Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Spain and Morocco

Greetings from Texas! I'm publishing the blog entry about our incredible holiday in Spain and Morocoo in late June/early July from the Lone Star State where I'm visiting my family for a bit. Last week we were in North Carolina visiting Jon's family and this week, Jon has begun his five-week captain's course in Alabama. I'll be joining him next week after catching up on eating some delicious TexMex fare. I hope you enjoy reading about our adventures.

Sevilla – the heart of Andalucia where sun, sangria, and flamenco are plentiful. This Southern Spain destination was the beginning of our nine day summer holiday. June 24th, we arrived at our beautiful hotel in the Santa Cruz neighborhood, which was located in the old Jewish quarter.

After exploring the hotel and it’s labyrinth of tunnels, we set out for a tapas-hopping excursion and flamenco performance.

The next day, we toured the gothic cathedral, which contained many architectural Moorish influences.

Later, we toured the nearby Alcazar Palace, which was built by Christians, however also had many Moorish influences (archways, tiles, fountains and gardens).

That evening, we enjoyed shopping and a paseo, or pre-dinner stroll along the pedestrian promenade. We are dinner along the river overlooking the old town and the finale of the evening was an impromptu trumpet concert we stumbled upon at the Golden Tower.

The following day, we picked up our rental car and drove the 2.5 hours from Sevilla to Nerja, along the Costa del Sol.

Located just north of Malaga, this quaint beach town emanates old world charm and is famous for their Balcon de Europa, or promenade that juts out over the steep cliffs and crashing waves of the ocean below.

We immediately hit the beach and were ecstatic to begin the beach bum portion of the trip. After exploring the two nearest beaches to out hotel, we spent the evening experiencing more tapas and flamenco music.

The next day, we ventured to the beach where most locals go, and Jon fit right in with sea cave expeditions and jumping off rocks with the locals.

The highlight was a mid-day break for lunch when we ventured to a beach eatery under tents and had freshly prepared paella and of course, more sangria.

Our last day in Nerja, we spent the morning soaking of a few more hours of precious beach time before our trip south down the Costa del Sol to the port town of Algeciras, where we would catch the ferry bound for Africa.

First, we would make a stop in Gibraltar, which we decided was an odd place that didn’t quite fit with the rest of Spain. Perhaps because it’s NOT Spain. As soon as you cross the border, British accents abound and signs for “fish and chips” and “God save the Queen” come into view. We drove through the small town to the opposite end of the island where we took the cable car to the top of the rock and saw what we really came to see – a spectacular view? Perhaps. Monkeys? Oh YES!

After a few hours of monkey viewing, we journeyed back to Spain where we continued onward to Algeciras. An unimpressive city primarily known as an industrial shipping port, we didn’t expect much from our overnight stay here. However, we were pleasantly surprised by our beautiful, resort-type hotel we stayed in for the night. We took an evening swim in the pool, ate dinner at the restaurant and researched Morocco in their lounge room – allowing us to recharge for the next segment of our trip.

The following day, we boarded our ferry to make the two hour journey across the Strait of Gibraltar where we could see the outlines of both Europe and Africa at once. We were filled with mixed feelings of excitement and anxiety as we neared the Tangier port (at left). Of course it was thrilling to be in a new, “exotic,” city, but we were also somewhat nervous about the many “hustlers” that are a well-known nuisance in Tangier. Used to seeing many day-trippers from Spain, these hustlers have become quite savvy in offering their services and “professional” tours to foreigners. Most guidebooks recommend a tour guide (professional or not), however Jon and I both (being the expert travelers we are), decided it would be best to walk right past all these people at the port and experience Tangier on our own. Boy were we wrong! We must have been spotted a mile away, because as soon as we stepped off the boat, we were latched on by a guy who was of course an “official” tour guide and would answer all of our questions about getting to Marrakech, where to leave our luggage and a tour of the city. We looked at each other and thought, what the heck.

I had one question going through my head the entire day. Is a tour of Tangier with a guide for the sucker or time-saver? I like to think we were the latter. We saw all the major sights we wanted to, purchased a carpet, herded into a lovely restaurant for dinner and even delivered to the train station. All hassle free (bu not necessarily hustler free).

At this point in our trip we had been transported by a plane, car and ferry, so now it was time to board a train. We departed on the overnight Marrakech express from Tangier at 9:00 p.m and arrived the following morning at 8:00 a.m. Our bunkmates on the train were a couple from Mexico.

We awoke the following morning to views of the barren desert, sheep herders and cart-hauling mules.

In Marrakech, we immediately hit the ground running, or carriage-riding, for a tour of the sights.

First was Jardin Majorelle, owned by Yves St. Laurent before he died, and is now his final resting place. It is a breathtaking oasis with color schemes of bright blue, yellow and orange.

Afterward, we visited the beautiful Bahia Palace and made our way back to our Riad, our guesthouse, through the many narrow and winding alleys of the medina. After having the tour experience in Tanger, Jon and I were convinced we could find our Riad on our own. After all, we had a map and an address? Umm, yeah, we quickly learned that maps aren’t exactly useful in the medina (or old town) that have existed for thousands of years. Once again, we were targeted right off the bat, and a cart carrying local asked if we needed help. We thought, hmm, we could wander around the alleys and eventually find it on our own, or pay the 10 dirham (or $1.25) for him to show us to the place. And I’m so glad we did, because five turns later, we arrived what looked to be a dead end alley, but at the very end had a beautiful wood door with Riad Diana written across the top in gold.

We had arrived at our Riad, which although was a very nondescript building on the outside, was another world on the inside. Riad is another name for guesthouse, that at one time was a family’s home. The bottom level has an inner courtyard with rooms on all four sides. There is usually three or four levels and a rooftop terrace.

This was our haven away from the hustle and bustle of the medina where during the afternoon we could cool off in the plunge pool and late at night, we would enjoy a hookah atop the roof and hear only faint sounds of the city below.

Marrakech is a fascinating city complete with elegant restaurants and rooftop cafes, that contrast with the frenzy of the souks (or bazaar area) and the largest square in the world, the Djeema el Fna.

At night, this square comes alive with entertainment that has been passed down through the centuries. Walking around the square, you can see different circles formed where locals and tourists alike are watching acrobats, snake charmers, story-tellers, and traditional Berber music while dodging monkeys who want a picture with you, ladies who want to give you henna tattoos and orange juice and grilled meat vendors.

It’s a place where all your senses are heightened and you stand in the middle of this unbelievable square and think –am I really here and does this place truly exist? Absolutely!

The following day, we took a day trip outside Marrakech to the Ouirka Valley. About an hour outside of Marrakech, the desert began to look more green and rolling hills became bigger and bigger. Pretty soon we were in the middle of a lush oasis and we thought to ourselves…. Are we really in North Africa?

With our driver/guide, we meandered along a flowing river through the valley to the Berber village of Setti Fatma in the Atlas foothills.

Once in this town, we walked to see the source of this river, a mountain stream with seven waterfalls.

Although we only walked to the first one, we enjoyed beautiful views of the mountains and a traditional Moroccan lifestyle. We never pictured Morocco to be quite like this, and we were so happy we were able to experience a village that not only foreigners come to see, but many Moroccans vacation in this area as well.

Upon returning to Marrakech, we arranged to have a traditional dinner prepared for us on our Riad terrace and afterward, took a final stroll at the exotic bazaar atmosphere of Djeema el Fna.

Although it was a jam-packed three days, it was amazing to experience an entirely new country that is so vastly different from anywhere we’d been before. Sure, there are tons of tourists, the hustling can be exhausting and you may bring some unexpected souvenirs home with you (like TD), but in the end, it’s all worth it to explore this magnetic destination. Hearing the call to prayer while sipping mojitos during the beautiful sunsets, the views across rooftops, delicious food, the excitement of bargaining in the souks and the most intense square setting in the world all leave you wanting more.

Gracias and Shookran to Spain and Morocco for another unforgettable holiday!