Monday, April 18, 2011

April 7th – At Home in Cadiz

After my lecture on Malaga, Tracy decided we were moving to Malaga. Then, after my lecture on Cadiz she decided we were moving there instead.
So, this was a trip to find out if we could really see ourselves living in Cadiz (if we ever settle down).
On the plus side, Cadiz is on the sea and has some beautiful beaches. It has some lovely old architecture (from an 18th century boom when all the gold from the Americas was unloaded here) and a fun-loving atmosphere. Plus, it has some excellent tapas bars and great seafood.

From a real estate point of view, the only negative is that the old city centre is crammed onto a small peninsula, which puts good property at a bit of a premium, and it's a bit run-down in places.
So, before heading into Cadiz, we decided to pay a quick trip to the town of Chiclana about a 30 minute bus ride from Cadiz, to see if there was more room there and whether it would be a nice place to settle down. Chiclana definitely seemed a nice enough place, but we both concluded that it's a bit too "small town" in atmosphere for us. So, we briefly explored its busy streets, stopped for a coffee, and got the bus back to Cadiz.

Back in Cadiz for lunch gave us the difficult (but pleasant) task of choosing where to have lunch – should we have an alfresco seafood lunch, or head to one of its atmospheric tapas bars? We headed for a recommended bar which we couldn't actually find, but instead happened across another great tapas bar where we could see ourselves whiling away many an evening. Each tapa was delicious, huge, and cheap.

To walk all this off, we went for a stroll around the sea walls that surround the city on three sides, past the beach and through the tropical gardens – on a warm spring day with clear skies and gentle breezes blowing off the Atlantic, there can't be many better places to be. You could definitely feel at home in Cadiz.

Friday, April 15, 2011

April 5th and 6th – Culture Vultures in Malaga

An incredibly windy morning on our way to Tangier (80 mph winds!) meant that we couldn't get into Tangier's port, so instead, we sailed into the relatively calm waters of the Mediterranean to get into Malaga at 5pm, a day ahead of schedule. This gave us a chance to go into Malaga for a drink after dinner – Malaga on a windy Tuesday night is quite quiet, but it was lovely to have an evening out without having to check our watches all the time in case we didn't get back before the ship sailed (although the fact that we had to abruptly change from Moroccan time to Spanish time at 5pm managed to keep me confused for a couple of days!).

We used to live just up the coast from Malaga, so we've seen pretty much all the sights many times (any visitor to our flat was taken to the Alcazaba and the Picasso Museum); but we had read on the internet that a new art gallery has just opened up in the city a month before, so we headed to the brand new Carmen Thyssen Museum, founded by the widow of Baron Thyssen whose collection is in the excellent Thyssen Museum in Madrid.

Malaga's new cultural attraction, housed in a beautifully converted old mansion, features a collection of mainly Spanish work worth a cool €700m; and although we hadn't heard of many of the artists before, there was some good stuff in there. It's interesting to see the efforts that Malaga is making towards turning itself into a cultural destination, and to distance itself from the unsophisticated "sun and fun" reputation of the Costa del Sol.

So, having satisfied our cultural needs, it was time to turn to a more basic need that we'd spent days looking forward to – food. Andalucia's wonderful tapas bars are probably the reason that we're so attracted to this part of the world, so we were positively salivating at the prospect of indulging our passion for tapas. We weren't disappointed, and filled our faces with fried fish and delicious tapas.

Once we had achieved our main two objectives – art and tapas – it was time for a bit of a general wander, so we headed for Malaga's city beach. When they think of the beaches of the Costa del Sol, people tend to forget that Malaga itself has a long sandy beach the other side of the port, and although it was looking pretty churned up by the big waves, it's not a bad one. We had a bracing walk along the promenade and settled in at a pleasant beachside bar, wondering if we should move back here when/if we settle eventually.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

April 4th – Medieval Mayhem in Marrakesh

From Morocco's most modern and westernised city, we had a long 3 hour drive to one of its most exotic and timeless cities – Marrakesh. Again, the countryside was surprisingly green, and in fact, the weather was bordering on cold.
On getting to Marrakesh and before immersing ourselves in its chaotic street life, we went to the more relaxing environment of the beautiful Majorelle Gardens (once home to Yves Saint Laurent), full of exotic plantlife and odd-shaped cactuses.

Next, we went to the beautiful 19th century Dar el Bahia Palace, richly decorated with intricate plasterwork, inlaid wooden ceilings and colourful wall tiles, like a mini-Alhambra. From here, we went on to a lovely local restaurant for a fabulous lunch, entertained by a couple of talented musicians, who were able to coax even the most reluctant passengers to join in (fortunately, a simulated "bad knee" precluded me from joining in the fun – what a pity).

Even though this feast was making us a little tired, a perfect antidote to sleep was provided by a walk around the sensory overload that is the Medina, with its colourful souks thronged with people. As we explored the narrow lanes, we passed so many stalls overflowing with produce that it looked like we were entering Ali Baba's caves, while the constant entreaties to buy meant you didn't know where to look. This was just a warm up though, because we were then given an hour's free time to explore the famously manic Djmâa el Fna Square.

The whole place is a constant cacophony of wailing snake-charmers playing away on their piercing pipes, hawkers trying to get you to buy their food, story tellers shouting out their tales to the enthralled crowds, and hustlers trying to get you to pose with their monkey. When you looked at the unsophisticated entertainment on offer, it doesn't seem like it can have changed much since the Middle Ages.

This vibrant place is great for photographers, and My God the hawkers and hustlers know it. They seem to have spotters positioned around the square ready to pounce on anyone taking a photo of anything – they then rush over to you to demand a dollar because you may or may not have photographed their mate with a monkey on his arm. If you take the easy option and relent and give them the dollar they've asked for, they then raise the price to ten dollars.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

April 2nd – Agadir and Taroudannt

So, from the ordered First World environment of the Canaries, it was just a short trip over to the chaos of Morocco. Actually, Agadir isn't that chaotic – it's a fairly cosmopolitan and modern beach resort that has a generally relaxed holiday atmosphere. The reason that the city has such a modern appearance is that it was almost totally destroyed in a terrible earthquake in 1960 which left 18,000 dead; and so the city has had to be totally re-built, with an accent on functionality rather than beauty, so it's not the most beautiful of urban environments.
We decided to leave this fairly "un-Moroccan" environment behind, and take the one-hour trip to the medieval town of Taroundannt across the fertile Souss Valley. We passed through some more untypically Moroccan countryside – totally
green and full of wild flowers because of the spring rains – stopping briefly to photograph some carefully staged goats perching recariously at the top of some argan trees.

Once we arrived at Taroudannt, it was easy to see why the city has been dubbed the "Mini Marrakesh" – it's totally surrounded by imposing city walls and it retains its unspoilt medieval atmosphere. We explored the warren of busy streets on foot, and immediately came in touch with the reality of streetlife in Morocco. Various "guides" attached themselves to our group, in spite of the fact that we had a proper tour guide leading the party and a local escort – as they
ushered us officiously through the souk, it was difficult to know what their game was, but it soon became apparent that once they'd got a dialogue of any sort going, they were going to try to direct us to a particular shop or stall.
Once we were given free time, I tried to explain to my new personal entourage that there was absolutely nothing that I wanted to buy; but this was just taken as a bargaining position, so I continued to be followed around by my new-found friends. When they finally realised that I really wasn't in the market for a jelibayah, some Moroccan slippers, a Manchester United shirt or an Aladdin's lamp, this was treated as the ultimate insult. "Why not?", they implored as if
I'd refused pull them out of a burning fire. "Because I don't want to buy anything". "Why not?", was the constant reply – it just didn't compute that I really wasn't on a shopping mission here for their Moroccan tat.
Anyway, this is all a part of the tourist experience in Morocco, so we had a nice time soaking up the atmosphere and avoiding the gaze of anyone selling anything  – and half a day was just about enough time to see everything without getting fed up of it.
After lunch back on the ship, we caught the Shuttle Bus into Agadir, and did a walk along its busy beachfront promenade. It's certainly a beautiful beach, five miles of golden sands; and on a Saturday afternoon, it's packed with locals and holidaymakers. As you watch all the people sunbathing, playing football, or jumping in the waves, you could easily take it for the Costa del Sol or Algarve – although when you looked closer, you could see that virtually all the locals on the beach were male, and the few girls out there were very covered up (apart from the female tourists, who stood out a little in their skimpy bikinis, which certainly guaranteed them their fair share of stares from the local boys).

Saturday, April 9, 2011

April 1st – Lanzarote in a Day

Today was a fast-paced attempt to sample all of Lanzarote's sights in just one day. This kind of tick-box tourism isn't one that I tend to go for, but seeing as we had hired a car for the day, I was determined to get our money's worth! As soon as the ship was cleared, we charged down the gangplank to the hire car office on the dockside and ran to the car to zoom off on our whistle-stop tour of this spectacular island.

Although Lanzarote was the first of the Canaries to be discovered and settled back in the 14th century, there's not a lot of human history to discover here. Instead it's for its amazing natural sights that the island's most famous – Lanzarote has some of the most breathtaking volcanic scenery anywhere in the world; it's a largely charred and distorted landscape of barren lava fields, looming volcanic cones and jagged mountains.

From Arrecife, we sped off first to the island's original capital, the sleepy town of Teguise which at 8.30am on a foggy morning was like a Wild West ghost town. After a quick walk around Teguise's empty historic streets, we headed to the bleak volcanic badlands of the north of the island. This part of the island was devastated by a huge eruption about 5,000 years ago, so the terrain is just beginning to recover in parts, so we came across the odd vineyard or cactus plantation in amongst the moonscapes.

With all these unwelcoming landscapes, Lanzarote would probably be a little-visited island if it weren't for the efforts of one man – Cesar Manrique – who almost single-handedly turned Lanzarote into a tourist destination, with the addition of an amazing array of tourist attractions and artistic installations. From the 1960s, Manrique dedicated himself to creating unique attractions for the island, and to ensuring that Lanzarote is a low-rise environment that's in harmony with nature.

Probably his most impressive addition to the island is the Taro de Tariche, a wonderful 60s house built right into the volcanic landscape – the downstairs rooms have been created from five natural bubbles within the lava field. Tracy goes around the world saying, "I could live there" – well, today she found the actual house that she wants to live in; although, even if it were available, I think it might be just a little out of our league. The whole place is a wonderfully pared down and minimalist view on modern living, all white spaces and large windows; and it's then filled with some of his strikingly simple modern art.

After this combination of ideal home and museum, it was time to see some more of the amazing landscapes that Lanzarote's famous for. So we headed to the other-worldly environment of the west of the island which was covered in molten lava in a huge eruption in 1730. While incredibly spectacular, the whole place looks like possibly the most inhospitable environment I've ever been in – huge fields of black jagged lava stretching for miles, without a hint of green, that make you feel like you've entered another planet entirely.

It was now time to head back home, so we did a quick tour of Arrecife, before we got back to the ship with just minutes to spare before she set sail. A wonderful island that's the opposite of the sun and fun destination that people tend to imagine when they think of the Canaries; and I think we managed to use every single available minute to enjoy it. Another great day.

Friday, April 8, 2011

March 31st – Volcanoes and Pyramids in Tenerife

Today I took a tour which went up into the unspoilt landscapes of Tenerife's mountains, and we explored the beautiful Experanza Forest. As we climbed the hairpin bends of the mountain road, we got into a dense forest of Canarian pines. These delicate-looking trees are actually incredibly hardy – they are perfectly adapted to live in the low-rainfall environment of the mountains, their fine needles taking the moisture out of the clouds that frequently engulf the mountains.

We climbed above the cloud level, and stopped for a spectacular panoramic viewpoint; looking over the clouds to Gran Canaria in the distance, and with the snow-capped Mount Teide looming above us. Most of the passengers were genuinely taken aback at how fantastically beautiful it all was – this is a side of the Canaries that people don't tend to associate with the islands.

After this, we came back down the mountains, passing slopes filled with blooming wild flowers, and went to Guimar to visit its mysterious "pyramids". Whether these are actually pyramids, what their purpose was, who built them, and when they were built, is all up for considerable debate. The University of La Laguna has decided that the stone structures are some form of agricultural structure built by Canarian farmers in the 19th century; however, Thor Heyerdahl and the people behind the museum certainly feel that they are almost certainly pyramids built for sun worship well over a thousand years ago by the Guanches, the indigenous people of the island who were wiped out by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century.

Heyerdahl was fairly convinced that the people on Tenerife must have had some form of contact with the pyramid builders of Mexico, Peru or Egypt – his expeditions on the Ra craft that he built in the 1980s were an attempt to prove that sea transport using the technology and materials available at the time, would have made these links possible.

It was a really interesting museum, but there was no hard evidence to back up his claims, which were more just a question of raising possibilities than providing any actual proof, and I was left with the impression that they were probably some crude kind of step structure, probably built by the Guanches whose purpose we'll never really know.

Anyway, after all this conjecture, one thing was sure – Tracy needed to have her birthday lunch, and it'd better be good! So, after returning to the ship, we went into Santa Cruz to a tried and tested local restaurant serving huge portions of Canarian specialities. It was excellent, and the abortive attempts at lunch of the past couple of days were finally forgotten about (until our next argument!).

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

March 30th – Las Palmas

It feels so nice to be back in Europe – no haggling for everything you want to buy, no worrying about your security when you're sitting around, and you don't feel the need to instinctively disbelieve every word anyone says to you! Obviously, the Canary Islands aren't geographically in Europe as they sit in the Atlantic about 100 miles off the coast of Morocco, but they couldn't feel any more European in atmosphere.

We had a good day exploring Gran Canaria's cosmopolitan capital, Las Palmas – the largest city in the Canaries. This is a city with quite a few different characteristics - as the city spreads down the coast, it feels like you're entering different towns - the Santa Carolina area near the port, is like a fairly typical busy Spanish provincial town; the long sandy Las Canteras beach has the relaxed atmosphere of a beach resort; the Ciudad Jardin district is an upper class residential district neighbourhood; Triana is a busy shopping and restaurant area; and then, La Vegueta is a really well-preserved colonial town.

To try to see everything in one day, we caught the bus down to La Vegueta and walked back from there. La Vegueta was founded in the 15th century by the early Spanish colonists, and its architecture has a really South American feel to it. We visited the huge Cathedral that dominates the skyline, and then visited the Casa Colon – a grand house that Columbus supposedly stopped off at on his way over to discovering America in 1492.

We then began our long walk back to the port, passing through the contrasting districts of the town. As it was a little early to have lunch, we stupidly rejected the opportunity to eat in the busy bars and cafes of Triana, and by the time we were truly hungry, we appeared to have entered a food-free zone – so, again Tracy's birthday lunch was less than ideal.

As we exhaustedly made our way up the city and ended up on the lovely beach promenade, it became obvious where we should have headed for food – it was lined with restaurants selling delicious-smelling fried seafood. Next time!