TREASURES OF SPAIN, PORTUGAL, & MOROCCO

A journey BY ROAD from MADRID

JANUARY 6-22, 2012 

The reason why we haven't explored Europe so far is because it's too cold in December when we take our holidays. But Natasha is still living in London, so we decide to venture into the cooler European Winter climate for a five-week holiday. 

My instructions are very clear; to find the least cold place to visit, so Spain is my first (and only) choice.

My next step is to find a tour that will give us the best overall experience of Spanish history and culture. I find exactly what I'm looking for in a tour that only only covers most of Spain, but adds a snippet of Portugal, Gibraltar, and a side tour of Morocco in North Africa. The dates fit in with our holiday period and even enable us to explore the Mediterranean cities of Barcelona and Valencia independently prior to meeting up  with Natasha and starting the tour.

Spain's geographical location, between Africa and the rest of Europe, is instrumental in its complex and diverse history. It's been conquered by Roman and Muslim invaders before Christian kingdoms from the north gained control. It, in turn, became the conqueror after Columbus reached The New World and claimed it for Spain. Spain therefore elevated itself to being the strongest and largest empire in the world and retained control of the Americas for three centuries. A civil war in the early twentieth century forced it into the rule of an authoritarian government, which stagnated the country for forty years. A return to democracy in 1975 and its inclusion in the EED has provided a cultural renaissance and steady economic growth.

I visited the Costa Blanca region in 1977, just as it was emerging from the Franco Dictatorship, so I'm interested to see how it has changed over the past forty years.

TOUR: INSIGHT VACATIONS - TREASURES OF SPAIN, PORTUGAL, & MOROCCO

This tour is excellent from the first day. Tony, our guide is friendly and is well-able to care for the needs of the 40 passengers on the bus. There are a number of females travelling solo, all of whom blend in very well with the group. Passengers are predominantly Australian, with a number of Canadian, American, and New Zealanders.

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DAY ONE: MADRID

FRIDAY, JANUARY 6, 2012

Transfers leave Madrid airport for your hotel at 09:00, 11:30, 13:30 and 16:00.

Join your Travel Director at 18:00 for a delicious Welcome Dinner and the chance to get to know your fellow travellers.

After ten days exploring Barcelona and Valencia, we arrive in Madrid by train and settle into our hotel ahead of Natasha's arrival from London. We're looking forward to meeting our fellow travellers at the Welcome Dinner tonight.

DAY TWO: MADRID/SEGOVIA

SATURDAY, JANUARY 7, 2012

With your Local Expert, travel along the main historical areas of the capital of Spain, known as Madrid of the Bourbons. Your drive continues through the Old Quarter, to discover the origins of the city. After lunch, there is the option of visiting the nearby historic city of Segovia.

We are treated to a city tour of Madrid this morning. Although chilly, it's a beautiful winter's day as we ride around almost deserted streets. When we arrive at the Royal Palace, we are given a walking tour through the palace. Although the Royal Palace is the official residence of the royal family, they no longer live here. It is, however, used for tours and state ceremonies. We are unable to take photos inside the palace for security reasons.

I find the morning tour very informative and somewhat different to the hop-on-hop-off commentary we received when we first arrived in Madrid. Somehow, Tony, our tour leader is able to bring Madrid's remarkable history to life and as he was a child during the Franco Regime, he is able to thread many of his childhood memories into the narrative.

The morning passes very quickly and after a quick lunch, the passengers who have chosen to take the optional tour of the World Heritage city of Segovia meet him at the hotel for the afternoon's tour. I'm surprised to see that the whole group decides to take the optional tour.

The brilliant blue sky makes the day appear warmer than what it really is and the ninety-kilometre journey from Madrid provides a glimpse of the area surrounding Madrid. As we arrive in Segovia, the whole view is dominated by the huge Roman arched aqueduct, which had been constructed between 81 and 98 AD. Built to transport water into the city from Rio Frio fifteen kilometres away, I have to admire the engineering knowledge and ability of the people at that time. The aqueduct consists of about 25,000 granite blocks held together without any mortar, and spans 818 metres with more than 170 arches, the highest being 29 metres high. It is still in remarkably good condition and is a permanent testament to the empire-builders of the past. Segovia also boasts building the last Gothic cathedral in Spain, and this magnificent building is not only beautifully preserved, but is considered a masterpiece of Basque-Castilian architecture. Our third destination in this city is the Alcazar, the royal palace built before 1122. It is now a military archive and artillery museum. From one of the windows, I see the unusually-shaped Cathedral of Vera-Cruz below and marvel at the preservation of the old and ancient buildings that contribute to the many eras of Spain's history.

We are glad that there are no formal arrangements for this evening as we walk towards Plaza Mayor to a little restaurant we had found that serves typical Spanish dishes like red sausages and capsicum and bulls-tail stew.   

DAY THREE: MADRID-TOLEDO-AVILA-SALAMANCA

SUNDAY, JANUARY 8, 2012

Drive to Toledo, where we meet a local expert guide as we walk through the ancient cobbled streets. Visit the Cathedral and admire one of El Greco's masterpieces. Journey past the walls of Ávila en route to Salamanca, with its honey-coloured cathedral and 16th century university buildings.

The early morning departure from Madrid is exciting as we embark on our first day on the road with our fellow-travellers. The journey between Madrid and Salamanca is more than three hundred kilometres and it takes us the entire day to travel the distance.

The day is cool and due to the higher elevation, there is a mist that seems to hang around. The bus stops at a designated viewing point, where we enjoy a magnificent view of the old walled city of Toledo; the spire of the Cathedral dominates the skyline. Located on a mountaintop with a 150-degree view, it is surrounded on three sides by a bend in the Tagus River, and contains many historical sites, including the Alcázar, the cathedral, and central market place.

Once known as the City of three Cultures, the cultural influences of Christians, Muslims, and Jews are reflected in its history. Once part of the Roman Empire, a Roman circus, city walls, public baths, a municipal water supply and storage system were constructed in Roman Toledo and are still evident today. By the sixth century, Toledo had been settled by the Visigoths, a Germanic people who were part of the Roman Empire, and although they ruled Toledo for almost two centuries, they were weak and were easily invaded by Arab conquerors. Toledo has always been an important city through history to the present day, where much of it has been preserved.

Not surprisingly, Toledo shares a 'sisterhood' with the city of the same name in Ohio, USA, and a street is named in honour of that relationship. 

Our local guide points out many places of interest, in particular the architectural influences from ancient Roman and Islamic occupation of the city. Beautiful cobbled streets curve gently and open out to reveal very special buildings; surprises that pop up unexpectedly through the gaps. We come out of the shadows; the dank and dark labyrinth of narrow streets as the grey skies clear to a deep azure at the Toledo Cathedral. The 13th century High Gothic cathedral was intended to be built to cover all of the sacred space of the existing mosque, but the original building is still very much evident.

I'm surprised when we enter the Inglesia de Santo Tome, a mosque dating from the eleventh century, which was used as a Catholic Church, without any major changes. In fact, when the city had been overtaken, there was no destruction of existing buildings. By the fourteenth century, the church was almost totally rebuilt in its existing style; the minarets turned into bell towers. The Church of Santo Tome is famous for the 1584 painting by El Greco, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, which is located near the rear of the church. Apart from not being able to take photos of the painting, no special care is taken to preserve it. Apparently the dry atmosphere in this part of Spain provides perfect atmospheric conditions and no special processes need to be used to preserve the artifacts, including this magnificent painting, which looks as though it was painted yesterday. Having the opportunity to view this The Burial of the Count of Orgaz in the town where El Greco lived his last days is the absolute highlight of my day.

One thing I won't forget about Toledo is that the common exclamation of 'Holy Toledo!' originated from here due to the eighty churches located within the old city alone. Toledo is like a history book; it's streets reveal its complex layers of styles, many of which are preserved and still in use today. It's a wonderful place and three hours is not enough to explore its streets.

The day that started grey and dull has turned into a magnificent clear day; the skies a dark blue and from the bus window, I can feel a warmth that doesn't really exist from the sun outside our metal cocoon. I'm glued to the window of the bus as we drive through crumbling villages, rocky outcrops and green hills. 

The turreted medieval walls of Avila loom large outside the bus, which again stops at a place, where we are provided the best views of the city, which is entirely contained within the strong walls. You don't need much of an imagination to visualise warriors dressed in armour descending upon a city; its drawbridge closed and arrows are flying through the air toward to the marauders. Maybe there is a pot of boiling oil poised on the ramparts ready to be released when the invaders get close. Yes, this city has a story that we won't have time to explore. But seeing it from a distance provides another element to a country with so much to offer the tourist.

By mid-afternoon the sun disappears and the sky turns grey and cold once more. We arrive in the university town of Salamanca and take a late walking-tour through the UNESCO World Heritage-listed old city. Formal teaching began here in 1130, and from this time Salamanca has been known as one of the most prestigious academic centres in Europe. We are shown the main features of the college, which gained the title of University in 1254. Christopher Columbus lectured here on his discoveries whilst Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, the conquistador and explorer led an expedition from Mexico to present-day Kansas in the Americas was born here in 1510. As we walk along the narrow streets, the spire of the Cathedral disappears behind a wall of heavy fog, as the day darkens into the evening. Cold and damp, we arrive at our hotel. It's been a long day, but we've seen and enjoyed so very much during today's journey.

DAY FOUR: SALAMANCA-FATIMA-LISBON

MONDAY, JANUARY 9, 2012

Cross the Portuguese frontier and skirt the Estrela Mountains en route to Fátima. Join the pilgrims flocking into the great basilica commemorating the miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary to three young shepherds in 1917. Your travels continue to Lisbon.

Salamanca is just eighty kilometres from the Portuguese border, so we have a later start today, which is nice. Salamanca is still cold and foggy when we board the bus this morning.

As we drive through eucalypt forests that remind me of Australia, the fog lifts, exposing a brilliant blue sky. I'm looking forward to our next stop.

In 1917, whilst tending sheep in the fields near the village of Fatima, Portugal, the Blessed Virgin appeared to three young children, siblings Francisco and Jacinta Marto and their cousin Lucia dos Santos. She had special instructions for them to carry out, and she promised that a miracle would occur on October 13 of that year.  This is known as the Miracle of the Sun. Francisco and Jacinta died in 1918 of the Spanish flu whilst Lucia lived a long life, dying at the age of 97 in 2005. Lucia dedicated her life to the church and is currently in the process of being canonised for sainthood.

We arrive in Fatima, and specifically at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima, where the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary is the central building. Upon entering, we light candles for our loved ones before entering the Chapel of the Apparition to attend Mass, which had just started. This chapel is located at the very centre of the sanctuary, and the exact location of the Marian apparitions is marked by a marble pillar and a statue of the Virgin Mary. The basilica is a pilgrimage site and whilst we walk across the wide open courtyard to the church, some approach on a separate path on their knees. Their devotion is amazing.

The basilica is very modern when compared to others we've visited so far. Its vast interior is lofty and light, providing space for the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims that arrive here every day, but in particular on May and October 13 each year. The stained glass windows depict events of the Marian apparitions, and the fifteen altars are dedicated to the fifteen mysteries of the rosary. The tombs of the three children are now interred at the basilica and fresh flowers are offered to them each day.

It's a beautiful place, very sacred. We have enough time to buy some souvenir rosary beads; some made from compressed rose petals, whilst others are made from the timber of the local olive trees. Today's bright sunshine and azure skies provide a wonderful contrast with the white buildings within the sanctuary, and since its not a busy time of the year, we enjoy a leisurely morning wandering around this iconic Catholic pilgrimage site.

Our journey through the agricultural region of Portugal is beautiful; olive groves, vineyards, cork plantations, and orange orchards are in abundance. We arrive in Lisbon in mid-afternoon, providing us some time to wander around the area where our hotel is located. Unfortunately it's not in the centre of the city, but it is close to some amenities and an El Corte Ingles department store is immediately opposite. 

As the air cools and the sun is ready to set, we are collected and given a short city tour; many of the main buildings are pointed out and a short history is provided. The tour ends in the city centre, where we are directed towards the Elavador de Santa Justa, the forty-five metre passenger transport lift that is used to carry people up and down the steep hills of the city. Once part of the public transport system, it is now primarily a tourist attraction and the viewing platform at the top provides a scenic view of Lisbon. Our evening is rounded off with a visit to one of the many wonderful restaurants in central Lisbon. A plate of paella and a glass of wine is a perfect end to a wonderful day.

DAY FIVE: LISBON/CASCAIS/SINTRA

TUESDAY, JANUARY 10, 2012

Exploring with a Local Expert takes you along the avenues of the Lower Town to the Terreiro do Paço with a visit to the Belém Quarter. Enjoy a taste of the famous Pastéis de Belém from a traditional patisserie that has managed to hold on to the secret recipe of Portugal's finest pastry for almost 200 years. View the modern Monument to the Discoveries and the more ancient Belém Tower, a fortress that was originally set in the middle of the river but with receding waters, now sits on the riverbank. Visit the 500-year-old Jerónimos Monastery with its Manueline architecture, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After lunch, drive through the fishing village of Cascais before exploring the wealthy municipality of Sintra.  

Our local guide meets us at the hotel and arranges a group photo of us all outside the bullring arena opposite our hotel. Retracing the route we took last night, we pass the main sites of Lisbon; this time in broad daylight. We also pass the Terriero de Paco; the gateway to Lisbon. A huge square, once the location of the Ribiera Palace before it was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake, it was rebuilt in a U formation; open towards the Tagus River.

Our walking tour starts at the waterfront at the Belem Tower, a 16th century fortification that had served as the ceremonial gateway to Lisbon, and which had been used as a point of departure and arrival for Portuguese explorers. It is typical of the distinctive Manueline , or Portuguese Late Gothic architecture. The Belem Tower and the Jeronimos Monastery, which we also visit, are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Pradrao dos Descobrimentos, the Monument to the Discoveries, is located on the Tagus River, where ships depart to explore and trade with India and the Orient. It celebrates the Portuguese Age of Discovery during the 15th and 16th centuries. Inaugurated on August 9, 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator, the monument celebrates the great people of the era; monarchs, explorers, cartographers, artists, scientists, and missionaries. The design represents the prow of a ship with Henry the Navigator on its edge. On either side of Henry are sixteen figures (thirty-three in total) designed to show movement towards the front of the ship in the direction of the sea. This is a magnificent tribute to one of the most celebrated sea-faring nations of the era.

Looking down at the footpaths, I admire the wavy pattern beneath my feet. Portuguese pavement is an ancient paving craft that may have originated in Mesopotamia. It can be found in all parts of Portugal and in most former Portuguese colonies; the most iconic ones being in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Black and white alternating tiles produce a pattern that looks dark-grey from a distance and with the white 'waves' laid between, it is reminiscent of the sea beyond. Later in the day, in Sintra, we see some really lovely Portuguese pavement styles, and for me, these footpaths will define Portugal for me. 

Across the road is the Jeronimos Monastery, which is another fine example of Manueline architecture. You'll have to excuse me for not paying attention to the local guide as she recounts the history of the monastery and its importance here in the city. Suddenly, from somewhere, a parade of horses and their riders appear. The hooves clop in unison as the formal parade unfolds in front of us. I'd like to know where they've come from and where they're going.....

Construction started on the monastery on January 6, 1501 and was completed one hundred years later. It was funded with money raised by the 5% tax on imported goods from Africa and the Orient, which amounted to seventy kilograms of gold per year. With endless money on hand, the architects designed a richly ornate series of buildings with complex sculptural themes. They incorporated maritime elements and objects discovered during naval expeditions, all carved in limestone. As magnificent as the monastery is, we only have enough time to explore the interior of the Church of Santa Maria. As with all Catholic churches of this era, it faces east and the main door faces the setting sun. With a sea-faring theme, this church is the final resting place of explorer, Vasco de Gama. There are many ship and sea themes repeated throughout the church; rope-sculpted arches and images of seaweed. This is a unique and magnificent church, and although we would love to stay longer, we have to continue on our way. 

Briefly stopping at the fishing village of Cascais, we are able to explore the foreshore. There are many fine buildings here, including the Royal Palace and the Casa Henrique Sommer, which is a beautiful neoclassical-style building in bad disrepair. The tour guide says that it will be restored soon. I hope so. This is still a working fishing-village and I love to see the boats on the jetty along with the crab or lobster pots. We peek at the coastline; more rocks than sand. There are, however, a few hardy surfers out in the water.

Back on the bus, we now gain altitude as we drive up to the village of Sintra, which is known for its textiles. In particular, the village is famous for its intricate laces and table linens. It's probably more famous for its historic palaces and estates, and sitting on top of its hill, it provides a wonderful view. Narrow, winding, Portuguese-paved paths and stairs provide access to the little stores and homes built on the sides of the steep hills. We don't need our coats this afternoon as the brisk walk up the steps and sharp inclines warm us up when we move out of the sun. We spend a wonderful couple of hours exploring the streets. Just before meeting the bus, I find a store that sells handbags made from cork. Thin slivers of cork are tanned and processed like leather, providing a sturdy, waterproof accessory that I'd never seen before. 

We've seen a lot today. We've also had the opportunity to stretch our legs and get some exercise as we walk through these beautiful streets.

Tonight, we are treated to a cultural dinner, which includes entertainment by a singer of fado, the traditional form of folk music characterised by mournful tunes and lyrics. The subject of the songs includes stories of the sea or the life of the poor. One doesn't have to understand the words to feel the melancholy, which defines the genre. Despite the sad themes, the performers provide a wonderful evening of song, guitar and mandolin accompaniment and folk dancing. This evening rounds out a near perfect day and it's small touches like the inclusion of traditional foods and music in the itinerary that provide an opportunity to glimpse a tiny part of the cultural background of Portugal. 

Our time here in Lisbon is done and we drive back to Spain tomorrow. 

DAY SIX: LISBON-SEVILLE

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 11, 2012

Journey to Seville to join your Local Expert for a tour of the immense Seville Cathedral, burial place of Christopher Columbus. See the slender Giralda Tower, the former minaret of the Great Mosque and now the cathedral's bell tower. Continue your exploration through the labyrinthine narrow streets and squares of the Santa Cruz Quarter, emerging beside the great walls of the Alcazar

We say goodbye to Lisbon and take the 400 kilometre journey that will lead us to Seville, Spain. It takes almost three hours of driving through Portugal's rural areas before finally reaching the Spanish border. I am fascinated by the lofty nests of the white storks; their large stick nests are built on the top of power poles. Pairs of storks share the space. My attempts at getting a clear shot through the window of the bus keeps me occupied for a long time. 

Our day is bathed in sunshine again; we've been so very lucky with the weather so far. Arriving in Seville in the mid-afternoon, a local guide meets our bus and we begin to stretch our legs as we walk through the cobbled streets of the city. The orange trees that line the streets are laden with fruit, but our guide says they are too sour to eat and the fruit is collected and made into the famous Seville orange marmalade. 

Seville, like much of modern-day Spain, was once part of the Roman Empire, and many architectural relics from the Roman occupation are still evident today.

We begin our tour at the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See, the world's largest Gothic church, which was built in the early 16th century. The cathedral had been built on the site of a grand mosque, completed in 1198. During the reconquest, the mosque was converted into a cathedral; spaces converted to suit Christian worship practices. Earthquakes damaged the cathedral prior to a decision to build the new one we are standing in today. The Giralda bell tower, was once the minaret of the original mosque. The cathedral and the Giralda Tower are both UNESCO World Heritage sites. The tomb of Christopher Columbus is located here in this cathedral.

We walk through narrow laneways of Santa Cruz to a small square; the geometric design, complete with drainage channels are reminiscent of the Islamic garden designs we have seen in various places. Inset into each of the squares, an orange tree is planted, the green and orange foliage and fruit provide a contrast to the grey pavers.

Ahead, we can see the arches and geometric designs of Islamic architecture as we walk through a 'keyhole'-shaped archway. This is the Alcazar, the royal palace. Keeping the Mudejar architecture, it also features Gothic, Renaissance, and Romanesque design features.  We have some free time to wander through the Santa Cruz maze of streets. It's very pretty and as usual, we would like to have more time to explore and to poke around in the tiny shops.

In contrast to last night's melancholic fado, we are treated to a vibrant flamenco performance. The traditional food, music, and dance are a perfect end to a fairly long day. 

DAY SEVEN: SEVILLE/CORDOBA

THURSDAY, JANUARY 12, 2012

Enjoy a relaxed start and a day to unwind, shop or continue exploring this fascinating city at your own pace. Our suggestion is to join an Optional Experience to the ancient city of Córdoba, where you will visit the magnificent Mezquita, see the old Jewish Quarter, and enjoy some free time to shop or explore as you wish. 

I cannot see anyone from our group missing this morning, so it's safe to presume that we are all taking the optional tour to the city of Cordoba, which is 140 kilometres from Seville. 

The local guides we've had during this tour have been excellent resources, and today's is no exception.

Settled by the Romans, Cordoba was taken over by the Visigoths, followed by the Muslim conquests in the eighth century and later becoming an imperial city under the Caliphate of Córdoba. It served as a capital city under a number of Muslim emirates and caliphates, transforming into a leading centre of learning and education. During the height of it's success, magnificent buildings had been erected, many of which still stand today.

From 784- 786 AD, the Mezquita, or Great Mosque, of Córdoba was built in the Umayyad style of architecture with variations inspired by indigenous Roman and Christian Visigothic structures. Later the mosque was extended with more domed bays, arches, intricate mosaics and a minaret, making it one of the four wonders of the medieval Islamic world. After the Christian reconquest, a cathedral was built in the heart of the mosque; much of the original structure remaining. The cream and red-striped arches, made of stone and red-brick sit on top of the 856 columns made of jasper, onyx, marble, granite and porphyry, materials from the Roman temple that once stood on this site. Because the columns were quite short, the double-arches provided stability and strength to heighten the ceilings. The darkened hypostyle hall is huge; our footsteps echo on the stone floor, as we walk toward the centre of the building.

In 1236, Cordoba was conquered by King Ferdinand III of Castile and the centre of the mosque was converted into a Catholic Church, which was later extended to a Renaissance cathedral in the 16th century. We walk towards a light in the centre of the mosque. I am unprepared for the sight inside. Resembling any European Renaissance cathedral, it's easy to quickly forget that this huge space was once a place of worship of another kind. Here, ninety double-arched columns had been removed to house the cathedral; a white intricately-plastered dome above the altar provides the windows that allow natural light to filter into the centre of the church, as does the ornate ceilings of the nave. Along the sides, the arched spaces had been remodelled to become side chapels. Everything about this church is magnificent. Although there seems to be something a little bit 'wrong' with placing a Catholic Cathedral in the centre of a mosque, there is no doubt the preservation of the original building is not only unique, but historically important. 

The reconquest of Spain led to a period of cruel deportation or death to all those not of the Catholic faith. The inquisition from 1428 led by Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile extended for three centuries and is perhaps that darkest and most barbaric period in Spain's history.

It's perhaps a little oppressive inside the mosque-cathedral and I'm happy to step out of the door and into the street outside. In May each year, the Patio Festival is celebrated in Cordoba. Many houses of the historic centre open their private patios to the public and compete in a contest. The festival celebrates the art of elaborately decorated courtyards with hundreds of plants and flowers. Wall-mounted pots are still filled with flowering geraniums now and I can only imagine how beautiful these quaint streets look during the festival.

Cordoba is, without a doubt, one of the most historically and architecturally important cities I've ever visited. Despite the number of conquests and take-overs, each invader appears to have respected some of the most notable buildings, repurposing instead of demolishing them. For us, centuries later, we are able to fully appreciate the skills of those; their unique architecture providing a timeline in the history of the city.

Our day in Cordoba is much more than we expected.

DAY EIGHT: CORDOBA-GIBRALTAR-TANGIER

FRIDAY, JANUARY 13, 2012

After an early start, continue on to Gibraltar, an overseas territory under British control since 1704. Meet your Local Expert for a guided tour of the Rock of Gibraltar, St. Michael’s Cave and see the Barbary Apes, legendary guardians of the colony.Set sail across the Straits of Gibraltar to reach Morocco — a land of musky spices and colourful souks.

This morning's early start heralds a long day. Each morning I wake up to another perfect day; travelling in Europe in winter is a risk, but we've had clear, sunny days every day since we arrived. This morning our bus drives the 200 kilometres to the British colony of Gibraltar on the very tip of the Iberian Peninsula. Captured by Anglo-Dutch forces in 1704, this 6.7 square-kilometre coastal rocky peninsula is of strategic importance. It is basically the point between the continents of Europe and Africa and half the world's seaborne trade passes through the strait. Despite being ceded to Britain in perpetuity, Spain asserts a claim to the territory. 

Our bus stops at the frontier and we alight, walking across the border to waiting minibuses on the other side. Gibraltar is so small, their main road and the airport runway is a shared space; the road being closed to traffic when flights take off or land. 

Our tour by a local guide takes us to the key areas to visit in Gibraltar. During World War II, most of the civilians had been evacuated to London, Morocco, and Jamaica while the Rock was strengthened as a fortress against attacks from France and Germany. Later, in 1950, Franco renewed Spain's claim to sovereignty over Gibraltar and restricted movement between it and Spain. By 1969, all communication links had been severed, and not reopened until Spain joined the European Union in 1985. 

We stop at a lookout point; in fact there is a sign stating that the Queen and Prince Philip stood in this spot in 1954. It's location overlooking the huge port area is unprotected from the elements, including a cold wind that chills us to the bones, despite our warm clothes. Our minibus takes us through the military zone, tunnels bored through solid rock, only just wide enough for these transporters. 

St Michael's Cave is one of about 150 caves in the Upper Rock Nature Reserve of Gibraltar. We enter the cave, which opens out to a huge natural auditorium; lighting, a concrete stage, and seating were added to take advantage of the perfect acoustics for use as a concert venue. Being one of Gibraltar's main attractions, it is well-lit and fairly easy to get around. The cave was created by rainwater slowly seeping through the limestone rock, turning into a weak acid, which gradually dissolved the rock. Through this process, tiny cracks in The Rock's geological fault grew into long passages and large caverns over thousands of years. The numerous stalactites and stalagmites in the cave are formed by an accumulation of traces of dissolved rock deposited by water dripping from the ground above (source: Wikipedia. Last edited January 22, 2020).​ 

There is a certain feeling of wonder and awe I feel as I watch the droplets of water sitting precariously on the end of a stalactite. For as long as I watch it, hoping to see it fall into the collapsed stalagmite below. But it doesn't. The relative slowness at which these form is a an amazing feat of natural history. Caves fascinate me. But we can't stay here all day!

Originally from the Atlas Mountains and the Rif Mountains of Morocco, the Barbary macaque population in Gibraltar is the only wild monkey population on the European continent. Although most Barbary monkey populations in Africa are experiencing decline due to hunting and deforestation, the Gibraltar population is increasing. I'm not surprised as they greet us as we exit the caves. We laugh at their antics, but it's obvious that they are well-used to tourists, and I think they also recognise the tour guides. We keep our distance, but we are still rewarded with some nice photos. After a quick lunch of fish 'n' chips in the central commercial area, we return to our bus and head for the Spanish port of Tarifa, an hour's drive away.

The two-hour ferry ride from Tarifa ends at the Moroccan port of Tangier, once considered as an international city by foreign powers. It became the destination for European and American diplomats, spies, writers, and businesspeople before it was returned to Morocco in 1956.

We arrive in the late afternoon and meet our local guide, Najib, travel with us and our regular guide, Tony, whilst we are in Morocco. We have just enough light left in the day to take a quick city tour before settling into our hotel for the the night. 

DAY NINE: TANGIER-FES

SATURDAY, JANUARY 14, 2012

Start the day with a look at the city of Tangier in the daylight before travelling to the town of Asilah, where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. Then drive through the Rif Valley to  Fes, Morocco’s most ancient imperial city.

Today's drive-past tour takes us to prominent buildings within the city of Tangier. Because of it's confusing predicament of its international status until 1956, it attracted many prominent people, such as artist Henri Matisse and writer, Tennessee Williams. The Beat author, William S. Burroughs lived in Tangier for more than four years and wrote The Naked Lunch and other esteemed works during this time.

Before long we leave the city and follow the rocky coast for about forty-five minutes, stopping at a restaurant where we watch traditional bread and tagines being prepared. The beehive-shaped ovens are perfect for baking the flatbread, which is already patted into rounds, waiting to go into the oven. Our next stop is at the seaside village of Asilah, which is located at the very point where they Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. Occupied by the seafaring Phoenicians around 1500 BCE, then occupied by a stream of foreign invaders, including Spain and Portugal, and a base used by pirates, Asilah has an interesting history. More recently, due to declining tourism, an annual art festival was established in 1978. The International Cultural Festival includes a mural-painting competition. The town is whitewashed annually, providing space for artists to paint their murals as part of the larger international festival. Some of the murals remain after the last festival. I'm a little surprised that graffiti has already been added to the murals, which is a shame. We walk through the maze of pedestrian streets; mosaic-style paths that remind me of the ones we saw in Portugal. I do ask Najib about their origin, but he doesn't understand my question, or maybe he isn't interested in what other cultures have brought to Morocco.

We walk to a coastal overlook, peering over a parapet to view the sharp rocks below. I'm so glad we are able to stop here, even for a short time, as these are the sorts of places I like to visit. Already, my mind is looking towards another visit to Morocco, as I would like to perhaps spend a day wandering around this lovely town.

We still have approximately four-hundred kilometres to travel today, and we are unlikely to be able to stop again before we reach Fes.

From the window of the bus, I watch with fascination at the scenery outside; pottery stalls line the roads, while villages and medium-sized towns display people going about their daily lives. I try to capture what I can through the the windows. As we drive further into the rural zone, plantations of Australian eucalypts are close to the road. Some huge trees have been cut down, whilst the branches of the smaller trees are cut back for their aromatic leaves for the production of oil. 

Like Egypt, buildings appear to be unfinished on the outskirts of the cities and towns. Perhaps a tax is imposed on completed buildings here too.

Our road through the Rif Mountains is quite high, providing a wonderful view of the rich valley in  which crops are grown. The patchwork of fields, brown and green, provides a sense of good-quality farming practices in a really clean environment, resulting in good-quality food.

In the late afternoon, we arrive in Fes. The king is in residence, so security is tight. After settling into our hotel, we return to the bus. Following Tony and Najib through a maze of narrow walkways, we come to a restaurant, where we are treated to an included traditional Moroccan dinner. We are served chickpea soup with flatbread, chicken pie with a sweet filo pastry, followed by more food than we could ever eat. The small courses kept coming and the food is absolutely delicious. Entertainment of music and dancing follows.

It's been a long day, but already I'm loving our visit to Morocco. It's so vastly different to Spain, but the connection between the two countries is very much evident.

DAY TEN: FES/VOLUBILIS

SUNDAY, JANUARY 15, 2012

Your Local Expert will guide you through the ancient Medina. Explore this walled city of hidden courtyards, mosques and workshops. Walk through the souks and pass one of the world’s oldest universities. Learn about the ancient craft of carpet making and gain an insight into the motifs and colours used in the designs. Then you are at leisure to continue exploring as you wish, or perhaps cool off with a dip in the pool at your hotel.

From a distant scenic overlook we see the size and extent of the Medina in Fes. It is huge! I'm glad that we've been able to view it from here before we enter the labyrinth of narrow streets that make up the largest car-free urban zone in the world. It also includes the oldest existing, continually operating university in the world. The UNESCO World Heritage Site includes the urban fabric and walls and the buffer zone outside the walls, which is intended to preserve the visual integrity of the location (Source: Wikipedia, last edited on 8 May 2020).

As I alight from the bus near the walls, another two guides greet us. Now we have four guides, which I think is overkill, until we step inside. A couple of young teenage boys has attached themselves to our group, herding us and preventing anyone from straying or being distracted. It's easy to see why.  Allegedly there is a population of 2.5 million people in this concentrated area; thank goodness it's not too crowded yet, as our first view of the walled city is of the wet market. A trader is bagging up snails; other dried specialties are stored in a bowl. A camel-meat butcher is attracting customers. I only know he sells camels because the furry and still-fresh-looking head hangs from a hook as a marketing tool. Some from our bus recoil in horror, but I'm not going to judge people on what they've been doing for thousands of years. At the fishmonger shop, crates of small fish sit next to a huge eel. Despite the type and variety of the fresh meats and fish, the area is clean. Out of the meat-market, we enter an area where raw materials are being prepared for the textiles industry; bundles of cotton are wound in hanks, ready for dying. A donkey stands beside a wall; the panier bags are filled with litter. Clearly, this is the equivalent of a garbage truck in the Medina. We pass by shops selling copper goods and laneways where met sit on their haunches beating metal into huge bowls. Past bolts of fabric, a mosque and up a set of stairs to a carpet showroom.

We sit upon low stools sipping sweet mint tea as the staff roll out carpets; wool and silk, hoping for a sale. We are not interested in carpets. It's nice to take a little rest away from the noise and the hustle and bustle of the shopping arcades below.

From the carpet emporium we are led to one of the taller buildings then onto a balcony, where below us are vats of evil-smelling liquids. Someone hands me some mint and eucalyptus leaves to 'position under my nose', obviously to somehow sweeten the smell of the rotting flesh of the sheep skins below. We watch the various methods of removing wool from the hides and preparing them for the tanning process. Hanging from a balcony opposite from where I'm standing, hides are hanging to dry. Whilst the tanning process is being explained by one of our guides, I am fascinated by the way the tanning workers nimbly walk between the deep vats. I half expect at least one to fall into the deep liquids, but these guys are too used to working here. It is really interesting, but we cannot stay here all day. We finish our tour after walking through the clothing stores; brightly-coloured dresses hanging along the walls, whilst the traders call out good-naturedly. The narrow streets are more crowded now and it's harder to keep our guides in our sight. One of the teenagers who appeared when we arrived appears and makes sure we get back to the bus safely. 

We return to our hotel. There is a tour to a bat cave scheduled for this afternoon, but we've organised a driver to collect us to take us to the Roman town of Volubilis. Tony, our guide has been very helpful, organising a car and driver after we expressed a desire to visit the ruins, which were partially destroyed during the Lisbon earthquake of 1750.

Between our hotel and the edge of the city of Fes, and not part of the medina, there is a huge shanty-town. Shacks built of corrugated iron, outline whole functional towns built within the perimeter. Apparently there are schools, shops, and medical centres in the maze of hastily-built structures, but running water and electricity are intermittent. According to our driver, new high-rise buildings are currently under construction to house these people. But when we ask more pertinent questions, like - are new schools being built, what about the businesses and medical centres? how much do these people pay to rent these new apartments, and most importantly, what if they don't want to move? I suddenly get the feeling that the narrative doesn't match the reality and the point of telling us this is to ensure that we know how much of a humanitarian the King is. It doesn't stop me from scribbling the questions down to ask Tony later. After all, he is bringing tourists from all over the world through Spain, Portugal, and Morocco and, as an outsider himself, can probably give us a more balanced view of the country. I'm not complaining, but we are observant and we like to ask questions. To scratch below the surface perhaps provides a small insight into the issues that a country faces. We do not always take what we are told on face value, and sometimes there are surprising consequences.

 

I cannot compare the sight unfolding in front of us with the bat cave the others are visiting this afternoon, but I'm so glad we've chosen today's excursion back out along the same road we took yesterday. With rolling hills and rich green pasture as a setting, out first sight of Volubilis is a line of arches standing tall. It may be the remains of an aqueduct. Slightly to the right is a large solid arch. My excitement grows as our car is parked and we are able to enter the site. Fortunately for us, because we've hired the car for the afternoon, we can spend as much time as we like inside the open-air museum.

The ancient town of Volubilis was settled from the third century BCE to AD 40, and flourished under Roman rule. It fell to local tribes around 285 and continued to be inhabited for another 700 years, first as a Christian community and later as an Islamic settlement. By the eleventh century, it had been abandoned, but the buildings remained virtually intact until 1750, when it was devastated by the Lisbon earthquake. During and after the period of French rule over Morocco, about half of the site was excavated, revealing many fine mosaics, and some of the more prominent public buildings and high-status houses were restored or reconstructed. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, listed for being an exceptionally well preserved example of a large Roman colonial town on the fringes of the Empire.

The line of arches we had seen from the windows of the car, and which I had assumed was an aqueduct is actually a basilica. In ancient Roman architecture, a basilica is not a church, but a public building with multiple functions. Behind it is a temple. The most distinctive structure is the Caracalla Arch, which is allegedly located at the point where the old city and the 'new' one merges.

What I love about this site is that is not really suitable for hordes of tourists, which is why it's not included on the itinerary of our tour. Underfoot, there are rocks; parts of buildings that have decayed and fallen, remaining where they fell. We scramble over a low wall and into the House of the Columns, a collection of columns, many of which are still miraculously in good condition. White storks use the lofty height to build their nests and I watch them coming and going for a few minutes before resuming our self-guided tour. We are systematically exploring the building remains before moving to the arched basilica. To be able to gaze at and to walk amongst these magnificent ruins, to me, is a privilege. This is what I love to do when I travel. Touching a stone that had been placed here over two thousand years ago is like being transported to a past life, an observer during an historical event. It's a little surreal. Volubilis is famous for it's mosaic floors; tiny scraps of tiles or stones cobbled together to produce pictures and patterns that depict the daily life of the occupants. Some of the floors, left out in the elements, are flawless. The atmosphere must help preserve them, because apart from being cordoned off to prevent people from walking on or picking bits off, they are open, uncovered. A man riding a donkey, surrounded in frames of geometric patterns, mermaids, dolphins, and fish, scenes of conflict; it's all here, including the swastika symbol. I have seen the symbol for good health in many Buddhist temples in Asia, but didn't expect to see it used here in ancient mosaics. According to some research I've done today, archaeological finds have long demonstrated that the swastika is a very old symbol, but ancient examples are by no means limited to India. It was used by the Ancient Greeks, Celts, and Anglo-Saxons and some of the oldest examples have been found in Eastern Europe, from the Baltic to the Balkans. I cannot believe the absolute magnitude of this site, but no matter how much time one has, it's never enough. With a real prospect of being locked in here overnight, it is with reluctance that we leave and return to Fes and our fellow passengers. 

DAY ELEVEN: FES-MARRAKECH

MONDAY, JANUARY 16, 2012

See the Middle Atlas Mountains and mud-walled villages as you journey to Marrakesh.

The absolute best thing about travelling by road across foreign countries is being able to witness first-hand the environment through which we are travelling. We are now driving through the Middle Atlas region of central Morocco towards the city of Marrakech. Marrakech is the setting of Hitchcock's movie, The Man who Knew too much, starring Doris Day and James Stewart, which is probably as much as know about the city, so I'm looking forward to visiting and exploring it. The landscape changes gradually from fertile, green pastures of the region near Fes to an arid, stony environment as we approach the Atlas Mountains. Our journey takes us through many villages and market towns; stone and limestone-rendered buildings give way to rendered brick and concrete; drab, beige, ochre, and grey. Animals, horses and donkeys, are used throughout for transport purposes. The animals look sturdy, but the loads look very heavy. Through the window of the bus, I see sheep grazing on land adjoining unfinished dwellings of various sizes. This part of the country appears to have poorer soil and little agriculture, so grazing animals is probably the main income for farmers.

 

As we approach Marrakech, more blocks of units are under construction. I wonder whether there is a housing problem here in Morocco and pose the question to Najib. I'm not sure that our questions are being answered as honestly as I would like, as Najib has repeated the same narrative as the driver yesterday.

We arrive in Marrakech in the afternoon, too late for sightseeing, but we do enjoy a ride in a horse and cart to Jemaa el-Fnaa, the UNESCO World Heritage site and possibly the best-known market square in North Africa. We don't have time to dally, but we are treated to a view of fruit and spice stalls and restaurants. Our restaurant, however, is within one of the adjoining buildings and we spend a delightful evening eating the warming, cozy food of the region, whilst enjoying the folk dancing and other performances from a talented group of young people. Some of our fellow-passengers are complaining about the food! They say that the tagine is too bland and boring. I feel that they are being unfair. So far on this tour, we've not seen fast-food restaurants, but have been treated to a wide variety of local and extremely tasty dishes. Perhaps because Australians share a love of lamb casserole with the Moroccans is why we have found the food tasty and very enjoyable.

DAY TWELVE: MARRAKECH/OURIKA VALLEY

TUESDAY, JANUARY 17, 2012

This morning, we travel to a village to meet a family, who demonstrate the art of making Moroccan tea. In the afternoon your Local Expert will show you the Medina with its many souks and the Koutoubia Minaret dominating the skyline. Visit the Saadian Tombs and the intricately decorated Palais Bahia, intended to be the greatest palace of its time when it was built in the late 19th century.

Soon after breakfast we take a bus ride out of the city of Marrakech. I notice that the buildings are typically a pinky-red hue and we're told that this colour is used because it is 'cooler' in the summer temperatures. It can get as hot as 49 degrees Celsius. If the buildings are whitewashed like they are in Spain, Portugal, and even Tangier, the reflection would be blinding. Najib has control of the microphone and he talks in general about the political and economic status. We are told that all children are given free education until the age of sixteen. He again discusses the housing projects that we've seen in Tangier, Fes, and now this morning, in Marrakech. But he cannot provide direct answers to some simple questions about average wages, amount of rent people pay, etc, etc.

Morocco is a multicultural country. Before 1912 Morocco was fully sovereign, independent, and united. However, France had taken control of Algiers, which borders Morocco, and wanted control of the entire region due to its strategic location. France established a protectorate over Morocco after signing the Treaty of Fez, and remained in control during the period between 1912 and 1956.

Children are provided with free education between the ages of four and sixteen. They study the Koran until midday then the afternoon is spent on the other subjects in the curriculum. I opine that since Morocco had been under French protectorate for forty-odd years, presumably there are children living here that are not Muslim. So I asked whether Christian and Jewish children receive a free education as well. Simple question. The answer should be either yes or no. All Najib had to say was that the free education was provided to Muslim children only and that children of other faiths attend private schools at the expense of their families. Easy? No. He chose instead to ignore my question, emphasise that ALL children were given a free education. Perhaps I could push the topic, but Najib is getting a bit hot under the collar, so I drop it. 

We arrive in the Ourika Valley, a very poor village, where the main source of income is through the sale of pottery items. We are visiting the home of Lala Fatima and her husband, daughters, and granddaughters. The open porch at the back of the house overlooks the mountains and I lament that it's not such a sunny day today. It's actually quite cold, but the scenery is stunning. Tony catches up to answer my question about the free education, and confirms that it is not free for all students. 

We gather on the covered verandah of the Lala's home and together with her daughters, they show us how to make the mint tea, which is served all over Morocco. First Lala plucks the stems off fresh mint leaves, which she places into her teapot. She then adds two spoons of green tea, scrapes a chunk off a cone of sugar, then lastly adds the boiling water. Waiting for it to brew, she talks about her frustration of not finding her fourteen-year-old grandaughter a husband. Najib translates. At 76 years of age, she has had a hard life and each bad year is etched across her kindly but wrinkled face.

Then I do the unthinkable. I had accepted Tony's explanation of what 'free' education means here, but I need to ask the question that I'm sure was on everyone's lips. Another one about education. You see, I believe that children need to remain at school for as long as possible, and I cannot imagine a schoolgirl returning to study after marriage.

'If Lalas granddaughter gets married at fourteen, does she return to school to complete her education until she is at least sixteen?'

Daggers shoot from Najib's black eyes. In passing, he nods and says 'Yes'. But behind him, I see Tony's head shaking, so that's my answer. I won't pursue the matter.

The tea is poured and distributed and freshly-made flatbread with fresh butter and local honey or olive oil is shared amongst us all. The granddaughter has good English and she talks to many of the women, particularly to Natasha and another young lady. Whilst she applies henna designs to Natasha's hands, I chat with Tony about the family and the experience in general. He also updates me on the education situation for married women-girls, which makes me very sad. How are these young ladies going to get themselves out of poverty when they are not permitted to take the opportunity for a full education, which is provided by the government. Tony has had to relinquish the commentary to Najib during our visit to Morocco, but he has promised to answer all of our questions later. He really has been an excellent guide.

Insight Vacations provides cultural experiences as part of the tour and I must admit that I really enjoy these visits. I gain a lot from observing and asking questions. The mint tea, which we've been served throughout Morocco, is very refreshing - even in Winter time. We say goodbye before returning to Marrakech for a city tour and hopefully time to explore the souks.

As we return to Marrakech, we head straight into the centre of the city, close to where we ate last night. We pass the Koutoubia Mosque, which is the largest mosque in the city. Set in large gardens, it is very close to Jemaa el-Fnaa. We don't stop, but we do pass slowly enough to take photos of the minaret through the bus window. We then pass Bab Agnaou, which is one of the nineteen gates of the city. Built in the 12th century, it is the entrance to the Royal Kasbah in the southern part of the medina.  

The bus stops and we alight then walk the short distance to the Saadian Tombs. This is a series of mausoleums that are the final resting places of important figures from the Saadi Dynasty, which ruled Morocco from 1549 to 1659. Shortly after the fall of the dynasty, the tombs had been sealed and only rediscovered in 1917. It is currently under renovation. We walk through the building; adjoining tombs of varying splendour. Sultan Ahmed Al Mansour Ed Dahbi spared no expense on his tomb, importing Italian Carrara marble and gilding honeycomb decorative plasterwork with pure gold to make the Chamber of 12 Pillars a suitably glorious mausoleum. Outside, in the courtyard, about 170 prominent figures, as well as some trusted Jewish advisors had been buried. The tiled gravestones mark their graves.

The rest of the day is free for us to explore Jemaa el-Fnaa by daylight. The square, which had been filled with stallholders a couple of nights ago, is open. Street entertainers fill the space, including some very aggressive musicians. If you take their photos, you must pay them. They have a tout, checking for photos and chasing tourists. We have plenty of time to wander through the market, buying some souvenir bowls and other odds and ends, which will be of use. I usually like to buy one blue bowl to bring home when I travel. These trinkets are an everlasting reminder of our holidays. 

When it's time for coffee, we return to the open square and watch as the cleaners collect rubbish and sweep the space in preparation for the arrival of those who set up their stalls and restaurants in the evenings. Over coffee and some sweet, honey and hazelnut-filled delicacy, we are more than content with the tour and with what we have seen and experienced to date. 

DAY THIRTEEN: MARRAKECH-CASABLANCA-RABAT

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 18, 2012

Journey to the west coast of Africa to reach Casablanca. Discover if Humphrey Bogart really did say 'Play it again Sam' during sightseeing with your Local Expert. You will also see Hassan II Mosque, the largest mosque in the country and the très chic seaside strip, known as the Corniche, lined with trendy restaurants and cafes. Then travel north to Rabat, to see the Royal Palace and Hassan Tower with your Local Expert.

We have a small sleep-in today, as we don't have to cover a huge distance today. After clearing the city of Marrakech, Tony asks us to close the curtains of the bus whilst he shows the classical movie, Casablanca. It's funny how a movie's setting becomes a lot more meaningful when one is smack-bang in the centre of it. We enjoy the movie, which is timed to exactly finish as we approach the outskirts of the city of Casablanca.

Why am I surprised that Casablanca is such a modern city? It bears absolutely no resemblance to the city in the movie or the other cities we've visited since arriving in Morocco. I suppose it's because Tangier, Fes, and Marrakech are all very old cities, built around the medinas and royal capitals. Casablanca, on the other hand is the financial centre of Morocco. The actual capital of the country is Rabat, where we will end our tour for today.

Built on the coast, Casablanca has been settled by the Portuguese, Spanish, British, and French. It's location on the Atlantic Ocean and it's seaports make this city very important for Morocco. We drive through a city that could be Melbourne or Sydney; heavy traffic and very modern. Our bus stops right on the ocean at the Hassan II Mosque. Completed in 1993, this is probably the newest of all the mosques we've visited during this tour. Sitting on a promontory looking out to the Atlantic ocean, the courtyard can hold 80,000 worshippers at any one time. Combined with the 25,000 that can gather inside, approximately 105,000 people can gather together for prayer. The numbers are mind-boggling, when you think that an MCG-full of people can at any time, use this space for prayer alone.

Like most places of worship, far too much money is spent on buildings when perhaps the money could be better spent on ensuring the other needs are met. This is an issue that will be debated for a long time to come. This mosque cost 585 million euros to build and had been intended to be second in size to that in Mecca. 

Along the Atlantic coast is a corniche or wide walkway, which provides an uninterrupted and safe pathway along the coastal road. Although we return to the bus, we travel along the road for a few kilometres to a group of restaurants, where we have time to take lunch and to explore the coastal path. But before we arrive at our lunch spot, I'm a little surprised to see the remnants of a shanty-town; new blocks of flats on adjoining land. This land is perfect for developments of hotels and luxury apartments, with an unobstructed view of the ocean. The poor people of the shanty town, who once had ocean views, are gradually seeing their community being dismantled and its occupants moved to the outskirts of the city in yet another public housing block, paid for by the benevolent king. Although we are given the rosy view of people no longer having to live in desperate circumstances, I'm not sure that dismantling communities and displacing their people across several blocks are flats are doing them any favours. What about schools, childcare, doctors and other services that had once been the central hub of the shanty-town? Apparently, we westerners are not meant to ask these probing questions because they responses have not been given to Najib to recite back to us. There is a level of reticence on the part of Najib, but I do understand that the tour guides must comply with the guidelines set down by government officials. They are apparently not meant to deviate from those. And yet, when we've come across guides of past tours, and they've been happy to speak off the record, we've gained a better view of a country. It is not a criticism of the country; it's simply an annoyance, but I do understand why. We walk along the corniche for a little while, enjoying the sunshine, although the breeze is a little cool. The beautiful palm-tree-lined dual carriageway is lovely. Modern homes nestled in thick vegetation enjoy uninterrupted views over the ocean. This is a lovely city, although perhaps there isn't as much to see as some of our previous stops. 

The relatively short distance to Rabat is along the coast road and fortunately I'm on the right side of the bus to fully enjoy the view.

Rabat is another modern city, but includes some very interesting historic buildings as well. The King has followed us from Fes, because he is in residence here, meeting with the Spanish president. We are not permitted to visit the palace. We are taken directly to Hassan Tower, which shares the site with the Mausoleum of Mohammed V. It contains the tombs of the Moroccan king and his two sons, late King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah. The building is considered a masterpiece of modern architecture, with its white silhouette, topped by a typical green tiled roof. It was completed 1971 and Hassan II was buried there following his death in 1999. (Source: Wikipedia, last edited June 6, 2020)

Inside the mausoleum we walk along a gallery, which allows us to look down at the tomb below. The examples of Moroccan craftwork in the tiles and plaster are amazing, but the exquisitely-carved cedar ceiling, covered in gold leaf, is a sight to behold.

Outside, Hassan Tower is just in front of us. A minaret of an incomplete mosque, the tower had been intended to be the largest minaret in the world along with the mosque. When the third Caliph died in 1195, construction on the mosque stopped. The tower was about half of its intended 86 metre height and the rest of the mosque was also left incomplete, with only the beginnings of several walls and 348 columns being constructed. The innovative cylindrical stone columns, rather than using typical brick piers, had slowed the original construction considerably, which may have been a blessing because the mosque sustained extensive damage due to the Lisbon earthquake in 1755. Today, we wander through the site. The story of an unfinished mosque dating from the 12th century, but still standing in its unfinished form is amazing in itself.   

DAY FOURTEEN: RABAT-TANGIER-TORREMOLINOS, COSTA DEL SOL

THURSDAY, JANUARY 19, 2012

Your journey continues to Morocco’s great port of Tangier, overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar. Here you will enjoy beautiful views where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean.  Cross the water to Spain and continue on to Torremolinos,

Our 4:30am start is a fair indication that we have a long way to travel today, including arriving at the ferry port at Tangier by 10:30am in time for our ferry back to Spain. We say goodbye to Najib, who is feeling a little ungracious this morning. our group is quite vocal, and together we've asked a lot of questions about life in Morocco. Maybe he's not used to it. We have to manage our own luggage on both continents, and this takes some time to organise. Our mid-afternoon arrival in Torremolinos on the Costa Del Sol is a welcome and relaxing break after a quite intense six days in Morocco. During the drive from the ferry port in Tarifa, Tony provides us with a good overview of general life in Morocco, answering many of our questions. He has, over the course of the journey has often given us insights into life under the cruel Franco regime, through which he lived as a child. He has a particular skill at relating facts without prejudice and I'm very happy with the commentary over the whole trip to date.

Somehow we snag a room overlooking the sea. Later, we will walk along the beach in our own time and enjoy an evening on our own.

DAY FIFTEEN: TORREMOLINOS-GRANADA

FRIDAY, JANUARY 20, 2012

Continue to Granada, where overlooking the town stands one of the most remarkable fortresses ever built, the Alhambra. Led by your Local Expert, explore this exquisite palace built as a citadel by the Moors in the 13th century - a fantasy of arabesque gardens, fountains and stone cut like lace. Stroll through the elegant, exotic water gardens of the Generalife, the royal summer residence.

We have a relaxed start to the day, enabling us to walk along the sealed promenade by the beach, and to breathe in the clear, fresh sunshine. The azure sky is cloudless, and although we could be fooled into thinking it's warmer than what it really is, it's just nice to have some time to soak it in. This is a lovely place and sometime in the future, I would like to return for a few days.

But we have an exciting day today, and somehow, I believe that Insight Vacations has perhaps left the best to last. Granada is a relatively short, 138 kilometre distance from Torremolinos, and we arrive in time for lunch and time to wander around the city centre. In past times, tourists could arrive at an historical site or attraction, pay for their ticket and continue through the gate; no queues, no hold-ups. These days, no matter the season, tourists need to plan their visits well in advance because in many cases, tickets are sold well in advance or they may have to stand in a queue for a long time. The beauty of taking a tour is that the company organises the tickets and we don't have to plan for or worry about a thing.

 

There is an British television series called Around the World in 80 Gardens, where the host, Monty Don travels the world and discusses some of the most well-known and not-so-well-known gardens in a number of countries. His enthusiasm and love of gardens and their history shows in each episode of this wonderful series. But no matter how wonderful it seems on television, nothing, but nothing prepares us for actually being here and witnessing the splendour and magnitude of this garden.

Alhambra is a palace city built by the Nasrid dynasty. This was the last Muslim dynasty to rule in the Iberian Peninsula before the Moors were expelled from the city in 1492. Initially designed as a military zone, Alhambra became the royal residence and court of Granada.  Over time, the fortress became a citadel of high walls and defensive towers, which housed the barracks of the royal guard in the military zone, and the palaces and homes of the noble people and plebeians in the medina. Additionally the huge complex has an independent palace in front of Alhambra. Surrounded by orchards and magnificent gardens the Generalife is a recreation house for the use of the Grenadine guards.

Despite the restoration work done on some of the buildings after the reconquest, they are pretty much still in their original condition. We have noticed that many of the structures built during the Islamic reign of Spain have been repurposed, rather than destroyed and rebuilt. The gardens, although evolving over the past five-hundred years, adhere to the original designs.

We start our tour at the outer palace, the Generalife. Hedges, water-features, and magnificent mosaic-style pathways, orchards, and gardens lead us to the summerhouse. Fountains, which have been restored by the Italians, are still using the original plumbing. I'm enthralled as I watch water spouts forming arches across a channel. Through the summerhouse, we follow a cobblestone path; trees are bent to form a green arch over us as we walk towards the Alhambra itself. Beautifully-manicured hedges surround formal gardens, eventually leading us to a series of brick channels and cisterns, which had been designed to store water and irrigate the grounds. 

Suddenly we find ourselves inside the citadel and facing large Renaissance-style building, the Palace of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, who intended this to be his royal palace. it was never completed; it remained roofless until 1957. Entering, I am surprised to find that the door leads to a huge inner-circular patio. According to our local guide, this building has no precedent in Renaissance architecture, and places the building in the avant-garde of its time. I am intrigued, and very interested in the different aspects of the design, including the column capitals; doric on the ground floor, ionic on the first floor. No time to dally, here though. We've so much more to see.

Through a keyhole-shaped archway, across a courtyard, past an ancient brick wall, around a man-made pond, and walking on paving bricks interspersed with tiny glazed tiles. The Royal complex is made up of a number of halls and courts. The true magnificence of the architecture is undeniably remarkable and is in itself, a work of art. Three Nasrid palaces have been restored. The Court of the Myrtles is one of the oldest and best-preserved courtyards in Alhambra. The court is 42 metres long and 22 metres wide, and in the centre is a pond, filled with goldfish. Myrtles are hedged along the side. The water, dark and still, provides perfect reflections for photos.

We enter the Court of the Lions, which is currently being renovated. Despite this, we can appreciate the intricate work of the arches; the filigree work so beautiful that it takes on a life of its own. Inside the Hall of the Abencerrajes, the stalactite ceiling gives the appearance of dripping honey, applied to hide the actual construction of the dome.  As we are led through the various buildings and halls, sometimes overlooking the town below, other times viewing a paved and treed courtyard, I cannot quite grasp the actual beauty of the architecture alone. It doesn't need to be filled with art treasures; they would detract from the magnificence of details that are too numerous and too difficult to describe with mere words.

Lastly, El Partal is the oldest of the palaces; its surrounding pool and gardens date back the the thirteenth century. Again, the still waters provide the perfect photo opportunity; it's mountainous backdrop provides a flawless setting for this magnificent finale to our tour.

Alhambra, in all its glory is a place that is not only unforgettable, but provides a yearning to stay here longer and to explore further. 

DAY SIXTEEN: GRANADA-MADRID

SATURDAY, JANUARY 22, 2012

Your journey continues to the north, through countryside immortalised by Cervantes fictional hero, Don Quixote. On return to Madrid,  join an art historian to explore the Prado Museum, a magnificent palace housing works by Velazquez, Goya, Rubens and other masters. Lastly, toast your travels with your newfound friends during a lively Celebration Dinner of delicious food and wine at a local restaurant.

We are on our way back to Madrid, a five-hundred kilometre journey, and we're on the road before the sun rises as we need to arrive in Madrid by early afternoon.

This is an agricultural region, the land is cultivated and orchards are planted in straight lines. Ruins of ancient buildings sit between lines of trees. Tony talks about the Franco era, when farmers had been thrown off their family-owned farms and were displaced, whilst soldiers, without any knowledge of the land or food production, took the lands and destroyed the farms. This was a cruel and insidious regime that held the Spanish people in contempt. Tony's stories of a childhood growing up during the Franco regime are grim, and very much out of my personal experience. When I first visited Spain in December, 1977, Spain was emerging slowly out of the Franco regime. But here, thirty-five years later, and part of the European Union, Spain is flourishing.

My view from the window of the bus, however, is of a typical Spanish rural scene. The squat, white windmills synonymous of Spain are very-much evident in this region, and although I've seen them dotted around Spain, they are perhaps more abundant here, or maybe I've noticed them more today. We enter the quaint, very old village of Puerto Lapice, stopping at the Don Quixote Inn. This region of La Mancha has been made famous by the Miguel de Cervantes in his novel, Don Quixote. This novel is considered one of the most influential works of literature from the Spanish Golden Age. We spend a delightful hour exploring the courtyard dedicated to Don Quixote and a small restaurant and shop. 

We arrive in Madrid in the early afternoon and decide not to join the others at the Prado Museum. Natasha hasn't been to Plaza Major yet, so we decide to explore the square and surrounding streets. This includes, a small snack at Restaurant Mieu, where we discover the joys of eating red sausages and capsicums. We cannot over-indulge, as we have a final dinner with our travel companions before we disperse tomorrow.

DAY SEVENTEEN: MADRID-SINGAPORE

sUNDAY, JANUARY 22, 2012

Departure transfers arrive at Madrid airport at 07:00, 09:00 and 11:00.

As we wait at Madrid airport, exhausted, I can reflect upon the journey we have taken through the Iberian Peninsula. The first ten days were spent along the Mediterranean coast in Barcelona and Valencia, and is the subject of its own separate story. This tour, Treasures of Spain, Portugal, and Morocco, has been a wonderful learning experience. For anyone who is interested in history, art, and architecture, this tour is certainly one to consider. The tour guide, Tony, who has been with us for the entire seventeen days is a delight. He has provided us with a concise, but interesting commentary and has complimented the local guides we've encountered along the way. This has been completed with absolute professionalism and with the utmost good humour. Travelling around with thirty different personalities is difficult, but Tony makes it look easy. Additionally, and particularly in Morocco, Tony has been able to fill in the blanks where language issues perhaps didn't provide the most honest of commentaries by Najib. 

Our companions come from different backgrounds and perhaps have completely different expectations, but somehow we've not only enjoyed one another's company over the course of the tour, but shown great interest in their individual stories. 

This tour has not only provided transportation and commentary, it also gave us good-quality accommodation, many meals and cultural experiences, and some ability to immerse ourselves into the culture. We have seen things that have taken our breath away on so many occasions. But most of all, we have come away with a sense of having learnt about countries that are physically so far away from our own, yet we have so many similarities and ways in which we can share our personal experiences with others we meet along the way. 

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