Yee-haw, miracles DO happen! On our most recent family gathering to Spain and Morocco this past March, a block of empty seats was ours on our flight from Miami to Madrid. Ruth and I were defensive ends and Lilly had the VIP middle seats so she slept like a baby (no such thing in our book) while Ruth and I dozed off intermittently for 9 hours. All of us arriving exhausted into Barcelona, Spain, we still managed to enjoy the taxi ride from the airport to the port. It was a typical, sunny spring day in the city-lovely.
We checked into our rooms on the Norwegian Jade and were surprised to find our cabin decorated with “Happy Birthday” paraphernalia everywhere! Balloons, streamers, signs and even a cake and chocolate covered strawberries. Lilly was turning two in a few days and the party-mode was in full swing.
After settling in, we explored the ship and found it to have a Kids Club (more on that later) a water slide (more on that later) and lots of old, German people. We found out that Norwegian Cruise Lines caters mainly to a European market so as Americans; we were actually the minority, as we cruised with lotsa Bavarians, Irish, Brits, locals from Spain and even some Japanese folks. A cruise ship, with crew and passengers added together, truly make up the most diverse population in a radius the size of a football field! It was also pretty funny to hear announcements given daily in 3 languages.
Our first stop was Casablanca, Morocco. Having heard there was “not much to see there” we did a quickie photo stop outside of Rick’s Café (Play it Again, Sam!) and then, a few blocks away, the Hassan II Mosque. It’s the largest mosque in Morocco and the third largest mosque in the world, with over 100,000 people being able to fit inside! It was pretty majestic, sitting alongside the Atlantic Ocean. We took some more quickie pics and then, we were headed onto our bus for a 4 hour drive to Marrakesh. Along the way, we stopped at a roadside stand and had some DELICIOUS coffee.
Marrakesh is called the “Red City”. It’s easy to see why as most of the buildings and structures are terra cotta in color. We also heard that it was due to all the Christian Blood spilt there during the crusades. Checking into our hotel (and disappointed we did not get to stay in a true Riad- a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden) we had a buffet lunch. Some things on the lunch wagon were easy to identify (baskets of oranges, sweet pastries and couscous) but other “stuff” we asked what the mystery meat displayed out, was. Some guessed lamb, some guessed goat. I stayed away but was told by all else that I missed out as the meat was delicious.
I cannot stress enough how the people at the hotel and in the city were VERY friendly towards us. Of course, going to a Muslim country as an American, one can be hesitant and guarded but every person there was nicer than the next. (Especially to Lilly!)
I don’t know if it was the time of year but everywhere you looked, orange blossoms were blooming and the smell of the city was intoxicating (almost everywhere) Oranges were everywhere; rotting on roadsides, in trees ready to be picked, and at every meal, truckloads of oranges were offered. I am betting Marrakesh folks never have scurvy issues! The fruit was so delicious and we were eating the citrus day and night.
Our first stop in the city was the Bahia Palace. It was a lovely palace and garden constructed for the son of a Grand Vizer (leader) with gardens, fountains, marble and ceramics all around. The afternoon was perfect weather-wise and we enjoyed the tour. Lilly loved the bunches of stray cats all around. She desperately tried to catch up to them, but they all scurried away. Strangely enough, one in the middle courtyard of the Palace not only tolerated her touching him, but sat right next to her for photo after photo. A truly “cool cat”!
We then head to the Saadian tombs. They date back from the time of the sultan Ahmad al-Mansur over 500 years ago and hold the corpses of about sixty members of the Saadi Dynasty. Outside the building is a garden and the graves of soldiers and servants. The line was so long to see the corpses that we wound up taking our own mini tour of the grounds (and saw hives of honeybees buzzing into various holes in the tombs).
But I think the highlight of our entire trip was our next stop- Djemaa el Fna is a square and market place in Marrakesh’s medina quarter (the old city). The origin of the name means something like “Assembly of the Dead” in Arabic since they used to use this square to kill criminals in long years past. It’s the main square of Marrakesh and at the entryway are horses and carriages ready for hire.
As you progress your way in, you hear deafening prayer songs played on giant loudspeakers and everywhere, are male dancers and acrobats wearing Fez hats, girls ready to grab your hands and insist you pay them for a henna drawing they ink on your skin, youths with chained apes to them, standing by to jump on your shoulders so the boys can get your change for a photo and cobras on the cement ground, ready for the flute sounds of their charmer. Vendors sell bootleg pocketbooks (like Canal Street in NYC!) fresh squeezed orange juice can be bought for 50 cents a glass, and assorted leather goods, hanging lamps, jewelry and food are for sale everywhere.
As we made our way towards the marketplace and away from the square and performances, intricate alleyways turned this way and that, making it absolutely simple to get lost. There were no street names or markers at all. We seriously were careful about not going in too deep and heard about people who get lost for a time inside. We had a designated time to get back for a special dinner and performance so we got back to the bus in time right as sunset fell.
After freshening up (and Lilly not napping at all) back at the hotel, we made our way to “Chez Ali”. In the parking lot were men on horses waiting to lead us into these circus-like tents where we sat at round tables and served in the middle of the table. Harira soup, lamb tajine, couscous, vegetables, chicken, mint tea and of course, oranges, were served. The show started with a belly dancer on a central platform, followed by a mock battle between the Berber horsemen. After showing off some acrobatic horse-riding skills, the riders gathered in groups and fired their rifles. (Lilly kept saying, “Boom, Boom” for the rest of our trip) Add in some smelly camels and lots of dancing ladies and at the end of the show, a fireworks display. I called it “Moroccan Medieval Times”. Totally cheesy but glad we went.
I heard about actual goats that climb trees in Marrakesh but was disappointed we did not see any!
The next morning we were to head to Agadir, a city on the coast of Morocco, to meet up with our ship. Before we left the city, we stopped at Koutoubia mosque, which had a giant minaret (lots of these in Morocco) and then, we were to have a true Moroccan lunch and truthfully, I think we enjoyed this place more than Chez Ali. The restaurant was right next to the Bahia Palace, from the previous day so it was appropriately titled “El Bahia Restaurant”. You walked down a long tiled hallway into a sunny courtyard colored with mosaics all around. Two men with Fez’s were sitting playing instruments and we again, sat at round tables. This time, we had lemony chicken in couscous and the meal ended with strawberries, cookies and you guessed it, oranges! The whole time, we were entertained by a belly dancer (who Lilly loved dancing next to) and local women dancing and singing, going from table to table to collect change for photo opps.
We headed out for a four hour bus trip (again) to Agadir. Agadir’s claim to fame is that it was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake that lasted 15 seconds, burying the city and killing thousands in 1960.
Back on the ship, on sea days and on off hours, the routine was much the same. Lots of sleep (Mario and I are almost caught up from Lilly’s birth) taking Lilly to the kiddie slide and the pool, the kids club (where Lilly got her face painted) EATING and watching the after dinner show in the evenings. Lilly called it “the party”. Like our cruise to Alaska, she sat through almost anything with dancing and singing and was bored by anyone talking or doing comedy or magic. We let her watch as much as possible until she was too squirmy and/or exhausted to take any more where I would then bring her back to the cabin and she’d delight in the “towel animals”on our beds for turn down made by our room stewards and conk out on the bed with us following not too far behind. We did go out on many nights as we met some cool folks from around the country and socialized with them some.
Our next excursion was to Gran Canaria, Las Palmas, in the Canary Islands. To clear one thing up, the Islands are NOT named after birds, but wild dogs. The name of the Islands is likely derived from the Latin term Insula Canaria, meaning “Island of the Dogs”, since wild dogs were found here and early inhabitants of the islands worshipped canines.
Stepping out into bright blue skies and lots of warm sun, the tour began at the old town of Vegueta where we stopped at a local market that had some yummy looking fruit! Lilly kept shouting “Uva” to one of the merchants so he gave her a couple of ginormous green grapes on the house. We had a snack in a tavern next to the market. Little rounded salted potatoes (totally delish) and cheese with a drink of our choice.
After reaching the oldest quarter in the city, we walked to Pilar Nuevo Square where we saw Christopher Columbus’ house where he lived before departing to discover America. We left the capital, and continued our journey along a way-scary, steep, winding road up to the Crater of Bandama, a volcanic crater, 3,281 feet in diameter and 656 feet in depth. We ended the tour with a visit to the Jardin Canario, the largest botanical gardens in Spain, where Lilly ran amok among the flowers and grass.
The island of Funchal, Madeira, Portugal was next. With the weather being amazingly cooperative thus far on our trip, all systems were still a go as we had sunny skies and cool temps. Its name is said to have been chosen due to the abundance of fennel (funcho in Portuguese) growing there.
We hopped onto our bus and head to Camacha; a small village in the hills east of Funchal. We took a few panoramic pics at the tippy top but Lilly was more interested in the little playground that belonged to the Catholic school at the top of the hill. We spent most time there on the see-saw. But they are famed for making baskets and wicker goods and Madeira wine so we got some goodies in the souvenir shop.
We then head to Pico do Arieiro, Madeira Island’s third highest peak at 6,000 feet. Again, as in the Canary Islands, the drop to the sides of the road was truly scary. You saw no road at all when you looked out the window; nor did you see any fences/guardrails to keep you “propped” onto the road. I kept telling the other passengers not to lean too far on one side of the bus or the other. Seriously.
Our last stop was the highlight of the day. We drove to another village: Monte. Here, they are famous for their “toboggan ride”. Originally a fast means of transport down to Funchal for people living in Monte, you load two passengers into a toboggan sleigh-like car and you slide at high speeds on narrow, winding streets back down to Funchal. These two-seater wicker sledges glide on wooden runners, pushed and steered by two men dressed in white cotton clothes and a straw hat, using their rubber-soled boots as brakes.
Lilly was upset I did not go in her “car”. (She went with Ruth and Mario) I had to go in with a stranger to move the line faster at the start of the “ride”. But our “drivers” were supercool and stopped midway to “pass Lilly” to me so she could ride with Mommy the other half ride down J The downhill journey took about 10 minutes. At the pit stop we were at the perfect vantage point to take pics in front of our ship, docked in the waters below.
I have to say Funchal was like an island of flowers. There were blooms everywhere. Although it was spring, the guide said the island was in a constant state of blooming buds, which really made it picturesque.
Marbella, Costa Del Sol was next. First stopping in Malaga, Granada, Spain, we took an hour bus ride down the coast to Marbella, Puerto Banus, playground to the Euro-rich. We skipped the guide and scheduled tour and did our own thang. We walked to the beach (where Lilly again, had a blast at a playground) and then, visited the old quarter of the town with its narrow streets leading to the Plaza de los Naranjos – (Orange Tree Square). Then, we drove another 20 minutes to Puerto Banus. The area is lined with designer boutiques, restaurants and hotels and the marina is home to large yachts. We wandered along the promenade and people-watched and stopped at an outdoor café and had a grilled ham and cheese sandwich and GREAT coffee! It reminded us very much of St. Tropez.
We were off to our last stop- disembarking in Barcelona. We checked off the ship with ease and took two taxis to our hotel, the Hilton Diagnol Mar, right on the beach. After having a second breakfast in the hotel lounge, we planned our sightseeing day; as we only had one day to see everything. It was also Palm Sunday, so that limited our options with many shops being closed. We got our maps, advice from the locals/hotel employees and were off to the closest subway stop.
The train was quiet and clean and pretty simple to navigate. The only thing; many of the stop names were in Catalan, so the language was a wee bit different here. Still decipherable, but tricky. Our first destination was to Parc Guell; But whoa, when you got out of the subway station, we began “the walk”. Not so much far as steep. We all got a major Stairmaster booty workout walking to the Parc. Lilly was in her chariot (stroller) so Mario and Marco switched carrying her up at least a thousand steep stairs. I kid you not. I would NOT feel guilty later on for eating a truckload of paella after this workout J
The Parc was designed by the Catalan architect/artist Antoni Gaudí and built 100 or so years ago. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Parc was originally part of a housing site, the idea of Count Eusebi Güell, whom the Parc was named after but when no buyers came forward to live there, Gaudí, at Güell’s suggestion, bought it with his savings and moved in with his family and his father. The focal point of the Parc is the main terrace, surrounded by a long bench in the form of a sea serpent.
Everywhere are bursts of colored, tiled mosaics of animals and shapes. For all the bench surfaces Gaudí used the shape of women’s buttocks to inspire him. The above terrace forms little caves and enclaves below, creating a cozy, secret atmosphere. Lots of street performers and vendors colored the Parc and we really enjoyed this place.
We left the Parc and stopped at a local store for some snacks and got back on the train to head to our next stop; La Sagrada Familia. Also a Gaudi masterpiece, this massive church will be under construction and is not expected to be complete until at least 2026 – the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death. Gaudi devoted the last 15 years of his life to the structure. In my humble opinion, I always thought Picasso was Spain’s “Native Son”, but definitely felt that Gaudi is Barcelona’s. You can sense the respect and awe and pride that Barcelona people have with the man.
The church teemed with life as it was Palm Sunday and the area was heavy with traffic, street life and people carrying Palms twisted into crosses. Again, finding a large playground across the street from the church, Lilly had a ton of fun with local kids while Mario went to take out a very Spanish lunch for all of us; McDonald’s, which we ate in the playground, Lilly stopping at each one of us for a French fry or bite of cheeseburger.
Our last stop was Las Ramblas; a busy thoroughfare of blocked off streets, filled with buskers, human statues, pedestrians, vendors, souvenirs stands, pharmacies, hotels and every business of this and that. We walked the almost mile load mall and realized it was getting late, so we took the train back to our Hotel.
After freshening up, we went to a famous local place and had paella (not the best we’ve had, sad to say!) at a restaurant that claims to be the “oldest in the city, 7 Portes (7 Doors)
We left Barcelona at 5:30 am the next morning to head back to reality in Miami.