“Barthelona!!” we kept whispering excitedly with a lisp, the normal way of speaking in this part of Spain. But this was not Spain, this was Catalonia.
Fresh in the middle of a new independence battle, the people of Barcelona were proudly sporting their flag-striped shirts and we saw several rallies in the streets. Apparently the public was very divided on the issue, polls showing an almost perfect 50/50 split. There’s the obvious question of weather 51% is enough support to divide a nation, and opinions were free flowing, as was the wine. The reasons why Catalans want to be there own country vary, but we gathered it has a lot to do with Catalonia bringing in a large percentage of Spain’s entire GDP. There’s definitely a lot of regional pride.
We spent four days in Barcelona, walking everywhere and seeing very little of the huge city. The food was amazing as was the wine, and we did a good job exploring the eating options. The first day we had a fancy lunch at Michelin-starred Alkimia. (Make reservations in advance.) The “reinventing classic”-style food was amazing and gave Zach great inspiration to get back to work in San Diego.
After 9pm we would cruise the Gothic Quarter, scoping out new bars and tapas joints. The city was bursting with nightlife, everyone out and about.
The Sagrada Familia, Casa Battló, and other works by Antoni Gaudi are scattered about the city. Sagrada Familia, has been under construction since the 1880s. We couldn’t afford to go inside, so maybe we will come back when it’s finished (if ever!)
At the top of a steep hill, the Parque Guell (also designed by Gaudi) features many great viewpoints over looking the entire city. It’s also a great park to walk around and enjoy many talented buskers.
Since Barcelona was the end of our trip, we tried to soak up the relaxed Spanish culture as much as possible. Wine was drunk, tapas were eaten, and many more beautiful streets were explored. Returning home was bittersweet, but we know we found something special in Spain, and we’ll be back.
Granada is a magical place. The castles, cobblestone streets, and snow-covered mountains enchant. Not to mention the best thing ever, free tapas in all the bars! Every time you order a glass of wine or beer, a new plate of food shows up. We ate a lot of tapas – potato salad, “bacalao,” “jamon,” many varieties of charcuterie on bread, little fish… it was endless. There are restaurants on every corner, and all are full late into the night.
The Spanish love going out; staying up late is part of the culture. What happens is every day people wake up, and go to work at a normal time in the morning, then in the afternoon go home and take a “siesta.” After some sleep, everyone goes out for tapas after 9pm and stays out until midnight (or later). You finish the night with churros and hot chocolate, then wake up and do it all again.
The food is good, the wine is good, the people are friendly. Granada is a great place.
The main attraction in Granada is Alhambra, a super impressive fortress overlooking the city. Originally built by the Moors, the complex was a palace for many sultans and kings of various empires. All the walls are intricately carved in Islamic-style geometric patters which took centuries to complete. It took many hours for us to explore the several different buildings, castles, sanctuaries, and colorful gardens.
Another awesome place in Granada is the area Sacremonte. Situated in the hills at the edge of the city, the neighborhood is a collection of houses built inside of caves.
Flamenco in the streets
It’s also amazing how quickly you can leave Granada and be in the wilderness. We walked from our hostel in the center to the caves in only 30 minutes, seeing nothing behind them but forest and the mountains in the distance. Hiking, skiing, and many other outdoors adventures are in close proximity! What’s not to love about it?
Essaouira, on the Atlantic Coast of Morocco, is a popular destination for surfers, backpackers, and other laid back travelers. The long, sprawling beach has good waves and surfboard rentals for cheap. The Medina is much more manageable than in Marrakech but still has great souvenir shopping and some good local food. The best food option is the coastal seafood stands where you literally take your pick from freshly-caught fish, shellfish, sea urchins, lobsters, you name it. Zach loved it!
We took the early bus from Marrakech, the only one going all the way to the end of the road. It started off easy, and soon we were making our way up the western side of the Atlas Mountains. The mountains are impressive, with small villages terraced into the hillsides and many people selling fossils and cool rocks along the road. The road was in great shape but it was kind of a scary ride with the clouds beneath us. The bus driver had a few pretty sketchy passes on the switch backs; he wasn’t stopping for anyone. Some of the highest peaks even had some early snow cover.
On the back side of the mountains we passed through a lot of small villages with square houses made of mud and straw. They blended right into the natural landscape, which by now was straight desert. We had made it to the Sahara!!! Soon we were passing through Ourzazate, famous for the filming of many desert movies including Lawrence of Arabia. By now there were a lot of the Berber people around, dressed in their standard long robes. They all had pointed hoods to block the sun that made them look a little like wizards. Historically nomadic, the Berbers used to roam back and forth through the Sahara from Morocco to Yemen, but now modern borders restrict their movements.
The landscape became more and more barren with oases popping up along the way, always with an accompanying village. We saw signs warning about camels crossing the road, but besides that there were very few signs of life. We reached Merzouga after dark; the desert was flat around us but we could make out shadows of the huge dunes in the distance because of the amazingly-bright full moon.
Upon exiting the bus, a bunch of people came at us. “Do you have reservation for tours?” they kept asking. We said “Yes, we already have one!” but they would not leave us alone. They gave us a lot of bad info, saying there would be no taxis and such, trying to lead us astray and into their hotel or whatever. Typical hassler shenanigans. After only 10 minutes a taxi showed up and he took us the five kilometers to Hassi Labied, the village near the Erg Chebbi dunes where we would be spending the night before our journey into the nothing.
Mohammed was a Berber and owned a shop and house right up against the dunes. He was also in the process of building a hostel which he currently lets Couchsurfers stay in for free. He also had a cousin that did tours into the dunes, so he hooked us up with a good price for a two night adventure. The hostel was dusty but comfortable, so we got a great night sleep – it was almost too quiet.
The next morning we were shown around town, purchased some turbans and got some last minute emails written. We would leave at 5pm and spend two nights at Berber camps in the dunes, then return before sunrise the following day. With us would be an older French couple, and a couple our age from Moscow. We learned that we were not going to ride camels (two humps), but dromedaries (one hump). A technicality we never knew about until now!
Riding the dromedaries took a while to get used to, stretching weird muscles us in all the wrong directions. Sand, as far as the eye can see.
When we reached the tops of the dunes, we could see a large mesa in the distance, the border of Algeria. Along we went, on top of our beasts, adoring the simple beauty of the erg, like giant waves, no two the same. We made it to our Berber camp just after dark. It was a collection of square tents made of carpet with a center table for diner. It was peaceful and the moon bright, and we wandered off into the sand while dinner was being made.
Happy with life and loving the adventure. Food came late, tajine of course. We went to bed tired as usual but slept extremely well again.
In the morning we hiked up the large dune overlooking our camp. The sunrise was grand, casting amazing shadows over the sandy hills. We screwed around with the GoPro and rolled around in the sand. After breakfast we got the dromedaries lined up and started off deeper into the nothing. We really got to know the term “lurching” as we slowly made our way through the desert. Three hours quickly passed and, just as we were becoming super sore, we made our way into a small camp. By this time we were dehydrated, tired, and hurting in all new places from the ride, ready for lunch and a small break from the midday heat. Other travelers greeted us at a camp, including a rather talkative Turk, very reminiscent of the character Dennis Hopper plays in “Apocalypse Now”. Where are we?!!?
After lunch the wind was really starting to pick up. It started as kinda cool, and turned into “I can’t see, breath, or talk,” without sand getting into everything. The sun was becoming eerily fogged over with the ever-growing sand being thrown hundreds or thousands of feet into the atmosphere. Every bit of exposed skin stung like small needle pricks during the big gusts. We hid our cameras, except for the GoPro, and covered our eyes as well as we could. If we didn’t have a guide it would have been scary. Getting lost out there is no joke.
Luckily we were close to our final camp and the wind started to die down as soon as we got there. Our eyes were a mess from the sand and it took a few days for them to feel normal again. But we had felt the thrill of adventure, getting “out there” where humans are not supposed to be, the real desert, hot, windy, and unforgiving. We longed for a shower but settled for a dusty bed beneath the stars. Our Berber guides played some traditional songs on their drums and we relaxed under the bright moon, feeling privileged and carefree. What a life, what a life.
Equity Point Hostel is located in the heart of the medina in Marrakech, Morocco. The entrance is slightly hidden down a small alley, but once you are inside the hostel opens up into a huge complex. There are different rooms for every traveler’s needs and budgets, along with a bunch of different common rooms to hang out and escape the madness of the Medina.
The best part about this hostel is the central swimming pool. The cleanest pool we saw in Morocco, it offered a great escape from the intense heat of the city. Besides the pool, dorms and rooms are also equipped with air conditioning which really makes sleeping easier.
The top floor has the restaurant and bar, with a very cool view over the medina. A great spot to sip on a drink, they also offer the cheapest beer that we were able to find in the city. We really liked this hostel, from the cleanliness to the amenities. Swimming pools aren’t unheard of in the city, but the price to swim is usually more than the total cost of Equity-Point.
Free simple Moroccan breakfast
24 Hour reception
Air-conditioning in rooms
80, Derb El Hammam Mouassine Marrakech Medina
Tel: (00212) 524440793
8 bed dorm – 8.00€
6 bed dorm – 10.00€
4 bed dorm – 12.00€
3 bed private room – 59.70€
Twin bed private room – 51.00€
Double bed private room – 61.00€
The all night train from Tangier to Marrakech was comfortable, but still impossible for sleeping. We spent the night popping in and out of sleep, strange cities coming and going along with the people in our compartment. At dawn the sun rose over the desert and everything looked distinctly more African. Dusty and brown with scattered shrubs and skinny trees. Once at our destination we hailed a taxi (more like he hailed us) and we were soon passing through the wall surrounding the Medina and driving across Djemaa Al Fna (Community Square), one of the most famous places in Morocco. The driver left us at the edge of the maze and after a couple minutes walking we were in our riad. We needed a nap but the city was calling.
Endless madness, thats what was happening. We walked into the medina knowing we would get lost. Once we wandered into a distinctly less touristy area, kids started pointing us back in the right direction. Carrie made sure I knew that getting lost in large African cities was a bad idea, so we were more careful after that. “ZOORRMMM” as a motorbike screams past, barely avoiding the other motorbikes and crowds of people. We had to always keep an eye or ear out for them as we really didn’t want to end up in a Moroccan hospital. There was SOOO much stuff here and it took about an hour to get from one side of the medina to the other. The craftspeople are still organized in a guild system, so there was an area for blacksmiths, shoemakers, leather workers, potters, the lamps, carpets, spices, etc. Overwhelming wasn’t a strong enough word.
It seemed like most everything sold in the medina was made in the medina. We also got the feeling that a lot of people who lived there rarely, if ever, left. The walls are twelve feet apart in the widest sections, so it quickly got claustrophobic. The people were just way to pushy and sometimes rude. But there were also people who were genuinely really nice and it was hard to tell the difference a lot of the time. Someone just needs to teach them that saying “excuse me, excuse me, excuse me…” over and over and over as we ignore you is never ever going to get us into your shop. Also, when you yell “Rasta! Rasta!” over and over that is just going to make us mad. Carrie didn’t know she had dreadlocks; thanks for telling us.
In Marrakech there are always people whispering (sometimes yelling) “…Hashish…” to anyone who is young and white. A lot of tourists buy this stuff from these people but it is a bad idea. Many of the dealers are snitches and will go right to the police as soon as you walk away with the brick. The police will then arrest you and you will spend a mandatory two nights in jail plus a large fine. Everyone makes money, only you lose. Just say “no” sternly and keep walking. They aren’t very pushy about it, unlike in Lisboa where there’s the same stuff, just more annoying people trying to sell it.
The Djemaa Al Fna gets crazy at night. About 20 food stands appear in the middle around the dusk call to prayer, setting up and disassembling every night. They all sell similar foods, cooked over charcoal – tajine, kebabs, soups… all served with bread and mint tea. The smoke is crazy, filling the square and it gives a real mystic feeling to the multitudes of other performers set up everywhere. There are acrobats, snake charmers, homemade carnival games, bands, story tellers, women applying henna, and who knows what else. The same scene has been happening for a millenia and isn’t going to stop any time soon. Just don’t take any pictures unless you’re ready to drop a few Dirhams in their hat.
And then there was the new part of town, Gueliz, where women uncovered their heads and restaurants sold beer for exhorbitant prices. There was a modern shopping mall and supermarkets, traffic lights and vehicles drove on specific sides of the road, separate from pedestrians and sheep. It’s nice for when you need to get out of the claustrophobic medina.
Marrakech is frustrating at times and at others down right annoying. But it is the heart of Morocco and once you figure it out, it starts to grow on you. All in all we really enjoyed our five days wandering, wondering, and drifting away, into the madness.
Going Back to Africa held so many emotions and expectations for me. It’s a continent on which a year of my life has passed; not a great amount of time but it bears a great amount of significance. I was excited, hoping the continent would instantly bring back old memories, familiar sensations, that I would feel at home, that Zach would love it. Yet I knew, at the same time, that Morocco is a world away from East Africa, with a completely different culture, race, and self-perception.
Stepping off the ferry from Spain onto African soil again for the first time in three years was a relief. The FRS Ferry from Tarifa to Tangier was not at all a comfortable ride. The first 10 minutes of the journey the huge boat rocked from side to side so violently that I thought I was going to lose my lunch. And I have never been seasick in my life! Apparently it was a problem of “getting up to speed” and once we got going faster the rocking lessened. We got a taxi through the bustling medina to Hakim’s (our CS hosts’s) apartment. He immediately informed us that we got ripped off by taking the “wrong color taxi” and that we should only take blue ones because they have meters and the brown ones just name a price. Well how were we supposed to know that before he told us? Oh well. Welcome to Africa.
Tangier was, of course, wildly different from East Africa. Almost every woman wore a hijab, many completely veiled in birkahs. The call to prayer could be heard five times a day from a variety of different directions, mosques dominating the city. There were remnants of a strong foreign prescence however, as Tangiers used to be an “international zone” in the years surrounding World War II, with different sections controlled by several different European nations. It was also a popular hangout/escape for the artists/writers/druggies of the Beat generation, home to William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, and a popular touring ground for the Rolling Stones and The Clash. Nowadays, a lot of the expats have gone home, and the city remains largely conservative. Alcohol is nearly impossible to find and insanely expensive. The Lonely Planet lists which bars, specifically, are okay for women to drink at, and its not very many! We took a break from the drinking scene, as our CS hosts were pretty devout Muslim non-drinkers. We did enjoy a lot of “Berber whiskey”, a.k.a. the famous Moroccan mint tea, super sweet and chock full of fresh mint leaves. Hakim and his roommates also cooked us an amazing “tajine”, basically a vegetable/meat stew slow-cooked in a special clay dish with exotic Moroccan spices. The rest of the visit was spent exploring and taking in the beautiful Islamic architecture!