From Europe's Med to Africa's Atlantic: October 1 2010
Gibraltar is not a big place...just 2.25 square miles. However, it has a long history...recorded history goes back to 711 AD...and its first population is believed to have lived in caves 40,000 years before that. The spot has been of strategic importance as the gateway to the Med for everyone...the Greeks, Berbers, Spanish, Moors and finally the British...governance confirmed in treaties of 1713, 1727 and 1787...and by a free vote by the population in 1969. For us it was a chance to do a few remaining boat projects and make a final excursion into Spain...this time to the Andalucia region. Boat projects included changing of the antifreeze x2, changing of the oil x2, cleaning the full enclosure windows, replacement of two port engine mounts (that was a doozey...completed at 7.30pm), haircuts x2, medicine chest re-stock, laundry, change out of port water-lift muffler...eek. Kevin of Marine Maintenance has been invaluable in getting parts shipped in and giving us local shop ideas for some of our more random items...and he is located literally 100 steps from the boat just past the Ship Pub (www.mmgib.com, +350 200 78954). Familiar boats kept arriving and sundowners rotated from boat to boat. New arrivals included s/v Samsara (last seen in Barcelona), s/v Leilia (last seen in Egypt) and s/v Interlude who dinghied over from the anchorage at La Linea (last seen in Maldives). Strolls through the cobbled alleys and into the Botanical Gardens helped in breaking up the boat work into bite sized pieces.
Boat projects were buttoned up so we hit the road in a rental car across the border in La Linea, Spain (www.nizacars.es, tel. 956 675047). We drove through the Andalucia region where Chris could finally start using his Spanish (Catalonia is a lovely place but Catalan is not Spanish). First stop was the pick-up of bullfight tickets at a Spanish department store in the coastal town of Algeciras (Sept 18). Erin was again the designated driver and was now driving what resembled a delivery van...oh well, no problem about buying souvenirs. Tickets in hand and we were on our way. We headed north into the hills and visited Ronda...home of the modern bullfight. Dynastic families of bullfighting such as the Romero Family have made Ronda famous...enticing visitors such as Orson Wells and Ernest Hemingway. We, too, were caught in Ronda's spell as we walked INSIDE the sandstone bullring (built in 1785), through the museum (www.rmcr.org) and along the town's cliff rimmed edge which drops more than 400 feet into a gorge. Bullfighting has its origins in chivalry and military service which ooze gilded harnesses, ornately inlaid weapons and crisp uniforms. Over time, the mechanics of bullfighting have evolved from man fighting a bull with a lance atop a horse to standing in the ring eye-to-eye with the bull. The "costumes" also evolved from leather (drab in appearance but good protection from the horns) to brightly colored and heavily decorated costumes made of the richest fabrics and golden thread. Bullfighters were actually granted special permission to use such finery...generally reserved (and permitted) only for the royalty and the clergy.
From Ronda we continued west to Arcos de la Frontera. The mountain roads were in great condition bordered by vast expanses of open land. Towns of Andalucia which include the word "Frontera" were once the frontier border between Spain and the Moors. We stayed the night in a government run Parador...often a renovated historic building (www.parador.es). The Parador de Arcos de la Frontera was once the Casa del Corregidor. Views of the Arcos were amazing and winding through the tiny streets for cocktails and dinner was like going on a treasure hunt. White washed walls, cobbled streets and square bell towers enchanted us. We lingered over a courtyard cocktail as neighborhood kids played a game of soccer in front of an ornate church...oops...the ball just bounced off the Virgin Mary. Is she considered out of bounds?!
Watching the sun come up to slowly evaporate the fog from the valley of Arcos was a great way to start the day (Sept 19). No rush was needed since our next schedule was a bullfight in Marbella at 6.30pm. We carefully retraced our steps through the narrow arches and tight curves back to the major highway (side view mirrors collapsed in, if you please). We dropped the car and our bags at Hotel Linda Marbella and headed out for a late lunch (www.hotel-lindamarbella, tel.952 85 71 71). We sampled fabulous tapas at a sidewalk cantina; paella, beef in curried red sauce, beef in sweet tomato sauce, white beans in a rich sauce...awesome. Marbella is a bit of old and new. The old town is dripping with bougainvillea, bordered by artistic iron fences and balconies and loaded with walking streets. The new is concrete apartment buildings and several lane boulevards. We wiled away the rest of the afternoon before heading to the bullring.
Wow! The crowd was thin but the show was dramatic. It was a first bullfight for both of us. The musicians tuned up and played "the standard bullfight song." The bullfighters entered in all their finery with slow and majestic steps. Equipment was stored and the event began with the bull charging at full speed...and those horns are terrifying. Several fighters sashayed and parlayed their capes enticing the bull here and there and back again...dodging behind narrow wooden barricades if the bull came too close too fast. As the bull began to tire sticks with decoration were held one in each hand and stuck dramatically into the bull's back in a single move from hands held outstretched straight to the sky...a tricky move if the bull has a bit more vigor than anticipated. With more time exhaustion continues and a single bullfighter emerges while the others fade into the sidelines. This single bullfighter finishes off the bull alone. The dance like moves and sheer courage at facing down the bull is quite impressive...and hair raising. Yikes, the bull does ultimately lose but he often puts up a fierce fight...even retiring one bullfighter in five during our evening. It was an amazing spectacle that left us feeling emotionally drained as we left the bullring...similar to leaving a suspense-filled thriller movie. We gathered our strength at a sidewalk bar in old Marbella before heading back to our hotel.
Our Spanish adventures completed for now, we headed back to Ocean Village Marina on Monday...dropped off the car in Spain and walked across the border (and the runway) to Gibraltar (Sept 20). A bit of final cleaning and unpacking and we were ready for Parker's arrival.
Parker arrived September 21 by way of a bus ride from Malaga due to an inconveniently timed patch of fog at the time of his "landing." No worries, his late afternoon arrival meant we went straight off to the pub where we settled into burgers, fries and onion rings. Yum! The next morning we struck out for a tour of the rock after a full English breakfast (Sept 22). We took a taxi tour with Luigi and made all the necessary stops; St Michael's Cave (natural grotto used as a hospital in WWII and auditorium today), Barbery Apes (actually tail-less monkeys), Great Siege Tunnels (of 1779-83) and the WW II Tunnels (built a fortress inside the rock). The views were wonderful and we even got to watch a plane land on the runway (sorry Parker). Erin and Chris looked a bit silly in shorts and hiking boots but we were running out of time to re-acquaint our feet with boots before our hike in the Atlas mountains of Morocco.
There are said to be LOADS of fish in the Gibraltar Strait...from catchable ones all the way up to whales. Chris madly strung the fishing rod as we departed Ocean Village Marina (Sept 23). Out went the line and out we went for the Atlantic. Holy cow...we were about to re-enter the ATLANTIC! Our passage through the strait was uneventful...a mellow motor sail, sail alone (7 knots) then the engine alone as the wind slowly died completely. We had a hot dinner of Chicken Divan casserole (thanks for the recipe Winston) before starting our night shift routine...and the fishing line was pulled in without so much as a nibble...bummer! With Parker along we switched up our night watch schedule so that each of us did one four hour shift. Parker took the first shift but seemed to have drawn the short straw with many fishing boats to dodge and rain clouds interfering with the radar but all in all it was a smooth night. By 7am it was a flat calm motor with mainland Africa in sight (Sept 24). Chris whipped up a batch of pancakes and we eased into our arrival at Marina Bouregreg in Rabat, Morocco (www.bouregregmarina.com). The marina entrance is up a river which starts with a bar...hhhmmm...watch the wave state. The marina takes no chances and will not allow anyone in or out unless the waves are low (communication via VHF channel 10). We were lucky and were escorted in upon a 4 foot surf ride...good handling Captain Chris.
First stop was the customs dock where half a dozen officials and a sniffer dog named Borris checked papers, stamped passports and sniffed every corner of Barefeet. Borris was sweet but his claws left several souvenirs from Morocco...in our floorboards. Officialdom completed, courtesy flag raised and we were directed to a narrow slip down a narrow alley with finger piers barely half the length of Barefeet. It was extremely tight maneuvering (in 20 knots of wind, of course). Friends from s/v Bondi Tram and s/v Stardust came over to lend a hand and we made it. Phew, no need to contemplate an exit yet...aaaggghh...that's for another day. Dinner was a warm pasta welcome hosted by Sandra and Peter (s/v Bondi Tram) and Becky and Bob (s/v Stardust). We caught up on goings on and compared notes for future land travels.
But no time to let moss grow under our feet because we had a rendez-vous in Marrakech for a hike in the Atlas Mountains. We traveled by train 4.5 hours from Sale to Marrakech (first class tickets for $18.50 each...total 555 dirhams) (Sept 25). Cement box apartment buildings heavily laden with satellite dishes gave way to flat, cultivated farm land with baled hay and herds of goats and sheep. Further change resulted in rolling orange dirt hills dotted with green trees, cactus clumps lined up as fences and old single story mud brick homes where commuting by donkey was as common as by motor bike. The train ride was definitely not dull. We arrived after dark and were deposited by taxi at the edge of the Medina passageways too narrow for anything but modified wheelbarrows. It was an adventure as some passageways literally required us to turn sideway in order to pass. Our accommodations at Dar Tah Tah were finally found but the place was dark and completely shuddered (www.riadvillaelarsa.com). Fortunately, a European neighbor appeared who made contact via cell phone. Keys in hand we were admitted and quickly acquainted with the riad. Then quick as a flash our host was gone (back to his night job) and we had the run of the place. Phew, we were in Marrakech and quite confident that we would make our 9am pick-up the next morning for the Atlas Mountain hike.
Bags were deposited and we were free of encumbrances...off we went to Jemma-el-Fna Square. Holy cow! This is a city square that puts all others to shame. It is a 300 year old, massive open space (approx two football fields) filled with fortune tellers, snake charmers, musicians, storytellers, boxers...yes, two guys from the crowd laced up gloves and simply had at it...sellers of ostrich eggs, pyramids of spices and potions...and food stalls illuminated by floodlights. Smoke billowed up into the night sky, cooking smells filled the air...everything was exotic and new! We settled into a trestle table for a bit of tagine and grilled meat. The tagine was alright with chicken or lamb in the center surrounded by cous cous and vegetables...slow cooked in a tent like ceramic vessel. It was not bad...just a bit lacking in spices. That's okay, all of our other senses were working overtime. A bit more gawking at the stalls selling snail soup ladled shells and all into bowls or sheep's head...everything intact...gulp. We decided it was time to return to the riad for a quiet glass of wine. The litmus test that you have chosen the right riad in Marrakech is that they have beer and wine available in the mini-bar...priceless.
Our trek was organized through www.trekatlas.com via their UK office completely through email. We were shuttled from Marrakech to Imlil where we met organizer Ahmed (Sept 26). He sorted out our route, loaded up the mules and introduced us to our guide Ibrahim and our cook Akmed. Drat, Erin's hiking boot nearly lost its sole after breakfast so plastic twine was also found and wrapped to keep everything together. We would be in the north African stretch of the High Atlas mountains which extend 1500 miles through Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia...effectively separating the Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines. Our route crossed high passes and descended into deep valleys. The region is inhabited by the Berber people who live in small villages and cultivate the high plains. Terraces of corn and orchards of walnuts and apples are amply irrigated by streams coming down the mountain...bits of snow remained even at the time of our visit.
We hiked to our first night's accommodation at Gite d'Etape. The air was clear and the silence was overwhelming. Mint tea was a welcome ending to each section of hiking followed by a lunch of freshly chopped onions, cucumber, green pepper and tomato with fish, olives and tagine cooked white beans seasoned with pepper and onions. The welcoming patio at the Gite was shaded by umbrellas and bordered by brightly blooming flowers which made a lovely place for lunch. The three of us shared a room with three twin beds and a shared bathroom down the hall. The evening turned cooler but not uncomfortable. We slept soundly. The next morning it was clear that Erin's boots had reached the end of their useful life after 15 years. Flip flops were not a good second choice but two pairs of thick, wool socks and Chris' tennis shoes worked just fine...and looked stylish. Our second day was full of ascents and descents which definitely worked our soft bodies (Sept 27). But our reward was spectacular views of Berber villages nestled into mountain crevasses and endless hills jutting in every direction. In areas of cultivation we saw walnuts being harvested from trees with long sticks...literally whacking them from branches for manual collection into sacks seemingly larger than the people carrying them. Apples were also collected, crated and shipped out in trucks.
The second night's lodging was at a refuge below the peak of Toubkal...the highest mountain in North Africa at more than 13,000 feet. Everything was brought up by the mules. We slept on mats on the floor and kicked ourselves for poor planning...we forgot to bring a flashlight. Candles and lanterns were the only source of light and they were already spoken for in the kitchen. We were pretty bushed so a bit of Scotch and some conversation was all that was needed before we fell asleep. Erin was not having the best of luck and awoke with quite a throat cold...whispering was enough and we were off (Sept 28). The 360 degree panoramas continued to amaze us and we had yet to hear a single airplane. We passed through a couple of Berber villages where children tried out their French with us. Then it was back to crossing passes. Erin was resting pretty frequently and wheezing from her flu so she was thrilled to hitch a ride on a passing mule to the final pass...gave a chance to regain her stamina for the descent. This was our trickiest trail yet. It seemed practically invisible to us...but clear as a highway to Ibrahim. We were good and truly tuckered by the end and happily rested in the shade for our final lunch before shuttling back to Marrakesh.
We loved the natural beauty of the High Atlas but were definitely ready for a bit of luxury in Marrakech. We arrived at Dar El Souk and literally fell into the comfy sofas and lingered in the showers...not mentioning showers on the hike was not a case of editing but rather that we decided it was just not worth it (www.darelsouk.com, tel.002120524391568). Too much hassle for too little reward. Chris and Parker headed out for dinner while Erin stayed behind and indulged her flu in a bit of rest. Relaxing over a delicious breakfast of apples and bananas with cream; croissants; bread; butter and jam; fried Moroccan flat bread; freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee was heavenly (Sept 29). Manager Madeline filled us in on all that we needed to know including where to load Erin up with cold medicine. The pharmacy provided pink froth for her lungs, tiny pellets under the tongue for her nose and lozenges for her throat...all for a whopping $13.80.
We walked around the medina, spotted the storks nesting on the palace walls and enjoyed the rhythm of life so different than what we were used to. Horse drawn carriages passed in the streets and the clock tower styled mosques made their repeated calls to prayer. Palm trees lined wide avenues and tires were re-made into shoes, mugs and picture frames. We finished the day with dinner on the terrace of Le Tanjia Restaurant. We sampled a mixed plate of Moroccan salads...gorgeously presented in countless small bowls in the center of the table as well as slow cooked meats and barbeque kebabs...happily accompanied by wine. The street scene just below the terrace was a floor show unto itself with two and three wheeled scooters darting here and there, people promenading in groups and cars slowly bumbling though all of it. It was a fantastic finale to our Marrakech adventure.
The next day we took a 3.5 hour train from Marrakech to Casablanca (Sept 30). What a difference! Casablanca is all tall buildings and big city. We stayed in the heart of the city at Hotel Maamoura (www.hotelmaamoura.com, tel.2120522452967). We really just touched our toe into Casablanca but decided we had to have dinner at Rick's Cafe. Okay, Bogie and Bacall never left Hollywood but the spirit of the movie has been lovingly recreated and thrives in Casablanca. We felt glamorous and exotic as we nibbled on familiar and not so familiar dishes...sadly, the hamburger is only offered at lunch. We lingered over the meal and stretched out our last bit of time together in Morocco. October 1 Parker was on his way back to Boston and we were on our way back to Rabat. Next on our agenda is finding a good weather window in order to make the 3-4 day, 600 mile passage to the Canary Islands. Strong winds have been ramping up lately so it might be later rather than sooner.