Worldwide there were more people travelling than ever before – many of them seemingly to Wanaka. In 2018 we decided to reverse the flow and head to Europe and Morocco for another awfully big adventure. It was a wonderful and enriching trip, we had extraordinary and memorable experiences wherever we went. However, we became increasingly aware of a phenomenon called over-tourism. Cheap flights, a burgeoning global middle-class, the influence of social media and mass tourism had combined to produce disastrous consequences for many of the world’s iconic and even less-well known destinations. Several places we visited were experiencing the effects of over-tourism and we later discovered that this was part of a global problem: cities, towns, villages, historic buildings, National Parks and beauty spots, as well as local inhabitants and communities were being overwhelmed, unable to cope with the hordes of travellers. This was an eye-opener for us and changed how we thought about travel and tourism. Of course, that was before the world was hit by the global pandemic and Covid-19 drastically reduced international travel. The long-term consequences are still being played out. In the meantime, we can at least record and savour our big adventure, knowing it could well be our last of that scope and duration.
Day One….Wednesday, 21 March
Wanaka to Queenstown
Packed, prepped and eager to head off on our biggus trippus, we were picked up at the house by Ritchies Shuttle service.
The driver kindly agreed to drop us off at the Ramada Inn not far from the airport. We checked in and as it was now raining, we decided we’d grab a bite to eat at Frankie’s Bistro in the hotel foyer, with its welcoming cacophony of chatter, clinking cutlery and steaming cups of coffee. The weather remained grim, wet and moody, so we whiled away our time reading in our room till evening. We ordered take away Thai delivered to the hotel.
Day Two…Thursday, 22nd March
Queenstown to Singapore
As always before an early wake-up call, we slept fitfully; Kerrie woke every hour on the hour and then was awake from 2.30am onwards, not helped by an eerie blue glow from the alarm clock and inexplicable bursts of light emanating from the phone. We weren’t abducted by aliens and at 5am our alarms went off but by then we were up and about.
Our taxi arrived at 5.45am and charged us $18 for the 500 metre drive to the airport plus a $2 fee for paying by eftpos. Queenstown’s tourist tax perhaps?
Air New Zealand’s self-check-in machine had a meltdown, unable to cope with ticketing us through to Spain, managing to get us as far as Auckland, where we’d need to get boarding passes for the ongoing flights. Bags we were told, would go straight through to Barcelona where we would have to clear customs.
Our flight to Singapore was in an A380 airbus, which was great. But the food was hugely disappointing – not much better than cafeteria quality. But maybe that’s the price of travelling economy these days. Note to selves – must upgrade next time – and hang the cost. Kerrie’s drug of choice for long flights is binge viewing and she had the screen up and glowing, navigating her way through movie options before we’d taxied off the apron. Andrew was determined to finish his book, Munich by Robert Harris, a slick and insightful historical thriller at which he excels.
As always on flights from New Zealand to Asia, we checked after 5 or 6 hours and were passing over Dubbo in central New South Wales. A reminder just how far away we are and of the vastness of the Australian continent.
After 10-11 hours and four movies (for Kerrie) we arrived in Singapore, already feeling pretty knackered. We had five hours to wait for the next flight to Barcelona, so we ambled up and down the terminal concourse staring blearily into brightly lit branded shops with extravagantly priced goods that nobody seemed to be buying. You wonder how they make a living.
If you’re going to spend time in an airport then Changi is the place to be.
Rated number one in the world, it has carpeted floors, gardens with real orchids, free trolleys and, we discovered, free foot massage machines. We approached warily, inserted our legs, pushed a button and were initially startled by the vigorous almost, muscular action of the massage attacking our soles and calves.
But like all good massage a certain amount of discomfort is de rigeur. We varied the tempo and style, cycling through a series of options and after the recommended 15 minutes of therapy, put our shoes back on and glided away.
Having poo-pooed duty-free shopping, we then succumbed to an impulse purchase. We’d been thinking about getting a more powerful zoom lens for the Nikon as we’re going on two wildlife cruises and, as we passed a camera shop which sold Sony cameras Andrew suggested that Kerrie see if they had the model she had at work on the ODT which had a great zoom lens. They did – but the last one was the demo version on the shop floor. Anyway, we got a great deal with bag and 32 GB memory card thrown in for free. As we completed the purchase we realised we were in the wrong terminal and had to catch a skytrain to terminal 1. Off we raced and made check-in on time for our 00:05 AM flight to Barcelona.
Day Three…Friday, 23rd March
Singapore to Seville
We settled in for our 14 hour flight to Barcelona with a determined weariness. The food didn’t improve. Being an overnight flight as we headed back in time, we both tried to get as much sleep as possible. Luckily, we had a spare seat in our row so Kerrie contorted herself into as uncomfortable a position as humanly possible while Andrew zoned out watching Justice League of America. You just wish that the Superheroes would wake up to the real threat to the world – not satyr horned aliens wielding monstrous power from uniting three glowing cubes but President Trump wielding three vacuous egos and conjuring up the far more dangerous forces of the alt-right. Oh – and as you’ve probably guessed Andrew is on to his next book, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury – Inside the Trump White House.
Gazing out of the window on a world of darkness punctuated by glowing camps of human civilisation, our view may not have been as lofty as those of orbiting astronauts but still we wondered whether we can get it right for the survival of our species. We are so many, we consume so much and yet seem oblivious to the consequences.
Our Airbus A350-900 ate up the kilometres – supposedly more energy efficiently – but it still took 14 hours to reach Barcelona.
Customs was a breeze, no arrival card, no visa, but then it transpired, no baggage either – arggh! We waited patiently by the carousel until we were the lonely last, pathetic figures hoping for a miracle.
Asking an airport attendant, we were directed to the lost luggage office but just as we were digging into reserves for the bureaucratic wrangling ahead, a smart, suited official asked to see our boarding passes with the luggage dockets attached. Ah, he said, no problems your luggage is going on to your final destination, Seville. Here in Spain you don’t clear your baggage at the port of entry. Relief flooded through us and hope returned as we climbed aboard our domestic Vuelin airlines flight to Seville and we saw our bags trundle up on a baggage transporter to the plane.
Staying awake and coherent was the challenge now. An hour and half later, we landed in Seville, waiting expectantly for our trusty Kathmandu bags. But again, we were left staring with desperate optimism at the now stationary carousel wondering how on earth the bags could have disappeared between Barcelona and Seville except by some malignant force (alien or Trumpian).
Andrew trudged over to the lost baggage counter and asked a woman who initially made no sense (or Andrew’s jetlagged brain couldn’t make sense of what she said, at least). We stared at each other wondering what to do next when the woman called over and asked if we’d travelled on an international flight before this one – we said, yes we had. Ah, she said, well your bags could be on the international carousel, number 1, and pointed up the baggage hall. We wandered dazedly up the hall and then as if spying lost children, saw our two bags utterly alone making the sad and lonely circuit on the international carousel – probably for the 49th time. We summoned up reserves of energy, raced in and grabbed them before they dematerialised or got transported to another dimension.
By now it was 45 minutes since we’d landed but fortunately, our pre-arranged taxi driver was still waiting with a sign saying ‘Andrew’ and a friendly Sevillian smile. All was going to be well!
In his brand-new taxi, only one week old (no bags inside please!) he drove us through the outskirts of Seville and into the maze of tiny streets of the old city, past piles of seats stacked in preparation for the Santa Semana to our apartment, where the bubbly and kindly Sylvia was waiting to greet us.
She showed us to our apartment, small but bright and cosy, with its own terrace and just a couple of minutes’ walk from the Cathedral.
After travelling for 44 hours door to door (Queenstown to Seville), first priority was a shower. Refreshed, we went for a walk. The weather was overcast and rainy but we needed fresh air – and lunch. We happened to spot a bar-restaurant – Bodeguita Romero. It was jam packed – always a good sign. After standing around hopefully for a few minutes a table came free and we settled down. A cheery, rotund waiter bustled up and in Andrew’s muzzy Spanish he managed to order some tapas – marinated potatoes, ham croquettes, salt cod in tomato sauce and a cold tomato and garlic soup. Kerrie had her first café con leche – good and strong followed by sparkling mineral water (our alcohol-free regime firmly in place).
We were in that surreal state of disconnection, like time travellers (and really that’s what we were), neither in one place or the other, our brains trying to catch up with our bodies but not quite succeeding, as we watched locals going about their customary lives. We were happy just to soak up the atmosphere and remind ourselves that yes, we’re now in Spain.
The local mini-mart was conveniently across the road, so we bought some supplies and headed back to our apartment. By now it was raining steadily, putting paid to thoughts of any more sight-seeing.
We tried to fire up the laptop but it stubbornly refused to emerge from deep sleep mode. We gave up, tried to read, gave up and went to bed. It was 5pm.
Kerrie woke up at midnight – thought it must have been later but then realised the time and went back to sleep. We both woke again around 2:30 am, had tea and toast and read for a while before slumping again into jet-lagged slumber. So ended our first day in Spain.
Day Four…Saturday, 24th March
We woke to a cool, overcast morning with the promise of rain. We were expecting it to be warmer but as we discovered later it’s been unseasonably chilly with rain throughout the month of March. But the forecast is for it to fine up for Santa Semana. Yay!
Despite the weather, we needed to get some fresh air, stretch the legs and get a sense of Seville’s old city. We decided to follow a walk suggested by Lonely Planet around the perimeter of El Centro. With jetlagged attention to detail we assembled everything we needed for our first foray out and about. Raincoat – check. Money – check. Guidebooks and maps, check. Sunglasses – oh,oh. Andrew had his but when Kerrie opened up her large, sturdy sunglasses case …there was nothing inside! Kerrie thinks she left them in her handbag at home.
So first thing on the agenda was to buy some sunglasses for Kerrie. Conveniently there just happened to be a shop on the corner near our apartment, and the sales person was English, which helped.
Vacillating between Jacquie Onassis mysterious and enigmatic, and Audrey Hepburn glamour and character, Kerrie eventually opted for the Hepburn look. Good choice.
Off we went, walking alongside Seville’s massive cathedral, on the Avenida de la Constitución.
We passed the entrance to the Alcazar eyeing the queues with apprehension. We want to visit both of these iconic buildings – but need to figure out how and when, to avoid the crowds if at all possible.
We did our best to follow the route but the maze of alleyways, lack of street signs and the questionable accuracy of the tourist map made it difficult. In the end we opted to follow the spirit of the walk and wander down narrow, cobbled streets that looked interesting, with occasional oddities like a spice and herb shop – with baskets arrayed outside you could sniff and sample. Wonderful aromas.
Passing through Santa Cruz, the Jewish quarter, adjacent to the Alcázar, we soaked up the sense of history and culture that emanated from the historical buildings, our brains adjusting from the New World to the Old.
By chance we came to Plaza de La Encarnación with the startling modern architecture of the Metropol Parasol, known locally as Las Setas de la Encarnación (The mushrooms of Incarnation), a giant wooden structure, said to be the largest in the world.
Eventually we found ourselves at an information office near the Museum of Modern Arts and got another tourist map of the city, which also had promotional offers for various tours. We’re not generally keen on tours, but in the case of some of the things we wanted to see and visit, thought they’d be worth checking out.
As we wandered along calle Tetuán, our noses were assailed with the tempting aroma of cooking – garlic and fish. As we got closer, we looked down a side street and saw people standing out on the cobbles with small platters of fried fish and calamari – the food looking and smelling delectable. Turned out this was Blanco Cerrillo, one of Seville’s oldest bars, specialising in fresh, quick and easy sea food. We had to try some! Andrew went and bought a medium sized plate of calamari – delicious!
Sustained by the calamari we pressed on with our somewhat haphazard orientation of the old town and finally found ourselves back at the cathedral. We grabbed a table outside one of the many restaurants and ordered some tapas – Russian salad, mushroom risotto and sheep’s cheese in olive oil, washed down with an alcohol-free beer. Estupendo!
Everywhere we went, there were orange trees, burdened with fruit. At last a city where you can buy true Seville orange marmalade – too Andrew’s delight!
Walking back to our apartment, we came across a curious shop window full of chocolate figurines depicting the caped and hooded figures that form the celebrated Santa Semana processions – as well as giant Easter eggs, half a metre tall.
Back at the apartment, Andrew was determined to get the laptop going. After hunting around on the internet on his phone, he found a Microsoft help website which suggested various procedures. The first two didn’t work. Getting worried now! But the third and last option was successful and we were finally able to reboot the Surface from its deep slumber. Why it had gone into this mode, who knows. One of life’s and technology’s many mysteries.
Hunting around for information on what to do in Seville, Andrew found a really helpful site called “Seville for the first time, an online visitor’s guide to Seville” by Sandra Vallaure, with suggestions for places less visited by tourists and some handy hints and recommendations for Santa Semana.
Our Surface Pro4 now wide awake and over its version of jetlag, Kerrie settled down to write up the first post for our Blog.
Day Five…Sunday 25th March
Although a rainy day, we wanted to get out and about and see something of Seville’s famed history and culture. We decided to check out two of ‘Sandra’s’ recommendations from the “Seville for the first time” website of places to visit that are not so much on the tourist trail.
First was Palacio de la Condesa de Lebrija in Calle Cuna, a grand house, dating in parts from the 15th century, purchased by the Condesa at the beginning of the 20th century that became a home for her passion – archaeology. You enter through an imposing set of wooden, metal embossed doors which take you into an entrance hall decorated with tiled scenes that evoke poetic themes such as Elagia.
The floors are paved with a rare and beautiful stonework called Opus Sectile in which thin slices of stone such as marble are cut and inlaid in a pattern. Apparently, the stone used here is so rare that supplies were exhausted after the 3rd Century, AD.
For a small entrance fee of €6.50, you get access to the ground floor with stunning displays of 2000 year old mosaics, some from the ancient Roman town of Italica, not far from Seville, some from land owned by the Condesa, and a range of Roman, Persian and Islamic antiquities.
The arches surrounding the patio are in typical Mudejar decorative style, used by Moors who stayed after the Catholic Monarchy reclaimed Spain, a beautiful blend of Islamic and Christian architectural design and aesthetics.
From there we wended our way in steady rain through a series of narrow streets and alleyways to the second recommendation: the Palace of the Adelantados Mayores of Andalusia, better known as the Casa de Pilatos.
This grand house built around a spacious courtyard dates from the last quarter of the 15th century was founded by the Enríquez de Ribera family. Enlarged and embellished between the 15th and 16th centuries, remarkably, today the property is still in the same family.
The entry fee included an audio guide which provided plenty of information, although delivered in a robotic manner.
The first and largest room off the courtyard boasted tiled walls and a coffered ceiling – all remarkably well preserved and/or restored.
The doors and window shutters were designed and constructed in a unique way – intricately carved wood in geometric shapes inlaid in a series of patterns into the larger frame.
Painted tiles or azulejos are a significant feature of Seville’s architecture, and almost all the walls on the ground floor are covered in arista tiles, made by pressing clay against carved wooden moulds. When the tiles were commissioned by the palace’s owner, it was on the condition that the maker could produce 2000 a day, that was back in the 16th century. The colours and designs are still vibrant and striking today.
The tradition of ceramic tiles has its origins in Moorish times when the art of painting and glazing the tiles really took off. Prohibited from depicting living things, Moorish artists created the abstract geometric designs that are still common today.
We spent an hour or two wandering through the rooms and gardens, marvelling at the beauty of decorated walls and ceilings, the latter in Moorish fashion designed to conjure a celestial vision of stars and planets.
Other notable features included sculptures and two original bas-reliefs dating to the times of Mark Anthony.
And ancient bougainvilleas trained up the sides of the building.
Our last stop was the shop – where Kerrie spied a beautiful scarf of Moorish design, with geometric shapes in bright but tasteful colours.
When we emerged, it had stopped raining, thankfully. It was time for lunch, and we soon found ourselves in the Plaza Pescaderia and a restaurant serving tapas. The crowds were gathering in anticipation of the processions starting today that make Santa Semana famous throughout Spain and the world. Despite being dressed up for the occasion some kids were playing soccer in the plaza – the smartest and most agile was a six or seven-year old girl in a green dress, giving her older brothers a run for their money.
Walking back to the apartment we came across our first procession passing through the Plaza Nueva – a stunning spectacle of robed and hooded faithful, all in white and wearing the distinctive conical headdress.
This was the procession of La Paz. There are some 60 different brotherhoods, each associated with a particular church, each with their dress, banners, route taken through the old city to the Cathedral and back and most importantly, with their own floats or pasos depicting a scene from the story of Christ’s journey from Palm Sunday to the crucifixion and resurrection. Following the paso of Christ comes a second float dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Some of these floats date back to the 16th and 17th centuries and are highly ornate, in gold or silver, covered in flowers and with elaborately carved figures in tableaux.
Each procession has two or three bands, small orchestras or choirs that create a mood of reverence and inspiration for marchers and especially the costaleros – the 30 or more men carrying the floats. Some of the pasos weigh up to a ton and the effort is huge.
We watched as the procession passed through enormous crowds gathered on either side of the route, soaking up the atmosphere.
Heading back to the apartment, we got caught up in the crowds following the main route for the processions. This is not a place for anyone with claustrophobia or fear of crowds – you are literally jammed shoulder to shoulder in a tightly compressed mass, shuffling along, squeezing through gaps to make your way along.
Slowly, we inched our way along Avenida de Constitución, circling around the cathedral as the way to our apartment was blocked by sectioned off areas of paid seating. Apparently, these are booked months in advance.
On the way we saw another procession, Jesús Despojado.
Finally we were able to get across the main route to our apartment on the other side, and by sheer accident came to another of ‘Sandra’s’ recommended sites, El Postigo, one of the ancient gates into old Seville.
Next to El Postigo we also found a quirky plaza, called Plaza del Cabildo with a portion of old city wall and decorated timber buildings.
Somewhat weary, we got back to our apartment, had a cup of tea and a nap.
Refreshed, about 8pm we decided to go for a short stroll, and a recce to try and spot information bureau. We found ourselves back in the Plaza Nueva, now empty of crowds. Convinced he knew where he was heading, Andrew took us off in the wrong direction out of the square and instead of heading back to the apartment we wound up wandering the length of Seville’s classiest street and one of the main thoroughfares for the processions, Sierpes. Classic!
Eventually we worked out we were heading the wrong way and after asking directions, we made our way back through the maze of old streets and alleyways to our apartment. An extraordinary day.
Day Six…Monday 26th March
We’d had a look at the tours offered on the tourist map we were given on Saturday and decided we’d like to do some of them, so we went to the nearest information bureau we’d seen just around the corner. There we met a chatty and cheery travel agent called Carmen who talked us through various options and we decided on the following:
- Tour of Itálica, ancient Roman ruins (Tuesday)
- Flamenco show (Tuesday night)
- Tour of city of Córdoba (Saturday)
- Tour of the Cathedral and Alcázar (Sunday, with Carmen)
- Boat tour along the Guadalquivir River (Any day)
An hour or so later, we were all set. We found a restaurant and sat outside with coffee and snack before returning to the apartment to start work on the blog and post our first instalment.
One of the handy things in the “Seville for the first time” website is ‘Sandra’s’ recommendation for which processions to watch and where. Following her suggestion, we headed back to Plaza Nueva, by the Ayuntamiento, a grand, classically designed government building. This is the main route for processions, so there were barriers to protect the paid seating, but we stood on the pavement behind and still were able to get a reasonable view as the processions passed.
We found ourselves next to a delightful Spanish couple, Jaime and Rocío. Jaime had spent three years in Oxford and spoke near perfect English, while Rocío (meaning dew in Spanish) had completed her law degree and was planning on taking the exams to enter government service.
They kindly explained more about the processions, the roles of the different members of the brotherhoods. We learnt that the ones wearing the conical headdress are called nazarenos, they lead the procession, going ahead of the paso of Christ. The hoods and headdresses are traditionally worn to protect their identities. Being a penitent is something to be seen only by God. Following the paso come the penitentes, carrying wooden crosses and without the conical hats. Some of the nazarenos and penitentes walk bare footed in sympathy with Christ. Each procession has two floats – the second always of the Virgin Mary.
The pasos are carried by costaleros. They bear the considerable weight of the paso on the backs of their necks, moving in time with the music, swaying from side to side or front to back in such a way as to convey a realistic sense that the figures on the float are indeed making their way through the streets of Jerusalem.
This demands immense strength, endurance and discipline as the thirty or more costaleros must move in unison.
They train for a month or more before the Santa Semana and when you see them emerge from beneath the paso, to hand over to another crew, you see first of all that they are built like weight lifters or wrestlers and then that they all have great welts and bruises on their necks.
The pressure and the pain must be incredible – and we heard that injuries are common.
We decided we’d stay in the Plaza Nueva, chatting with Jaime and Rocío and watched the following processions:
- Santa Genoveva (white robes with black capes and conical hats)
- Santa Marta (no music, black robes with candles)
- San Gonzalo (white robes and red candles)
Since some processions took longer than others to pass, we asked Jaime how many members of the brotherhood marched. It varies but for example the three processions we’d seen numbered respectively:
- Santa Genoveva – 1800
- Santa Marta – 1000
- San Gonzalo – 2300
The longer processions can take up to an hour and half to pass.
Saying cheerio to Jaime and Rocío, we went back to our apartment for dinner.
However, the processions continue well into the night and we were keen to experience something different.
Following another of Sandra’s recommendations, we decided to watch the return of La Vera Cruz, founded in 1448, passing through Plaza de la Gavidia, which was expected to be at 11:30pm.
Finding our way through the streets, squares and alleyways, through the crowds was quite an undertaking, using maps and asking as we went. Despite several false leads and trails, we finally got there. After waiting for about an hour, the procession arrived about 11:45.
The transformation was absolutely extraordinary. The bustling square, which had steadily filled with crowds, people chatting, drinking and smoking suddenly became hushed.
Everyone lined the pavements and watched as the procession made its way down one side of the square and then navigated a tight corner beneath an overhanging tree, the tip of the cross barely missing a branch.
You could almost hear a pin drop. Even to us as foreign spectators, it seemed an absolutely magical scene. But then came the most unexpected (for us) and awe-inspiring moment. The paso halted at the corner of the square and up above on a balcony a woman began to sing a haunting lament.
The crowd listened in silent reverence while she sang, then cheered as a new team of costaleros hefted the paso aloft and continued on their journey back to their church.
We were quite stunned by the whole atmosphere.
As we walked back to our apartment, we caught one other procession on its way home, Las Penas.
Day Seven…Tuesday, 27th March
Since it was 1:30am before we got to bed last night, we had a very slow and leisurely start. We walked down to the banks of the River Guadalquivir at 11:30am, the starting point for our bus tour to Itálica at 12 noon.
We were part of a tour group of around 20 and, as we found out, speaking a range of languages. This proved slightly frustrating as our tour leader had to explain everything in English, Spanish and French each time she spoke.
It was a short drive to the site, a few kilometres outside Seville and we got out there at 12:15. After the obligatory bathroom stop, we finally got under way around 12:25.
The history of Itálica is both surprising and quite amazing. One of the earliest Roman settlements in Spain, it was founded in 206 BC by Publius Cornelius Scipius, known as Africanus following his defeat of the Carthaginians. He established Itálica as a place to house legionaries after the battle of Ilipa. Legend has it that it had been a staging post for Hannibal’s army and its elephants on their way to attack an ally of Rome, setting off the second Punic war. Despite Hannibal’s initial successes, the Roman army under Scipio drove them back and out of Spain.
Itálica was distinguished as the birthplace of two Roman emperors – Trajan and Hadrian. The town rose to high social and military status in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, when Trajan and his nephew Hadrian were in power. Hadrian named the town, which had a population of 8,000, Colonia Aelia Augusta Italica. The area was a major producer of grain and olive oil, and some families with private farms became very wealthy exporting to Rome.
What’s left for us to see today are paved roads, as well as the remains of several houses that belonged to wealthy owners.
We know this because of the exceptionally beautiful and well-preserved mosaics, extending over a large area and clearly delineating a series of rooms and which only the richest landowners could have afforded.
One of these is known as the House of Birds due to exquisitely portrayed bird species in the mosaics.
A piercing whistle broke the peace of the sunny spring day. We looked around and saw a woman in uniform pointing to a small boy who was climbing on one of the walls and telling his parents to get him off immediately. It always amazes us that parents need to be told to manage their children around historic sites – and it was good to see that Spain takes its archaeological treasures seriously enough to police and protect them.
Archaeological remains include walls, floors, columns, ovens, water fountains and pools. One pool with evidence of a heating system to warm the water next door, had a fabulous configuration of water-themed images in mosaic tiles, featuring Neptune and an assortment of creatures from fish to mammals and even a crocodile beside which is an African pygmy.
We wandered around to another site where some archaeologists were busy at work – the job of excavation and preservation is ongoing. Right beside them was a stunning mosaic floor depicting the heads of the seven gods after whom the days of the week are named.
Roman practicality means we can still see the sewage drains – an engineering and sanitation innovation that much of the rest of the world took centuries if not millennia to catch up with (shades of “but what have the Romans ever done for us…?”).
Most spectacular of all though is one of the largest and best-preserved Roman amphitheatres.
The 25,000-seater amphitheatre, one of the largest in the Roman Empire, has partly survived (two storeys out of three). A central pit in the arena was used for animal cages to house the bears, wild boar and other local fauna for use in gladiatorial combats. It could also be flooded from a lake above the amphitheatre to stage sea battles in miniature.
So impressive is the site that in 2016 it was used as a filming location for season 7 of Game of Thrones.
Why the Romans built such a large capacity amphitheatre in a town with a population estimated to be just 8000 people is something of a mystery. Maybe they thought it would grow into a major city. However, from the 3rd century AD the town lost its affluence, possibly due to a problem with its port on the river Guadalquivir.
Sadly – although all too common in human history – throughout the Middle Ages and until the last century, the ruins were used as a source of building materials – including in some of Seville’s grand houses.
After an hour and half, it was time to board our bus and return to Seville. We decided it was time for a well-earned lunch.
We settled on Bogueditas Antonio Romero on the way back to our apartment. In Spanish style we enjoyed an excellent and leisurely lunch over an hour or two, sampling local specialities such as bean and chorizo soup, shrimp fritters, spinach and garbanzo beans and ‘piripiri’, little hot sandwiches containing, ham, sheep’s milk cheese and bacon and tomato. Delicious!
Back at the apartment, we downloaded all our photos so far onto the laptop, had a nap then it was time to go to the Flamenco show.
This turned out to be a major drama!! We allowed half an hour to get there on foot – the only way to get around Seville’s old town. But of course, the town centre was heaving with thousands of people out to watch the processions. Andrew thought the safest way was around the back of the cathedral. This proved to be hopelessly wrong! The crowds were so thick and the streets so full – the only way we could get through was at one stage to almost join one of the processions! Walking alongside the nazarenos, we asked which procession this was – and were told Santa Cruz.
Navigating our way through the dense crowds was virtually impossible, despite Kerrie’s tenacity and skills in shouldering her through seemingly impenetrable huddles of humanity. Not helped by the lack of street signs and Old Seville’s maze-like layout. In the end after some tense moments and a desperate failed attempt to call the Museo de Baile Flamenco (Museum of Flamenco Dance), we finally saw a sign indicating it was nearby. We got there at 9:15pm, 30 minutes late for our booked performance. Luckily the woman behind the counter was sympathetic and said we could go to the next performance at 10:15. Phew. In something of a lather, we found a local restaurant and had a superb chocolate cake, a reward for our Odyssean travails, and a cold drink.
The flamenco performance was worth waiting for – guitarist, two singers and three dancers gave a bravura performance of drama, passion and brio. One woman in particular – her dance was a tour de force.
And fortunately, the management had a strict policy of no photos or videos, so the atmosphere was immersive and uninterrupted.
We emerged at 11:15pm, and thought we’d try and catch another of Sandra’s recommended processions, La Candeleria on Calle Cuna.
Although it was very close, we still managed to take a wrong turn and wound up back at the cathedral – still it meant we caught another procession passing on its way home, La Bofeta.
Undeterred, we decided to give it a last try and find our way to Plaza del Salvador, a major way-station of the processional routes where TV cameras were set up with crane, cameras on wires etc to catch all the action. We got there in time to watch La Candelaria pass through with their paso de Cristo.
A magical scene with hundreds of nazarenos and penitents carrying metre long lit candles.
Everyone, young and old, kids and teenagers, all excited, taking pictures on their cell phones.
By now it was well past midnight, but the mood was happy, friendly, hushed and respectful as the paso passed by, almost nudging into the crowd where Andrew was standing as they negotiated a tight turn. The paso can’t have been more than a few feet away, the dark and tormented figure of Christ atop a glittering gold float.
Kerrie got herself a position as close as possible to the processional route with her camera while Andrew took some photos on his iPhone.
Talk about a multi-camera shoot!
By now feeling pretty exhausted, we made our way back to the apartment through, by now half empty streets; street cleaners were out in force to sweep away the day’s rubbish. We are most impressed with the city’s efforts to keep the streets clean in preparation for the next day.
Wearily home and to bed around 1am.
Day Eight…Wednesday 28th March
After our late night, we had a slow start and quiet morning. We went through the various recommended things to do, discounting anything too demanding and given the gorgeous weather, decided to go for a walk in the Maria Luisa Gardens and visit the Plaza de España.
We sauntered along the Avenida de la Constitución, past the grandiose looking Hotel Alfonso XIII and the University, then an imposing edifice in 19th century colonial Latin American style, built for the 1929 International Exposición Iboamericana, now a casino.
In the gardens we stopped to look at the statue of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, celebrated Spanish poet of the late 19th century.
From there we went on to the imposing Plaza España, a massive colonnaded, semi-circular building fronting miniature canals where people were boating, and groups of goldfish lazily meandered and gulped.
Also constructed for the 1929 World Fair, this magnificent structure had fallen into disrepair but was restored in 2010 to its former glory.
Along the curved face of the building is a series of 48 tiled alcoves each one dedicated to a Spanish region and depicting a typical scene (eg Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and windmills for Castilla-La Mancha).
By now it was mid-afternoon and heating up, the sun reflecting off the tiled and stone surfaces. It was time to seek some shade.
The Parque Maria Luisa gardens were a haven of peace and tranquillity, away from the crowds thronging the streets. Not exactly Botanic Gardens and in need of a little care and attention – but nonetheless delightful, full of shady pathways, fountains, ponds that are home to ducks, swans and goldfish. We walked over a small bridge onto the island of birds, full of sleepy looking water birds and climbed a small vantage point that looks out over the gardens.
People strolled, sunbathed or took rides in horse-drawn buggies.
We returned to our very conveniently situated apartment, had a cuppa tea and put our feet up for a while. But only for half an hour or so as Sylvia, who checked us in, had recommended to Kerrie that we go and watch a procession leaving its church just around the corner. We got there early and positioned ourselves directly opposite the huge wooden doors of La Capilla de Piedad, and waited for the emergence of El Baratillo.
We were in full sun for over an hour and a quarter, one reason we were able to find a free spot to watch; thank goodness for the protection of our Sunday Afternoon hats – which attracted amused attention but kept the sun off our faces and necks. The crowds steadily gathered until we were pressed tight up against the barriers. Caped and hooded nazarenos arrived in dribs and drabs; families with two and three-year olds dressed in full costume attracted the attention of professional photographers as well as a TV camera crew covering the procession from a platform set up on the pavement.
Along the street, we could see a stream of nazarenos and penitents arriving as the start time approached, entering a door. We thought this might be a smallish procession, as the church seemed quite modest, facing directly onto the street with not much more than the doors and surrounding facia, but that proved to be quite wrong.
Two marching bands turned up and positioned themselves either side of the chapel doors on the street.
At ten to six, the doors opened and the twin files of nazarenos started to emerge. And they continued for 45 minutes! Through a jostling group of photographers, we could see the “paso” inside the doors and the moment of drama inched closer.
This was what the crowds had come to see – as the “paso”, the float featuring a tableau of “El Cristo” having descended from the cross and lying in the lap of the Virgin Mary, was carried through the doorway.
The challenge was that the float when carried on the necks and shoulders of the costaleros was too tall to pass through. The costaleros had to crouch so the float could pass under the lintel.
The role of music is critical, the brass bands setting the mood and the tempo for the procession.
Everything is highly choreographed, with band leaders wired up so they can be in communication with the “pasos”, the nazareno captains of the procession and the cheerleaders for the costaleros. The whole affair is highly theatrical, like a scene from a play, film or opera. The music, wafting of incense, the rhythmic marching, the swaying, shuffling action of the costaleros and the “paso” are all synchronised to create a sense of drama and to evoke for the spectators the sense of grief experienced through this re-enactment of the passion of Christ.
The crowd broke into thunderous applause as the “paso” made it through, it then paused outside to allow a remotely operated cross to rise from the float to full height before the “paso” turned onto the road, setting off on the seven-hour processional journey.
We stayed to watch the cross-bearing penitents …
Followed by more penitants, some very young indeed…
… and the emergence of the float carrying the Virgin Mary, another tricky manoeuvre through the doorway, also applauded by the crowd.
We asked a young Spanish woman beside us how many there were in the El Baratillo brotherhood. Seventeen hundred, she replied, which explains why it took over an hour and half for the full procession to exit the church.
As Kerrie commented – you wonder where they all come from – it’s almost like a magician’s trick that so many people can emerge from the one building.
Witnessing the start of a procession was an extraordinary and indeed moving experience. You don’t have to be Spanish, a catholic or even religious to be caught up in the drama and emotion of the spectacle. We were excited and delighted to have been there.
Tired but happy we headed back to our apartment for a welcome rest and an early night.
Day Nine…Thursday 29th March
Set the morning aside for writing up the blog and rearranged our itinerary, booking tickets for the Van Gogh 3D exhibition for Monday, after we discovered the Museum for Fine Arts was not going to be open on that day.
We had passed the former convent and monastery set back from a plaza with a statue of Murillo earlier in the week so we knew how to get there.
The taxi driver on the way in from the airport had said Thursday was a very important day and sure enough we passed crowds on their way to church dressed in their finery, many women wearing black dresses and mantillas, or lace headdress, a traditional costume on this day.
The Museum of Fine Arts was free for Spaniards but a massive 3 euros for two of us as we were from New Zealand, don’t think they get many from NZ judging from the reaction of the woman in the ticket booth. There were two floors of exhibits but we went straight to the Murillo exhibition (walking around a stunning courtyard first) where many of his works were under the same roof for the first time as part of a year of 2017 commemorations marking the 400th anniversary of his birth.
The exhibition was in the church within the convent/monastery so it could easily accommodate and show to advantage the extremely large religious themed canvasses. The carved and decorated ceiling was worth a visit in itself. In the first gallery there were a number of huge paintings by other artists of the same era, one featuring a saint with an axe in his head (!) and one famous Murillo painting of the Madonna.
Behind a partition, and in the nave, were some of Murillo’s most famous commissioned paintings, including a set of four paintings as a Capuchin Altarpiece. The grand centre painting had been lost after being sold and resold many times but finally recovered. Bartolome Esteban Murillo was formerly a student of a great Sevillian painter, Zurbarán, but surpassed his master in his ability to paint faces and hands totally realistically, and his use of light and shade.
As many of Murillo’s works were commissioned for a Franciscan monastery many of the paintings included St Francis but one of Kerrie’s favourite paintings was of Joseph with baby Jesus at about three years of age, because you almost never see a reference to Joseph after Jesus’s birth, and because of the realism of the work. Even Jesus’s feet were slightly dirty.
The museum was closing at 2.45pm much earlier than usual due to Easter so we raced through the permanent exhibitions of paintings really just ticking them off but did stop at two paintings by Brueghel the younger to take photos.
Exiting at 2.45pm, the two main wooden doors were shut and we had to step out of a tiny door within the door, into the bright sunlight.
Had a lunch of tapas from a popular bar we saw down an alleyway. It was overflowing with Spaniards drinking beer and wine and eating plates of half cut buns with meats and cheeses, all standing around in the hot sun, a few under umbrellas but not many, obviously enjoying the social aspect of Easter.
Our next stop was to return to Las Setas, a controversial piece of architecture which we’d passed on our first day but not stopped to look at properly. This very organic and modern design, claimed to be the world’s largest wooden building had been constructed by a German architect over the Plaza de la Encarnacion.
Colloquially known as the mushrooms, we’d been told to see the view of Seville from on top. A short ride in an elevator, covered in hundreds of tiny mirrors, took us to a gallery level with a café where a circular pathway took you around the roof of the giant wooden frame, offering fantastic views.
Back to apartment for a rest before more processions. First one was La Exaltacion going up Cuesta de Rosario, one of Sandra’s recommendations for the fact that the road has a steady incline meaning it was harder work for the costaleros carrying the paso.
The streets were incredibly crowed, almost claustrophobically so – we literally ground to a halt, wedged in on every side – but as luck would have it we’d managed to get to the corner of Cuesta de Rosario where the procession we’d wanted to see had to navigate a tight turn.
We thought we might be late but in fact we were early – or rather the processions were running behind time. We wound up watching Los Negritos and got talking to a Spanish brother and sister who were from out of town but here for the processions. They said two more processions were on their way, so after Los Negritos had passed we took the opportunity to find a better vantage point, as we had discovered that we were standing over a drain.
The lucky ones were watching from balconies on the surrounding apartments and flats, with premium views. But on all sides there was always a hush and a sense of awe and devotion when the floats passed.
From the opposite side to where we were before we watched La Exaltación come up Cuesta del Rosario and there were cheers and applause as the costaleros took the paso up the entire length of the street.
Then as the procession of nazarenos and penitentes slowly followed, someone pointed out to us there was now a traffic jam. Approaching at right angles was another procession, Monte Sion, robed in black. They had to halt and wait for La Exaltación to complete their pass before they could continue on their route.
Another night of tens of thousands in the streets, police attempting to hold back the crowds from the processional routes and control the continuous flow of people trying to move around the city from one procession to another, but half the time failing dismally.
Feeling we’d more than accomplished what we’d wanted to do and see, we went home to our apartment, read and got to bed around midnight.
Day Ten…Friday 30th March
Despite processions continuing right through the night and into La Madrugada – Spanish for the very early morning – we had made a decision not to stay up but to go out first thing in the morning (although our night’s rest was interrupted by the drumbeats and mournful trumpets on their way to the cathedral on a regular basis).
At 8:30/quarter to nine we headed out to follow another of Sandra’s recommendations – Esperanza de Triana crossing the bridge on their way home.
We saw evidence of La Madrugada in the streets, rubbish and a distinct odour of urine were everywhere, the normally prompt and very efficient street cleaners clearly overwhelmed by the amount of rubbish from the night processions; but as we set out they were attacking it with sweepers and high-pressure hoses.
We got as far as Calle Adriano and saw a crowd of people watching a procession, so joined them and not long before the “paso” arrived, although at this stage we weren’t sure which one it was.
This float had a Roman soldier on horseback at the front, followed by Jesus carrying the cross, someone helping him and a mother and two children at the rear. The passage of the paso was very dramatic and emotional, in sympathy with the theme of Jesus’ journey to his crucifixion. The music was both mournful and powerful, as the costeleros carrying the float went forwards then backwards several times on the road, the crowd clapping each time, before turning in to the chapel entrance (where we’d been two days earlier).
We were slightly confused at this point as we thought initially that this was where the paso was returning but then realised it couldn’t be, it wasn’t the same as the one we’d seen emerging and it was clearly too tall to pass through the entrance.
Instead of entering the church, the paso made three motions to go in, then retreated three times, before turning back onto the road and continuing their journey.
We found out subsequently that this dramatic moment represented the three times where Jesus stumbled and fell and was then helped up again. Andrew said he saw grown men and women weeping nearby. Supported by the crowd who were completely captured by the scene, the procession was cheered and applauded. It transpired this was indeed Esperanza de Triana, but like many of the processions was running behind schedule.
In our own way we were utterly absorbed by the spectacle and as a consequence became separated in the densely packed street. Kerrie’s determination to get nearer to the action drew her in close to the paso while Andrew was looking for a way forward down the street to follow the procession.
Fortunately, both had the same idea which was to head towards the bridge and as the crowds flowed in the same direction and the street opened up at an intersection, there was Andrew scanning the crowd and we both found one another– phew!
We found a good position on the Triana bridge from which we watched the procession cross over to the other side of the Guadalquivir River.
The bridge quivered slightly with the weight and to her delighted surprise Kerrie was handed several cards by passing nazarenos.
By now, the procession had been going for 9-10 hours, having left the church in Triana at 1:50am and there were some tired faces of penitentes..
We watched the passage of the Virgin cross the bridge, noting the detail in her face. First created in 1816 the figure was restored in 1929.
Even in the early morning fresh air, made fresher by the absence of traffic and standing on the bridge with the river flowing below, the cigarette smoke became so pervasive we eventually decided we had to go. Before we headed back, Andrew bought another Santa Semana program which annoyingly, had much more information about the processions, the brotherhoods and their origins as well as maps of their routes – that would have been handy earlier!
We stopped for coffee and very sweet cake (tarta de turron) before going back to apartment for shower, something to eat and settle down to catch up on the blog, now several days behind!
Day Eleven.…Saturday, 31st March.
Day trip to Córdoba,
We caught our bus at Hotel Inglaterra in Plaza Nueva at 8am. It took us an hour to get out of town as we picked up various other passengers. The drive to Cordoba was uneventful apart from the virtually incomprehensible commentary from our guide Maria-Jose. Lots about olive trees. One stand-out was a solar array of mirrors that reflected light onto a central tower to heat water – the tower even in daylight was Close Encounters of the Third kind bright, quite spooky. Apparently the first in the world.
Got to Cordoba around 10:30 and were taken first to the Alcazar where we met our guide for the day – Christina – fortunately she was responsible only for English speakers and her English was very good. She had done a special course both to guide and particularly to guide in Islamic buildings.
Christina took us into the gardens first – beautifully laid out with statues of Ferdinand and Isabella meeting Christopher Columbus.
Isabella funded his trip – or at least the construction of two ships – but he had to wait for them to conquer Granada and take it back from Moorish hands first – so they could afford to pay him.
The Alcazar – although named after the orginal Moorish building that had stood on this site – is a Christian/Catholic construction with some inspiration from Moorish architecture. The original building had however been totally destroyed.
One of its primary uses had been as a headquarters and tribunal for the Inquisition. There were separate courtyards for men and women awaiting their fate. Few survived the interrogation. According to Christina, the principal purpose of the Inquisition’s pursuit of supposed heretics was in fact to get their hands on people’s money and fill the coffers of the Church and State.
Like so many buildings in this period, it recycled materials left by the Roman empire, and there’s a marble column which shows how both the Moors and the Catholics built on top of Roman remains.
We went through several rooms including one where the Inquisition held their tribunals – now a hall that exhibits a number of excellent mosaic tableaux from the Roman period.
There was also a marble sarcophagus, made entirely from one piece of stone. It had been commissioned by a wealthy family in Cordoba- made in Rome and shipped to Spain. The only feature not originally carved in Rome was the face of the paterfamilias which was done locally to ensure and accurate representation.
While the rest of the group went off for coffee we climbed the staircase to the parapets and towers with octagonal rooms, to enjoy the view of the gardens and city.
We met up with our group and were just starting the tour of the Jewish quarter when a distressed middle-aged woman from Australia who was on the tour, came up the tour leader and told her she’d just been robbed. She’d put her bag with money, cards, passport and phone in her backpack – and someone had unzipped the pack and taken her bag without her even knowing it. Classic mistake. All the tour guide could do was direct her to the nearest police station.
Sadly for her and her family, that was going to be a major problem as they were due to fly out in three days and being Easter, the embassy in Madrid was closed!
We continued the tour, learning that the Jews in Spain were a distinct cultural and ethnic group known as Sephardic Jews. Our first stop being a statue of Moses Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher celebrated for his wisdom, far and wide. He later moved to Egypt where he died but his remains are buried in Israel.
Legend has it that if you touch his slipper, you will benefit from his wisdom and good fortune will one day bring you back to Cordoba (of course we both touched his foot, just in case!)
Unfortunately, the most significant feature of the Jewish quarter, the synagogue was closed. After going through some attractive courtyards we progressed to the third and grandest building on our tour – the Grand or Great Mosque.
Known locally as Mezquita-Catedral, the Great Mosque of Cordoba is one of the oldest structures still standing from the time Muslims ruled Al-Andalus (Muslim Iberia including most of Spain, Portugal, and a small section of Southern France) in the late 8th century.
The mosque was commissioned to be built in AD 784 by a Caliph who had moved here from Damascus. There was supposed to be only one Caliph and caliphate – but this man and his lineage had been challenged and had to move. Nonetheless, he called himself Caliph and decided to build a huge mosque. It was expanded by 2-3 of his descendants and had been the third largest mosque in the world, capable of holding a crowd of 30,000 faithful.
When the Catholic monarchy reconquered Spain in the 13th Century the mosque was fortunately not destroyed and much of it remains to this day. It was turned into a catholic church in name, however, in the 16th century the Bishop of Cordoba decided that the Catholic faith needed to be imposed on this building more substantially and with the permission of the king, built a renaissance cathedral nave inside the mosque.
The combination of the two edifices and their totally different design and aesthetic is an act of cultural and architectural vandalism and even the king, when he finally visited Cordoba and saw what had been done is reported to have said that the Bishop had destroyed something utterly unique and beautiful in the world and inserted a cathedral that was completely unremarkable, you could see hundreds like it anywhere you chose.
Even so – a substantial part of the mosque remains and is breathtakingly, exquisitely beautiful.
After our tour, everyone went off on their own for lunch and to explore. We found a crowded restaurant not far away and with just an hour before our coach left, took our chances and queued for a table. The wait was worth it – we ordered a range of tapas – which included a platter of delicious cheeses with nuts and marmalade – an unusual but brilliant combination of texture and flavour (yum), meatballs, deep-fried stuffed aubergine and a mouth-wateringly tender lamb casserole in which the meat had been slowly simmered for three hours.
We made it back to bus in time and were delivered back to Seville by 6pm.
That night we did some more work on our blog, Kerrie dashed out to catch one of the last processions – Jesus lying in state in a gold hearse with people dressed as Roman soldiers following on behind.
Tonight is the last night of processions as the Easter week story comes to a close – with just one last procession on Sunday morning.
Day Twelve…Sunday 1st April.
Today is the final day of the processions, from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection. There was just the one procession today and we hadn’t intended going – as we’d seen so much during the week So we settled into catching up on our blog. Knowing we’d booked ourselves a tour of the Cathedral and Alcazar at 2pm.
But at the procession approached – the drums beating, trumpets blowing – Kerrie decided she had to catch it and take photos of the conclusion to the Santa Semana. Andrew stayed and continued blogging while Kerrie headed out.
Outside, the atmosphere was definitely different to the other days, there were not as many crowds and the booked and paid for seats seemed to be free to anyone who wanted to use them.
Security was almost non-existent, and when Kerrie went to cross over the road she caught sight of the float in the distance so stayed at the crossing barrier along with many others to watch it pass.
It paused right near to where she was standing and the flap went up in the front to give the men carrying the float some fresh air. It was apparent they were whacked, but then soon enough the three knocks gave them the cue to resume the procession.
As the float went past you could see close up the veins in the arms of Jesus, it was so life -like.
However, immediately on the procession passing the chairs were removed, packed, and stacked and the magic of the atmosphere started to evaporate. Within hours the traffic was back and apart from the posters there was nothing remaining of the extraordinary week.
At 2pm, Carmen came to meet us at the apartment and we set off on our personal guided tour. It started with the cathedral. Since we had paid for a privately guided tour, we jumped to the front of the queue. Hooray!
Seville’s cathedral is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and is recognised as UNESCO World Heritage.
Built between 1401 and 1506, like so many historic buildings here it occupies a site where previously there was Moorish building, in this case the great Aljama mosque, built in the late 12th century by the Almohads, the ruling Moorish dynasty.
The only remaining parts are the Patio de Naranjas or Patio of Orange Trees, the Puerta del Perdon and the famous Giralda, formerly the minaret, now the bell tower.
Inside, the cathedral is awe-inspiringly grand and immensely tall.
The central nave rises to a staggering 42 metres, while the cathedral houses a wealth of architectural and sacred treasures.
There are 80 small private chapels ranged along the sides. These are still paid for and used by Seville’s wealthy families so they can have private masses.
Highlights of the cathedral include the tomb of Christopher Columbus, carried by four pall bearers representing the kingdoms of Castile, Leon, Aragon and Navarra. Despite the grandeur of the tomb, it apparently contains just the finger of the great explorer – the rest of him is distributed around Latin America and elsewhere in Spain!
Then there’s the Great Chapel, with the ultimate masterpiece of the cathedral – the largest and richest altarpiece in the world and one of the finest examples of Gothic woodcarving anywhere. It comprises 45 carved scenes from the life of Christ, as well as Santa Maria de la Sede, the cathedral’s patron saint – the lifetime’s work of a single craftsman, Pierre Dancart.
There are a number of paintings by Murillo, including the Vision of St Anthony.
As well as a portrait of the celebrated artist, looking quite dashing.
Of course, we had to climb the Giralda to see the views from the top, while Carmen waited for us Kerrie and I set off at a brisk pace up the series of ramps, not steps leading to the platform towards the top of the nearly 100 metre tall tower.
Apparently the reason why there are ramps rather than steps is that the tower was originally a Moslem minaret and since the muezzin has to mount to the top of the tower to make the call to prayer five times a day, it was easier to get there by donkey than climbing innumerable steps!
The climb was well worth it – with stunning views over the cathedral and towards many of Seville’s iconic features including Las Setas…
..and the Plaza de Toros.
From the cathedral, we next went to the adjacent Royal Alcazar, and again thanks to our private guide, we were able to skip the long queues and gain almost immediate access.
The Alcazar looks and feels like a Moorish palace, but while many of its most beautiful rooms were built by Moorish workmen, it’s actually a catholic palace built for the Christian king, Pedro the Cruel of Castile, in the 1360s.
Apparently, Pedro the Cruel got his nickname by being exceptionally – cruel! He loved killing people so much that he used to venture out at night dressed as a commoner just to kill people for pleasure. Weird!
He had a mistress, Maria de Padilla who was supposed to marry someone else but as a wedding gift the king presented her with the head of her proposed husband. Charming! You’d think that would have put her off – but apparently not and she wound up living in this palace.
Pedro’s Mudejar palace (designed in Moorish style for a Christian ruler) forms the heart of the Alcazar as it is today.
And it is stunning, resplendent with ornate plasterwork and ceramics and carved wooden ceilings.
The most spectacular room is the Ambassadors’ Hall, with a gold dome representing the heavens.
and in keeping with Moorish tradition, there are beautiful gardens,
although somewhat idiosyncratic with a wall whose facia is decorated with volcanic rock.
Improved by a more classically beautiful visitor.
Cruel he may have been but Pedro’s saving grace was he did appreciate fine architecture and his legacy is the Alcazar.
We bade farewell to Carmen and spent another half an hour wandering around the gardens.
By now satiated with history, we went in search of something to satisfy the inner needs and rumblings of empty stomachs. We found ourselves a restaurant and tucked in to a rather meat intensive menu, entertained ( and in Kerrie’s case both fascinated and repelled by) the live broadcast of the local bullfight in Seville’s Plaza de Toros on a TV inside the restaurant.
Day Thirteen…Monday 2nd April
We had booked tickets for 11am to see the Van Gogh 3D exhibition which was a fair way to go so we set off at a brisk pace at 10:15am (Andrew somewhat intensely focused on getting there on time!!)
The exhibition was being held at the Pabellón de la Navegación (or Navigation Pavilion_ built for the 1992 Expo. We crossed the Triana bridge and then followed the river along and with some help from a local found ourselves there in time.
We weren’t exactly sure what the exhibition would be like but it had good reviews. It turned out to be quite brilliant.
We went through a short information section where we read up on Van Gogh’s life, illustrated with copies of some of his paintings, then went through into the main room. This was a very large hall with massive screens arrayed around and within the hall. There were seats and beanbags for you to sit on – and then the session began.
It was a multi-media, multi-sensorial experience as a series of images were projected on all the screens around the room, some overlapping, some repeating. Themed both chronologically and topically, the images told the story of Van Gogh’s life through photographs, an extraordinarily extensive range of his paintings as well as his writings and letters, all accompanied by music chosen from the time he lived.
It was rich, informative, stimulating, innovative and very moving. There were many paintings we’d never seen – the variety and extent of his art are amazing. Then there were his comments on life – taken from his letters. We were both struck by his insights, his philosophy and his intelligence. These were not the ramblings or incoherent outpourings of a madman or genius living on the edge of insanity. There were observations full of honesty, warm humanity and a deep appreciation of the values that best define who we are.
We wondered afterwards where the exhibition originated and were pleasantly surprised to discover it was Australia!
We bought a couple of small souvenirs and wandered back through Triana, stopping in the local market for fruit and coffee, impressed with the wonderful variety and quality of fruit and veggies.
We caught up on a few practicalities, dropped stuff off in our apartment and then walked down to river and caught a 2:30pm sightseeing boat with our vouchers, a one hour trip up the Guadalquivir.
It was a bit breezy but a relaxing and pleasant way to see another side of Seville. A multi-language commentary told us about buildings of significance such as the rather retro (now) remains of 1992 Expo along the southern side. Afterwards to returned to the apartment, caught up some more on the blog, packed and had an early night. Our taxi to the airport is booked for 4:45am tomorrow !!
Day Fourteen…Tuesday 3rd April
Seville to Marrakech (via Lisbon)
Up at 4am. We’d booked a cab which took us through the almost deserted cobbled streets of the old town. The only ones around were the street-sweepers. We checked in with TAP, the Portuguese airline, as our flight to Morocco was via Lisbon. We had a bite to eat, and found we were on a small turbo prop aircraft. It was a short and uneventful flight to Lisbon. The only drama was being hustled by an impatient family insisting they needed to get off the plane first, as they had a connecting flight – despite the fact we all had to wait for the bus to take us from the tarmac to the terminal!
In the terminal, we discovered our flight had been delayed, annoyingly, so we texted Kasbah Toubkal to let them know. We should have taken off at 9:25am – but didn’t board until 11am and then had to wait another 20 minutes for permission to take off.
Eventually we were up and away, flying over the Mediterranean and arrived in Marrakech after 1pm. An impressively modern and spacious airport.
After changing some money we found our driver waiting for us with a sign – he’d been there for three hours, poor fellow.
We had a comfortable ninety minute drive in our Mercedes limo minibus across the flat country between Marrakech and the Atlas mountains.
We arrived at the village of Imlil where we had to get out of the car – this was the end of the road for us, there being no road to the Kasbah.
Our bags were transferred to a mule for the 10-15 minute walk up through the village.
And we met our guide for our stay, Abdou,
who led us on foot up to the Kasbah, past a number of shops and hopeful patrons. Andrew bought some dates and apricots – more expensive than expected but superb quality.
We soon arrived at the grand-looking entrance to the Kasbah du Toubkal.
We were greeted on arrival with customary courtesy – rose water to wash our hands , dates dipped in milk, and tea while we checked in and waited to be shown to our room. We followed our guide through the courtyard and up some very steep wooden steps.
Turns out our room was on the top level of the stone tower by the entrance – up three flights.
The climb was worth it though as there were great views of Jbel Toubkal, the tallest peak in the Atlas Mountains and in North Africa from our window….
….and of the surrounding High Atlas from the terrace above (reached by more even steeper steps). A dramatic and imposing location.
We had a queen-sized bed, en suite bathroom with soap and shampoo and even tea and coffee making facilities.
All drinks and food are included (no alcohol) – tea, coffee, soft drinks, mint tea, fruit and nuts etc
We enjoyed a superb evening meal, candle-lit, seated on cushioned sofas with food served on low tables with a log fire in the corner.
Soup and bread followed by lamb tagine – brought sizzling to the table. Generous quantities – almost too much to eat.
We were able to check messages via internet and texted everyone to say we’d arrived safely.
Day Fifteen…Wednesday 4th April
After breakfast, we were met by Abdou and set off on our first day’s hike – down from the Kasbah which is at 1700 metres, across a stream and then circling around the hills opposite by road where we could look back at the Kasbah,
before heading up into the bush.
We met a few other tourists along the way, and were entertained with some local knowledge and history from Abdou, a Berber from the local village who is friendly although his English was restricted, and his accent meant he wasn’t always easy to understand. But he was great company and very accommodating – especially catering for what we thought was our slow pace. Abdou, surprised us however by saying we were quite fast compared some others our age! It was a steady hike with great views of the Imlil valley and the surrounding mountains.
Eventually we came to a look out – where we had a breather and took some photos. It’s a stunning day, clear blue skies, and we had spectacular views of Mount Toubkal.
This was the highest point of the day’s hike – 2300m.
We curved around to the left, heading down into another stunning valley.
We could hear the jangling of bells before we saw them, a herd of goats with a lone shepherd. This turned out to be the first of many encounters, a reminder that in some respects life here has changed little in centuries.
We crossed a stream and then circled back again through a harsh and dramatic landscape of towering peaks and massive rocks and boulders.
Eventually we started to see some villages in the valley below.
As we descended through one of the villages – it reminded Andrew of Nepal, houses are pretty basic, either mud and straw or breeze blocks, dirt pathways and alleys, a fair amount of rubbish, chickens and sheep. On the plus side -lots of well-tended gardens – here they grow plums, peaches, apples, cherries and walnuts, as well as various cereal and grass crops both for humans and animals. Spring hadn’t arrived yet so most of the trees had yet to bud, adding to the sense of a dry and harsh environment. Despite the aridity, the soil is good and the Berbers have perfected an efficient system of irrigation.
We crossed a fairly unattractive river – wondering where we’d have lunch as Abdou said it would be by the river. We were expecting sandwiches and fruit to be produced from his backpack but we were in for a major surprise.
Shortly after, he pointed to a spot by a grove of tree where saw two mattresses with cushions and a picnic rug were set out and someone was pouring mint tea.
This was Mohammed and he was there to prepare lunch! Nearby he had a stove, kettles, pots and pans, chopping board – i.e. a mobile kitchen, all transported by mule.
Lunch was duly served to us as we lounged on our picnic couches.
It all felt rather surreal as we were brought a hot meal of meat balls and rice and a sumptuous salad of tuna, lettuce, olives, cheese and various chopped vegetables together with mint tea and water.
We ate extremely well and probably too much – lazing in the sun (well protected as usual by our hats) watching other western hikers go by and wondering what they made of this scene! Feeling somewhat like frauds – could this really be us – it all felt too lavish!
In danger of dozing off, we eventually got up and set off on the last leg back to the Kasbah, a short haul of 35 minutes.
We’d asked Abdou to call ahead and book us a session in the hammam or Turkish bath. Kerrie was somewhat cautious but it turned out to be both novel and extremely relaxing after our first day’s hike. There’s a steam room with boiling water and cold water which you mix and then toss over yourselves, following which you rub on a special “black soap”- made from the olive skins after they’ve been pressed to produce olive oil; this acts as an exfoliant, which you rinse off and then dunk yourself in a freezing bath of ice cold water. Very bracing. But at the end of all that, you feel absolutely refreshed and wonderful.
Afterwards, we relaxed on the roof-top terrace where you could enjoy freshly squeezed orange juice (delicious!!) and as much tea, coffee and fresh fruit as you wanted. Kerrie was a huge fan of their juice and cappuccinos.
We were entertained by a Marrakech guide who specialised in looking after German tourists – he’d brought a select group out for a meal at the Kasbah – apparently the number two director of the famous (to some) German football team, Bayer.
We prepped our bags for the trip tomorrow, leaving half our stuff behind as we head over to another lodge at Ait Aissa.
We tried to get onto the internet – but it was very slow and not always available, depending on where you sat.
We managed to check a few messages, and while we were trying met a delightful Irish couple, Anna and Colin with a one and half year old, Dennis. Anna, had spent time in several African countries with the UN but now they’re based in Dublin.
Dinner was another sumptuous meal – more than we could eat after our luxury picnic lunch.
Day Sixteen…Thursday 5th April
An incredibly windy night – so we didn’t sleep very well. Being in the top room in a tower didn’t help – and then there’s the call to prayer at from the nearby mosque at six am.
After breakfast, we did a final pack, then someone arrived to take the bags that were going with us and strapped them into baskets on a mule.
Off we set. Despite the winds, a gorgeous day, with clear blue skies. We set off along a dusty road, our baggage following by mule.
We soon left the road and headed up a steep track from the village into a valley above.
We stopped to admire the views and catch our breath as we continued to climb,
and noticed strange formations in the valley walls, a legacy of the volcanic origins of this area with swirling patterns left by the flowing lava.
Although dry at present, there had been heavy rains and flash floods a few weeks ago and we saw irrigation channels and mini-dams designed to catch and slow down the flow of water. There were small plantations of walnut trees, which obviously do very well, often numbered to indicate the owner. Then a sign informed us that we’d entered the Toubkal national park – established in 1942.
Following what was essentially a mule track, also used by hikers, we followed the contours of the mountains, steadily climbing towards the pass at the top.
On the way up, Abdou teased us with the promise of a treat at the top. When we reached the pass at Tizi-n-Mzig, we’d gained 848 metres over 4 kms and were ready for whatever the treat might be.
And this was it:
At the top, at an altitude of 2489 metres, there was a man selling freshly squeezed orange juice from a humble stone shelter, Abdou said he made the trek up here every day! Despite reservations about hygiene – the glasses were rinsed in a bucket under the “counter” and he hand pressed the oranges. But everyone was buying a glass at 15 dirhams each, so we joined the queue and it was very refreshing.
Taking a photo of where we’d come from – we ate some of our dates and continued on for another ten minutes to our lunch stop.
We came to a quiet spot with views over the valley where we were greeted once more by Mohammed with his mobile kitchen, our picnic divans, cushions and another fantastic spread.
We had splendid views in every direction.
The only detraction being we were out in full sun, without a patch of shade and Kerrie started feeling a trifle woozy – whether due to the altitude or something else, not sure.
We took some shots of this scene from the days of the Raj, but then while trying to get a shot of a beautiful red bird perched on a rock about twenty metres away, Kerrie had problems with the camera. Instead of zoom the camera inexplicably decided to go into the opposite mode – macro. Weird.
A long slow, postprandial march took us steadily down towards the valley floor passing through a juniper forest.
These ancient trees can apparently live for centuries, and their gnarled and twisted bark and branches certainly gave an impression of great age.
Abdou told us that the berries are exported to Europe to make alcoholic drinks while leaves and roots are used traditionally by the Berber people as an insect repellent and incense for houses.
He cut us off a small piece of root from the remnants of a tree that had been cut down – the musky smell is beautiful.
On the way down, we saw more Berber villages perched on the mountainsides, with their terraced gardens neatly arrayed in serried rows.
By the time we reached the valley floor, the sun was dipping behind the mountain tops, and we were pretty tired and looking forward to a hot shower and a cup of tea. But we still had a little way to go.
Finally, after a day’s hiking of over 10kms which took us a little over six hours we arrived at our lodge called simply Toubkal, built in stone it’s very pleasant though more rustic, not quite the standard of Kasbah. We were greeted by Mohammed, the manager and given the best room, upstairs with views. There was a large bathroom with heated floor and huge bath – we luxuriated in hot water, washed clothes and ventured out to socialise. Out on the terrace, we got talking to an English couple Christiane and Jacintha. We covered a wide and interesting range of topics – ranging across anthropology, human origins, artificial intelligence, the potential abuse of the CRISPR technology that could be used to create an elite group of “superhumans”, US politics and Brexit – and the influence of Cambridge Analytica.
After dinner (vegetable soup and chicken tagine), we talked with a Swedish family about social welfare, taxation, the Swedish philosophy and how recently the Swedish government hired marketing and service industry professionals – including from McDonalds – to work out how to sell taxation as a form of social investment and why you should be happy to pay your taxes – which has apparently been very successful. We then collapsed.
Day Seventeen…Friday 6th April
At first it looked like it was going to be a great day – clear blue skies. But after breakfast – once we’d packed and prepped and were ready to head off at 9:40am, low cloud/fog started to creep up the valleys. It looked like it might lift but instead it grew steadily worse. Still we were committed to our five hour walk – despite the weather and Kerrie’s blister!
We went down a track to the road and followed it upwards for several kilometres through a couple of villages.
We past gullies where a recent flash flood burst through protective barrier walls, heaving massive boulders down the mountainsides.
The avalanche of mud and rock swept away sections of road and narrowly missed a school. It was a very lucky escape, a few metres further over and the school could have been torn apart and destroyed.
We’d heard that the torrential downpour happened over a few minutes – but was devastatingly powerful. Luckily no-one killed.
Mostly we followed the dirt road, eventually branching off on a mule track. Then up through wooded slopes covered in oak trees – apparently wild boar live here doubtless attracted by the acorns. Mind you, with the fog getting thicker and thicker, we wouldn’t have seen them unless they ran right up to us!
Every now and again we could see tantalising glimpses of blue sky and in the hope of the fog lifting and a dramatic revelation of views and landscape – we pressed on to the summit of a ridge at c. 2239m. Sadly, the fog stubbornly refused to shift. So we had our picnic lunch in the misty murk, more modest today, carried in our backpack, bread and tuna, boiled egg, tomato, orange and sweet treats.
We retraced our steps back through the oak forest – slipping occasionally on the gravelly track as the fog/cloud/mist became even thicker.
But then, once were back on the road again we looked back and suddenly we could see where we’d just been.
The fog or low cloud had rapidly evaporated and annoyingly, we could see that the views from where we’d been would have been impressive.
Never mind, we did at least have the satisfaction of seeing where we’d got to and from.
On our way back we had clear views of the valley below and the terraces with fruit trees just beginning to blossom, as well as the incredibly rich, red volcanic soil.
Weary after a solid five hour hike, we make it back to our lodge – time for another soothing hot bath and Kerrie hung out some clothes to dry.
We did a bit of blogging before getting into conversation with an American family from New York, Rob and Claudia. We talked about travels, weather and Van Gogh.
Day Eighteen…Saturday 7th April
We awoke to the sound of rain and a constantly barking dog. Today we were heading back to the Kasbah, a long day’s hike ahead of us. We had pancakes for breakfast – not Kerrie’s favourite, she described them as imitation wettex dishcloths! Our American fellow guest, Rob was furious as he’d brought two wet weather jackets on the trip but had left both of them behind in Imlil.
Fortunately, we had brought ours – and zippered and hooded up we said farewell to Mohammed and Toubkal lodge.
Our bags were loaded onto our bad-tempered, four hoofed transport and we the set off into the mist behind Abdou.
This time we set off climbing up from the lodge rather than up to the lodge, following a track which by the time we reached the Kasbah would be a 25km circuit. We passed the barking dog, standing on a ridge, now barking at every hiker that went past. Abdou said this walk back would not be as steep as the one on our way to the village but a long, slow climb out which it was but we had to hike up through fog and sleeting snow although not rain thank goodness. It was a case of just putting one foot in front of the other and trudging on and on until we finally reached the pass.
Normally, the topmost point is a place to take a well-deserved break but in the fog and the freezing temperatures we stayed long enough to take photos beside a huge cairn of rocks…
and those ubiquitous balancing rocks, before we headed down the other side of the mountain.
A herd of goats emerging in the mist was a sign we had finally reached the highest farm in the village, we passed his goat shelter, Abdou had a chat and we continued on down on the rocky, rutted track past houses and entrances to houses, Abdou chatting to every person we passed. We seemed to walk on and on and on, Abdou about twenty metres ahead of us most of the way, waiting every so often for us to catch us up and making sure we were ok before he finally said that the lunch spot was just around the corner. By now the clouds and mist had lifted and the sun was shining through, revealing the magnificent Imlil valley with Jbel Toubkal beckoning.
However, it wasn’t until we had hiked right down to the main road and crossed over the river at a T-intersection that we saw the American family in a shelter waving at us. We ate side by side in the shelter, sweetened mint tea, hot tagine and pasta with salad followed by fresh fruit and hot milky coffee.
We were now not far from the Kasbah and it was easy walking along the river’s edge, passing through a Berber village.
Although there were a few tricky jumps across the river.
Unfortunately, the river’s edge on the village side was also the rubbish tip and we had to hike a few hundred metres through discarded first-world confectionary and processed food wrappers, milk cartons etc before we reached the outskirts of Imlil. We had frequently seen discarded wrappers, rusty old tins of sardines, and tissues on the high mountain tracks but it was much worse when you walked through the villages. To see this much rubbish by this mountain river was disappointing, we couldn’t understand why more wasn’t done to bury or process rubbish in such a popular tourist spot. But you have to be aware that here there are no taxes as such and no central government controls or services – the community has to do everything. There’s not much money and priorities are feeding their families, maintaining their farms, roads, irrigation systems and essential services.
Like so many places, there are huge disparities in wealth, we were amazed at the number of very expensive cars driving the same road as the clapped out trucks with people hanging from every door. As we walked through the village, Abdou chatted to a woman on her way past and then handed her some coins, telling us she was very poor. The walk up to the Kasbah was another chance to see the shops. There were quite a few guiding company shops, one extreme guiding equipment shop with crampons for hire, and one with rows of second hand climbing boots on racks out the front – hiking and mountaineering tourism is a major industry here.
It was now about three pm, we were whacked and just wanted to get to our room but we’d mentioned to Abdou our interest in the local co-operative managed carpet and pottery shop – one that coincidentally exported carpets to a shop in the North Island of New Zealand. Since we were going past, we felt it would be rude not to go in, even though we were adamant we were not going to buy a thing.
Around the back and up the stairs to the carpet show room we went, where we were offered the traditional welcoming cup of mint tea by shop manager, Ali. There followed half an hour of explanation about the various carpets, how and where they were made.
And then the sales pitch began. Ali, needless to say was a past master, while we were novices.
So despite our resolute intention not to buy anything, guess what! An hour later and to our surprise we had bought two carpets – a long double-sided runner and a beautiful Kilim woven from camel hair.
We actually felt the sale had been handled very courteously and we were delighted with the two carpets we’d picked. So we were happy and so was Ali!
Part of the justification for us was the money would go directly to the women who make the carpets (80% of the sale price) and it will be a wonderful and lasting way for us to remember Morocco back in NZ. Of course, we wouldn’t be taking the carpets with us – we had another 11 weeks to go – so we watched them being packed up so they could be couriered to us once we got back to New Zealand (and yes, they arrived safely and look fabulous, we’re thrilled to have them in our home)
The guys at the Kasbah seemed genuinely happy to see us and gave us each a big hug. We had requested not to be given the same room at the top of the tower as the steep stairs were exhausting but we were now in the first-floor room of the tower which was great and it was bigger.
We said our goodbyes to Abdou and retrieved our stored bags and freshly laundered clothes, had tea, cappuccinos and four fresh orange juices on the terrace. The weather was now fine, and the views of the mountain were stunning.
Candle-lit dinner was another tagine but just as good as ever.
Day Nineteen…Sunday 8th April
Atlas Mountains to Marrakech
We had a good night’s rest, and there was no hurry to get out on the beaten track this morning. After breakfast we packed, had our bags picked up from our room and delivered to the mule and muleteer to carry down to our waiting taxi. There were big hugs with the reception staff, before we stepped through the Kasbah door and down steps, past shops and a small plot of crops to where our Mercedes Benz taxi and driver were waiting. Of course, the man with the mule and our bags was there, waiting expectantly for his tip.
The road out of the village was the only one into that valley and as it was regularly only one car width wide it made for an exhilarating ride. Our driver was a former guide who spoke very good English and when we passed Richard Branson’s enormous Riad he explained it was built on a former school yard and the community shop was set up by Sir Richard’s mother Eve, next door.
He said you can book a room to stay at the Branson estate but it was very expensive and you always knew when Sir Richard was in town due to the choppers going backwards and forwards from the airport at Marrakech. He said his mother was the driving force behind the project and came more often than he did.
The driver pointed out other places of interest along the way including a popular place beside the river where Marrakech residents often came for a Sunday to eat al fresco at riverside restaurants, with tables, chairs and umbrellas set up the on the river banks, shop at the road reserve markets, and go on camel rides.
Once down on the flat it was a straight through run to the city centre until we hit the Medina. The package arrangement with the company who organised our hiking trip was that he would take us to the airport but as we were spending two days in Marrakech he agreed to take us to our accommodation or as near as he could.
After several stops to ring the number we had for the accommodation and not getting a response he dropped us where he thought was the nearest entrance to our hotel at the Medina and asked an old man pushing a barrow if he knew the address of the Riad Cinnamon. When the old man said yes he offered him 20 dirhams to take us there, apologised profusely for not delivering us to the door and after giving him his tip we parted company to run after our barrow man.
Before we knew it four young Moroccan guys had joined him and started acting as if they were in charge of getting us to our destination. We both had our radar up and were closely monitoring our bags and following the man with the barrow along the narrow twisting and turning roads and pathways of the Medina until after about ten minutes he pointed down a dark narrow alley.
One of the four young guys who had quickly become their spokesperson said that it was indeed where the Riad Cinamon was and to follow them. Kerrie had her doubts but when the manager opened the door you could see there was a Riad behind him.
As we saw our baggage taken into the Riad, the brash young spokesperson demanded 20 euros for guiding us. We refused but he continued shouting and demanding we pay him. We explained briefly to the manager what had happened but to get rid of them we paid them about 14 euros but that was not enough. In the end Kerrie shut the door on them, the duty manager went outside and said something to them and they eventually disappeared. It was quite an unnerving experience and put us on our guard.
Hisham, the young 20/30 something duty manager was very helpful. He gave us a quick tour, up to the terrace to our room on the ground floor. It wasn’t exactly what we were expecting, rather different to the stunning room promoted on their website. It was well furnished but rather dark, the only windows opened onto the ground floor courtyard, which for obvious privacy reasons needed to remain closed and the bathroom was somewhat spartan.
With only two nights here we adjusted our expectations and started to find the positives in staying at the Riad Cinnamon, one of which was the location which couldn’t have been better. We were in the heart of the Medina which was perfect and the staff were extremely obliging, particularly Hisham who always had a friendly disposition and couldn’t do enough for you. The Riad also had this great idea of providing you with a local phone onto which you downloaded a special App, the Marrakech Riad App which is like having a GPS guide for Marrakech, so you can find your way around the Medina. It shows you where you are on the map and also helps you find your way back to the Riad. Brilliant. And if you still get lost, you can use the phone to call the Riad and they’ll come and get you.
Hisham was also a great help in organising a guide to take us around Marrakech the next day. Our next priority was lunch and Hisham recommended a courtyard restaurant nearby, the Kui Zin.
We ventured out into the bustling Medina and found it fairly easily. It was a little European style restaurant, and obviously very popular, as just about every other westerner in the Medina seemed to be queuing to get a table and escape the madness outside.
With good food and coffee under our belts we braved the souk, walking through the maze of alleys and laneways , trying not to look too interested in any of the goods on display,
ignoring the souvenirs (many of which are apparently made in China) and dodging the motor bikes that weaved in and round the crowds, missing you by centimetres.
One guy with a donkey and barrow pushed his way through but was very stroppy if you tried to take a photo demanding money. (Afterwards in an open plaza we saw one German woman having to hand over euro after euro after she took his photo and had to back away from his hand asking for more).
The carpets on display were uninspiring, the jewellery didn’t seem much different to what you can get at markets anywhere in New Zealand; the leather goods were probably the best value but we had no spare room in our bags for purchases of that size. We made it to the main market square which was fairly active even at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.
There were rows of fruit stands that offered freshly squeezed fruit juices,
a woman offering henna tattoos,
a man with monkeys, another with birds
and two snake charmers.
All of them were after money if you took their photo and the snake charmers had scouts who were watching tourists trying to take photos from a distance and the second you had snapped the photo they were beside you asking for money. We found out subsequently they had to pay rent to the government for occupying a space in the square so their request for payment for a photo was in fact justified.
It was the first time Andrew had been back to Morocco since he hitchhiked through there when he was 18 ( 49 years ago!!!) and he remembered it as being more genuine rather than pandering to the western tourists.
However, it was still a vibrant and fascinating place to walk around and just watch humanity go past. Our other main reason for going there was because that was where most of the ATM machines were to be found. So, after getting some money out we walked to the edge of the square to where horses and carriages waited to take tourists through the city and to where you could see the most famous Marrakech mosque.
We navigated our way back to our Riad and had dinner that night at the Café Arabe, quite upmarket with a courtyard roof that was open during the day but then was mechanically closed in the evening – which happened half way through our meal, taking us by surprise. The food and service were very good, another restaurant populated almost exclusively by westerners.
Day Twenty …Monday 9th April
Our guide arrived at the Riad just after 9am, a jovial Moroccan named Ya Ya who had a ready smile and friendly manner. We set off about 9:30am, and as we’d requested a non-touristic, no-shopping cultural tour. First stop was a traditional water fountain, one of eighty that used to be the principal source of fresh water for the inhabitants of the Medina, each neighbourhood had its own, providing water for cooking, public baths, orchards and gardens. Some like this one are still in use.
From there, Ya Ya took us through the local shopping quarter where the Moroccans buy their food.
We were greeted by the sight of lamb carcasses hanging by their hocks,
and a stall that sold chicken meat with the live chickens in cages behind the counter. This is what a true market looks like, of course, a far cry from the sanitised, packaged products we see in supermarkets back home. Once more, however, photos were not appreciated and the guy behind the counter said something negative when Kerrie produced her camera. After that we checked with Ya Ya first.
We went past Royal Palace (definitely no photos!) and along the outside of the old city walls.
Eventually that brought us to the 12th century Koutoubia Mosque, or Mosque of the Booksellers, honouring the venerable tradition of booksellers in the nearby souk.
We weren’t allowed to enter, as non-Muslims, but we admired the impressive minaret, 77 meters (253 feet) high and architecture. The mosque was completed under the reign of the Berber Almohad caliph Yaqub al-Mansour (1184-1199), and inspired other buildings such as the Giralda of Seville.
From there we circled around to the main market place, spying some curious and wonderfully garbed people on the way.
From there Ya Ya took us to the main market square.
We needed to get some money out and that’s where all the banks are – we had to wait behind some classic Marrakech old style hippy types.
While we were organising money, Ya Ya kindly offered to get us some fresh orange juice from one of the colourful stalls.
Kerrie took the opportunity to capture some more of the market square’s activity and ambience…
including more snake charmers.
And some special auxiliary police, clearly in evidence – which Ya Ya told us were there specifically to look out for and protect tourists.
Next stop on our tour was the Bahia palace. Built in the 19th Century for the personal use of Si Moussa, the Grand Vizier of the Sultan, a former slave who climbed the ranks, it boasts cool courtyards and gardens and is an oasis in the heart of the city.
Not long after it was built for the Grand Vizier, the palace was taken over by his son Bou Ahmed. He greatly enhanced the brilliance of the palace, with intricately carved and decorated ceilings and stained glass windows.
Each of the rooms was designed in truly elegant Moroccan style – with carved stucco and cedarwood, and classical Moorish geometrical mosaic tiled walls and floors.
As well as intricately inlaid patterns in the wooden shutters and doors.
In the centre were a series of courtyards in typical Middle Eastern lay-out, to create a haven from the heat..
and a grand courtyard without windows where the ladies of the harem could walk and talk away from prying eyes.
After visiting the palace, which was stunning, we headed to the Jewish quarter, stopping for a quick photo.
Kerrie had mentioned her interest in spice markets, so we were on our way to a celebrated spice emporium owned by the same family for eight generations.
They buy the spices from around the country, dry and process them, then sell them both here and overseas. The range and aromas were simply wonderful, colourful mounds ranged along the length of the shop, not to mention hundreds of jars and bottles of various herbs and spices, remedies for every ailment under the sun.
There was no compunction to buy anything – but of course, temptation got to us. First though was the customary gesture of hospitality.
We were offered a complimentary cup of Royal Tea, which was delicious, followed by mint tea – created by adding a single crystal of concentrated mint extract. Clearly it had a powerful zingy effect on Kerrie’s hair and eyebrows!
Despite the zinginess of the Thé Royal, we didn’t buy any of that…
Instead, our host made the spices sound so enticing, one with 35 ingredients – making KFC’s secret recipe sound positively underpowered that we bought four jars of different spices, thinking they would make unusual and attractive gifts for some of the people we’re going to be staying with.
We also bought two small packages – one of a strange and mysterious black seed/spice which when rubbed, gives off a nose-and-sinus clearing aroma like Vicks vapour rub – but stronger.
And for Kerrie a selection of Argan oil products which are supposed to do miraculous things to your skin.
We found Ya Ya waiting patiently outside and asked if he minded the wait – but he said he’d taken the opportunity to have his third breakfast! Next stop was a typical neighbourhood bakery, where they not only bake their own bread – but also bake bread for locals.
Our last stop, more touristic and commercial but suppose everyone has to make a buck!, was a carpet emporium where we were given a history of Moroccan carpet weaving and designs by a portly and cheery Abdul. We made it clear we were not in the market for carpets (any more!) and so after a cup of tea, we moved on.
Ya Ya took us to our final destination, lunch at Riad Omar, a large and popular restaurant that served typical Moroccan cuisine.
There we paid and parted company, having had an excellent introduction to Marrakech. We found our way home and rested up till dinner time. We’d arranged to have dinner at the Riad Cinnamon – prepared and cooked specially. We weren’t sure exactly what to expect but it turned out to be very special – they really turned it on for us.
There were succulent and tasty entrees followed by a massive platter of couscous with chicken and vegetables. And a fruit platter to follow! Full to bursting we thanked our hosts and retired to our room to catch up on our blog.
Day Twenty One…Tuesday 10th April
Marrakech to Malaga
We were up at 6:30, had a quick early breakfast, then Hisham and his older assistant -who spoke rather like the aliens in Galaxy Quest – kindly walked us out to where the pre-arranged taxi was waiting at the edge of the Medina to take us to the airport. We arrived at the airport to find huge queues tailing back from each of the three entry doors into the main airport building which threw us to begin with; we found out that at Marrakech airport, the security checks start before you even enter the terminal. Once inside, we found there was a double check-in procedure for Moroccan airlines, involving a self-check in at a machine where you get your boarding pass but then a queue to check in your bags at the counter. Kerrie saved the day for a German tourist who’d left her boarding pass behind in the machine we were using – scanning the queues ahead and rushing after to hand it over. There were more security checks on the way into departures, then passport check-in with a passport officer who was obviously not happy to be at work that day – he quizzed Kerrie about her description of herself as ‘writer’, wanting to know what publications she wrote for and to put that on the form. It seemed unnecessary as we had put the same thing on our arrivals forms and were now leaving the country. Then there were boarding pass checks before we could finally relax. Still, it was comforting to know Morocco takes its security very seriously!
We had to change at Casablanca for Malaga, and we took a selfie of the departures board to prove we had been to Casablanca – although the screen didn’t actually mention Casablanca. Hmmm – well it had been an early start!
We had to be bussed out to the plane and while we were waiting on the tarmac for passengers to get onto the plane, a guy lit up a cigarette, smoking away on the tarmac and no one said anything! Until we noticed and did say something , and another passenger suggested in Moroccan that he should put it out. Candidate for the Darwin awards!
Graham and Mary were there to meet us at Malaga airport, Andrew went off to find the hire car and it took a few false starts and wrong turns before we three finally found him beside the almost new car. The drive to Torrox was in heavy rain with Graham saying how unseasonable it was and describing the views we would be seeing if it wasn’t for the rain. The extremely narrow one-way streets to their apartment were tortuous in the rain and with no car park attached, Andrew and Graham went off to a public carpark about ten minutes away. All the undercover parking was gone and navigating around the narrow access roads into and around the concrete carpark was a nightmare. And they got thoroughly soaked coming back in the drenching rain.
We changed and went out for dinner at a restaurant that featured local food. Due to the rain we had to sit inside instead of alfresco but by the time we finished the rain had eased and we could see how wonderful it would be in fine weather.
We were the first guests to stay in their newly created second bedroom, the kitchen now being relocated to the living area.
Day Twenty Two…Wednesday 11th April
Torrox to Ronda
First thing on the agenda was for Andrew to call our neighbour in Wanaka about finding the UK bank card which was mysteriously missing. Fingers crossed.
Thankfully the weather had improved and Graham took us up to their roof to admire the fantastic views.
Their apartment was accessed from a narrow, cobbled street via a secure gate.
We went for a stroll around Torrox, a quaint, typically Spanish town with narrow cobbled streets, houses all painted white with tiled walls and flowers everywhere.
Perched along a ridge, there were delightful views towards the sea, over the valley below.
We packed up and headed out with our baggage walking along the street back towards the carpark. Almost there, we pulled in at the local café/restaurant to meet Doris, an old friend of Graham’s from Manchester days who Andrew met once in 1977.
We stopped for lunch and then proceeded to the car and set off for Ronda.
We found we desperately needed a map to navigate our way through the many villages and towns as headed inland, so we had a quick stop at a service station where Graham kindly bought us a road map that included both Spain and Portugal, much used in the following days. We followed Graham’s suggestion to take the back roads which eventually took us through striking mountain scenery.
We arrived in Ronda late afternoon – an old walled town whose history dates back to neolithic, Moorish and Roman times. Even with the help of our GPS, which we named Carmen, we had extreme difficulty finding our accommodation, making many circuits of the town, via incredibly narrow, cobbled streets. After some narrow squeaks through incredibly tight lanes, we finally located it and checked in, parking our car in a nearby square.
The weather lifted enough for us to go for a wander around town, through the old quarter, with beautiful architecture, history oozing from every wall, cobbled street and carvings.
Eventually we reached the “new” bridge, actually constructed in the 18th century, spanning the 120-metre-deep chasm through which flows the Guadalevin River that divides the city. Here we came face to face with the stunning gorge and why Ronda is such a major attraction.
The views even in the late afternoon light were breathtakingly gorgeous.
There was a bitterly cold wind that cut to bone,
– so after walking a short way along the edge of the precipice on which the town is built, we headed into town to look for a place to eat. On the way we found ourselves on a walkway commemorating the American writer and bullfighting aficionado, Ernest Hemingway.
Hemingway had been a frequent visitor to Ronda, famous for having the oldest preserved bullring in Spain that first opened in May 1784.
We decided on a restaurant that Graham and Mary had been to before, where we had excellent bean and chorizo soup followed by a huge paella. Too much food! Full to bursting, we waddled back to our B&B and collapsed.
Day Twenty Three…Thursday 12th April
Ronda to Seville … and Tavira
Sadly, we only had the one night in Ronda, so we packed up and left our bags at El Jardin de Murallas, run by a 63 year old owner who admitted he was getting tired of being constantly on demand at the B&B. He’d worked for 90 days straight, and was feeling stressed and unwell. Their children weren’t interested so they were going to sell and buy a place in the country. There’s no doubt, it’s not an easy life managing a B&B.
We headed out for a walk around the town. Kerrie and I wanted to head down to the lookout to see the bridge from below, which Graham and Mary had done previously.
We followed a track from a small square that took us down to the remains of some old fortifications, progressively revealing more of the staggeringly tall bridge, 98 metres high.
As we descended into the ravine, we could finally appreciate the engineering marvel, built in two stages over 42 years and, after several set-backs, completed in 1793.
After admiring this marvel of human construction and the buildings perched seemingly precariously along the edge of the chasm, we took our last photos and headed back up the path.
Back at the top, we went to the other side of the bridge for views of the town built along the top of the gorge and where one of the older bridges can be seen.
Suitably amazed and impressed, we headed back, past the building that once housed the Spanish Inquisition to the cafe where’d we’d arranged to meet Graham and Mary for a coffee. The cafe had put a display of fruit and vegetables on a table outside to attract attention – which it did!
By then it was time to get our car, pick up our bags and set off for Seville where we were taking Graham and Mary. The weather was miserable and grew steadily worse the further west we went. As we approached Seville on the motorway, Graham and Mary kindly suggested we find a suburban metro station and drop them off there, to save us going into the town centre, as we still had quite a way to travel. We eventually spied a metro station on the outskirts of Seville and we bade our fond farewells to Graham and Mary, before they stepped out into pouring rain.
We took the opportunity to call a couple of B&Bs in Tavira, the town in Southern Portugal that was our destination. Luckily we found one with a room free. Phew! We typed in the address and “Carmen” took over. The weather got progressively worse and worse, the rain deluging down and causing dense traffic jams on the freeway as we circled around Seville on the bypass. The rain just got heavier and heavier with an almost cyclonic intensity, so that at times, it was almost impossible to see. We slowed right down (although some cars kept on travelling at 100kms an hour plus – crazy!) and drove at 80km in the inside lane.
Finally, the weather cleared a bit, we pulled in to a service station for a break, to fill up with petrol – and, as it proved, we made a fatal error in having a couple of ham and cheese baguette sandwiches between us.
Fortunately, Kerrie took over driving as half an hour later, we were both getting stomach cramps, but Andrew seemed to be affected the worst. Crossing the border into Portugal, we had to stop and pay an entry road toll using our credit card. We had read that travelling on Portugal’s motorways was expensive! By the time we reached Tavira, Andrew was in desperate need of a toilet. To make matters worse, as we negotiated our way to the B&B, we missed the entrance and had to do a u-turn in a narrow alleyway. Andrew got out to check a tight 3-point turn for Kerrie and as he opened the door to get back in, he hit himself on the temple with the sharp corner of the door. Blood everywhere. Luckily, the B&B was only 200 metres away. We arrived, parked and leaving Kerrie to do the check-in, Andrew made a dive for the loo. Quinta do Caracol (Snail Farm) was a charming, quirky place, and we were given a spacious two bedroom apartment. Andrew was in dire straits, so stayed in, while Kerrie went out to find a supermarket and get some essential supplies.