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Trip 8 -- Morocco and Southern Spain

Entry #2: Fès-Tangier-Algeciras-Granada-Sevilla-Madrid-Barcelona

Saturday, January 3, 2004

Seven bleary-eyed travelers - Kathy and Nic, the New Zealand sisters; Shahla and Darvi, the Midwestern sister and brother; Anya and Nico, the (loosely) American couple (she's now studying in London and he's originally from Chile); and your friendly narrator - got off the overnight bus from Marrakech to Fès and trudged the three kilometers to the blue main gate of the medina, Bab Bou Jeloud. Fès has particularly aggressive touts, and it was difficult to shrug off their offers of basic travelers' needs - places to stay, tours of the medina, hashish, whatever. A 16-year-old student, Kamal, led us into the Pension Talaa, where we all spent one overpriced night. I shared a kind of suite with Anya and Nico - there was one room with a single bed and one with a double - and the others shared a large four-bed room. The minuscule showers and toilets were communal. Many of the hotels were full, since it was near the end of the year, so this arrangement, at Dh75 per person, was the best we could do in this part of town.

We had breakfast in a terrace restaurant near the gate. When we descended, Kamal and one other tout we had spoken to were waiting for us, ready to offer us a medina tour at Dh10 per person. We went with Kamal, who never showed any emotion through the whole two-hour tour, though he was very knowledgeable - and had no qualms about trespassing. On one occasion he led us through an old palace that's being restored as a museum, and we climbed up several flights of stairs, their broken tiles and dust strewn everywhere. When we emerged at the roof, there were splendid views of the extensive medina and the surrounding hills, where we could see dyed leather drying in the sunshine. It was interesting to gaze at the roofs of the medina homes: In a city where laundry was strung up on clotheslines to dry and chickens and cats wandered along the rooftops, nearly every roof had a satellite dish.

Kamal also showed us the sheep-skinning region of the medina, but we'd have to wait until the next morning to view Fès's famous tanneries, where cow, sheep, camel, and goat leather is washed and dyed in enormous circular vats. The dyes are natural, made from items such as saffron, indigo, poppy flowers, and cow urine; the workers stand precariously at the edge of the vats as they work; and the aroma from this chaos is exceedingly putrid. At the end of the tour, Kamal tried to double his price.

I spent a good bit of time getting lost on my own in the medina. It's an overwhelming place, an endless labyrinth of narrow, covered streets that all look alike; throngs of people hurrying to their favorite shops; factory areas, where people hammer iron into shape, cut soles for slippers, or weave clothing by hand; and haggard donkeys carrying all the loads. And near the edges were the touts, who refused to leave you alone until you agreed to go on a tour or buy what they wanted to sell you - the best way to remedy this was to say that you had just gone, or just bought. While I didn't mind getting lost in the maze, I did have the problem that when I thought I was getting deeper and deeper inside, I'd come to a large gate and inadvertently exit the medina.

But it was a pleasant exploration. I even bought a few items, even though I knew my bargaining skills weren't up to par and I knew I'd get ripped off on every occasion. It was a little bit like going into a casino and playing a game for which I didn't know the rules. Every transaction went something like this:

"How much?" I'd ask, pointing to something I liked.

"For you I make a special price, because you come in without a guide." (If you come in with a guide, the guide gets a commission, and hence you pay more.) "Let me see..." And then he'd take out a piece of paper and write a number with several more digits than the item should cost - Dh5000 in one actual example, a unique item that stood out from the ubiquitous selection of ceramics, slippers, carpets, and lamps. (More than five hundred dollars!)

"Oh, I'm sorry, I can't pay that much," I'd say. "I'm not working right now." I took the pen and cut the price down logarithmically, to Dh500.

He laughed. "What is this?" He thought for a moment and then wrote another number, 4800. Then he handed me the pen. "Now name your best price, your best price."

Realizing if I really named my best price he'd take the opportunity to make me go even higher, I nudged up my bid a tad, to Dh550.

He frowned. He wrote down the number 4500. "Now what is your best price? Your best price!"

"The thing is...I like it, but it's not my favorite. So I really can't pay much more." I wrote 600.

There was one point in each session when the dealer would realize I was perhaps not an expert bargaining man, but at least not stupid, and his price would come down dramatically.

"For you, because I like you and I need the money..." He vigorously crossed out all our previous numbers. "Not five thousand, not forty-five hundred." He paused. "My best price. Two thousand dirham."

I nodded and frowned. "That's still too much," I said. "I may go look somewhere else."

"You won't find this anywhere else," he lied. But he cut his price down again, to 1800.

We went back and forth a few more times. "Now, what is your best price?" he said, waiving his hands horizontally.

"One thousand dirham."

"How much?"

"One thousand."

He held out his hand and we shook on it, and I felt that while I certainly didn't get a deal - I never would in the medina shops - at least I had brought the price down to something approaching reasonable.

Later on, I saw a similar item in a museum shop priced at Dh350.

That first afternoon in Fès, I visited the mellah, the old Jewish quarter (most Fès Jews left after the Six-Day War). An elderly man named Maymon, with skewed eyes, greeted me in Hebrew at the main gate of the Jewish cemetery, which is still in use. He led me toward the thousands of whitewashed graves, many unmarked, some more prominently showing the names of famous rabbis in Fès's history. One grave paid homage to a teenager who, in 1734, was killed when she refused to convert to Islam.

He also showed me the Habarim Synagogue, in use until the 1700s and now a museum with all sorts of wonderful antique items and photographs, and showed me the way to the Ibn Danan Synagogue, in use since then.

Fès had no main square, nothing approaching the magnitude of Marrakech's Jemaa el-Fna, and for that reason alone I didn't like the city as much. In search of a change from Moroccan food - there are only so many tajines and pastillas you can eat in a row - several of us went into Fès's ville nouvelle that first night and had Italian food.

The next afternoon, we made the driver of a grand taxi (shared Mercedes taxis suitable for long journeys) very happy by paying him Dh500 to take us the hour's journey to Volubilis, site of the ruins of a Roman city dating back to about the second century. It's an incredible site - you can still clearly see the foundations of the administrative buildings, the main gates, the layout of the main thoroughfares and side streets, and the arrangement of some of the houses. Many of the mosaics are well-preserved - my favorite was that of a drunk horseman riding a donkey backwards. Having spent a couple of hours at Volubilis, we did a quick tour of the nearby city of Meknes and then headed back to Fès.

The seven of us had been traveling together for nearly a week, but that night our paths would diverge. Shahla, Darvi, and I were on our way to Granada; Anya and Nico would spend one more night in Fès and then head for Spain; and Kathy and Nic had a few more days in Morocco. Before our separation, we had a terrific banquet at Zagora, a festive, friendly French-Moroccan place in the ville nouvelle. Kathy and Nic had brought some Christmas wine, which we wanted heated up - the restaurant staff were willing to help but kept bringing out the room-temperature bottle, thinking by "hot" we meant not chilled. But finally they got it right, and it was a splendid conclusion to our travels together.

To get to Granada, Shahla, Darvi, and I took an overnight train trip to Tangier. This actually involved two trains: first, a smelly, dirty two-hour trip on an ordinary train - on which we witnessed a fight over luggage or a seat or a ticket or something - from Fès to Sidi Kacem, the industrial, drab city where the Moroccan north-south and east-west railway lines meet. Arriving at Sidi Kacem just before 3:00 in the morning, we had an hour layover before connecting with the crowded train to Tangier.

We took a taxi from Tangier's train station to the port - Morocco is one place where I could get used to taxis, since a 20-minute jaunt across a city is only a buck - and boarded the ferry for Algeciras, Spain. This ferry didn't have quite as many amenities as the one I took going to Morocco, and so our sleeping was done on hard chairs in the cafeteria, with our heads on the tables. In Algeciras, we connected with a bus to Granada. How refreshing it was to be in Spain - my takeaway lunch was from a bar in Algeciras's central market, a bar where people sat festively munching on ham and seafood and where the wine flowed smoothly.

We arrived in Granada late in the day, and it was difficult to find a hotel room, but an extremely helpful young man, Fernando, who worked the tourist-information booth at Granada's inconveniently located bus station, recommended a few places to stay and even called a couple of hotels to find us a room, eventually booking us into the Hostal Atenas, where we could share a triple room for 50 euros. He also showed us the trendiest tapas place and other locations of note, marking them all cryptically on a map, like a football coach explaning the next several plays. We took a taxi to the Atenas, but there was actually another hotel upstairs, the Sonia, where we were able to find a slightly cheaper room.

Tapas-bar-hopping was one of the activities I most looked forward to in Spain. Traditionally you take a tapa - a little ham, cheese, seafood, whatever - and a glass of wine or beer at each place before moving on to the next. We started at La Nueva Bodega, but my kidney tapa was especially large, so I didn't really need to head elsewhere, and neither did Shahla and Darvi. An hour or two later, however, I did stroll around what seemed to be a trendy neighborhood - it included the place Fernando had mentioned, and only a super-trendy establishment could have a name as elusive as "D cua d ros." I didn't go in, but I did find a cheerfully rustic spot, La Puerta de la Alpujarra, where I sampled a couple of the hams and ate at a high table made out of an old wine barrel, watching the scene and the used napkins and cigarettes thrown on the floor.

We awoke early to visit the Alhambra, an Islamic ninth-century fortress that was gradually added to over the centuries. The original Alcazaba (you can see the word "kasbah" in there) was fortified in the 13th century, and streets and gates were added to turn it into a proper medina. The medina buildings have been reduced to ruins, but the two 14th-century Islamic palaces still stand, and they contain Islamic tile and stucco design at least as impressive as any I'd seen in Morocco. After the Christian conquest in 1492, the Carlos V palace, a church, and a convent were were built. The Alhambra complex also includes beautiful gardens known as the Generalife.

Granada's other main attractions include the 16th-century Capilla Real, where the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, are buried, and the adjacent cathedral. Two and a half euros bought me admission to the Gothic royal chapel and the chance to join the throngs downstairs to see the monarchs' crypt. When I came back upstairs, I suddenly remembered the monarchs' greatest legacy, as far as I was concerned: They drove the Jews out of Spain in 1492 in that most unpleasant of events known as the Spanish Inquisition. The dean of Hebrew College in Boston had once told me that on a visit to Granada, he had thanked the monarchs for their efforts by spitting on their coffins. And so, with a certain pleasure, I descended the stairs once more and did the same.

The Muslims didn't fare much better than the Jews did in 1492 - the Capilla Real includes an altarpiece with painted reliefs showing how the Muslims were forcibly converted to Christianity - and so I didn't have much desire to pay another €2.50 to visit the cathedral, which pays tribute to the monarchs. Rather, I went across the street and visited the Centro José Guerrero, an art museum that just happened to have an exhibit on the works of William Wegman. I'd seen plenty of his famous photographs of dogs in unusual positions and surroundings, but I'd never seen his drawings or videos, which were hilarious - he's sort of the artistic version of Stephen Wright. One drawing was called "Ol' Blue Sings Americas Favorite Songs About Insurance." In one video, Wegman's pet Weimeraner is lying in bed, with the covers up to its arms, and there's a ticking alarm clock on the bedspread. When the alarm rings, the dog lethargically lifts its head, opens and closes its mouth a few times, then goes back to sleep. Another video was called "Dog Baseball" - Wegman hits the ball and all the dogs run after it, while Wegman runs around the bases. Then, after the game, they all go bobbing for apples and bones.

The most picturesque spot in Granada was Albayzín, the hilltop area north of the center. With steep, narrow, winding streets, it's reminiscent of a medina - and, in fact, it was the old Muslim area. There's the odd minaret and Islamic palace, as well as several churches, and here and there are little squares with fruit markets. At the top, the Mirador San Nicolás offers views of the Alhambra and the rest of the city. Shahla, Darvi, and I had dinner on one of the squares at a festive, rustic little place that served up an excellent Galician-style octopus.

I took the early train to Sevilla on Sunday; Shahla and Darvi slept in and took the bus. I never met up with them again, though I did run into Shahla on the main pedestrian shopping street in Sevilla. My aim in setting out early was to see the Alcázar, which would be closed on Monday, and the cathedral, which was free on Sunday but cost €6 other days. I failed on the first count; the Alcázar closed at 13:30, and so I had to content myself with imagining it as a much-scaled-down version of the Alhambra. The cathedral also closed earlier than expected, but I did make it inside to see its grand gilded altarpiece, possibly the world's largest - it contains more than a thousand figures. There's also Christopher Columbus's tomb, many beautiful chapels, an interesting archway with carved food (it was odd to look up and see upside-down plates of chicken and fruit), gilded chalices and the like, noteworthy paintings by Sevillan artists such as Murillo, and impressive choir stalls. Outside is a courtyard with hundreds of orange trees. The trees actually line many of the city streets, which means you're never far away from fresh fruit - provided you're at least seven feet tall.

I returned in the evening to see a Christmas concert in the cathedral. Entry was free but tickets were hard to come by, so I waited outside until someone arrived with extras. It wasn't a stellar concert - the music was played by one of those student bands that make everything sound like "Pomp and Circumstance" played out of tune - but what better place to hear a concert than in this grand setting?

I made the most of tapas-hopping in Sevilla. The places with the most atmosphere had dozens of cured hams hanging from the ceiling, and litter on the floor. Most had overworked waiters who just barely made time to interpret your order. I stood at the bar and ate - in many places, the waiters have pieces of chalk behind their ears and write the prices of your orders on the bar; then they add them up when you're done and wipe off the calculations for the next person.

I also went in search for the elusive flamenco. Many places have tourist-oriented flamenco shows, but my memory of flamenco was of a place deep the alleys of Madrid, a smoky place where I'd been taken during a previous visit to Spain. One place in Sevilla, La Carbonería, was supposed to be like that, at least on some nights - but on the night I went it was simply a jolly old piano bar, with a fire, whitewashed walls, wooden benches, and entertainment that consisted of people from the bar going up to the piano and playing selections from their hit album, "Songs I Know Only Part Of and Don't Quite Sing in Key." I did what I often do in such situations: I let the nonsense go on for an hour or so, played the first movement of Beethoven's "Waldstein" sonata, and made a hasty exit.

On my second day in Sevilla, I simply enjoyed the city, strolling the pleasant, narrow streets, gaping at all the orange trees, having a lazy outdoor lunch at Restaurante Modesto, a fabulous seafood spot, poking my head into churches, and walking through the Parque de María Luisa. A man on a bicycle struck up a conversation with me - this usually means he is after my money, wants to make me more devout, or is gay and hopes I'll spend the night. He did go on a bit about religion and was a bit of a close-talker, but he didn't get too dangerously near any of those possibilities. He explained the Plaza de España and how the oranges picked in the park and behind the cathedral would be better than those picked elsewhere in the city (because they weren't subjected to as much pollution), and we chatted about music for a bit; then he gave me his phone number and was on his way.

I also visited the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza. It's probably more interesting on summer Sundays, when there's actually a bullfight going on; at other times, such as now, it's a rather expensive, moderately interesting tourist trap. For €4 they whisk you around on a 20-minute tour of the 18th-century building. The arena looks, well, like a stadium of brick seats surrounding a circular sand pit; the hospital (where the more unfortunate matadors have to be taken) looks, well, like a surgery room; the chapel (where matadors pray before the fight) looks like one you'd see in a church; and the stables look like stables. There's also a small museum containing paintings of bullfight scenes, actual costumes used in the ring, and the heads of some notoriously dangerous bulls - in this particular arena's history, bulls have killed three matadors; when that happens, the custom is to kill the bull and the bull's mother as well.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered Ezequiel's phone number. Eze (that's "EH-thay" in Cathtillian), who lives in the Las Rozas suburb just north of Madrid, had stayed with me during a high-school exchange program, and while I hadn't seen him in almost 12 years, I figured I'd ring him up and see if we could get together. Everything fell into place: the phone number was still the same; his mother, Rosa, still lived there; and in fact so did he and his sister, Susana. I'd spent a month in Madrid as part of that exchange program, and so I'd planned to just breeze through there for a day on my way to Barcelona, but Eze invited me to New Year's Eve dinner with his family and then to a party with his friends - how could I resist?

Now an architect, Eze had to work on the 30th, so I spent the day reconnecting with Madrid, seeing the things that meant much to me but probably were of little interest to others. Arriving at Madrid's southern bus terminal, I got on the subway, which has expanded dramatically since I've been away. They've added about 60 stations, including a whole bunch to the south. No longer do you have to stop at Batán on line 10 southbound; now you can go five stops more and connect with an entire new 28-station circular line! I remembered also being fond of the pretty little broken major chord they play before announcing the next station while you're on the train. For a bit of nostalgia, I rode line 1, with its wonderfully alliterative station names - Cuatro Caminos, Ríos Rosas, Nueva Numancia, and the new Villa de Vallecas - up to Plaza de Castilla, where I used to get the bus to get into the suburbs at the end of the day. I couldn't remember which bus it was, but I did notice two new looming office buildings over the square - they lean in, with their ominously black glass windows, and are in stark contrast to everything else around.

I reconnected with the Puerta del Sol, the city's central square; the Rastro, site of the enormous Sunday-morning flea market; the mixed-race neighborhood of Lavapiés (this is where you'll find Africans, Chinese, and Turkish kebab places); the Atocha railway station; the Calle de Hortaleza, where I'd remembered a store advertising the Spanish equivalent of "Don't buy here - we sell very expensively!" It's still there. The Museo del Jamón - not a ham museum, but a bustling restaurant specializing in all the various ham cuts.

I also visited the telecommunications museum, simply because I found myself standing next to it - it's got a great collection of old phones, information on the history of electronics and telecommunications (I didn't understand how generators work here either), and, bizarrely, a temporary exhibit on South American photography. And I gaped at the splendor of the new Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Almudena - more than a century in the making, it hadn't quite been finished the last time I was in Madrid.

Eze met me at Spain's most popular meeting point, the bear statue at the Puerta del Sol, and we drove back to his home in the suburb of Las Rozas. They've still got the same schnauzer, Shorty, who's now 13, and they've added a cat, Blau. And sitting around in the kitchen is one of the big ham legs, which they chisel pieces off day by day. Eze's mother made a wonderful Spanish tortilla, sort of like a sweet crustless quiche, and that, plus cheese and, of course, the ham, constituted dinner on the 30th.

The New Year's Eve dinner was a real treat. A few more guests arrived: Eze's girlfriend, Tatiana, who lives in Colombia but flew in for a few days; Celia, a good friend of Rosa; and Celia's cocker spaniel, Wolf. Celia, a voluptuous woman in her fifties, with a pendant and chain hanging down into her cleavage, was quite a character: She made playful, innocent passes at me throughout the night; she criticized the ham for not being well-cured; she asked if I had any rich uncles who might be interested in a relationship; she told me not to drink alcohol, because it would destroy my neurons and make me impotent - and then chain-smoked throughout the evening.

We started with a whole assortment of hors d'oeuvres - cheeses, olives, pates, the indispensable ham, and several kinds of cold seafood, such as clams, mussels, and large prawns. Then we moved on to the highlight of the meal, cochinillo (roast suckling pig), doused in brandy. Conspicuously absent was a vegetable, not that we wanted for food. The meal was a raucous affair, with loud conversation, mobile phones beeping every now and then, and Shorty and Wolf noisily begging for food.

At midnight, we engaged in the Spanish custom of consuming grapes to celebrate the new year: We each took 12 grapes (you can actually buy grapes in cans of 12 for this very purpose) and popped one in our mouths each time the bell of the Puerta del Sol clock struck. Then all the men and women, mouths full of grapes, exchanged kisses.

Then we dispersed. Rosa and Celia went out dancing; Susana to a party at her boyfriend's, where she won €40 playing cards - and shortly after 2:00 Eze, Tatiana, and I went to his friend's house, where the party was just beginning. (New Year's Eve or not, Madrileños would never think of starting a party until well after midnight.) It was a calmly festive affair, made more interesting a couple of hours later, when someone organized a current-events game: We were given 12 events that occurred during 2003 and had to write which event occurred in which month. Considering many of the events were uniquely Spanish news, and the fact that my Spanish isn't quite up to par when it comes to talk of politics and popular culture, and the fact that I'd had a few by that point, I wasn't too dissatisfied with my score of three, which in fact tied several others'.

At 6:00 Tatiana and I celebrated our own new year, since New York and Bogotá are both six hours behind Spanish time - and shortly thereafter we left. I went to sleep at around 7:00 - Rosa and Celia came in two hours later.

New Year's Day was a calm affair; we all woke up in the mid-afternoon, either of our own accord or because of the barking of the dogs - they hadn't been out in a while. Eze cooked pork chops in the fireplace and we sat around, watched Dirty Dancing and the Spanish version of Big Brother, and played cards.

Eze took me into the city for my midnight bus to Barcelona. Though the bus station was near the center of Madrid, we zipped there quickly on a series of highways - sort of like driving in Los Angeles, but without so much traffic. In fact I remembered on this reunion with Madrid how easy it is to get around. The subway is extremely easy to use; above ground are signs leading you to main attractions; on the highways electronic message boards tell you the expected driving time to the next main towns - useful when traffic is heavy. On my first visit, in 1992, all this - coupled with my having been thinking in Spanish for several weeks - had led me to utter one of my more meaningless sentences, "The signs here are very well marked."

I'm nearing the end of my second and final day in Barcelona, a city with much to offer - so I'll go indulge in the offerings and tell you about Barcelona next time.

Go on to entry 3