Spain, Morocco and Portugal

Trip Start Jan 08, 2010
Trip End Jun 21, 2010

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Flag of Portugal  , Estremadura,
Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Before leaving South America we booked a tour of southern Spain, Morocco and Portugal through Brendan Tours (which actually ended up being Trafalgar Tours). The tour started in Madrid. Luckily we got to Madrid a few days beforehand as this gave us a chance to explore the city. It is a charming city with magestic buildings, fantastic gardens and an extensive metro system. Madrid has some superb art museums. We visited the Reina Sofia and saw many works of art by Picasso (including the Guernica) and Dali. We are looking forward to returning to Madrid later in our trip. Madrid was a bit on the chilly side, but after sweat-laden South America it was refreshing to be clean and crisp in Europe. Extra bonus to be able to drink the water!

This tour was different in many ways. There was one tour guide for 45 people. It was a very big group. The tour was extremely structured, therefore you spent a lot of time with the tour group. There was an inordinate amount of travel by bus, all during daylight hours???? Unfortunately there was only limited down time in cities. There was probably more time spent travelling than actually enjoying the destinations. There were city tours, mainly in the bus, with photo opportunities every so often. Otherwise you simply had to take photos out of the bus window. When the group did disembark the bus it was either for the oldies to run to the toilet – no kidding, or for us to walk (very slowly) as a group around the town with our local guide. Both were arduous tasks that took forever. Many in the group had difficulty walking and traversing stairs so the pace was a painful slow grind at times, unless of course I was busting for the toilets and the oldies were sprinting and blocking me from passing...wish they moved that fast during the city walks! Anyway, we were delivered many in depth blow by blow descriptions of the history of our destinations, from our tour guide and various local guides. At times these were almost force-fed to us. I have never heard anyone talk so much. However, it was a good tonic for putting us to sleep on the long bus rides (provided you hid behind your sunnies).

Amongst the group we met some very interesting people, mostly Australians, Kiwis and Americans. There was even a High Court Judge from South Africa.

On tour in Madrid we visited the Valley of the Fallen which is a cathedral built into a mountain. They say that the engineering is a bit skewif and it will never stand the test of time, especially considering the seismic activity of the region. Franco is buried in the cathedral. The guide told us that it was the biggest cathedral in the world, but Rome won't let this be known because St Peters needs to be larger. One thing we have learnt is that every cathedral or mosque claims to be the largest, or the second largest the end who cares, “it is just another bloody cathedral!” “ABC” for short. We then visited this monestry and the King's summer palace. This is where all the kings of Spain are buried. If you were lucky enough to be a queen of spain, and you gave birth to a king, then you were buried there also.

We made our way south through Toledo which was the old religious capital of Spain. Historically the King, whilst being quite religious, wanted the church out of Madrid so as not to interfere with his administration of the country. Toledo is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a quaint old town with cathedrals and winding narrow streets. There is still evidence of the Moorish occupation of the area, particularly the presence of the mosque.

Our next stop was Granada. From here we visited the Moorish Alhambra Palace. This place was very beautiful with all the tiling, stucco and arched doors and windows. The palace, which looked special enough from the outside, was esquisite on the inside. Apparently the muslims believe that striking external facades are not required as “beauty is on the inside”, hence the buildings are decorated to excess on the interior. The walls are decorated with tiles of mainly blue, green and yellow and then white stucco made from ground marble and egg white??? The tiles are arranged in geometric shapes that more often than not featured stars. The stucco features further geometric shapes and the phrase “Allah is great” in arabic script. There are no lifelike images represented as this is forbidden throughout the religion, hence the many geometirc patterns. From this palace Queen Isabella supposedly sanctioned Christoher Colombus' journey to find a quick route to India. Fortunately for Spain he totally stuffed his calculations and found the Americas instead!

We spent a night in Costa del Sol, which is situated on the Mediterranean. It was nice to get the change in temperature. However, this place was a bit too “Surfers Paradise” for my liking. A concrete jungle in fact. We did take an afternoon to drive along the coast to a little town full of white washed buildings. In reality this was Hahndorf all over again. The most interesting thing was the Easter Holy Week procession. All of the town's young men carry enormously heavy floats of the Virgin Mary or Jesus for hours on end...but get this...they do this whilst they are dressed like the Ku Klux Klan. Nah... I do not quite understand why they are dressed in hoods with eye holes cut out, but I am sure they not the KKK.

Next we passed the Rock of Gibraltar to ferry across the Mediterranean to Tangier in Morocco. The upmarket Tangier features palaces from nearly every arab kingdom. It was also the location for some of the scenes in the Bourne Ultimatum.

We drove in our big rainbow Trafalgar tour bus to Fez. Fez is a traditional town in the centre of Morocco. Our Trafalagar tour was santitised, but in hindsight that may have been a good thing in Fez. We took a guided tour through the Medina, which is the old town filled with shops and mosques, encased by city walls. The streets are very narrow and you need to constantly be on the look out for donkeys passing by, especially the ones packed with sheep skins on route to the tannery (which stunk to high heaven but was worth a look). There were cats everywhere. Their presence seemed almost encouraged by the locals as they threw fish offcuts and chickens head on the floor for them to fight over. Lots of bread was being cooked and it looked quite tasty, and then surprising not so after we witnessed the locals handling all the food then putting it back for someone else to buy. Worse still we saw a whole heap of bread come straight out of the oven and then onto the floor amongst the cats and donkey poo. You would often see a man with a basket of snails which apparently are purchased to create a piping hot snail soup – ick....... then there are many stalls with dried fruits and sweets, again with each sticky date being individually handled. We were taken to leather shops and carpet shops, where we were sacrificed to the local businessmen. These salesmen were intent on pushing carpet sales. Lucky for us we were able to fob them off re buying a carpet as we simply said we had no house to put it in. I am sure that they thought it was a lie! Some of the carpets were fantastic. However, they would need to be magic carpets for the prices they were asking.  What surprised me was that the older ones (that you probably couldn't bear to sit on) had been passed down through the generations and were the most expensive of the lot. Apparently the knots get tighter as the carpets get worn. To me they just look dirty and worn. Whilst Fez was the most interesting Medina it was clear that we were not welcome there. I am glad I was not travelling there alone, as the men were extremely rude. Some tried to walk straight through me and push me over. Others simply asked for sex and commented on my boobs. Some locals over heard, or saw this happening, and verbally sanctioned the offenders and apologised to me aftewards. Even from the bus it was common to see young men gesturing disgusting things and basically telling us to leave. I am pleased to say that as we travelled away from Fez, this behaviour subsided.

Our Fez experience concluded with us witnessing the worst belly dancing in history. Out of the three none could get it quite right. The first could shake it a bit, but her main attraction was her oversized bust which had been pushed up around her ears. The second was the best dancer but was as flat as a tack – all the boobs went to the first dancer. The third was a dominatrix, a larger and very scary, fake blonde woman who had bugger all sense of rhythm. A girl from our tour group got up to dance with her and totally showed her up in front of hundreds of people. Ha!!!

In Marrakesh we visited a local alternative medicine man. All the medicines were natural. We bought some creams and other crap. Rick bought some black eucalyptus stuff that looks like tea. You are meant to crush it and sniff it to avoid snoring, sinus complaints and migraines. Not sure it works, and am very scared about trying to take it through customs!

Marrakesh is famous for its main square where you find snake charmers and henna tattoosists a plenty. Rick had a snake plonked on his shoulders, unsuspectingly, as we walked past some charmers trying to secure our business. I haggled and got ripped off with a henna tatt on my right hand. We decided on brown henna, which looked more like orange for the first few days. Thankfully it is now wearing off and just looks like bits of spilt bbq sauce on my hand. But now I can say that I have been there, done that, and never necessarily need to do it again.

Casablanca was interesting probably only in so far as we saw the “second biggest mosque in the world” (hmmmmm everything is the “second biggest” something or other – it wears very thin after a while) and the movie Casablanca. Sad to say neither of us had seen it before, but we knew all the quotes (they now have a home)!

We then went to Seville which was another beautiful city. We went to the “second biggest” cathedral...hmmmm.....and visited Columbus' tomb. Apparently he didn't want to the buried there, but rather somewhere else nearby. But hey, that cathedral is closer than Haiti or Cuba, where his remains were transferred to for various lengths of time in the past. We tried the Iberian ham, a local delicacy. This ham comes from black pigs that are acorn-fed. The meat is meant to taste much better than swill-fed pigs and fetches a huge price.

Once in Portugal we made our way to Lisbon. We love Lisbon, even if an earthquake in 1755 demolished most of the city. The streets are all cobbled in the same stone as in Rio (all stone being exported from Portugal). You can clearly see that Rio was framed in the style of Lisbon, however it is a much grungier immitation. We took a drive up to Sintra which is where the summer palace is located. This is in the hills of Lisbon and has views out to the Atlantic. We then drove back to Lisbon along the Atlantic coast which is simply stunning. Great place from a holiday home, if you could afford it that is.

Our first night on our own in Lisbon was spent in what appeared to be a fair priced, clean and nice hostel. Bit of a drop from the Marriott which the Trafalgar tour concluded in. Our hostel showed its true colours at night when the 10 or so Polish folk staying on our floor drank, laughed, screamed, banged doors and sang frickin opera until 2am. At that time enough people had complained, some from other floors also, in order for the manager to call the police and threaten to kick the Poles out. All in all we had a terrible nights sleep due to the paper thin walls. Guess that's why it was 20 Euros a night! Soon we are about to head back to Madrid for three nights on route to Istanbul, and some sleep!

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Jo Shaw on

Excellent report - and about damn time too

Rosie & Grant Foster on

Hi Guys great to talk to you last night, it sounds like you are having a great time, you both look well and happy. Dont like the sound of snail soup
Love Mum xx

Mary Goddard on

Great pix. Thanks for the detailed commentary about our travels. Many of the places we visited were a blur on the, I'll know where we went and what we saw.
Enjoyed meeting you both. Have a great time on the remainder of your trip.

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