Coming Home

We knew there were plenty of reasons to love Spain, and we found some to take home with us.

  • Mint tea
  • After dinner walk (paseo)
  • Sangria
  • Espresso (who needs the milk?)
  • Siesta
  • Paella

Our 16 days, by the numbers:

  • 5 countries: Iceland, Spain, Morocco, Gibraltar, and Portugal
  • 3 beaches
  • 9 forms of transportation: train, bus, plane, ferry, car, segway, taxi, bicycle, subway
  • 110 miles walked, averaging 7 per day with a high of 13
  • 14 books read
  • 27 hours of travel to get home, 3 flights in 3 different airlines in 4 counties (gotta love the free frequent flyer trips)

The trip back was brutal, starting with the 3:30 am alarm. We flew at 6 am to Frankfurt, then to Calgary, and finally to Denver. We get home at 10 pm, which is 6 am in Madrid, giving us 27 hours of travel. That memory all will soon be replaced with our favorite ones:

– Barcelona soccer parade
– Simple conversations in Spanish
– Lunch and tea (and surviving) Tangiers
– Reading great books
– The beach
– Biking along Barcelona beaches
– Spanish people
– Arcos de la Frontera
– Gibraltar v Germany game
– Madrid
– Red phone booths in gibraltar, so basically all of Gibraltar
– Going to different countries, e.g Portugal, Morocco, Gibraltar, Iceland
– Gelato
– Segway tour of Madrid
– Shops
– Beach
– Gelato
– Segway tour of Madrid

Day 16: Madrid Flea Market and Museum

Its Father’s Day! I was allowed to squeeze in a museum trip on our last day because of it, with the holiday postponed to next week. Too bad the Reina Sofia Museum had most of the exhibits closed today! I thought it was perfect timing because its free on Sundays, and it has the famous Guernica by Picasso that we could not see. We were so incredibly tired today, after a lot of walking on vacation and this morning in the flea market, that we hardly saw much. Later, I found some of it online (part of Google’s Cultural Institute) that on a day when we’re so tired, this looks like a cool way to see a lot more.

Our day started with the massive flea market on each Sunday, El Ratro. Supposedly the largest in Europe with over 3,500 vendors, we were warned that the city began charging vendors a few years ago, which has priced out a lot of the smaller sellers. But we went anyhow and navigated the wall to wall people. We found some good gifts. Melina made a point to wear her Messi jersey all day in Madrid.

The rest of the day was the museum, a brief stop at the hotel for a nap, and more shopping for last minute gifts. We were in a stupor today in the 100 degree heat, and just ready to be home. My meals show how we stumbled from place to place around the city and ate and drank wherever we could:
  • Breakfast was espresso and granola and Costa Coffee
  • Lunch was pizza at an Italian Cafe
  • In the afternoon I had 2 smoothies at Burger King, another espresso at Starbucks, and gelato a 3rd espresso
  • Dinner was good, a stir fry at Lemongrass where I had my first clara, beer mixed with Fanta lemon which made a Stella more than drinkable

We rode the Metro to dinner, a nice break from walking, and it was very clean, just like the city, compared to where we were in Barcelona. And they promote books on the subway, similar to how London posts artwork on their’s. They’ve come a long way from displaying a picture on each tree sign to guide the illiterate. At dinner, we noticed a lot of women who looked like prostitutes on the street, a very busy area with families eating and a lot of shopping. They just stood by trees or lamposts and waited. We saw one talk to a few men, and eventually walk away with one. During 45 minutes of eating, we could see it all, and that led to an interesting conversation with the kids about morality, laws, sex trafficking and women’s safety. “Disgusting” is all Maile could say. I looked up information about this and people have blogged that the Madrid police the other way and consider it a way of living. Most of them are apparently from Bulgaria and Romania, where people can easily travel from now that they’ve been added to the EU. 

Day 15: Segway Tour of Madrid

All the travel times clicked today. We started with an 8 am drive to Sevilla that took the expected 90 minutes, returned our rental car and boarded our train 15 minutes before it left. The bullet train took us to Madrid in 2 1/2 hours, over 330 miles, averaging over 130 miles per hour. We did the 2 hour walk to our hotel, checked in, and walked a mile to our segway tour. We ate on our way and got there just in time. For the last few days of the trip, being so tired, something like this segway tour that requires no thinking or effort was perfect, even if super touristy.

Turned out we chose the best tour guide of the 12 companies in Madrid, Mad Segs. Anthony made it really fun, and even includes a beer stop on the tour. While others are doing 1-2 hour tours, he takes as long as you want, with our 3 hour doing ending 4 1/2 hour later. We saw some sights and stopped at each, like the cathedral and Royal Palace. We had two others on the tour, from England, and it was nice to see their country taken to task for not embracing the European Union. The USA was even held up as an example of unity across all the states, instead of allowing such major differences in laws in each country, as they do in Europe. Its a challenging building that when the EU was formed after all the countries had been established.

At the statue of Don Quixote, our American ignorance was exposed when none of us could identify home. Not the Brits either. Anthony ‘ claim was that Cervantes is more accessible to readers, and just as important, as Shakespeare, who lived at the same time. Both are too much for me.

We got a lot of sun on the tour, not realizing 5-7 pm is the hottest part of the day. I looked up a quick vegetarian restaurant and found a tiny one nearby. The food was great, but in typical veg-only food restaurants, it was really tiny and we were the only ones over 30 without tattoos. I really need to start a vegetarian travel guide book. 

Day 14: Nada, Parte Cuatro

Vegetarians miss so much of the food culture. Add to that my aversion to so many foods and I miss out on even more. I’ve thought about eating meat while traveling, but after 15 years, I don’t think I could do it. As a result, we ended up eating a lot of the same foods because of it, such as pasta, pizza, and rice.
Instead of eating meat, I’ve been thinking that a vegetarian guide would be great to write, as another career. And not a book about the vegetarian only restaurants, but a city by city look at neighborhoods where more food options are available, and specific items on menus that are vegetarian-friendly. In Denver, places like Noodles and Red Robin, where nearly everything can be ordered without meat.
The one food we noticed today that we’re missing out on is snails. The Spanish discovered them before the French,  and they’re popular in the south in June, which is when they are “in season,” whatever that means. We see signs outside restaurants, “Hay Caracoles,” meaning they have snails. Today we saw for the first time two people at lunch, each with a glassful of snails like this one, drinking the broth and picking out the bodies to eat. Maile almost threw up.
Its served as a tapa in a broth, and eating with a spoon or toothpicks. The heads and antennae are still attached. I’m not sure if snails are fair game for my diet, but I couldn’t eat them either way. Other foods we’ve missed out on:
  • Gazpacho
  • Iberian ham
  • Bull tail
  • Octopus (though I did eat some on my backpacking excursion here 20 years ago!)

Our trip is winding down, along with our energy. Today we attempted a geo-cache hike, only to find none of them. I was thinking would be a blog entry about how fun geo-caching can make hiking and learning another language, but we gave up early while walking around in the 95 degree heat. Other than that, we went out for ice cream and stayed close to the pool at home. We’ve escaped the hot summer Andalucia weather up until today, just in time to head to Madrid tomorrow.

Day 13: Flamenco

We drove 45 minutes to Jerez de la Frontera for lunch and a flamenco show. All these towns have “de la frontera” in them from hundreds of years ago when the Spanish were pushing out the Moors. Each town they conquered, beginning in the 9th century, was named “de la frontera” (border), and kept naming each city that away as the battles continued further south. This was the the reconquista in which the Christians recaptured the Portugal and Spain from the Muslims.

I love the wine and sangria year, but not the beer. Our town, Arcos de la Frontera, is covered with Cruzcampo signs in each bar, like Coors back home. I tried one and it tastes like Coors. But here in Jerez, we found a cervezeria that makes their own. Great stuff, like the local Destraperlo. Everywhere we go, people are drinking at all hours of the day, and not just the tourists. Even dads pushing their kids in strollers to the bar

The one hour flamenco show was fun, a rare matinee, which seemed to attract more tourists. This was a small place, La Taberna Flamenco, in between the shows on big stages and the small, hidden ones. Its such high energy its hard not to like it. And somewhere here in Andalucia is where it got it start, either in Jerez or Sevilla.
The rest of the day was the beach. We went to Cadiz, about the closest beach to our house. Its known 
for windy conditions, and that was the only problem there. Its an island with a long stretch of beach on the Atlantic. The kids walked much of it looking at their feet due to all the topless sun bathers at this one.
Other than me nearly entering the freeway in the wrong direction on the way there (with a bunch of cars about to follow my lead!), it was a good day. One more before Madrid.

My news fast has been interrupted a few times this trip. The DPS school board seems ready to approve an enrollment zone in my neighborhood, making charter schools now the ONLY choice for some families. It was never supposed to be this way. But now, kids may be forced into charters. But worse is the shooting in South Carolina. On this side of the Atlantic, it makes even less sense to people here. As Obama said, “This Type Of Mass Violence Does Not Happen In Other Advanced Countries.” Of course we could benefit from health care and the metric system too, but its hard to make sense of the number of shootings compared to other advanced countries. Maybe I should be more scared returning home than walking the streets of Tangiers.


Day 11: Four Border Crossings in a Day

What a day, from the high stress navigation of the Medina, with “guides” beckoning for business every step of the way, to a great dinner in an English speaking country. We had great food in both countries:  lentils, vegetable tagine, and mint tea in Morocco and pizza, pasta and Crabbies ginger beer in Gibraltar. We logged a trip record 14 miles of walking today, much of it at a frantic pace through a developing country I was not fully prepared to take kids around in.

It all started with the 2 hour drive to Tahira, the southern tip of Spain where ferries leave to Morocco every 2 hours. We were just in time for the 11 am ride, and made it through immigration just in time as the last cars were loaded onto the ferry.

Its 25 miles from one country to the other, and the ferry travels at 30-40 mph, making it a 45 minute ride. The decision we made before this was to go without a guide, despite an expected onslaught of proposals after landing. Guides are free, but get commission in the stores that take you to, and shopping was of little interest to us. Their famous rugs can’t be brought back on the plane anyhow. Going with a formal tour is another option, but that involves photos with the snake charmer, a camel ride, and big, sterile restaurants. We saw those groups of older people walking through town,  mostly Americans and Europeans. I had the sense that this might be similar to Tijuana now, not the libertarian place where writers like William Burroughs once hid away to write and get high. However, much has been written lately about the Moroccan president who is cleaning this area up and making it safer. If Rick Steves says it can be done without a guide, that’s good enough for me.

I had a carefully planned, and seemingly simple, route to a Moroccan restaurant for lunch, a visit to the Kasbah museum, tea overlooking the Atlantic, and then a walk back to the ferry. But our first steps in Africa were met with more guides that I expected. They came at us one after another, super friendly and English speaking. Our plan was to go to the Medina without a taxi cab, since cabs required negotiating the price in advance to avoid getting ripped off, and the languages here are Arabic, French, and (sometimes) Spanish. We were up against several challenges:  language, culture, no wi-fi, vegetarians, and currency (we had no Moroccan Dirhams). I faced guides like this walking the Intremuro in the Philippines, but in an English speaking country, and by myself, it was not that stressful. But here, they talked to all of us, saw the confusing looks from all of us, and it was hard to stay together in firmly responding “No thanks” to each one. And I did have to pull out my directions a few times, which led to some pointing us toward the Medina. They would then follow us that way, causing me to try to go another way, and getting us lost. Its hard to get too lost, as all streets go uphill from the port, but the alleys are so narrow and twist and turn, too narrow for GPS to work most of the time. And many of the streets are unnamed. Maile thought it was fanny pack (yes, I’ll admit to having one to keep my camera hidden) that called us out as tourists and caused so many to follow us and ask us to be a guide. But I’m afraid its the whites and Asians that stand out here. The only others we saw were in groups with a guide, following in single file through the streets with stickers on their shirts. I was proud of being more adventurous than them, but wondered if it was a big mistake given how stressful I was feeling being responsible for all four us today. I’d be much more relaxed if I were one of the backpackers on the ferry, traveling in a group of other adults. Those truly adventurous probably took buses and trains to places like Casablance and Cairo.

After a half hour of uphill walking in the sun, we were sufficiently away from the coasts to be away from most guides. We weren’t getting bothered as much anymore, but that’s where the developing nature of the country set in. People lived in the tiniest, most run down places, but went about their daily lives barely looking at us as we passed by. Men stood in doorways talking on cell phones, women in headscarves pushed strollers, boys played soccer in the street. I didn’t feel unsafe, but the Arabic writing and speaking everywhere triggered anxiety that I’ve never experienced before, perhaps due to the negative images of the language in our media. I couldn’t sensitively take any photos of the poverty we saw, just the busy street scenes.

After lots of twists and turns, we made it to what we thought was the restaurant, but turned out to be a hotel with a similar name. The hostess spoke no English or Spanish, but had a staff member direct us to a nearby restaurant. More stress, as now we would be expected to pay him and had no money with us, and we would take us to some unknown restaurant that would have to politely decline. We wondered if it would even be open since the time change was two hours to Morocca–its farther west plus no daylight savings. However, I was beyond relief when it was the restaurant I had wanted, Rif Kerabdani, and the waiter spoke perfect English. It was a massive reprieve from the busy streets of people following us, a small place with just five tables, and I wanted to stay there all day. And the local Moroccan food was great—vegetable tangine, lentils, and mint tea. I was never so relieved to see the Trip Advisor sticker on the window, a website I look at but always question too. This time, this top 10 restaurant rating in Tangiers was spot on. They accepted my Euros and had free wi-fi.

Next stop:  the Kasbah, a museum a the top of the Medina, the old Tangiers neighborhood. I was feeling much better now, and the tea was so good. Morocco is the 4th African country in quality of life index, behind South Africa, Algeria and Tunisia. Maybe there’s nothing to worry about. We fought off more guides on the way to the top, only to find it is closed on Tuesdays. We settled for a quick photo outside and left the walled city toward our afternoon tea spot. I wasn’t sure what was even in the museum, but look up later it is focused on the history of the area from prehistoric times to the 19th century. They have Pre-Roman tools, some 16th-century jewelry, a wall map of trade routes past and present, and the Sultan’s Garden. No one was too disappointed. We kept moving.

Next stop: Cafe Hafa, with views of the Mediterranean and Atlantic. The Beatles and Rolling Stones have even been there. This route took us through some parks and more neighborhoods, with even fewer solicitors. More excellent tea, and great views. We put up our feet for an hour before heading back to the port to catch the 3 pm ferry back to Spain. On the way, we bought some bread from a frail old man on the street. Many people don’t have ovens or even room in their tiny homes, so they rent space for tasks like baking bread. We walked by many tiny spaces with an oven in it with a person making break.

With the 2 hour time difference, we wouldn’t arrive in Spain until 6 pm, cutting our trek to Gibralatar short. We had a 45 minute drive to Gibraltar, but the cable car to the top had just closed for the day, which meant no views from the top or walking down through all the monkeys. We went straight for dinner, but found out most places were closed by 8 pm, including the stores, a clear distinction between their culture and neighboring Spain.

Its such a tiny country of only 30,000, and as a member of the United Kingdom since a treaty in 1713, it is English-speaking and uses pounds for currency. I’m not sure why they hold on to this territory so tightly. This is the last known place of Neanderthals, with fossils dating back to 25,000 BCE, and maybe their genes drove the 98% voting to keep this in the UK in the 2002 referendum. The tiny strip of land has an airport that fits so tightly into their land that we had to wait for the planes to land before we could walk across the runway!  


We did have a great meal and walked around the tiny town square before heading home, a 90 minute drive across southern Spain. We left at 8 am and returned at midnight. I’m glad we did the trek to Morocco, but once is probably enough for a family. In the end, I did get duped once, on our walk back to the ferry. They’re so good, with lanyards and photo badges even, to appear official. I thought the two men standing in some kind of uniform worked for immigration or the ferry service, but were instead there to help people fill out their immigration forms, the ones that I had already completed in advance. They looked at our passports and forms, informed me that our passport number had to be written again on the top of the form to ensure accuracy, so they did that on each form. And then they pointed us to the “fast lane” to get on the boat, even though there was only one route. I thanked them and then they chased after us, asking us for some money to help them. It was only then that I realized what had happened, and I gave them a few Euros before we ran up the stairs into the actual immigration. I wouldn’t mind paying for actual help I need, like the guides, but there are so many scams and secret tactics that its hard to know who to trust.


Other scenes from today included this Tangier building probably not paying royalties to Disney. A school, perhaps?

The ferry was super comfortable, enough to sleep or draw some geometric shapes as seen throughout Tangiers.

I did not know at the time, but this sign that caught my attention is French for shower.