Thursday, December 29, 2011

Fort Apache, Riad Fes

One of my favorite maxims was written by Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” So it was with Morocco: I may forget some of the details but I will never, ever forget how it made me feel. I like things to be clear and I like to be in control, but things were anything but clear and I definitely wasn’t in control in Fes. I constantly felt the sands shifting beneath my feet as we encountered cultural differences I simply wasn’t ready for.

Removed from the foreignness of Northern Africa and in the refuge of our brightly lit Italian airport hotel, I had a compelling need to chew over our Moroccan adventure and my intense emotional reaction to it. In order to release the experience and get beyond it, I had to rewind the tape, delve into the specifics and the feelings they exposed, and attempt to put it all into some kind of perspective. So there I sat there with Joe, always my obliging sounding board, recounting and reconsidering our five days in Fes...

Our all-day journey from Algeciras, Spain to Fes, Morocco included a 5:30am taxi from our hotel to the bus in Algeciras, the bus to the ferry in Tangier, another taxi to the Tangier train station and then the five-hour train ride to Fes. By the time we got into the final taxi that would take us to the Fes medina, a rusty, beat-up, beige Mercedes sedan -- ubiquitous in Morocco -- we were very nearly drained. With each additional kilometer that passed, our faces glued to the windows as we made our way along the traffic-jammed broad boulevards of the Ville Nouvelle (built à la Haussmann during the French occupation) towards the medina gate, we spent every iota of energy we had left watching the scenes of Fes pass by. The multitude of detritus and colorful parade of djellebas reinforced the fact that Fes was not a western city. “But it’s just like Paris,” Joe observed, pausing for a moment, “had the Germans decided to bomb it.” As our cab slowly circled Batha Square near our drop-off point outside the medina, a young man approached, grabbed onto the cab’s door and ran along beside us until we stopped. He asked the driver where we were going, and as we paid our fare and unloaded our bags, started pressing us about using him as a guide. We firmly said “non,” and “la shukran,” but he was adamant and continued his in-our-faces pitch on the multi-block bag-drag all the way to our hotel. He insisted we would get lost without his help, but I managed to follow the tiny royal blue tiles on the walls that pointed the way to our hotel. Dragging our luggage behind us through the narrow twisting medina maze, we were conscious of the scene: the two of us looking, without a doubt, about as American as apple pie while a twenty-something Moroccan kid attached himself like a remora until we turned into a final alley and reached our destination. He then insisted that we pay him for his services, which at that point amounted to being a persistent pest and an annoying distraction. We rang the hotel bell announcing our arrival and he continued to demand money as the door closed behind us. We involuntarily let out audible sighs of relief to have arrived in the peace and quiet of tranquil Riad Fes.

When planning our trip to Morocco, security was paramount since everything we’d heard and read warned of pickpockets, hustlers, swindlers and scoundrels. Thus, we booked five nights at a riad hotel (a property that was formerly a traditional home or palace with an interior garden and fountains) and chose one inside the ancient walls of the medina. Yes, we were concerned about personal safety but we also wanted to be close to “the real Morocco.” Riad Fes, a splurge hotel extraordinaire fit the bill perfectly (compared to prices on the Continent, even luxury accommodations were affordable in Morocco). What we didn’t anticipate, however, was that we would become virtual prisoners of a sort inside our lovely riad oasis. Squaring the serene beauty of our hotel with the disarray outside its protective walls was an ever-present challenge. The Alhambra-like atmosphere of the riad, with murmuring fountains, open-air courtyards, colorful mosaics, delicately carved wooden archways, low plush sofas, embroidered pillows and bottomless pots of sugary mint tea was warm and welcoming. In sharp contrast was the medina, a never-ending cacophonous hustle housing a colorful menagerie pecking and sniffing its way around the grimy pathways underfoot. The real Morocco was indeed knocking at our doors but were we going to be brave enough to leave the sanctuary of our riad and explore it?

The first time we ventured out alone, we made our way through the several block maze to the gate through which we’d entered and up the street to the ATM on Batha Square. The mundane act of withdrawing cash became a singularly stressful pursuit as we were keenly aware of being observed. Stress sweat running down our backs, we decided to be brave and sit for a short time to people-watch on a concrete bench in the square. I feigned calm, taking in the decrepit billboards in Arabic and French and the crowds passing by, but within minutes, a very drunk Moroccan started cursing at Joe, waving his arms and threatening bodily harm. So much for heroics. We hastily retreated to Riad Fes to nurse our wounds with some comforting mint tea.

Frommer’s Morocco, our hotel and the travel blogs we consulted all advised exploring the Fes medina with a guide – an official guide trained, badged and sanctioned by the Tourist Office. As the largest car-free (although not always motorbike-free) urban district in the world, old-town Fes is an almost-intact medieval city -- a confusing, congested labyrinth of narrow, twisting lanes (some only two feet wide) and even map-loving explorers with a good sense of direction like me can find themselves hopelessly lost after a few tortuous blocks. Towering, stone walls penetrated by just a few ancient city gates encircle the entire medina so once you’re inside, it’s tough to escape. When we first arrived at the riad, we mentioned to one of the hotel managers, a lovely gentle man named Radouan (pronounced “Red One”), that we had met a man on the train who put us in contact with a guide...and we stopped there once we saw the look on his face. “Well,” he said, shaking his head as he presented us with hot scented towels to wipe away the grime of our long trip and served us sugared mint tea and biscuits. “It was a scam,” he informed us. “That man probably gets on the train at the same stop several times a day, finds a first-time visitor, chats him or her up an then calls his accomplice, an unofficial guide who would not have given you the tour or the service you wanted. And your contact would have gotten a cut of the faux guide’s fee.” I was very disappointed to find that the friend we’d made on the train to Fes was actually a con artist and it left me sad. He was so nice, seemed so very genuine and I’d wanted to believe him. And while I generally don’t consider myself naive, well, perhaps I actually am. It was one of our first encounters with the unique economy of Morocco: nothing was ever quite what it seemed.

So, heeding the counsel of all our advisors, we arranged for three official guides, one for each of the next three days. At 300 dirhams apiece (about $35), our personal tour guides seemed a bargain. First we would explore the medina, next we would circle the ramparts and visit spots of interest and panoramic view points outside the city walls and finally, we would take a drive into the countryside, stopping at two Berber villages and two national parks. We were ready for some Moroccan adventure outside Fort Apache, Riad Fes, but this time we would venture out with seasoned, experienced, official escorts.

Pictures of our adventures:

Friday, December 23, 2011

Departure Difficulties

Getting out of Morocco was a nightmare. It was one of those hellish travel experiences you read about in a Travel and Leisure letter to the editor. Joe received a simple, matter-of-fact email from Royal Air Maroc late Sunday afternoon that stated that our Tuesday flight to Casablanca had been cancelled. We were still booked on the connecting flight to Milan, but they had rebooked us on the Wednesday morning flight to Casablanca. It made no sense at all. We panicked briefly, imagining that we would be unable to escape Morocco and knowing that Chris and Caroline would be arriving in Italy Thursday morning. We enlisted the help of our hotel manager who informed us, “Oh, Air Maroc does that all the time. If the flight isn’t full, they just cancel it.” A series of phone calls and some quick Internet research left us with a few options to catch our Tuesday morning flight from Casablanca to Milan:

·      make the trip to Casablanca by train on Monday, stay overnight at the airport and then take the still-intact Casablanca-Milan leg of our trip on Tuesday (this seemed a possible option);
·      take the plodding 2:30am (that’s am!) train on Tuesday to make the 6-hour trip from Fes to Casablanca to arrive in time for our flight (traveling in Morocco was daunting in sunlight – there was no way we were going to venture out in the dark);
·      hire a private taxi at 6:30am to make the three-hour drive to Casablanca (it would have cost a mere $350!);
·      leave Morocco a day later than planned by rebooking the Fes to Casablanca flight to connect with the Casablanca to Milan flight on Wednesday (but what if they again cancelled the Fes flight?);
·      leave Morocco a day early by rebooking the Fes to Casablanca and then Casablanca to Milan flights on Monday (this would leave us with some wiggle room in case anything else went wrong).

Given our squeamishness about Morocco and how anxious we were for the reunion with our children, we had no qualms about making an early departure. The last thing we wanted was to risk any complications with getting to Milan in advance of the kids, so we chose the latter option. The hotel understood our dilemma, agreed not to charge us for an early departure and then helped Joe call the airline. Royal Air Maroc booked us on the Monday flights and immediately sent a confirmation email. We breathed a huge sigh of relief, agreed that an additional night at the Milan airport would not be so bad and then headed up to our room to pack.

Our cab driver was waiting for us in the hotel lobby when we came out of the elevator at 4:45am on Monday morning. He and the gentleman on night duty at the hotel helped with our luggage and walked us to the cab waiting in the square just outside the city walls. At this hour of the morning, it would have been much too dicey to walk the six or seven blocks out of the car-free medina unescorted. The Fes-Saïss airport was a quick 25 minutes away with none of the daytime donkey and horse cart processions to jam the streets and impede the ride. Before we knew it, we were at the head of the check-in line at 5:30 for the 6:30 flight, loading our bags onto the luggage scale and handing over our passports. We hadn’t thought to print out our confirmation numbers at the hotel since we’d been consumed with making the arrangements to leave Fes early. The young woman agent looked at our names, then studied the computer screen, and then looked back at our passports. This back-and-forth went on for several minutes, until finally she shook her scarved head and said, “No. You are not on this flight.” When we protested, insisting that we had an emailed confirmation, she called over a colleague who studied the screen and confirmed her assertion. “No, you don’t have a reservation for this flight.” Meanwhile, the check-in line was building behind us as Joe’s anger and my panic continued to rise. We have to get out of here, I thought. I just want to go; I want to leave now and will not go back into the city for another night.

The agent aloofly insisted there was nothing she could do and basically pushed us aside to handle the next person in line. Joe held it together enough to ask whom he could speak with about the “mix-up” and the agent handed us the customer service number for Royal Air Maroc. I pulled out our cell phone to make the call, but the battery was completely dead. When we asked the agent if she had a phone we could use, without even looking at us, she pointed to a pay phone on the wall. I scrounged together the few dirham coins I had left, pumped them into the pay phone and Joe got through to the airline. “I’m sorry, but the system cancelled your reservation,” Joe was told. “There’s nothing I can do; the flight is overbooked.” Just as Joe was about to let loose with the guy at the other end of the line, we ran out of coins and the phone went dead. Incredulous that no one could or would help us, we felt powerless in this oh-so-very-foreign country. All I could think of was being with the kids in Italy and doing whatever was necessary to be in Milan when they arrived. Joe and I were on the brink of giving up, slumping down under the phone and crying, when he remembered that the last email I’d looked at the previous night on my computer was the confirmation message from the airline. There was no Wi-Fi in the airport, but maybe the email was still on my screen. I furiously pulled my laptop from my backpack and bingo! There she was in all her glory -- the Royal Air Maroc email with our confirmation codes for the rebooked flights in bold. I rushed back over to the counter, oblivious to whatever else the agent was doing, and trying to keep my composure, set my open laptop right in front of her. She knew better than to ask me to wait, typed the confirmation codes into her system and miraculously her indifferent demeanor evaporated. “I’ll get my manager,” was all she said. A young guy in a baseball hat – the least official-looking airline manager I’d certainly ever seen – came out from a backroom and we explained our situation. After about 10 minutes of holding our breath, and the manager and the agent conducting intense discussion and executing “system overrides,” the guy-in-the-baseball-cap told us that all would be “OK.” We let out audible sighs of relief, my panic subsided and Joe was once again able to speak. They grabbed our luggage, we went through the worthless security system (the fellow on duty wore no uniform, looked like a guy they pulled in off the street and never once looked at the x-ray screen as alarms were beeping left and right), and we were ushered out onto the tarmac with our fellow passengers. I have never, ever been happier to be strapped into an airline seat ready for takeoff. We quickly took off, landed, disembarked at the antiseptic Casablanca airport and waited an interminable four hours for our flight to Milan.

Thanks to the miracle of jet-age travel, we found ourselves whisked away from the disquiet of Morocco and in just a couple short hours, transported back to a civilization in which we felt comfortable. Returning to Europe and setting foot in Italy felt like going home. We checked into a budget hotel at Milan’s Malpensa airport and I soon found myself in tears over a glass of wine and a plate of prosciutto in the hotel’s well-lit dining room. It seems I had been burying all my fears, reservations and sadness while in Fes, pushing down my feelings while still in the thick of the experience. It wasn’t until we returned to what I felt was the relative safety and familiarity of the Continent that I was able to let go and let them surface. Just as the physical symptoms of stress often appear not during but after the tension has passed, so my deepest responses to Morocco made themselves known in the dining room of an Italian airport hotel. We had managed to maintain an unemotional perspective while we were in the thick of the experience, but now it was time to talk through how we felt about what we saw and smelled and sensed in Fes over a comforting dinner at a distance. 

Pictures of our adventures:

Monday, December 19, 2011

Imagination Versus Reality

I do have a limit for adventure and I found it in Morocco.

We left Fes nearly two weeks ago and it’s taken me this long to even start writing about what we experienced there. I needed some distance to reflect upon, digest and then find words to convey what we encountered in this oh-so-foreign country. Some travel experiences evaporate the minute they’re over, others come and go imparting few residual memories, some remain a very long time and yet others never, ever leave. I have no doubt that our five days in Fes will fall into the latter category. But before they move permanently into my memory bank of journeys, I had to put some time between our experiences and communicating about them in an attempt to gain some semblance of perspective. And despite my resolve not to write about the sights, smells and feelings as a spoiled American or judgmental voyeur with little knowledge of Moroccan culture, those are my labels and will no doubt color my impressions.

If ever there were a destination whose reality did not match what I’d imagined, it was Morocco. Many of the sensory details I’d anticipated were there: beautiful tiled arches, delicately carved architecture, caftaned pedestrians on dusty streets, burdened donkeys in narrow lanes, deliciously spiced food, buzzing calls to prayer, men in bright leather slippers, and women in colorful headscarves. But I was in no way prepared for the culture of pervasive deal-making and inescapable subterfuge we walked into. My inability to discern who was telling the truth and who was trying to play me went against my basic nature of taking people and situations at face value. If, as Churchill said, Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, then Morocco is a high-pressure deal, hiding behind a humble presentation, disguised as a simple greeting. Everyone in Morocco wanted to sell us something; every urchin in the street had an angle; every Ali, Said and Hassan had advice; and everyone wanted a cut. After just a few hours in Morocco, we had no idea who was deceiving us and who was telling the truth. I like communications to be clear, I need to have the facts and I want to be in control. But nothing was clear in this North African country and I felt the sands shifting beneath my feet every time anyone spoke to us. I hated how it made me feel.

My fascination with Morocco began as a college student when my buddies and I occasionally splurged and went to the legendary watering hole in Worcester, Massachusetts, the El Morocco. Yes, the El was an institution that actually served Lebanese food, but the name got me wondering about this distant land called Morocco. And when I read that James Michener’s Drifters ventured there, I knew I had to follow. But Morocco on the page and Morocco in reality were two very different things. I was not prepared for how the country made me feel and my visceral reactions to what we experienced surprised me. Our five days in Morocco left me with the realization that perhaps some places should be left to dwell as picture-perfect postcards in our imaginations. Was the chasm between my world and what we found in Morocco simply too great for me to handle? Was the accretion of an overt state religion, the inferiority of women, incessant scams and subterfuge, rampant poverty and inescapable garbage just too much all at once? While I may never be able to fully answer these questions, I do know that I left a country I expected to love certain that I will never return.

Pictures of our adventures:

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Marrakesh Express

The thousands of songs Joe loaded on his iPod and that we play through the car radio have kept us company on our long road trips. With such a wide selection, he always manages to come up with the perfect music for every leg of our trip. Feeling adventurous, enthusiastic and I’ll admit it, a little anxious, we headed southeast from Portugal towards the Spanish coast belting Marrakesh Express along with Crosby, Stills and Nash (

     Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes
     Traveling the train through clear Moroccan skies...

Our destination is actually Fes, and not Marrakesh, but the song captured our mood just the same. Fes, the holiest city in Morocco (a plodding 5-hour train ride from the port city of Tangier), is many fewer hours south than the distant Marrakesh (an interminable 11-hour trip, usually done overnight), so we chose to visit the closer city.

     Ducks and pigs and chickens call
     Animal carpet wall to wall
     American ladies five-foot tall in blue...

Our passage across the Straits of Gibraltar from Tarifa was a different story; it was anything but slow. Most of our speedy hour-long crossing to Tangier on the fast-ferry was spent waiting on line to have our papers checked and passport stamped. Looking at and listening to our fellow passengers, we believe we were the only Americans aboard. A few were Spanish, but most were holding Moroccan passports and speaking Arabic. Our hearts were beating just a little faster and we took some deep cleansing breaths as we loaded up our backpacks, pulled our luggage from the rack and made our way onto African soil.

     Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind
     Had to get away to see what we could find...

The incessant haggling and our repeated, firm non, merci, in response, began the moment we stepped onto the ferry ramp. A half dozen men in colorful djellebas, the traditional long Moroccan robes with pointed hoods worn by both men and women, offered insistently to help with our bags as we made our way up several steep switchback inclines, over an elevated platform and then down a final ramp to the chaotic taxi zone.

     Hope the days that lie ahead
     Bring us back to where they've led
     Listen not to what's been said to you...

We were immediately approached by several taxi-drivers offering their services, but one who spoke clear English stood out. Once he agreed to take euros (we hadn’t yet withdrawn any Moroccan dirham), we accepted. He quickly helped us load our bags in his cab and before we knew it, we were whisked away through the streets of Tangier towards the brand new, modern railway station.

     Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express
     Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express
     They're taking me to Marrakesh
     All aboard the train, all aboard the train...

The offers of help with our bags resumed at the station but we continued to decline the assistance in both languages of Morocco, having learned how to say no thank you in Arabic from our helpful cab driver: our non, mercis and la shukrans were incessant. Once in the station lobby, however, we were left alone since the Police Touristique do whatever they can to protect travelers inside from being hassled.

     I've been saving all my money just to take you there
     I smell the garden in your hair...

Our two first-class fares for the 303 kilometer trip to Fes were only $30 total. First class bought us reserved seats in a cabin with six passengers rather than the eight in second class (just slightly less expensive). Signs indicated that they accepted credit cards, but as our Frommer guide had warned us, when we presented our MasterCard, there was the inevitable excuse for why we had to pay cash. A frequent explanation is that the machine is out of paper (!), but in our case, the ticket agent informed us that the system was down. We wondered whether the system was ever up and then paid for the tickets with the dirhams we had just withdrawn from the ATM outside the station.

     Take the train from Casablanca going south
     Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth my mouth...

The Moroccan trains are labeled “express” but they’re definitely not fast – no high-speed TGV bullet trains on this leg of our trip. Within about 20 minutes we were in the hinterlands outside Tangier and Joe and I simultaneously turned to each other and said, “We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore.” At every train crossing on unpaved roads, a colorful parade of beat-up jalopies, horse-drawn carts carrying multiple passengers and a jumble of wares, donkeys burdened with baskets overflowing with miscellaneous cargo and pedestrians in dusty djellebas waited patiently for the train to slowly pass. Dogs and cats freely roamed and sheep and goats grazed on nonexistent grass alongside the tracks with nothing to prevent them from wandering into the path of the train. A never-ending trail of debris and abandoned junk lined the shallow gully that paralleled the track. How could the few people who live in these desolate places possibly generate so much garbage?

     Colored cottons hang in the air
     Charming cobras in the square
     Striped djellebas we can wear at home...

Our compartment companions were three Moroccan women in their twenties. One was dressed conservatively and talked incessantly, using her headscarf as a hands-free device for holding her cell phone tight to her ear. Our other two fellow travelers were Morocco’s answer to the women from The Jersey Shore. Their chunky bodies were sausaged into their tight dark outfits, they had long black hair á la Snooky, pouf and all, they wore high leather boots and one spent hours applying thick layers of makeup. The tableau of the three young passengers sitting across from us was completely incongruous with what we witnessed outside the train window. Which Morocco was genuine and which one would we encounter in Fes? At a stop about an hour outside our destination, a lumpy man in glasses joined us in our compartment. He chatted a bit in Arabic with the young women and then asked us in accented English where we were from. Since I was sitting next to him, he struck up a conversation with me, alternating between English and French once he discovered that I spoke the latter. When he found out that we were going to Fes, he immediately related that he had been there the prior week with his brother and sister-in-law from Toronto, that they had enjoyed a wonderful visit and that their guide was excellent. We had been advised by every guidebook that the only sensible way to see the Fes medina (the warren of narrow lanes inside the ancient city walls and the largest in the world) and to guarantee safe passage back to your hotel was with a local guide. Our new friend was a gentle soul who shared with me all the medina sights they’d seen (“My sister-in-law Florence, who looks just like you, was amazed at all the guide showed them and for such a low price...only 250 dirham”). Before I knew it, he had called the guide (Mohammed was his name, of course) and handed the phone to me. After promising multiple times that I would call the guide when we arrived at our hotel, I passed the phone back to our friend and thanked him. He wrote Mohammed’s phone number in my Frommer book and continued to wax poetic about the virtues of the guide until we arrived at Meknes, his stop. We said our goodbyes, shook hands and as the train pulled away from the station, there he was on the platform, searching for us and waving goodbye. It had been a nice encounter.

     Well, let me hear you now
     Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express

We arrived in Fes in the late afternoon, descended from the train and then dragged our bags over the makeshift dirt path that bumped across the tracks and into the station. Over the course of the five-hour journey as scenes of Morocco unfolded outside our train window, we very quickly realized the extent of the adventure we were in for. We took another deep breath and then headed for the throng of taxis on the street, eager but tentative about what we would find, deep in the heart of Morocco.

     Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express
     They're taking me to Marrakesh...

Pictures of our adventures:

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Sun Makes All the Difference

Our quest to follow the sun and 65-degree temperatures prompted us to make a quick detour to Portugal to round out our Andalusian adventures. With Mother Nature smiling down on us, we spent two glorious days in Moncarapacho, a small village just inland from Faro on the southern coast of Portugal. The Vila Monte Resort, a Relais & Chateaux property we enjoyed for the paltry, off-season sum of 70 euros a night, welcomed us with a bright suite, majestic palms and a lofty-ceilinged dining room with a view towards the ocean. It was just what we needed to regroup, repack and gird our loins for the trek to Morocco. My adventurous streak is offset by Joe’s extra gene for risk aversion, so we had a lot of reading, research and homework to complete before we boarded the ferry from Spain. I would get my African escapade and Joe would feel prepared.

Five days in Fes will end our trajectory south. We’ll then fly northeast to Milan where we’ll meet Chris and Caroline – at last! If it weren’t for being with our children and the prospect of skiing in the Dolomites, I might opt to just continue stalking the sun. At every opportunity, I bask in the warmth of the Mediterranean sunshine, drink in the vitamin D, warm my inner essence and bronze my outer self. To brighten my mood and lighten my spirit, the sun makes all the difference. We have our very own half-and-half routine that must be executed whenever we decide to take advantage of an outdoor cafe: our table must be half in the shade and half in the sun so that I can get my rays and Joe can keep his cool.

When we checked into the Vila Monte, Joe was happy (and I was thrilled) to discover that unlike restaurants in Spain that rarely open before 8:30pm, the dining room began serving dinner at the (in our minds) reasonable hour of 7:30pm. Always ravenous by 6 and not happy to fall into bed with bellies full, we prefer eating a bit earlier than the Spanish. Our stomachs growling steadily by early evening, we counted down the hours to dinner, anticipating the culinary creations of the hotel’s Orangerie restaurant. Sitting in the waning sun (of course!) and turning to my computer to do some long overdue writing, I looked at the time on the screen and suddenly realized that Portugal is in a different time zone – it’s an hour behind Spain! Oh não, quão terrível! my stomach shouted, “not two but three more hours before we eat!” We just couldn’t seem to avoid the protracted, hungry waits for late dinners.

As already noted, we should have spent more time in Sevilla and now we wished we could have prolonged our stay in Portugal. To a person, everyone we met was beyond pleasant. When we ventured into tiny Moncarapacho, three local women practically fell over themselves to show me how to get to the post office and they just about accompanied me all the way there, making sure I found it successfully. In addition to the kindness and generosity of those we met, the biggest revelation was the Portuguese language itself. While I knew that Portuguese, as a Romance language, might look similar to Spanish when written, I was astounded by just how different it sounds when spoken. To my ear, the many “sh” sounds and its particular cadence make it sound like a central European tongue. I had previously been exposed only minimally to the language (via the Portuguese women who worked in my college’s dining hall in Worcester, Massachusetts), and I’m sure that I’ve often guessed a speaker’s language as Slavic when he or she has actually been speaking Portuguese. Doing a bit of research, I learned that Portuguese is actually the sixth most-spoken language in the world. Our brief visit to Portugal definitely piqued my interest in its language. I may need to add a brief course in Portuguese to my list of “Someday I’ll...”

Our sun worshipping pilgrimage will now take us south across the straits of Gibraltar to the wilds of northern Africa. While a visit to Morocco has always been on my list of wishes, I’m not sure I believed that I would actually have the opportunity to go there. But my wish has come true: we’re making our way to Africa.

Pictures of our adventures:

Scenes from Andalusia (Part 2)

Salobreña: On two occasions, we headed to the coast for a couple of runs by the sea. Heading twenty minutes south on the A44 autovía dumped us directly into Salobreña, a beach town overrun by Brits and other northern Europeans with a nice, broad, kilometer-long seaside boulevard, perfect for running. The weather at the shore on both days was superb: mid-60s, bright, blue skies and pure sunshine. My second run took me away from the beach on a narrow trail alongside a canal that cut through flat acres dense with sugarcane. After putting a mile or so behind me, off in the distance appeared several dozen brown goats, clanging bells and all, with an elderly goatherd gently prodding them along. The herd was headed straight for me as the distance between us closed quickly. I eventually slowed to a walk and then sunk into the sugarcane thicket to allow the pack to pass by. What a sight and what a run! We may not have made it to Pamplona for the running of the bulls but I did manage to jog with the goats in Salobreña.

Málaga/Torremolinos/Marbella: When the sun took a break and the Costa del Sol turned into the Costa de la Lluvia, we did an all-day windshield tour of the three major seaside cities. It was a wet, dreary day and the resort towns did not look their best, but we did get a good feel for each. We also witnessed scores of deserted construction sites and the unfinished buildings left behind, sitting forlorn and abandoned as they spilled up the coastal hills. The “crisis,” as they refer to the housing collapse over here, was in abundant evidence. Birthplace of Picasso, Málaga is a big, bustling city with a good-sized port and Marbella, with its celebrated beachside promenade, is clearly the Spanish playground of choice for the rich. We were most anxious to see Torremolinos, however, one of the unforgettable settings for James Michener’s 1971 classic account of the disaffected youth of the ‘60s, The Drifters. I’m rereading this book that I so enjoyed when I first discovered it in college, and driving into the actual town that reached mythic partying proportions in the novel was a decidedly gratifying experience. We had lunch along the infamous Torremolinos beach, rain pounding on the chiringuito’s plastic roof, and discussed how the seaside venue might have changed since Michener’s characters crashed there in cheap hotels over 40 years ago.

Alpujarra Hike: Just to the south and east of Chite are the Alpujarras, a mountainous area south of the Sierra Nevada into which the vanquished Moors fled after the Christians retook Granada. The deep canyons are dotted with whitewashed villages with their characteristic flat-roofed Moorish houses and are rich in challenging hiking trails. We grabbed our walking sticks, jumped in the car, headed for Pampaneira, one of the Moorish villages, and started what we hoped would be a multi-hour hike up the Poqueira valley. Unfortunately, the confusing narrative description on the trail map we found at Casa Conejillo resembled little of the actual terrain we crossed and markers we spotted (Does that look like a “water channel?” Maybe it’s just a stream. It says continue for “a bit.” Have we gone a bit? Would you consider this a curve to the left?), so we lost the trail we’d hoped to follow very quickly. In the end, we continued on a different path that led down into rather than up the valley, but the weather was perfect for a hike, sunny with a bit of a chill in the air, and we decided to enjoy the trail we found rather than the one we’d planned. We had one of our most pleasant lunches in Spain (although not typically Spanish) when we got back to the village (a big salad, chicken with mushrooms and cream sauce, and chocolate cake) because the woman who owned the place -- along with her husband cooking in the kitchen -- and served our food loved practicing her English. We had a spirited discussion about her views on Spanish politics (a new party was elected and everything will now get even harder for the Spanish people), the European economy (it’s very bad and getting worse) and her children (they’re grown and on their own and she wishes her son hadn’t married a French woman).

Gibraltar: There’s a point on the AP7 autovía north of Marbella when you pass over a crest heading west and suddenly, there in the distance miraculously appear two lone mountains: the great Rock of Gibraltar and Jebel Musa, its shadowy twin across the straits in Morocco. It was one of those jaw-dropping, incredible sights. The Rock and our first glimpse of Africa in one frame – just amazing. From this vantage point, Gibraltar appeared to be physically detached from the continent as it loomed in the morning mist. The first word that comes to mind about this tiny British territory (just over two-and-a-half miles square) is fascinating. While Gib may in reality be attached to Spain at the tip of a narrow peninsula, the two are as distant as two places that touch can be. Still angry over losing Gibraltar to England, Spain makes few concessions to its colony neighbor. Until you are almost on top of it on the highway, there are absolutely no signs directing you there. Signs-a-plenty announce La Línea, the Spanish town through which you have to drive to reach Gibraltar, but it’s as if this little piece of Britain doesn’t exist as far as the signs are concerned. Shortly after going through the passport control booths, we found ourselves actually driving across an airport tarmac. What!? Gibraltar is so narrow that the airport runway spans its width and traffic must be stopped several times a day with red-and-white striped barrier arms that are raised and lowered for the seven or so incoming and outgoing daily flights. The residents are now in an uproar because a recently inked deal will almost double the flight count and the resulting traffic jams will make the already congested roads even worse. A tunnel under the tarmac is in the works but until it’s completed, gridlock will reign. The view from the top of the rock is spectacular, affording sweeping views of the Costa del Sol to the east, of the ships and container cranes of the busy commercial port of Algeciras to the west and south across the sea to the shores of Africa outlined in the distance. We played with the precocious macaque monkeys that live on the Rock (there are 200 of them), walked through the caves and then headed down to town for a lunch of fish and chips. The incongruity of seeing throngs of British school children outfitted in gray and maroon uniforms with pressed white shirts and polished shoes being directed across the street by British Bobbies in their dark blue helmets was fascinating. There’s simply no other word for experiencing this little slice of the UK jutting out into the Med, even if just for an afternoon.

Thanksgiving at the Alhambra: Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. It’s a very simple notion: spending time with loved ones and giving thanks together. The retail mania of Christmas and the crash commercial trappings of most other US holidays have somehow managed to bypass Thanksgiving (except for Black Friday, of course). We had a lovely dinner and felt privileged to be eating at the Granada Parador (first a mosque, then a convent and now a fine hotel on the grounds of the Alhambra) although we badly missed being with family and eating our holiday favorites (turkey was not on the menu, but we did enjoy some duck). My sister Peggy’s advice, who I’ve mentioned lived for many years as an expat in London, was that Joe and I concentrate on considering ourselves special as the only ones in the restaurant celebrating the American holiday. Such a frame of mind did indeed help assuage the wistfulness. We’d missed another Thanksgiving dinner away from home in the late ‘70s when I was a student in France. Joe was visiting and we took the train to Chamonix for a long weekend in the Alps. We had a quiet and memorable Thanksgiving dinner of Poulet Vallée d’Auge (chicken with apples, cream sauce and Calvados) that became a family favorite I still make for special occasions. The biggest difference between our Thanksgiving in 1978 and the one we just celebrated is that we now have children. Thirty-three years ago, Joe and I were fine to give thanks on our own, but now that Chris and Caroline are in our world, it just isn’t Thanksgiving without them <sigh>.

Ronda: Dramatically perched above and straddling a breathtaking gorge that divides the town in two is Ronda, one of Andalusia’s iconic white hill towns. The town’s Romero family played a principal role in the development of modern Spanish bullfighting traditions and the highlight of a Ronda visit is its lovely Plaza de Torros. Completed in 1785, the Ronda bullring is a delicate sandstone structure, whitewashed on the outside and painted in soothing yellow and rust on the inside. For me, its 136 delicate Tuscan pillars and covered benches lend the structure the air of a cloister rather than a violent arena (although it was impossible to ignore the red streaks of blood ground into the sandy floor). Were the central ring to house a garden sanctuary and bubbly fountain, I would have enjoyed our visit significantly more. It’s too bad the brutal ritual of bullfighting takes place in it and ruins such a lovely, noble piece of architecture.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Scenes from Andalusia (Part 1)

Southern Spain was completely new territory for us and thus we were anxious to explore its many sights, sounds and cities. When we’d first approached Granada and its location on the map, I was struck by just how far south the city actually is. Only 60 kilometers from the Mediterranean, it’s a quick 45-minute drive away from the coast on the autovía. Granada, Cordoba and Sevilla roughly form a triangle with Cordoba at the top point, Granada in the southeast corner and Sevilla in the southwest. Even though we now wish we’d split our two weeks between Granada and Sevilla, the former still managed to serve as a good starting point for venturing into Andalusia.

Chite: The tiny little town in which we rented Casa Conejillo was anything but touristy. It was a genuine Andalusian village with real inhabitants, most of them over 70, and I’m sorry to report that it never really grew on us. There was one smoky, corner bar (in which I had to pick up our house key on arrival) and one neighborhood restaurant but we ventured into neither for a drink or a meal. Each time we passed by the two establishments, local laborers hanging outside gave us the once and twice over, thus exacerbating our feeling of being “other.” In fact, the Spanish villagers had no hesitation about staring at us for minutes on end and we did our best to respond with a smile and a sunny “hola.” When you’re being watched, it’s difficult to relax and observe your surroundings, which would be our intent if we patronized the Bar Nuevo or the Cafe Garvi. When the focal point of intense local scrutiny, our tendency is to focus inward, shrink into our own skin and not return the stares, knowing that our every move is being watched and evaluated. We were uneasy with the constant scrutiny, so we fixed many of our own meals in Casa Conejillo and hit the road whenever the weather cooperated. Chite did have a few of its own quirky “charms,” of course. Whereas in other small towns we’d been awakened by the church bells, in Chite we had several recurrent alarms: at 6:30 it was the chorus of family roosters; at 7 it was the neighborhood dogs inevitably involved in their daily skirmish; at 8 and every 15 minutes thereafter, it was the familiar peal of bells from the church down the hill; and most unusual of all, from 8:30 onward, the incessant honking of horns from small white vans circling through town interrupted the morning calm as they alerted villagers to their daily wares of fresh bread, meat and produce. We experienced (were subjected to?) other village oddities as well. At unexpected hours on any given day, canon booms and shotgun blasts from the surrounding valley punctuated the daily calm. We never did figure out what or who was behind the miscellaneous rounds -- we just chalked them up to the eccentricities of Chite. On one random morning, we awoke to the acrid stench of an unpleasant burning outside. Since the village houses are stacked one upon the other like interlocking stair-step Legos as they climb up a sharp hill, our neighbor’s terrace is just below our bedroom window. Sure enough, we discovered that the gentleman next-door was burning a toxic mixture of grasses and palm fronds that must have included some variety of rubber because the smell was simply awful. We had planned to do our wash that morning and hang it on our terrace to dry but our neighbor’s conflagration forced us to turn our living room into the laundry room. It would have been much nicer to have our clothes dry in the sun rather than draped over the couch, but the noxious, billowing smoke made that impossible. During our stay in Chite, Spain held national elections and as a result, we endured a mixture of strangely Soviet-style political propaganda from both the right and the left, all accompanied by rousing patriotic anthems blasted from huge speakers mounted on vans roaming the streets. We were happy when the election was finally decided (the conservatives won and ousted the socialists after 8 years) and we had to deal with one less bizarre interruption. The morning after the election, however, the campaigning continued when two Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on our door (we sent them packing after a brief chat). “What will be next?” we wondered. We found our house in Chite cold and lonely and while the indoor chill may have been pleasant to return to as an escape from the heat of the scorching summer, in November at the end of the quiet, dark, dog-dropping-filled streets of Chite, it was downright depressing. In retrospect, it was probably a mistake not to have paid the extra few hundred bucks to turn on the heat. But we decided to economize and so we warmed up with long, hot showers, steaming cups of tea and whenever the weather permitted, hit the road to discover the rest of Andalusia.

Córdoba: We took a full day to explore this incredibly interesting city. Our two-and-a-half hour drive took us through the hub of the Spanish olive trade across miles and miles of rolling countryside covered with symmetrical groves of scraggly pale green trees. The focus of our visit to Córdoba was the architectural gem completed in 987 AD and the most important building and symbol of the city: the Mezquita, in the heart of the historic city. Formerly the Great Mosque of Córdoba and a cathedral after the Christian Reconquista, locals know it as the Mezquita-Catedral. As is the wont of conquerors, the Catholic hierarchy needed to visibly assert its superiority over the vanquished Moors and thus built a grandiose Renaissance cathedral nave, and plopped it jarringly in the middle of the spacious, elegant Muslim place of worship. While the bulk of the original mosque was kept intact, the new imposing center drove a willful dagger through the heart of the original building. Upon hearing that Spain’s King Charles V approved the clumsy addition, Joe quipped, “Big mistake, Chuck. Bad move.” Even the king himself is said to have lamented his decision by informing the local religious leaders, “You have destroyed something unique to build something commonplace.” Perhaps the only positive thing that can be said about the redesign is that much of the original beauty of this sublime mosque was preserved. In most cases, victors simply level the structures of the conquered and build their own replacements from the ground up. The Mezquita’s iconic arcaded hall of 856 red and white striped double arches was crafted from the marble remains of the Roman temple upon which it was built. And although light and airy when first constructed, the expansive Mezquita now enjoys very little natural light since the vaulted openings facing the courtyard of orange trees were cemented over during the Christian conversion. What a sight the beautiful mosque must have been in its heyday, filled with thousands of worshippers praying on their mats in streaming sunlight. From the Mezquita, we wandered through the whitewashed old quarter and found the ancient synagogue, a cozy little space filled with delicate, carved woodwork, exquisite stucco decoration and the upper level women’s gallery that looks over the main worship space. It’s easy to remember the inferior position of women in each of the world’s great religions when visiting their places of worship. And I bristled as we walked through the historic streets of Cordoba and saw the two feet of dark latticed woodwork covering the bottom of every window. The screens that hid women from public view are constant reminders of how things have evolved vis-à-vis women, at least with respect to non-religious matters in most of the western world. We headed back towards the Mezquita, knowing that the subjugation of the Jews during the Inquisition was one of Spain’s bleaker moments. The stark choices offered them were convert, leave or die and all but three of the ancient synagogues in the country, including the one in Cordoba, were completely destroyed. The mosque, cathedral and synagogue all appear to live together harmoniously within 100 yards of each another in 2011 – what was the problem in the 1400s? Oh yes, the buildings themselves weren’t actually the issue. It was the hierarchy of the three religions who couldn’t play nice, and in varying measures, the rules of the day declared that whatever faith was in charge asserted its position by destroying, or at least suppressing, all the others. Behaving badly in the name of religion was all about power over others with little consideration given to genuine spirituality. What a tragedy that in some parts of today’s world, including our own country, so little has changed. 

Pictures of our adventures:

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sevilla Forever

Sevilla is spectacular. We thoroughly enjoyed Barcelona, but we loved Sevilla even more. Cities exude very distinct vibes and those of Sevilla are of celebration. Purely by chance, we arrived in Sevilla on a weekend. We were thus lucky enough to be there on a Saturday night when all the city appeared to be out partying – young parents pushing strollers, elderly couples arm in arm, teenagers speaking a mile a minute, lovers of all variety and ages entwined on the corners and international tourists happy and laughing, appreciating that they were in the perfect city for a twilight stroll. For no reason other than celebrating life in Sevilla, hundreds of people spilled out of bars and restaurants into the streets and filled the city with chatter, laughter and the clinking of glasses. It was definitely pleasant to observe everyone across the generations taking advantage of the night air. The Spanish paseo, or ritual evening promenade, was in full swing and we needed no convincing to join the crowds.

With only two days and two nights to see the capital of Andalusia, we had to be efficient with our time and determined with a plan so we drew up an itinerary that included touring the cathedral (the largest church in Spain and the third largest in the world behind St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s); climbing the Giralda tower (a former minaret converted to the cathedral’s bell tower and which one ascends via a corkscrew ramp rather than stairs, as did the Moorish muezzin on horseback five times a day to call the faithful to prayer); wandering the residential Triana district across the Guadalquivir River; crossing the Parque de María Luisa (including the grand Plaza de España from the 1929 Exposition); and, exploring the narrow streets of the whitewashed Barrio de Santa Cruz (the former Jewish neighborhood).

Finally, but number one on our list of musts for Sevilla, was experiencing some genuine flamenco, and not just a touristy show with food being served and drinks poured, but the traditional, heartfelt version. Joe did some Internet research and we settled on the show at La Casa de la Memoria deep in the Barrio. It turns out that we chose very well; the performance was mesmerizing and emotionally intense in a way I hadn’t expected. Young artists in their 20s and 30s, including a guitarist, singer and two gorgeous dancers (the male was Colin Farrell’s twin), held us transfixed for an hour in our front-row seats. The intimate venue was a dimly lit courtyard in a 17th century palace-home with only a few rows of seats surrounding the performers on three sides. Inspired by those who have lived in southern Spain through the centuries -- the Moors from North Africa, the gypsies and the Spanish -- flamenco emanates from deep in the soul and movingly combines the romantic, passionate and celebratory influences that have created the tapestry of modern Andalusia. It certainly touched my soul and I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced a more emotionally charged live performance. Had we stayed in Sevilla longer, I know I would have returned to experience an additional show with different performers. I can still hear (and feel) the loud and soft percussive handclaps and the rhythmic, ear-splitting feet stamping; this proud art form grabbed my heart and still hasn’t let it go.

Sevilla surprised us at every turn. The architecture, in characteristic mustard and burgundy, was lovely and though the color combination doesn’t sound very attractive, it works well on the stately Sevillan buildings. The delicate Moorish influences of pretty arches, flowered patios and colorful tile work were everywhere. Carriages pulled by elegant horses added to the city’s romance as did the many cobblestoned pedestrian ways.

When we initially drew up our plan for exploring Spain, we focused on Andalusia, the part of the country neither of us had ever visited, and decided to use our two-week home rental south of Granada as a base of operations. Rather than pack up and move several times, the plan was to simply take day trips from Chite. Now that we’ve been to Sevilla, we know we got it wrong. We should have stayed near Granada for a week and then spent a full week in Sevilla. The two nights we allotted were just not enough to fully explore this beautiful, vibrant city. While we definitely got a delicious taste, we’ve now added Sevilla to our list of places to which we must return.

The official motto of Sevilla, seen everywhere throughout the city on sewer caps, busses and even Christopher Columbus’s tomb in the cathedral, is “No8Do.” Loosely translated, it means “forever Sevilla,” but the more formal meaning, tied to a legend involving a skein of yarn (the figure “8” in the emblem) and the loyal subjects of King Alfonso X, is “Sevilla has not abandoned me.” I actually like the former meaning, knowing that forever we’ll have memories from Sevilla and hoping we’ll return someday to create more.

Pictures of our adventures:

Monday, November 28, 2011

Culinary Scorecard: France 10; Spain 3

How often have you had a hankering for a taste of España and said to your spouse/partner/friends, “Hey, let’s go out for Spanish food tonight!” Probably never, right? And that’s likely the reason I’ve seen so few Spanish restaurants outside of Spain. I’ve already written at length about all the perfectly yummy food we had all over France at fine dining restaurants and tiny bistros (thus, it scores a ten), but I find it difficult to come up with even a handful of meals we’ve had in Spain that I would label memorable. 

The first of the three points I award to Spanish dining goes to sangria. It’s always been one of my favorites (and I’m happy to report that Joe is now an aficionado) and we’ve enjoyed multiple fruit-filled pitchers of the thirst-quenching nectar over the past few weeks. Spain scores a second point for paella, although one was significantly better than the others. The best paella we enjoyed, hands-down, was for lunch in a beachside chiringuito (an informal food joint) in the town of Nerja on Playa Burriana along the Costa del Sol. It’s owned and run by an aging, pony-tailed hippie named Ayo who we first saw on an episode of Rick Steves. The eponymous, open-air restaurant’s specialty is paella, which they make over an open fire in a huge, four-foot diameter pan in view of diners in an outdoor kitchen. I’m certain our beachy surroundings added some local flavor, but our plates of saffron-infused rice were simply delicious on their own. Accompanied by a pitcher of sangria, eating our paella with our feet in the sand made for a very relaxing afternoon. The final point for Spain goes to tapas in general, but not all those we tried were uniformly appetizing. Many simply filled our stomachs but didn’t pass the we-can’t-wait-to-have-more test. We did our best to try as many typical Spanish tapas and especialidads de la casa as we could (including what Spaniards consider their beloved and very pricey jabugo jamón), but very few were notable. In Barcelona we had flash-fried artichoke shavings that were out of this world and in Sevilla, a variation of escalivada (grilled and peeled eggplant, tomatoes, onions, red peppers and garlic mixed and molded into a squat cylinder) topped with warm cod was finely prepared and filled with flavor. Also in Sevilla, we were served a bowl of salty, vinegary, very ripe olives the size of small plums that were probably the best we’ve had on our trip. Andalusian gazpacho, although more finely pureed and a bit creamier than the variety found in the states, was often offered on a tapas menu and was light, refreshing and tasty. 

So, as we move along in our travels, we’ll continue our quest for memorable local food and drink and maintain our highly subjective country-specific scorecards. So far, France is in the lead and by well more than just a head. We’ll only be in Portugal, just over the Spanish border, for a couple days – too short a time to really make an informed judgment, but we shall see. We have little idea of what to expect in Morocco, but we project that Italy will give France a run for her money. We’re headed to London for Christmas, so of course, British cuisine will likely score even lower than Spain’s. In the meantime, España can keep trying to impress us, but surely it will be too little too late. Eating at a Spanish restaurant once we get home, I’m afraid, will remain at the bottom of our dining out list – right next to going out for bangers and mash. Qué lástima!

Pictures of our adventures:

Friday, November 25, 2011

More Moorish Musings

As we unhappily said goodbye to the Alhambra’s Generalife Gardens and made our way down the long stone walkway towards our car, I was taken aback by a sight that never fails to unnerve me. A woman in head-to-toe burka and face-covering niqab was walking with her husband, pushing a stroller down the path in front of us. It’s fairly unusual to see women outside Muslim countries fully draped, but I’ve seen several in London, always in loose fitting black cloaks with frightening grills across their eyes, and now I’d seen one in Granada. This woman’s burka was light grey and appeared to be of high quality material, starched and pressed, with the headscarf fitting tightly across her face, just over and under her eyes. Her husband sported casual western clothes – a brightly striped sweatshirt hoodie, jeans and Nikes. I’ve heard and read the arguments from both women and men about the merits of the burka – how it allows women to praise God; how it provides women with a protective, comforting anonymity; how it’s specified in the Koran (questionable); how it allows women to honor and show respect for their husbands. But no matter how I try, I just can’t buy it; I find the burka both troubling and astonishing. It subjugates women, makes them less than individuals – nameless and faceless, inhibits their social interaction and communicates a message of subservience. Every time I’m confronted with the specter of these women so attired, I have the urge to sit them down and suggest that if they want to be anonymous and hide their individuality, just put on some Jackie-O sunglasses, slip on a shapeless moo moo and don a floppy hat. Such an outfit would let women go about their business in public, unnoticed and undistinguished but not send such a blatant message of degradation. While not in favor of a burka ban (outlawing behaviors and practices often serves in the end to encourage them), as I watched the gray-clad woman load her baby into the car, I wondered, are women who wear the burka aware that their attire screams oppression?

The following day, we returned to Granada to explore the rest of the city including the massive cathedral (the second largest in Spain behind the one in Seville), the checkered Plaza Nueva, the dark alleys of the Alcaicería (formerly the silk market) and the Albayzín labyrinth (the ancient quarter of the Moors). Perhaps it’s because everything pales in comparison to the Alhambra masterpiece rising on the summit above, but for some reason the city below didn’t move us. We climbed the Assabica hill, which faces the Alhambra on the opposite rise, through the narrow, winding streets of the Albayzín to reach the Mirador de San Nicolás (an incredible viewpoint on a church plaza). While wandering the neighborhood maze was interesting, the whole point of the climb was to once again see the Alhambra from a different vantage point. When we finally reached the top of the final stairway and made a hard turn to our right to face the Alhambra across the ravine, we had a mouth-dropped-open moment. “Oh, wow!” was all we could say.

There are apparently many Roman Catholic religious orders based in Granada since we passed many priests and nuns on the streets, going about their daily business. As we headed down and back across town from the Mirador de San Nicolás to the parking garage, we crossed paths with a tall, regal Cardinal in black and crimson ecclesiastical regalia, short cape over his shoulders and red mitre on his head. The young novitiate in tow scurried just behind him, carrying the dignitary’s briefcase and other paraphernalia. The supremacy of this man of the cloth was unmistakable, given his gilded robes. As we rounded the corner onto the Gran Vía de Colón, I almost stopped dead in my tracks. Was it possible that we could be following two more burka-clad women? That’s three in two days in Christian Granada? What were the odds? As we got a bit closer, it suddenly hit me. These women weren’t Muslims in burkas, they were Catholic nuns in long gray and white habits, their brows pushed down and their cheeks pinched by tight wimples. The woman in the burka and the nuns in their habits...are these femininity-erasing garments really that different? Cardinals ascend to power wearing royal colors and nuns, unable to become priests, are stuck in black and gray. Muslim men wear colorful western clothing and their women are hidden under identity-robbing burkas. Perhaps this is an obvious point in common – the patriarchal culture of two of the world’s largest religions. The suppression of women: discuss.

Pictures of our adventures:

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Sweet Home Alhambra

I could live in the Alhambra. Simply put, it is one of the most magical places I’ve ever visited and if it hadn’t started raining, I could have wandered the palaces and their gardens all day. While the walled city of Carcassonne has a dreamy storybook aura from afar, it’s actually a cold, depressing place on close examination. In contrast, the Alhambra appears rather stark and plain on the outside, but up close and from inside, its elegance delights and invites you to pull up some embroidered Moorish pillows and stay. Carcassonne is a fortress in which to cower and be protected; the Alhambra is a garden sanctuary in which to relax and settle in. Although the skies on the day we chose to visit the sprawling complex were steely gray, the beauty and warmth of the place shone through. If it is this stunning under a veil of drizzle, we thought, imagine its resplendence in the sun.

The Alhambra (from the Arabic meaning red fort) is an ensemble of very different structures all within the protection of massive fortress walls perched on a plateau on the crest of a hill. Its construction over centuries followed no master plan so the result is a hodge-podge mixture with individual buildings added piecemeal over the course of the alternating rule of Muslims and Christians. The oldest and most westerly section is the imposing Alcazaba fortress, built upon Roman ruins and providing wonderful views over the city of Granada straight below.

Beyond the Alcazaba stronghold and hanging over the deep ravine of the Darro River (which divides the plateau from the Muslim Albaicín district of the city on the facing hill) are the crown jewels of the Alhambra: the beautiful 14th century Nazrid Palaces of the Moorish rulers, designed to reflect “paradise on earth.” We wandered through the various rooms of the intertwined palaces, were awed by the colorful, delicate tile and plaster decoration of the ceilings and walls and gazed out the arched windows that delighted residents with vistas across the surrounding hills. Unlike so many other immense castles across Europe, the Nazrid palaces were built on a human scale (they are elegant rather than grand) with smaller rooms, gardens and hallways and offered intimate spaces into which I could imagine myself crawling with a good book and a cup of tea for the afternoon. Washington Irving, of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow fame, stayed at the Alhambra for three months in 1829 and the palace tour includes the room in which he lived, now marked with a commemorative plaque. I’ve done my best to “read local” as we’ve moved along and the entertaining travelogue Irving wrote as a result of his sojourn in the palace, Tales of the Alhambra, was a perfect literary companion for our visit. The book, illustrated with 19th century drawings, helped me conjure up the Alhambra’s days of former glory and the colorful characters who lived in the place. No standard guidebook could appeal to my emotions and evoke the sensual pleasures of the Alhambra as Irving’s romantic collection did. It was difficult to leave the palaces but there was much more to see and so we reluctantly moved on.

Plopped next to and sharing a wall with the Nazrid palaces is the circle-in-a-square 16th century Renaissance residence of Charles V. Boys will be boys and so after the Moors were defeated, the Christian monarch-in-charge built his own imposing palace to dwarf that of the conquered. Were his Renaissance masterpiece on a piazza in Florence, I would have been in awe. But built, as it is, almost smack on top of and crowding the existing delicate Moorish palaces, the stark contrast left me cold; in the context of the Alhambra, it just doesn’t belong. We did a cursory circuit and moved on. After briefly exploring the mosque baths, the Santa María Church (it was built on top of a mosque) and the San Francisco Parador (also once a mosque, then a monastery and now a four-star hotel at whose restaurant we’ll have Thanksgiving dinner), we headed for the summer palace on upper part of the grounds as the rain started in earnest.
As I observed earlier, even in foul weather the Alhambra was gorgeous and the sultan’s Generalife summer estate and gardens were no exceptions. I have always appreciated the symmetry and serenity of a quadrangular Catholic cloister and both the upper Generalife and the lower Nazrid palaces are filled with similar spaces – all rooms open onto a central court filled with the soothing sounds of running water. Cascades, reflecting pools and gurgling rivulets are evidence of the culture’s appreciation of water and its comforting effects. It’s easy to imagine the refreshing cool provided by the fountains in the grueling summer sun. The fragrant gardens within the palace and those that stretch on terraced acres outside are magnificent. With raincoat hoods on and our umbrellas up, we had to use our imaginations to picture them in their brilliant full summer glory. We’ll have to come back again, I promised myself, maybe with our grandchildren in scorching July, when all is in bloom and the cool spray of the fountains can truly be appreciated. After four hours in the Alhambra, we finally forced ourselves to leave, knowing that we’d visited the very best of Moorish culture from the final centuries of their rule in Al Andalus Spain.

Pictures of our adventures: