Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The GCW Tour, Spain & Morocco: Camels!

Apparently, the niece's highest priority for our trip was to get the chance to ride a camel. Today, she got her chance. T.E. Lawrence couldn't have done better. 

And for the record, camels are really cool...

The GCW Tour, Spain & Morocco: Waiting for the Train

Well, we've made it to Tangier, hooked up with our guide, and spent the day touring the city and the surrounding area. A few initial reactions...

Ramadan really does shut the country down. Places that, according to our guide, will be completely overrun in three weeks were ghost towns today. Depending what you're after as a tourist, this could be a good or a bad thing.

The guide service provided by Aziz Benami was top notch. Although we only met Aziz briefly on the tour and were managed by another guide, both were great. Aziz was very helpful via email in advance of the trip, secured our tickets for sleepers on the night train to Marrakech, and the guide was knowledgeable, informative and accommodating. Even better, the driver's been watching our bags all day and is coming back at 8:45 to take us to the train station -- which is pretty great. I'm very glad we opted not to try to navigate Tangier ourselves.

That said, there was a stop at a "bazaar," and perhaps stupidly I bought a rug. I've been in the market for rugs anyway, and it's a very nice rug, but for someone not brought up in the haggling approach to purchasing, it's hard not to think you may have been had. But the good news is, cancer changes your relationship to money so I don't much care. 

The niece's number one goal for our trip got completed in our first hour in Tangier. Yay! More on that in the next post.

So much for initial reactions. We now have an an hour and forty-five minutes to kill before our ride to the train comes, and forty-five minutes before the sun officially sets, prayers are completed and the city explodes with people. 

We're still deciding between wandering the streets or camping out in this cafe and using their Wi-Fi.

Note the photo with the painter. The forthcoming James Bond film Spectre was being shot here and set designers painted this stretch of the village to look old and rundown. Now that filming is done, the people who own the building are putting it back the way it was.

Clearly, Ramadan does not mean food is unavailable. Observers just don't eat it before sundown. 

That patio the niece is standing on belongs to the only US landmark that exists outside the United States.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The GCW Tour, Spain & Morocco: Off to Morocco

Astronauts always lost content when the went around the dark side of the moon. We're about to lose contact as we head into the portion of the trip unlikely to be supported by Wi-Fi. 

We'll be up bright and early tomorrow and on the first ferry to Tangier. At the ferry terminal on the far side we meet a guide for the day. The guide book suggested hiring a guide if for no other reason than to avoid spending the day fighting off wanna be guides, and since I'm not found of being harassed that made perfect sense to me. 

If all goes as planned (I.e., the guide was able to secure us tickets), we'll leave our guide at the train station where we'll board the night train to Marrakech. In Marrakech we'll be back at a hotel and, with luck, again have access to Wi-Fi.

But for the next thirty-six hours or so, we'll be out of touch.

I suspect there will be a lot to report when I'm next back in contact. 

The GCW Tour, Spain & Morocco: A Vacation from Vacation

With a very early wake up call, we're pretty much done with Tarifa. We walked the old town and the beaches, bought some postcards (the niece), refrigerator magnets (me), and other accessories (niece), and then found a Mexican restaurant of all places for dinner. I couldn't pass up their margarita menu, and the food turned out to be really quite good. 

Plus, the niece got her first taste of deep fried ice cream. It wasn't bad, though I recall the restaurant I worked at in high school making better.

Getting back to Tarifa, aside from souvenir shops, our walk also took us to the Island of Doves. It used to be an actual island, but now there's a walkway that will get you there. The walkway separates the Atlantic Ocean from the Mediterranean Sea, and the island is officially the southern most point in Europe. You can still see defenses from ancient times through World War II overlooking the beach. 

But now that the niece has been to the southern most point of Europe, I've convinced her she needs to see the North, East and West points as well. I'm pretty sure I've seen the eastern most (Istanbul?), but north and west I've yet to reach. I sort of hope the niece gets there before me, and she seemed eager to try.

But all of this sort of over sells Tarifa. I've always been of the mind that there are two kinds of vacations: the kind where you run around trying to see everything, and the kind where you lay around trying to do nothing. For the most part European destinations fall in the former group, but Tarifa really belongs in the latter. 

It's sort of nice to have a vacation of the second type stuck into the middle of your vacation of the first type. For the first time since we got here, it's been a really relaxing day.



The GCW Tour, Spain & Morocco: You Can't Fault Spanish Logic

The GCW Tour, Spain & Morocco: Dave Earns His Keep

For our one night in Tarifa, we're staying at the Hostel Africa, a small, 13-room hotel recommended by Rick Steves. And I'll add my voice to the recommendations. It's a lovely little place in the heart of the old town, and well worth your money if you ever wind up in Tarifa. Just be sure to brush up on your Spanish before you get here, as the operators do not speak a word of English. Oh, and watch out for the fifth step when you head up to your room; it's quite a bit higher than all the others.

But the best part of staying here occurred when the niece went back up to the room to get her passport. While I was waiting, I started taking pictures of Dave around the small lobby. I didn't notice another two guests come in behind me, and they were soon pointing and laughing. 

Three things became clear in very rapid order: first, the guests behind me did not speak English; second, they had no clue what a minion was; and third, the gentleman who had checked us in knew exactly what a minion was. Pretty soon, I hear this very animated conversation between the three of them with the word "minion" frequently poping up. Eventually, the proprietor pulled up the preview for the new Minions movie on his laptop, and soon all three were busting up.

So of course I took a picture of Dave with the three of them.




The GCW Tour, Spain & Morocco: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

We did planes. We did trains. Now it's time for automobiles. Well, autobuses anyway. The only way to get from Sevilla to Tarifa is to drive, so at 9:30 this morning we were on the bus. It's about a three hour drive from Seville to the coast.

The niece said she preferred the bus to the train. It moves slower, so you can see more. And it was a pleasant drive, if warmer than I would've preferred.

Most of the road cuts through farmland, so we saw fields of corn and other veggies, and more than a few wind farms, but most striking were the many fields of sunflowers. Some were in bloom and some had clearly begun to dry out, but this was the first time I'd seen sunflower farming on this scale.

Pretty -- and the photos really don't do it justice...

The GCW Tour, Spain & Morocco: Final Moments in Sevilla

Our hotel in Sevilla had a rooftop bar that also served juice, coffee and pastries in the morning. Since our departure for Tarifa was scheduled before the local restaurants open for breakfast, we wound up spending our last half hour or so on the roof.

It was actually a really nice way to end our visit to Sevilla. It was early enough to be shady and cool, early enough that for much of the time we were the only ones there, the service was surprisingly fast, and the food quite tasty.

It also reminded me of one highlight of Spain: I have yet to drink orange juice that wasn't in an actual orange moments before I drank it.

And now we're off to Tarifa...

The GCW Tour, Spain & Morocco: A Traditional Spanish Meal

Ok, not so much...

The GCW Tour, Spain & Morocco: Let's Do the Time Warp

Before I left for Spain, one of my cultural informants mentioned that the niece might like shopping in Spain as the Spanish are a couple of years ahead of Americans on the fashion front. 

Given that I am completely lacking in that area, I can't really comment on the Spanish fashion sense, but I can say they're about 25 years behind America in popular music. 

It seems everywhere we go the radios are playing songs that were playing on my radio in high school. Madonna, The Police, Suzanne Vega, Mr. Mister, Wilson Phillips -- it's like two-plus decades of pop music haven't even happened.

It makes me wonder if they're choosing the music for their own benefit or, assuming most tourists who are now roughly my age will be more likely to hang out and spend money if surrounded by the music of their youth, for the benefit of tourists like me.

Yeah, I think it's probably the latter, too.

But that doesn't make it any less weird to hear "Like A Virgin" playing in the open air market.

The GCW Tour, Spain & Morocco: Dave Plays the Game of Thrones

Ok, not really, but we did spend the morning in the Alcazar, where parts of season four of Game of Thrones was shot. Sadly, the Spanish are more focused on its status as a working palace, so they have yet to post the signs identifying which scenes were shot where. Based on the overheard conversations, however, I suspect such signs will eventually go up. There were a lot more people trying to figure out if what they were looking at they'd seen on the show than absorbing the history lesson. 

But Dave had fun, and made a few friends...

The GCW Tour, Spain & Morocco: Now I Get It

Americans are always struck by the hour at which Europeans generally eat dinner (and vice versa). We think they eat in the middle of the night, and they think we eat in the afternoon.

Now that I've been to Seville, I understand the European approach. In fact, I'm betting the 10:00 dinner hour started in a place like Sevilla and traveled to the rest of the continent, 'cause it only took me about one day here to embrace it. 

In short, it's just too damn hot to eat any earlier in the day. At 6:00, your body is too focused on sweating to want food. By 10:00 or 11:00, though, it's finally cooled down enough to make eating tolerable. So a 10:00 dinner hour makes perfect sense.

Not sure what the issue is in Great Britain, though.

The GCW Tour, Spain & Morocco: Pub Crawl...

...or maybe tapas tour is the better term. In any case, rather than stay at one spot for dinner we wound up jumping from place to place for the odd tapas dish and a drink.

Of course, I'm not sure the niece really got into the spirit of a pub crawl, in that her preferred drink was pineapple juice. Sib4 was concerned I'd bring her daughter back with a taste for alcohol, but that doesn't seem to be much of a risk. 

She does seem to like calamari, however, and is a big fan of the tortillas here (which have more in common with a quiche than anything you'd find at Taco Bell). Gazpacho, on the other hand, definitely fell flat.

I can't say we found anything notable food-wise, but I did stupidly pick up some souvenir fish candle holders without really thinking through the part about how to get them home. Unlike refrigerator magnets, my usual choice, these can't really be slipped into a crack in a bag.

Oh well. I'll figure something out. 


The GCW Tour, Spain & Morocco: The Cathedral of Sevilla

According to the guide books the cathedral in Sevilla is the third largest in the world after the Vatican (obviously) and St. Paul's in London. It's been decades since I visited the Vatican and a few years since I was in St. Paul's, but I don't remember either being as impressive as the one here.

The Cathedral of Sevilla has many notable qualities -- its massive size; the massive size of everything in it, especially the altar and the organ; Columbus's tomb; etc. -- but I think the bell tower is the most fun. Originally designed as a Muslim minaret, the cathedral was built next to the tower and the tower repurposed from the Muslim call to prayer to Catholic call to services (or whatever it is bells that don't chime the hour do). The thing of it is, with the call to prayer happening five times a day, the inside of the tower has ramps instead of stairs so the poor guy whose job it was to perform the call to prayer could ride a horse to the top.

No horses, but the ramps remain, which I found kind of fun.