June 22, 2012
We spend our last full day in Spain exploring in Madrid, the capital. It’s a large, modern, bustling city. We are frankly running out of steam and can’t do it the justice it deserves, so decide just to have a quiet sort of walkabout day. We head for the Royal Palace and the Cathedral, and then head over to the Temple of Debod, walking through parks to enjoy the green space. The Temple of Debod is an authentic Egyptian temple that was a gift to Spain for its help cataloging and moving antiquities which would be flooded by the Aswan dam. It was brought over and reconstructed in the Parque de Oeste, and overlooks much of Madrid. As we were enjoying the Park, we noticed a cable car and decided to check it out. The cable car heads across the Manzanares River and up to Casa de Campo, one of Europe’s largest parks. There are beautiful views of the Royal Palace & the Cathedral. The Park is huge and appeared to be criss-crossed with a huge network of mountain bike trails. The hillsides are covered with Spanish fir trees: they’re almost limbless until you get to the top and then POOF! A big puff ball of tree! We caught the cable car just as it was closing for siesta, and had to wait for an hour at Casa de Campo for it to reopen. That hour of rest turned out to be just what we needed! We walked about, lay in the grass with our shoes off, watched birds, and then had tinto de verano at the cafe. I’m still not used to the meal schedule, but I think I might be getting the hang of this siesta thing! We headed over to the Plaza Mayor and had a late lunch/early dinner. Before we hopped back on the Metro to the hotel, we found a little market and got a few snacks to tide us over until breakfast. There was so much to see here, but our lazy outdoorsie day was just what we needed.
June 22, 2012
June 21, 2012
Sadly, it’s our last day with Sterling and Teresa. We got an early start and headed off to the Reserva Laguna de Fuente de Piedra, a large, shallow saline lake which is home to one of the largest nesting colonies of flamingos in Europe. During good years, upwards of 20,000 pair of flamingos breed and rear chicks here. Sadly, this wasn’t a good year and the lake had nearly dried up. Teresa was able to ascertain that the main body of the flock had left for an alternate nesting site, but there were several hundred birds still hanging around at the far end of the lake which was sadly inaccessible. I had so been looking forward to seeing them and was extremely disappointed. We could see a flock in the distance, but photos just showed a bunch of whitish birds. :o( But the day wasn’t a total loss, with lots of other birds such as avocet, black-necked stilts, terns and lapwings. We were wandering around the Reserva when, low & behold, we found a small group of flamingos! There were only about 10 of them and they actually weren’t very pink, but you still get to add them to your life list! The pink coloration comes from food in the diet, so I suspect that these were either young birds, or adults that couldn’t find a mate because they weren’t the fittest of the bunch. We were still able to get some photos of them in classic flamingo poses, although Jeanette was seriously wishing she’d lugged the really big camera lens along! As we were leaving the Reserva, we were rewarded with another unexpected strange bird sighting: a hoopoe! Sterling and Teresa had been talking about seeing hoopoe for the entire trip, but honestly we were starting to believe they were pulling our leg: no bird could be this silly looking! But one flew right in front of the car as we were in the Reserva driveway, prompting shouts of “Hoopoe!! Stop the car!! Where did it go??”. We barely pulled off the road before people were jumping out. We all got to see the bird, but it was too elusive for pictures. Just as you were getting into camera range, it would fly off another 50 or 60 feet. No matter, we know it’s real and it’s another for the life list.
June 20, 2012
Today we’re off to visit Ronda. Sterling and Teresa continue their excellent hosting – we would highly recommend their establishment to anyone (reviews from Mr. Angry of Dursley notwithstanding. You know who you are…). They’ve provided comfortable accommodations, taken time off to chauffeur us around, have translated for us, cooked excellent meals featuring lots of regional specialties, and made most excellent pitchers of sangria for toasting the sunset! We really can’t thank them enough. The trip has been much richer and more meaningful, not to mention they’re just a lot of fun to hang with!
June 19, 2012
Yesterday was spent mostly traveling back to Ceuta. The trip down from the mountain is like fast-forwarding through time. The closer to the coast we get, the more modern the infrastructure, towns and vehicles. After the twisting narrow cobbled lanes of Chefchaouen, straight, paved wide roads seem odd and I think we’re all a little sad to be back in the hustle and bustle. The ferry ride back to Algeciris and the drive to Olvera were uneventful.
The laundry facilities at Chefchaouen deserve their own post. When the river from the ravine reaches town, it is first channeled into a water treatment and distribution facility which feeds the town. The remaining water runs under the bridge at the top of town, where it splits into three channels: one down the center of the ravine and one to either side. Along the side channels, women can be seen stomping laundry in tubs or spreading it over the rocks and scrubbing it with brushes. To rinse, simply plop it back into the channel. A little further down each channel they’ve built roofed sheds. The water is channeled into a series of sinks with carved wash boards in them. The center channel of the river has a very large poured concrete slab, and the water running over it is very shallow. On the day we arrived in Chefchaouen, they were apparently having a laundry “festival” day to wash rugs. Beautiful rugs were being scrubbed on the rocks and are then spread across the flat concrete slab for a rinse. Then comes what I imagine to be the most fun part of the process: dragging that heavy wet rug up those steep hills and steps to a place it can be spread out to dry. They are spread over the railings of the bridge, the roofs of the laundry sheds, and on the roofs of houses all across town. It’s a beautiful view.
The next time that the washing machine in my air-conditioned house breaks and I have to get in my air-conditioned car to drive to the local laundromat, I hope I’m given the grace to remember the Chefchaouen laundromat. If I do, I will count my blessings while I sit in air-conditioned comfort and read a book as machines wash and dry my clothes.
June 17 & 18, 2012
We spend a day exploring the town. It is a maze of very narrow winding streets, and is set between 2 towering mountains. In fact, a rough translation of the name is “goat’s horns” in reference to these sharp peaks. A small river runs down the ravine between the peaks and supplies the town with its drinking water. Because they are very narrow and often contain multiple flights of stairs, few streets are accessible by vehicle and we see donkeys bringing in wares in baskets. At one point we hear clattering hooves and a herd of goats comes down the stairs ahead of us and wanders by us. I point out that we’re walking down the street with a herd of goats and we all have a good giggle. Spain is certainly very different than the U.S., but Morocco is a foreign country in almost every sense of the word. We’ve read about the cultural differences but now they hit home: Islam is the dominant religion, and the call to prayer comes from the local mosques many times a day. It is surprisingly soothing. Other differences are less soothing. Men should not touch women they are not related to, and there are sometimes noticeable course alterations to avoid contact. Everywhere we go, Teresa and I are asked “is this your husband?” In fact, we all had to sign forms when we checked in at the hotel with our passport numbers, addresses, etc. The hotel filled them out for us, with the exception of the “occupation” block on Eric & Sterling’s forms, which they were asked to fill in. However, the occupation block was already filled in for Teresa & I. I didn’t recognize the word, but am assuming it was something flattering like “wife” or “chattel.” It is very clearly a man’s world and they are rarely observed doing menial labor. Worst of all the differences for us, we can only find alcohol for sale at one place in town, and it’s not our hotel!! It’s the hotel Parador, which is near the center of town. After wandering and working up a good thirst, we’d pop in for a rejuvenating beverage – aaah. Not so relaxing was the traditional mint tea. Mint tea is served hot and is very sweet. So sweet in fact that honey bees home in on it like they have missile tracking (I think the heat somehow makes it more aromatic to them). The cafe proprietor brought us small plates to put on top of our glasses when we weren’t sipping, but drinking still involved a lot of coordinated choreography.
June 16, 2012
On the morning of the 16th, we caught a taxi to the Ceuta/Moroccan border, changed some Euros for dirham, and headed across the border. It is Sterling’s birthday, which is noticed on his passport by the border guard who wishes him a “Happy New Year!” Close enough! The border is incredibly chaotic: signage is almost non-existent and the little there is is in Arabic. There are lanes for cars and people, so we get into a people lane only to be told we’re not in the right one. Touts are agressively trying to get you to pay for the short document you must fill out, even though they are free from officials. Even though we firmly told him no numerous times, a gentleman named Mostafa attached himself to us and tried to talk us into going to his hometown instead of to Chefchaouen. Gave us his cell phone number and told us to call him if we changed our minds! We eventually make it through and hire a grand taxi for the roughly hour and ½ trip to Chefchaouen, nestled in the Rif mountains. Grand in this sense refers to a “large” taxi, not to its make or model. There’s a sea of taxis waiting on the Moroccan side of the border, and the grand taxis are almost exclusively 1980’s era Mercedes diesels. Ours had no air conditioning and only one window crank, which we all passed around (“Eric, could you please pass the window crank?”)! Our driver was friendly and pointed out things as best he could, including the Stork Tree.
June 15, 2012
We spent yesterday having a complete slob day, resting and doing laundry. Today we headed off to Algeciras and the ferry to Morocco! Before we started planning this trip, we had no idea just how close Africa is to Spain: 8.9 miles at the Straits of Gibraltar! You can clearly see Africa from the ferry terminal. We took a fast ferry from Algeciras to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in North Africa (northern coast of Africa is just like the southern coast of Spain: conquer and re-conquer. The actual Rock of Gibraltar: still British territory.), about a 1/2 hour trip. We arrived in Ceuta in the afternoon and wandered around the old fort for a bit, getting some great pics of Gibraltar in the distance. We were hot and the hotel pool looked too inviting, so after a rejuvenating beverage that’s where we headed. The water was cold but it felt good! We ventured out later for dinner and had walked quite a ways without finding a suitable place to eat when we stumbled upon a nice-looking Italian restaurant. Yes, an Italian restaurant in a Spanish city on the north coast of Africa. Having clearly not learned our lesson in Seville, we tried it anyway and were very pleasantly surprised [although Teresa’s mixed salad was topped with (wait for it...) tuna]. In fact, Sterling and Eric pronounced it “very fine” and even thought about eating there again on the way home. Wine on the balcony of the hotel looking out over the Mediterranean topped off the day.
June 13, 2012
After breakfast we visited the Reál (Royal) Alcazar and the Seville Cathedral. Seville is another of those Johnny-come-lately cities that’s only been around since about 700. BC, that is. It was important because of its location on a major shipping route (the Guadalquivir river), and so it was conquered time & again over the years. The current Reál Alcazar was built as a stronghold in the 11th century and reflects that checkered past. After the addition of an entire Gothic wing in the 1200’s, Peter the 1st (a huge fan of the Alhambra) extensively remodeled the Alcazar. He brought together the best Islamic artists and craftsmen of the day, but added some Christian touches. And gryffons, looots of gryffons. This style is known as Mudejar, of which the Alcazar is the best example. All we know is that it’s absolutely beautiful. So beautiful in fact that Jeanette alone took 537 pictures there. (Yes, I know I have a problem but it’s cheaper than a gambling addiction and healthier than drug addiction.) Intricate carving covers nearly every square inch of the walls and ceilings, with mosaic tiles or veined marble on the floor. It’s enough to make you dizzy. You could spend an entire day in one room and still miss details. Trying to tour the whole place just makes you numb after awhile: your brain can only take so much splendor! Luckily the gardens are equally beautiful but less overwhelming. With our heads spinning, we exited into the main plaza to sit in the shade of the Seville cathedral. After some refreshing ice cream, we felt ready to tackle the cathedral.
June 12, 2012
We set out Tuesday for Seville. On the way we went by a large solar array. Hundreds of large mirrors (heliostats) are focused onto a single receiving area on a 50-story tower which is filled with water. The heat generated by the focused beam flash-vaporizes the water, and that steam turns the turbines to generate electricity. Disturbingly, it also seems to incinerate things that fly in front of the tower. We were hoping the puffs were insects and not small birds, but couldn’t really tell. Eeek. Luckily, a newer and more efficient design has large mirrored troughs or half-pipes with a tube of water inside the half-pipe. The whole structure isn’t much over 30 feet tall, and since the heat stays inside the pipe it should be much less risky to birds. This type of solar power generation is much more efficient than the first solar arrays and this facility generates enough power to supply all of Seville. That’s a lot of watts.
June 11, 2012
Our first full day at Sterling and Teresa’s. We spend the morning exploring Olvera. Southern Spain was contested territory for years, going back & forth between Moorish and Spanish control. As a result, nearly every village was built near the crest of a hill and has a castle or fort and was walled in for protection. Yes, another vertical hill! We don’t know why Olvera doesn’t get with the times and put in an escalator… It’s a very nice town: amenities and local markets within walking distance, but a large supermarket for more extensive shopping and lots of good restaurants, etc.
June 10, 2012
After walking around old-town Barcelona and having lunch on a beautiful shady plaza, we caught the train to Antequera and were met by Sterling and Teresa. We spent the the trip to Olvera admiring the countryside and catching up. The high speed trains in Spain were awesome ( I think ours was an AVE s-102 – the engine looked like a giant sneaker). Eric even got Cuban Rum!
It’s really good to see Sterling and Teresa, and really nice to be in a spot where we can unpack and relax for a few days!
June 9, 2012
The climb up the hill was worth it though – for one thing, we had the hotel to ourselves. The hotel is beautiful, built in the traditional Art Nouveau style. Our bathroom, in black marble and white porcelain, was big enough to hold a small party. We were having breakfast on the terrace when several green-backed parrots came by for their own breakfast. The big spruce trees along the balcony are loaded with cones, and the parrots love them. They use feet and beaks to pull one off, then grip it in one foot while tearing it apart. All the while they and their fellow parrots are calling back and forth – it was really nice.
After arriving in Madrid on the morning of the 8th, we went straight to the train station and headed out to Barcelona. High speed rail service here is a great way to travel, and we just couldn’t face cramming ourselves onto another flight – enough is enough!
We easily grabbed metro tickets and headed out to our hotel, which was adjacent to Park Guell. Negotiating the metro was a piece of cake, but unfortunately the street wasn’t clearly marked on the map and we ended up climbing up and down a very steep hill. We found out later that if we’d gone one more street over there was an escalator – dammit! We must have climbed that hill twice due to faulty directions, pulling & carrying all our luggage. Not to mention that all the restaurants are back at the bottom, necessitating another trip.