Sunday, January 10, 2016


We had a fabulous time in Barcelona. Our first day was spent just relaxing and reading! After being on the road for 10 days straight, we were ready to just relax, read, and sleep. Such a treat.
We were scheduled for a Tapas Tour of Barcelona so we headed out at dinner time to join our group. Our fearless leader was a New Zealander, James, and he was fantastic! Tapas are not served at a tapas restaurant, as we do in the states. These are tapas served in bars – some serve a variety of tapas, others specialize in something in particular. Seating doesn’t even exist at all in some places – you simply lay claim to a portion of the bar and that’s where they’ll serve you. James did his homework so well – he even made sure there were vegetarian options at all places.
Apparently Iberian ham is a specialty in this region for it was featured in any number of bars, prepared in numerous ways. They were also treated to shrimp as well as a wonderful selection of mushrooms (some veggie some with that ham included). Bread with numerous toppings were available as well as an array of veggies. There was so much food that by the 4th place I was stuffed – I don’t know how they all ate so much food as well as sampling all of the wines and beers!

We spent a morning in the Museum del Prado, an immense building that is impossible to even remotely see everything. We did spend an hour with a guide who provided us with a lot of information about the Spanish artists and different views of the paintings and painters. It was fascinating to hear further information, stuff you just never know from just looking at the pictures.
Plaza del Sol

Temple of Debod
Once again I love Europe! It is so easy to catch a subway to anywhere and so much is in walking distance of wherever you get end up. We walked over to the Temple of Debod in the twilight hours, a temple that is actually from Egypt. When they built the Aswan damn, the temple would have been underwater. It was sent, block by block, to the city of Barcelona. It is really stunning in the evening light with the reflection on the water.

Mile zero
Our apartment was strategically located just around the corner from the Plaza del Sol. A beautiful plaza, filled with shops, a huge golden tree, the zero point for all mileage in Spain, as well as the most famous site for New Years Eve in Barcelona - comparable to Times Square in New York. Not only that, they believe in practicing for New Years eve - so partying started in the plaza on the 30th. Yes, we could hear it, all night long. 

Spillover - the plaza is to the right
Well, they made it through the practice, though we weren't certain we'd make it through the actual evening. The spill-over from the plaza was frightening (from our point of view). They did block all people from entering once it was deemed "full" - something we were thankful for, and thankful we had gotten home before the barricade went up. I must admit, the location was great but at 3am I was not appreciating the location at all!

Ourika Valley - Day 10

We headed up into the mountains the next morning. We stopped at a women’s cooperative where they process Argan oil. The Argan tree is endemic to Morocco and is rather limited to a relatively small growing area. The oil is used in cosmetics and the Berber women have used it in traditional Moroccan medicine as well as for culinary purposes.

Lower falls from hike out
The coops are generally run by local women. Traditionally nuts are said to be collected using the services of goats. The goats are partial to the Argan fruit and have a certain amount of tree climbing skill to get the nut. Having eaten the fruit, they eventually expel the nut and it’s collected to start the extraction of the oil. Fortunately, these days the fruit is picked and the ladies extract the nut from the fruit for expelling the oil! They did have a small demonstration area where the ladies were cracking the fruit to get the nut, roasting it, processing it into a dough and then working it to release the oil. While the demonstration was by hand, much is completed using machines in the back. The resulting oil is then processed to produce various cosmetics and foods for sale in the coop.
Lower falls

Middle falls
From there we headed up into the Ourika Valley, a beautiful oasis with lush trees and bushes with small Berber villages nestled in the mountains. Ali found a hiking guide for us to take us up into the hills to see the waterfalls. The hike was very enjoyable, hiking up the hill, around rocks, and actually up streams in places. The most difficult part of it was the wet rocks where footing was hard to find. The guide was great, knowing where the trouble spots were – as well as the best places to view the falls and take pictures.

Berber refrigerator

Take a look at the "Berber Refrigerator". They piped water from the falls, (small hoses in many places) spraying it over a rock area. In the area, they placed drinks and such for the tourists - keeping them cold.

What a way to end a fabulous trip! 

Friday, January 8, 2016

Marrakech! - Day 9

Many desert plants in the garden
Cell disguise
Marrakech - A city that has always seemed exotic and far away. It's actually quite delightful, busy, active and interesting. We started off meeting our local guide, Zabida, who was witty and very knowledgeable and heading to the Majorelle Gardens. It was built by a French artist, Jacque Majorelle, but after his death, it was rescued and refurbished by his friend, Yves Saint Laurent. It's tiny but amazing with the paths around the pools and buildings, with plants from numerous locations brought together. It would have been stunning in the spring or summer with the promise of so much color. It included a small museum with information about the Berber tribes, dress, jewelry and way of life. Very interesting excursion into an unknown world. 

Koutoubia Mosque

From there we visited the Koutoubia mosque. This mosque has an interesting history. It was first built upon the grounds of a palace, owned by the now defeated ruler. Well…it was later determined that is was misaligned towards Mecca (off by 5 degrees) so the decision was made by the latest victors to build a new one, aligned correctly. It was an exact replica of the first mosque only now, it was determined in the future…it was 10 degrees off. Apparently both mosques stood together for 30 years before the first one was finally destroyed.

Sultan's tomb
Women's tomb
From there we headed to the Saadian Tombs, the burial site for the sultan and selected members of the dynasty from the 1500's. Men only, of course. The women were buried in a separate section of the tombs. The tombs have been restored and much of the area is being worked on.

We wandered through the medina, the marketplace, and watched so many men working on handmade pieces. Again, it was amazing! We finally had lunch at a rooftop cafe where we found a terrific view of the open centers of  a number of homes. The places here are quite literally built on top of each other. Homes have no windows in these cities. All the natural lighting comes from a hole in the roof directly onto a patio inside the house. While a number of them are now covered, some are still open to the sky - and the necessity to deal with rain inside your home. 

Old Caravan Road - Day 8

View of the valley
We continued up the windy, narrow, twisting, one lane road, that, yes, cars did pass the crawling trucks, that were still carrying goods along the caravan route. This was the old caravan road from the Sahara to Marrakech! It was a steep, treacherous road in a car and took us the better part of a day to travel the part we did. Can't imagine riding a camel, or walking, that route!
Hand carved walls
One place we stopped at had some interesting rooms in various stages of preservation. If you look through the window in the picture, you can see the green valley - with the forbidding mountains in the background. The hand carving on the wall is phenomenal. The lower section is done in a plaster type substance, then there's the beehive honeycomb work and wood carving and painting above. The detail is exquisite.
However, once again, as we drove through the forbidding, rugged mountains, we would come upon an oasis. We stopped at the Kasbah Telouet, a village built by the French at the top of the Telouet pass along the main road heading to Marrakech. We were again greeting with barren roads with sudden glimpses of greenery, water, and, or course, numerous settlements. The living is tough but they have always lived, off the land, herding sheep, growing and making everything they need. They will occasionally venture into town for something and you can always find enterprising people selling their produce on the side of the roads.

Arabia on left, Egypt to the right
Little did we know, the desert setting lent itself to numerous film companies, with vast spaces to build sets for very famous movies; movies including Cleopatra, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Patton, Lawrence of Arabia, Jesus of Nazareth, The Mummy, Black Hawk Down, Hidalgo, and many others. It was fascinating to move from a setting of an Arabian street to the entrance to an Egyptian temple simply by turning around. A Tibetan monastery appeared through a door with Noah's ark right beside it. Despite myself, I'm now interested in seeing a few movies just to see how the various scenes actually played out from the props (the giant rocks that are thrown at invaders...they're Styrofoam!)