Thursday, December 07, 2006

France, Spain, Portugal, and Morocco Part I

The next two essays cover 16-day trip that I took with my wife and the kids to France, Spain, Portugal, and Morocco. During the trip, we were in 9 different countries (and 2 continents) and drove almost 5,000 miles. In Part I, I will focus on France and Spain, and I will cover Portugal and Morocco in Part II.

Part I


Day 1, Saturday, April 8, 2000 – We left about 1 hour later than I had wanted to. Our plan was to reach Normandy in France today and have time to look around. We had arranged the kid’s seats in the minivan differently than normal. I had the backs of their seats up against the backs of our seats so we could reach them easily. Normally, I have them sitting all the way in the back watching a movie on a small TV/VCR combo that we have. My wife drove the first couple of hours while we were in familiar territory. Other than this, and a short stint in Paris, I drove the rest of the trip.

Driving across Belgium, we almost caused a wreck, but we never figured out exactly what happened. My wife was driving, and moved to the right out of the fast lane into the middle lane. After she moved over, there was a semi to her right. We heard tires screeching and we looked back to see a car almost run into the back of the semi. After a few minutes, two mad guys pulled up alongside my window, and started making a motion to say “Didn’t you see me?” I just shrugged my shoulders at them, because I had no idea what had happened. I think they were coming up very fast behind the semi, and went to move into the same lane we had moved into. When we got there first, they had nowhere to go.

Driving in France is tough. The French drive more recklessly than the Germans. Most of the French cars were also in worse condition than the cars on German roads. I took over the driving before we crossed the border. I had a mapping program that told me that driving through Paris is the quickest way to Normandy, but I was skeptical because it looked much closer to go cross-country. So, I decided to avoid Paris. But, the French don’t always put decent signs along their roads, so I never came across the turnoff I needed. Often, in France, it is impossible to know exactly where you are on the map because you don’t know which road you are on. Many times all they have are indications directing you to a certain city. But, if you only need to take the road part of the way to the city before turning onto a different road, good luck. There is no guarantee you are on the correct road. The French autobahns are usually clearly numbered, but they are very expensive. We probably paid $70 to drive on the autobahn for 6 hours.

So, having missed our turnoff to go cross-country, we proceeded into Paris. I caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower as we were coming into Paris, but no sign of the road we needed to turn onto. We ended up lost in downtown Paris with no indications pointing us in the general direction of Normandy and no numbered roads. I finally asked my wife to drive so I could navigate us out of there. I finally spotted a sign for a town in the general direction we needed to travel, so we took it. But again, we had no idea what road we were on. Traffic was also extremely heavy. It was bumper to bumper for at least five miles, and it took us over an hour to get out of there. It was also hot. Our air conditioner in the van had stopped working before the trip (we actually got a recall notice on it) but I never had time to get it fixed. I didn’t figure it would be that warm in April anyway.

Finally, we passed the Palace of Versailles, and I was able to place us on the map. We were on the south side of Paris, but I had thought we were on the north. That is the problem with their shortage of numbered roads. It can be impossible to pinpoint your location.

We finally cleared Paris, but we were way behind schedule. I had planned on being in Normandy by 2 p.m., but it was that late by the time we got out of Paris. Then, as I was pulling into a tollbooth I heard my daughter say she was sick. She was hot and carsick, and we had to pull over for a while to clean up and let her recuperate.

As we entered the countryside of Normandy, everything was so green. It reminded me of Ireland. There were rolling hills, and sheep everywhere. We passed lots of old castles. As we got closer to the coast, we decided to visit the American Military Cemetery first. We pulled into the cemetery at 5:04, but they had closed at 5:00. So, we would go back in the morning. But, where we parked was directly above Omaha Beach. We made our way down from the hills toward the beach. Most of the people we came in contact with were Americans. My son heard people speaking English, and he told my wife, “We used to be English, but now we’re German.” My wife explained to him that we were and still are Americans.

The American Cemetery in Normandy

We saw a number of old German gun emplacements and bunkers. We went inside several and looked around. Heavy shell damage from the U.S. ships which bombarded the shores was evident everywhere. Looking out of some of these gun emplacements I was amazed by the coverage the Germans had of the beach. It would have been terrifying to land on that beach.

Finally, we walked down to the beach. I was actually standing on Omaha Beach. My mind flashed over and over to the opening battle scene from “Saving Private Ryan.” I looked up at the gun emplacements and imagined the scene that the soldiers faced as they landed and tried to make their way across the beach. There were several hundred yards of open beach they had to run across while being steadily shot at. I looked out at the water and imagined all the battleships firing rounds at the shore, and all of the boats with soldiers constantly coming ashore. I imagined all the bodies on the beach, and thought about how scared those guys must have been. I felt very overwhelmed looking at all of this. It was so difficult to imagine what had actually taken place here. I also thought about what it must have been like for the Germans in their bunkers. They were facing overwhelming odds and constant bombardment. The scene that they looked out of their bunkers and saw must have terrified them as much as it did the Americans.

After we spent some time on the beach, we decided to find a place to camp or a hotel. We drove a short distance down the beach to Vierville-sur-Mer, and found a hotel, Hotel du Casino, directly overlooking the beach. We paid only about $40 for a room with 4 beds and a view of the beach. Directly outside our hotel was a sign that said “Omaha Beach – Dog Green Sector”. This was the precise location for the opening battle scene in “Saving Private Ryan.” I almost had to pinch myself, because it just didn’t seem real. About 50 yards from our hotel was a memorial to the National Guards. It was built on top of a gun emplacement that still contained an enormous (but very rusty) German gun. I still couldn’t believe what the guys in the small boats had faced as they tried to make their way onshore. Also outside our hotel were remaining pieces of an artificial harbor that had been built in Britain and dragged across the English Channel on D-Day.
We were all starving, but the hotel restaurant didn’t open until 7:30. I don’t like to eat this late, but we were soon to find that this was early by Spanish standards. To pass the time, we played games with the kids. We would ask them what country we were in, where we were going, and what language the people spoke. My son loved to say Portugal and Portuguese. My daughter almost always got the answers right.

At dinner, I had a French dictionary, and we tried to translate the menu. I ordered a five-course meal. The appetizer was a dozen raw oysters. Now, I like raw oysters with cocktail sauce, but these didn't come with cocktail sauce. I squeezed a lemon on them, and they were not too bad. After the oysters, they brought me a scoop of ice cream in a glass of something like whiskey. That was disgusting. Finally, I had a steak. It was not as good as a Texas steak, but it was O.K. After the meal, the waitress tried to explain to me that breakfast would be served between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. A Frenchman at the next table, wearing a T-shirt from the Superbowl, overheard and translated for me. After dinner, we all went upstairs and everyone else went to bed. But I stayed up for a long time and looked at the beach.

Day 2, Sunday, April 9, 2000 – We got up early, and I took the kids down for breakfast. A typical French breakfast may be nothing but bread. They eat croissants, toast, and rolls with a little jam or honey. The kids ate well, and I took them to the beach while my wife ate breakfast and relaxed in the hotel room. I ran around with the kids for a long time out on the beach. It was pretty cold out there. We climbed a hill and went into another bunker. We walked out on the pier, and then went back on the beach and picked up a few shells.

After that, we drove to the cemetery. The cemetery is on a hill overlooking the beach. There are 9,387 soldiers buried there, many of whom died on the beach below. There is also a wall containing the names of 1,553 soldiers missing in the region. The white crosses are all perfectly aligned, and there is a memorial to the fallen and a chapel in the middle. In the memorial area, there are huge maps depicting the military operation. We wandered there a long time, looking at the names, and thinking about the families of the men who died here. The cemetery gave me an overwhelming feeling of sadness. Hitler had caused so much sorrow for so many people.

I expected the cemetery to be full of Americans, but there were not that many. It was, however, full of French people. I was very surprised by this. There were student groups, groups of French soldiers, and families. There was a group of French soldiers taking a guided tour. The tour guide was standing at the edge of the cemetery which overlooked the beach, and was apparently describing the landing. It made me feel so good to see this. I had always heard that the French were ungrateful for all the Americans who lost their lives to liberate France. If not for the Americans and British, France would have continued to live under German rule. But, here I saw lots of French people paying tribute to America’s soldiers.

After signing the logbook in the visitor’s center, we drove to Point du Hoc, which is 8 miles west of the cemetery. On the way there, we saw lots of old building and walls with obvious bomb and artillery damage. It must have been pretty horrible being a civilian in this area on June 6, 1944.

Point du Hoc is the place where James Earl Rudder, a former Texas A&M graduate (also president of the university from 1959 to 1970), and his 2nd Ranger Battalion scaled the 100 foot cliffs to neutralize a German artillery battery. Only 90 out of 220 men survived the battle, and Rudder was injured twice. There is a memorial to these men at Point du Hoc. There is also a 30-acre area that has basically been left untouched since the war. There are bomb craters everywhere, and the kids enjoyed playing in them. We looked around the German bunkers and gun emplacements, and then looked down the cliffs. I don’t know how anyone could scale those cliffs under fire. That was quite an achievement.

After we left Point du Hoc, we wanted to get some sand from Omaha beach. The day before, my son had found a nice shell on the beach, but we wanted to get some sand, too. When we drove back down to the beach, the entire thing was under water. It was high tide, and we had a really tough time finding sand. Finally, we got some, and headed to St. Mere Eglise.

Ste. Mere Eglise is famous for an event that happened on D-Day. An American paratrooper got his parachute hung up in the steeple there. Actually, all of the guide books and history books say the steeple, but it was really one of four concrete points sticking out of the roof of the church. He played dead for two hours before the Germans took him prisoner. This incident is depicted in “The Longest Day.” There is a parachute and a life-sized model of a soldier still attached to the church. We saw this, took some pictures and video, and headed south.

Next, we drove south to Mont St. Michel, which is a huge abbey built on a rock out in the ocean. It is one of the biggest and most recognizable tourist attractions in France. We could see it looming for miles before we got there. When we were parking, the people directing traffic were wearing almost the exact same coat that I was wearing. I was wearing my coat from work, which I admit is not very pretty, but it is very warm and waterproof. My wife joked that I could probably blend in if I got out and started directing people to parking places.

We went inside and toured the abbey. The top portion is probably 15-20 stories high, and you have to walk up. The abbey was built in the 11th century, and is very impressive. The view from the top was fantastic. There is now a causeway all the way to the island, so it is no longer isolated from the shore at high tide. But, in previous times people would try to make it across from the shore at low tide. Many of them drowned as the tide came in very fast.

We left around 5 p.m. Since we had a long drive the next day, and we had not reserved a room for this day, we decided to go ahead and start heading toward Spain. After we drove about an hour, we came to a fairly large city, Rennes. We couldn’t find a hotel with parking available anywhere. We wasted an entire hour there, before I decided to move on to the next town. I wanted to try and find a smaller town that might have a hotel with parking.

So, we headed toward the next large town, Nantes, but we were looking for a small hotel or a campsite with bungalows. We stopped at several hotels and campsites without success. It was now getting late, and I was getting pretty worried. It was also starting to rain. The situation was looking so grim that I told my wife that I was ready to take my chances at the Bates Motel. We were in the absolute middle of nowhere, with nothing but farmland around us. I was afraid we were going to end up sleeping in the van. Finally, I exited at a sign indicating a hotel. It didn’t look to be open, and when I tried the door a man came out from the bar next door. He said the hotel was closed. As I turned to leave, he said, “Wait. I will make a call.” He made a call, and put me on the phone with the owner of a Bed and Breakfast. The owners were an English couple, they did have a family room available, and they were only a few miles away on a farm.

When we arrived, I could not believe how our fortunes had changed. A few minutes before I was considering the possibility of sleeping in the van. Now, we had a room with four beds in a farmhouse in Brittany. The B&B was called the Le Moulin Chere, and a small river (the Chere) flowed outside our window. The house appeared to be very old, and our room was great. All of this and breakfast for about $40. The owners were great, and we visited with them for a while. We decided not to leave right away in the morning and let the kids relax on the farm. We had skipped lunch and snacked, and then we had missed dinner due to our rush to find a place to stay. So, we snacked again and went to bed in the most comfortable bed of our entire trip.

Le Moulin Chere - Our B&B in France


Day 3, Monday, April 10, 2000 – As is usually the case, my son woke up early. I took him out of the room to let the girls sleep a little longer. Directly below our bedroom, there was a large parlor with lots of books, videos, and antiques. I took my son down there to look around. I saw a B&B guide laying around and found Le Moulin Chere in it. We were really lucky to have stumbled onto this place. I would like to go back there sometime and stay several days.

We all went down for breakfast. I was hoping for an English breakfast – ham, eggs, bacon, etc. But, we got another French breakfast of breads. I needed some protein.

After breakfast, we walked around the farm and let the kids play. There were goats, chickens, ducks, and geese, and the kids really had a good time. Finally, though, we decided to head toward Spain. I had reserved a hotel on the French-Spanish border in Bayonne, France.

As we headed toward Spain, I started to feel bad. It had been over a day since I had eaten any protein, and I thought my body was reacting to that. My stomach was really hurting, but we had a schedule to make so I kept driving.

We had troubles again with the highway system. Occasionally, we would come to a sign directing us in a certain direction. Then, later, the road would split or we would come to a roundabout and there would be no indication of the city we were traveling to. So, we would have to pull over and study the map. We repeated this ritual multiple times every day of our trip.

I started to feel worse, and at times I was basically slumped over the steering wheel. The kids were entertaining themselves by playing “Oscars” in the back. I could hear my daughter back there saying “And the Oscar goes to – Mom!” She was really cracking me up. Sometime during our drive, a bolt or something flew off the vehicle in front of us and hit our windshield hard. I could not believe it didn’t break it, but there was not even a chip.

In the early afternoon, we stopped at a McDonald’s so we could eat and the kids could play. We like McDonald’s when we are traveling, because we know the kids will eat and they can play for a while. I ate, but I didn’t really feel like it. My daughter played with a little French girl. The girl said something in French to my daughter once, and my daughter just looked at me, shrugged, and smiled.

We drove on through Bordeaux and Cognac. We passed dozens of fields planted with yellow flowers. I later learned that this is rapeseed, and we have it in Germany too – acres and acres of bright yellow flowers. South of Bordeaux the country started to change. It became more arid, and we started seeing lots of pine trees.

We pulled into Bayonne and found our hotel. I had booked a familiar name this time – Best Western. When I am traveling in a foreign country and don’t know the language, it is a comfort to stay in a place where I know they will speak English. So, I booked Best Western several times on the trip. But, most of the time we stay in a B&B or a small, family-owned hotel.

In the hotel room, everyone was hungry, but I was feeling really bad. I tried to get my wife and the kids to go downstairs to the restaurant, but they didn’t want to. They ended up eating pretzels and chips for dinner. I was started to run a fever and became chilled, so I took a Nyquil capsule. My wife was convinced I had food poisoning from the raw oysters, but I would have thought that would have hit me sooner. I had a very rough night’s sleep. It felt like I had the flu. I tried to figure out what we would do, but I decided that no matter what we would push on. It didn’t matter, though, because I woke up feeling almost normal.

Day 4, Tuesday, April 11, 2000 – We had breakfast served in our room – ham and eggs. I was very hungry, but filled up fast. I wasn’t feeling quite 100%; I was a little dizzy. While we ate, the kids watched Franklin and Little Bear in French. The different languages have never bothered them; they just like to watch the cartoons. After the cartoons, the kids spent the morning coloring and drawing while I rested a little more.

Finally, we checked out and headed toward the Spanish border. We had survived France despite speaking almost no French at all. Every time I had to speak with someone, I would try English, then German, and finally just gesturing with my hands. Despite their reputation for rudeness, we found the French to not be rude at all. Almost all of the people that we came into contact with were very nice to us. Many of the French also have dark complexions, like the Spanish. I had not noticed this the other times I was in France.

We crossed the border into “sunny” Spain and encountered heavy rain for the first couple of hours. We started to see lots of white adobe houses, which we had not seen in France. The roads were also much more winding than in France, and they were not as well maintained. But, we still had to pay tolls to drive on the roads. Sometimes, we would have to pay $5 to drive 10 miles on a bad road. That is literally highway robbery.

We climbed into the Pyrenees Mountains. When we were driving, my wife said, “Look, that looks like a bear climbing that mountain.” I didn’t see it, but I started laughing and told her there were no bears in Spain. I told her it was probably just a big dog, but she insisted it was a bear. I thought maybe she just hadn’t gotten enough sleep, or maybe her contact lenses were giving her trouble. The kids asked what it was, and I laughed and said “Your mom thinks she saw a bear.” We all laughed. Then, when we got back I saw a story on CNN about sheep farmers complaining about bears in the Pyrenees. I had to laugh.

The plan for today was to drive to Segovia, which is an ancient town in the mountains northwest of Madrid. There is an ancient Roman aqueduct there, a medieval castle, and a 500-year old cathedral. On the way, I made a mistake that I rarely make. I missed the turnoff toward Madrid, but didn’t realize it until almost an hour later. At that point, we had driven along the coast of Spain with the ocean out the window for over an hour into Basque country, but then we turned south along a different route than we had originally planned. We ended up driving through lots of little Spanish towns, and climbing high up into the snowy mountains. We saw almost no other cars and we saw no tourist buses. We were far off the normal tourist path. We bought gas at a little town high in the mountains. The kids got out, and the man working there pointed to my daughter and said “Frio”. I understood this, and got her coat because it was very cold.

After gassing up, we stopped at a picnic area next to a roaring river and let the kids play for a while. Then we continued through the mountains. When we started to descend, the scenery began to change. We saw lots of canyons and scrub brush, and it was more arid. It looked just like the American southwest. We finally intersected with our originally intended path, and got back on the freeway. After an hour or so, we made the turnoff onto a small road leading to Segovia. It was like we had stepped back in time. We passed through miles and miles of barren, deserted countryside. We saw no people or houses anywhere. Occasionally, we would come to a small town that also looked deserted. The towns looked like something out of the old West, or maybe Mexico. The buildings appeared to be a few hundred years old and very run down. The roads were very narrow, and usually cobblestone. There was nobody on the streets; there were no dogs – there were not even any cars visible. The towns looked completely deserted. We probably passed through a dozen towns like this.

Because of the indirect route, we were in the van much longer than we expected. We arrived in Segovia at 6 p.m. There were no parking places near any of the downtown hotels, so we drove outside of the town to a campsite I had read about. We got a bungalow with a shower and bathroom for about $30. There were snow-covered mountains all around us, and it was pretty cold. We decided to get something to eat, because we again skipped lunch and just snacked. At that point, we found out that the Spanish eat later than the French. All of the restaurants we checked did not open until 8:30 p.m. That is past the kid’s normal bedtime. We also had trouble finding parking anywhere, and the traffic was really bad. So, we stopped at a supermarket and my wife went in and bought a few things. She bought olives, Brie, and pudding – about $10 worth of food in Germany - for $3. We were beginning to see that things were much cheaper in Spain. We went back to the campground, ate, and hit the beds.

Day 5, Wednesday, April 12, 2000 – As soon as we woke up, the electricity went out and we were in complete darkness. It also started to get cold quickly. I went outside and opened the shutters so we could get dressed. The power eventually came back on, and we all ate and headed downtown. We had a tough time finding parking, but eventually found a parking garage near the center of town. We walked the length of the half-mile long aqueduct. The aqueduct was very impressive; our guidebook called it one of the greatest surviving examples of Roman engineering. At one end, it was actually at street level and the kids climbed inside it. There was also a playground there, and we let the kids play for a while. While they were playing, we noticed that several of the houses had large nests on top of them. We figured out that these were stork nests, and some had baby storks sticking their heads out.

Inside the Aqueduct in Segovia

We then walked down to a big square, the Plaza Mayor. The cathedral stood at one end. There were some older Spanish women selling white hand-knitted tablecloths. My wife wanted a couple so we haggled with them a little and bought 3 for about $40. I was actually able to understand some of the things they were saying.

Next, we walked uphill to the medieval castle, the Alcázar, on the edge of town. The origins of the castle are believed to date back to Roman times, and the castle is very unique looking. Isabella (of Ferdinand and Isabella, who sent Columbus to America) had her coronation in the castle. The view from there was very impressive. The town was in full view below us. The roads walking up there were incredibly narrow. A couple of times, we had to squeeze into a doorway to let a vehicle drive pass. The town was very hilly, and I ended up carrying my son on my back for probably a couple of miles.

At lunch, we ate at Candido’s, which is reportedly the most famous Spanish restaurant in the world. It is actually a national monument. There were pictures of celebrities everywhere, including heads of state. Princess Grace was one of the people who ate there, and Jimmy Carter’s picture was by our table. The specialty was “roast suckling pig”, but I saw a picture of it and it was a whole baby pig. Since it had a face, I didn’t think the kids would want to eat it. So, we got a variety of foods off the menu. We found that Spanish food is not like Mexican food at all. Spanish food consists of lots of different meats, fishes, rice, and fruits. It is not spicy like Mexican food.

Coming out of the restaurant, an older Spanish man stopped us and tried to sell me something. I said “No hablo Espanol”, but he just started talking faster. We finally just walked away from him, and headed back to the van.

We left Segovia and headed toward Madrid. The scenery was beautiful. I had to stop once and get some video. It looked like the Texas hill country, with snow-covered peaks in the background. On the way, we had to go through a tollbooth. The guy swiped my card really fast, then got irritated when it didn’t work. He was one of the few rude people we came into contact with in Spain. Then, immediately after the tollbooth there was a tunnel. Someone had had a wreck in the tunnel, and we had to wait on the highway for 20 minutes while the wreckage was cleared.

When we arrived in Madrid, we had a little trouble locating our hotel (Best Western again), which was near the airport. We finally got there and settled in. I started cleaning out the minivan, which by this point looked like a tornado had ripped through it. The hotel restaurant didn’t open until 8:30, and there was nothing else around. We talked about how ridiculous this was, and contrasted it with the U.S. If we were staying near a major airport in the U.S., we would have had our choice of 50 places to eat, and they would have been open any time we were hungry. Anyway, we stayed up late, ate a little, and prepared for Madrid the next day.

Day 6, Thursday, April 13, 2000 – I woke up at 6:30 and went down to breakfast – a piece of toast and a glass of orange juice. I spoke with the guy at the front desk about the best way to get into downtown Madrid. He told me to take the bus to the subway station, then take the subway in from there. So, we packed our backpacks and caught the bus. I explained to the driver that I didn’t speak Spanish, but showed him on a map where I wanted to go. He told us when we got to our stop, and then we switched to the subway. I noticed on the subway that the Spanish were more diverse than I thought. I had thought they all had dark complexions and black hair, but I saw plenty of people who didn’t fit this description. We did get some glares on the subway that made me uncomfortable. An older woman got on and just stood directly over the kids and me. I felt like she wanted me to give up my seat to her, but both kids were leaning their heads on me and were comfortable. Then, she coughed directly in my face without covering her mouth, or saying excuse me, or anything. Her glare never wavered. I was glad when she got off.

We got off at the Royal Palace. This is one of the largest palaces in all of Europe, and is very luxurious. It’s origins date to the 1700’s. It is very similar to Versailles, outside Paris, except without the gardens. First, we let the kids play for a while at a playground outside the palace. Then we all got in line to enter the palace. The line was not very long, so we thought it wouldn’t be long before we were inside. However, I noticed pretty soon that the line was not moving. I went to the front and saw a sign that said there were too many people inside and we would have to wait. There was a separate line for groups, and they kept letting them in.

We ended up waiting a total of 2 hours. I hated to wait this long because our time in Madrid was limited, and we had lots of other things to see. The kids were also very impatient standing in the line. We kept moving up in the line because people were giving up and walking away. We met a middle-aged couple from Tennessee in front of us in the line and talked to them a long time. Their 20 year-old daughter was doing missionary work in Lisbon, Portugal, and they were there with her touring Portugal and Spain. We shared lots of travel stories with them, and they recommended a few things for us to do in Lisbon.

We finally go to go in. The girl from Tennessee walked with us and translated a lot of things for us. She told my daughter all about the different rooms we were going through. my daughter was fascinated. She told me she wanted to live in a palace. One room had a 2-ton chandelier, and another had a table that could seat 140 people for royal dinners. At the end of the tour, we parted ways with our new friends from Tennessee. My daughter hugged the mother and daughter and said “I’ll miss you”. They thought it was so cute.

Outside the Palacio Royal in Madrid

After that, we left the palace. We let the kids play for a while longer and then we grabbed a bite at a Burger King and headed to the Puerta del Sol. This is the center of Madrid. There is a plaque in the plaza that says “Kilometer 0”, and is the spot from which all distances in Spain are measured. Entering the square, we saw hundreds of students, and dozens of police in riot gear. There was some type of student protest going on. The students would all chant something together loudly. We saw a few running from the police. Then, about 20 feet away from us we saw one yelling at the police, and they just waded into the students and started clubbing him over the head with a billy club. We saw the police do this to another person as well. We had no idea what was going on. There were news crews there and a police helicopter flying overhead. We joked about the news crews catching the bewildered looks on our faces. I told my wife we should yell “Viva El Presidente”, but I didn’t know whether we would have been clubbed by the police or yelled at by the students. We saw all of this later on the evening news, including a tourist that looked as bewildered as we were, but we never figured out what it was all about. We finally got nervous about having the kids in there, so we left before revolution broke out.

From there, we walked to the Plaza Mayor, which used to be the site of bullfights and executions. I don’t know what Plaza Mayor means in Spanish, but we had also seen one in Segovia. The plaza was huge, and had beautiful paintings around the borders. There was a crazy man standing in the middle of the square yelling at people.

From there, we walked toward an art museum, Museo del Prado. We ended up walking all over Madrid. I had to carry my son on my back, but my daughter walked the entire day without complaint. I started to feel badly for them, because I knew we were wearing them out. We got to the Prado, then let the kids play outside for a while before going in. The Prado has been described as the most beautiful art museum in all of Europe. We saw many masterpieces inside, including works by Rembrandt, El Greco, Goya, and Velazquez, to name a few. The only problem was that all of the captions were in Spanish only, so it was impossible to read the history behind the paintings. The paintings held the kid’s attention for a while, but when they became bored we left.

It was getting late, but we decided to let the kids play in the city park near the museum. The park was huge, and reminded me of Central Park in New York. There were some Spanish children there having an Easter egg hunt. When they were finished and had left, I let my daughter and my son go look and see if they could find any eggs that had been overlooked. They weren’t able to find any, though. When they were finished playing, we had an ice cream, then caught the train and bus back to the hotel. be continued....

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

France, Spain, Portugal, and Morocco Part II

Part II


In Morocco with the Mediterranean Behind Us

Day 7, Friday, April 14, 2000 – We woke up to heavy rain. Our plan for the day was to drive to Lisbon, Portugal. The traffic leaving Madrid was extremely heavy and slow-moving. It took us 1.5 hours to get out of Madrid. My son got sick to his stomach, and we had to pull over for a little while. Outside of Madrid, it continued to storm off and on. I kept thinking of “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain”, because we were driving across the plain for a while and it was raining very hard.

Eventually, though, the rain stopped and the scenery began to change. It started to look very similar to West Texas. The country was somewhat arid, and there were fields of yellow, purple, and pink flowers everywhere. There were large hills with huge boulders scattered around. There were lots of sheep farms, and the fences surrounding the sheep were almost always made of rock. We also saw lots of Moorish ruins, left over from when the Arabs conquered Spain. I really enjoyed the scenery; much of it was unlike anything we had ever seen. Near the border to Portugal, a semi in front of me and in the right lane moved into my lane just as I was about to pass him. I was going pretty fast, so I had to go around him to the right. As I was doing this, he started to move back over, and almost ran us off the road. Then he had the nerve to start flashing his lights at me as if I was the one who had just screwed up.

When we got into Portugal, the roads were empty. We were in Portugal for about 45 minutes before we passed another car. There were also no houses, towns, or gas stations anywhere. It was really eerie. Also, the scenery again started to change. I was sure I had never seen anything like that. There were a lot of trees that were really unusual. Some had no branches for the first 8-10 feet, and then the top was really bushy. The effect was very interesting. They looked like something from Africa. The area we passed through reminded me of a golf course – it looked completely landscaped.

We wanted to hear the Portuguese language, so we turned on the radio. There, in the middle of nowhere, all we picked up was “The Smashing Pumpkins” singing “Today”. American music dominates everywhere we have been. I remember my first time in Germany, turning the radio on to see what kind of music the Germans listened to. The first thing I picked up was a song from “Snoop Dog.”

As we got closer to Lisbon, we encountered a tollbooth. They didn’t take Visa or MasterCard, and I didn’t have any Portuguese money. I was getting pretty worried, so I asked him if he would take Spanish money. He said “Yes”, and then proceeded to take $20 for a $10 toll. What a rip.

Entering Lisbon, we crossed Vasco da Gama Bridge, which reminded me of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. There was also a huge statue of Jesus on a hill overlooking Lisbon. I noticed that he had a bunch of radio antennae sticking out of his head. We drove almost straight to our hotel, the Best Western-Cascais, and checked in. The Portuguese language sounded very unusual. It was similar to French, but I had read somewhere that it was actually the closest living language to Latin. On paper, it looked similar to Spanish, but sounded nothing like it. There was an ATM outside the hotel, and I pulled out some Portuguese money.

We wanted to eat at the hotel restaurant, which we thought opened in about an hour. We were to find out later, after standing around the entrance to the restaurant for a while, that we had changed time zones and would be eating even later. Since we had a little time, I walked down to the beach with the kids. I let them play there for about half an hour. The beach there was not very clean, and there was unusual seaweed all over it. It looked like spinach.

After we left the beach, we made our way back to the hotel. The streets were very narrow and hilly, and made of cobblestone. On the way back, we ducked into a little grocery store and looked around. Since Lisbon is not far from Porto, home of the famous (and often expensive in the U.S.) Port wine, we saw cheap bottles everywhere. I bought a dusty, 27 year-old bottle of Port for about $25. This would have probably cost over $100 in the U.S. The grocer talked up a storm to me in Portuguese. I kept pointing at myself and saying “American”, but it didn’t slow him down. I understood some of what he was saying. He was telling me that this was a very good choice, and that there was no precipitate in the wine, which he told me was very good. It was like he was telling me about one of his children.

Back at the hotel, we went to the restaurant and feasted. The hotel was apparently the favorite choice of American tour groups. The two days we were there, it was full of 50-60 year-old American tourists. We visited with some of them; they were fascinated with our travels. For dinner, I had smoked swordfish with capers (I haven’t had those in ten years) as an appetizer, and grilled shrimp, fish, and ham on a stick. I also had a side order of creamed spinach. It was all delicious, but very rich. I couldn’t finish my meal. The kids had spaghetti, which was becoming one of their staples in the restaurants we were visiting. Back in the hotel room, I turned on CNN and saw that the NASDAQ was down 1000 points for the week. I didn’t need to hear that right before going to bed.

Day 8, Saturday, April 15, 2000 – We woke up to cold rain. We had a good buffet breakfast, and then we headed off to explore Lisbon. We first went to the Belém area, where there are a number of historical sites. We couldn’t find a parking place initially, but then we finally spotted one. There was a homeless man standing there guarding the spot. When we started to pull in, he started to wave us in. We were not sure what he was up to, but there was no other parking place. After we parked, we sat in the van for a few minutes but he did not go away. When I got out, he asked for money (although the parking place was supposed to be free). I told him I didn’t understand, but then he pulled out a coin and showed me how much he wanted. Since the amount was small, and he was in a position to stay and damage the van, I just gave it to him. But, it irritated me to see someone like that just taking advantage of tourists.

We got out and looked around. We saw Jeronimo’s Monastery, where the explorer Vasco da Gama is buried. The monastery was white on the outside and beautiful on the inside and outside. Outside of the monastery, a man who had lost his legs held a hand out for money. I gave him some. My wife asked if I was feeling O.K., because she said I usually walk on by. I told her that the guy obviously had a legitimate problem, unlike some who sit outside these churches and beg for money.

From there, we walked down to the water and took an elevator to the top of the Monument to the Discoveries. It stands at the point where many of the great Portuguese discoverers, such as da Gama, Henry the Navigator, etc. began their journeys. On the outside of the monument, there were statues of many of these guys. From the top, we got a great view of Lisbon. The huge bridge was very near, and you could see a mosaic pattern on the cobblestone below. You could also look to the ocean and see the same view that these explorers had seen 500 years ago. Leaving there, we went down to the Belém Tower, which was built in 1515 as a harbor fortress and later used to house prisoners. It was quite a structure, and I wished we had a little more time to go inside for a tour. But, we had other things on the agenda.

Leaving there, we drove down to the Alfama District. This area was the only part of Lisbon to survive an earthquake in 1755 that killed 60,000 people and completely destroyed the rest of Lisbon. This area really looked like San Francisco, except it was much older. All throughout the area, the roads were hilly and constructed of cobblestone. There were streetcars running up and down the roads. We actually ventured into there with our van. We had heard about flea markets in Alfama, so when we saw one we stopped. These people we selling every manner of junk under the sun – rusty saw blades, half-drunken bottles of whiskey, pirated CD’s, shoes (used and new), and even some nice clothes. But mostly it was just junk. It also didn’t look too safe around there, so we left.

It had started to rain again, so we drove around Alfama. We got pretty lost in there, and the roads were really narrow. Every once in a while I caught a glimpse of the ocean, and we finally worked our way out and headed back to the hotel.

On the way, the kids spotted a McDonald’s overlooking the beach. We ate there, and then went out on the beach to play (the rain had stopped). There were guys on the beach in contraptions that looked like go-karts, but were being pulled by kites. They could really move fast up and down the beach. In the distance, I spotted what looked like an enormous Muslim fortress, and decided to walk down there while my wife and the kids played. The walk was about a mile, and halfway there I had to jump a 6-foot creek that was emptying into the ocean. A little further down the beach, I saw clusters of roses lying on the beach. I wondered if someone had drowned. The waves were rough, and while nobody was swimming there were lots of surfers wearing wetsuits.

I got to the fortress, but couldn’t get a close look because of a fence. There were sheer rock cliffs there, and I took pictures and a lot of video before heading back. On the way, I found that the 6-foot creek had become a 10-foot creek because of the rain. I still remember my thoughts exactly. I looked at the creek and convinced myself I could jump it. I thought, “I won 1st place in the long jump when I was younger” and “I used to jump creeks like this all the time when I was younger”. But, I wasn’t carrying a backpack weighing 20 pounds back then, either. So, I got a running start and jumped. But, just as I planted my foot, the bank, which was elevated, crumbled. I tumbled right into the creek. I had sand in my hair and in my eyes, and my clothes were soaked. Then, I noticed that the creek smelled a little like sewage. My mind flashed to all of the things one might find in sewage. I also looked over and noticed a bridge that I could have taken across. I was wet, cold, sandy, and miserable.

I walked the last half-mile down to where my wife and the kids were, and when they saw me they started laughing. My wife said, “I have been trying to keep the kids clean, and you come back dirtier than they are.” Then, as we were leaving, my daughter tried to throw a shovel full of sand over her shoulder and it landed directly on her head. So we went back to the hotel, and took some showers. I took a shower fully clothed to try and get the sand out of my clothes.

After getting cleaned up, I met a couple from North Carolina out in the hall of the hotel. The man asked if I was American. He said they were there visiting his parents, who lived in Lisbon. He said that he was fluent in Portuguese, and we talked about how beautiful the country is. He said that the country had gone to the dogs ever since the revolution, and he didn’t like to visit anymore. We told him where we had been during the day, and he told us that Alfama is very dangerous. He said you especially don’t want to be down there at night, which we had already been told.

The hotel was holding a craft show, so my wife went down to look at the pottery. I stayed in the room and started to plan for the next day. Once, my son was in the bathroom looking at the bidet. Nearly all of the hotels in Europe have one of these. My son said, “I don’t know what that thangy is. It looks like a potty, but it’s not.” I told him not to worry, that I didn’t really know what it was for either.

My wife came back up and told me she bought some pottery. We got the kids cleaned up, and went down and stuffed ourselves again. Then, we got back into bed early in anticipation of a long day tomorrow.

Day 9, Sunday, April 16, 2000 – We ate, packed, and headed south. Our plan for the day was to drive down to the southern coast of Portugal and spend the night there. On the way out, my son was really throwing a fit and acting up. Nothing we could do would settle him down. Finally, as we were driving back by the giant Jesus statue, I yelled at my son, “Jesus is watching you!” That stopped him cold. He said “Where?” and I pointed up to the statue. My wife was laughing so hard, but my son settled down after that.

Outside Lisbon, we left the highway and headed cross-country. We drove on roads that were just a step above dirt. Much of the country, as well as the roads, reminded me of where I grew up in Oklahoma. We saw almost no other traffic, and at times it looked like we were passing through a jungle on a road that was built 50 years ago. We talked about how easy it would be to disappear out here without a trace. We were way off the beaten path. It didn’t look like any tourists had ever been through there. I compared it to a German tourist visiting the U.S. and ending up in a tiny Midwestern town. We were passing through the Portuguese version of such towns.

Every house we passed was whitewashed. I had to put on my sunglasses any time we passed through some of these towns, because the glare off the houses was so intense. We passed through lush forests and green rolling hills covered with cows and sheep. There were red and yellow flowers everywhere. At one point, an animal resembling a wolverine ran across the road in front of us.

As we got closer to the coasts, we started seeing lots of ancient motorcycles being ridden by ancient men. Some of them were wearing leather helmets. It looked like a scene from 50 years ago. The roads were so winding, I could only drive about 30 mph much of the time. It took us about 5 hours, but we finally reached the Cape of St. Vincent, which is the southwestern corner of Europe. The scenery there was spectacular. There were sheer rock cliffs everywhere, and the water was a deep blue. The second most powerful lighthouse in Europe (visible from 60 miles away) is here, and we went up in it for a tour. We had an incredible view from the top of the lighthouse. From there, we went to Fortaleza, which is the school of navigation founded by Prince Henry in the 15th century. Columbus, Diaz, and Magellan all studied there. I kept thinking as I walked through the doors that I was walking in Columbus’ footsteps.

After a quick look around there, we drove down the coast about 5 miles and got a room in Salema, Portugal. The hotel owner reminded us of one of the “bad guys” from Scooby Doo. He had a long face and a sour expression. We never saw him smile. He stayed back in the shadows most of the time, but emerged occasionally to look around.

Salema is one of the last undeveloped towns on the Algarve (southern coast of Portugal). There are no resorts there, and it is not overrun with tourists. I let the kids play on the beach for about 2 hours while my wife shopped. There were a couple of dogs there that the kids had fun playing with. When my wife got back, I climbed the hill overlooking the town. The view was incredible. I thought again about all of those famous Portuguese explorers departing from this area on their way to America or some other unexplored destination.

We ate an incredible meal at a restaurant right on the beach, and had Sangria for the first time. Sangria is a mixture of Spanish wine with fruit cut up in it. It was really good. After we ate, I explored the town a little more. I found an Internet café there, which I couldn’t believe. That just did not seem like a place that would have had Internet access. I sent off a couple of messages letting people know that we were O.K., checked on our stocks, and then went back home and went to bed.

Day 10, Monday, April 17, 2000 – We had some tough decisions to make when we woke up. We wanted to try and see Sevilla, Spain in the morning, but we also wanted to spend more time in Salema. We opted to spend more time there, and try to drive all the way to Tarifa, Spain by the end of the day. Tarifa is the southernmost city in Europe, and is a short distance across the water from Africa. We spent some more time on the beach, bought a couple more bottles of Port, and then began our long drive. Since it was a work day, the traffic was pretty bad. There were lots of tractors and slow-moving trucks on the road, and we had to pass through lots of little towns, so we didn’t make very good time. At the border to Spain, we stopped at a small grocery store and spent the rest of our Portuguese money.

When we got into Spain, we started to see lots of orange groves. We drove through Sevilla, and then Cádiz without stopping. We kept passing huge black silhouettes of bulls high up on mountains. I don’t know what the significance was, but we passed dozens of them. I thought that maybe they were advertising bullfights. We talked about going to a bullfight, but didn’t think the kids would like it since they actually kill the bull.

As we pushed further south into Spain, the country became drier and dirtier. We started seeing lots of cactus, but also lots of trash and several totally stripped cars beside the road. Then, just as I thought the entire south of Spain was one big desert, the country started to become green again. We started to encounter huge mountains with large boulders all over them. Other than the boulders, it reminded me of Switzerland. Eventually, the Rock of Gibraltar and the Atlas Mountains of Morocco came into view. Morocco was so close I could almost reach out and touch it.

We pulled into Tarifa about 5 p.m. We found a hotel that was listed in our guidebook, the Hostal El Asturiano. It turned out to be one of the high points of our trip. I walked in and asked whether anyone spoke English. The owner’s son said that he did, and he helped us out. They had a great room available with 4 beds. Part of the room used to be a part of an old Arab castle. The ceilings were high and domed, and the room was really cool.

After we checked in, we walked to the beach. We let the kids get in the water and play. It was windy, and the beach was almost totally empty. My son was digging with his shovel, and he got down to water. He started yelling, “Mom, I found the sea! I dug to the sea, I really did!” A few minutes later, he heard me call my daughter “Princess”, and he asked why my daughter was my Princess but he was just my “Little Buddy”.

While the kids were playing, a couple with a 2 year-old daughter walked up to us and started talking. They were Italian, but had lived in Tarifa for a few months. The husband asked whether I was Italian - that’s a new one. We talked a long time about Spain, Italy, and America. The wife told us the history of pizza. She was from Naples, where pizza originated. They left after talking to us for about 30 minutes.

While we were on the beach, I heard Taps being played. I thought that was very unusual, because I thought that was an American military song. I found out that there was a Spanish military compound nearby and that is where it was coming from. There was also a very old castle that the Moors took over in the 13th century which was clearly visible from the beach.

We walked back to the hotel and decided to eat there. I met the hotel owner for the first time; he was quite a character. He reminded me of Dad. He was very jovial and was joking all the time. I asked him if he had an English menu, and he said “No, dees es Espana, we speak Spanish here”. Then he said “Aber du sprichst Deutsch, nicht war?” (But you speak German, don’t you?) I said I did, so we spoke German for the next two days. He asked me if I was Yugoslavian. I had been mistaken for an Italian just an hour earlier. My hair was getting pretty long, I hadn’t shaved in a couple of days, and I was getting a tan. But I didn’t think I looked that dark. I talked to him about setting up a day trip to Morocco for the next day. He said no problem, he could set it all up from there and we would hook up with a guide and take a fast ferry at the dock. We talked about ordering food, and he told me not to worry, I would like what he would bring. And we did. He brought us out Sangria, olives, bread, soup, and fish, and spaghetti for the kids.

Back in the room, I opened all the windows and watched Tarifa at night. The night was perfect. I could hear a live band playing Spanish music. There was a full moon, and it made the Mediterranean look white. I could see the lights of Morocco across the water, and I wondered what was going on in some of those small villages in the mountains. I was really looking forward to the next day, and setting foot in Africa.


Day 11, Tuesday, April 18, 2000 – I woke up early and watched the sunrise over the mountains of Africa. I went downstairs to the kitchen/bar, but there was not a soul around. The plan for the day was to catch the boat across to Morocco at 11 a.m., which is 9 a.m. Moroccan time. We would be there for 7 hours before returning to Spain. Finally, around 10 the hotel owner got up and fixed breakfast for us. He escorted us down to the dock and took us to the tour operator. At this point, we found out that we had to pay cash for the trip. I had understood the hotel owner to say that he had set up everything and would put it on our bill. I didn’t have enough Spanish cash to pay for it, so the hotel owner loaned me enough for the trip, and then enough extra to shop in Morocco. I had never been around a hotel owner who went so far out of his way to take care of us.

The boat was full of Americans, and we visited with several of them. One family was living in Belgium, and had been there for five years. There was another couple from California, and the best we could figure was that the husband was a spy. He kept a low profile and sat alone. The wife said they have to move once a year, and she said what her husband did was top secret for the U.S. government. The wife came up to us like she had known us forever and started talking to us.

When we arrived in Tangier, Morocco, I studied the buildings and the people at the dock. I thought about the continent of Africa, and some of the things it encompassed. I had some preconceptions about what we were about to encounter, but when we stepped off the boat they were shattered. We had stepped off into the “Twilight Zone.” At the dock, the police took our passports. They were to hold them all day while we were in Morocco, and would return them at the end of the day. Apparently, not processing us saved time and allowed more time for shopping.

The sights and sounds were different from anything I had ever heard. I could hear people yelling in Arabic everywhere. We boarded a bus, and proceeded to tour the city. It was dirty and unkempt, and people were grazing goats, sheep, and cattle everywhere. I never saw any fences, so I didn’t know if it was public land or whether a lot of people just shared the land. Everywhere I looked, there were people standing around doing nothing. They appeared to be just standing around killing time. It looked like half the city was unemployed. My daughter was looking really intently out the window and studying the sights.

At our first stop, we encountered something we were to live with for the rest of the day. As soon as we got off to take some pictures, we had five Moroccans in our face trying to sell us junk. They would get right in your face, and they would not take “No” or “I have no money” for an answer. The encounter would go something like this: The guy would approach and shove the merchandise in your face. It would be bracelets, or T-shirts, or a number of other items. He would say “Excuse me sir, how many pesetas (Spanish money) will you give me for this lovely shirt? Feel the quality. Please give me 1500 pesetas (about $8). Please sir, I have a family to feed. I am a street vendor. How much money do you have? Do you have dollars? German marks? I will take anything. Please, take the shirt and give me 1000 pesetas.”

As soon as we got rid of one guy, another was immediately there to take his place. They would get in your face and prevent you from walking. Sometimes, they were insulting. But, they were with us every step we took all day long. The only escape was when we were in the bus, and if it wasn’t moving they were standing outside the windows. One guy kept harassing my wife. He kept saying “Don’t you want to know how much this is? Don’t you want to know?” When my wife said no, he said “Too bad, because it was free!” The woman in our group whose husband we thought was a spy took it all in stride. When one of them approached her, she would offer to trade her half-full bottle of Evian for whatever it was they were selling. They would look at her like she was crazy and walk away.

The Kids on a Camel in Morocco

At our second stop, the kids got to ride a camel. The guy tried to get us to pay again after they had ridden. I was also fighting off street vendors while trying to take pictures of the kids. After that, we parked the bus and started walking through the streets. We were under constant assault, and our guide did nothing to stop it. Once, we stopped and watched a snake charmer in action. We walked through the streets, but the street vendors were constantly pushing up against us. The kids were getting scared. I carried my son almost everywhere, and sometimes used him as a buffer as someone tried to sell me something. Once, I made the mistake of asking a guy how much a T-shirt was, and he followed us for about a mile.

Moroccan Snake Charmer

Walking the streets, some of the smells were delicious, and some were nauseating. There were little kids walking with us, tugging on us and asking for money. There were kids just standing in doorways with their hands out. Once, I saw a Moroccan man grab one of these kids and just slam him hard up against a wall. When the kid tried to get away, he did it again. Just about everywhere we looked, we saw suspicious looking characters ducking into back alleys.

Finally, after being under siege for an hour while attempting to see the sights, we stopped for lunch. As we went into the restaurant, there was a Moroccan boy of about 13 standing outside trying to sell books. He was blind in one eye.

In the restaurant, I was afraid of getting food poisoning. But, the meal was pretty good. We had some sort of soup to start off with. Then, they brought us something like grilled sausages on a stick. Finally, we finished up with chicken couscous. During the meal, we were entertained with music and dancing. But, we still got no reprieve from the street vendors. We had seen a guy taking pictures on the street, and he had gotten them developed and came around the table trying to sell them.

Leaving the restaurant, I decided to haggle with the street vendors. I picked up a homemade drum for my son for about $3, and bought a handmade camel for my daughter for $5. We wanted to buy a rug, and eventually our guide took us in a carpet shop. But, the prices were too high and we left without buying anything. Then, as soon as we left we were hit on by street vendors selling rugs. We had not seen any all day up until that point. There were two competing for my business, and they almost got into a fight arguing over who got there first. I said, “How about you two compete against each other? Who has the lowest prices?” Well, they didn’t like this and continued to argue. They wanted about $70 for a rug. I talked to my wife and asked her if she was interested, and she said she might be. So, I handed her $30 and told them if they would sell one for that we would take one. They started saying “No, give her more money, give her $50, $30 is not enough.” But, they did end up selling one for $30. Later, we bought another larger rug for about $40.

We continued to walk through the streets. We went into a market, where plucked chickens were hanging unrefrigerated from a ceiling. I assume they had been there all day, and the temperature was about 75 degrees. Talk about a good way to get food poisoning. Our guide then took us into a spice shop. The “doctor” had a cure for anything that ailed you. He was selling headache cures, cures for snoring, or he also had something that would spice up your barbecue. He was a Moroccan snake oil salesman.

Next we went into a pottery shop. My wife haggled with a guy and almost had a deal for 2 pieces for $50. I told her I only had $30, and the guy said that was enough. He then told my wife he got paid on commission, so he gave her $5 change out of the $30 and asked her to slip it back to him under the table. He asked her not to say anything. I am sure that he still got a commission on $25, but he stole $5 from his boss. When he was closing the sale with my wife, the owner approached me and started talking about my daughter. He said “Oh, what a beautiful girl. Would you leave her here with me?” Then, I noticed at the counter a decal for Texas A&M at Corpus Christi. I asked the guy about it, and he told me he went to school there. I told him I went to A&M in College Station, and we had lived in Corpus Christi after I graduated. He got excited and said “Corpus Christi, same city but new area code!” Then he high-fived me.

After leaving the pottery shop, we made our way to the dock. The hustlers took this as their last chance to make a sale, and they were relentless. And the beggars were all over us. We finally made it to the dock and got our passports back. We had read before we went that only 10% of the people who go to Morocco ever want to go back. We now understood why. I don’t regret going, but the day was very stressful.

Back at the hotel, we had another very good meal. We ate paella, which was a rice dish with clams, shrimp, and fish in it. It was really good. We talked again with the hotel owner. I really liked that guy. After we ate, we went back to our room, and played “Moroccan Street Vendor.” We took turns trying to sell useless junk to each other. My wife thought I had really mastered most of those guys’ best lines. We had a pretty good time doing this before calling it a night. What a day it had been.

Day 12, Wednesday, April 19, 2000 – I had planned to be up very early this day, because we had a lot to do. I had left the window shutter open, and assumed I would wake up with the sun at 6 a.m. I told the hotel owner we would probably leave very early. But, the morning was overcast and I didn’t wake up until 7. I took a quick shower, then went downstairs. The hotel owner was there to see us off. I hoped he hadn’t waited there since 6, but I bet that he had. He helped us load up the van, and then we shook hands and left him. I won’t ever forget the way he treated us. He was one of the nicest and most accommodating people we have ever encountered.

Today, we intended to spend some time in Granada, and then head toward Barcelona. We needed to be in Barcelona by tomorrow evening, and it was over 600 miles away. We headed toward Granada and drove up the Costa del Sol (Coast of the Sun). On the way, we passed very close to the Rock of Gibraltar. If we had had a little more time, we would have liked to spend a day touring it. It is a British settlement, and there is supposed to be enough to do there to keep a person busy all day.

We eventually turned away from the coast, and toward Granada. We drove through more mountains, and it took about 3 hours. The main thing we wanted to see in Granada was the Alhambra. The Alhambra is probably the greatest site to see in all of Spain, and is the top tourist attraction. It is a Muslim fortress dating back to 1240, and remained a stronghold long after the rest of Spain had been retaken by the Christians. It is supposed to be fabulous. There is a saying we saw that said, “If you have died without seeing the Alhambra, then you have not lived.” So, we were pretty excited about seeing it.

When we got into Granada, we encountered some kind of protest by truckers. They were all driving slowly in the right lane, and they had their lights on and were honking their horns. We found a tourist information office, and got directions to the Alhambra. I did have one concern. There was a limit of 8400 people who are allowed in each day. Since it was not peak tourist season, and it was only shortly after 11 a.m., I wasn’t extremely concerned, though.

We got close to the Alhambra, and then a guy stepped out with a whistle and directed us to park. He told me it was a two-minute walk from there. I asked him if tickets were still available, and he said, “Sure, tickets are no problem.” He then started asking people for money for parking them. I suspected the guy wasn’t on the level, and I didn’t pay him. I told my wife to wait with the kids, and I would go buy tickets. Well, the two-minute walk was actually more like 20 minutes, and when I got there I found that it was sold out for the day. I also found that there was plenty of parking right by the ticket office. I was really disappointed, but I jogged back to the van. The guys were still there directing people to park. They were scamming people into parking 20 minutes away when there was parking available right at the ticket office, extorting money, and telling them that there were tickets available. I was really disgusted with them.

We were too pressed for time to spend the night in Granada, so we were forced to only see the outside. We took some pictures of the city from our high vantage point, and then left. We had passed a McDonald’s on the way, and we went back, let the kid’s eat, and let them play for a while. I saw a boy of about 12 years old buy a beer in McDonalds (most of the McDonalds in Europe sell beer). My daughter played with 5 Spanish kids while my wife and my son went into a supermarket and bought some supplies. We had a long drive ahead of us.

We left Granada and headed toward Barcelona. We drove through mountains and desert. Some of it looked like the Badlands of South Dakota, and some looked almost exactly like the Grand Canyon. Most of the country looked like Arizona. In fact, I read that Clint Eastwood had filmed several Spaghetti Westerns in the area that we drove through. A lot of the scenery was spectacular – rocks reaching for the sky. But, it was desert, and it was hot. It was also a very long drive. We drove a total of 8 hours, and everyone was hot, tired, and cranky.

In Valencia (famous for Valencia oranges), we spotted some hotel signs, and we drove to the Hotel Lido. It was pretty far off the beaten path, though. We followed signs for about 15 minutes through a residential area before we found it. My wife was sure it was a converted hospital. In fact, we could hear a screeching every once in a while (which I think was the wind) that my wife thought was a patient on the floor above. She was sure there was a psych ward up there. We had a very good meal in the hotel restaurant, then watched CNN in the room before going to bed. I saw that the stock market was still down, and it was the 5th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Day 13, Thursday, April 20, 2000 – I woke up very tired this morning. The drive yesterday had really taken a toll on me. I watched the sun rise up out of the Mediterranean. We left the hotel, and continued to drive up the coast to Barcelona. The drive was uneventful, although a couple of times we again paid $5 to drive 10 miles on a crappy road.

We got into Barcelona about noon, and parked in a parking garage near a subway stop. We rode to the center of town, and got off near the main pedestrian walkway. We were starving, so we looked for a place to eat. We saw a Burger King, but it was packed. Next door, there was a café, Caixa Catalunya, packed with locals. The food looked good, so we went in. We were asked if we would rather sit upstairs where we could see the street, and we said yes. I looked at the menu, and the prices looked fine. When we sat down, we noticed that there were pictures on the wall of celebrities who had eaten there, including Charles Barkley, Tori Spelling, Phil Collins, and Andy Gibbs. We could see several street performers out our window. We also watched a couple of thieves work the crowd. We had been warned that Barcelona was full of thieves. We were about to meet one.

The restaurant owner talked to us a long time, and was very friendly. He talked to us about living in Germany, and really entertained the kids. He asked if we liked fish, and we said yes. He said, “Why don’t you let me bring you out a couple of things that I know you will like, and a couple of child’s plates for the kids.” We agreed. The food wasn’t very good, but it was O.K. The kids didn’t like their food. The owner kept coming by and talking to us; we really liked him. After we ate, he brought both of the kids a toy. I was telling my wife that I was really glad we had stopped in here. Then, he brought the bill. Over $100 for lunch! I was floored. The meal was worth $25 at the most. We were so disgusted, but it was our own fault. We had trusted him, because all the other times we had entrusted someone in a restaurant in Spain, we were rewarded. We had met our first thief of the day. My wife said, “He might as well have stuck his hand in your pocket and pulled out $75.” We got of there, but this really was a rotten beginning to our day.

We walked down the pedestrian walkway, which was called Las Ramblas. It was quite a circus. There were street performers doing everything out there. Once, we watched a plain-clothes policeman run down a girl on foot and handcuff her. I also saw an old, homeless man pull something out of the garbage can and start to eat it. We walked all over the Gothic quarter. The architecture was very interesting. We could have wandered around and explored for days, but we didn’t have much time.

After the Gothic quarter and Las Ramblas, there was one other major thing I wanted to see. We had seen the large Gothic cathedral, but Barcelona has a more famous cathedral. The Temple Expiatori is the most famous building in Barcelona. When we started doing research for our trip, I recognized it immediately when I saw a picture. The cathedral dates to only the beginning of this century, but is the main symbol of Barcelona.

So, we left the Gothic Quarter and went to the subway station because the other cathedral was across town. When we got to the subway platform, the train had just left and we were alone on the platform. Then, 3 guys came drifting out of the shadows. They looked like criminals, and it was obvious they were up to no good. Two of them spread out on either side of us, and one walked over to us. He was eyeing the backpack. I gave him a very hard look as if to say, “Don’t think about it.” My back was to the wall, and directly behind him was the pit where the train tracks were. I sized him up, and he was no bigger than me. I decided quickly that unless he pulled a knife, I was going to kick him hard in the chest and knock him into the pit. He looked pretty messed up, and I was ready for him. I was certain I could hurt him before his buddies could get there. I would also have the element of surprise, and I was going to hit him hard. Then, just as I was certain something was going to happen, a large group of people came onto the platform. The guys all scattered. I was very relieved.

We rode the subway down and looked at the cathedral. I would describe it as hideous. It was like a nightmare, not beautiful at all. It didn’t look like it should be a church. We wanted to take the elevator to the top, but there was a huge line. My wife was not feeling well, and we were all tired. So, we caught the subway back to where the van was parked, and we left Barcelona.

The traffic was terrible getting out of town. It was bumper to bumper for almost 20 miles. We eventually reached our hotel, on the beach up the coast from Barcelona. It was the Best Western Rigat Park Hotel, and it was right on the beach. The view was fantastic, and after we checked in we let the kids play on the beach until it started to get dark. We bought pizza from a little place on the street, ate, and turned in.

Beach Outside Barcelona

Day 14, Friday, April 21, 2000 – We slept in a little, and didn’t get on the road until 11 a.m. We were headed back to France today, to a campsite right outside of Cannes, France, on the French Riviera. I had booked us a mobile home there at a campground (Holiday Green) for about $40 a night.

We had an uneventful drive. We stopped for lunch in Arles, France. Arles is famous as the place Vincent Van Gogh spent quite a bit of time in a mental facility. It was there that he painted many of his most famous works, including “The Night Café”, and “The Starry Night”. It was also there that he cut off his ear. We tried to find a place downtown, but the town was packed. It was Good Friday, and they were having a festival. They had live bands playing outside little cafes and there were tourists everywhere. We got into a big traffic jam. We finally drove away from the city center, found a McDonald’s on the fringe, and ate.

We pulled into our campsite in the afternoon and checked in. The mobile home was perfect. It had a bathroom and shower (which tended to oscillate between hot and cold as I later found out), and plenty of places to sleep. There was a cool breeze blowing in off the Mediterranean. We unloaded a few things, and then we went and bought a few groceries from a little store at the campsite. Next, I took my daughter and my son to the pool to swim while my wife finished unloading and prepared the mobile home for our stay. They had fun swimming, but a little French boy kept splashing my daughter with water. My daughter splashed him back and stuck her tongue out at him. Before long, the kids started getting cold because it was getting late, so we went back to the mobile home, ate a picnic dinner, and went to bed.

Day 15, Saturday, April 22, 2000 – We woke up very cold. I ran out and got our little space heater and brought it in to warm the place up. Our plan today was to go to the beach near Cannes and let the kids play. We got to the beach and found a place to spread out a blanket. The kids played in the sand, but it was a little too cold to get into the water. Two women spread out towels about twenty feet from us and went topless, but the kids never even noticed. After we were there for a while, a cold fog rolled in. People started leaving the beach, and we followed.

Driving back toward the campsite, my son yelled, “Look, it’s the McDonald’s flag of America.” There was a McDonald’s, and he was referring to the flags that were flying there. We stopped and ate, and let them play for a while.

We drove back to the campsite, and my wife packed up and straightened things up inside the van while I took the kids to the pool to play. We had originally decided to drive halfway home tomorrow, but we were all ready to get back. So, we made a plan to wake up early and leave. The camp management had told me initially we could leave at 7 a.m., but when I went to confirm they told me it would be 9 a.m. before anyone was there. Since I didn’t have a deposit to pay them, they wanted to inspect the mobile home before we left. I told them I wanted to leave earlier than that, but they told me that was impossible. I asked to speak to the manager, and he also said he couldn’t help me. I told him to just make a copy of my passport, and if I left the mobile home unclean or damaged, then charge me with a crime. He was satisfied with this solution, but told me if I wanted to leave early, I would have to park outside the gates, which would be locked until 7 a.m.

I took the kids down to the pool and let them play. I found a spot near the side of the kiddy pool and sat down to read while the kids played. Within half an hour, there were two topless women within 10 feet of me, and half a dozen others lying around the pool. My son was oblivious, but my daughter came up to me and said “I see three women without their tops off.” I said, “O.K., but don’t stare.”

We stayed at the pool for a couple of hours, and then went back to the mobile home. I wanted to get the TV/VCR set up for the kids during the long drive. They told me which movies they wanted to watch, so I worked on rewinding them. After rewinding the first, it got stuck and wouldn’t eject. I worked on it and worked on it, and finally a piece inside broke off and the tape came out. But, then the VCR didn’t work anymore. This was a potential nightmare, because we had a 9 hour drive (according to a mapping program I had used) tomorrow. But, I could not make it work, so we were just going to have to make out with no entertainment for the kids on the long drive home.

We had a picnic dinner, and got in bed early in anticipation of waking up very early. We had no alarm clock, but I wanted to try and wake up about 3 a.m. and leave. The first time I woke up it was only 12:30, and I had a hard time getting back to sleep because there were some Irish people right next to our mobile home talking very loudly. After half an hour or so, I dozed off.

Day 16, Sunday, April 23, 2000 – Easter Sunday began for me at 2:40 a.m. I got up at that time and started loading the last few items into the van, which was parked about 200 yards away through the woods in absolute darkness. I came back, got my wife and the kids, and we left Cannes at 3:30 a.m. We had to carry the kids to the van in the darkness, but by the time we made it to the van they were both awake. My son stayed awake for about an hour, but my daughter refused to go back to sleep. She wanted to know when we reached Italy, and then Switzerland. She was also pretty excited about the nighttime driving.

Initially, we drove through heavy fog. But then, the fog broke and we had some spectacular nighttime views of Cannes, Nice, and Monte Carlo (Monaco). We were driving right up the French Riviera. I can only imagine what the view looked like during the day, but it must have been something. We were driving on a road several hundred feet above the towns, and could see the darkness of the Mediterranean beyond the lights of the cities. We probably drove through a hundred tunnels. We drove within two miles of the place where Grace Kelly (Princess Grace) had her fatal car wreck. We talked about this for a while.

It took about an hour to reach Italy, and we continued to drive up the Italian Riviera. I had some concerns about driving through Italy at night, especially on a holiday. I had no Italian money, and I wasn’t certain that the tollbooths took credit cards. If we had car trouble we could have had a real problem. We noticed that many of the service stations on the highway were not open. Also, a few years ago, an American family was driving through Italy at night and some highway robbers pulled up alongside them and fired a shot into the car. Their six-year old son, Nicholas, was killed. The story made headlines all over the world, especially after the family donated his organs and saved the lives of seven Italian children. But, overall violent crime in Europe is not common, and occurs at much lower rates than in the U.S.

The country we drove through after turning north away from the Mediterranean was not very interesting. It was mostly just farmland. One thing we noticed was that there were very few markers giving the distance to the next city. We would drive for an hour at times without seeing one, which made it very hard to judge exactly where we were. The sun started to rise when we were about halfway across the country. We finally hit a tollbooth in Milan, and they did take credit cards. After a wrong turn that took us into Milan, we got straightened out and headed for the Alps and the Swiss border.

We were pulled over by the border guards as soon as we crossed into Switzerland. They have no tollbooths, but you must buy a sticker to drive there. So, we got the sticker, and started climbing higher into the Alps. The Swiss scenery was incredible. The mountains loom directly over the Autobahn and the peaks are very high. At the upper elevations, the mountains had snow on them. At the lower level, the valleys were very green. We passed lakes and rivers, and once more drove through a lot of tunnels. One of the tunnels was 10 miles long, and when we came out on the other side the weather had changed. We had crossed the continental divide of Europe. I had driven through this tunnel once before, and it was sunny and cloudless when I drove in and raining hard on the other side.

We had been on the road for seven hours when we crossed into Germany. At the border crossing, there was a red Ferrari in front of us and a red Lamborghini beside us. The kids wanted something to eat, but that is usually a problem out on the Autobahn. We pulled over for gas, and my son said “McDonald’s!” There it was, right beside the gas station. It had an outdoor playground, so we ate and let the kids play for a while.

The rest of the drive home was uneventful. As always in Germany, there was highway construction everywhere. I nearly had someone move over into my lane and run into me twice. I also had to be much more careful when driving in the fast lane, because in Germany someone will always come up on you at a much higher rate of speed and start flashing their lights for you to move over.

We did notice that all of Germany seemed to have bloomed while we were away. There were flowers everywhere. There was a tree that looked like a dogwood that we saw everywhere we looked. Since it was Easter Sunday, when we gassed up for the final time we bought a bunch of candy eggs to hide for the kids when we got home. But, as we got closer to Düsseldorf (or Drizzledorf, as many people here refer to it) it started to rain.

When we got home, we found that the Easter bunny had made a visit. Since it was raining, we hid and hunted eggs inside. As I unloaded the van, a piece of pottery that my wife had bought in Portugal fell out and broke into about twenty pieces. I glued all the pieces back together, but there is a hole on one side. From a distance, and with the hole turned to the back, you can’t tell that it has been broken. But, I felt really bad about it.

So, that’s it. We survived without any major incidents. We never got pulled over by the police and we never had any fender benders. The kids were very good, despite the long drives. I promised them that we wouldn’t take a trip like this again where we had to drive so much. Overall, this was one of the most interesting vacations I have ever been on. I now need to get busy planning the

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