Morocco

Of the 55 internationally recognized countries on the continent of Africa, we chose to visit Morocco.  Why did we do this?  First, because it was only a one-hour ferry ride from Tarifa, in Spain, to Tangier, in Morocco:  17.37 nautical miles. Second, because we had heard of a magical town from Aladín, the barber in the Albayzin who cuts J.’s hair, and who is from Morocco. He recommended we avoid his hometown of Casablanca and instead visit Chefchaouen, located in the Rif Mountains.  And third, because throughout our stay in Granada we had been eating at La Mancha Chica Chaoen on Camino Nuevo de San Nicolás and the Moroccan owner had posters of Chefchaouen on the blue-painted walls of his cafe.  He said his mother still lived there, and he recommended we try Restaurant Granada during our visit.  All these reasons compelled us to go.

A driver met us at the port in Tangier.  We rode for two hours along narrow well-paved roads, past fields and farms, animals and rebar to the edge of the medina in the center of Chefchaouen {“Look to the Horns” in English, due to two hornish-shaped mountains that nestle against the outskirts of town}.  We wandered through squiggly alleys until we found our habitation, Riad Rifandalus, where pictures of the Alhambra adorned the walls.  

As we learned before our journey, and as confirmed by the owner of Riad Rifandalus, Chefchaouen had long been home to both Muslims and Jews, expelled from Granada centuries before.  The town is famous for its blue-washed walls.  One theory submits that the painted walls date back to the arrival of yehudim in the 1490s, who used the color blue to remind them of יחוח, who presumably resides – even to this day – in the blue empyrean above.

D. had located a trekking company in Chefchaouen, so the next day we rode an hour through the Rif mountains with a driver and our guide, Lotfi, to hike a couple of trails in Talassemtane National Park.  We first trekked upstream to a secluded watering hole.  Lotfi was a knowledgable guide who spoke Arabic, Berber, French, Spanish, English and German.  He possessed a discrete sense of timing, absenting himself when it was time for us to change our clothes or eat a meal.  He kept J. from floating down the river.   

After descending from the waterfall walk, we were eager to continue hiking to Pont de Dieu, a favored rock formation along a semi-treacherous route.  Although Lotfi had never taken on kids as young as ours, J. & A. had proved their mettle.  We persisted!    As we made our way up river, we began to pass seasonal cafes:  wood fires, charcoal-blackened tea kettles, and tables for four.  If you place your tagine order on the way up, your meal will be ready by the time you come back down.  We opted for glasses of steaming, hot mint tea, sweetened with enough sugar to induce hyperglycemia after a single sip.

Aladín and the owner of La Mancha Chica Chouen in the Albayzin deserve credit for directing us to the town of Chefchaouen.  The people were friendly and polyglot; the food was delicious — tasty tagines, warm breads, fresh cheeses and olives and jam.  Along a pathway in the medina, Abdoul spent over forty minutes earnestly trying to sell us a rug.  We heard the calls to prayer throughout the day, starting very early in the morning with the Fajr, then the Zuhr at midday, the Asr in the afternoon, the Maghrib at sunset and the Isha at night.  We climbed the hill to the Spanish mosque that looked surprisingly like a Spanish church from afar, we wandered the lanes of the medina, and then we left.  Muy túristico y muy divertido, or, for our Arabic speaking friends جدا توريستي وممتعة جدا.


After Chefchaouen, our plan was to hire another car to take us to Asilah, a seaside town about 45 kilometers south of Tangier.  We were hoping to get a different driver from the one who got us to Chefchaouen, a nice enough man, but one with a predilection for heavy metal and shouting nonstop into his mobile.  

 Three hours later, as we entered Asilah, the driver turned off the pelting sounds from the radio, ended his cell phone call and deposited us at our small, fancy hotel, a couple of blocks from the beach.  We were visiting during the off season.  Wide streets leading to the medina were almost empty, but the seaside promenade featured cotton candy, men selling bags of roasted peanuts, and tables set up where you could buy cones of shrimp or snails (to eat).

 We wandered around from the new part of the city to the ramparts.  M. got annoyed at a group of older boys who were kicking a soccer ball in the vicinity of our personal space.   We passed the souk, shops, mosques, and restaurants.  We were trying to find a way up to the ramparts; the sun was beginning to set and lots of people were out and about.  We ran into the boys again and through hand gestures and broken Spanish we all apologized.  

Like almost all tourists who travel to Asilah, we learned of Paradise Beach, accessible by foot, taxi or horse and cart.  The next day we chose taxi, which let us off a good kilometer from the beach due to the almost non-existent road it traveled upon which eventually petered out to nothing.  Goats, emptiness, a few men sitting around willing to grill up shrimp or kalamari — that was it for the day, hence the name of the beach:  Paradise.

Months later, back in Granada, we learned of an ancient Jewish cemetery near Paradise Beach.  Surrounded by three walls, facing the sea, studded with grave stones, it was a place we passed by without knowing.  In it are reminders of the once-extensive Jewish community of Morocco.  If you visit Asilah, please head south of town, somewhere around 35°46’46″N and 6°03’09″W and let us know what you discover.

We missed this.

 

Our travels ended with a sit-down meal at an outdoor table, 297 kilometers from Casablanca, or 30.48 centimeters, depending on your definition.

The next day, we took a ferry from Tangier back to Tarifa.  It felt like coming home.

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Vía Verde via Ronda

A few parents at Colegio Gomez Moreno had arranged a weekend outing in May: on a Friday, families would meet at a guest house on the outskirts of the pueblo blanco Prado del Rey [in English, the King’s Meadow] about 220 kilometers west of Granada.  The next day, we would rent bicycles in Olvera, then ride 38 kilometers along the Vía Verde de la Sierra over viaducts, past meadows, and through tunnels, arriving in Puerto Serrano before the bar closed.  Happily, we signed up for the trip.  We headed out a day early, by way of rental car, along highway A-92 with a short detour to the town of Ronda.

Say the name Ronda and what pops into your head?  An overplayed song by the Beach Boys dating back to 1965?  A fixed form of lyrical French verse based on two rhyme sounds, fourteen lines and three stanzas? Or a pueblo blanco in Málaga province famous for la Plaza de Toros and the enormous gorge, El Tajo?

For us, Ronda means narrow, winding, medieval streets; an enormous, American-sized SUV (thanks to Jose Luís at Hertz Granada for the “upgrade,” which replaced the efficient, compact Toyota Auris — for which we had made a reservation a good 4 weeks in advance of our trip — with a rolling behemoth which terrorized us every time we had to park, turn or back up); and multiple chances to fall 390 feet into the Río Guadalevín.

Sometime in the 4th century, Saint Ambrose was said to have declared:  “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”  In truth, he proclaimed:  “When I am here [in Milan], I do not fast on Saturday; when I am in Rome I do fast on Saturday.”  Had he stated, “When I am here [in Pasadena] I do not walk back and forth across Puente Nuevo; when I am in Ronda I do visit Casa Don Bosco, and I attend the Ronda Guitar House, located at Calle Pedro Mariano Soubiron, and therefore I do hear Paco Seco play classical and flamenco guitar” then perhaps we would not have had to rely so heavily on our Lonely Planet guidebook.

After descending and ascending the gorge, crossing the bridges Puente Arabe and Puerto Viejo, and sorting through the many bull-themed items at the gift shop of the Plaza del Toro, we stumbled upon a fascinating map of El Cerdo which answered some questions that had been plaguing us as we navigated the restaurants of Andalucía.

BONUS TRAVEL BLOG QUIZ:  Indicate the country of origin of each of the passersby that D. roped into taking our picture during our 24 hour stay in Ronda.


After leaving Ronda, we continued on into Cádiz province and joined our friends outside of Prado del Rey at Cortijo Huerta Dorotea, a rural farmhouse featuring a lodge and casitas overlooking the Sierra de Grazalema.  The next morning, we caravanned to Olvera where we began our cycling adventure across thirty-eight kilometers, through twenty-four tunnels, completing one lunch break, and quaffing zero to three beers, depending on endurance, body weight and legal age for alcohol consumption.  (For historical side note about the Olvera-Puerto Serrano Vía Verde, please scroll down.)

A short walk the next day along the Sendero Rio Majaceite followed by a lazy stop at the hillside town of Zahara de la Sierra, and our trip to a beautiful region in Cádiz province was complete.

There are dozens of Vías Verdes throughout Spain.  They are former light rail lines, now converted to biking and hiking trails.  For a condensed version of our entire Vía Verde de la Sierra experience, please check out this YouTube link created by our friend J.v.H.:

Historical Side Note:  West of Algodonales on the Ronda-Seville road between Puerto Serrano and Olvera lies a light rail line, now converted into the vía verde so described in this blog post.  The military regime led by General Rivera, between 1923 and 1929, decided to build a light railway to carry agricultural products from Almargen to Jerez de la Frontera (General Rivera’s home town).   Thirty-eight kilometers of the 123 kilometer route were completed before the project went bust.  (Please submit any emendations, corrections, or addenda to the Response tag at the close of this post.)

 

¿Dónde estamos? ¡Estamos en las Alpujarras y en Cabo de Gata!

The Alpujarras is a mountainous region located on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, an hour’s drive from Granada.  This area was the last hiding place of the Moors, once Boabdil surrendered the city of Granada to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella a long, long time ago (January 2, 1492, to be exact).  It was here we brought Tia S. who had come to visit us for a couple of weeks.

Tia S. with Sobrina A.

Steep mountain slopes, hairpin turns, a narrow river valley, farms, villages and small towns, Spaniards and ex-pat Brits, the smell of weed, the shimmer of olive groves, and the gurgle of acequias:  these were a few of our favorite things.  

One day we hiked the wooded trails that led to the summit of Mulhacén, the highest peak of the Sierra Nevada at 11,413 feet.  We stuck to the lower elevations, passing fruit orchards and farms, stone houses, and meandering acequias.  These irrigation channels, first introduced by the Arabs of northern Africa during their heyday in the Iberian peninsula, are a communal form of water distribution still in use over a thousand years later.  At this point, we are undetermined whether you are bored or interested in this topic.  You can always use the “Reply” button to let us know. 

From friends in the Albayzin, we heard of a walk to an ancient Roman bridge from the village of Ferreirola.  The town is easy enough to get to if you have a car, but you will most likely get lost along the way, no matter what.

We stayed in a stone house that featured a swimming pool, three large and lazy dogs, thirty-four chickens, lots of olive trees and an acequia outside our door.  The nearest town was Órgiva, population 6,500.  Besides brownies, tofu burgers and a road race that shut down all access into and out of the town for over an hour, we noted poetry on the city walls, as well.

What follows are all the photos from the Alpujarras that we wanted to include, but that did not fit in the narrative.

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A week later, we headed to the Costa de Almería.  All year we had heard of the wonders of Cabo de Gata from our neighbors Laura and Antonio.  Now a national park, this area escaped the bull dozers of the Costa del Sol and remains, for all intents and purposes, an almost unspoiled slice of the Mediterranean Coast.  We traveled there with Tia. S. to spoil it just a little bit.  We drove a polluting vehicle, drank water from plastic bottles, and contributed to coastal erosion by hiking the lava promontories, but we did so with a tone of remorse, thereby neutralizing our guilty consciences.  A. and J., unencumbered by adult concerns like finding a place to stay, arranging a rental car, and making sure the pizza did not include ham, simply enjoyed the experience.

The biggest town in Cabo de Gata is San José.   From there we began a hike that skirted cliffs and dropped down into secluded coves.  Destination: Playa de Mónsul.

We walked along the ledge to Cala de Los Amarrillos, crossed the beach at Playa de Los Genoveses, climbed up the cliffs and back down to Cala Chica del Barronal, and made our way along the narrow strip past Cala Grande to Playa de Barronal.


Many hours and naked people later, we arrived.  It was then we realized that the car was 10 kilometers away in a parking lot in the center of San José.  While M. hitchhiked back to town, friends from Granada — who had made the trip to San José for the weekend — drove along the rutted road to meet us at Playa de Mónsul where our kids gamboled on the beautiful beach.

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The next day we visited Las Negras, a small fishing village that now caters to many a tourist, Spanish, German, and British.   From Las Negras we walked the 6+ miles to Cale San Pedro, a beach accessible only on foot or by boat.  This has not prevented many a free spirit from making it his or her home.  In other words, even though it was the middle of April, the beach was packed.

Having walked 6 miles, and again without a car to take us back, we made our way to the end of the beach and hired a skiff piloted by a young man, intent on inhaling a joint, to take us back to Las Negras.  With the gas gauge on empty, and the four of us hanging on for dear life as we cruised at lightening speeds, we were unable to snap any photos.


Far be it from us to tell you how to live your life.  Base your decision to visit Cabo de Gata on your own desires, circumstances and proclivities.  

(We rented an apartment in Hortichuelas, but recommend, instead, the village of Rodalquilar.)

Sacromonte y Azúcar

TRAVELOGUE:  If you’ve been following our blog, you will be aware of many of the great things the city of Granada has to offer.  Two in particular are the neighborhood of Sacromonte and the preponderance of sugar packets. 

Sacromonte abuts the Albayzin, its main thoroughfare marked by a statue of Chorrohumo, a Roma from Granada who guided visitors through the city in the 1950s.  When you visit, just make your way to Camino del Sacromonte, locate the statue and then follow the burro up the street.

Many of the Roma of Granada continue to live in Sacromonte.  Troglodytes are common, due to the many cave dwellings.  Free-spirited Western Europeans, young and broke, live there as well, locally known as pies negros, because they wear no shoes and take no showers.  And of course, folk going about their daily lives can be spotted regularly.

 The name “Sacromonte” comes from an impressive attempt to convince the ruling Catholics at the time (late 16th century) of the legitimacy of the morisco  population by linking Islam with Christianity through the manufacture of lead plates that were placed in a broken down minaret and that were discovered in —-  [Sorry about that.  My apologies.   If you are actually interested in the story of the lead plates you can find relevant information in the book Contemporary Archaeology in Theory:  The New Pragmatism, 2nd Edition, by Robert W. Preucel and Stephen A. Mrozowski.]

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Eventually, the Abbey of Sacromonte was built in the 17th century on top of Valparaíso hill, providing excellent views of the Valley of Sacromonte and the ever-present Alhambra.

 ANECDOTE: One weekend day after we had made our way to the Abadía, we avoided the paved road and instead ventured home via sheep and goat paths that meandered over the hills and gulleys north of the Rio Darro.  As so happened, we ran into some Spanish friends as we crested a hill.  They had just been celebrating Julia’s birthday at a secret pizza cafe hidden in the caves of Sacromonte.  We followed their directions:  go down and up two ravines, take the right fork toward San Miguel Alto, and head straight on for the blue tarp.

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Esther y Julia con paella.

 

Done.  The owner of the cafe was an ex-pat Neapolitan pizza maker, who was living in a cave and making pizza in an open-air oven on a hillside overlooking: (You are allowed one guess as to what the secret pizza cafe hidden in a cave is facing.) the Alhambra.  The cafe was clandestine because it was illegal, lacking any of the numerous permits required to operate an eating establishment in Granada.  Still, you could purchase cold beer, hot pizza and then go home and tell everyone you knew about the secret pizza cafe.

CULTURAL OBSERVATION:  Though we saw the Starbuck’s coffee chain in big cities such as Barcelona and Madrid, these establishments just didn’t exist anywhere else in Spain.  Fortunately, every town, bus station, beach-side cafe, village, hiking lodge, sports center, movie theater, and gas station appeared to possess a fully-charged espresso machine and the opportunity to purchase a café con leche at a moment’s notice.  This we did.  These coffees usually cost no more than the equivalent of a dollar, and often less.  You could choose to have your coffee served in either un vaso or una taza.   You could order normal, grande, or con hielo.  And once ordered, you could sit at your table for 5 minutes or 5 hours and no one would ask you to leave.  

    Every coffee came with a sugar packet.  Actually,  you were given a sugar packet with your fresh-squeezed orange juice, your hot chocolate, your cold chocolate, your tea, and your mint lemonade.  Here is a selection of some of our favorite sugar packets.

 CONCLUSION:   Sacromonte, the Albayzin, Granada and Spain: sweet, with or without sugar.  

B is for Barcelona

> B is for Barcelona:  Here, the people spoke Catalan, the chamfered boulevards allowed easy transit, and friends from Canada, who speak Canadian, joined us for a week of intercambio.  We communicated through gesture, sign language, and facial tics.

> A is for Artistic License: Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Marià Fortuny…the list of Catalan artists is as long as the wait in the check out line at the official Futbol Club Barcelona store at Camp Nou.  FC Barcelona isn’t just 11 guys running around a field in knee socks; it’s “Més que un club,” as evident on our tour of the stadium, the accompanying museum, the press box, the locker room, the official chapel and the invitation to pay 90 euros for the photos we were forced to pose for three times during our visit.                                                           

 


Footnote: Please scroll past if irrelevant.

“Top Left: The Saint George Cross, or Creu de Sant Jordi in Catalan, refers to the Patron Saint of Catalonia.

Top Right: Four red bars on a gold background are La Senyera, the Catalan National flag, which legend has it is the Quatre Dits de Sang (Four Fingers of Blood) made by 9th century King Wilfred the Hairy to place on a shield before going into battle against the Moors.

Middle: FCB – Futbol Club Barcelona

Bottom: The red and claret blaugrana colours are those sported on the first team shirt and were introduced in 1900. There is some dispute as to whether they refer to founder Joan Gamper’s FC Zurich colours or the the Merchant Taylors School colours, which was attended by early stars Arthur and Ernest Witty.

However, the message the FC Barcelona Logo transmits is of a crest that honours the sporting dimension of the football club as well as its connection to its home city and native country.”  (Google Search)  

R is for Real Madrid: FC Barcelona’s arch rival.   (No information available on origin of logo.)                                                   real_-ai_

> C is for Ciutedella Park:  Built in the late 1800s, Parc de la Ciutadella is a perfect place to navigate a bicycle, row a boat, or marvel at the number of people who want to enjoy the park at the exact same time that you do.

> E is for Entertaining:  That’s what it is to ride on top of the double decker tourist bus, keeping eyes open for hidden gems.

> L is for Lounging:  Having traveled a combined 5,893 miles (9,484 kilometers) to meet in Barcelona, we were all pretty wiped out, so we spent quite a bit of time in our flat in the Eixample district.  Here we plotted our day’s adventures and figured out ways to keep the shower from overflowing on to the bathroom floor.

> O is for Over-the-Top:  Though every other English-speaking tourist tries to connect gaudy with Gaudí, etymologically gaudy [showy, bright, full of trickery] precedes Gaudí [a surname of unknown origin that neither Google nor Wikipedia can explicate] by about three or four centuries.  That did not stop us from visiting Parc Güell and marveling at the gay, playful, and fantastical creations that Gaudí bestowed on what was supposed to be an exclusive housing development created in the early 1900s and that subsequently became a world-famous celebration of the wacky and whimsical.

> N is for noodling around the city:  Every day offered delights, which we sampled greedily, (sin jamon).  For some of us, that meant bicycling along the waterfront or walking the length of Las Ramblas.  For others, it meant pretending to go out for coffee and croissants and instead hiding in the stairwell for a few minutes of peace.  One thing we all agreed on was that nobody had to do anything he or she didn’t want to do, unless we made her or him do it.  

> A is for Addenda:  Our friends returned to Vancouver, and we drove northeast through Catalonia to La Garrotxa, the land of slumbering volcanoes.  Here it was easy enough to rent bicycles and ride the Carrilet Via Verde, hike from one dormant volcano to another through beech woods, and generally be appreciative of most things on most days.

> BARCELONA: 

 

Granada = Pomegranate

As many of you know, the word for pomegranate in Latin is Punica granatum, but it may come as a surprise to learn that in Spanish the word for pomegranate is granada.   In Granada the symbol of the pomegranate can be found almost anywhere.  The origin of the city’s current name comes from a Jewish settlement originally located on the right bank of the Rio Darro, situated under the hill of the Alhambra, called in Arabic Garnata-al-Yahud, Granada of the Jews.

 It appears that when the Jews were forced to leave Spain during the Middle Ages, they were forced to take the name al-Yahud with them, leaving the simple title Granada in its place. 

Just one of many pomegranates featured in a city called Pomegranate.

Coat of Arms of Granada: Just one of many pomegranates featured in a city called Pomegranate.

We have yet to grow tired of pomegranates, though they have been placed in public view as if they were members of the Kim family of North Korea.  It is true they feel like guardians, benevolently watching over us in our rambles through the city.

But they also give us confidence in the Ayuntamiento of Granada, since the city has deemed it good and well that the pomegranate be molded into almost every public utility.

 The locals have learned the value of the pomegranate and have chosen to place it where ever they can and as often as possible.

Thus, in Granada, all roads lead to pomegranates.


Tart, sweet, juicy, and fun. Stains your fingers if you eat a lot of them.

Tart, sweet, juicy, and fun. Stains your fingers if you eat a lot of them. (Please do not eat the rind.)

A Day in the Life, II

Like a lot of houses in the Albayzin, ours features a rooftop terraza.  We go there to hang out the laundry, watch the sun set, and watch our neighbors hang out their laundry.  This winter, we went up to the terraza to embrace a brief, ephemeral storm of snow that descended unexpectedly on Granada one February morning.

According to WeatherUnderground, Granada is located 1,870 feet above sea level.  The Sierra Nevada mountains, just 45 minutes away by car, attain a height of 11,411 feet.  Even in May, snow covers the mountains, while 25 miles away people walk around in t-shirts and sandals. 

With so much snow so close by, we were determined to do something that few in our family had ever done before: ¡vamos a esquiar!

Early one morning we managed to rent a car, drive to the ski area, rent ski equipment, ride the gondola up to the ski lift, take the chairlift to the top of the slope, and get off the lift, all without falling. 

Three in our party took a ski lesson, while a fourth displayed her chops on the slopes.  It wasn’t long before all of us were careering down a hill, ostensibly a Green beginner’s run, at breakneck speed.  J. managed to complete every run in a straight line.  A. chose a gentle S curve.  M. ended up on the next slope over and D. offered encouragement to all.

As if that weren’t enough, A.’s fifth grade class spent an entire school week in April riding a bus up to the Sierra Nevada ski station every day for lessons and skiing.

A. rode this bus, carried her helmet and ski boots, lunch, water bottle, sun screen, and snack and never stopped smiling.

A. rode this bus, carried her helmet and ski boots, lunch, water bottle, sun screen, and snack and never stopped smiling.

We hung on to the rental car and one Saturday, drove to Héutor de Santillán to go to a birthday party located at a small farm where a classmate lived.  The children wrapped bread dough around sticks, covered it in aluminum foil and cooked the whole thing over an open hearth.  They looked at the chickens, hogs, goats and piglets.  They ran through the groves and orchards, rode on a horse, drank soda pop, and ate all manner of animal products.

After three hours, we felt we had spent a sufficient amount of time at the birthday party.   Shocking our Spanish friends, we departed.  

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View from a party at 3 p.m.

Around 10 p.m. that night, we began receiving What’s App photos of the children bouncing in the back of a 4-wheel pick up heading down the ravine towards Granada.  By the time the party officially ended, we were fast asleep.

View from a party at 9 p.m.

View from a party at 9 p.m.