Wednesday, December 06, 2006

France, Spain, Portugal, and Morocco Part II

Part II

Portugal




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.

Morocco



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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