

Ephesus20130723032438

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.

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.

Barcelona120130713073812

 

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

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

 

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!