Monday, May 12, 2014


My whole trip to Morocco could be described as a whirlwind adventure, but the 17 hours I spent in the capital, Rabat, really epitomize the word.

My 7:35 flight out arrived about 8:30 at night, thanks to the time difference between Morocco and Spain. I shared a taxi with a kid from...somewhere in the U.S. who was also staying in the medina, the old part of town. After struggling to communicate our hotels' addresses to the taxi driver, who spoke no English, he rolled down the windows to ask passersby for directions. Very confidence inspiring.

We finally parked and were led through the winding streets [too narrow for cars] until we reached my hotel. I have no idea how people who rent cars or take public transportation manage to find anything in Morocco, because they are worse than Spain about street signs. I said goodbye to the other American - I'm not sure if he ever found the place he was supposed to stay - and walked into my magical [expensive] hotel. There don't seem to be many hostels in Rabat, at least not downtown, so I sadly parted with 45 euros. But, after being on the road 3 days already, it was nice to relax in a fancy, private room.

In the morning, I was treated to my first Moroccan food. And what a treat it was! I knew about the mint tea, of course, but the breakfast we had? AMAZING. You can't go wrong with yummy flatbread and jams. I even more or less liked the orange juice. But the best part was something called m'semmen, basically fried bready deliciousness. I have already looked up recipes because it was some of the best bread I have had in my entire life.

I don't have my own picture of breakfast because I was too busy eating. But it was this, minus the egg.
Then I had 3 hours to see the sights before I was supposed to be out of my hotel room and heading to the train station to buy a ticket to Marrakech.

First up was the Kasbah de Oudanyes, less than 5 minutes away. This was kind of a city within the city located right on the Atlantic coast. It started out as a fortified city, so between all the quaint houses and winding streets, there are also some cannons and really high walls. I first walked into the gardens, ignoring the guy offering a tour and telling me I was going in at the exit. It's apparently pretty common for these "tour guides" to gather at sites and tell people there's a fee or they have to take a tour.

I wandered through the small garden and then tagged along behind an actual tour group until they came to a cafe with a great panoramic view of the Atlantic. I snuck a few pictures in and then left, knowing that I was pressed for time. I ended up back where I'd come in, so I walked up to the other entrance. There's a museum there located in the old palace [or is it a mosque?], but again, I just didn't have time. I'd read on the map that I could see part of the old fortress, so I went looking for that.

I ended up retracing my steps several times, as the streets wound back into each other or simply dead-ended, but never found that darn fortress. So I walked back out of the city and went to look at some ruins just outside the walls. And then I found the fortress, jutting out from the walls - now over the beach, but a long time ago over the water. Satisfied, I took my pictures and said goodbye.

After a short walk along the coast, I made it to the Hassan Tower and Royal Masoleum complex. This tower was designed by the same architect as the Giralta Tower at the Sevilla Cathedral. There are a lot of obvious similarities in the two, except that the Hassan Tower was never finished. [I think this had something to do with the king dying in the middle of construction.]

There is a huge courtyard between the two monuments that's filled with cut-off columns. I'm not sure if this is on purpose or all that's left. There were several royal guards around the masoleum, but tourists are allowed inside. It was an impressive room, the walls decorated with typical geometric designs. The coolest part was a man [maybe a religious leader, I don't know] who was singing inside. He had a microphone so you could hear his wailing voice echoing through the whole courtyard.

I probably should have taken a taxi to the next spot, in the interest of time, but I started walking and just kept going. I passed by some kind of protest happening in the middle of the neighborhood and then headed down Franklin Roosevelt Avenue. Apparently this is close to where the U.S. Embassy is, because there was also an Abraham Lincoln Square.

And then, after passing out of the medina, I saw the walls of the Chellah.

This site has to be my favorite out of all the places I visited on my trip, and sadly it's the one where I spent the least amount of time. It began as a Roman city, complete with the forum and baths. Later it was turned into a necropolis, and now it's a park. [There was a 10 dirham entrance fee, but consdering that that's less than 1 euro, it was well worth it.]

I may have mentioned before: I am a big ruins girl. If you give me ruins [or castles, those are great too], I am a happy camper.

The Chellah has all the ruins.

So I walked in the main gate and was immediately surrounded by lovely plants. Pressing on, I first passed the artisans village [I'm guessing these were Roman artisans because I think the Muslims just used this site as a cemetery].

Then I came to the Mosque. The tower here is the most preserved part of the complex, and like church towers in Spain, is home to a stork's nest.

There's a royal tomb adjacent to the main room of the mosque, then you enter gardens again. All the flowers were in full bloom and it smelled delightful.

In the fields across from the Chellah, there were even more storks.

The next section has the Roman baths, which look remarkably good from the outside. Then there are some less distinct ruins of a temple and the forum.

It was really hard to leave, so much that I delayed and delayed until it was noon. And then I tried to find a taxi. You wouldn't think this would be so hard right next to a touristy site, but it really was. I think I walked for about 10 minutes [passing the Royal Palace, which was nice] before finally I managed to catch a driver's attention. He dropped me off outside the Kasbah and of course I managed to get lost getting back to my hotel, even with the convenient map the owner had given me.

I decided to walk to the train station, using the hotel's wifi to look up directions on my phone because clearly I am an expert at the getting lost thing. It was kind of a pain to weave my way through an open air market [similar to the touristy ones in Mexico] while carrying a stuffed backpack on my shoulders, but it was well worth it.

I bought my train ticket, using the convenient English-language button on the automatic ticket machine, and hurried to the food court for lunch. Using my basically non-existent knowledge of French [speaking Spanish does not help as much as I'd thought], I ordered one of the most delicious chicken sandwiches I have ever eaten, especially for train station fast food, ate it as quickly as possible, and then realized my train had been delayed 30 minutes.

But considering how wonderfully warm it was, I didn't mind sitting under a tree for a while, people watching. The train ride itself is a whole 'nother story, but in the interest of not making this post impossibly long, I'll be telling it later.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Reina Sofia

Because I had time to kill before my evening flight out of Madrid, and because I was by myself and can do crazy things like this, I spent an entire Monday wandering through the whole of the Reina Sofia art museum.

Literally, the whole thing.

It took 5 and a half hours.

And I was about to fall over from two sore feet and a very hungry stomach by the time I left, but it was so worth it.

Here are the highlights:

The funky sculpture in the courtyard. This apparently is not the main entrance, but it's where I ended up [I wasn't lost, I swear!] and conveniently, because I needed to stash my backpack, where the lockers are located.

The Reina Sofia is probably most famous for being the home of Picasso's Guernica, the stunningly large painting that was his reaction to the Civil War bombing of the city. Seeing it in person made my mind jump to Kseniya Simonova's sand art, which reminded me just how easily you could apply this same reaction to the events in Ukraine in the past few months.

I was excited to run into Alexander Calder mobiles [not literally, but for some of them it was a close call] throughout the museum. I don't even remember where I first heard of him, but I really enjoy his work.

There were a billion and one special exhibits throughout the museum, but only two cool enough for me to pick up pamphlets after walking through them.

First up was El cosmos y la calle [The Cosmos and the Street], a collection by the painter Wols. He was born in Germany with the name Otto Wolfgang Schulze, but ran off to France due to his dislike of the Nazis and changed his name. He actually started out as a photographer before turning to painting. The piece that popped out at me the most was It's All Over the City. Most of his artwork is actually untitled, and the ones that are were named by his wife.

The title card at the museum read It's All Over and the City which I loved. Come to find out that's not the real title.
The other painting that really stuck with me was Obedient Faces, part of the Ghosts, Brides and Other Companions exhibit of works by Elly Strik. I absolutely loved this entire exhibit. One of her inspirations is Francisco de Goya, which translates really well for her first show in Spain. She's apparently not as famous, so there's not a great picture of the painting online, but I did manage to screenshot this from the exhibit's web page.

My favorite is the one on the right.
The meat statue. Yeah. It seems to have been part of a parade in Kansas or somewhere and then ended up on the terrace at the museum.

Then there were some truly weird modern art exhibits/statement pieces. And this comes from someone who loves abstract art. There were film clips playing all over the place too, some of them showing a certain artistic type of film-making, which was really cool, and some...just because? [They were mostly foreign or documentaries. The only one I recognized was Rear Window, and that's mostly thanks to Castle.]

The Reina Sofia is obviously not the most famous museum in Spain, or even Madrid, but I really enjoyed it. I got really lucky in the fantastic exhibits that they have going right now. And it was the perfect break in sightseeing. Next stop: Morocco!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Toledo Day 2

For some reason, I remember my second day in Toledo as being not as exciting as the first. I did manage to walk through the entire city the first day. If I had to guess, though, I'd say I got worn out trying to make my way through the labyrinth of a museum housed in the Alcazar.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The first thing I did Sunday morning was head to the Cathedral for a mozarabe mass. I literally had no idea what this entailed, but I figured it was the only time in my life I'd have a chance to find out. It's a distinctly Spanish style mass that was prominent in regions under Moorish rule but has been mostly replaced by the more typical Roman mass. To me, it didn't seem that different - I actually liked it better because they had booklets so you could follow along. How I miss my detailed Presbyterian bulletins each Sunday morning!

Totally normal church decoration in the 1600s, I suppose.
The best part was that the mass was held in a chapel that was closed during the visiting hours later that afternoon. It was a beautiful room, although I was a little weirded out by the giant mural of what I presume is a Christian victory over the Moors.

Almost every view of the lovely Alcazar facade is covered by the museum extension.
After trying to visit the Santa Cruz museum to see more El Grecos, I headed instead to the Alcazar. It was almost difficult to find the entrance because they've covered one side with this modern-looking building. So first, I walked through the military miniatures museum, interesting for the different historical scenes it portrayed. The next part of the museum was a giant space where you could see all the different phases of the building revealed in its foundation.

Roman, Visigoth, Moorish, and Christian ruins.
And then the military museum. It was a nice museum, but I wish I hadn't tried to visit the whole thing. Partly because I'm not as interested in the military side of history, and partly because it may have the poorest organization of any museum I've ever visited. Almost the entire fortress was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, so they pretty much had a clean slate when building this thing. And somehow, they decided to turn it into a labyrinth of exhibition rooms. I was constantly missing a section and having to go back, or walking through the same rooms twice.

To make matters worse, the displays really didn't have a rhyme or reason either. I felt like they kept skipping around in history. When they got to all the revolutions and rebellions in the 1800s, I just ended up really confused about the whole timeline.
They stuck a tent in the chapel. Why? No one knows.
My favorite part about the museum was the one room they hadn't restored. For one, it still had character, unlike the stark white walls in the rest of the building. It was full of photos and stories from the Civil War that were truly eyeopening.

I walked over to the Cathedral and grabbed a pastry to eat while I waited in the long line to get in. Luckily for me, Spanish residents got in for free, so I didn't have to wait nearly as long as the tourists who had to buy tickets. The main thing I remember from the Cathedral is the organs. Multiple organs. [You know you've seen a lot of churches when the giant arched vaults aren't that impressive anymore.]

I also found Archbishop Carrillo, who played a large part in getting Queen Isabel on the throne, in the long line of Archbishops of Toledo painted on the walls of the chapter house.

To finish off the afternoon, I grabbed my bags from my hostel and took the long way back to the bus stop. My main goal was to see the Roman circus ruins that were listed on my map. There are only a few pieces left standing and they've created a lovely park around them. Still, it's impressive that they've stuck around for nearly two thousand years.

The curve of the race track. I think the stands would have been just above this.