Spain and Morocco 2012

2012 was a big year. It started in April with a home exchange in a village called Odena, about an hour west of Barcelona – with Ben. During this time we explored much of Catalonia, fell in love with Barcelona and made a quick trip across to Morocco for a fabulous few days in Marrakesh, through the Atlas Mountains and down to the Sahara.

In mid-May, Ben flew home and I took the train up to Pamplona to begin to walk the Camino de Santiago, which I finished in Santiago de Compostela 6 weeks later. Then, for some much-needed R&R, I bussed down to Coimbra in Portugal and spent a relaxing week in the sun with new friend Clive in his lovely villa. [2012 finished in Edinburgh …. but Portugal and Scotland will all be covered in separate posts ….. ]

SPAIN 1:  Settling in…..

Not the best start…. but it´s now Day 3 and things are improving all the time. 
A 24-hour journey, a ferocious head cold (me) and general unwellness (Ben) made the first couple of days a challenge.  

However it´s amazing what a couple of nights of sleep and a warmed-up house will do.  The house was freezing when we arrived and weather outside quite windy and cool.   But the sun’s now been shining most of the time, and the area all around is stunningly beautiful, with great views from the house.   We´re both already being beguiled by the charms of Catalonia, this region of Spain.  

Odena, near Iguelada, about an hour from Barcelona

Odena, where we´re living, is further from Barcelona than I´d originally thought – way out in the middle of Catalonia.   To get here we had to take a local bus from the airport to Sant Boi about 20 minutes from Barcelona airport, then change to the Iguelada train for another 1 ½ hours, then find a taxi for the last 5km on to the small town of Odena.    Despite both feeling totally wrecked, we made it – to be met by Justo, our very friendly Spanish neighbour, at the front gate.   With fixed smiles, we scrambled together our miniscule Spanish vocabulary so we could converse with him while he gave us the keys and showed us around.    

The flight over had seemed impossibly long and wasn´t helped by having to sit on the tarmac in Milan for an hour while 90% of passengers disembarked.   The rest of us weren´t allowed to leave the plane, but at least it meant we had room to stretch out for the remainder of the journey to Barcelona.   And we had the most superb views of the French Alps as we flew across. 

I think we´ve achieved as much as we could have so far, all things considered.  Yesterday was fantastic. We explored the nearby mountains and villages by car.  With a map but no plan, we just followed little roads that wound through hills and valleys, past crumbling old Spanish farm-houses, village churches and ruined castles on craggy mountain tops, with fantastic panoramic views on all sides.   At one point we could see the snow-capped Pyrenees in the distance, and the world-heritage listed Montserrat mountain only a stones-throw away.  
We´d already been stunned by the view of Montserrat from the train on the way to Iguelada… hard to believe it´s real, a great rocky mass rising up from the plains and forests.   Can´t wait to visit it and explore the huge monastery on top…. and we´re already planning to walk the Way of St Jaume from Montserrat back to Odena…. about 25 kilometres. 

Montserrat

Our route yesterday took us through places such as Castellfollit de Boix, Castellar and Calaf.   Each had features of interest – a very strange tree like a living sculpture with amazing wooden and metal decorations, a quaint little bar where we had coffee and a Coke, a cemetery where local families have their own vault, many stacked 3 or 4 high and decorated with photos, flowers and family treasures, and many, many old churches, village squares with decorative drinking fountains, forts and castles.   

Today we drove into the city centre of Iguelada. Even though we´d allowed for the midday siesta time, we were still too early.  Everything closes between 12 and about 5pm – and then stays open until 10 or more at night.   But we still enjoyed wandering the winding streets and gazing at the amazing architecture. Images of Gaudi came to mind when we saw little turrets and sculptured balconies, though we know we´re in for a real treat when we go into Barcelona and see the real Gaudi works of art.   Already I´m feeling that this country is one great big work of art – natural and man-made.   There´s a rich and simple beauty, colour, pride and passion in the houses, the churches, the little shops and the beautiful mountains all around.   

Ruins of the old Odena castle – destroyed during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s

I´ve explored more of Odena than Ben has yet. And I´ve made friends with the local shopkeeper who sells top quality meat, bread, fruit and veg and basic groceries.  We´re getting on pretty well with his few words of English and my smattering of Spanish.   Though it´s all a bit more difficult here because most of the locals actually speak Catalan, the local dialect. All the signs are in Catalan too.   Ben and Justo next door are getting on famously now too – and Ben´s been invited in to watch the big Barcelona v Madrid soccer game live on Justo´s TV tomorrow night.  

So despite the bad start, this is turning out to be a fabulous experience and I´m enjoying it much, much more than Italy.  3 months already seems too short!  

SPAIN 2:     27th April 2012

I´ve been finding it hard to write a diary this trip because days have rolled into one and both Ben and I have been knocked around by the head cold I thought I had. I think now that it was actually a nastier little virus that took its toll.   We had 2 whole days when we couldn´t do anything but sleep (or try to).   But we didn´t let it stop us completely and we´re now well on the road to recovery and have had some absolutely fantastic days enjoying this part of the world.  

Ben at Camp Nou – soccer heaven
Ben and Justo ready to watch the big game on TV

Very hard to know where to start, so won’t even try to keep things in sequence.  We´ve immersed ourselves in history, culture, scenic beauty, religion and football (soccer) – so I might as well start with the football.   Ben´s in soccer heaven here in the heartland of the Barcelona Football Club.  He´s bought the Barca team shirt and hat and we´ve both watched 3 games of Champion League football on TV during the week.   We also have tickets to the Barcelona-Malaga match at Camp Nou (Barcelona´s famous soccer stadium) next week.   Our neighbours, Justo and Maria, invited us in to watch the Barcelona v Madrid game a few nights ago… you could only see it on pay-TV, and apparently everyone in Catalonia was glued to a set somewhere.  Sadly Barca lost, but it was a great experience watching the game in a Spanish home with total football fanatics! 

Beautiful scenery in Anoia

One day (can´t remember which one) we went for another superb drive around the region of Anoia, all around Iguelada.  This is a land of vineyards and farms, all set in the most picturesque valleys and hillsides.   Castles and churches abound and you can stop at any little village bar for a coffee or Coke (sadly we haven´t felt up to wine-tasting yet…).   Amongst all the exceptional scenery, the highlight today was La Tossa de Montbui, a pre-romanesque chapel built on what must be the best vantage point for viewing the whole Odena/Iguelada/Anoia area.   It´s described as a cultural site of national interest.  The views were out of this world and we had it all to ourselves.      

We´ve also become much more familiar with the layout of Iguelada over the past week and now know how to find the train and bus stations, supermarket, city centre – and then find our way home again to Odena, our village.  It´s tricky, with lots of one-way streets, narrow lanes and roundabouts… while all the time remembering to drive on the right side of the road.    However, there´s a kind of calm in this little city. The people are patient and friendly and the traffic isn´t too bad.   I like Spain a lot.

La Rambla

Yesterday we took the very comfortable long-distance bus into Barcelona – a one hour ride.  What a magical, beautiful city!   We mostly just walked around, soaking up the atmosphere and sunshine.   La Rambla is the main wide avenue that´s filled with market stalls, buskers, cafes, bars and tourists – a happy street with other little lanes and thoroughfares branching off to beautiful plazas, fountains, statues, churches and some of the most attractive little shops you could wish for.   This visit was the first of what will hopefully be many and we now have a feel for how to get around on buses and underground Metro and where to go to see all the treasures that await.   Ben was still struggling with the last effects of the virus so he tired out before me and decided to just sit in the sun in a lovely little square while I went off to explore the Cathedral nearby.  
It´s a magnificent Gothic structure with the glory that all the great European cathedrals have – gold, marble, candles, statues etc – as well as a lift up to the roof!   Of course I went up and revelled in the superb view all over the city. Even spotted Gaudi´s Sagrada Familia not far away, but haven´t actually been to it yet. 

Ben´s still not 100% and my head´s still a bit stuffed up, but between us we´ve got enough good eyes and ears to appreciate the scenery and the culture, and things are improving all the time.   Like today… we visited Montserrat.   We can see this spectacular mountain from our front verandah. It´s only about 25km from here, so we took the car instead of public transport.   This meant braving the main A2 freeway that goes to Barcelona, but it was really quite easy.   And the road up the mountain was an engineering wonder, with panoramic views at every turn.  

Monstserrat

It´s very difficult to describe Montserrat so I´ll quote a bit from Lonely Planet… 

“ the mountain of Montserrat, with its strangely shaped crags of rocks, its monastery and ruined hermitage caves….is one of the most spectacular of all Spain´s natural sights, a sawtoothed outcrop left exposed to erosion when the inland sea that covered this area around 25 million years ago was drained by progressive uplifts of the earth´s crust. Legends hang easily upon it.” 

The Monastery at Montserrat

The Benedictine Monastery of Montserrat is cradled amongst the rocks and is one of Spain´s most important shrines.   Legend has it that St Peter came here only fifty years after the birth of Christ – it´s also claimed to be the site of the Holy Grail.  But whatever the truth is, it is a very surreal and beautiful place where pilgrims come to venerate the Black Madonna, a 12th Century statue of Mary and Jesus which has been kept in the great Basilica for centuries.

Unbelievably, and quite coincidentally, we happened to visit on one of the two main pilgrimage days of the year, April 27, when crowds flock to see the Black Madonna.   We didn´t realise this until we got there – but it didn´t matter.  The place is so magical and there´s plenty of space to walk around.   The best part was that entry to the magnificent Museum was free today!  The monastery has an extensive art collection and beautiful icons and antiquities.  

At 1pm every day the Montserrat choir boys sing in the Basilica.  I couldn´t miss this, though Ben preferred to avoid the crowds inside and just enjoy the spirituality of the outdoors.  

We´ll definitely make another visit, and when we´re fully fit again we´re planning to walk the Camino path down the mountain all the way back to Iguelada. We saw the trail markers leading down and also saw plenty of people kitted up for mountain hiking.     This Camino (The Catalan Camino) begins in Barcelona and links with the Camino Frances – the one that I´ll be doing in a few weeks.  
(Ben´s gone out for a few beers tonight with Jaume, our friendly neighbour across the road. While an early night would have probably been healthier, he couldn´t pass up an invitation to experience some night-life in Iguelada with Jaume and his amigos.)

SPAIN 3:  3rd May 2012

I have to keep checking the calendar to believe that we’ve only been in Spain for 2 weeks.   Seems much, much longer.   We feel quite at home in Odena and Igualada.  Even Barcelona has become quite familiar.   We´re still picking up a few more words of Spanish and Catalan, and Ben´s getting good now at conversations with the neighbours, people in bars and even the barber he went to today to get his hair cut.  On the other hand, I now have much more sympathy for the elderly Spanish women (& Italian, Vietnamese, Chinese etc.) who land in Australia with their families and never manage to learn a word of English.  

Barca v Malaga

Overall, life continues to be one big adventure.   Since last journal entry,
we´ve been back to Barcelona a couple of times and enjoyed a good fix of Gaudi architecture and other sights – also a fantastic night at the Spanish League soccer last night at Barcelona Football Club.  We saw Barça beat Malaga 4-1, with the icing on the cake being Messi (one of the top players in the world) kicking 3 goals and breaking a record for most goals kicked in a season.   It’s true … I´ve been on a steep football learning curve over the past couple of weeks, and I´m getting hooked.   Barcelona is probably the top club in the world, having won many, many championships over the years, and their stadium is said to be the biggest in Europe.  It holds 100,000 people, and most seats were full last night.   We had a great view and enjoyed every minute of the total experience.   There were burgundy and blue scarves and jerseys everywhere, lots of singing, chanting, cheering and flag-waving.   A fabulous spectacle.  

Ben had been on a tour of the Club earlier in the week, through the museum etc and saw all the trophies and history of Barcelona FC.   I opted out of this one, and whiled my time away happily back in the main part of the city.  Strolled down La Rambla again, stopping off for a visit to the grand old Liceu Theatre, Barcelona´s Opera House.   It´s very beautiful inside, reminding me of La Scala in Milan.  Described as one of the most noble opera houses of 19th century Europe, it´s one of the largest in the world seating 2,300 people in its red velvet chairs.  It was destroyed by fire in 1847 and again in 1994 but restored both times in its original grand style.  

I also took the opportunity to meander through the big covered food market just off La Rambla.   It´s a bit like Adelaide´s Central Market, but filled with delicious looking Spanish meat, sausages, bread, olives, seafood, fruit, wine.  A feast for the eyes!  

Gaudi’s Parc Guell

We got to Gaudi´s masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, to find the queue was 2 hours long, so we`ve only marvelled at it from the outside so far.   But we have visited Casa Batllo, a fairy-tale house in the city – also Parc Guell with more of Gaudi´s whimsical creations and colours.  He was a true genius and I´m amazed that others haven´t copied some of his ideas over the past decades.   What I´d give for swirling, twisting balconies outside my apartment and sparkling mosaic tiles, turrets and gargoyles decorating the whole building.  Everything in Casa Batllo curves and swirls in the most glorious wave-like formations; doorways and windows are arched or round, and the walls are covered in blue tiles and coloured glass.  Doors open out onto open courtyards or tiny balconies, all beautifully decorated.   It´s pure magic.   Parc Guell is also a kind of beautiful fantasy world with curving paths and stairways, dragons, pillars, and a huge open space looking out to the Mediterranean where you just stroll or laze on the walled mosaic bench that curves its way around the outside.   Hope our photos do it some kind of justice, though it´s such a total sensory experience to be amongst such artistry that photos could never be enough.  

Back in Iguelada, we enjoyed the antiques and craft market that gets set up on the last Sunday of every month in one of the town plazas.   Lots of fascinating Spanish wrought iron, paintings, furniture, guitars, old coins, stamps and bric-a-brac on display – but it was equally interesting just watching the people.   We had a coffee in the sun in an open-air café just watching everyone strolling by.   Lovely!   And afterwards we stumbled upon the Santa Maria Church which was open of course, being Sunday.  There must be hundreds of beautiful old churches throughout Spain, but this one did seem quite special with its baroque altarpiece and carved angels playing guitars and violins, also its little museum of silver chalices, crucifixes and other church collectables. 

Traditional Catalan dance
Odena Festival

Catalonia seems to enjoy lots of festivals.  The first week we were here there was a big Children´s Festival in the streets of Igualada. Lots of happy families were in town to enjoy art, craft, street theatre, processions etc.   But of more significance for us (well me anyway… Ben wasn´t so interested) was the Odena Festival on
1st May.   It turned out to be a big event in the village with lots of feasting, dancing and speech-making going on all day in one of the big parks.  
I spent the morning watching the presentations on the stage. Fcrom what I could gather it all seemed to focus on the activities of the young people who had had the honour of being the village representatives for the past year, including one of the young boys who lives across the road from us.   He seemed to have held the title of Junior Boy of Odena (or something similar) – there were a number of these special young people on stage, all dressed in Catalan costumes – and all the other reigning “kings” and “queens” of neighbouring towns and villages in the region were there too.   To me, it was a bit like Australia Day celebrations in Robe or any other country town in Australia. Everyone knew one another and they all shared the pride and fun of the holiday.      Following all the speeches, there was a folk dancing competition.  Groups from all over the region set themselves up in circles in the centre of the park and danced the same dance while judges walked around with clipboards, watching the footwork.   It wasn´t particularly flamboyant or passionate like I´d imagined Spanish folk-dancing to be… quite subdued and gentle really.   I never did find out which group won the cup, but it was good to watch the event.  Most notable was that each dancing group was made of people of varied gender, age, shape and size – from teenagers to rotund grandpas.   It seems that everyone gets into the act in Spain.  (LATER : Found out the dance is called the Sardana. Saw it again in the Pyrenees in France)

Will finish this Journal entry at the same place as last one … Ben´s been invited on another pub-crawl with Jaume and his amigos tomorrow night.   They didn´t get home until 2.30am last Friday, but it seems that a good time was had by all.  Apparently Australian tourists are extremely rare in Igualada (according to Jaume and his mates) so Ben was a bit of a hit.   They all got by talking “International” and visited about 6 bars during the evening.  Hope his head is clear when we leave for Morocco on Sunday.  

SPAIN 4 and MOROCCO

Two weeks since the last diary – and once again it´s Friday night and Ben´s out again on his weekly pub crawl with Jaume and his mates.   I could almost write a separate book about Ben´s adventures and activities. He’s thrown himself into this trip with so much enthusiasm, met lots of people, learnt far more Catalan, Spanish, Arabic and Berber than I have and generally had a fantastic time.   Jaume also took him out to a Rally de Catalonia in the mountains near here a couple of weeks ago – plenty of speed, action, car roll-overs and Spanish machismo judging by the photos. Real testosterone stuff.   But most of the time, Ben and I have done things together and he´s been an excellent travelling companion.   I´ve had enormous pleasure just watching him adapt to the travelling life and plan more for the future.

Tagine dinner in Djemma El-Fna square, Marrakesh

Highlight of the past two weeks would have to be the trip to Morocco.   We had to bus up to Girona (north of Barcelona, and about 2 ½ hours from here), and fly from there to Marrakesh.  Spent the first 2 nights in the very charming Morocco House Hotel – an old riad-style hotel with a central atrium and balconies all around on each floor.   It was in the newer, and quite sophisticated, part of the city – an incredible contrast to the old quarter where the huge Djemma El-Fna square sits amidst a meandering mass of tiny alley-ways and souks (markets).    We spent our last 2 nights in a backpackers hostel in the old city and just got immersed in the noise, colour and general chaos.   It´s impossible to describe the every-day life in the souks and the diversity of people and activity going on all the time.   In some ways it would seem that things haven´t changed for thousands of years. But then a motor-bike roars past down a crowded little alley, or a woman wearing a burkha goes by talking on a mobile phone.   Endlessly fascinating – and at times exhausting.   The markets are to die for, if you want Moroccan carpets, jewellery, leather, oils, tagines, lanterns or fake designer shirts and handbags – or just about anything else.  In the Djemma El-Fna square there are snake-charmers, story-tellers, dancers, fortune-tellers, hundreds of little food stalls and people, people, people.   We spent hours walking in and around Marrakesh. Ben even got to explore deep into the heart of the medina and the souks for the sum of about 60 cents.  A few small coins here will get you anything you want.   It never felt at all unsafe. There are so many people everywhere.  

Snake charmer?

The Marrakesh Rouge hostel was hidden behind a big wooden door in an old wall, like most of the houses in the souks.   Inside, however, it was a blaze of colour with Moroccan carpets and cushions everywhere… very laid-back and friendly with young travellers from various parts of the world coming and going.   Ben loved it; he made friends with one of the guys who works there and got invited, along with another Australian girl, to Ali´s brother´s wedding at the Marrakesh Sheraton!   Turned out to be quite a night of feasting, dancing and celebration in true Moroccan style.   ( I stayed home, sweltering in 41 degree heat and got eaten by bed-bugs.)  

In between the relative comfort of staying at Morocco House and the hippy-trippy colour of Marrakesh Rouge, we spent 4 days travelling through the south western part of Morocco, down to the edge of the Sahara desert.   We had a car and our own driver (Driss) who took us safely across the high Atlas mountains, across some spectacular mountain passes and down through long valleys filled with date palms.   But the overwhelming memory I´ll have of this part of the world will always be the reddish brown mud-brick villages all along the way.   This is the land of the Kasbahs, which we learned are actually large, strongly-fortified houses lived in by one family and their animals.  One in particular, Ait Ben Haddou, is a beautifully preserved Kasbah that has been the backdrop of many major films such as Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator and others.  Morocco, it seems, has become a favourite setting for Hollywood directors and some huge film studios have been built in this area.  
Photos below show: A valley in the Atlas Mountains; Inside the Ben Haddou kasbah; Ben and Driss (our driver); A signpost to Timbuktu – 521 km.

There were vestiges of snow on some of the mountains and plenty of evidence of where the snowline is in winter.  It must be a very harsh existence for the villagers when winter sets in, but at this time of year they were enjoying bumper crops and good grazing for their sheep and goats.   We passed many shepherds in the hills, also nomad Berbers down nearer to the desert.  

Towns and villages en route included places with names such as Ouarzazte, Tinerhir, Merzouga and Zagoura.   One night was spent in the Todra Gorge, a massive canyon with high rock walls.   Part of the journey had to be in a 4 wheel-drive vehicle when we went across a stony desert area with a maze of tracks going off into the horizon.   Along the way were oases and wells, but it was a harsh environment and not one I´d want to get lost in.  

The very best night was when we rode camels into the desert just before sunset, and camped in a Berber tent.   Riding a dromedary (a one-humper) through sand-dunes behind a Berber man in a brilliant blue cloak and turban was one of the most serene and surreal experiences I´ve had in my life.   It´s not the most comfortable means of transport, but the desert was so immense and beautiful that time seemed to disappear and we just floated through a landscape of sand and sky.   Mohammed, our Berber guide, was one of the most gentle, peaceful men I´ve ever encountered too. There must be something about living such a simple life and walking slowly, slowly with your camels through the dunes.   It was all so far removed from the way we live – or even from the life of other Moroccans in the villages and cities. 

In the Berber camp in the dunes

Food in Morocco consisted mostly of tagines and salads every day – and no alcohol.   Hotel accommodation outside of Marrakesh was barely 3-star, though the scenery and people made up for most of the discomfort.   But weighing it all up – and despite the magic of camels in the desert – I have to say that I was actually relieved when we got back to Spain.   With the last 2 days of over 40 degree hear, and very itchy bed-bug bites, my final impressions of Morocco were not totally positive.  

Inside the kasbah

But I do have a  small carpet to remember it by….I simply couldn´t resist the colours of this country.   I´d fill my house with Berber rugs and pillows if I could afford them.     

Back in Spain – after Morocco

(Who knows why, but I don’t seem to have recorded anything else after we got back from Morocco…… so I’ll wing it from here)

CATALAN CAMINO: Among other very memorable activities was the walk down from Montserrat, along the Way of St Jaume, after spending a magical night in the old Monastery. With a Camino pilgrim passport, it’s possible to stay free in the very basic accommodation where the former monks lived. I had my passport from the Australian Friends of the Camino, and Ben signed up on the spot as a potential European pilgrim. We were even provided with a key to the whole building which we had to return the following morning.

After dusk, all the day trippers and devout tourists had left the mountain in their cars and buses, so it was if we had the entire monastery and Basilica to ourselves. With rolling mist over the rocky peaks and in the valleys, it felt quite surreal and breathtakingly beautiful. We walked on some of the mountain paths after dark and strongly embraced the spirituality of Montserrat.

With a few provisions from the little supermarket – and a bottle of vino – we enjoyed a spartan pilgrim meal and an excellent night in bunks in one of the old monks’ dormitories. We left early next morning – before the madding crowd arrived again – and found the path down, down, down and back to Iguelada. This Camino path actually starts in Barcelona, and eventually joins the Camino Frances – which I was to walk in just a few weeks’ time.

Without a detailed description of our wonderful day walk on Montserrat, a picture gallery will have to do the job of sharing something of this experience.

FIGUERES: Another great outing was a trip up the coast to Figures to visit the Dali Museum and Art Gallery. Filled with strange and mystical paintings, sculptures and installations, the museum is a true wonderland. Inside and out. I also discovered the Dali Jewels … watches, brooches, sculptures … made with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires … some of the most beautiful jewellery imaginable. Loved it all so much I even bought the T-shirt! Once again, a few photos must stand in for a diary entry.

And just to finish – a few photos of beautiful Girona where we stayed a night or two on the way to/from Morocco. There was a flower festival happening so the city was covered in floral decorations.