Monday, February 23, 2015

things to do in Tangier

We needed some more cash. The place at the airport was a complete rip off - one stand that is a chain at most airports. You typically lose about 40 percent of the value of the money using their rates, and only after arguing will they knock it down a bit. Best to always carry a converter with you and know how much your converting and how much it should be. The exchange will naturally be a bit off the published rate - that's how exchanges make money - but they should be reasonably close to that rate. We found a place near La Petit Socco, or "the small bazaar" in French, that offered an almost exact exchange rate, something that for me is a rare occurrence, but seems more common in Arabic countries - beware Spain and the Czech Republic, countries that can be overly sneaky on their exchange rates.

Going from euro to dirham, you end up with a gigantic wad of cash, feeling like a rich man ready to throw money into the wind. It's a great feeling, but soon it becomes annoying when you realize it means all your pockets, secret pouches, and wallet will be left bulging for the rest of the trip. A small price to pay for wealth.

Les Files du Detroit
We then found the Kasbah, through the diligent use of my smartphone. Only for one hour was my Google maps application a bit confused, but finally it was able to guide us correctly to our destination. The entrance to the museum was three dirham, or thirty cents, and the smallest we had was twenty. The attendant refused to allow us entry, claiming that he didn't have change. So we looked around for a tea shop to sit and have some tea and thus get some change. There we found the pinnacle place of Tangier, Les Files du Detroit, or "the Sons of the Straight." It's quite a small place, one long room, that's quite ethnically decked out with pillows and beautifully carved woodwork. Instruments hang everywhere from the walls, and a small man was sitting on a pillowed bench, wearing a Fez and playing a Moroccan lyre, singing some song that sort of resembled Arabic music and sort of resembled jazz. When he finished, he stood and offered us some tea and showed us his record, which we bought (and is great). After serving us tea, he had us do some silly touristic posing underneath his instruments wearing some more red felt Fez hats, but then relaxed again into his singing meditation. After we were done, I told him about our problem with the museum, and he took us over and got us in without a problem.

I later found out that musicians often gather at Les Files du Detroit at night. As we were only there for one more night, and were still a bit weary of the medina - it truly feels like an altogether alien culture - we didn't manage to make it out to see any jam sessions. So, to any traveler there, find it at night and be sure to toke on some local herb while listening to some live jams - or join in, there's plenty of instruments lying about.

Some guys playing a tune at Le Files du Detroit:

Inside the Kasbah
The Kasbah is a bit of a ruin and not much of a museum, but you can at least see the main courtyards and hallways, and imagine how beautiful it once was during the days of the sultans. The woodwork and the tile work - more of which seemed to be the standard throughout Morocco - were stellar in their complexity and skill. The palace was a good introduction to this, seeing everything in place and style as it was meant to be. From the Kasbah, there's also a nice view of the bay, where one can imagine the sultan and family drinking tea and looking out across the sea, preparing to purvey the rest of his empire in Spain, or perhaps dream about that lost empire, depending on the century.

Some of the ceiling woodwork 

One of the inner courtyard gardens.

Ceiling tile work and a typical lamp

The palace minaret

From there, we went on to the American Legation. As I mentioned before, it was an early gift of the Moroccan kingdom to the United States of America, and is today the only American government owned historical landmark outside of the U.S. Morocco was one of the first countries to recognize the Declaration of Independence and give good favor to the newborn republic. At this period, Morocco had just finished a long civil war, with the new sultan eager to gain economic wealth through trade, and sought out a positive relationship with the United States even before the War of Independence was won. In 1821, the Sultan Moulay Suliman gave a two story building, decorated in traditional Moorish style, to the American government, where it was used as an embassy, consulate, and finally, Peace Corps office, for 140 years. Now it's a museum, showing this long history, including a wing dedicated to Paul Bowles, the beat writer who lived in Tangier, and all the other beats who had visited.

The building itself is snuggled in a very residential corner of the medina and it's easy to think you're going the wrong way while you're en route there, which is precisely what happened to us. I was quite convinced we had taken a wrong turn, or the guy at the cafe over on La Petit Socco had misguided us - remember, it's always best to ask someone busy doing something else for directions, otherwise they'll tag along and expect a tip - but finally, we saw the small sign hanging off a wall in the street. The streets in this part are narrow, so it's perhaps better to call all of them alleys, but around any bend can be something unseen and beautiful, palatial courtyards hidden away like the hair and body of a devout Muslim woman - pleasures for only the few.

The museum is definitely worth the find. Whereas the Kasbah is a great example of a dust covered, ruined architectural wonder, the Legation is kept up so that it looks exactly the way it would have looked a hundred years ago. The very same tables that those from Thomas Jefferson to Paul Bowles would have sat at in a meeting or an exhibition, all there, polished and shining, the same as they ever were, the woodwork and tile work all exhibited in a remarkable level of historic preservation. If only there were a cafe out on the patio, it would be the perfect place to spend a whole day writing and watching the people pass along the alleys below. But lacking such a cafe, touring about the place takes up all but 20 minutes.

The courtyard of the Legation

Looking down at an alley from a bridge

Inside the Paul Bowles Wing

Some more tile and wood work

With so much time left over, we decided to leave the medina and see what Tangier was really about. Which wasn't much. Along the waterfront were weirdly glitzy hotels, the kind I've seen all over seaside towns in developing countries, where they were superficially fancy, as though they were fancy only to those who didn't really know what a fancy hotel was. Up the hill, there's a run down terrace, called the "Tanger Boulevard", filled with cafes that are also a bit run down, but have a beautiful view of the Straight and of the medina. Near there is the Tangerine, where the beatniks once hung out. Since then, it's been a gay club and now a somewhat seedy place that seems surrounded by a trash dump and dark eyed men staring at anyone who would pass the place. There is a nice boulevard above that, Avenue Pasteur, with several modern cafes that are good places to drink coffee and watch people, but are lacking any real character. The first we sat at was called "La Espanola", and was complete with a large mirror and the cafe's name spelled out in rhinestones. Rhinestones always spell class. 

Touring these coffee shops was pleasant, but satisfied enough of my curiosity about what Tangerines did in the evening. In all, it was neither a horror story or a fantasy, just a fairly normal Arabic town with some beautiful views. And at any rate, Tangiers from a view is an extraordinarily beautiful town. It's only when you're actually in the White City that it doesn't quite live up to the senses. It's probably best then to stay in the medina and sit at Le Petit Socco, drinking the sweet mint tea and letting the day pass away to the hum and bustle of tourists fresh off the boat and hustlers looking for an easy pay day. Or with a few extra days, to make some trips out of town to the villages that dot the coast.

Sour Meegazine Square

View from Sour Meegazine

View from Tanger Boulevard

Down Rue de Murillo

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

touts, thy days are numbered

View of the medina from our the Hotel Continental
I had mixed impressions of Tangier before we arrived, not really knowing what to expect. On the one hand, it was the Interzone, the safe haven for past beatniks to hide and get high, full of drugs and gambling and prostitution, but on the other hand, it had had stable rule for years now, and the King had recently infused large amounts of cash into the economy to help fix things. I had an image of the former burned in my mind, of a crumbling medina full of dirty street beggars, snake charmers in small squares distracting people while they were as charmed as the snakes while boys in rags pilfered the contents of tourists' pockets. Travel sites with reviews by travelers from the States and Europe are overwhelmingly negative on the city, saying that it was the worst in Morocco and that touts - guys who make it their business to lead you places and then charge you money - abound and everyone is trying to scam you. So it's with this mentality we entered, and one might ask, why on Earth would I go to a place if that was my preconception of it? But then I would answer back, why wouldn't I, sounds amazing!

Interior of the Hotel Continental
We were staying at the Hotel Continental, which itself is like a museum of architecture. It sits on an overlook of the bay, where you can sip your morning coffee on the balcony, looking across the Tangerine resorts and apartments stacked along the shore and watch the huge cruise ships sitting at wait, unloading or loading passengers into rows of buses and taxis. The breakfast was more than expected - a continental breakfast, but also with fresh pancakes, jam and lots of tangerines - hence the name of the fruit.

After breakfast, we went out to explore the medina. I had three goals in mind - to relax at some coffee shops and soak it all in, to see the Kasbah and the American Legation museums, and maybe perhaps to see a place where the American beatniks had hung out, like the Tangerine Bar, the walls of which are now adorned with the pictures of the famous writers who had once imbibed and found their pleasures there. It would have been nice to see some of the nearby villages and the Hercules Caves - said to be the place where Hercules rested from his travels upon reaching the pillars - but one can't see too much. If you see it all then you have nothing left for mystery and all is left for disappointment.

City street in the medina
The medina itself was beyond my expectation. It was the medieval center of town, buildings crammed together and surrounded by a wall, exactly how European towns had been before the days of the more established empires of Napoleon and the Hapsburgs, when they started clearing out ghettos and creating wide boulevards. Though it was much cleaner than I thought it would be. All the walks were paved and there were few pieces of trash in sight. In fact, the lack of trash throughout the Moroccan cities were a constant thing of wonder to me, given how crowded the living conditions in the medinas were and hence the impossibility of a decent sanitation system. But the locals were constantly cleaning - sweeping, gathering trash, etc. so that things wouldn't pile up - habits that themselves piled up over thousands of years. I can't imagine how things could be carried out, sense the medina tends only to be accessible by car through one road, and that one tightly so - vendors, shoppers, tourists, residents, holy men, and merchants all scrabbling out of the way when an automotive passes.

For the most part, we were left at ease while browsing through goods in various shops. Mostly, you can buy lamps, light covers, stained glass goods, tea and coffee pots, traditional clothes, and traditional shoes. And for the most part, outside of the younger generation who tend to wear blue jeans and white shirts, most Moroccans are still wearing their traditional garbs, which look something like what Jedis from Star Wars would wear, long robes with pointy hoods. The shopkeeper would come to us and stay a respectable distance, which was normal. None of the hassle that I had read about. We were only approached once by a tout, who kept insisting that he could take us to a square - which we had already visited and knew the way to. As we walked past him, he followed us and kept acting as though he were giving us a service.

Le Petit Socco, the main square of the medina
"La shukron," I kept repeating. "No thanks," in Arabic, in response to his constant offers of assistance to show us the way. Part of the magic of the medina is to get lost, and really, the Tangier medina isn't so huge to get terribly lost in. It's a perfect introduction to medina life if one is headed to Fez or Marrakech, both much more maddening and hectic. But with the modern smartphone and GPS, the tout's days are numbered even with the most ignorant of tourists.

With enough persistence, however, the tout caught my eyes. "Why are you so paranoid, man?" he said. 

"With reason, now excuse us."

Monday, February 2, 2015

the choices of travel

It was tough choosing places to go in Morocco. There is a great deal of cities that are of interest to both the wife and I, but I knew from traveling that you have to appreciate your time limitations. It's better to see one or two places well than to see fifteen places in a rush. You have to miss some things and at the end of the day, you have to realize that that’s okay. Maybe you’ll come back, maybe you won’t, but at least you can have a great and relaxed time of seeing some of the sights. To implement this, before we left, the wife and I sat down and wrote out a list of our top spots in Morocco and we shared that with each other. Then we looked at travel options - trains, planes, and automobiles - and did the best we could to respect each other’s wishes. It’s always best to add in the ideas of your partner, since there can always be something amazing that you could have never thought of, and likely your own ideas might end up stale and wanting.

The cities and things that made it to our list:

Marrakech (the wife’s list). It's the most well known of the Imperial Cities - or former capitals - of Morocco. It's also the most touristic and cleaned up, an attempt to give a bright, shiny, and happy view of an otherwise impoverished nation. That said, to see the best examples of the highlights of Moroccan culture, this is probably the city to see, with a cleaned up medina - or old town - and lots of hotels with preserved and interesting architectural flourishes.

Marrakech, credit to:

Fes (the wife’s list). Not to be confused with the funny Turkish hat - though some people do wear the hat in Morocco, namely people involved some way in tourism. It's the other well known Imperial City and famous for its giant leather factory, where most of the handmade leather you find sold in European city streets comes from. Some people say it's also what Marrakech looked like before the hotel and tourism boom, and that there are still actual people living in the medina, which is also the largest in the Arab world, and can also claim to be the largest carless urban area in the world - the place though is quickly gentrifying, as many of those people are forced out by hotel developers and many prefer better living conditions that can be more easily afforded in the newer parts of the city. It's also known as the Mecca of the West and has one of the oldest Islamic religious schools.

A view of Fes from our hotel
Chefchouan, the Blue Pearl (my list and the wife’s list). It's a small mountain town where all the buildings are painted blue. They used to be painted green back when it was forbidden for Christians to enter the city on pain of death - at that time only Muslims and Jews were allowed to enter. But then the Spanish came and ended that practice, so for some mysterious reason, the locals changed the paint to blue.

A view of Chefchouan from a restaurant in the main square

Meknes (my list). Another one of the Imperial Cities, though one of the smallest. It's only got a mere 1 million citizens living in the city - but not in the medina, which is truly the smallest of the Imperial Cities in Morocco. The medina is supposed to be more charming and friendly than those of Fes and Marrakech, with the people of the markets not so pushy. Nearby is the ancient Roman settlement of Volubilis, which is open to the public for touring. This was one of the top sights on my list for that reason, as I’m somewhat addicted to seeing ancient Roman cities. The other top sight being...

Volubilis. Photo credit:

Tangier (my list). My wife had absolutely no interest in Tangier, but I was drawn to it, because of its deep connection with American history. For one, Morocco was one of the first nations of the world to recognize American independence, and even donated a palace to the American government for use as an embassy. The palace - known as the American Legation - is the only U.S. historical landmark located outside the United States. It's now a museum, dedicated to the long history - in American eyes, quite short history in Moroccan eyes - of friendship between the two countries. Tangier was also where most of the beatniks decided to locate themselves. During the mid 20th century, it was called the Interzone and was a kind of lawless, free territory outside of any legal jurisdiction. This meant that drugs, prostitution, gambling and any other number of fun stuff was going on, and so it was a natural draw for the beats, pulling in such residents as Paul Bowles - who would spend the rest of his life there - William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Tennessee Williams, Alan Ginsberg, among others. The city is also one of the oldest cities on the Mediterranean, being first founded by the Phoenicians - and there was probably a Berber settlement there before that - even before Rome's first foundation stone had been lain.

A view of the Tangier medina
Essouiara (my list). Orson Welles shot his "Othello" in the town, making the Moor of Venice authentically Moorish. It's among the oldest cities in Morocco, having also been founded by the Phoenicians long before the Phoenicians had even started writing things down and distributing alphabetical systems to the people's of the world. It later served as the main harbor town for Marrakech, and there's reportedly nice beaches, medina and castle there. Ruled off the list since it seemed better to visit when not in winter.

Daenarys looking down at the slave city of Essouiara
The Sahara Desert (the wife’s list). This is mostly in the south of Morocco, as the north is filled by the Rim Mountains and coastlines. There are lots of Sahara tours available from Marrakech and Fes where you can go play as a camel jockey for a couple of days or a week. Most tours are several days or more long, and a day trip really is only practical from Marrakech. Some parts of the desert are still dangerous due to banditry and the currently unresolved issue of the Western Sahara, though for the most part it's probably safe.

The Sahara of Morocco, photocredit:
Those were our choices. The next step was to figure out how to get to Morocco, and let that decide where we would go from there. The cheapest flights from Prague to Morocco that I could find were on Vueling airlines with a stopover in Barcelona. I extended the stay in Barcelona - a city both of us wanted to visit - and bought tickets for the different legs, actually making the flight prices even cheaper, though not by much. The cheapest flights to Morocco were also from Vueling and went from Barcelona to Tangier, and from Fes to Barcelona. With one week to spend, that pretty much sealed our choice. We would arrive in Tangier, take the bus to Chefchouan, another bus to Fes, hopefully spend a day to see Volubilis and then make it back to Barcelona. We'd have to leave the rest for another visit, if Morocco deemed worthy of another visit.

But as we left the airport in Tangier, leaving that smiling customs official who nearly refused us entry based on their own error of not knowing how to read a passport, and how the taxi drivers had upped the price, and on my own experience with Arabs in Egypt trying to rip me off at every turn, I was beginning to wonder how this trip would round up. I'll prelude my review of Morocco with this: we will definitely return. And next week, I'll go over Tangier.    

Monday, January 26, 2015

a tangerine welcome

We arrived late in the night in Tangier. That was a bit unfortunate, since it was one day less we could see the city, but then it was one day more we got to see Barcelona, so as with most unfortunate things, there was a fortunate side. We landed at near 10:00 at night, and the passport line was quite slow going. There was one guy, a fairly modern looking fellow - that is to say, in pants, coat, and scarf - who was holding five passports. For some reason, his large family of women, composed of four large women and a baby, all sat past the passport control, tending to the baby. All of them but the mother wore a hijab, or headscarf, in the traditional Islamic fashion. My wife wondered about this, why a seemingly modern man would have his women in hijab, but I wondered if he even played a part in that at all. Unfortunately, Occam's Razor is not always so sharp and can often make a mess of things.

When finally we got up to the window, they looked at my wife's passport. For some reason it wasn't scanning on their passport machine. They looked at it closely, as though they were confused about the very existence of my wife's country, Georgia, and not quite understanding that indeed, it was a real country that existed apart from the United States. A bit understandable, since we handed the official our passports together.

After scratching his head for the fifth time, the official raised his finger and called another man over - a skinny guy with a mustache messily jutting out to the sky, waxed as though trying to imitate a Salvador Dali photograph. He took the passport and tried to scan it in as well and again it didn't work. "Sil vous plait," he said and he motioned us to where the large family was sitting. We took their seats, as now the passport check area was empty and nearly abandoned. "French? Spanish?" he said.

"English?" we replied in unison.

He grunted and frowned. "No," he said. "Uh, five minut." He left us and went to a back office, my wife's passport in his hands. Then he returned, much passed his five minut limit. The emptiness of the airport resounding with the echoes of the clicking of his shoes as he walked across the polished floor. "This visa, good, this passport, no good," he kept repeating, as though the extra time he spent in the backroom was spent rehearsing his new English phrase. "Ah, your passport?" he said to me and taking my American documents in his hand. "This passport good."

"But your embassy in Czech Republic gave me the visa," my wife explained.

"Visa good. Passport bad." Again his rehearsed phrase. He seemed proud of getting it nearly correct, as he was smiling as he said it. "Maybe you stay in Morocco three month, oui?"

"Ah, no," we answered. Maybe this was a form of strange Moroccan humor.

He then brought us over to the passport computers to show us his problem. He first put mine on the scanner. It read the numbers without a problem and brought up my information. Then he put in my wife's and put her country as Spain - which is where we flew from.

"No, I'm from Georgia. Not Spain. Georgia. Gee-ooorr-giiii-a."

As he re-conducted the search, I whispered to her ear. "Probably earlier they searched your passport as though you were an American." I laughed. It never gets old to me that people are constantly mistaking the country for the state, even when it's written on internationally recognized legal documents. If only the old president had insisted on his country being called Sakartvelo, which is how it's known in Georgian, this wouldn't be a problem. But unfortunately, American sports - and thus states - are often more well known than global politics, even by passport control officials.

The official laughed again and made one of his jokes that was more scary than funny. "Uh, maybe you want stay in Morocco for year?" He was holding my wife's passport, though now his hands were shaking. Was he nervous now?

"Look, is there a problem with the passport?" I asked, starting to lose my patience.

"No, no problem," he said, but not saying anything or doing anything more.

"So," I said.

"No problem, yes. Maybe Morocco for year, oui?" he said, still smiling and nodding his head.

"If there's no problem, can we have the passport and go to our hotel?"

"Oh, yes, yes, no problem."


He handed the passport back to my wife and led us through customs. Then asked, "Do you need a taxi? Do you need me to take you to the hotel?"

"No, just tell us where the taxis are and how much to pay."

There is a sign posted with the standard night and day prices to different locations across town. He looked at it and told us it should be 150 dirham, since the night price for the medina was 150. We left the airport to the taxi cue, which was composed of a line of light blue taxis that were all the same make and model of a 1970s Mercedes, the car which Lada modeled their Jiguli after, so they looked quite familiar to me. It was like a flash back to Georgia, the country.

"Who's next?" I asked the group of huddled taxi drivers. One came up to me.

In French then Spanish - the language we settled on - he asked where I was going.

"Hotel Continental."


"How much?" - it's important to always negotiate ahead when dealing with third world taxi drivers.


"Um, the board inside says 150." I've had the same problem in Tbilisi, where the taxi drivers are always trying to get more than the legal amount. And again, the same problem, where the drivers were working in some sort of guild or bargaining unit, as none of the other drivers offered me the correct price and they all backed the guy I was dealing with.

"150," I repeated. "The sign, 150."

He gave off some explanation - my Spanish isn't nearly good enough to know what he said and my patience at this point wasn't enough to care - as to why the sign was wrong. "250," he said.

I sighed.

"Okay, I make you deal, 225, last price," he said. It was clear now that he wasn't going to budge, as we went back and forth a few more times and he wasn't moving. And seeing that it was night and there were no other cars or people there than this rank of taxis and these drivers who had halted from their card game to look at us, it really seemed that the last price should be taken.


The airport is some distance from the city and probably well worth the 25 dollar drive that it cost, especially at midnight when no one else was near and the streets of Tangier were possibly dangerous. Not having been there, I could give no real assessment except going with the guidebooks that claimed it was dangerous. As the taxi drove, he passed a few nicely developed resort areas and a luxury golf course until finally he arrived at the medina, circling around it, appearing like a walled fortress to our right and the Straight of Gibraltar on our left, glowing cruise boats floating in the distance. And then our hotel, which was hanging over the wall, looking out across the bay and harbor to the other side of Tangier. Then the taxi took a narrow, winding road into the medina, and another narrow road going inside.

"At night time, you can't walk around the medina. It's too dangerous, you should only walk during the day." Is what I understood from his Spanish. Likewise, he could have said, "At night time it's the only time you can drive because there're too many people during the day." I wasn't really sure which he was saying, but after we parked, I assumed it was the latter.

The entrance of the Hotel Continental
He dropped us off in the parking lot of the Hotel Continental. A guy from outside came up to us. "Hey guys, you want something to drink? Some tea or coffee? My cafe is right there."

I looked at the time. It was near one o'clock in the morning. "Maybe tomorrow. Do you have shisha? Some nargile?"

"No shisha man, but I've got hashish. You want to smoke? Come on man, my cafe is right here. And I live in that blue house above it. You want to smoke, just tell me."

"We've got to check in, maybe tomorrow, for now we're a bit tired."

"Yeah, no problem man, just let me know. Come by tomorrow."

View of the parking lot from our room

We left our Tangerine greeter in the parking lot and went inside the hotel. To say the place is magnificent is perhaps an understatement. The entire place is tip top with traditional Moroccan decor, wood and tile patterns everywhere that could fit. It was a scene from a grand hotel from fifty years or more ago, back when hotels were built with character and feeling, alien to this time period of mass production and IKEA. The place also smelled of the 1950s, a musky sort of we-used-to-smoke-lots-of-cigars-here-but-now-it’s-non-a-smoking-establishment smell. And indeed they have. The Hotel Continental is the oldest hotel in Tangier, and has historically been one of the most important, with people from Winston Churchill to Jack Kerouac staying there. Now it was but an old pale ghost of its former glory, but still a beautiful architectural wonder.

The clerk brought us to our room without a problem and then, without even waiting for a tip - something from my experience in Egypt I had assumed was impossible for Arabs - left us alone. The room continued in the architectural magnificence, with the wood work on the corners and the ceiling and tiles across the floor. The bed was also nicely crafted and there was gramophone in the corner, to add to the character - having no needle, the thing didn't actually work. The living area had some quite old and in bad taste couch and arm chairs, but that wasn't really anything to complain about, especially when the curtains were pulled back to reveal a balcony looking out across the harbor. For 40 dollars, we couldn't have imagine a better place, and it probably was my favorite hotel in all of our travel through Morocco.  

View from the room

Our room

Inside the Hotel Continental

Inside the Hotel Continental

Monday, January 19, 2015

Soviet Jesus and the Gulag work brigade

Sagrada Familia
In the end, we decided that it was impossible to visit Barcelona and not go inside the Sagrada Familia. At first, I was ambivalent - I'm cheaper than most and at 15 euros, I'm even willing to pass up an entry into Heaven - assuming a corporation has bought it and turned it into a private enterprise these days. Some corporate sponsors I'm expecting to see are Starbucks, H&M and Home Depot, maybe a few banks, and in order to get to the more premium parts of Heaven, you've got to pay for the more premium tickets, because as we know, service and quality ain't free folks. Expect St. Peter with a bar code reader; he makes no exceptions when it comes to the mercy of the direct deposit - no less than two a month or your access will be barred. You'll be left sipping your chai tea latte at a grey, run-down has been mom and pop 70s diner over there on Purgatory Street, full of all the people not quite exciting enough to be sent to the Inferno.

However, with two votes a yes and only me being ambivalent, I quickly became ready to enter the eccentric cathedral, always willing to loosen the strings of my money bags when other people are involved - for at least if the experience sucks I can blame someone else for losing my money. Purchasethe tickets online and pair the tickets with the entry to the Gaudi House Museum over at Park Guell. Buy this ticket even before seeing the park, though it's best to see the park first, as it was something of his architectural playground where he perfected the techniques he would use in the church.

The Sagrada Familia was designed principally by Antoni Gaudi, from whom we get the term in English "gaudy", which means grossly out of place or extravagant, a meaning that ideally describes his projects scattered across Barcelona like a strong cayenne pepper seasoning on Cajun jambalaya. Gaudi was the 19th/20th centuries' foremost modernist architect, using the new artistic themes of art nouveau and melding them with influences of nature - creating truly bizarre, unique, functional and beautiful places, a convergence of art and architecture that seems to have been lost in today's warehouse chic world. One of his favorite artistic touches was the mosaic - a truly Spanish art - from which he often used recycled materials.

Gaudi took over the Sagrada Familia project in 1886, and though he was the chief architect, he continued on other projects as well, in some ways perhaps to experiment with various techniques and ideas that he had in store for the church. The church was originally conceived as a standard Gothic style church, but when Gaudi inherited it he decided to make it a true landmark and statement of the art nouveau movement. 

Much of his plans were lost during the Spanish Civil War and much of what we see today is actually the work of later architects somewhat inspired by Gaudi. His plans have been recovered though, and now there's been a longstanding debate as to whether to redo much of the work in order to follow his plans faithfully, or continue accordingly. Of course, if they scrap what they've done, it would also mean that there would be no way to meet the latest construction deadline of 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi's death. Interestingly, if technology from Gaudi's time were only used, the completion date wouldn't be for few hundred more years. Gaudi mentioned as to why construction was taking such a long time, he replied, "My Client is in no hurry."

Sagrada Familia rear facade
The facade of the church is - like most Gothic churches - covered in an array of sculptures. But unlike most Gothic churches, the sculptures appear as though they are hanging from the walls of a cave, as though they themselves were stalagmites and stalactites of an enormous entry to a mysterious subterranean complex. The sculptures have been added over the one hundred plus year period of construction, so they have a slight variance of style, but all of most of them seem to follow the harsh lines and angles of the early avant-garde movement, as though to show us a Soviet Jesus, who plans for the salvation of our souls in five year schedules.

Soviet Jesus and his Gulag work brigade
Though the exterior is tremendous and amazing to behold in person - indeed, no picture can truly capture the beauty of the work - it's the interior that's the real beauty. Inside, immense white columns reach up hundreds of meters, as though they were meant to hold the sky. Each column is shaped as an angular tree, with branches coming out to aid in the support of the cieling far above. Everything inside the church is white - not just the columns - but color is added by the huge stain glass windows on either side. Each array of glass follows a particular color, so that the colors beam in, coloring the columns and the ground below, almost in the same way how in a forest the sun beams in its light through the leaves of the trees above, except instead of just being a brilliant yellow, this sun is bright red or blue or green, creating such a rich ephemeral play of colors that I've only seen in animated films.

The organs resemble bishop mitres

The yellow windows of the Sagrada

The ceiling of the Sagrada Familia

Red windows of the Sagrada Familia
Is it worth the 15 euros? Absolutely. I would probably even go again, paying the same amount. I guess if that's all St. Peter were charging to his celestial Disneyland, then it'd be worth it. Not that I'm looking forward to paying for 10 dollar coffee brewed with overcooked beans and served in paper cups for the rest of eternity.  

Monday, January 12, 2015

drinking coffee from a paper cup

The second day of Barcelona still consisted of our gang of four staying at the hobbit-sized Pension Miami - whose location was excellent - not premium - decor was charming, and size was miniature, run by friendly and considerate enough employees who dealt with us despite our despairing level of Spanish. 

A clean restaurant kitchen
Day 2 was a full day. We started off with breakfast at a Spanish McDonald's type place, all the while with me complaining about drinking coffee from a paper cup. "But it's clean," my wife insisted. "But you've never had to work fast food. Sometimes those places that look a little dirty on the outside are a lot cleaner than fast food. But anyways, there is no cleanliness in restaurants as it is, my friend Joseph has taught me that enough."

Next stop was Park Guell, which was an old Catalan noble family who had hired none other than Anthony Gaudi to design the property around his house. Gaudi built pavilions for events, a viaduct for walking, some statues, and some houses, including his own. Half the property - which is now a garden - was planned to be a subdivision of houses designed by the eccentric architect, but they never got around to starting the construction. After Franco took power, the place was turned into a park and Guell's home into a school, while Gaudi's house was turned into a museum.  

No fitness required!
Park Guell is easily reached from Placa Catalunya on the L3 metro line, getting off at the Vallcarca stop - don't listen to tourist guide books, they lie, the other stop has a lot of uphill walking. The metro in Barcelona - though the general plan of the metro is about as confusing as quantum mechanics - is fairly easy to use, since each station and line is fairly simple. Leaving the metro at Vallcarca, it's pretty easy to follow the signage to the Park. The signage takes one to a series of outdoor escalators that go right up the mountainside, making the ascent easy enough for even our fattest of friends.

At the top, one is confronted with going up the hill to the place of three crosses, or going downhill to the actual park. We decided to go up the hill, see the amazing overlook, then descend along the viaduct that winds down to the pavillions. The viaduct itself looks something like a mix between a prehistoric construction and the remnants of dinosaur fossils, built with crawling and sprawling vegetation in mind, perfectly moulded to the sides of the hill. The viaduct utilizes the Catenary arch that Gaudi was famous for perfecting, which only increases the appearance and feeling that your walking through a graveyard of giant lizards, especially with how the viaduct winds its way down the hill like the route a snake might take.

The view from the three crosses

On top of the viaduct
A "leaning" Catenary arch below a viaduct
The viaduct ends at the pavillion, where also is located the official entrance to the park. Tickets are 7 euros and can be purchased online, or about a 100 meter walk away from this spot. It's probably best to buy it online, and then you can also buy the Gaudi House and Sagrada Familia ticket bundle and hit all of this stuff without waiting, if you're your good with your timing. The tickets operate on a time band basis, meaning the park sells a certain amount of tickets for a certain period of time, so that the crowds are never too large and you never really have to wait in line, especially if you purchased your tickets previously online. It's actually quite a brilliant system.

The paid area of the park includes as I said, the pavilion, a walk around the school and the backside of the entrance. It's probably actually not worth the 7 euros, since most of that can be seen from the outside almost as easily, and you can take your Facebook picture in front of the gates without actually paying admission. Besides all that, the viaducts are really the most impressive Gaudi-designed part.

View of the pavilions from the free area
View of the pavilions from the paid area

The porter's house
From there, we took about a thirty minute walk to the Sagrada Familia, the great cathedral designed by Gaudi - a tour of Barcelona really is mostly just a tour of Gaudi's work, as the city itself was a canvass for the architect.

After one look at the line, we decided to look online for tickets, and found that the next available time bands wouldn't be until the next day around noon. This meant that even those people waiting in line for hours wouldn't be able to get in that day. So again, best to book online. At the moment, we decided not to go, since it was 15 euros just to walk around inside. 

Houses on the "Block of Discord", Casa Batllo and Casa Amatller
Instead we decided to go walk down the Passeig de Gracia and see the rest of Gaudi's buildings, in what they call the Block of Discord (in Catalan, Illa de la Discordia, or Bone of Discord), because of all the out of place buildings designed by various modernist architects of various ideas. Most of the buildings have a 5 or so euro charge to enter, where you get to see one or two rooms. At Casa Batllo though - the one designed by Gaudi - you can walk around most of the house, and though it's empty of the furniture (which Gaudi also designed), you at least get to see the basics of his interior design ideas. More on that later.

Last up for the day was the Maritime Museum of Barcelona, which looks far cooler on its pamphlet than it actually is - which is unfortunately all too often the case with touristic sites, the longer I travel, the more I wonder if I should just leave things in the grandeur of my imagination than being let down by the great weight of reality and universal insignificance. What I was imagining was that the shipyard-converted-to-museum would have a bunch of massive 17th century frigates on display that you could walk around on and pretend your a pirate or fighting with pirates - I'll here admit that my mind never matured past the age of 12. But as we started walking around the Drassanes in the south part of Raval, I realized that there weren't any buildings there large enough to contain my dreams.

Be sure to take a look inside!
Outside had a little wooden submarine reminiscent of the Beatles song. You can't go inside, but you can look in the windows and see what's going on inside. In the museum, there is a large royal barge, but you can't go on it, you can only admire the view of the body of the vessel from below. Then there's a large collection of various types of small fishing boats and a section about cruise liners and pirates that has some pictures and lots and lots of reading. It took me a really long time to get through this part, because I end up trying to read everything no matter how not actually interesting the information is - don't get me wrong, the section on defending Barcelona from the dreaded Berber pirate Barbarossa was actually quite awesome.  

Also included is a small shipping vessel that's sitting out in the marina near the marina shopping mall. You get to go inside and all, but if you've been on a boat before, it's not that terribly interesting, except to take pictures at the wheel. For all of that it's 7 euros. To me it's worth it, but then I'm a fan of history museums, from the life of quixotic writers to the maritime adventures of temporarily independant ports. But if you're only going to be excited by swinging on the ropes of the riggings - something I would have enjoyed a bit more - better to find a ropes' course somewhere. The past is dead, and reliving the past seems to be left to Renaissance Faires and Dungeons and Dragons.


Monday, January 5, 2015

On quick greetings and the economics of restaurants

At the end of December, our honeymoon was finally due. We had traveled all across Bohemia for weekends away from the bustle of our new city life in Prague, but we hadn't yet had a trip where our sole focus of attention would be each other and where we could cement together our new marital bond. It was my wife's dream to go to Morocco - and also to go to see Barcelona and a flamenco show - so it was with an easy glance at flight patterns that we decided that we could do both. And to boot, we could also include a short visit with one of her best friends - the mutual friend who had original brought us together in that now defunct smokey Tbilisi bar, Amarcord, where the walls were covered with strange colorful paintings that were coated in a slightly grey nicotine ash and the tables were made from Soviet era sewing machines, which is now an apparently chic thing to do in Tbilisi bars.

After a careful study of the price variations of dates and cities, and some discussion with my wife, we had agreed that we would go to Barcelona for nights days, then fly to Tangers, travel to Chefchouan, then to Fes, spend New Years in Fes, and fly back to Barcelona for another two nights. On the first leg of the trip, we would see my wife's best friend and husband, who stay at the same hotel we would be in.

While walking along a nearly empty sidewalk, headed to the Sagrada Familia, my wife's friend Salome noted, "We all make good travel companions. It's hard to find an agreement with who you're traveling with. Sometimes a person wants to walk everywhere and see as much as possible - like us - other people just want to shop, and others want to eat and drink." As she was saying this, I was imagining sitting down for a cup of coffee and watching people out the window hurry by with their time-dependent consistency, a hobby I had formed and loved since the days of my wandering Europe with no aim or vision or schedule - possibly the freest time of my life. Salome was right, there needs to be consistency on how people travel to make a good trip. I tried best to suit my companions' needs, also wanting to see as much of Barcelona as I could, though I preferred my snails' coffee drinking, wine sipping pace.

A street in the Raval district
We found our hotel with ease. There is a bus that costs 5 pounds 40 one way, or 11 pounds 20 two ways, from terminals 1 and 2 of the Barcelona airport to the city center, with stops at Placa de Espanya and Universitat, ending at Placa de Catalunya, which is the aortic heart of Barcelona, the primary arteries of Passeig de Gracia and Las Ramblas both stemming out of that plaza's ventricles. Our hotel was called Pension Miami, located in the Raval district, about a 5 minute walk from Placa de Catalunya and 2 minutes from Universitat, right behind the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art. The rooms are tiny, but with nice touches of character, like carefully carved woodwork making a kind of mantel over the otherwise Spartan bed. The room isn't much bigger than the bed, the bathroom follows suit, and the Russian couple staying next door could easily be heard with every entry and exit, and one could take pleasure in their snoring while using the toilet with the window to the bathroom's sunwell open. Our bedroom window opened to another sunwell, so we had no view of the street - which after visiting Spain with my parents earlier in the year, I discovered was a wonderful thing. The Spanish don't start their partying until around 11 and finish up at 7 in the morning, every day of the week, and since typical Spanish bars are about the size of that Pension Miami hotel room, most of the partying happens on the street.

In the Gothic quarter
As soon as we arrived at the hotel, we met Salome and her husband Avto, and immediately went out for a walk through the Gothic district. The Gothic district - so-called because of the Germanic influence on the cathedrals of the area - is a tightly packed district of narrow winding corridors and tall, five story buildings. Many corridors can't fit even two or three people shoulder-to-shoulder, so that much of the area is pedestrian only by default. A walk through this large area can show you how people have been living in Europe for centuries, and because of how large the district is, more successfully than any other district in perhaps any other place on the Continent.

It was good seeing Salome again, both because she's a smart woman who's nice to talk to and because of the joy her company brings to my wife. It was a pity that we were in such a rush everywhere, with such a short time for each other and for the city, and we had to balance the time like a man might balance his illegitimate lovers - our spending time exploring the city almost felt like cheating on each other. But we take what we are given and sought to enjoy our march through those Catalonian alleyways.

First up was dinner, and while in Spain, I wasn't going to miss paella - a rice based dish of various sea creatures - which I had fallen in love with while traveling with my seafood-faring parents. This was my one culinary requirement. And we passed one restaurant serving it - indeed, as we'd later see, there are plenty of restaurants serving it - with a guy standing outside, inviting people in. We opted against it. Salome's reasoning for her negative vote, "Restaurants that need someone on the street to convince people to come in can't be good."

Walking along La Rambla
In Spain though, this is the standard regime. It might be something carried on down from their Moroccan heritage, since the Arabs seem to have the same habit about getting people inside, since certainly nowhere else in Europe has this annoying habit of trying to invite people to come in - except maybe in certain, tourist heavy places. Outside of every restaurant stands a "tout", telling you about how delicious their food is, offering discounts, and often blocking your way with their menus and bodies so that you'd quit walking and come inside. Of course, for most people, this has the effect of frightening them off - like in my companions' case, and it would in my case too had I not seen the practice before.

We ended up at a restaurant on La Rambla. I'm convinced that every restaurant on La Rambla is exactly the same and with somewhat poor quality. "But there are a lot of people in them," Salome protested my rambling on La Rambla while we waited for our food.

"Here's something I especially learned in Prague," I said. "Often the most touristic restaurants are the worst. This is because of what they have to compete on. You can compete on location, atmosphere, food quality, service, and probably a few other things. Touristic restaurants are competing on location and often atmosphere. Because they have the location, they know that the thousands of tourists in Barcelona every weekend are going to see their restaurant and come inside to eat, because it's easy, and they see other people in there - other tourists like them - and assume that because other people are there, it must be a decent enough place. But then, because the restaurant knows this, they don't really have to invest on the quality of the food or necessarily the service.

"Every real estate agent will tell you that value is made from 'location, location, location', and for the lazy, uninspired restaurateur, this is absolutely true. They need the location, and the steep prices the location brings, to raise up profits, rather than a strong reputation for quality service and amazing food.

"Better then, I think, the restaurants that aren't located in the primary thoroughfares. Maybe you'll get an occasional restaurant competing on food quality in a touristic location, but then they'll easily get famous being touted on Tripadvisor or Lonely Planet, they'll up their prices or down their quality to make more money. But if you can find something just outside of super easy reach - like being on La Rambla - and preferably not having been on Lonely Planet for too long, then you'll find a restaurant that might be competing on food quality."

The food that night was plain, the paella uninspiring. And to be sure on our return path through Barcelona when we again ate at a paella place on La Rambla, I found the paella equally dull as my wife found her pizza pretty flavorless. This only confirmed my suspicions about the economics of restaurants.