Monday, April 29, 2013

The Two-Month Mark

Howdy there, readers!  I am working on this post from a luxurious flat in which we have the privilege of staying in the heart of the beautiful Basque Country:  Bilbao, Spain.  It belongs to a close friend of Harold's mother, an absolutely delightful individual named Monica.  Photos will follow; as we just arrived last night and I am feeling under the weather, I have not yet whipped out the camera.  As a side note, you will have to forgive me if the next few posts are a bit stream-of-consciousness.  I feel a strong urge to write, but it seems a piece of me remains in each place that we visit, as I simultaneously devote energy to planning upcoming destinations and enjoying our current location.

We have now successfully completed two months of international travel!   By successful, I mean that we are alive, generally healthy (except aches and pains and a rather severe cold), not penniless and still married after nine straight weeks together!  Harold and I both agree that we are getting into our backpacking groove, with eight countries, eight overnight trains/buses/ferries, and numerous last-minute lodging arrangements under our belts.  We have even finally managed to part with a few extraneous items after stating at each of our destinations: "I HAVE to lighten my load".  Despite having lived in several countries in our lives, we have covered relatively little territory as tourists.  Yes, budget backpacking is an art that, with practice, we have refined.

Reflecting on our travels so far, I am reminded of an inspiring statement by one of our new friends on our arrival in London on February 27: "I've learned that life carries you".  This has certainly been the case on our trip so far, as our nebulous plans somehow "gel" at the last minute, and each destination regales us with a new energy and unique sense of purpose that shapes the remainder of our journey.  On that note, here is a sampling of snaps of the past few weeks in Spain and Morocco:

An (obviously) awkward photo of me in my old Barcelona neighborhood.  I keep trying to get rid of the skirt I am wearing, but haven't been able to find a suitable replacement....  Revisiting Barcelona eight years later, the city retains a certain magnetism that reminds me why I stayed for nine months....  Nevertheless, I continue to be grateful for our current country of residence in the Great North.

These concrete seats have been placed on the Barceloneta beach promenade, and it looks like the locals have taken to them.

A dude on the street handed us a mobile phone promotional package, which contained this creepy bear mask. 

We went out for coffee with some old Barcelona friends of mine, and took in the view of the marina.

Scoping out the perpetually-in-construction Catedral de la Sagrada Familia, Barcelona architect Antoni Gaudi's most prominent work.  Maybe it will be finished within the next hundred years?  Someone told me the original plans had been lost, which explains some of the more modern-looking detail.

Whimsical fruit detail that has been added since the last time I gazed upon the structure in 2005.

Gaudi also designed Park Guell, a fantastical hilltop artscape that draws a ton of locals and tourists, particularly on sunny days.  There is no charge to enter=perfect for cheapskates!

One of the hundreds of such flags we observed in Barcelona, which, as my friend Lene informed me, represent the Catalan separatist movement, which has gathered some steam in recent years, amid the Spanish economic crisis.

On another Barcelona hilltop called Montjuic, there is a well-preserved medieval fortress from which one can take in more stunning views of the city and ocean.

This is the flag of Catalunya, the province that surrounds Barcelona.  The Catalan culture and language is still present in France and Italy, and has enjoyed a revival in Spain since the end of the repressive Francisco Franco dictatorship in the 1970s.

Barcelona has developed a reputation for petty crime as of late, and although we were fortunate not to have been victims, this car is one of eight (!!!) that we observed having been broken into on our way down from Montjuic.  

A plaza where I spent many a night out during my days as an English teacher in Barcelona circa 2005.

This was our first hotel in Marrakech.  Not having booked ahead before taking the overnight train from Tangiers, we simply arrived and hiked down to the famous Jamaa el Fna Square and asked around, settling on this basic, non-touristy hotel with a great view of the mosque.

We wandered around town and happened upon the 19th century Bahia Palace, which provided a nice respite from the heat and dust.

It was a pretty structure, although we couldn't help but wonder what it would look like furnished...

Ceiling tile work.

The courtyard.  Upon viewing this photo, I proceeded to get rid of these shorts at a donation bin in Madrid.  Simply horrifying!

The famous Jamaa el Fna Square, a world heritage site known for nighttime drum circles, dancing and food stalls.  In the daytime, it is a chaotic marketplace where many visitors enjoy bargaining for local crafts, clothing and beauty products.  I would not place us in that category.  There was quite a bit of pressure from vendors to purchase various items at astronomical prices (300 euro for a lunch????  100 euro for leather slippers??), which was rather exhausting.....

We enjoyed trying snails for the first time!  Surprisingly tasty!

One of the snail vendors, a rather pleasant chap.

Koutoubia Square.

One of many beautiful doors we observed while strolling Marrakesh.

Koutoubia Mosque, above and below.

Oasis-like gardens.

Looking for the Royal Palace.

Here it is!  However, visitors are not allowed inside.

Marrakesh possessed an abundance of cats.  Many of them were mangy due to the heat and probable dehydration, but these kitties look pretty healthy!

Oh, dear, I don't recall the name of this pretty square...

City walls of Marrakesh, the Red City.

Gorgeous desert sunset, while strolling toward the Menara Gardens in Marrakesh, which were closed when we arrived.  Oh, well, it was a nice walk!

A mosque in the Berber tribal district of Marrakesh.

This guy pulled a fast one on us, showing us around the Berber district and then abandoning us at a jewelry shop with a dude who tried to charge me 90 euro for a pair of earrings and a necklace charm, cursing us when we offered a lower price.  

Another lovely Moroccan doorway in Marrakesh.  

That's all for now!  Coming soon: another mishmash of Morocco and Spain photos and commentary.  We have stayed up way past our bedtime here in Bilbao, strolling the misty streets and conversing with our lovely hostess, and if I am to put this nagging cold behind me, I must hit the hay.... Peace out, readers :)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Snap o' the day

This is what three days of travel by train, bus and ferry following a last-minute decision to leave Marrakesh for Madrid looks like.  At McDonald's early last Monday morning with a new friend we met along the way, getting ready to book lodging after ordering a cuppa joe....
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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Notes from Barcelona

Much like my brain at the moment, this post is going to be a bit scattered.  Tomorrow morning, we will embark on a  24  to 36-hour boat ride from Barcelona to Tangiers, at which point we will continue to travel around Morocco for two to three weeks, aiming to experience cities, beaches, mountains and deserts before heading back to Europe and seeing as much as reasonably possible before catching our flight from Istanbul to Singapore on July 1.  Several folks have asked us: "why the ferry?  Aren't flights in Europe really cheap?"  At a particular point in time, depending on multiple travel factors, we have had to figure out the best mode of transportation.  Flights, buses, trains or ferries may all, at some point, be the best option, and indeed, we have utilized them all so far.  We have yet to rent a car, bicycle, motorcycle, etc, so there's that to look forward to as well.  Anyway, in this particular situation, purchasing simple but comfortable seats on the ferry is a fun, economical way to travel that takes us overnight (no need to book lodging!) from Barcelona's beautiful waterfront to that of Tangiers, from where we can walk to our hotel, thus saving on airport- to-city transportation.  In addition, the benefit of buses, trains and ferries is the lack of extra charges for baggage (aka our backpacks) that we have found on the budget airlines.  Also, for those incapable of booking ahead when traveling, such as ourselves, ferries often have plenty of space available :)

Those of you who know me may recall that I have been wanting to travel around Africa for over two decades.  So why is Morocco our only African destination on this trip?  Apart from being one of our top travel destinations of all time, this fascinating country is conveniently located a stone's throw from Spain and apparently feasible to navigate for independent travelers such as ourselves.  The other African destinations on our must-see list, such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Madagascar, didn't end up on the final itinerary due to expense, distance or unease related to political matters and will have to be postponed.  

Before switching continents tomorrow morning and heading to Morocco, we are reflecting on the last six weeks of travel and feeling incredibly fortunate to have been able to see and experience so much of Europe.  I can safely say we have "liked" or "loved" every single place we have visited, for one reason or another.  

(Insert six-hour break in which we went out to eat fruit salad with our Colombian hosts and are now chatting with a Cuban neighbor-oh, now multiple Cuban neighbors- and getting ready to drink some late-night Coca-Cola.  I am now too distracted by these fun folks to write more, so I will post some photos.)

Here is a sampling of photos from the past six weeks of traveling: 

The home of my sister's boyfriend's parents is so energy-efficient that they have negligible need for heating, in the German winter!  Pictured above is their unique, compact staircase that I admired.

We decided to go to Ulm, birthplace of Albert Einstein.  It was really pretty, but freezing cold and snowing- totally hard-core of us.

A bunch of people from different countries signed this cow at the University of Hohenheim, where my sister is working on her Master's in Agronomy.

Have you ever tried Ritter Sport chocolate?  It is one of our faves, and it is produced about a half an hour from where my sister lives in southwest Germany.  There is a super-cute museum at the factory, and a free-sample machine.

My sister's university has a palace in it!  

The university, founded by a Duke in the early 1800s (I believe) in response to a terrible famine in the area, also possesses a vineyard!  Above it is pictured in the cold, and below, in the sun :)

Harold's backpack towards the beginning of the trip.

This is in Tuebingen, Germany.  Sorry- I had to!

Funny door, in Tuebingen.

Schnitzel, with the most delicious black pepper I have ever tasted.

Kaffee and kuchen, a German afternoon ritual.  Best cake we've found anywhere.

Our new boat, in Split, Croatia.

Part of my "derelicte" photo shoot, in Split, Croatia.

There was a storm brewin' over Split.

Croatian cat.

This creepy ad was all over Croatia!

Euphoria in Split.

Croatian street art.

Farmhouse in Croatia.

Sunset in Split, Croatia.

Marjan Peninsula, Split, Croatia.

Happy dog in Split, Croatia.

Walkin' in Croatia.

On the ferry to Supetar Island, Croatia- one of the coolest place names ever.

Croatian flower.

Croatian moped.

Supetar Island.

Coca-cola, in Croatian.

Mia "enjoying" a cup of tea on the beautiful couch in our lodging in Split, Croatia.

This disturbing dolphin rug provided quite the source of conflict for my sister and me, who surprised each other with its' presence in our respective bedrooms on a rotating basis.

Our "Soviet block" lodging in Croatia.  There was a party in the parking lot every night.  

The elevator lighting- illuminating the grimy, spaghetti-smelling contraption.

Yay, we're in Italy!

Renovation of a Roman theater in Trieste, the friendliest place we visited in Italy.

Our first time in an Eastern Orthodox church.  Gorgeous!

Our hotel in Venice (the only hotel we have stayed in so far!), at which we were checked in with an ingenious (and inconvenient) Skype-based concierge service.

Closing my eyes in the sun, in Venice.

Shutters in Venice.

More of picturesque Venice.

Venice in the sun.

A graduating student being bombarded with rotten food and powder, a tradition in the Venice region, we are told.

Harold chats with a Canadian traveler at the Santa Maria Maggiore cathedral in Rome.

Lions, lions everywhere in Europe!  Santa Maria Maggiore cathedral, Rome.

It is now 2am.  I will bid y'all adieu, so as to make some sandwiches for the boat ride in a few hours....  More from Morocco in a few days!