- Being driven back to our hotel by the bus driver and his wife after accidentally riding the last bus “to the end of the line” in an Austrian village.
- Getting to know our hosts and friends in Spain over a sun-soaked welcome lunch of homemade paella.
- Hanging out at a tiny bar in Kufstein, Austria, meeting new friends as they gulped down a (then) mysterious concoction of Red Bull and Vodka from IV bags hung above the bar.
- Learning how our young Russian tour guide’s mother developed her art appreciation with weekly visits to the St. Petersburg museums.
- Becoming part of the Sunday family stroll along the Mediterranean in Spain.
- A delicious Moroccan lunch, haggling over carpets and getting to know the other couple on our Tangier tour, who happened to be from our hometown.
- Running across the corporate table at Oktoberfest and getting invited to sit with “coworkers” from Germany for beer and pretzels.
- Bustling among the local ladies tasting and purchasing our weekly produce at the city market in Denia.
- Watching all the kids in universally-popular costumes parading through the streets at Carnavale in Venice.
- Wistfully listening to stories of many expat entrepreneurs who decided to turn travel adventures in to new lives.
Friday, February 25, 2011
Ten Most Memorable Travel Moments
On a recent side trip from Spain, we spent a long weekend in Venice.
Venice is beautiful, old, truly unique and yes, is sinking into the sea. There are no cars in Venice-- if you are not on foot, you are on a boat. The Vaporetto is Venice's main public transportation, water "buses" that travel along major routes covering anywhere you want to go. A 24 hour unlimited pass is around 10 euro and well worth it. A great way to see the city is to board at Plaza Roma and ride the number 1 boat all the way down the Grand Canal to St. Mark's Square. I recommend doing this twice, once during the day and then at night to see Venice lit-up in all its splendor.
We were there during Carnival, which made it more festive than it would typically be in the "off-season". However, Venice doesn't really have an off-season as compared to other places. During the winter it's just not completely busting at the seams with people. The manager of our hotel told us that in the summer it can take 15 minutes to cross the small pedestrian bridge out front.
You will get lost in Venice. The windy, tight streets and bridges connecting different areas over waterways create a maze which is not easily navigated. It is hard to get your bearings in the tight spaces with no views of the horizon, but getting lost is half the charm. There are signs everywhere directing you to major areas, so just keep wandering and you will eventually find your way. Remember, you're on an island and you usually circle back to where you need to go whether you intend to or not.
We stayed in a nice apartment that was run by the hotel. We usually opt for these type of places when we can find them. It makes us feel a bit less like tourists. Hotel apartments typically have a private entrance well removed from the hotel and give you a lot more space than a cookie-cutter room. They have separate living rooms and often come with a full kitchen or kitchenette, so you can save some money and do some cooking if you wish. Not that we used ours - we were in Italy after all, but it's nice to be able to store some cold drinks in the refrigerator if nothing else.
Speaking of food, there is no shortage of fantastic places to eat from old restaurants off-the-beaten-path to specialty shops selling sweets, gelato, pizza and hot sangria. I consider pizza a major food group of its own, and Venice did not disappoint in that department. On our second day, we ate lunch at Ristorante La Piramide and this was by far the best pizza I've ever had. Like Spain, Italy has it's tapas, specifically called Cichetti in Venice, and on our second night we wandered the streets ducking in and out of Cichetti bars sampling a few things at each place.
There were many events going on throughout the city to celebrate Carnival. Two that stand out are the boat parade and the wine fountain in St. Mark's square. The boat parade was a little like Gasparilla in Tampa minus the beads, pirates and drunks... ok, it was nothing like Gasparilla. Each boat had a theme and sailed down the canal with it's dressed up, singing or dancing. I think my favorite was the soccer themed boat equipped with ball, goal and crew of "players". The only thing that would have made it more complete is its Captain head-butting someone from another boat.
The wine fountain in St. Mark's Square was pumping wine instead of water and the servers would fill pitchers directly from it to serve to the crowd.
While at St. Mark's Square, named for St. Mark's Basilica, we rode the elevator up 50m to the top of the Campanile tower and took in some fantastic views of Venice. We had downloaded a few free Rick Steves' audio tours before our visit, and he gave a great overview of St. Mark's Square that helped us understand the sights and history (and expensive cafe scene) better.
St. Mark's Basilica is a must-see sight, and apparently waits can be up to 5 hours. We were fortunate during this off-season to get right in, shuffle and marvel along with the crowd. The Doge's Palace next door is also a must-see, but we visited the Museo Correr first to get a combined ticket and see some of the many archeological treasures and art work before visiting the personal and official chambers of the city's Doges. The prison is also attached to the palace and you walk over the "Bridge of Sighs" from inside, peeking out at all the tourists taking pictures of this famous site where prisoners walked from their sentencing at the palace to the gloomy prison.
To really understand the sights, listen to a good guide, read a book or watch a show about the city's history to get some context about Venice. This is a city built upon the water, an early example of modern democracy, once the trade and wealth capital of the world with a vast reach bridging the East and West, which developed in to a city of pleasure and excess, and now a city steadily losing its residents as it decays in to the sea. Besides holding some of the great treasure of architecture and art, Venice is to thank for many of our modern institutions such as banking and the stock market.
Although Vince is sinking into the sea, it does so extremely slow and should be around for many more generations. However, the rising sea level doesn't help and as one walks through Venice they see constant reminders of this. There are raised platforms sitting around through out the city and at first, we thought this was connected to Carnival and the making of stages. In fact, these are always here in preparation for very high tides that flood the city. When flood waters descend upon Venice, these "stages" become raised walkways and allow pedestrian traffic to flow in flooded areas.
Bring your walking shoes and your sense of adventure. Don't be in hurry to get where you're going in Venice, get lost on purpose and enjoy slowly finding your way there.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Ryan Air is the low-cost European carrier that wanted to offer "standing room only" fares, says they will charge customers for use of the toilet during flight, suggested the co-pilot isn't really necessary and was most recently in the news for the baggage incident (and retaliation) with the group of Belgian college students. Granted, a lot of Ryan Air's bad reputation is self-inflicted but on our recent round trip from Valencia, Spain to Venice, Italy we found the airline to be efficient, fun in a quirky way and well beyond our expectations. Our expectations were admittedly very low.
When we told people we were flying Ryan Air to go to Venice we got a lot of rolled-eyes in return. Which is the other part of Ryan Air's bad reputation, that lies with consumers expectations. I think they somehow forget they chose to be on a low-cost, no frills airline. I will admit that 30 euro ($42) for 1 checked bag is expensive, but only when compared to the 12 euro cost of the ticket itself. There are administration fees, online check-in and booking fees, but they are not much, all disclosed before you book and nothing is hidden. In total our two round trip tickets were less than 165 euro ($230) and considerably less than the same flight on other carriers. For about 50% more to fly a different airline we could have flown into the closer Venice airport saving us about 30 minutes and 8 euro total for the bus into town, oh and got a free in flight soda. The point is to remember why you chose to fly Ryan Air in the first place.
The in flight sales pitches are frequent, although harmless and kind of funny. The Flight Attendants parade the isles selling watches, perfume, smoke-less cigarettes (which are allowed on flights in Europe), lottery tickets (the Ryan Air Sweepstakes) as well as food and beverages. I didn't see anyone buy anything except drinks. This may sound annoying, but not at all different (just more frequent) than the "duty free" shopping time on our much more expensive trans-Atlantic flights with major carriers. With earbuds pumping my favorite tunes into my head, this was nothing more than Flight Attendants walking the aisles. It does however, seem to explain the cabin baggage limitations... they need more room in the plane for all the stuff they are trying to sell.
Ryan and most other low-cost European carriers also save money (and you money) by not having gate service. When it's time board or disembark everyone uses the airplane's steps and walks across the tarmac to/from the terminal. Everyone is allowed one carry on bag and it must fit into that little metal sizing cage that you always see by the gate, but always ignore. They are serious and look at every bag. If it doesn't fit, pay to check it or it doesn't fly... no exceptions. Everyone got a cheap flight, there are no classes, no preferential treatment, no one gets away with anything and there are no exceptions. Firm but fair and egalitarian.
One round trip in no way qualifies us as Ryan Air "frequent fliers", but our 737-800 flight was comfortable, cheap and on-time. In fact, our return was 15 minutes early. I'm sure, just like every other airline, there are occasional hiccups. Just remember going in that you get what you pay for and I don't mean this in a negative way. You didn't get a free Coke. You didn't get two ounces of peanuts. You didn't get half of an overhead bin for all of your crap. You paid for a safe, comfortable and hopefully on-time flight from point A to point B... and if that is what you received, what is the problem? Try to remember the ad slogan for Delta Airlines in the 80's, "we get you there". Ok, bad example.
Lastly, here are tips for flying Ryan Air, or any other low cost European carrier:
- Pay the extra few euro for priority boarding. For this Ryan Air flight it was 8 euro round trip and we were well ahead of the masses.
- Arrive early, to save costs there are only a couple agents and lines can be long.
- Get to the gate early. Remember the days of lining up early at the gate for Southwest flights and be happy you are "experienced" in this ritual.
- Pack light, seriously. If you don't need it in the plane, put it in your checked bag. If you didn't pay to check a bag, don't bring it at all.
- Headphones and enjoyable audio is a must.
- If after you do your research and find that Ryan or whatever low cost / no frills airline you chose is the best, do not forget why! Booking the ticket usually happens weeks, if not months before the actual flight. Remember you chose this option and you need to set your expectations accordingly.
- Forget that motivational saying about focusing on the journey, not the destination. If you care about the couple hour journey so much, pay more for it. In this case, it is all about the destination and getting there to enjoy it.
Friday, February 18, 2011
A Few Andalucian Favorites
Before the trip is too far from my mind, I wanted to share a few favorite finds and recommendations from our Andalucia trip.
My first advice would be to be fully prepared for the adventure of driving in Spain if you choose to rent a car over here. It is ironic that such a relaxed culture in which people stroll as if without a care in the world, turns out some pretty wild drivers. Apparently, there is a big effort to make roads more safe and your tour company will warn you to vigilantly follow speed limits and signal...but sometimes you feel you are the only one doing so (even in radar spots, where they warn you constantly, people fly by you). Interestingly, drivers generally seem very courteous about passing and staying out of the fast lane when driving slow. My feeling is that the speedy driving is not of the road rage, harried variety we might see in the States, but just the norm leftover from days of little speed controls and wild terrain.
The highways are in great shape, especially the toll roads (not cheap) and thing are well-marked...but there is some mystery to the road signs. All roads appear well-marked, but you will be missing just the sign you need at the decision point. Signs never use directions such as X road North, but instead use cities as references--confusing in unfamiliar territory. My advice would be to forget GPS and carefully map things out with an online program, and perhaps get a good road atlas. The GPS gets quite confused and either way, expect to make a few wrong turns. The cities are another situation...and the best thing to do is either not have a car at all, or park as soon as you see a garage and enjoy walking and public transportation. Many of the ancient areas of the cities (i.e. tiny cobblestone streets, windy hills) limit traffic to taxis and those with special permission and three of our four hotels were down alleys open only to foot traffic. I was super thankful I had a great driver as I would have quickly given up, but I'm no good at driving manuals (and that's all you'll be able to rent here for the most part) even in familiar territory.
Granada is a lovely city where one could spend several days at minimum. The Alhambra alone is worth almost a full day, but don't come without some planning as they limit admittance and tickets can be impossible to get if not purchased ahead. You are assigned a specific time for entry to the main palace and have only a 1/2 hour window to enter. You can see the rest of the grounds and buildings before and after that timeframe, and expect it to take several hours. All the walking is worth it, though, as this site is truly indescribable. I got a big thrill out of the plaque stating "Washington Irving slept here" after reading his book in preparation for the trip.
I would also highly recommend the walking tour, "Cicerone", which meets at 11 AM on the Bib Ramblas. Our tour was done in English and Spanish and our guide led us through town illustrating the exchanges of power that have made up the city and country's history. Of course, you could spend days and evenings just strolling, shopping and enjoying the free tapas as well.
A friend recommended the white hill towns to me before our trip and this was one of my favorite choices. We stayed in Vejer de la Frontera (you'll see de la Frontera attached to many of the towns, meaning on the Frontier). Driving there we stopped at an overlook with the best views of Africa and the deep blue waters of the Med and Atlantic. The drive was stunning, through an area famous for windsurfing and past the hundreds of giant windmills that would have stopped Don Quoxite in his tracks. Climbing up the windy hill, we arrived at a white washed, walled city and parked our car to climb the pedestrian-only streets of the town. We stayed in an old convent--Convento San Fancisco, a lovely spot that I would highly recommend. We didn't spend much sightseeing time in the city, as this was our jump off point for taking the ferry from Tarifa to Tangier, but it was a pleasant place to spend the evenings with some lovely food and a very local crowd.
Being a Sunday in the off-season, the land of sherry, Jerez de la Frontera (sherry being the English attempt at pronouncing Jerez) seemed pleasantly empty of tourists, except the large group of American college students with whom we took our sherry tour (Tio Pepe bodega). The hotel, Casa Grande, was absolutely beautiful--spacious, historic yet with a gorgeous modern bathroom (jacuzzi tub-a rarity!) and attentive staff (of course, we came to believe we were the only people staying there and I don't mean that figuratively).
We could have used more time in Seville perhaps as it has that great combination of modern (although a little too much modern with the smog) and ancient, with more sights to see and more time to be spent strolling. The Flamenco show at Casa Memoria de la Andalus was one of my highlights. Flamenco options abound, but this is one of the less touristy options and truly moved me. The singing is haunting and bring to mind the Muslim call to prayer with its Moorish roots. The dancing is amazing, especially that of the male dancer, who does the more elaborate footwork and powerful steps.
Seville's cathedral is the third largest in the world and holds Christopher Columbus' tomb. Take a deep breath while admiring its beauty, and prepare for the climb to the top of la Giralda. This minaret was originally used for the Muslim call to prayer, before this became a Christian cathedral, and the view from the top is worth the sore legs.
The Hotel Alminar was one of my favorites of the trip. Located in the heart of everything, down a pedestrian street, this small historic building has modern style and nice touches included like tea and coffee in the lobby, beverages in the minibar, and a great breakfast spread. A few steps out the door and you are at the cathedral. Turn the other way and head to some great shopping or take a short stroll to the riverfront, where you will find crowds of people enjoying the paseo.
Even though our time was too short, we snuck in a visit to the bullfighting ring and museum. The tour guide informed us of the history of the ring and many interesting facts about the sport.
When you think of Spanish culture, you most likely think of Andalucia. It is worth including in your itinerary and easily accessible with the high speed trains from Madrid.
Saturday, February 12, 2011
Culinary Discoveries in Spain
I'm an admitted food lover and discovering the foods of a place is one of my favorite parts of travel. However, even I have been pleasantly delighted by the food in Spain. Bryan mentioned the other day that it was one of the things that had most surprised him about our visit--he had thought he would find things to like, but never expected it would be one of his favorite things about the trip (big praise from a non-food obsessed traveler). I am looking forward to our visit to Italy, well known for its culinary delights, but I think Spain has been underestimated in this area. Though tapas are increasingly popular in the U.S. and I have been to some nice Spanish restaurants there, it is so different having the food in the native land.
First, we are in the Valencia region--home of paella. So, of course, we have had quite a bit of outstanding paella. If you get served paella too quickly, you will know it is not authentic. It is a dish that takes time...simmering in a huge, flat pan--preferably over an outdoor stove--until the rice must be scraped off the bottom of the pan and all the ingredients are infused together. There is an art to serving it--scraping the rice with a fork and spoon and giving you the proper portion of the protein (be it chicken, seafood...) with the rice.
I have mentioned before that jamon (ham) is huge here and I plan to post a collage of pictures to illustrate because I don't think words can adequately explain the obsession. I will say as a non-pork lover, the quality jamon here is something special. The iberico bolleta (black-hoofed) pigs are the most prized--raised in an idyllic setting where they graze on acorns, they have a unique flavor and are at the top of the culinary food chain as it were. You will see their large legs hanging in grocery stores, roadside food stands, bars and restaurants. We sat in a famous little bar, Las Teresas, in Seville sipping a wine before our Flamenco show, admiring the juicy ham legs with little triangular dishes attached to them to catch the drips. This all would have sounded like a nightmare to me if you had described it to me prior, but instead it is such a part of this wonderful culture. Sliced paper thin (using a special knife and a device specifically designed to hold the ham leg--and yes, Las Teresas had a memorial to their old ham knives with them placed on a plaque with the dates of service listed), sprinkled with the EVOO made throughout the region, and served on its own or on some crusty bread. You can't compare the taste to any other ham.
Bryan mentioned the free tapas in Granada. I believe it was a big reason I became obsessed with us needing to find a way to live there for a while. Perhaps it was the city overall--the gorgeous scenery of the Sierras, the Alhambra, the cathedral--but the tapas sure helped. Probably one of my favorites was the big plate of fried sardines, which arrived just as we were feeling ready to pop after a night of many free plates. Fried fish is a big specialty in Andalucía and it is generally done quite perfectly...something I would rarely say of fried seafood.
It is interesting how customs vary from city to city and region to region. Free tapas are big in Granada, and occasional in other spots. In Denia, we often get bread included with our meal and free something, such as olives or peanuts, with a drink, but in most of Andalucía, you are charged for cubierto y pan (cover and bread) which is brought to you automatically. Being one who likes bread, the miniscule charge is worthwhile. I often forget, though, that the bottled water (sin or con gas--without or with bubbles) will probably be as expensive as the house wine--not unlike a good # of places throughout the world, though.
I have also mentioned wine before and have to comment on it again. Spanish wine, though gaining popularity, has been far underestimated. Or, as our host surmised, under marketed--when compared to French or Italian wine. Same goes for the olive oil. As an example, I bought a huge plastic jug of extra-virgin grown locally (at a roadside travel center!) for 7 Euro-delicious. The same roadside stops sell all manner of local products in their stores, as well as having self-serve restaurants/bars where you can stand around and get a delicious cafe (or cafe con whisky as all the truckers seemed to do), sandwich or full menu del dia, with a bottle of wine, served with real flatware and plates-no plasticware here. Quite different than the fast food and gas station stops at home (though you have the McDs and Burger King options here as well, though usually in mall areas). Such a stop is where I picked up the delicious Vino cookies. Those are second favorite, but more reasonably priced than the olive oil cookies that I love most.
Of all the food, the fresh produce at the local market and the plentiful seafood are what delights me most. In Denia, there is a red shrimp locally famous that has to be the sweetest and most tasty I have had. Mussels, langoustines, all types of fish...and that's all without having been to the daily fish market, which we somehow continue to miss. We had perfect "variegated scallops" (the English menu's translation, really a type of clam) in Jerez, with just a touch of olive oil and the local sherry. I tried the popular adobo fried fish in Granada, which was unfortunately so good that I overdid it a bit and the huge portion of garlic marinated, fried fish and potato chips was a little much for my stomach.
Even the grocery store holds many delights for me. A few favorites are the fresh baked bread at our closest grocer, the canned white asparagus (local), cartons of Salmarejo (like a creamy gazpacho, though the creaminess comes from the addition of bread--well known in Cordobo/Andalucia), goat cheese and a whole array of regional cheese options, and the canned mussels or tuna in olive oil.
Obviously, I could go on and on (and do). I was reading a story in Spain on my Mind (a collection of short stories and excerpts) this morning by a food writer about his visit to the Santiago area for his favorite local peppers (pimientos de Padron) and could truly relate to his "Register of Frustration & Deprivation"--foods that are rarely served outside of their territory of origin (or not well) and he therefore cannot get at home. Is it wrong that I am already formulating that list in my head for my return to the U.S.?
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
A roadtrip across the South of Spain
Our recent bus trip to Gibraltar introduced us to the Andalucia region in the south of Spain and showed us just enough that we wanted to see more. We decided to go back on our own this time, with a rental car, to spend a week in the region to sample its diverse towns, cities and history. It also provided a very convenient way to take the ferry across the Straight of Gibraltar to Morocco and spend a day in Tangier. Morocco post here.
Our first stop in Andalucia was Granada, a wonderfully large and diverse city with a very different feel than anywhere we've been so far in Spain. Granada is overlooked by the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains and the Alhambra--an ancient and grand Moorish palace. After finding our hotel and getting settled in the Albacin district , we started to explore the city's many plazas, shopping districts and tapas bars. It is entirely possible to never be hungry in Granada and never spend a cent on food. Every restaurant provides free tapas when you order a drink. We've seen this throughout Spain, but it's really just a nibble of peanuts, olives or potato chips. Not really all that different from the US, except here you never have to ask. In Granada however, you get a full size appetizer. Usually hot, delicious and whatever they want it to be... meat stew, deep fried fish, deviled eggs, jamon sandwiches, veggie or potato salads, tuna and so forth. Point being, you could pay for food in Granada, but why? We went into restaurants, sat at the bar and ordered a glass of the cheap house wine each (which is very very good and at most costs about $4) and got enough uniquely different and fantastic tapas to fill us up along our “tapa tour”.
Personally, I think the free tapas are just an attempt to lure you from The Alhambra. The place is massive, meticulously landscaped and what an incredible history. It was first built by the Moors in the 700s when they occupied southern Spain, then the Romans, English and every other Empire along the way. You can see the influence of each as the place just seems to never end. From the oldest and highest spot, the bell tower, you have the best panoramic views of the city. We spent about four hours there and although we covered all the points on the free map they give you upon entering, we still feel there was so much more to see.
The city is a modern thriving metropolis with ancient buildings, churches and history as its backdrop. From the narrow pedestrian malls to the city squares, it is definitely a must-see in Spain.
Vejer De La Frontera:
This “white hill town” just a bit south of Spain's most western point is, well... just really cool. We were there in the off-season, so it's mainly just locals. All of the houses and buildings are painted white in this multi-tiered town. Getting just a bit lost on the way in, thanks to GPS, we found our hotel by getting in taxi only to have the cabbie laugh as we told him our destination. It was literally right around the corner. It technically was faster to walk there. Our hotel was an old convent remodeled into a hotel. Vejer has authentic Spanish restaurants and, surprisingly, modern bars and shops mixed with an ancient castle and churches over looking Andalucia – one can only imagine this “frontier” town in the days of the Catholic reconquest of Spain.
Jerez De La Frontera:
After a short drive, we were at our next stop on the journey – Jerez De La Frontera.
This region's claim to fame is Sherry. As we were there in the off-season and a Sunday, there was not a lot going on. However, we saw the town's Sunday flea-market - really a giant yard sale. Most people had a small table or two selling used books, old bottles, nicknacks, clothes, stuffed animals and old electronics including VCRs, cell phones and power adapters. It seemed every other table had an electrical spaghetti of random power cords for all kinds of unknown devices. It was such an odd assortment stuff. I guess the phrase - “la basura de uno hombre es el tesoro de otro hombre” applies in Spain as well.
We took a tour of the Tio Pepe Sherry bodega (the largest in Spain) and learned about the history and process of Sherry and Brandy making. It is interesting to note that you will not find a year of production on a bottle of Sherry. Each bottle is made with several year's vintages so that the quality will be consistent even if there is a bad harvest in any given year.
We tasted some Sherry and after Siesta, we enjoyed a great dinner at a local spot recommended by our hotel, La Cruz Blanca.
The last stop on our Andalucian tour was Seville, or Sevilla here.
Once the Capitol of Spain, and from where Christopher Columbus sailed before discovering America in 1492. Seville is also the home of the largest gothic cathedral in the world, which is home to Columbus' grave. Our hotel was right in the middle of town and was very convenient to check out the city by foot. We toured the cathedral, the bull fighting ring and museum, as well as taking in a traditional Flamenco show and of course, ate some really great food.
From Sevilla, it was short 8 hour drive (which I did in 7) and we were back home to Dénia. What an awesome week.
A Taste of Africa
During our recent week in Andalucia, we took a day and went to Morocco. There is a fast ferry service that leaves from Tarifa, Spain (about 30 minute drive from Vejer de la Frontera), across the Straight of Gibraltar to Tangier, Morocco and this was our first time setting foot on the continent of Africa.
We arrived at the port and, after a slight miscommunication, met up with Aziz, our tour guide and host for the day. We found him through Rick Steves' Spain guidebook. We started our tour with a van ride through the outskirts of the city. We saw "the high rent district" where several Middle Eastern Kings and Princes live, and the African coasts of the Atlantic and Mediterranean, as well as the lighthouse on the most northwest point of Africa where they meet. We had the obligatory stop to see camels and toured the ancient caves along the coast.
When the driving part of the tour ended, we were dropped off in the center of the city. This city is a fascinating melting pot of society. So many people with different backgrounds, cultures, religious and political beliefs, and personal styles all fitting in and living together peacefully. The Christian church sits on the same block as the Synagogue and Islamic Mosque. As our tour guide said, "Anything goes here. We don't judge each other, everyone does (dresses, worships, lives) what they want to" and it seems to work. There is a tolerance, like nothing I've seen before and would challenge a lot of people's preconceived notions. It is peaceful and more diverse than one could imagine. I guess we Americans could learn a thing or two.
Aziz described the many changes the young, progressive King has brought to the country and Tangier especially. Soon the port where we arrived will be a marina for luxury yachts, and much industry has been built in a new port on the outskirts. Unemployment is way down, and new companies are coming to town. The role of women has progressed quite a bit as well, though Aziz admits there is a way to go. The Queen is the first queen to be seen in public, was a commoner/love marriage and trained as a software engineer...representative of the new guard.
We wandered through the local food markets, which was an overload of the senses. These markets sell everything and everything fresh. In Tangier, you go to the market daily to buy what you will need for the day. We started at the seafood market, there were boys peeling shrimp, men cutting up fish, fresh squid staring at you from the counter. Then we moved on the meats which were just as fresh, bloody and waiting to be purchased. Everything but pork here... understandably, but it was quite a difference from Spain, just a few miles away. Vendors were selling fruits and vegetables, olives, spices and the old Berber women sitting on the floor selling fresh milk and eggs. Overall very different, very chaotic, but very worth seeing and understanding. Sadly, it put our very cool local market in Dénia to shame.
Being around all the food at the market had us ready for lunch, so our host took us to nice and very Moroccan restaurant, Nabada. We had some of the best food and service ever. I enjoyed a Pastilla, a chicken pastry topped with fresh cinnamon and powered sugar. Shannon had a couscous with chicken and vegetables. Both extremely tasty. The meal ended with a dessert of fresh oranges and sweet mint tea. We said ¨merci¨ and took back to streets to walk off lunch.
We wondered around the Kasbah and the souk markets. We enjoyed not buying a rug from the very polite, very well spoken but high pressure Mohammad. We saw the community bakers, bath houses and tailors. I exchanged a couple Euro for some Moroccan coins, my favorite souvenir. Most fascinating off all I think was the ¨Moroccan Yellow Pages¨ - day laborers that sit in the main town square. They sit atop their milk crates behind an artistic display of their trade. Plumbers have a sculpture of pipe and spigots, painters have their paint bucket and brushes on display, and so on... quite fascinating. With all of the different languages spoken here, this is truly efficient and effective.
Tangier was just a very minor taste of Morocco, and even smaller taste of Africa, we will most definitely return... I recall as we were finishing our late afternoon lunch, after excusing himself our guide disappeared for long while. We and the other couple on the tour with us, also American (from Maryland) noticed his longer than normal absence. It was at that point I also realized there was a distinct "chanting" that was being broadcast throughout the city, so loud it could even be heard even inside in restaurant. Our wonderful, friendly, trustworthy and sincere Islamic host had gone to pray. He returned shortly thereafter to finish our tour and personally escort us on to the boat back to Spain. As I reflect on his words "anything goes" and "no one judges", I can't help but be reminded that we Americans could maybe learn a few things about getting along with each other... and the rest of the world.