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Trip Report - Morocco (Spain and Portugal) Very Long and Detailed

Trip Report - Morocco (Spain and Portugal) Very Long and Detailed

May 27th, 2005, 01:40 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Feb 2003
Posts: 750
Trip Report - Morocco (Spain and Portugal) Very Long and Detailed

Hi all. This is my first posting in the Africa Forum here on Fodors. I've been posting in the Europe and USA sections for several years now. I've already posted this trip report on the European Boards, but since almost a week of my two weeks was spent in Morocco, I figured I'd post it here as well. I hope you enjoy it, although it is quite long and detailed. Thanks, Keith

Hi all. This is my trip report for my recent trip to Spain, Portugal and Morocco. I left the USA on Saturday April 16 and returned on Sunday May 1. I am a 40-something single male living in Northeast Alabama and have traveled extensively for the past ten years. I’ve taken trips to Italy, Greece, Turkey, England, Scotland, France, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and have covered most of the USA. I live about 90 miles west of Atlanta, so I usually fly out of Hartsfield-Jackson. I booked this trip back in November of 2004 as part of a package deal. To receive the low airfare, I had to agree to fly from Atlanta to Miami then to Madrid, instead of directly from Atlanta to Madrid. I didn’t like it, but to save $250.00 I agreed to it. Next time, I’ll pay the extra for the direct flight. I have learned to pack light. On this trip, I had a small suitcase with 3 pairs of dark blue jeans and one pair of black jeans. I carried 6 long sleeved button-down shirts and one light jacket. I packed 14 pairs of briefs, tees and socks and threw them away after each day of use. This frees up space in my luggage for purchases while on tour. On this trip, I was meeting a friend from Los Angeles in Madrid.

I arrived in Atlanta Airport at about noon on Saturday April 16. The north and south parking lots are full so I have to park off site on Camp Creek Parkway. Lot advertises $7.00 per day. My American Airlines flight is scheduled to depart at 2:54PM. AA check-in is in the North Terminal, away from all the chaos of Delta’s check-in area in the South Terminal. I walk right up and check in. I check one bag and have one small carry-on that contains my camera, film, toiletries and one change of underwear. Most painless check-in I’ve ever experienced.

My flight will take off from Concourse T. There is an entrance to Concourse T right next to the AA check-in area. Security here is much faster than security at the main entrance to the Concourse area between the North and South Terminals. Will have to remember this for future flights. As I have several hours, I decide to wander around the airport. I head to the international concourse which is newer and has the better restaurants. While there, I see the Thomas Cook booth and a little voice inside my head tells me to go ahead and change some money. I usually don’t do that as the exchange rate is not as good, but that little voice was persistent, so I go change US dollars for some euro. The clerk tells me that he can exchange $106 to 70 euro, so I give him the money and get the euro. This becomes a lifesaver later on as you will learn.

The equipment for the flight from Atlanta to Miami is a 737. It is packed to the rafters. Luckily it is only an hour and half flight. The attendants provide one pretzel and drink run and then we began our descent into Miami. Arrive on time at Terminal D and have an hour and half to get to Terminal E. Wasn’t sure before I landed whether I’d have to leave the secured areas and have to re-enter, but you don’t. There is a hallway that leads from Terminal D to E that stays behind the security zone. That was a relief. Terminal E is loaded with restaurants and food booths. I get a chicken sandwich from the Chili’s booth. It’s good, but it’s hard to eat without a table. They need to invest in more tables for Terminal E. Before long, they began the call for boarding on AA Flight 68.

The equipment for AA68 is a 767. 2-3-2 Seat configuration. No personal screens for in-flight entertainment. This is the first international flight I’ve taken in 5 years that did not have personal screens. This is also the first international flight I’ve taken where they charge you $5.00 for wine. I have an aisle seat as I hate to be locked in and have to disturb someone if I have to go to the toilet. Two hours into the flight, the Attendants began the meal service. Your choice of either a chicken or a beef dinner. I choose the chicken dinner. Then the in-flight entertainment begins. I am two rows behind the projection screen located on the wall that separates us in cattle from those in business class. AA current in-flight entertainment is basically a commercial for CBS. You see a couple of 30 minute sit-coms like “Two and a Half Men” and a “60 Minutes” special with Christine Amanpour on African monkeys. Eventually, the first of two movies started, “The Incredibles” then “School of Rock”. I watched, but didn’t listen to both movies. By now, most on the plane are asleep. I am one of those people that cannot sleep on a plane, no matter how tired I am. About an hour and half before landing, the Flight Attendants serve breakfast.

We arrive in Madrid on Sunday April 17 at about 9:00 AM. It takes about 20 minutes for the luggage to arrive on the belt. But once it does, Passport Control and Customs are a breeze. I am in the main arrivals area within 30 minutes of touchdown. The first thing I do is search for an ATM machine. I find one and insert my ATM card and go through all the motions of entering my four digit code only to be told by the machine: “Your Bank Has Not Authorized This Transaction”. The machine spits out my card and returns to it’s greeting screen. Thinking it may be this particular machine or bank, I locate another machine tied to a different bank and insert my card only to be given the same message. A feeling of panic washes over me, then I remember that I have 70 euro already on me. A giant sigh of relief comes over me, but I do realize that 70 euro won’t last long. A transfer to my Madrid hotel is included with my package, so I look for the man holding the sign and find him within 10 minutes. He has more people to transport, so we wait another 20 minutes or so for them to all arrive then it’s off to Madrid.

Hotel in Madrid is located just out of central city center, but within walking distance. Believe it or not, the hotel allows me to check in upon arrival. This is rare. I usually have to leave my bags and go explore without being able to freshen up. I do just that and am out exploring by 11:00. I walk to the center of Madrid, the Plaza Mayor, taking in all the sights and sounds. It’s a Sunday and the plaza is bursting with activity. I walk from the Plaza to the Puerto del Sol, where the KM.0. is located. In and out all the little alleyways and streets in this part of Madrid. Finally get back to the Plaza Mayor, sit down at a café and order a glass of sangria. This will not be my last glass of sangria. A string quartet is playing nearby. Spanish music. I recognize “Granada” and “Malaguena” among others. My friend from Los Angeles arrives at 6:00PM, so I head back to the Hotel to meet up with him.

I get back to the hotel at about 5:15 and David, my friend from LA, is already there. His flight arrived early. I wait on him to freshen up then we go back out to explore. We find a Tapas bar nearby the hotel and decide to eat there. We order a jug of sangria. It costs about 10 euro and you can get 6 good glasses out of it. We order spicy potatoes, calamari, sausages and shrimp. The best Tapas bars will have lots of small paper, like napkins, waded up and thrown on the floor against the bar. Avoid a Tapas bar with a spic and span floor. We take our time and are through by 8:00. As we have both been awake for more than 24 hours, we decide to go back to the hotel and get some sleep. Madrid will be there tomorrow.
KE1TH is offline  
May 27th, 2005, 01:41 PM
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Rise fairly early Monday morning April 18. Breakfast is included in room cost, so we head down to the breakfast area by 7:30. Breakfast is runny but tasty eggs, bacon, breads of all sorts, cereals, fruits, yogurt, cheeses and juices and coffee. Have pretty big breakfast and then head back to room to brush teeth. Have excursion to Toledo planned for today. Before leaving for Toledo, I notice an ATM across the street from the hotel. I run across the street and insert my ATM card. Once again, my card is rejected. I do feel a ping of panic but put it aside as this little problem is not going to ruin my trip.

Arrive in Toledo around 10:00AM. Bus takes us to the Altos de Valle, on a hillside opposite the River Tagus from Toledo. You get a wonderful panoramic view of the entire ancient capital of Spain from this vantage point. We’re then bussed inside the city walls through the Puerta de Bisagra gate built in 838 and pass the Puerto del Sol gate, built in the 12th century to the top of the town where the Alcazar stands. Unfortunately, the Alcazar is currently closed to the public for repairs or somesuch.

We walk down from the Alcazar towards the Cathedral, passing though winding narrow streets not wide enough for cars. We arrive at the Cathedral in short time. The construction of the Cathedral of Toledo was started in 1227. It is the greatest Cathedral in Spain, and one of the richest Gothic buildings in the world. We enter through the Clock Door and enter into the nave. I immediately notice something different about this cathedral that any other cathedral I’ve been in. The choir is located smack dab in the center of the nave. You are unable to see the altar from the front of the church. The choir had two huge organs on either side. One is baroque in style and the other is neo-classic. Both have Spanish trumpets. The stalls are intricately carved with scenes of the taking of Granada by the Catholic Monarchs. Across from the choir, the altar is composed of scenes from the New Testament. The work is Gothic in style and is overlaid with gild. Several Spanish monarchs are entombed within the Altar. On the back side of the altar is the Transparente. The Transparente is an exquisite baroque work of carrara marble, bronze and alabaster. A window of natural light is above the Transarente.

To the side of the nave lies the Sacristy. The Sacristy is a large room with a beautiful frescoed ceiling painted in the 17th century by Lucca Jordano. Hanging along the walls are paintings by Raphael, Goya, Van Dyck and Caravaggio. But this room is most known for its several masterpieces by El Greco, including “The Apostles”, which consists of thirteen paintings, the “Tears of St. Peter” and one of his most famous paintings: “El Expolio”.

Beneath the 150 foot bell tower at the front of the church is the treasure room. Some of the most valuable treasures contained within are the three volumes of the St. Louis Bible, a gift of the 13th Century King of France, St. Louis. These three volumes contain over 500 leaves of gold. Another treasure is the crown worn by Queen Isabella. The most important treasure is the “monstrance”, a ten foot tall gilded piece created in the 16th century using gold brought back from the new world.

We leave the cathedral through a side door, walk around to the front of the cathedral into a square that also fronts Toledo City Hall. The front of the Cathedral has three Gothic doorways. The central door is called the “Doorway of Forgiveness”, the door on the right is called the “Door of Justice” and the door on the left is called the “Door of Palms”.

Leaving the Cathedral Square, we continue to walk downhill, again through narrow and winding streets. We soon come upon the Church of St. Tome. This church was built in the 14th century on the foundation of an old mosque. It is indistinct on the outside, but inside holds one of the art worlds most famous works. Located in a rear chapel, off to the side of the main nave, above a crypt of a former city official is the painting “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz”. Painted by El Greco in 1586. The painting is considered to be the finest in Spain, outside of the Prado Museum in Madrid.

Continuing down the hill, we pass the Synagogue of Santa Maria La Blanca. Notable because it is a Jewish Synagogue with a Christian Name built in a Moorish Architecture style. At the Puerto de San Martin, we leave the city by crossing the bridge with the same name.

It’s back on the bus for a short trip to a factory where we see a demonstration of Toledo Steel being inlaid with silver. After the factory tour, we depart Toledo for Madrid. We arrive back in Madrid at about 1:30. I go to the grocery store next door to the hotel and buy a pre-packaged ham sandwich and a couple bottles of water. Less than 5 euro.

After eating and freshening up, take the No. 23 bus to Plaza Mayor to explore Madrid some more. Walk to the Royal Palace and pay the 6 euro admission fee. The palace has several rooms open, including the Throne Room and several private rooms of former monarchs. We are told that the current king, Juan Carlos, does not live in this Palace. Across a vast courtyard is the Cathedral of Madrid. I hate to say it, but this is the ugliest building I’ve yet seen. I didn’t see the inside, but the outside does not befit one of the largest Catholic cities in Europe.

Nearby in the Plaza de Espana is the monument to Cervantes and Don Quixote. There is a statue of Don Quixote on his horse and Sancho Panza on his mule. We walk back towards Plaza Mayor. Once at the Plaza, we turn southeast and walk down towards the Atocha Train Station. The Atocha Train station is where last year on March 11, several bombs exploded on trains while in the station. We didn’t go there for that reason, but to see the Tropical Gardens that are planted inside. The Atocha Station is one of the most beautiful stations I’ve seen. From Atocha, we walked up past the Prado Museum, but being it’s Monday, the museum is closed.

Somehow we wind up over at the Plaza de Toros, where the main Bull Fighting Arena of Madrid is located. It is a very beautiful building. There were no fights for that evening, but the ticket office was open for the next Sunday.

Made it back to Plaza Mayor and find the same little café from the day before and sit down and order a jug of sangria. It cost 15 euro here. Guess you’re paying for the ambience as well. No griping on my part. After an hour or so just sitting here watching Madrid drift by, we got up and decided to walk back to the hotel instead of taking the bus. We walked down the Avenida de Toledo to the river. Walk took about 30-45 minutes. It was only another 10 minutes from there to the hotel. Before making it back, we decided to get something to eat, found this small restaurant and ordered a steak with local red wine. Cost about 13 euro each. Finished eating about 8:30 and went back to hotel. Have to get up early tomorrow because we leave for Portugal.
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May 27th, 2005, 01:42 PM
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Tuesday, April 19. Up early today. Breakfast is same as yesterday. Eggs runny but good. I think they have some cheese added. Breads, cereals, fruits, juice and coffee. On the road towards Avila/Salamanca by 8:30AM. We began to climb into a mountain range. In the distance, I can see a huge cross coming into view. It turns out to be the Spanish Civil War Monument. It was built over 47 years by Gen Franco using forced labor. A large underground crypt, which contain the remains of Gen Franco, lies beneath the huge 500 foot tall cross. The area is called the “Valley of the Fallen”. We do not stop.

We arrive in Avila at around 10:00AM. Avila is an ancient town still surrounded by it’s original Gothic fortress walls which were built in the 11th and 12th centuries. At 3700 feet above sea level, it is quite cooler here than it was in Madrid. Avila is known as the birthplace of St. Theresa. St. Theresa was born in 1515. She was born of noble parents. While still a young girl, she began having visions. She attempted to become a martyr, but was stopped by her uncle. The site outside the city walls where she attempted this is now called “Cuatro Postes” because there is a monument of four dorian columns located there. This site also offers a spectacular view across the valley of the medieval “Las Murallas” (city walls).

Inside the walled city is the Gothic Cathedral, built in the 12th century as well as the convent built on the site of St. Theresa’s childhood home. The “Convento de Santa Teresa” has a museum located off to the side that contains some personal items that belonged to St. Theresa, including her ring finger. Complete with ring still on it. All nicely displayed in a glass case.

We leave Avila at 11:30 and head towards Salamanca. Halfway between Avila and Salamanca, it begins to rain. Luckily just a light rain. We arrive in Salamanca at about 12:30PM. Salamanca has a beautiful Plaza Mayor. Prettier than the one in Madrid in my opinion. It was built in the 18th century in the baroque style. A large clock sits atop City Hall on one side of the square.

Salamanca also has two working cathedrals. The original “La Vieja” was built in the 12th Century in Romanic style and the newer “La Nueva” built in the 16-18th centuries in Gothic style. They are built beside each other and both are still used.

But more than anything, Salamanca is known for its university. The oldest in Spain and the third oldest in the world, after Bologna and Paris. Founded in 1243 by King Alfonso. Called “one of the four leading lights in the world” by Pope Alexander IV, referring to Bologna, Paris, Salamanca and Oxford. Salamanca is a vibrant town with students everywhere. Even in the light rain, the city center was wall to wall with boisterous students.

Had lunch in a small restaurant off Plaza Mayor for less than 8 euro, including a glass of wine. The restaurants TV was tuned into the Conclave Events going on in Rome. No Pope yet. While eating, the rain stopped. Walked back to the Plaza Mayor and noticed that each pillar between each arch in the square contained a large round plate that contained a bas-relief of a famous Spaniard. Saw Ferdinand and Isabella, Cervantes, and Columbus among others. Left Salamanca around 3:00 and headed towards the Portuguese border. This section of the Iberian Peninsula is very mountainous. There are lots of eucalyptus trees, which are not native to the area, but imported years ago because they grow well in this environment. To well. They have taken over it seems. We cross over into Portugal. There is no longer a check point at the crossing. We saw the old building being dismantled.

We arrive in Coimbra at about 6:30. Our hotel in located on the opposite side of the river up a hill overlooking the city. Dinner is scheduled for 7:30 and is a nice affair with local wines provided. Back into room by 8:30 and turn on the BBC to discover that a new Pope has been elected. In bed by 10:00. Tomorrow: City tour of Coimbra, Fatima and Lisbon.
KE1TH is offline  
May 27th, 2005, 01:42 PM
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Wednesday, April 20. Out of bed by 7:00AM. Breakfast at hotel at 7:30 with eggs breads, cereals, fruits, juice and coffee. Bus drops us off at the Largo de Portagem at 8:30AM. There is an ATM machine there so I try it. Great Ceasar’s Ghost. It works. I get 100 euro from the ATM. I’m relieved that I actually have some cash on me now. That 70 euro was almost gone.

Coimbra is a university town built on a hill overlooking the Mondego River. The University was founded in 1290 by King Dinis. The campus is located at the top of the hill, so that is where I headed. I began the climb by passing through the Arco de Almedina, a gate in the old city walls dating back to Moorish occupation. I climbed the steep narrow winding streets until I eventually came to a gate called the Iron Gate. Inside this gate is the Patio des Escolas, the courtyard of the University. The buildings surrounding the courtyard are built in a mixture of baroque and manuelline styles. There is the Administrative Building with its wonderful staircase. The tall clock tower. The school chapel and King John’s Library. It cost extra to enter the library, about 2 euro. Tickets are available on a timed basis from an office in the Administrative Building. The library is composed of three rooms each with superb ceiling frescoes. Each room contains floor to ceiling bookshelves, with over 300,000 volumes of rare and ancient texts. Each room has study tables made of rosewood. I wouldn’t be able to study here for looking at all the beautiful appointments.

The chapel is also exquisite. The ceiling, walls and floors are covered with azulejos, or Spanish Tiles in fantastic colors. The chapel is located off a hallway close to lecture rooms. You’d miss it if you blinked. I’m glad I didn’t blink.

Just off campus, but still on the top of the hill is the New Cathedral of Coimbra. Built in the 17th century in the counter-reform style, similar to many of the churches in Rome.

On the way back down the hill, I stopped to visit the “Se Velha” , or Old Cathedral. It was built in 1162 in the Romanesque style. Very simply appointed, except for huge conch shell basins containing Holy Water. Very nice cloisters, but cost an extra 1 euro to visit them.

Back through the Arco de Almedina, which separates the old upper city from the new lower city. Even though it’s newer, the lower city still has narrow winding streets. Leave Coimbra around 11:00AM and head south. Still in mountainous terrain.

After about an hour or so, we come upon an impressive building. The Abbey of Santa Maria da Vitoria, or more commonly know as the Battle Abbey in Batalha. The abbey was built by King Juan I in 1388 in commemoration of a promise that he had made to the Virgin Mary before the beginning of an important battle. This battle was against the Spanish, and if Juan was victorious, Portugal would be free of Spanish interference for years to come (200 years in fact). His promise was that if he won, he would build an unforgettable monument to her memory. The Portuguese did win, and King Juan kept his promise. The Abbey was built near the battle site and became an important part of the monarchy of Portugal as several Kings are entombed within, including Juan and his wife, Philipa of Lancaster (same Lancaster family involved in the War of the Roses in England) and their son, Prince Henry the Navigator. The church is built in Gothic and Manueline style with 16th century stained glass added later. A room off of the cloisters contains Portugal’s monument to their Unknown Soldier. Guarded 24 Hours a day 7 days a week by an elite honor guard. Behind the main choir is the breathtaking “capelas imperfeitas” or Unfinished Chapels. So called because they were never finished or roofed. Still considered a masterpiece of manueline architecture. Departed the Battle Abbey around 12:30 and headed towards Fatima.

Arrived in Fatima at 1:30PM or so and was immediately warned by the bus driver to be wary of the Roma mother and child that was headed directly towards the bus. With several people getting off the bus, I avoided her easily and headed towards the enormous square, which has some kind of construction ongoing on the opposite side of the basilica.

The Basilica of Fatima was built in 1928 to commemorate the events of 1917 where three shepherd children claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary. The last of these visions were witnessed by thousands. Within a few years of the visions, two of the children, Franciso Marto and his sister Jacinta Marto, had died and are now entombed within the basilica. The third child, Lucia Santos, lived to be 98, dying just this past February in a Coimbra convent. The actual site of the visions is called the “Cova da Iria” and is located on the right side of the square several hundred feet from the front of the basilica. Fatima is the second most visited Catholic pilgrimage site. Only Lourdes in France receives more.

Just past the square, on the other side of a grove of trees, lies the town of Fatima. Talk about your contrasts. The Basilica and Cova are serene and peaceful. The town is tacky and lively. Hundreds of small shops, all packed with the same stuff from tacky religious figurines to Rosary beads. Tee shirts and dish towels. Plates with Jesus or Mary (or Jesus and Mary) painted on them to refrigerator magnets. I did buy a plastic “Lady of Fatima” figurine and a Tee shirt for about 20 euro total. There were a few restaurants thrown into the mix and I realized that I was hungry. Found one with outdoor seating and ordered a ham sandwich and a glass of water for 3 euro. I did have to dodge some Roma children while I was shopping, but it wasn’t as bad as I had been lead to believe from some literature I had read.

Back on the bus by 3:30 for the trip into Lisbon. I took about 2 hours, give or take, to get to Lisbon from Fatima. Bus drops us off at our hotel, though not in the center of town, is on the green line of the subway a few stops north of Rossio station.

After freshening up, head to the Bairro Alto section of Lisbon to find a “Fado” bar. Fado is a Portuguese style of music that is best described as a cross between US style “blues” and a Greek chorus. It is very passionate and emotional, dealing with loss and/or misery. The Fado club we attended had a dinner of chicken and vegetables with unlimited wine. Near the end of the meal, the first singer came on stage. A woman in black. Every note dripped with tears. She tore at her shawl as she sang. It was a very emotional experience. Each proceeding singer was as emotional as the last. They had a simple mandolin and guitar backup and broke the tension occasionally with native dancing. An excellent evening. Anyone going to Lisbon should invest at least one evening in a Fado Club/Bar. Got back to hotel around 11:30 and went directly to bed.

Tomorrow: Lisbon City Tour, Cascais and Sintra.
KE1TH is offline  
May 27th, 2005, 01:43 PM
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Thursday, April 21. Up by 7:00AM. Breakfast 7:30AM. Eggs, Bacon, Breads, Cheeses, Cereals, Juices and Coffee. City tour begins at 8:30. Drive towards city center from Hotel. Pass by Eduardo VII Park. Park is named after King Edward VII of England in commemoration of the long Anglo-Portuguese alliance. There is a large traffic round-a-bout called Pombal Marquis Square located at entrance to park. The round-a-bout encircles a large monument to Pombal, the man in charge of the rebuilding of Lisbon after the devastating earthquake of 1755. The monument has Pombal himself at the top overlooking the city he rebuilt. At the base is a relief of broken stone to represent the earthquake and a large wave to represent the tsunami that struck soon afterwards.

Driving on past, we enter Rossio Square. Rossio Square is a very busy pedestrian square with a major subway station located beneath. In one corner of the square is the beautiful neo-manueline style train station. The National Theater is on this square as are many cafes and restaurants. There is a statue of King Pedro IV in the center.

Further south, we come across the “Praco do Comercio” or Palace Square. The River Tagus is on the south side of the square. There was a large palace located here prior to the 1755 earthquake and tsunami. The palace was not rebuilt, but some of the remaining buildings were converted into government buildings at later dates. There is a beautiful archway on the north end of the square at the head of Rua Augusta. In the center of the square is a statue to King Jose I who was king during the earthquake and appointed Pombal to quickly rebuild the city.

From here, we drive along the River Tagus downstream towards the Belem section of town. This section of town gets it’s name from the Belem Tower. The Belem tower is on the banks of the River Tagus now, but at one time was in the middle of the river. It was built in 1515 as a fortress to protect Lisbon from invasion from the sea. It is constructed in the manueline style with rope carvings and battlements in the shape of shields. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A few hundred yards upstream of the Belem Tower is a modern monument to the brave explorers of 500 years ago. The “Padrao dos Descobrimentos” or Monument to the Discoveries, was built in 1960 to honor Prince Henry the Navigator and all the Portuguese explorers of that time. It is over 150 feet high.

Across the street is one of the largest monasteries I have ever seen. The Monastery and Chapel of St. Jerome is over 1500 feet long. Construction began in 1501 by Manuel I and not finished until almost 100 years later. The chapel contains the remains of Manuel I and Juan III in tombs placed on elephants made of stone. Near the entrance is the tomb of Vasco de Gama (1469-1524), the discoverer of the Cape of Good Hope and a route to India around Africa. The entire monastery is considered the jewel of manueline architecture.

From here, we drive along the River Tagus to where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. We then drive along the Estoril coast towards the pretty village of Cascais. Cascais is a small fishing village that has become one of the main day trip destinations out of Lisbon. The village is built around a small bay filled with small fishing boats. The village has narrow winding streets with charming houses and stores around. We arrive in Cascais around lunch time. Before I begin my search for a place to eat, I find an ATM machine first. I put my card in, punch in my PIN and get my money. No problem at all. I still do not understand why my card works fine here but not in Spain. I find a small café with outside seating on one of the side streets and have a seat. The café has a buffet available, so I choose that and a glass of wine. I cannot remember what all I chose to eat, but I do remember that it was excellent and there was plenty of it. The only issue was paying the bill. The waitress didn’t seem to be in any hurry to collect my money. It was a little aggravating as it took away some time I had to explore the town.

We left Cascais around 1:30 or so and headed inland towards Sintra. It took about 30 minutes to get there, passing thorough some industrial areas before you entered the hills that Sintra is located in. Sintra is/was a town built by the aristocracy of Lisbon as a place to escape to from the city. Built on the side of a hill, there are several large palaces built here, including a royal palace. The “Paço da Vila de Sintra” is a large palace containing many different styles of architecture, including manueline and gothic. The most notable element of the palace to me was the large conical chimneys. Inside the palace has exquisite tile. One room in particular, the Coat of Arms Room, with it’s blue tile walls and various coat of arms on the ceiling, was quite memorable. The village of Sintra was interesting as well, with many sidewalk cafes and small shops.

Left Sintra at 4:30 to head back to Lisbon. Made it back to the hotel by 5:30 and decided to find a restaurant in the Bairro Alto to have dinner. Freshened up and walked to the subway station a quarter block from the hotel to catch the train down to Rossio Square. The subway in Lisbon is very efficient. Cost 1E one way. At Rossio Square, walked across the square, past the Rossio Train Station to the “Gloria Funicular”, an incline railway car that takes you up the steep slopes of the Bairro Alto section of town. The funicular ride cost 1.5E. At the top, got out and began exploring the Bairro Alto narrow streets once more. Walked around looking at the menus of all the restaurants. Finally chose one and I am kicking myself for not remembering the name of it as it was simply fantastic.

Ordered a lamb dish with the house white wine. Recorded Fado music was playing. The waitress worked the entire room, which was small, and did an excellent job. The entire meal with wine ended up being about 20E.

After dinner, I decide to explore the Bairro Alto some more. Even for a Thursday, it is quite busy. Several bars have loud disco music blasting from them, then you’ll come across a Fado Club with the soulful tunes emanating from it. There is a mix of gay and straight clubs all in the same area. I walk around for about an hour then decide it’s time to go back to the hotel. After all, it is about 11:00PM. Ride the funicular down to Rossio Square, enter the subway and catch the train back to the hotel. In bed and asleep by midnight.

Tomorrow: Cork Trees and Sevilla
KE1TH is offline  
May 27th, 2005, 01:44 PM
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Friday, April 22. Up early as we are leaving early. Breakfast by 7:15. Before getting on bus, I remember that my ATM card hasn’t worked the first time in Spain, so I go to a machine a few doors down from the hotel and get 200E. I’m not sure if my card will work in Morocco either, so I want as much cash as I can get. With what is left from the withdrawal yesterday in Cascais, I should have enough for Spain. Let’s hope. Anyway, back to hotel and on bus by 8:00. On the way out of Lisbon, we pass beneath a huge aqueduct built to resemble an ancient roman aqueduct. It is the “aqueduto das Aguas Livres”, built by King Juao V between 1731 and 1748. It carries water from the hills 25 miles north of Lisbon into the central city. The most spectacular section crosses the Alcantara Valley with 35 arches, the largest being 78 feet wide and 210 feet high. We’re told it’s the largest arch in the world. We pass beneath the aqueduct on the way to cross the 25TH April Bridge.

The 25TH April Bridge (Ponte Sobre o Tejo) was built in 1966 and originally named the Salazar Bridge after the dictator that built it. It was renamed after the bloodless Portuguese revolution of April 25, 1974. It is very similar in style to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and has one of the longest spans in Europe. Its funny, if we were crossing the bridge in three days, we would be crossing it on April 25.

As we cross the bridge, on the opposite shore of the Tagus from Lisbon stands the Cristo Rei. At 360 feet high, it is a smaller version of the more famous Redentor in Rio de Janerio, Brazil.

We leave Lisbon headed south along the motorway. About an hour or so later, we exit the motorway and head east on a smaller road. We are in the Alentejo region of Portugal now. It is more arid than we’ve seen in the other regions. One thing I have noticed is miles and miles of short funny shaped trees. They are cork trees. Practically every one of them has a number painted on it. This number represents the year that the cork was last harvested from that tree. The bark is harvested every nine or ten years. So if a tree has the number 6 painted on it, that means that it was last harvested in 1996 and will be harvested again either this year or next year. The bus stops on the side of the road and we are allowed to get off and venture into a grove of the cork trees to get a closer look.

It is still mid-morning and we are back on the road headed towards the border with Spain. Along the way we pass through several small villages. Soon we come upon Beja. Beja is the capital of the region and has a fairly good size population. It is most famous for one of it’s former inhabitants. Marianna Alcoforado (1640-1723) a girl of some means whose widowed father sent her to a convent to educate and protect her. She still was able to meet and have an affair with a French Officer. When he left the area, she composed several love letters to him that somehow ended up in the wrong hands and were published. The “Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun” have not been out of print since that time.

Further down the road, we pass by Serpa, a hilltop town founded in 400BC. Because of it’s location near the border with Spain, it has been captured and recaptured over the centuries by the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors, and the Spanish.

I also notice as we drive along huge nests atop the telephone and power poles beside the road. The nests belong to storks. These nests are at least 5 feet across. I don’t see how these things balance on top of the poles.

We cross over into Spain about lunch time and have a rest stop in Rosal de la Frontera. This town was negatively affected by the open border policy of the European Union. As there is no longer a border check, most people don’t stop anymore. Which is a shame as the town is quite lovely. Most of the buildings are whitewashed. While browsing in several of the shops, I notice a lot of ham hanging on display. This ham is the Spanish Jamon Iberico variety. The pigs feast on acorns in this part of Spain and the acorns change the way the meat tastes. I walk up to the village square and notice that a huge storks nest has been built on the church bell tower. As I’m looking, the stork takes flight. I had no idea that the stork was such a big bird. I had lunch in a small café which cost about 3E with a bottle of water.

We’re back on the bus by 1:30. The road winds it’s way through the Sierra de Aracena mountains on the way to Sevilla. We enter Sevilla by crossing over the Puente de Alamillo Bridge. We’re told the locals call it the Viagara Bridge. One look at it and you will know why. It was designed by Santiago Calatrava and built in 1989.

We enter Sevilla from the north along Calle Resolana Andeza and pass by the Basilica of Macarena. I resist the urge to do the silly dance movements. The basilica is located right beside what remains of the original city walls of Sevilla. The old walls are Moorish in design, built in the 12th century and about 1200 feet of the original 4 or so miles of the walls remain in this section. There are four or five watch towers still along this stretch as well as three gates.

Our bus takes us to our hotel which is in the Santa Cruz section of Sevilla. The Santa Cruz section also contains the Cathedral and Alcazar, so our hotel is conveniently located for exploring the area. We arrive at about 4:00. Our rooms are ready so I head up to refresh myself and then head out by 5:00 to explore. The hotel is north of the cathedral so I head south along a major road. Well, it sometimes goes south. Sevilla was not built in a grid pattern. After a walk of about 45 minutes, which included several turn-arounds when I realized I was going in the wrong direction, I find the Cathedral. It is immense. I read later that the cathedral is one of the largest, if not the largest, in all Christendom. As it is about 6:00, I cannot enter the cathedral or Alcazar because they are closing, but I am able to admire the outside of each. The cathedrals most notable feature is the Giralda, or the bell tower. It was originally constructed to be the minaret to call the faithful to prayers to the mosque. It is Moorish in design, built in the 12th century by the Almohad dynasty and is one of three that were built at the same time. The other two are in Morocco in Rabat and Marrakesh.

Across the Plaza Virgen de los Reyes is the other magnificent building of Sevilla, the Alcazar. It was closed for the day, but the outer walls are very impressive, especially the entrance gate, the Puerta del Leon (Lion’s Gate) named for it’s ceramic lion figure on top of the gate. The Lion is holding a cross in it’s claws. I’m sure that was added after the Moors left. The gate is flanked by two turreted towers that were built in the 11th century.

I walk north along the walls of the Alcazar until I come to a gate that isn’t guarded or blocked and I enter into the Patio de Bandera, which is part of the Alcazar, but not a part of the paid entrance section. The Patio de Bandera is a large courtyard surrounded by orange trees. It was originally a parade ground when the Alcazar was in Moorish hands, and later a reception area for the monarchs of Spain.

It is now about 7 or so. I have a reservation this evening for a flamenco show, so I head back to the hotel. Now that I’m acclimated to the city, it only takes me 20 minutes to get back. I grab a quick bite from the hotel restaurant then go back to my room to freshen up. The bus leaves for a nighttime tour of the city and the flamenco evening at 8:30, and I just make it.

The nighttime tour of Sevilla is brief as there are very few areas that a bus can maneuver.
We drive past the Plaza des Espana all lit up with floodlights. The up towards the river where we pass the Torre de Oro (Golden Tower), which unfortunately, is completely covered with scaffolding and mesh and you are unable to see the tower. Across the street from the Golden Tower is the bullring. And next to the bullring is El Patio Sevillano, the club where our flamenco evening is located. We get off the bus directly in front of the bullring and walk the quarter block to the club. The El Patio Sevillano show begins at 10:00PM and the admission includes one drink. I order a sangria. Its been several days since I’ve had a sangria. The club has a balcony section on three sides overlooking the stage and floor seating. We have seats about 6 or 7 rows back on the floor. The shows begins and is very good. One act is a flamenco dance of “Carmen” the opera which actually takes place in Sevilla. Side note: two other operas take place in Sevilla: “The Barber of Sevilla” and “Don Giovanni”. The flamenco dancers are very good. I’ve never seen feet move so fast in some of the dances. The company is composed of 5 or 6 men and about a dozen women. The costumes are very colorful. There is also the musicians who contribute greatly to the show with excellent playing of guitars and singing. The show last about an hour and a half. An evening well spent. Now, its back to the hotel for the evening.

Tomorrow: Seville at leisure.
KE1TH is offline  
May 27th, 2005, 01:44 PM
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Saturday, April 23. Sevilla at leisure. Or, I can go where and when I want. Even though today is a free day, I still get up early. Have breakfast at the hotel at 7:45 and begin exploring. I am told by one of the desk clerks that the cathedral will be closed today until 1:30 so for a special service for the new Pope. No problem, I’ll just go to the Alcazar first. Headed out of the hotel by 9:00AM. On the way to the Alcazar, I did do some shopping. I purchased a vintage Sevilla Bull-Fight poster and a small figurine of a Spanish Inquisitor. Made it to the Alcazar exactly at 10:00 and purchased the entrance ticket for 10E.

You enter the Alcazar through the Lion’s Gate and immediately enter a garden area called the “Patio de Leon”. When originally constructed by the Moors, it was called the “mexuar” and was a waiting area for audience with the King.

You then pass thorough one of three arched gates in an obviously old brick wall into a fantastic courtyard called the “Patio de la Monteria”. This large courtyard is fronted on the other sides by three separate and totally different buildings. To your right is the “Cuarto del Admirante”, directly in front of you is “King Don Pedro’s Palace” and to the left is the “Salons de Carlos V”.

The “Curato del Almirante” (Admiral’s Suite) contains the rooms that the plans and financing were done for Spain’s explorations of the new world.

Construction on “King Don Pedro’s Palace” began in 1364. It is constructed in the Mudejar style, which is a combination of Muslim and Christian elements. Entering the palace through the vestibule and turning left then right, you enter the “Patio de las Doncellas” which has a beautiful display of intricately carved arches resting on marble columns. In the middle of each section is a larger arch leading to a doorway into different apartments. Immediately to your right are the Bedrooms of the Moorish Kings with three arched doorways supported on two marbled columns.

In front of you is the most important and impressive of the rooms in the entire palace. The “Salon de Embajadores” (Ambassador’s Hall) is simply stunning. The walls are covered with magnificent glazed tiles with interlocking geometric patters. But the dome above you is what is most fascinating. It is made of wood, but gilded with interlacing patterns. It rests on a frieze of castles and lions. It is called the “media naranja”. A small courtyard to the right of the Salon de Embajadores is called the “Patio de las Munecas”. It is a small, fragile looking patio with three levels of intricately carved arches resting on marble columns. There are several other rooms in this set of apartments, all with beautiful ceilings and archways.

The “Salones de Carlos V” is the original Gothic palace of the 13th century. Today it consists of several great halls and a chapel. One of the halls, the Sala Grande, contains large hanging tapestries of historical events of Spanish history.

Behind the Salones de Carlos V are the Gardens of the Alcazar. They are almost as breathtaking as the buildings. The Garden of El Estangue is a large pool with a statue of Mercury in the middle. Behind the pool is the Gallery of El Grutesco, which extends for several hundred feet out into the gardens. Several other individual gardens make up the entire gardens of the Alcazar, including the Garden of La Danza, Garden of the Labyrinth, Garden of El Cenador, Jardines Nuevos, and the Garden of La Alcobilla. You could literally spend all day walking through these gardens.

You exit the Alcazar complex through the Apeadero, which is a hall of arches. This leads you to the Patio de Banderas, the courtyard with orange trees that I visited yesterday.

I exit the Alcazar at about 12:30 and since there is still an hour before the cathedral opens, I decide to walk through the old Jewish quarter and to the Plaza de Espana. The streets of the Jewish quarter are winding and narrow. If there were not a steady stream of people walking, showing me the way through, I could get lost. I leave the Jewish quarter at the large monument to Christopher Columbus. A block further down the street, I pass the building that was once the tobacco factory that Carmen worked in in the opera “Carmen”. Or so I was told. I cross the street and enter into the Plaza de Espana.

The Plaza de Espana was built in 1929 for the Spanish-American Exhibition. It is built in a semi circle around a large plaza with a fountain in the center. There are two identical towers on either end and a large building in the middle, all connected by a colonnade. There are also 50 tiled benches of scenes representing the 50 different provinces of Spain.

I head back towards the cathedral. I arrive right at 1:30 and see a large group of people leaving the cathedral. I get into the entrance line, pay my 7E entrance fee and enter the cathedral. I am immediately awe struck. The ceiling of the cathedral is the highest I’ve ever seen. I find out later that in total space, the Cathedral of Seville is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. It has 253,000 square feet of building surface. The ceiling is 140 feet high, the length of the cathedral is 413 feet and the width is 272 feet. The Giralda tower is 315 feet high.

The Giralda Tower is where I head first. Instead of a stairway to the top, the Giralda has instead a ramp. The reason is that when it was built in 1184, it was the minaret of the Muslim mosque and the muezzin had to climb the tower 5 times a day to call the faithful to prayer, so it was built so that he could ride his horse to the top. Once at the top, you have fantastic views of Sevilla in every direction. Definitely worth the huffing and puffing to get there. I enjoy the views for about 20 minutes then descend to the bottom.

Once back in the cathedral, I again notice that the choir is located smack dab in the center of the nave, just like at the Cathedral of Toledo. It is less ornate, almost simplistic, in decoration, unlike other cathedrals like St Peter’s in Rome. But you’re still filled with a sense of awe and wonderment.

Probably the most visited part of the Cathedral is the tomb of Christopher Columbus. The tomb is a sarcophagus held aloft by four figures that represent the four kingdoms that formed Spain, Castile, Argon, Leon and Navarra. There is controversy as to whether or not the tomb actually contains the remains of Christopher Columbus as Santo Domingo claims that the actual remains of Columbus are there. Some DNA tests were done in 2003 and the results should be known soon.

I visit the Sacristy and the Treasury and several other small chapels of the Cathedral then leave the cathedral through the Patio de los Naranjos, or the courtyard of the orange trees. You then pass through the Portal of El Perdon, an Arabic horseshoe arch, to the street outside.

From here, I decide to explore Sevilla, the city, some more and head down the first steet I encounter. This street eventually ends at the river beside the Bull Ring. The Bull-Ring has a small museum that I explore for about 15 minutes. I decide to walk along side the River Guadalquivir in the Paseo de Cristobal Colon Park. I come upon the Torre de Oro again, still encased in it’s scaffolding and mesh.

Walk back up the street and end up again in the Cathedral and Alcazar area. Head in a different direction and pass by some small but beautiful churches. Discover I’m hungry and decide to find a place to eat. After eating, I find an ATM machine and try my card again. No luck as it doesn’t work here either. I come across a major department store El Cortes Ingles. They have a “souvenir” section with flamenco dolls, stuffed toy bulls, tees, castanets, magnets, posters. I buy some things for my nieces and nephews and a few thing for myself. Total spent here is about 60E.

Getting too much stuff to continue to lug around, so I head back towards the hotel. Get there and drop my purchases off, freshen up and back out again. It’s now about 6PM and though still light, it is getting darker. Decide that I want a closer look at the old city walls and head in that direction. Takes about 20 minutes to get there and I’m not disappointed. The Basilica of Marcarena is to my left. I walk along the walls from one end to the other and then head back towards the hotel. I pass another church, the San Luis Church, which has a beautiful tiled roof. It doesn’t appear to be open, so I walk past. I get back to the hotel at about 7:00PM just as it is getting dusky. There is a bar across the street with sidewalk seating, so I decide to go over there and have a drink. I order a jug of sangria and sit back and watch Sevilla go by.

At about 8:30 or so, I once again decide I’m hungry. I commit a traveling faux-pas by going to the McDonalds a block down the street.

After the faux-pas, I find a livelier bar, go inside and find a few of my travel-mates already there, join them for more sangria. We’re in this bar for a couple of hours, and I honestly don’t remember much past this. I did get back to the hotel alright, but I don’t remember how.

Tomorrow: The Spanish Passport System and how to make a ferry 2 hours late and My first steps on the African Continent.
KE1TH is offline  
May 27th, 2005, 01:45 PM
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Sunday, April 24. Up at 6:45 today. Breakfast at 7:15. Depart at 8:00. I do have a slight hangover, but took some aspirin during the night to lessen the effect. We head south towards Algeciras. It’s motorway most of the way, so the landscape speeds by. There are lots of vineyards as this is the sherry producing region of Spain. We stop at 10:00 at a motorway rest area for refreshment and a potty break.

We arrive at the ferry terminal in Algeciras at noon. Our ferry is scheduled to depart for Morocco at 1:00. The bus will load empty (luggage is allowed to stay on the bus), and we will all walk onto the ferry. We’re all given our tickets and told to be in the departure area by 12:45. I find a café and order a pre-made chicken sandwich and coke. Bill comes to about 4E. Sit at café with several other of my fellow travelers until time to go to the departure area. When we get there, we’re told that the ferry hasn’t arrived yet.

One o’clock comes and goes and no ferry. There are about 350 people in the departure area waiting to board the ferry. You can feel the frustration in the air. Most of the people waiting are Moroccan citizens returning home. The ferry finally arrives at 1:45 and most of the 350 people surge towards the entrance gate. It takes about 30 minutes for the ferry to unload and at 2:15, they open the gate for embarkation. Out of four passport control booths, only one is manned. European Union and USA citizens only have to show their passports to be stamped, but Moroccan citizens require additional documentation, so each Moroccan passport takes 2 minutes to process, instead of the 15 seconds for . With only the one booth open, it takes almost an hour to process the passengers boarding the bus. I am one of the last ones to board. The ferry leaves the terminal at 3:30, over two and a half hours late.

The port of Algeciras is across the harbor from Gibraltar. As we sail out of the harbor, we pass by the back side of the famous Rock of Gibraltar. It is unusual to see such a large rock sitting out in the middle of the harbor. Unfortunately, since we were on the back side of the rock, we didn’t get to see the famous profile as shown in Prudential Ads.

At first, the seas in the Straits of Gibraltar are fairly calm, but as we get further out into the middle, the seas grow heavier. We’re told that there are two opposing currents here, a warm current on the top leaving the Mediterranean Sea entering the Atlantic and a cold current beneath entering the Mediterranean from the Atlantic. The crossing takes one and a half hours. While on the ferry, we have our passports stamped by the Moroccan Passport officials. We arrive at the port of Tangiers at 5:00 Spanish time, but Morocco is two hours behind Spain, so it is 3:00 here. As we leave the ferry, we have to show our stamped passports to the officials on the pier. Several people did not know they were supposed to get their passports stamped on the ferry and are turned back to find the passport guy on the ferry. I show the official my passport, and in a few steps, I step onto the African continent for the first time, well kinda, it is a pier and not real land.

While waiting on the bus to be unloaded, I found an ATM machine and crossed my fingers and put in my ATM card. I punched in my PIN code, pressed the button for 1000 Dirham, and presto, the ATM gave me the money. So, my ATM card works in Portugal and Morocco, but not in Spain for some strange reason. Side note: 1000 dirham converted to $118.00 on my bank statement.

Because were already two hours behind schedule, we do not do the planned city driving tour of Tangier. This will save us about an hour. We head straight through the city, heading south along the Atlantic coast. We see camels on several of the beaches, but little else. It’s strange, beautiful beaches, but no people on them. We pass by a large Voice of America complex surrounded by a large fence.

We stop for a rest break in Larache, a small city on the Atlantic coast. Larache is my first real taste of Morocco. I venture into the city’s small souk, or market, area where the shop keepers have their wares on display, including skinned chickens hanging upside down, all kinds of fruits and nuts, fabrics, candies and breads. It is a totally different shopping experience that what I’m used to. I do buy a large round loaf of bread and a coke for 10 dirham, which equates to about one US dollar. We leave Larache after about 45 minutes and turn inland from there towards the Rif and Middle Atlas Mountains.

One thing I’ve noticed is that there is rarely a mile goes by where you do not see a Moroccan either walking or standing along side of the road or out in the fields. You also see large trucks loaded with migrant workers being returned home to their villages after working in some field for the day. We’re told that these people who work this way do so for a cash payment at the end of the day. I’ve also noticed that the police have frequent check-points and you see many cars pulled over being searched by the police. Our bus was only stopped once, later on, just to see documentation. Another observation is the country’s taxi system. Each city/town has local “mini” taxis of some distinct color like red in this town, yellow in that town, etc. Grand taxis are green Mercedes that travel from town to town and you rent a space, not the entire car. So, if you’re the first one to hail the taxi, the taxi will wait until all the other seats are full before it will begin the trip.

Eventually it begins to grow dark. We make another rest stop at about 7 for 30 minutes.
We continue on towards Fez, climbing into the Middle Atlas mountains on winding, twisting roads in the dark. We pass the turn off to Volubilis, but we will visit there tomorrow.

We finally arrive at our hotel in Fez at 9:00PM. The hotel provides a buffet dinner at 9:30 that is quite good, or maybe I was just real hungry. In bed by 11:00.

Tomorrow: Fez and Volubilis
KE1TH is offline  
May 27th, 2005, 01:46 PM
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Monday, April 25. Having gone to bed with the window open for the breezes, I am awakened by the Call to Prayer sometime around 4AM. Not sure of exact time because I couldn’t see the clock, but it was still basically dark outside. In Morocco, the Call to Prayer cannot be a recording. It has to be done live by the muezzin. I fell back asleep and woke again with the telephone wake-up call. Breakfast at 8:15 and on the bus for a tour of Fez by 9:00.

Our first stop is the Seven Golden Gates of the Dar el-Makhzen, the royal Palace of Fez. The archways are covered with majolica tiles and mosaics of multiple colors and geometric designs. The neighborhood immediately next door to the palace is the Jewish section of Fez. The Jews of Morocco arrived after being exiled from Spain in 1492 by the Catholic Monarchs at the same time as the Muslims. The Jews received protection of the King because they had endured the same persecution as the Muslims. Fez is known for its large Jewish population.

We then get back on the bus and are taken to the very heart of Fez, the medina, and dropped off. We’re told to stick together as the medina is basically a maze and one could get lost forever in there. I really didn’t believe that statement until we got in there and realized that you could get lost in there. The Medina of Fez still retains the medieval character of 1000 years ago. I would imagine that if one were able to return in two hundred years, not much would have changed. You still see the basic method of transportation as walking or riding a donkey. Carts pulled by donkeys is how produce and other items are moved within the medina. One souk stall had camel meat on display to sell. To prove to his customers that the meat was the higher priced camel and not cheaper goat, the head of the camel was hanging there. Stall after stall of everything. Nuts, fruits, fabrics, shoes, spices, pottery, electronics…. everything. It has been said that Fez is the most intact and authentic Muslim city in the world.

We’re being led through the medina, about 50 of us, and it is hard to keep up with everyone since you’re always being stopped by a passing donkey or several locals will be having a conversation in the middle of the “street” and you cannot immediately get around them. So, to make sure none of us get lost, our guide has hired three additional guides to bring up the rear and keep us intact. I’m sure the locals see tourists fairly often, but I still felt that they thought us silly. The locals will yell “Balak” to let you know that they need to pass by, usually on a donkey or pulling a cart.

In the midst of the medina is the el-Qaraouiyyin Mosque with its beautiful tiled courtyard. We’re told that we cannot enter the courtyard as we’re not Muslim. But from the arched entrance, you can get a feel for how beautiful the Mosque is. The pool for washing your feet and hands is in the middle of the courtyard.

Continuing on into the medina, we are taken into a carpet weaving factory. We are given a glass of hot mint tea and shown the different types of Moroccan carpets. One of the largest groups of people in Morocco are the Berbers, and they make a special type carpet that has been copied and used in homes in the USA called Berber Carpet. I never knew where the name came from, now I do. After the carpet weaving display, we’re taken back into the medina, past countless booths selling countless items to the tannery.

The tannery of Fez is an ancient site where the tanners work from sunup to sundown in vats of dyes and chemicals that are used to dye hides and fabrics. For the acid needed in the dyes, pigeon poop is used. The smell of the tannery is unbelievable. We’re given a sprig of mint to hold to our noses as we enter the area. We don’t enter the actual tannery area, but are on a balcony that overlooks the site. It is really a site to see (and smell).

After the tannery, we’re led through more of the medina. At one point, a school lets out the children and we’re engulfed by running children, many of whom seeing us, put out their hands for coins or offer things like necklaces and bracelets for sale. I remember thinking “what was a school child doing with those things in school to begin with?”

We’re then taken to a Fez pottery kiln and showroom. Two men are barefoot in a large pit in the ground stomping in clay to mix it up. (I had visions of Lucy in a grape vat). After the clay is of a certain texture, then the artists put them on to the potters wheel and create whatever piece they intend. For our demonstration, the man made a vase. The still wet clay piece is then set on a flat wood board to partially dry in the sun, and then put into the kiln. After that, the piece has color and patterns added and then put back into the kiln for a second time. Very fascinating. I actually buy a pitcher, four coffee cups and saucers and a small jewelry box before we leave. My purchase comes to 800 dirham, which converted to 95 US dollars on my credit card statement.

We have spent almost four hours in the medina of Fez. It is quite the cultural shock for me and I imagine for most of the group I’m with. To imagine that to go shopping for anything you need, you have to go into this maze of booths and shops is to me daunting. But it is the way these people have lived for thousands of years and all that most of them know.

We’re back at the hotel by 1:30. We have an hour to freshen up and eat before we head to Volubilis, Moulay Idris, and Meknes. Since we have such little time, I commit my second faux-pas of the trip and head for the McDonalds next door to the hotel. My Big Mac meal cost 43 dirham. I’m still not used to the dirham, and it doesn’t seem right to pay 43 anythings for a bigmac meal, but 43 dirham is actually a little less than 5 US dollars.

We leave for Volubilis at 2:30. It takes about an hour to get there from Fez. The drive is very scenic as we climb across the middle Atlas mountains.

Volubilis is the remains of the Roman capital of Northern Africa, called Mauretania at the time. Founded in 40BC on a fertile plain at the foot of the Middle Atlas Mountains, it was occupied by the Romans until the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. It was then occupied by the native Berbers until the ninth century then abandoned altogether. What is amazing is that until the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the city stood there abandoned, but untouched. The Berbers believed a curse to be upon the city and therefore did not enter it. After the earthquake, however, it was pillaged. We were told that some of the Roman columns ended up in Rabat. In my opinion, it rivals Ephesus in the quality and quantity of exposed ruins. Magnificent mosaic floors look as if the mosaic were laid just yesterday.

The city appears to have occupied about 40 hectares and was home to about twelve thousand people. The is the Forum area, as most Roman cities had, and next to the forum the Capitol. There is an inscription dedicated to the emperor Macrinus in 217AD located in the capitol. Several ruined buildings stand out, including the Basilica, where some of the walls still stand with arched doorways and the Arch of Triumph in honor of Caracalla. The House of the Ephebus contains ten medallions of the twelve labors of Hercules (two of the medallions have been lost). One house, unnamed, contains a naughty carving on one of the larger stones. Let’s just say it was probably meant to represent fertility.

Across the valley from Volubilis is the holiest city in Morocco, Moulay Idris. Moulay Idris is considered so sacred that non Muslims are required to be out of the city walls by dusk. The city is built into the side of a hill and was founded by the first King of Morocco, Moulay Idris el-Akbar, a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammad. From a distance, the city resembles a camel’s back.

We arrive in Meknes exactly at 6:00PM. Too late to be able to enter the only Mosque in Morocco that non-Muslims can enter, the Mosque of Moulay Ismail, which is really a tomb and not a working mosque. We are able to see the Gates of Bab el-Mansour, the most impressive city gates in all of Morocco. The gates are composed of arabesques of rosettes, stars and broken lines supported by short marble columns. On either side there is a tall Corinthian column. Moulay Ismail built Meknes to rival Versailles in France. He was a tyrant, using slave labor to build his creation and not having the slightest problem with walking up to a worker and chopping off his head because he didn’t like the way the man worked. He also had the designer of the Bab el-Mansour gates killed so that he could not design a better gate for a rival king.

Back by motorway to Fez as the light fades on this wonderful day.

Tomorrow: Ifrane and Marrakesh
KE1TH is offline  
May 27th, 2005, 01:47 PM
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It has taken me more than a week to get back to writing this trip report. I am going to have to be less verbose in finishing up the last few days or it will never get finished.

We left Fez early on Tuesday April 26, headed south towards the Middle Atlas and Marrakesh. Our first stop of the day is in the alpine village of Ifrane. Ifrane was built by the French in the 1920s as a resort for the French officers and officials that were in control of Morocco at the time. The village has a “alps village” feel to it, with the red tile roofs and whitewashed buildings. A new university was established here in 1995, funded by American corporations. The university teaches it’s classes in English.

Continuing on south, we pass through several villages and one fairly large town I believe was called Beni Mellal. We stopped here for a 30 minute break and I got a green mint tea in a café for 8 dirhams.

On to Marrakesh. We arrived in Marrakesh at about 5:00PM. The hotel was outside the old pink city walls in a section of town called the hivernage, but still within walking distance of the Djemas el Fna Square and Koutoubia mosque. Dinner is included this evening, so we check into our rooms, freshen up and then head back down to the restaurant for dinner. It is a buffet dinner with four different meat dishes and a dozen different vegetables and a dessert table. It was very good.

After dinner, a few of us decided to walk up to Djemas el Fna Square to see what was going on. On the way, we pass through the pink city wall gates and the La Mamounia Hotel. We also pass by the Koutoubia Mosque lit up in the darkness. Djemas el Fna Square is one of the most fascinating and bizarre spectacles I have ever witnessed. Although it's a lively place at any time of day, it really comes into its own in the late afternoon and evening. Almost without warning, the curtain goes up on one of the world's most fascinating and bizarre spectacles. Rows and rows of open-air food stalls are set up and mouth watering aromas quickly fill the square. Jugglers, storytellers, snake charmers, magicians acrobats and dancers quickly take over the rest of the space. In between the groups weave hustlers, thieves, knick-knack sellers and bewildered tourists. The outer edges are delineated by the fruit and juice stalls. And there are dozens of moped and motorcycle riders whizzing in and out of the crowds. You have to constantly be on the lookout for them. We walked around the Square taking in all this for a couple of hours before realizing that we were tired and needed to get some sleep. We walked back to the hotel, passing once again the Koutoubia Mosque and the pink city walls.
KE1TH is offline  
May 27th, 2005, 01:48 PM
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Wednesday, April 27. Up by 7:30 and down to breakfast by 8:00. Breakfast was served in same restaurant as dinner last night. Best item was a pancake like pastry that I put butter and honey on. I have no idea what it was, it was sweeter than a traditional pancake, even before the honey was poured on top. It may not even be a Moroccan dish. The hotel has an ATM machine in the lobby. I put in my ATM card and withdraw 1000 dirham. No problems with the machine here.

We stop first at the Koutoubia Mosque. The Koutoubia Mosque was built in the 12th Century by the Almohad Sultans. It was the first of three Mosques built by the Almohads, the other two being the Hassan Tower in Rabat and the Giralda in Sevilla, Spain. The minaret rises 230 feet and is visible from 18 miles away. It is considered one of the jewels of Islamic architecture. As non-Muslims, we were only able to admire it from outside the mosque walls. There is a large garden and courtyard that is part of the mosque that we were able to visit.

Even though Djemas el Fna Square is directly across the street from the Mosque, that isn not were we go next. Our next stop is the El Bahia Palace. The El Bahia Palace was built in the late 19th century as a harem’s residence for the Grand Vizier to the Sultan. It is lavishly decorated, even after being ransacked upon the death of the Grand Vizier. Each room vary in size and appointments according to the importance of the wife occupying the room. There are several small private courtyards and several large communal courtyards. Most of the courtyards are planted with cypress and palm trees and various flowering plants. The tile walls and ceilings are simply breathtaking. All the key elements of Moroccan architecture are present in this palace: light, symmetry, decoration and water.

Next, we walk to another palace, this one quite different than the last. The El Badi Palace is a ruin of a once splendid 16th century palace of the Sultan Ahmed el Mansour. It was at one time considered one of the worlds most lavishly decorated homes. Unfortunately, in the 17th century, the palace was ransacked by Moulay Ismail to build his palace in Meknes. Today, the huge structure is mostly bare walls with no ceilings, but you can still see that the structure was once magnificent. The hundreds of storks that nest on the tops of the walls do not seem to mind all the missing decorations.

We now find ourselves in the middle of Djemas el Fna Square. It is about 11:00AM and although not as busy as it was last evening, it is still bustling. We are led down a alleyway and taken to a traditional apothecary’s shop deep within the labyrinth of the medina. The apothecary’s shop has hundreds of jars lining the walls filled with all sorts of powders, roots, dead insects, liquids and other items. There are roots and some small dead animals hanging from the ceiling. I buy some sandlewood, musk, jasmine and green tea. My purchases come to about 48 dirham, which is a little less than 5 US Dollars. Later, I was concerned about the bag of green mint tea because it looked like a bag of something else, but customs going back into Spain and customs coming back into the USA didn’t ask me about it. I did put “bag of green tea leaves” on my declaration sheet when re-entering the USA and no one questioned me about it.

After the apothecary, we continued exploring the alleyways and streets of the medina of Marrakesh. Unlike Fez, Marrakesh is flat with no hills to climb or descend. The alleyways of Marrakesh are a little bit wider than the ones of Fez, but they are no less crowded. And instead of donkeys, there are small cars driving through the medina. Other than that, though, it is very similar to Fez. Small souks are selling everything from leather goods to brass objects, shoes, cloth, vegetables and fruits, meats, trinkets of all sorts. We finally end up back in Djemas el Fna Square where the main attraction at the moment is competing snake charmers. We find a café on the Square that has a view of a couple of the snake charmers, order some green mint tea for 10 dirham and sit back for 30 minutes and watch the show.

It’s now about 1:00 and I realize that I’m hungry. I find a small café just off the Square and order a lamb tagine. I have a tour of Ourika Valley later on this afternoon, so I make another quick walk around the Square and head back towards the hotel. I get back to the hotel quicker than I though, so with the few extra minutes I have, I go to the pool-side bar and I order a local beer “La Société des Brasseries du Maroc”. The local beer is quite good, especially for being produced in a country where the vast majority of the citizens do not drink alcoholic beverages. I have a second one a few minutes later.

At 3:30, a group of about 15 of us get on the bus and head south for the Middle Atlas and the Valley of the Ourika River. The Ourika Valley is about 20 miles south of Marrakesh. Several small villages dot the hillsides of the valley above the Ourika. The Berber people who live in these villages live almost the same way their ancestors lived hundreds of years ago. We stop at one of the villages and get off the bus. Apparently the locals are used to this as we are met by a dozen young adults and children with all kinds of trinkets to sell to us.

We climb up a trail that leads into the village and are escorted into the house of Omar, one of the Berber people. The house is built with two levels. The ground level is a small courtyard surrounded by four rooms. One room has a donkey in it. One room a cow, another other room has two sheep. The room behind the wall where the stairs lead to the second level has about a dozen rabbits in it. The courtyard has chickens pecking the dirt ground. We climb the stairs and come upon a balcony type area overlooking the courtyard below. A room off to the side of it is the television room. I didn’t notice any power lines, but somehow they have power to run the 15” television that is in the room. A small couch like piece of furniture is in there and there are two small kids on the couch watching the tv. The next room is the kitchen. It is smallish, but has cabinets and a stove. I didn’t see a refrigerator, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t one there. The next room was a open air sitting area. We sat down and the wife came out with hot green mint tea, home baked bread, olive oil and honey. The bread was delicious. Omar collected the honey himself and the olive oil was pressed in the village. On the opposite side of the courtyard was the bedrooms, which we didn’t go see. The wife had some beautiful quilts draped over the sofa that some of us were sitting on. The walls were adobe, I guess. They were made of some sort of mud-like material. This was one of the most special moments of the entire trip. How many people actually get to enter the home of a native person like we did.

After the visit to Omar’s house, we head back down the hill to the awaiting hoard of villagers trying to sell us brass pots, knives, necklaces, pottery and scarves. One of the ladies in our group bought a necklace from one of the guys, and as soon as she did, she was inundated by a mass of small children with their hands out. Our guide, Khalid, had to go rescue her.

We get back on the bus and continue on deeper into the Ourika Valley. It is a beautiful place, with the high soaring mountains in the distance and the green hillsides sloping down to the fast moving river. It reminded me of some of the valleys in Colorado or California. We pull into one of the hotels located in the valley and are treated to a drink at the hotel bar. I order the local beer again. Then go back and buy another.

We turn around here and retrace our route, passing the villages on the hillsides and on the banks of the river. I am glad that I experienced the lifestyle of a small village dweller and am amazed at how different our lifestyles are.

We arrive back at the hotel in Marrakesh at about 6:30 just in time to run up to the room, freshen up and get back down for our “1001 Nights” evening of Moroccan dance and folklore show with dinner. Dinner consisted of several courses, one of them being “Pigeon Bistilla”, a very sweet dish that has pigeon meat as one of the ingredients. It tasted better than it sounds. The main entrée was couscous with chicken, pumpkin, melon and cabbage. It too tasted better than it sounds. Dinner was served with a local wine.

While we are eating, the show begins with drummers in native costumes, then a veiled lady dances with a sword. Six ladies in bright green costumes chant while six men beat drums. We are then treated to a snake charmer. This guy has a wicker box that has several different snakes inside it. He pulls out some viper (not a cobra) that he lifts up over his head then brings the snake’s head down to rest on his nose and mouth. He then pulls out the cobra and handles it, lifting it up towards his head and face. The cobra spreads it’s neck, but doesn’t ever strike at the man. He puts the cobra back into the box and pulls out a swarm of small snakes that slither all over his arm. He then pulls some people from the audience and wraps a snake around one’s neck and puts a snake down the shirt of the other. Several other acts, including a acrobat troupe and the last act of the night, a belly dancer. It’s amazing how they can make their stomach muscles move the way they do.

A very nice evening enjoyed by all. Back to the hotel where we are in bed by midnight.

Tomorrow: Casablanca and Rabat.
KE1TH is offline  
May 27th, 2005, 01:49 PM
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Thursday, April 28. This will mostly be a travel day, with the exception of Casablanca.
Up early and down to breakfast by 7:15. Breakfast is the same as yesterday, and I ate four of the pancake thingys. Use ATM in hotel lobby to get another 1000 dirham. Depart hotel at 8:00. The landscape in this part of Morocco reminds me of the four corners area of USA. Desert broken up by green areas, occasional hills and small villages. A rest stop after about 2 hours for 30 minutes then back on the road.

We arrive in Casablanca around 11:00. Whereas Fez and Marrakesh were obviously older cities with city walls and low buildings, Casablanca is a much more modern city with high-rise buildings and major traffic issues. Rick, Ilsa and Victor wouldn’t recognize it anymore.

We drive through the modern city on wide boulevards and are shown several historic buildings. The boulevard we are traveling on then intersects with a larger boulevard that parallels the Atlantic coast. We turn north and head towards one of the largest mosques in the world. After the Mosque in Mecca, the Hassan II Mosque of Casablanca is the second largest Islamic monument in the world. Built in 1993 to commemorate the 60th birthday of the former King of Morocco, the Hassan II Mosque is a sight to behold. It was built right on the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean, and has a 689 foot high minaret. It can hold 25,000 worshipers inside and the large plaza can hold an additional 80,000 people. 6000 Morocco artisans were used in the construction and the final cost for construction ended up being in the 800 million US dollar area, most being paid for by the King himself. All of the materials used in the construction were found in Morocco, most of it donated, except for the Murano Glass chandeliers.

After the Mosque, we are taken to the medina section of Casablanca, the only section that still retains that “old morocco” feel. We are given an hour and a half to explore the area and eat. Next to the old medina is a hotel that has “Rick’s Café Americana” recreated, but unfortunately, it was closed for repairs. We find a KFC and eat there. There is a souvenir shop close to the KFC and I go in and buy three fez hats for about 50 dirhim each.

Back on the road headed for Rabat, the capital of Morocco. We arrive in Rabat at about 3:30. Our first stop is the unfinished Hassan Minaret. The third of the minarets built by the Almohad Sultans (the other two being the ones in Sevilla and Marrakesh), but construction halted upon the death of the Sultan in 1199. It was intended to rise to 240 feet, but only made it to 140 feet before construction was halted. There is a very large plaza with dozens of columns (we were told that some of them were “looted” from Volubilis, the old Roman ruins near Fez) and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, the grandfather of the current King. The Mausoleum is one of the few Muslim religious buildings that non-Muslims can enter.

We were then taken to the old medina section of Rabat where we were led through the massive old city walls and into the alleyways of the Oudayas casbah. Back on the bus and we are then taken to the Royal Palace where the current King lives. We see the private Mosque of the King and the impressive gates into the private compound of the Palace. The King was not in residence at this time, being on an official diplomatic trip out of the country.

Back to the hotel as it was dinner time and dinner was included in the hotel stay. Quite good offering of couscous and chicken tagine with lots of vegetables and breads. After dinner, I go out walking and end up back at the Hassan minaret. It is lit up with flood lights now and is even more impressive like this. I turn and walk further into the central part of the town and enter into several bookstores. All the books are in either Arabic or French.

After walking around for an hour and a half, it’s back to the hotel to get some sleep. Tomorrow will be the longest travel day of the entire trip, as we will go from here in Rabat all the way to Granada in Spain. Hopefully, the crossing of the Straits of Gibraltar will be much smoother tomorrow than they were a few days ago.

Thats all I've written for now. I will be adding the last few days in Granada and back to Madrid in a few days.

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Jun 2nd, 2005, 07:52 AM
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Friday, April 29. Up really early today. Wake-up call is at 5:30. Breakfast is at 6:00 and the bus leaves at 7:00AM. We drive through the desolate streets of Rabat towards the motorway. It is motorway all the way from Rabat to that first little town we stopped at on the first day in Morocco, Larache. From there, it is two lane road to Tangier. It takes about 3 hours or so to get to the port at Tangier. I asked why the tour didn’t spend the evening in Tangier instead of Rabat and was told that the main reason is because Moroccans looking to leave Morocco illegally have been known to hide in the wheel wells and under carriages of tour buses and that some bus drives have been injured when they discovered the stowaways. So the tour company made a business decision to not put the driver in a position to have to search the bus. True or not? I don’t know, but it does make sense.

The crossing of the Straits of Gibralter is much smoother this time. Even though the port at Tangier is less “modern” than the one at Algeciras, it actually took less time to board the ferry here than it did a few days earlier in Spain. We did have to tote our luggage off the bus and carry it with us onto the ferry as customs in Spain will check it upon arrival. The crossing took about an hour and a half and this time the seas were much calmer. A much more pleasant crossing this time than it was last time.

We arrive at Algeciras and have to tote our luggage from the ferry to the passport and customs area. We were all basically waved through. Not a single piece of luggage was opened for inspection (it was x-rayed). We have to wait only about 15 minutes for the bus to be unloaded and then it’s off towards the Costa del Sol.

We drive through several of the coastal resorts along the Costa del Sol before we stop for lunch in Marbella. I once again try my ATM card and once again it is rejected. I have about 100 euro left from Portugal, so hopefully that will last me these last three days. We have about two hours here to explore and eat. I choose a small café and have a ham sandwich and a bottled water. I have no idea exactly which beach or where we are in regards to Marbella, but it could be Florida for all I can tell. Didn’t do much exploring and was back on the bus headed towards Malaga and the Sierra Nevada before long.

We drove through Malaga and were shown the Cathedral and a few other sites before we turn away from the beaches and head inland towards the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Granada. The drive through the Sierra Nevada is breathtaking. These are the tallest mountains in Spain and have lots of winter sports facilities. The motorway weaves through the mountains climbing higher and higher as we go.

We eventually make it to Granada. We arrive around 5:00PM or so and go directly to the hotel. Dinner is included this evening, so we check into our rooms, freshen up and go down to dinner at 7:00. While we are eating, a string quartet from Tuna Universitaria de Granada performed for us playing such favorites as “Granada”, “Y Viva Espana”, “Cielito Lindo” and “Malaguena”. I purchased their CD for 10 euro. It’s in my cd player in the car. Most of us then went to the bar for an included local drink. I don’t know the name of the local drink, but it was on tap and resembled champagne. It had a bitter taste. I didn’t like it, and from all the glasses left on tables still mostly full, I gather that most of my compatriots didn’t like it either.

After this, we decided to do some evening exploring. We walked the quarter mile or so to the Cathedral. It was lit up with floodlights and was beautiful. The Alhambra up on the hill was also awash with floodlights. We walked around the area for about 30 minutes then headed back to the hotel. We found an Irish bar a few doors up from the hotel and had a few pints and then retired for the evening.

Tomorrow: The Alhambra and La Mancha

Saturday, April 30. Today includes a visit to one of if not the Jewel of Spain, the Alhambra. The Alhambra is located on a strategic hill overlooking Granada (al-Hamra means red castle in Arabic). The original buildings were built in the 9th century. In the 13th century, a fortress residence was built for Mohammed ben Al-Hamar, the King of the Islamic kingdom of Nasrid. It has a self-contained medina, (independent of the Medina of Granada) where the Moorish Palace is located, as well as the Alcazaba, or military fortress. After the conquest of Granada by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492, an additional palace, the Charles V Palace, was added to the complex.

The reddish exterior walls of the fortress and the Moorish palace belie the ornate interiors that you discover inside. Once inside the Nasrid Palaces, you find three separate palaces: the Mexuar, the Comares, and the Palace of the Lions. The Mexuar appears to have been more of a Judicial building than a residence. Unfortunately, much damage and changes occurred after the Catholic Monarchs and the original lay-out and construction of the Mexuar has been lost to time. What is still there, however, is quite impressive. The Mexuar Hall has four columns holding up a balcony and in the rear of the room is a smaller alcove-like room where the Kings granted audience. There are tiles with writings on them, one of which states: “Everything that you own comes from God” and another that states: “Enter and fear not ask to ask for justice, for you will find it”.

Next comes the Comares Palace. The Palace is built around the Court of the Myrtles, a 110 foot long rectangular pool with myrtle bushes planted along side. The most impressive room of the Palace is the Salón de los Embajadores, or Hall of the Ambassadors. This room is where official receptions occurred because the throne of the King was located here. The hall is completely decorated from floor to ceiling with glazed tiles with geometric designs or inscriptions of praise in Arabic. The ceiling is a representation of the Eight Heavens of the Islamic Paradise. Cedar wood is intricately carved with interlacing patterns. The room is lighted so that the King sitting on his throne is in silhouette as subjects enter the room. He can see them but they cannot see him.

The Hall of the Ambassadors is located within the Comares Tower, a 150-foot high tower that is the tallest tower of the Alhambra complex, although it doesn’t appear to be the highest because its base is located further down the hill from the rest of the buildings. The Hall of the Ambassadors is located somewhat in the middle of the tower and the windows look out over Albaicin, the old Arabic section of Granada. Legend has it that the decision by Queen Isabella to sponsor Columbus’ voyage to India (and his subsequent discovery of America) was made within the Hall of the Ambassadors.

There are several other equally impressive rooms that comprise the Comares Palace, like the Sala de la Barca, or the Hall of the Boat and the Patio del Cuarto Dorado, or Patio of the Gilded Room.

The third Palace is the Palace of the Lions, which is built around the magnificent Patio of the Lions. The Patio of the Lions is probably the most famous section of the entire Alhambra complex. In the center of the courtyard is a fountain resting on twelve lions that spout water from their mouths. Surrounding the courtyard is a cloister of 124 white marble columns which support cubic capitals and plaster Arabic arches. There are several impressive rooms located on the various sides of the courtyard. The most important ones are the Hall of the Kings, the Hall of the Two Sisters, the Hall of the Ajimeces, and the Hall of the Abencerrajes.

The Sala de los Reyes, or the Hall of the Kings, is comprised of several rooms, all exquisitely decorated with tile and mocarabes. Mocarabes is an encrustation with which the Moors coated archways and ceilings. These were pre-moulded in plaster and fitted ingeniously together to create the effect of stalactites in a grotto.

The Sala de Dos Hermanas, or the Hall of the Two Sisters, is named so because of two large flat marble slabs in the floor that have a small channel of water that runs into the Patio of the Lions. It has a perfect dome of mocarabes and the glazed tile with geometric patterns and Arabic verses on the walls.

The Hall of the Ajimeces and the Hall of the Abencerrajes are, like the other halls, intricately decorated with tiles and mocarabes. You could literally spend hours looking at the details of the craftsmanship.

You now enter a section of the Alhambra called the Emperors Chambers. They were built for Charles V in 1537, but he never lived in them. Someone who did live in them was Washington Irving, the American writer (Sleepy Hollow, Rip Van Winkle). In 1829 he lived in one of the four rooms that comprise the Emperors Chambers (the room is now called the Washington Irving room) and wrote Alhambra which was published in 1832. The Emperors Chambers is quite plain in appointments, especially compared to the Palaces just visited. You pass through the Patio of the Wrought Iron Grille on the way out of the buildings. You are now outside and pass through Daraxa’s Gardens with cypress trees, orange trees and box bushes surrounding a fountain. You then pass into a larger garden called the Garden of the Partal. You are now finished with the Nasrid Palaces.

Next we visit the Palace of Charles V. The Palace of Charles V was built on his command starting in 1527. It is a large rectangular building with the north and eastern walls directly attached to the already existing Nasrid Palaces. The south and western exterior walls are heavily decorated in Renaissance style. The building is probably the most important Renaissance building in Spain. The highlight of the building is circular two-tiered colonnaded patio in the center of the building.

The Alcazaba is the actual fortress section of the Alhambra and is on the section of the hill facing the open plains of Granada. It is the oldest section of the Alhambra and it’s red walls are what give the complex it’s name. The Alcazaba has the traditional turrets and towers that most medieval military fortress have.

We then walk through the Upper Alhambra to the wonderful gardens called the Generalife. The Generalife is located on the slopes of the Hill of the Sun across a ravine from the Palaces of the Alhambra. It affords a fantastic view of both the Alhambra and Granada below. The gardens were constructed in the 13th century to be a leisure place for the Kings. There is a wonderful but simple building in the Generalife worth mentioning called The Patio de la Acequia, or Patio of the Irrigation Ditch (doesn’t the Spanish word sound much better). It is a long rectangular pool with whispery jets of water shooting into it. A cloister of columns surrounds it.

After exploring the Generalife, the tour of the Alhambra ends. We have spent about four hours and walked at least two miles viewing this wonderful UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We now leave Granada headed north to Madrid. It is an uneventful trip excepting the wonderful scenery we pass, including miles and miles of olive trees and mountain passes and canyons. We pass through the region of La Mancha made famous by the tales of Cervantes. There are several windmills still standing, although most have been lost to time and progress.

We arrive in Madrid and our hotel at about 3:00. I head to my room to freshen up and then jump on the number 23 bus and head to Plaza Mayor with several of my fellow tour mates for some people watching and tapas and sangria. More for the sangria than the tapas or people watching. We sit there watching Madrid walk by for a couple of hours. I believe we have four jugs of sangria and four or five different tapas dishes. After this, we head back to the hotel because most of us have early flights home tomorrow.

Sunday, May 1. Breakfast by 7:30. All packed to leave by 8:30 and transfer to airport at 9:30. I check-in at the American counter at Madrid airport. Security ask questions like how did I pay for my ticket. How much did my ticket cost. I couldn’t answer the cost question as the air price was included in my total package cost. But they let me through.

Had about two hours to kill waiting so I hit the duty free shops. I really don’t understand duty-free. I understand the concept, but all the items are priced so high that you actually can pay less for it at home even with the taxes and duty added. Anyway, I was a few souvenirs short for the nieces and nephews, so I got a few trinkets to use up my little remaining euro (BTW: I had tired once more in Madrid to see if my ATM card would work and it did not).

The flight back was just as bad as the flight over. It was probably the exact same plane. No personal screens in the seat in front of you, adequate but not inspired service. Screaming baby somewhere a few rows behind me. You all have taken a similar flight.

Arrived in Madrid and had to go through passport control. What a mess. Very poor physical lay out. There is only about 25 feet of floor space for the line to form before you come to a wall, so instead of lines, you have a mass of people. Very confusing and frustrating.

I had to walk from E Terminal to A Terminal to catch my connecting flight. I was glad I had a two and a half hours in Miami. The flight to Atlanta was mercifully quick.

After picking up my luggage, I took the shuttle to the parking area on Camp Creek Parkway. My parking bill for the two weeks was $126.00. Although I was very tired, I drove the two hours to get home and get into my very own bed. I got home at about 9:00PM and went straight to bed. I had to be at work the next morning at 9:00AM.

I had a great time and would love to visit all three countries again. Some people, especially on this forum, frown upon escorted trips like this, but I have done both independent travel and escorted travel and you have pluses and minuses with each. I don’t think that I could have arranged an independent itinerary that took in as much as what I saw for what I ended up paying for this trip. Two weeks, all hotels (3 or 4 star), portering, breakfast every morning, eight dinners, transportation (coach with 48 seats and toilet), ferry crossing, local guides, and airfare from Atlanta to Madrid and back for $2000.00. You do give up some freedom in that you may want to spend more time in this area as opposed to that area, but if you’ve made reservations at hotels in advance, you still have to be at that hotel on the date reserved. You still have to arrange how to get from point A to point B and you have to carry your own luggage instead of having it portered for you. Plus you get to meet amazing people that you become friends with. I now have new friends from Australia, New Zealand, England, Canada and other parts of the USA.

Thanks for reading my trip report. I tried to make it as accurate and detailed as I remembered. I didn’t take notes, I just used my pictures and the printed itinerary (and a few trips to google.com) to remember place and structure names. Hopefully most of the details are accurate and do not mislead anyone.

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