Tuesday, April 01, 2008


More vacation thoughts and impressions….

It was great to swim, which I had a chance to do in the hotel pool in Lisbon. I miss swimming. I also had a short bike ride – Seville has a system where you can rent a bike for a ride from one part of town to another and drop it off at your destination – very impressive. More cities should do it! Check out bike-sharing.blogspot.com or http://www.sevilla.org/sevillaenbici/. Seville’s system was nice because you could join for seven days (or a year). Half an hour is free before you get charged. The bikes were a bit clunky (especially for Sabrina and Valerie, but even for me) but they have to be to endure the wear and tear of lots of people using bikes that they don’t feel ownership for! I also had a chance to ride the Metro in Lisbon (I took a walk in the rain on our last morning there and decided to keep going until I got to the downtown area and take the subway back) and the tram in Seville (Valerie wanted to and so did I) – impressed with the public transportation options, especially in Lisbon!

The hardest part of the travel was the part in Morocco – Morocco’s system of transportation works, but – as I have mentioned in the past – it takes a lot out of a person. On Sunday I left at 9:30 to get a grand taxi to Meknes (I bought an extra spot so I would have a cushion of time before the train) to take a petit taxi to the train station to take the 11:29 train to Casablanca (which was hot and airless for over four hours) and switch there for a train from Casablanca Voyageurs to the airport. It was a long day but it’s impressive that there’s a train right to the airport and that it’s fairly easy to take. Then again, it took me longer to get to Lisbon from basically the next country over than it took the rest of the family from New York! It’s nice to have always lived near major airports. The plane to Lisbon – a quote from the movie “Casablanca” – was more like the plane in the movie than I expected – a commuter flight with 18 seats and propellers! The trip back to Azrou was even longer; more on that later.

In Lisbon we also went to the 1998 World’s Fair site, now a tourist destination with restaurants and Europe’s largest aquarium and Europe’s longest bridge (if you count the viaducts; a sleek cable-stay). Some nice architecture too, including a train station designed by Calatrava (we also saw a bridge that he designed in Seville). We went to the castle of St. George, ruins on Lisbon’s tallest hill. In the middle of one of the courtyards there was a guitarist and I felt moved by his plaintive music and bought the CD. Another thing that I bought (in Evora) was some Portuguese tile – my friend Elisa has some Portuguese tile and I admire it whenever I go to her house; I bought a small sample and am very happy when I look at it. And also a couple of ¾-sleeve shirts at Zara, the – Gap? Banana Republic? Or maybe there’s not an exact equivalent – of Spain; timely, because it’s 3/4 –sleeve weather and my current inventory is a little worn.

I didn’t have a chance for any spa treatments – I miss those a lot. I could use a massage and a pedicure and a facial! Maybe a spa day in Fes is called for. I did a lot of walking and feel sore! All of these things may sound like luxuries (especially in Peace Corps) but I think of them more as necessities; granted that I am for the most part going without them for 27 months, but I think they’re important for well-being.

We had a chance to see the Moorish quarter of Lisbon – narrow, twisty, hilly streets. And the Jewish quarters of Seville and Cordoba (in Grenada it seemed to be a combined Moorish/Jewish quarter) – for the most part those are now trendy neighborhoods, with shops and tapas bars and small hotels, again with narrow streets and charming buildings, right near the palaces (because the Jews were important – lawyers, bankers, merchants etc.). There’s a synagogue in Cordoba that is one of three left in Spain from pre-Inquisition days, but it was closed the day we were there – I wonder how it compares to the ones I’ve seen in Morocco.

From Evora we had an artisan day in the Alentejo region. My sister had set up some hands-on after reading about it in a magazine. First we went to Redondo, known for its pottery, and we had a chance to paint one of the plates (very cool – even though when we went back later the artist had already painted over our artwork to make the plate saleable). Then we went to the building where the pots were being thrown and fired – only Sabrina and Valerie got their hands into the clay, but I thought about it! We went on to Estremoz, known for marble – the houses are whitewashed with dissolved marble since it is less expensive than paint; blue and yellow paint is used to keep out the evil eye and/or insects (similar to the blue of Chefchouan, but only framing the doors and windows). And then to Arriosos, a weaving center – we didn’t see anyone weaving, but we saw pictures of the process – it looks like big needlepoint or cross-stitch to me. It was interesting to see the rugs, at any rate! Of course, all day I was wondering how artisanal tourism could work in Morocco. People are into experiential things. The pottery places could do it – give someone a chance at the wheel and a chance to paint. You certainly wouldn’t want to get up to your knees in pigeon droppings or dye at a tannery though – would you? The rock carver, metal worker and wood carvers of Azrou use tools that might be dangerous in inexperienced hands – and the weavers weave and knot way too fast. When I have visited artisans here in Morocco I have found that people are friendly and willing to talk about their processes – should Morocco make a bigger deal of that for tourists?

The Alentejo region is supposed to be very dry – yet after traveling around dry, dusty Morocco it looked lush – green fields, cork trees and umbrella pines, well-fed-looking sheep and cattle. When we crossed into Spain the land looked harsher – more bare ground but also more cultivation, more industry, the flat part flatter and the mountains higher. We took the long way into Spain so we could stop for lunch in the Algarve, Portugal’s most-visited region, along the Mediterranean coast. A small taste!

Easter is a big holiday in Spain and perhaps nowhere is “Semana Santa,” Holy Week, bigger than in Seville, and we got there right as festivities were at a height. It was crowded but festively rather than unpleasantly so, and I happened upon a couple of parades during a 10 pm walk and my Sunday morning bike ride. Various brotherhoods parade at different times during the week, wearing hooded robes and carrying big crosses and big candles. Each parade is led by a marching band (enticement enough for me to want to watch!) and its highlight is a big float – either of Jesus on the cross or of the Virgin Mary or of something else – supposedly traveling along on the backs of forty barefoot penitents, but I read about that afterwards so didn’t know to look down. As with being here for l-Eid, it was nice to be there to witness the celebration.

Another nice thing about Seville was the Starbucks right across the street from the hotel! I was able to augment my supply of Starbucks mints and also to have a couple of Espresso Brownies (I had been thinking about them for months). It seemed weird to see so many cafes in Portugal and Spain and not idle in them – I have gotten used to the café culture in Morocco (and made up for it already since I’ve been back, or so it seems). We also did a horse and carriage ride that showed to other parts of Seville – including a park and buildings that were part of the Ibero-American Fair of 1929. Sabrina, Valerie and I rented a surrey in the park – good exercise! We also all went to a flamenco show in the evening – in the last entry I mentioned lessons and classes that I might want to take in the future. Flamenco might be fun! I did tap once. Actually, that was hard. Flamenco looks really hard. Okay, so much for that.

We had an Andalusian day trip too and one of the things we almost did but didn’t get to was a cave with 20,000-year-old paintings. It didn’t fit in – maybe another time…. We went to Ronda, which has a deep gorge and picturesque bridge over it. The highlight was the bull ring and bullfighting museum. It was interesting to learn about bullfighting – it seems gruesome at first but if there is one thing I have learned here it is not to judge the culture of others! And indeed, hearing about the traditions and rituals was fascinating. So much so that when we heard there was a bullfight back in Seville that night, we tried to get tickets! We ended up with only two, so Sabrina and Joe went while Pam, Valerie and I walked and walked and had tapas – everyone was happy! Hearing about it was enough for me.

We also went to a science park in Grenada – interesting exhibits, and nice that it was part museum and part educational playground, so we could enjoy the sunny weather. It had rained on and off in Portugal and was chilly on some of the other days. I read in Lonely Planet that the rain in Spain does not fall mainly on the plain! We weren’t on the plain (which is more in the middle of the country); I just happened upon that tidbit while looking at all of the other parts of Spain that might be nice to visit on future trips! Another thing that we did (serious failing of the tour books not to mention this but we had heard about through other means) was visit Sacromonte, the part of Grenada where gypsies live in caves. The entrances to the caves themselves look like house entrances, but when you look behind, you realize the houses are carved into the side of the mountain. There was a cave museum, where we saw a typical bedroom and kitchen and also crafts – ceramics, metalwork and weaving that the gypsies do or did – and we also saw many caves that are now flamenco halls. This makes me want to go to Bhalil, the town near Sefrou where some people live in caves, all the more!

I’ll describe the trip back in the next post, plus what I’ve been up to this week. Meanwhile, on another note, after hearing about a rainy, chilly Opening Day I mentioned to my friend Helen my dread of returning to Chicago in the winter. She suggested (I am paraphrasing) that I return to jobhunt elsewhere (somewhere warmer?) and then go through my stuff in Chicago in the spring. This idea has some merit! I know I will have to ease back in, and that may be a good way to do it. I had in mind that I could go through my stuff while I look for a job, and then if I end up moving I will have less to move, but I don’t have to do it that way!

FYI, bullfighting has been banned in Barcelona and many other communities in Spain due to its cruelty to bulls.

That photo is scary - looks like KKK!
I think I knew that.... but in other places it is still a big part of the culture. For me it is just as well I didn't go. I think it would have been hard (for the massive amounts of cigarette smoke as well as the bull!). It was cool for me to go into the bull pen at Ronda and realize that that is where the bullpen in baseball came from! As for the KKK, yes, it did look like that (though different brotherhoods that I saw had different colors - all white, all black, black and white and purple) - again, for me interesting cultural thing as opposed to scary. I wonder if way back there is a similar origin to the costume....something to look up sometime!
The internet is amazing! (so is the power of procrastination - I am working on my quarterly report for Peace Corps but decided to take a break....)

http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazareno and
I guess they are related! One can lose oneself in Wikipedia!
Lose oneself - and/or instantly find what you are looking for, which happened in this case (I did finish my quarterly report!).
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