Chefchauen

We arrived in the town of Chefchauen Morocco on May 25th and were there for two nights and about two and a half days. Chefchauen is a Berber town way up in the Rif mountains of Northern Morocco bordering the Talassemtane National Park.  It is famous for the buildings in it’s old Medina that are all painted blue making for a really interesting and actually relaxing experience walking around as compared to Tangier.  The blue color is not only beautiful, but apparently has a practical purpose in that it repels the ravenous mosquitoes that grow up here.  It really has a kind of magical feel about it, like it’s some kind of fairy tale land.  However, there are real people who live and work here as you’re reminded walking through the narrow labirynthine streets with Berber women selling mint and grains, merchants selling everything from traditional Berber woolen garb to Snickers bars.

The bus ride from Tangier took about 3 hours over some more winding mountain roads. Luckily Jocelyn was able to find some Dramamine so we didn’t have any motion sickness problems this time. Our first night we got settled into our hostel, called Riad Baraka.  This was a really cool place in a renovated 600 year old building.  It’s owned and run by an Englishman named Joe, so it was nice to not have to get over the language barrier.  After that we headed out of North gate of the Medina and to a waterfall coming right out of the mountain where women do laundry and school kids gather to sing and play drums.  It was a lively scene with the music and the washing going hand in hand.  From there we walked up the opposite hill to what is called the Spanish Mosque overlooking the town.  On the way up we were approached by an entrepid young entreprenour selling flower necklaces that he had made.  He quoted us a price of 3 Dirhams (about 50 cents) for one of them.  When I accepted his price he tried to raise it to 5, but I stuck to my guns at 3.  Hopefully he learned that he should start out at a higher price and bargain down from there.  Bargaining is a valued skill among the Berbers and this boy was getting started young.  We sat at the mosque for a while looking over the town, listening to the music emanating from it, and watching a woman round up her goats on the hillside below.  After that we had some dinner at a place overlooking the square and did some good people watching which is always great entertainment here.

Our second day and only full day, we planned on doing a hike up Mount Kella overlooking the town, but after talking to Joe from the hostel we decided to make the walk to the next Berber village down the road called Kella instead. We started out around 10 am and the walk to the village took about two hours.  The walk wasn’t great as it was along the road and they were doing a lot of construction widening and improving it which made things not so tranquil.  Once we got to the village however, the construction stopped and the road turned back into the jeep track that I imagine the whole thing had been before they started the construction. We talked to a couple of people along the way however and they were all very friendly, welcoming, and curious about us.  Instead of following the road down into Kella we decided to follow it up into the mountains for a little while. About half an hour later, we looked around and noticed that we were in the middle of a giant marijuana plantation.  There was a man sitting up on a rock watching us and we decided this was the point we should probably turn around.  On the way back down we noticed even more marijuana that we hadn’t noticed before up on the hills and filling terraced farms above the village.  Marijuana is technically illegal in Morocco, but the authorities apparently look the other way here in the Rif mountains as it is the only crop that these people can grow that provides even close to a subsistence income and the they have been doing it for centuries. For the time being anyway it doesn’t seem have the violence and organized crime associated with it that it does in Mexico, Latin America, and the US, probably owing to it’s semi-legal status. The young men in Chefchauen offering hashish to tourists are annoying but harmless I think.  If anyone reading this is thinking of going to Chefchauen and sampling the hashish, I highly recommend against it.  It is still very illegal even if it seems tolerated and I think ending up in a Moroccan jail would really ruin your trip. On the way back down we stopped and ate our lunch in a nice shady rock overhang and then turned and walked down into the village.  When I say village, I mean it is a tiny village.  There seems to be only a mosque, a school, a cafe of sorts, and a few houses.  When we walked into town we were welcomed by children and the owner of the cafe who showed us there.  It wan’t much of a cafe, really just a building with some plastic chairs and some crates for tables.  He pulled out some plastic chairs and put them in the shady garden area for us and brought us some mint tea.  We talked for awhile as best we could in Spanish, which wasn’t very well, but it was a conversation and was fun and interesting.  On our way out of town we gave some pens to the children that we had brought with us on the suggestion of Joe from the hostel, which they seemed to really like although we should have brought more.  The kids walked us out of town and we headed back to Chefchauen via a different path that climbed up the mountain and curved back around and down into town.  When we got back, we were beat and took a nap before finding some dinner and going to bed.

The next day we walked around the Medina some more, met a really nice Berber man who also happened to be a great salesman and convinced us that we really needed to buy a small handmade silk Berber rug.  We got to practice our haggling skills which are important here and along with the rug we got some great lessons on Berber culture and spiritual beliefs as well as some mint tea.  Well worth the price.  We then got on the bus back to Tangier about 3:30 and then caught our night train to Marrakesh at 9:00.

Pictures of Chefchauen below and stay tuned for more from Marrakesh!

Tarifa and Tangier

We left Balcon del Cielo at 6:15 AM on May 22nd.  Axel was kind enough to get up with us before dawn and give us a ride to the bus stop in Trevelez where the bus was almost on time, which is about the best you can expect in Spain it seems.  Unfortunately, Jocelyn is a bit prone to motion sickness and the 2+ hours of hairpin turns on the bus was a bit much for her to handle.  Luckily we had a plastic bag on hand and we had not eaten any breakfast yet so there wasn’t too much to come back up.  Needless to say, she didn’t have a good time on the trip back down.  This was also just the beginning of our travels that day.  We arrived back in Granada at about 9:30 AM and then had to catch our train to Algeciras and then get on another bus to Tarifa where we were staying for the night.  Jocelyn recovered pretty quickly once we got back onto solid ground which was good because we had to walk a little over a kilometer from the bus station to the train station in Granada.  We boarded the train around noon for the 5 hour trip to Algeciras.  After the bus ride earlier however, the train seemed very luxourious with ample leg room and a smooth, straight ride.  Once in Algeciras we walked across the street to the bus station and were on our way to Tarifa about 15 minutes later.  After another 45 minutes on the bus we finally arrived in Tarifa around 6, 12 hours from when we left Trevelez.  It was a long day and we were happy to be at our final destination to say the least.  Our night in Tarifa was pretty uneventul.  I was out of clean socks and underwear and since the hostel didn’t have a washing machine, I spent the evening washing socks and underwear in the sink and hanging them up to dry in our room.  In all of my romantic daydreams of travelling I never envisioned washing underwear in a hostel sink as part of it, but you do what you have to do.  In the morning we got up and made ourselves some breakfast, checked out of our hostel and then headed to the beach.  Tarifa is in a very interesting spot right where the Atlantic and the Mediterranean meet. The beach we were on was on the Atlantic, but just a short walk away is the ferry port, which is on the Mediterranean.  Spending the day on the beach was nice and relaxing after the exhausting day previous.  From the beach we walked to the ferry port, and got on the 4:00 PM ferry to our next destination, Tangier, Morocco.

The ferry ride to Tangier was mostly uneventful.  We boarded with the rest of the foot passengers and then stood in line to get our passports stamped by Moroccan Customs.  The ferry ride only took about 45 minutes and there were comfortable seats and good views out the windows.  Once we arrived in Morocco it was almost immediately apparent that we were in a whole different world.  It is really amazing that in only a short ferry ride you can arrive somewhere that is so different.  Upon leaving the ferry port, we were approached by multiple people looking to give us a taxi ride.  Our hotel was a pretty short walk from the ferry port so we weren’t in need of a taxi and luckily a short “No Thank You”, or “La Shogrun” in Arabic seemed to do the trick. On the walk to the hotel we were approached once by someone who wanted to “be our friend and show us to our hotel”.  Luckily we had read about these guys in the guide books and heard about them from friends and knew that they are really just after money.  They are a little harder to ignore because they will follow you for a while, but after saying “No Thank You” a few times and then just ignoring them they mostly get the point and go away.  The hardest ones to ignore are the little kids that come up and point to their mouths and then put their hand out. These guys and the kids were pretty much constant the whole time in Tangier although it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting.  Once we dropped our bags off and didn’t look so much like lost tourists, we didn’t get hit up nearly as much. The children especially are sad to see and it definitely tells you that you are in a poorer place and reminds you of just how lucky we are to live where we do and have the affluence that we do.  I can’t blame these people for trying since to them we are incredibly rich even if we don’t think of ourselves that way in the context of the United States.  it definitely puts things in perspective and makes me realize the incredible opportunities and priveleges that I’ve had in life.  All of that said, Tangier and Morocco in general seems to be doing fairly well for itself.  There is a lot of new construction happening and the investements of the new king, Mohammed VI are obvious with a new port and parks, etc. being built.  Morocco is very obviously a Muslim country with the majority of the women wearing at least the Hijab covering their hair and the call to prayer ringing out over the city five times a day.  While there are definitely Western influences present, it seems that Morocco is building it’s own identity based on a liberal take on Islam and succeeding in the world on it’s own terms without giving up its culture or bowing to the reactionary forces of religious fundamentalism.

We were in Tangier for two nights and one full day.  Our first night, we got to our hotel, which gave us a nice respite from the general chaos of the city and the culture shock we got on our walk from the ferry port.  Now it was Jocelyn’s turn to do some laundry in the bathtub and I headed out to try to find the bus station to buy tickets for our next journey to Chefchauen and also to find some bottled water since we were warned not to drink the tap water here.  I was successful in finding a giant jug of water that lasted us our time in Tangier, but not so successful in finding the bus station so I left that for the next day.  For dinner, we went to a Moroccan/French fusion place that was tasty as well as peaceful and quiet with good music playing.  Morocco was a French colony for a long time only becoming independent in the 1950s.  Therefore, there is a lot of French influence on the cuisine as well as the culture. The second language besides Arabic of most people is French since they are required to learn it in school and all of the street signs, etc. are in both Arabic and French.  Jocelyn took a couple of years of French in High School so she’s been able to practice that a bit and we have been able to get by.  Many people also speak at least a little Spanish as well given the close proximity of Spain as well as the inundation of Spanish TV coming across the strait of Gibraltar.  Unfortunately it seems the only people who speak much English are the con men, but it’s been a good chance for us to practice our Spanish and for Jocelyn to practice her French.

The next day, we got up and headed to a little restaurant close by the hotel for breakfast.  This was simple, just some bread with butter and honey along with some coffee for me and some of the delicious mint tea that they make here for Jocelyn. It was also really cheap just costing the equivalent of a couple of dollars. From there we went on a mission to find the bus station to get our tickets to Chefchauen and also the train station to get our tickets for the night train from Tangier to Marrakech after Chefchaen. We found the bus station and this place was a cultural experience in itself. Outside is a tangle of taxis and when you walk in there is a multitude of men shouting the names of different cities. These are all taxi drivers looking to get people to hire them to drive them to their destinations instead of taking the bus.  It’s a lively scene to say the least that kind of reminds me of videos I’ve seen of the New York stock exchange with lots of shouting and crowds. Capitalism at it’s finest I suppose.  We were successful in getting our bus tickets as well as our train tickets after a little struggle to overcome the language barrier. With a transportation mission complete, our next destination was the area of the city called the Medina.  Our first stop was lunch at a place called Darna that is a women’s center offering services for battered women and women suffering the effects of divorce, which here can be quite harsh.  They operate a restaurant to make money and the food was absolutely delicious.  They have a different set menu each day with a fixed price of around $6 each.  The meal consisted of two courses including olives, fresh bread, and Tajine which is a traditional berger dish served still sizzling in an earthenware dish.  They all have different ingredients and this one had meatballs and egg in a delicious spicy sauce.  Of course it also included more of the delicious mint tea.  The Medina is the old part of the city and it is maze of narrow streets lined with shops and people selling just about anything you can think of from spices and tea to cell phones and TVs.  It is sensory delight with all kinds of novel sights and smells.  We walked by a whole street of metal smiths making very nice looking metal doors and barbecues as well as some place piled hight with hoofs of some kind of animal that they were charring in a giant oven.  We also saw these guys walking around with wheelbarrows full of the charred hoofs.  What they do with them I’m not sure and probably don’t want to know.  After wandering the Medina for a while we went back to the hotel for a little rest before heading out to dinner at a place called Saveur du Poisson, or “Fish Flavor” in English.  The place was literally a nondescript hole in the wall and we got there right before opening time at 8:00 PM so we were the first ones.  As soon as they opened at 8:00, the food started coming and didn’t stop for about an hour.  This is another set menu place so you just eat what they give you, which I really like because I don’t have to worry about deciding or deciphering what is on the menu.  The first course was a whole pile of different kinds of bread, olives, hot salted nuts, and chili sauce.  Next was a kind of seafood soup with squid and fish.  It continued with a seafood Tajine with more fish and squid in a spicy sauce.  The main course was an entire fish for the two of us complete with head, tail, and eyeballs. Neither of us was adventerous enough to eat the eyeballs though.  We had no less than three desserts.  First was a sweet concoction of strawberries and rasberries, second was nuts with honey, and finally a big chunk of watermelon.  Throughout the whole meal, they also kept our glasses full of fresh fruit juice that I think was also made from strawberries and rasberries. Towards the middle of the meal the man who we assumed was the owner showed up and made the rounds to all the tables making sure everyone was enjoying themselves and the food.  He also gave us a beautiful earthenware cup and the wooden utensils we used to eat with as souvenirs.  The whole meal was about $20 each, which is expensive for Morocco, but for the amount and quality of the food, not to mention the service you would probably pay 10 times as much in the U.S.  All in all a great experience and I would say it made our time in Tangier.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take a whole lot of pictures in Tangier because I’m not sure of the expectations and cultural norms of taking people’s pictures without permission, and pulling out the camera also seems to attract the con men and “guides”.  What I did take is below.  Now it’s on to the blue city in the mountains, Chefchauen.

Balcon de Cielo and the Sierra Nevada

We arrived at a place called Balcon de Cielo on Tuesday May 20th and stayed for two nights and one full day.  It is an eco-lodge owned and run by friends of a friend of Jocelyn’s.  Axel and Katie have a wonderful place and are great hosts, we had a great time here. They have about 10 acres high up in the Sierra Nevada mountains outside of a little town called Trevelez which is apparently the 3rd highest town in Europe.  It is a beautiful place with nice big rooms, a bar and dining room, and views for miles.  It is also right on the edge of the Sierra Nevada National Park.  They have only been open for about a year and it was very cool to be on the ground floor of something that I think will be even more amazing than it already is.  They have just hired a new farm manager named Mary who will be planting a large garden to provide food for the kitchen and they will also be planting a vineyard to make their own wine. Along with Mary came her partner Jan who is the new chef.  More about his amazing cooking later, but he’s worked in high class London restaurants for the past 10 years including one owned by Gordan Ramsay himself, so he definitely knows what he’s doing.

Our first afternoon, we arrived in Trevelez after a 3 hour bus ride from Granada.  The bus ride was a bit harrowing on narrow, curvey mountain roads, but it took us through beatiful scenery with big snow packed peaks and whitewashed mountain towns perched up on the sides of them.  Axel was there to pick us up at the bus stop and drove us back to Balcon De Cielo where we got checked in and rested up a bit.  Later that afternoon Axel took us on a walk down to the river below the property and filled us in on all kinds of things from the history of the farm and the area, to various kinds of plants growing there, and his plans for the vineyard.  After the walk and little more rest we had our first of two dinners in the dining room.  The first course was tapas made of Spanish cured ham, and homemade kimchi that was delicious.  Next, we had roast pork that was perfectly tender and very tasty.  Finally, dessert consisted of stewed fruit including cherries from their trees and home made milk keifer.  Not only was it very good, but also very healthy for dessert.  All of this was washed down with a few glasses of Andalucian red wine.  It was awesome and since we were the only ones in the dining room for much of the time it was like having our own personal chef, which was incredible.

Our first and only full day, we went for a hike up into the mountains and into the Sierra Nevada National Park. Axel gave us a ride into Trevelez and we started the hike from there just picking up the trail where one of the streets ended.  Unfortunately it was raining, so we got soaked to the bone on the way up but luckily the sun came out on the way down and we were able to dry out a bit. Luckily some rain doesn’t bother us Oregon folks.  It was absolutely gorgeous and definitely the most “wild” feeling place we’ve been thus far I think.  We didn’t see any other people during our 8 hour hike except for a couple of guys on horses most likely going up to check on their cattle. It was really nice to get out into some wilderness after the big cities the last couple of weeks.  Once we got back to Balcon de Cielo we took showers and then headed up to the dining room for dinner again. This was a repeat of the previous night with more amazing food and wine.  For a starter we had perfectly cooked asparagus with more of the homemade kiefer.  The main course was rabbit with peas and Spanish chorizo.  The rabbit was stuffed with a sauce made from the organ meat along with some freshly picked wild mushrooms.  Along with more of the local wine, it was absolutely delicious. Dessert consisted of donut peaches cooked somehow that made them delicious with some kind of frozen concoction that I’m forgetting the name of sprinkled over the top.  Needles to say at this point, it was delicious.  All in all another splendid meal. Aside from being a great cook, Jan also provides great entertainment telling jokes and generally being a character.

We couldn’t have asked for more from our experience in the Sierra Nevada and at Balcon de Cielo.  The only thing we could wish for is that we could have stayed longer.  We will definitely be going back and I highly reccommend it to anyone, you won’t be dissapointed with the experience.  The scenery is amazing and Axel, Katie and crew provided a wonderful experience making us feel welcome from the moment we arrived and providing amazing food and atmosphere.  Thank you guys so much!  We will be back for sure.

We’re almost done with Spain and will be heading to Tarifa for one night and then on to Morrocco!

Granada

We spent two nights and one day in Granada after arriving there by way of Cordoba on Sunday May 18th.  Granada was the last bastion of the Moors in Spain and it definitely has a more Moorish feel.  It is also fairly hilly and is situated right up against the Sierra Nevada mountains that you can see towering above from the city. Our first night in town we took a taxi from the bus station to our hostel and got checked in.  From there we walked up the hill to a view point in front of St. Nicholas’ church where you can see the whole city below and the huge Moorish fortress/palace of Alhambra silhouetted against the mountains.  It is really a beautiful site especially right at sunset when we were there.  On the way we stopped at a little tapas bar to get some food, but first I ordered a beer and to my surprise got a free tapa along with it.  It had a little meat sandwich, some fries, and some potato chips.  It was definitely plenty to eat, so for 2.50 Euros, I got a beer and a pretty good amount of food, not a bad deal.  The bartender told me that you get a tapa with each drink, so for 5 Euros, you could have a couple of beers and be really full.  Apparently this used to be the tradition throughout Spain but it has died out everywhere except in Granada.  I must say, I like the tradition and it definitely makes eating here cheap.

On our only full day in Granada, we started out with a self-guided walking tour from our guide book.  This took us by the old silk market, the cathedral, and the old Moorish bath house.  From there we went to the Alhambra fortress.  Unfortunately we were too late getting tickets so we weren’t able to get in to the main palace in the complex, but we were still able to see everything else. The place is huge containing multiple palaces, a fortress and acres of gardens. It was very impressive and beautiful, but also very crowded with tour groups which takes away some of the charm.

Next we head to a place high up in the Sierra Nevada mountains called Balcon de Cielo.  We’re looking forward to getting out of the city and heat for a couple of days. Pictures of Granada below.

Seville and Cordoba

We were in Seville, Spain from May 15th through May 18th. We had a great time there, although it was the first place we’ve been so far where we can say the weather was indeed hot.  The city is designed to deal with this however with the narrow streets and tall buildings as well as hundreds of orange trees providing ample shade.  Luckily our room at the hostel also had an air conditioner that we made good use of.

Our first full day in Seville, we took a walking tour to get familiar with city and learn a bit about it’s long and complicated history.  This region of Spain, called Andalucia, was first a Roman city, then Gothic, then under the control of Islamic Moors for almost 800 years before it was re-conquered by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.  All of these civilizations definitely left their mark here, making for very interesting architecture and culture that mixes elements of all of them together.  After the walking tour, we went to the Seville Cathedral.  This is the third larges cathedral in the world and the largest by volume.  It is absolutely massive both inside and out and contains a very interesting mix of Islamic and Gothic architecture.  It was actually built on top of the mosque that occupied the same site and actually incorporates parts of the former mosque including the iconic bell tower.  It also contains the tomb of Christopher Columbus, which was interesting to see.  Our first night, we went to a bar that specializes in Flamenco music, which is the folk music form from the Andalusia region.  Flamenco is a very interesting style of music that includes guitar, dancing, singing, and handclaps all of which produce very complicated rhythms and a visually stunning experience with the dancers flying around the stage.

Our second day in Seville, we went to the Alcazar Palace.  This place was really incredible and I would say one of the best buildings we have seen so far on the trip.  It is a stunning example of what is called Mudejar architecture that blends Moorish styles with more Western and Gothic styles.  The intricacy of the workmanship in the tile and masonry is unbelievable.  It is also surrounded by acres of gorgeous gardens that I’m sure you could spend days in.  After the Alcazar, Jocelyn split up to do a little solo exploring and then got back together for dinner.  We then went to another Flamenco show, this one a little bit more serious than a bar show at an actual theater.  This was also a good time and really let us get a better feel for the music since there wasn’t people talking over it and it also gave us a better view of the performers than we had at the bar.

On May 18th we left Seville and headed for our next stop of Granada by way of Cordoba.  We stopped in Cordoba for about half a day and went to the Cordoba Cathedral or Mezquita as it’s called.  The Mezquita is really beautiful and very different from the other cathedrals we have seen.  The reason is that it is an actual Mosque that was just turned into a Cathedral and therefore retains all of the distinctive striped-arch columns, etc.

We’re now in Granada, so more to come soon on that.  Pictures from Seville and Cordoba below.

Barcelona Part 2

Highlights of our last few days in Barcelona included the Sagrada Familia cathedral and a day trip to Montserrat.  Of course there was also more time on the beach and swimming in the Mediterranean. We left Barcelona on May 15th for our next destination of Seville in Southern Spain.

The Sagrada Familia is an absolutely breathtaking building and definitely the best cathedral we’ve seen so far on this trip. It was begun in 1882 and is still under construction with only about half of it completed up to this point. Given that it is already incredibly big and beautiful, I can only imagine what it will be like when it is completed.  It was designed by the famous Modernist architect Gaudi and it definitely has a modern feel in comparison to the Gothic and Norman cathedrals we’ve seen so far on this trip. Outside it is huge with ornate carvings, sculptures, and towers.  Gaudi’s architecture was very much influenced by nature and the geometry found there.  This is visible on the outside, but once stepping in, you really get a sense for it. He wanted the inside to feel like being in a forest with the columns rising up like tree trunks and the light filtering in as if through a canopy of leaves and it definitely feels that way.  It is big, airy, and bright unlike the older cathedrals that can sometimes feel dark and dingy if still immense.  It is a sight to see and if you ever go to Barcelona and only do one thing, I think visiting here should be it.  Hopefully I can make it back when it is finished which is scheduled for sometime in the middle of this century after 200 years or so of work.

Montserrat is a mountain range and monestary about an hour train ride from Barcelona. After getting off the train, there is a cable car that takes you up to the monastery perched on a cliff overlooking the valley below. From the monastery there are all kinds of hiking trails that take you farther up into the mountains.  There were a fair number of people at the monastery, but once we got out on the trails we pretty much had the place to ourselves.  It was nice to get out onto some trails and away from the crowds after being in the city for the past few days.  The landscape and scenery are beautiful with interesting rock formations, forests, and amazing views of the monastery and a large chunk of Catalonia.  The monastery itself is also very beautiful. I had always thought of monks living simply in kind of austere places.  This monastery is far from austere however with the inside being as big and beautifully decorated as many of the churches that you see in the cities.  This place is also a place of pilgramage for a lot of people due to a statue of the virgin Mary that was found in a cave nearby.  This statue is in the back of the monastery behind the main altar in the chapel and people line up and filter through to touch the statue for good luck or something.  I think many of the people who were there were there for this reason and hence why we didn’t see many on the trails.

From Barcelona we moved on to Seville via the awesome AVE train.  It is a newer bullet train that whisks you across the country at speeds of about 200 miles per hour.  There is tons of leg room, comfortable seats, classical music playing, and relaxing lighting. It definitely feels like being in the future, unfortunately a future that we’re missing out on in the U.S.  More pictures of Barcelona and Montserrat are below with more to come soon on Seville.

Barcelona 1

We arrived in Barcelona, Spain on the afternoon of May 8th.  We will be here for a total of 7 days.  We rented an apartment here for the whole time through a great website called Cross Pollinate.  The apartment has a full kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom and is right in the middle of the old city close to the beach and all of the interesting sights.  We got a really good deal on it, partly because the balcony is unusable at the moment and there is people doing work on it during the day.  For the price and location however, it has worked out really well and didn’t break the bank.  Our first afternoon and evening here we settled into our apartment and then went down to the beach and had some tapas at a little restaurant right on the shore.

Our first full day, we went out and explored the old part of the city including the cathedral, some old churches and the many public squares.  This part of the city is very interesting and vibrant.  It is really old with parts of the Roman walls still visible.  In one place they actually built one of the new buildings around some of the columns of the old Forum.  You can go in and see these 2,000 year old columns right there in the middle of the building. This old part of the city has that same kind of medieval charm that York does with the narrow winding streets and balconied aparments lining them.  There is interesting people everywhere and something interesting to hear, see, or smell around every corner.  After this, we of course went back to the beach and then had some food at one of the many tapas restaurants.  The meal was simple consisting of bread, cured Catalan chorizo, bleu cheese, and Catalan red wine to wash it all down with.  It was delicious to say the least and the atmosphere in the little tapas shop on a Friday night was really fun.

Our second full day in the city we started out at the Mercado de La Boqueria. This is a huge indoor market right off the main pedestrian thoroughfare called La Rambla. The place was bustling on Saturday morning with all of the locals doing their grocery shopping. There was so much stuff there from fresh produce, to fruit, the famous Catalan cured meats, and a huge fresh seafood market as well. We got some provisions here to make food for the rest of our time in Barcelona and then we went to explore the area around Montjuic.  Montjuic is the tallest hill in the city and provides great views.  There is an interesting castle on top and the whole thing is covered with beautiful parks.  After spending some time on Montjuic, Jocelyn and I split up for a bit. She went to the Fundació Joan Miró art museum and the Catalonia National Museum of Art.  Art museums aren’t really my thing so I spent some time walking around in the beautiful Jardins de Can Ferroro park and at the Muesum of Archaeology of Catalonia.  We met up again at the National Art Museum, which in itself is just an amazing building even if you don’t even look at the art inside.  From there we went to the Magic Fountain and watched the show before heading home.  This fountain is amazing. By day, it just looks like a pretty normal fountain, but at 9:00 PM every night, it becomes a super fountain.  It does all kinds of crazy effects with water and lights all choreagraphed to music.  It was indeed a spectacular sight with the Museum, the Placa de Espana, and the sunset for backdrops.

Our third day, Sunday, I slept in and hung out at the beach while Jocelyn danced the Sardana at the cathedral and visited the Barcelona Center for Contemporary Culture. So far Barcelona has been great.  Beautiful weather, great people, delicious food, and an amazing culture. We’re definitely looking forward to our next few days here before moving on to Seville and Thursday.  Say tuned for more from Barcelona.

Manchester and Return to London

We arrived in Manchester from Belfast on the evening of May 5th 2014. Here we had our first and hopefully last bad experience with AirBnB.  We had previously made arrangements to stay at an AirBnB house here, but when we arrived at the house, no one was home and we were unable to get the phone number we were provided to work in order to call them. We waited around for about a half hour with anxiety building and finally decided that we should head back towards the city center and find a hotel. Since it was a weekend most places we tried were full, but after a bit of searching we were able to find a hotel not far from the city center with a room available. As luck would have it, Jocelyn had previously made some contacts through the Co-Op in Rochdale near Manchester in regards to finding a place to stay with someone locally.  We got in touch with a wonderful woman named Zatoon who had us stay at her place for the remaining two days we had in Manchester.  The hospitality she showed us was great and she really helped us get to know the Manchester area and England in general from a locals perspective.  Thank you so much Zatoon!

Our first full day in Manchester, we got settled into Zatoon’s place and then took the bus back into the city center to do some exploring. Manchester is really a neat city with tons of Victorian architecture and a less touristy, more gritty/real feeling than a lot of the more touristy areas of London, etc.  We walked along the canals and ended up in the Manchester “Gay Village”.  This place was interesting with a couple of blocks that seemed to be a non-stop street party with bars and tables outside along the canal.  The city seems to take a certain amount of pride in it as well with street signs that look to be put there by the city announcing when you’ve entered the village.  We saw a group of men in kilts doing what looked to me like a Victorian line dance to live music and also stumbled across a “Village People” (as in the 70′s band) festival happening in the park and watched a drag queen perform some jazz tunes for a while.  Definitely interesting.  From there, we went to the China Town district of Manchester and had some dinner before heading back to Zatoon’s to turn in for the night.

Our second day in Manchester we started out the day at the People’s History Museum.  This museum has a really interesting and refreshing perspective that differs from a lot of the museums you will see.  Whereas most museums focus on the lives and politics of kings and the upper classes, this one is all about the working classes in Manchester and their struggles for democracy, decent wages, and better working conditions. Next, we went to the Museum of Science and Industry.  This was also a very impressive and interesting museum. They had all kinds of exhibits about the machinery and the science that powered the industrial revolution.  Highlights for me included seeing a working recreation of the first programmable computer called “Baby”, and the “Power Hall” where they had all kinds of working steam and other types of engines that powered the mills of Manchester throughout the industrial revolution. Our last day in Manchester we went to a suburb of Manchester called Rochdale. This was where the first consumer Co-Op was formed in 1844 to give the factory workers pouring into the city access to affordable and wholesome food. As such it holds a lot of interest for Jocelyn given her deep involvement with our local Co-Op in Portland. We went to the Rochdale Pioneers Museum which occupies the same building where the Co-Op first opened it’s doors in 1844. This was very interesting and highly reccommended if you’re into Co-Ops and are in the Manchester area.

From Rochdale we got on the train to London to return for our second time on this trip. The reason we came back to London is that we wanted to see a play at Shakespeare’s Globe theater and it doesn’t start having shows until May.  This time we stayed at a hostel close to St. Pauls cathedral and the Globe theater. St. Paul’s cathedral is an amazing building a really great thing to see first thing each day when leaving the hostel.  The play at the Globe was a really awesome experience.  We saw Titus Andronicus and got tickets on the floor.  These are the best seats in the house in my opinion.  If you don’t mind standing for three hours, it puts you right up next to the stage right in the thick of the action. The actors also came out onto the floor a lot and there was a lot of audience participation.  You feel like you’re actually part of the play instead of a mere spectator.  It kind of felt like being at a rock concert in a lot of ways.  Really, really fun and highly reccommended.  The floor tickets are also very cheap at only five pounds.

This concludes our time in Ireland and the UK, and now we’re off to sunny Barcelona, Spain!

Belfast

We left the farm in Ireland on May 1st and headed off to Belfast in Northern Ireland. Our time on the farm was really great and we’ll definitely miss Geoff and Jo, their animals, Jo’s awesome cooking, and our fellow WWOOFers.  Anyone looking to do WWOOfing in Ireland, I can highly reccomend Geoff and Jo’s place in Donegal, you won’t regret it.

We arrived in Belfast the afternoon of May 1st and mostly just checked into our hostel, got something eat, and did a little bit of planning and booking of lodging for the next leg of our trip in Spain.  Nothing too exciting.  The next day, we headed out to explore and started the day with the Botanic Gardens and the Ulster Museum. The gardens were very nice and were starting to bloom and the “Palm House” was a really neat Victorian era glass and iron greenhouse full of exotic tropical plants.  At the Ulster Museum we checked out their newest exhibit on “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland and learned a lot about the sad history of sectarian violence that has really impacted and shaped Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland in recent times.  There was also a really good art exhibit with pieces from the era of The Troubles.

Next we walked to West Belfast which is where the legacy of The Troubles is most evident.  There is a huge “Peace Wall” that seperates the Protestant from the Catholic side of West Belfast. We started out on the Catholic side and looked at the really beautiful murals that have been painted on the wall. One thing about Belfast is that there are murals everywhere, with this spot definitely being the place with the most murals per square inch that we saw anywhere in the city. We then walked through the gates in the wall and up to the Protestant side of West Belfast. Here there were also all kinds of political murals, monuments, and memorials on sites of IRA bombings. When we were looking at one of the memorials we had a local come up to us and describe his memories of one of the bombings.  It was a stark reminder of how recent all of these events are and how raw the memories still are in many people’s minds.  Finally, we checked out the opening act of the Festival of Fools, which is a weekend long festival featuring all kinds comedy street performances all over the city.  This was really fun to lighten things up after a bit of an intense day looking at the legacy of The Troubles.  We checked out some more of these acts the next day and also saw a labor march as well before we got on our plane to Manchester.  The March was interesting and a reminder of how much more influence organized labor still has in this part of the world compared to the U.S.

Our time in Ireland was really great even though it seems like it flew by.  We were there for almost a month and I’ll definitely never forget it and I hope to make it back again someday.  Pictures of Belfast below.

Ancestors, Farm, and the Giant’s Causeway

In my last post, I mentioned that we spent some time last Saturday at the hostel in Moville and hanging out with the proprieter, Seamus.  During our conversations he mentioned that his grandparents were from the village of Malin Head and he had spent a lot of time there growing up. Since that is the same area my Irish ancestors came from, I asked him if he knew anyone with the name Mooney there. He said that he didn’t, but he had a friend that lived in Malin Head and that he might know someone. It turns out Mooney is a name that is usually seen farther South around Dublin and not usually up here in the North. This made it much more possible that any Mooneys in Malin Head would be relatives of mine. When we went to the pub later that night, Seamus introduced me to his friend from Malin Head and he did in fact know some Mooneys there and he would get in touch with them the next day. It turns out that particular Mooney wasn’t a relation, but this man knew of another man who lived on the original Mooney homestead and had Mooney relations. This man, with the last name Logue, did in fact turn out to be a relative of mine. We made arrangements to go to their place on Monday, April 21st to meet since it was a holiday and we didn’t have to work on the farm. Seamus was nice enough to drive us up there and share his encyclopedic knowledge of the area and it’s history as we went pointing out various archaeological sites, etc.  We showed up at the Logue house and were graciously invited in for tea in true Irish fashion. I have some old pictures from the 1960′s of some relatives here in Ireland and he immediately recognized the men in the photos as his uncles.  It’s a bit complicated, but it turns out his mother, named Elizabeth Mooney, is the daughter of my great great grandfather’s brother.  The Logue family still lives on the farm where my great great grandparents lived before emigrating to the United States in the 1880s.  The old stone house where they lived is still there just a little ways up the hill from where the current house is.  It’s kind of in ruins now, but Mr. Logue took us up to see it and as you can imagine it was an incredible thing to see. To walk in the same place and see the same things that they saw every day so long ago was an incredible experience.  The Logue’s were incredibly nice and seemed genuinely happy to meet another relative from so far away and so far back.  Mr. Logue said he never thought he would see a Mooney turn up there.  I got all of their contact information and I hope to stay in touch with them over the years so hopefully my children can have the same experience some day.  We also went by the Star of the Sea church in Malin Head which is where my great great grandparents were married in 1882.

Work on the farm has remained fun and interesting. This past week, besides feeding and cleaning up after the animals, we’ve been doing more digging and weeding to prepare for planting.  We also got to plant a whole lot of potatoes and turnips. It has been great to get to know Geof and Jo better along with our fellow WWOOFers. The food has also remained superb. I think the highlight was homemade fish and chips on Friday night with freshly caught fish from right down the hill on Lough Foyle.  So good!  They also have this thing here that I had never had before called “Mushy Peas”.  It doesn’t sound appetizing, but it is really good.  Apparently it’s made from a specific type of pea that has a very high starch content making it almost like a bean. These are dried and then boiled with a little bit of baking soda and salt. They come out with almost the consitency of refried beans with a lot of subtle salty pea flavor.  I might need to learn more about making it since it seems like it would be a good way to use the pea harvest we get from our garden each year. We are really enjoying our time here and are a little sorry we have to leave so soon.  I think both of us are wishing we could stay longer, but we’re looking forward to the next leg of our journey as well. We’ll be leaving the farm on Thursday May 1st and heading to Belfast and back to England for a few days and then we move on to Spain.

Finally, Jocelyn and I went to a place called the Giant’s Causeway across the Lough Foyle in Northern Ireland yesterday, Saturday April 27th.  This is a UNESCOTWorld Heritage site because of its very unique geological formations. Part of the adventure of it was just getting there. There is a ferry that goes across Lough Foyle from the little town of Greencastle just down the hill from the farm.  However, the Giant’s Causeway itself is about another 45 minutes by car from there. Since we have no car, we just got on the ferry and then started asking people who brought their cars on if we could get a ride to the town of Coleraine where we could then get a bus to the Giant’s Causeway. We ended up finding a French couple who were there on vacation who happened to be driving all the way to Giant’s Causeway and they were happy to let us ride along.  It’s a really beautiful place with some definitely interesting geology.  There are all of these stones that kind of crystallized as the magma was cooling creating an intricate pattern of hexagons that looks like a huge game board or something.  I’m glad we made it there and as has been the case so far in Ireland, the weather was sunny and beautiful.