Archive for April, 2008

Image Problem Fixed, Hopefully…

April 30th, 2008 at 10:07 am (AST) by Jake Richter

It was pointed out to me via e-mail that folks might not have been able to see the images which were embedded in my previous blog post. I think I have fixed that problem now. Please let me know if you still have problems.

 

Touring Marrakesh – Day 1 – Souks and More

April 29th, 2008 at 7:33 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Seeing as I needed to come up with something of a different way to post since my phone data connection still isn’t working, and because I had a bit of extra time today, I’m going to go with a more visual blog entry for today, our first full day in Marrakesh.

After breakfast we went to the Lindblad/National Geographic hospitality desk, got a quick orientation, and met a few fellow early arrivals for our upcoming tour. Among them was Diane from Chicago, a wonderfully nice and charming woman who ended up joining us for the day’s adventures.

The morning consisted of going out on a private mini-tour of the Koutoubia Mosque area, the souks (windy and maze-like paths through a covered area with shops) and the big open market place, with Mohammed, a guide Lindblad made available to us.

Jake and Diane pose with Berber water sellers in front of the Koutoubia Mosque tower
Jake and Diane pose with Berber water sellers in front of the Koutoubia Mosque tower

Marrakesh is rather touristy, and lots of folks go to various extremes in order to be candidates for tourist photos (for which they charge) including wearing traditional Berber water seller outfits, taming snakes, pulling teeth (or at least implying such), and offering monkeys for shoots.

Once in the souks – the area where diverse goods are sold from stalls and small buildings, typically a covered meandering path with lots of noise and people traffic – we looked in on a few shops, both ones that were of interest to us as well as ones where our guide Mohammed knew the owners. It’s a well known thing too that guides get a commission on sales made to people that come into their shops with the guide, and Mohammed confirmed that he would get an end of year “bonus” from such shops, but added he only recommended shops with reputable merchants and goods.


Colorful spices in the souks of Marrakesh

One of the places Mohammed brought us to was a carpet shop, where we were presented with fine examples of hand woven Arab, Berber, and Ajakoub (Moroccan Jewish) carpets and rugs. The seller who took care of us was Aziz, and he explained (and Mohammed previously also indicated) that his carpet shop represented a number of women’s cooperatives which make the carpets and rugs, with the carpet sellers acting as a clearing point for their wares.


Krystyana, Bas, and Linda examine rugs at the carpet sellers’

The rugs and carpets can be made of wool (camel, goat, or sheep – sheep is most common) or cactus fiber.


Bas tests out a carpet at the carpet sellers’ in Marrakesh

We ended up finding several rugs of interest to us, and learned first hand the art of Moroccan haggling. We ended up narrowing down to two pieces, one for Diane and one for Krystyana, paying about one-fifth of the original asking price – quite a steep price drop, leaving me convinced that we still might have paid a bit too much (especially as we then added another similar rug/covering for Bas). But, if we did, we can chalk up the excess to the price for an great show – what the carpet sellers do is a real theatrical performance (and enjoyable for at least one sitting).


Bas is not sure about the water snake around his neck as Krystyana looks on

After the souks we walked back out to Place Jemaa-el-Fna, a huge open area market place with a variety of things on display, ranging from dates and figs to snake charmers and monkey handlers.


Jake has a monkey on his back

We got back to our hotel for lunch and meeting some of our newly arrived tour compatriots, and then at 4pm met up outside to take a two hour ride in a carriage drawn by a pair of horses. The ride brought us to the Majorelle Garden, owned by Yves Saint-Laurent, which had the most amazing cactus collection we had ever seen, then past the old city walls of the medina, and then to the La Menara gardens which features a grove of thousands of 500 year old olive trees (not very visually impressive, alas).

What was amazing was how the horse drawn carriages were just part of regular traffic, along with crazy bicyclists, moped handlers, motorcyclists, and automobiles of all sorts and sizes. Glad it wasn’t me driving the horses, as otherwise the results would likely have been messy.


Diane, Krystyana, Linda, and Bas in the horse carriage in Marrakesh

The horse carriages are just part of the regular traffic in Marrakesh

Camels hang out by the side of the road in Marrakesh

Yes – there are camels in Morocco. We saw several sets hanging out with their owners by the side of the well trafficked roads – a fascinating visual contrast in modes of conveyance.

At dinner later this evening we also met some of the Lindblad staff which would be educating and shepherding us – quite a diverse bunch. I’ll try to get around to writing up something about them as I get to know them.

Tomorrow’s plans are further exploration of the souks and the rest of Marrakesh, and on Thursday we go into the High Atlas mountain range for the day.

 

A Lazy Day in Seville and on to Marrakesh

April 28th, 2008 at 7:15 am (AST) by Jake Richter

After an excellent night’s rest, we had a late start with breakfast around 11am yesterday, after which we headed to the nearby Parque Marie Luisa. The park had served as the site of the World Expo/Fair in Seville in the early 1900s. It was a beautiful sunny day, and dry as well, as we walked over there.

First stop was the Plaza de España, a magnificent piece of architecture which had started as the Spanish national pavilion at the World Expo. It is a huge, long building with tall ornate towers at each end, curved around a half circle, with an adjacent terrace at the base featuring large niches for each of Spain’s provinces with colorful tile work. From this terrace there are several bridges (see photo above right of the three shorter Richters on one of those bridges) into a central plaza in which a large fountain in centered.

One of the neat facts about the Plaza de España is that it was featured both in the epic movie Lawrence of Arabia, as well as in Star Wars Episodes 1 and 2 (the fourth and fifth Star Wars movies), including the bridge which is pictured above.

We toured the park, visited the Sevilla Archeological Museum to see Roman relics unearthed in the area – some excellent tablets, pottery, and statuary. Bas then forced us to rent a four-person (two by two) cycle to pedal around the park for half an hour. It was then we learned that he could not pedal, steer, and talk all at the same time, much to everyone’s amusement.

We had a late lunch at the hotel, dining off the day menu featuring bull dishes (bull tail for me, ragout for Linda, and entrecote for Krystyana – Bas opted for ham and cheese pizza) in honor of the recent fiesta in Seville (which we missed by days) which also included some bull fighting at the nearby Seville bull fighting stadium. After a couple of hours of playing some card games and resting, we lumbered over to the Triana district for our last dinner in Seville, at the 120+ year old Casa Cuesta.

Our concierge, who grew up in the area, recommended the restaurant as the best source of local Sevillian cuisine, and we suspect he was right. The tripe stew (menudo), veal stew, and “cream of bread with vegetables” (turned out to be an excellent creamy Gazpacho) were all great. However, we were still so full from lunch we passed on dessert, although we did make an obligatory stop for gelato for Bas on the way back to the hotel (at 11pm).

Today we broke our fast at the hotel breakfast buffet (I was still full from yesterday though), packed up, and made our way to the Seville airport, flew to Madrid, waited a bunch of hours, and then finally with a couple hour delay, made it to Marrakesh where Lindblad Expeditions had a driver waiting for us and one other couple on the same flight. We were delivered to our hotel, dumped our luggage and had another late dinner, as Marrakesh is two hours behind Seville, so we’re all messed up again with respect to time zones.

The plan tomorrow is to explore various parts of Marrakesh.

By the way, for those of you only relying on e-mail notifications for new posts on this blog, please be advised that you have missed a whole week’s worth of posts – click on the Traveling Richters logo at the top of this page and then scroll down past this post to see what other wonderful things we’ve had to say so far.

Note also that it appears that my phone data services are not working, so posts for the foreseeable future will need to wait until I get to a live Internet connection (which I do have at our hotel in Marrakesh – it’s not very good, but with patience it ultimately seems to work).

 

Seville’s Mixed Muslim/Christian History

April 27th, 2008 at 10:23 am (AST) by Jake Richter

Due to something I ate earlier in the day on Friday and a mild fever, I slept very poorly and felt unwell for much of yesterday. That, however, did not prevent me from heading out to tour areas near our hotel, including the Real Alcazar (pronounced Al-ka-ztha), a former Moorish palace and college which had been taken over by the Castilians back in the late 1400s and converted over to a Spanish/Christian palace for Emperor Charles V.

The Alcazar was somewhat reminiscent of the Nazarid Palace at the Alhambra although on a much larger scale, with amazing Islamic scroll work over most of the buildings, with bits of classical European Christian Renaissance architecture and ornamentation.

We also were fortunate to be able to see an exhibit of Ottoman calligraphy, which involved a number of forms of illuminated Arabic writing, used to record the suras of the Koran, as well as issue imperial documents. These documents, known as Fermans (imperial decrees), Berats (imperial grant), and Mensurs (imperial appointments) would be headed by incredibly ornate imperial monograms associated with a particular Ottoman Sultan – these monograms are called ‘Turgas’.

After a late lunch we toured the massive Catedral de Sevilla and the associated La Giralda bell tower, which we climbed via a ramp with 35 landings (all numbered) and a set of stairs out to where the bells were (as well as a great view of all of Seville). It should be noted that the cathedral was built over a mosque, and consecrated as a cathedral in 1248. Some of the architectural elements of the mosque are still visible today.

We wandered about via narrow streets for a while before getting some gelato (ice cream has become a part of our daily ritual). After a short break at the hotel during which Bas tried the (cold) pool, we wandered back into the surrounding neighborhood to have a tapas dinner and enjoy an hour and a half of Flamenco dancing at Tablao El Arenal. It was quite an emotionally charged performance, featuring three guitarists, four singers, four female dancers, and two male dancers. Bas was too tired to take it all in, but the rest of us found it wonderful, especially considering the intimate size of the restaurant. And I finally was able to eat and feel good after being unwell earlier, which made the performance even more enjoyable.

After a stroll home, with a requisite stop for pastries, coffee, and tea, we settled in for solid slumber.

 

To Ronda and Beyond on our ‘Tapas Tour’

April 25th, 2008 at 5:38 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

After enjoying our repast of Iberian ham and cheese from the supermarket as our breakfast we said goodbye to Peter and Nice, and posed for a Bonaire Reporter ‘shot’ (holding up a copy of the bi-monthly Bonaire Reporter newspaper in an exotic locale) to send back home to Bonaire. The Lensvelts were great hosts and we regret only having been able to spend two nights at their place. However, as Peter so eloquently put it, we are on a ‘Tapas Tour’ – one where we taste a little bit of each place to see where we might like to revisit in the future. I see it as a sort of self-designed ‘tasting menu’ myself.

We headed out through Alozaina in The Beast, along twisty turning narrow roads high above deadly precipices (no joke), surviving the trip along route A-366 with nary a scratch but a lot more adrenaline in our systems. The scenery was gorgeous – changing from hilly and verdant to mountainous and stark and then back again. The most curious thing we saw along the way was a flock of vultures on the ground in a field – probably about 30 of them, hopping about (they don’t walk, they hop). Alas we were not quick enough with the camera.

We also learned – actually, we confirmed – that our GPS has a sense of humor. We have it set for fastest driving time mode, and somehow it has determined, incorrectly, that this means the most direct route should be chosen. Yesterday we found ourselves in a maze of narrow streets in La Linie near Gibraltar that The Beast barely made it through, and today the GPS took us up a thousand year old footpath the back way into Ronda. We managed to avoid damaging any tourists or The Beast along the way, but it was a very close thing.

Amusingly, we later saw several other GPS users coming up the same way. Someone at Garmin sure has a strange sense of humor.

Ronda was beautiful, with an ancient bridge rising hundreds of feet above a water filled gorge still in active use today (we drove over it in The Beast and walked over it a couple of times too).

After locating a parking facility – and let me tell you, parking in old cities and villages, especially with something as large as The Beast, is miserable – we made our way to the Bull Fighting Arena (see photo above), which serves as a museum when there’s not a bull fight going on. The kids were not wild about the idea at first, but I think they gradually came to understand the cultural, and dare I say artistic, roots that make up Spanish bull fighting. They are understandably still perturbed by the thought of killing a bull for entertainment, but also understand it’s not nearly as simplistic as it seems. In a way, it’s a performance and show, where almost always the bull dies, but not before making a stand of his own (and yes, a matador has actually been killed by the bull in Ronda, but it was a long tim ago – and matadors do get hurt too, although the odds are weighed pretty heavily against the bull, of course).

We then had lunch (the kids had a mixel grill with beef, ironically) at a posh restaurant outside the Arena, and went on to spend several more hours exploring Ronda’s history and quaint streets.

By 7pm we were on our way to Seville, dropped our rental car off at the train station – Good riddance to The Beast!, and took a taxi to our hotel.

Our plan for tomorrow is unclear for the most part. We are booked to see an authentic Flamenco show in the evening (with Tapas), and may go visit the Alcazar – a Moorish castle across the street from our hotel. But most importantly, we are going to try and sleep in!

 

We Enjoy a Piece of the Rock – Gibraltar

April 24th, 2008 at 5:19 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

As the villa here at Finca Morelajo is self-catered and we had not planned appropriately yesterday, we found ourselves a bit shy of breakfast supplies. So we hit the first restaurant we found on our way south past Tolox and had a great country meal consisting of fresh sandwiches and eggs and bacon.

The drive to the country of Gibraltar took about two hours, part of which involved navigating ‘The Beast’ (my pet name for the Mercedes family delivery van we’ve been saddled with) through some very narrow alleys and streets. The Beast survived unscathed, but my adrenaline levels were beyond safe levels most of the time.

We parked at a secure underground parking garage in La Liene – just north of the crossing into Gibraltar, and walked across the border. On the other we signed onto a taxi based tour of the island, and our driver Jaydon, a Gibraltar native, gave us a bit of history of his country and then took us to see St. Michaels caves (where an underground wedding was being set up), the macaques monkeys native to the island, the top of the ‘rock’ from where we could see the north coast of Africa (specifically Morocco), only about 23km away, and the great siege tunnels dug as part of the defense of Gibraltar.

Gibraltar is of key strategic importance as it is the closest point of Europe to Africa, and it is said that whomever controls Gibraltar controls all traffic in and out of the Mediterranean.

We then walked down to see the Moorish Castle (the above photo was taken along the way), wander about the downtown, and have a very late lunch (around 5pm) at a British pub.

We then walked back to our Beast, crossing Gibraltar’s airport runway (which is between the border and the rest of Gibraltar), survived narrow roads again, and after a terrifying (because of the driving issues) but succesful attempt to purchase breakfast supplies in the town of Coin, we got back to our villa, still in one piece.

Dinner was at the Bar Canario in Alozaina, where we had the only two meal options available – pork or rabbit with eggs and french fries. The fries were limp, but the eggs and meat were excellent. We had a bottle of Rioja (still a bit green, but a reasonable red table wine) to accompany the meal.

The plan for tomorrow is to visit Ronda and then drop off The Beast in Seville before checking into our hotel there.