Sunday, December 31, 2006

L'auberge Espagnole

Updates will likely be skimpy for the coming week. It took me a couple of days to locate an internet cafe with wireless, as I'm not prone to sitting on shitty pay terminals with coin slots, and our flat here doesn't have internet access.

Our first night was mellow. After arriving from Malaga, we checked into our beautiful apartment in the Barri Gotíc and called beds and rooms, followed by the customary trip to the market to stock up on jamón and cheese. And bread. Ok, and a few other staples. Like wine.

Although it was a short flight, we were beat. So we kept things simple and stayed within a five block radius of the flat. Fortunately, there's almost everything within reach. Elena wanted new Adidas for her weary feet. Boom - Adidas store just up our street. J wanted to dig into some authentic Spanish paella. No problema - fantastic freakin' food around the corner. The restaurant happened to be near one of my favorite bars in Barcelona, Nooba, which has recently gone smoke-free, quite a revelation for a bar around here. However, my new favorite bar, is super smokey. And expensive. Sure, it lacks any sort of Spanish authenticity. It's called Manchester Bar, and they specialize in Britpop. Score!

Sarah and Spencer arrived on Saturday, and I went off to meet Jean-Michel from my company's Barcelona office for a couple of drinks. It was great to catch up with him, considering like most of my foreign counterparts, I only see them once a year. I met up with him at the market on the sea side of the gigantic Christopher Columbus statue at the end of the Ramblas. "Do you ride?" He handed me a helmet, I hopped on the back of his scooter, and had the quintessential ride through a short stretch of Barcelona. Now this is the way to get around town! Narrow streets? No problem. Gnarled traffic? What traffic?

"You might be cold on the bike..." I was wearing jeans, a shirt, and a suit jacket. Cold? By San Francisco standards, 50º heat is downright balmy! In fact, everyone around Barcelona looks at us like we're freaks. J, Elena and I have been walking around with nothing more than a couple of layers of shirts, while the locals are wearing winter coats, gloves, and ginormous scarves. I even saw one guy in ear muffs. Hell, even Sarah and Spencer, being from Los Angeles, are looking skimpy in regular autumn wear. Our heavy coats will come in handy when we get to Amsterdam, though, for sure.

In the meantime, we still have Barcelona to enjoy. It's early in the day on New Year's Eve. For the second day in a row, I've made an endive, goat cheese, and pistachio salad. I left it on the table for everyone to enjoy when they wake up, as I've stepped out to loacte this internet cafe.

Today will either involve shopping or doing touristy stuff. Shopping here is good. It isn't cheap, but there's all sorts of stuff you'll never see in the US. So I don't feel too bad about the €140 I blew on a pair of funky jeans. What I do feel bad about is that I forgot to notify my bank that I'm going overseas, and they've put a freeze on my account. I can't take out money, and it costs me a dollar a minute to call home and be on hold for hours and hours... So so far, I haven't unfrozen my account. This truly sucks.

Friday, December 29, 2006

I Like It Here, Can I Stay?

I hate it here. I hate it here. I hate it here. Those were my initial thoughts as my weary ass drove up from Gibraltar and dealt with the ungodly traffic of Sevilla. The roads were packed not only with all sorts of drivers in a Los Angeles-like logjam of fuel and steel, but also with countless student drivers, straddling lanes, blocking intersections, and generally making a mess of things. I'm not sure if we arrived on the official Adult Ed. day, or if all of a sudden, a whole throng of 30-somethings decided they needed to learn how to drive. Either way, they were all older than the usual student driver, and even worse at operating a vehicle.

Parking is a mess as well. Besides navigating impossibly narrow streets, attempting to park in them is a joke. The garage situation isn't much better, with the signs changing to say completo (full) whenever you pull up to one. We eventually found a parking garage underneath the El Corte Ingles department store and plodded our way to the city centre by foot.

Oh, what a mass of humanity. Everyone was doing their post-Christmas shopping, and the pedestrian-only thoroughfare leading to the center of town was packed. It's winter, but the crazy amount of body heat emanating from tens of thousands of Sevillian shoppers made it unbearably hot. It didn't help that I was sore and tired and pissed off to begin with.

Things subsided when we made it to the gorgeous Plaza Nueva, lit up with blue Christmas lights and embellished with an awesome exhibition of modern statues by a local artist. I was finally able to breathe and relax and take in some authentic Sevillian beauty. It also helped that we stopped by at a nearby cervezeria so I can unload some of the evening's stress in the form of beer. Mmm, beloved beer.

Feeling less grouchy and more relaxed, we pointed ourselves toward the Cathedral and the Alcazar to check out some of the finest in gothic and Moorish architecture, all beautifully lit up at night to show off the tons of history on display. By then, all stress and fatigue melted away, and I just took it in with wonder.

Despite being Andalucía's largest and most sprawling city, Sevilla is truly beautiful. At every turn, there's something gorgeous and new, and it seems every street is lined with orange trees, rife with fruit and fragrance.

WIth a penchant for avoiding the main tourist drags, we made our way to the Barrio Santa Cruz to go tapas bar hopping. A little beer here, a little jamón Iberico there, a little wine over there, and some croquetas in another place. This is living. All the while, as the hours turned late, we saw even more and more people turn up, often with their children in tow, enjoying the same late night imbibements that we were, making conversation and generally enjoying life. On a weeknight.

We may think we have it all in America, but we really don't. I'll trade our wealth and TV shows and movies for the pace of life here.

Do we really have to drive back? I really like it here. And I've been up and driving since before sunrise, anyway. We should just push all of our dates back a bit and spend a few days... maybe weeks... ok, months here.

Of course, that's all just dreamy-eyed fantasy talk. In reality, I can't do that. In reality, I go to Starbucks across from the Burger King and McDonald's to get a double espresso and use the toilet before driving over 250 km through the center of Andalucía, back to Marbella late at night.

Rock Rock 'Til You Drop

Thank goodness for the internet. Last night, I'd checked just about every tip posted about crossing into Gibraltar, and we followed the advice of the masses: Save yourself the hassle of driving across the border. Park in La Linea on the Spanish side, and walk across the border. And thus we did, enjoying the ease of the crossing and at the same time bristling at their refusal to give passport stamps. Grr.

As soon as you enter Gibraltar, it feels like you're in a different country. Because you are. Gas prices are almost as low as in the US due to their lack of tax, there are British banks everywhere, and some really, really ugly, decrepit people.

This isn't to say that Gibraltarians aren't nice. They are. And looks don't matter, right? I don't mean to be a jerk, but think about it: There are less than 30,000 inhabitants amongst 7,000 families in a country that didn't have an open border until 1984. Inbreeding, baby, inbreeding. Compound that with the fetal alcohol syndrome sure to manifest when you combine the drinking appetites of the British and the Spanish, and you're in for a freakshow.

Take, for example, the lady/gentleman bellied up to the bar at Star Bar, the oldest pub in Gibraltar. S/he was very pleasant to talk to, but I had a hard time figuring out if s/he was a tranny or a woman with a five o'clock shadow and a husky voice.

There are other oddities about Gibraltar. The money, for example, is the Gibraltar Pound Sterling, looking nearly identical to the British Pound, except opposite the queen is some freak wielding a scimitar. English is the official language, but you'll bump into as many - if not more - people speaking Spanish or Arabic as muttering in the Queen's English. If the other day's trip to Morocco didn't quite evoke my mind's eye's vision of Tatooine, Gibraltar certainly made up for it by providing its own version of the cantina scene from Star Wars.

We made our way down Calle Real (or "Main Street" as folks call it), stopping for a much-needed coffee on the way to the cable car that takes you to the top of The Rock (officially called the Upper Rock Nature Reserve). Once there, we noticed the cable car wasn't running; probably a result of the giant, threatening clouds overhead. We were offered a small group tour by van for roughly the same price, and considering our options, figured "Why the hell not?"

This tour is worth the £16. We were taken up along the roads and through the trees of the Rock in a small van, sheltered from the light drizzle from the big black cloud right above. Yes, tree-lined roads. The sheer face you see in the Prudential ads is the other side, the impression I'd always had of Gibraltar: A big, bare pointy rock sticking out of the Atlantic. We were taken up, and I couldn't have been more happy to be proven wrong. The other side of the Rock is pretty verdant, and even inhabited.

The first stop was a tacky monument comprised of a couple of pillars. You see, Gibraltar supposedly once had a counterpart rock on the opposite side of the strait in Africa, and legend has it that these were the pillars that Hercules stood between. You know this story if you remember your Greek mythology, or if you ever watch the Strongman competition on TV.

Our second stop was the St. Michael Cave, an impressive cave chock full of impressive stalactites. One area is so big, they've installed a theatre where they hold concerts and plays. Stunning, and definitely surprising.

We then made our way up to the Ape's Den, home of the Barbary apes. Named after the Berber people of North Africa who first brought them here, the rock apes are a prime attraction in Gibraltar. They do cute little monkey things like run around, hang off of things, jump on the tops of cars, and, of course, jump on your back when you're not looking. They're more than happy to sit on your head or your shoulder or hang off your arm as you mug for photos, but as the tour guide told us, "They might give you a souvenir of Gibraltar that you don't want. These monkeys aren't potty trained." Indeed, like a dumbass, I'd worn my nice suit jacket, and the rest of the day, my right shoulder smelt of monkey butt. Thank goodness for detergent and Febreeze. Still, it was worth it. The guide had me hold a piece of uncooked pasta in my hand and told me to make a fist. I then put my fist in front of a baby ape's face, and he peeled my fingers open one by one to grab the piece of macaroni and had himself a snack. Adorable and unforgettable.

Stinking of ape ass and overdosed on cute, we made our way up to the top, where we explored one of the Siege Tunnels. These are tunnels dug out by British soldiers back in whatever year they were at war with the Spanish, fighting off attempts to retake Gibraltar. It was at this time that they invented the downward facing cannon, quite a feat considering cannonballs roll and are subject to gravity.

Rising over 4,000 feet above the Mediterranean on one side and Atlantic on the other, this high point afforded us a view of the Gibraltar airport, whose runway actually crosses the one road into town from Spain. That means when you're walking or driving into Gibraltar, you actually cross a live runway. Occasionally things come to a halt for a British Airways or Iberia plane to take off or land. Crazy.

We topped our day at the Rock off with a brilliant full English breakfast at the Old Horseshoe pub and several pints along the walk back to the border. All of us were tired, but all agreed this side trip was worth the early start and the craptacular exchange rate from dollars to pounds.

Gibraltar is weird and wonderful. I'm not sure if I'd go out of my way to come back, but I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from going. Being at the crossroads of geography and history, it's both an interesting and amusing place: An odd mix of British, Spanish, and African, a perfect amalgamation of this trip so far.

Dead Tired and Destroyed

Too much stuff to digest and write about tonight, and I'm dead tired after a good few hundred miles of driving from this morning 'til.. Well, I guess tonight's the next morning.

All I have to say is that Gibraltarian border officials are doodyheads for not stamping our passports, even when asked nicely. DOODYHEADS! DOODYHEADS! DOODYHEADS!!

Ok, I need to do some laundry and SLEEP.

Updates in the morning, if time allows.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Early Riser II

I'm once again up before the sun has even dared to peek itself up over the horizon.

Where are we going today? Gibraltar.

Why? Because I'm a passport stamp whore.

(I think I may have already mentioned this...)

Man Cannot Live on Bread Alone

Nor jamón, nor cheese. Believe me, I love these things. I love them dearly. They're among my favorite food items in the world. But for the last few days, I've gotten enough sliced meat and cheese and bread to make me a case study for the American Heart Association.

Enough is enough. We had to have something different. And the menu at Orient Palace, just by our digs, seemed reasonable. Never mind that everything's in English and that every customer's a crusty old Brit on their Costa del Sol holiday. For just a few moments, I want to get away from Spanish. It's not that I don't love Spain and all things Spanish (my friends can tell you about my obsession with tapas, Rioja wines, and hot brunettes who say "Ibitha"). It's just that sometimes you need a break.

"I know you probably don't want Chinese, but I'm buying. I so need this."

Yes, I was breaking my own travelers credo of doing as the locals do, but sometimes you have to listen to your body.

And you know what? It was good. Really good. So if you're ever in Marbella, Malaga Province, Spain, go to Orient Palace. No matter how much everyone else protests.

Bummed or Stoked? Mmm, more the latter.

The drive between Malaga and Granada is beautiful. It's rural country, with dramatic, rocky mountains popping up out of the middle of rolling hills covered with olive groves as far as the eye can see. You can't help but stop at every opportunity to take in the acres upon acres of olive trees, dramatic mountainscapes, and gorgeous blue sky.

Granada itself is a bit of a clusterfuck. It took us what seemed like forever to navigate from the north of the city, from which we entered, to the vicinity of the Alhambra in the southeast, just short of the spectacularly gorgeous Sierra Nevada, covered in snow and chilling the mountainous region to a cool, enjoyable temperature, despite the abundant sunshine. Perfection. We took our time enjoying the views and even laughed about the crazy traffic, knowing that in the low season, getting into the Alhambra poses no problem. At least, that's what one of the Americans in our Morocco tour group told us yesterday.

Wrong. We queued up for tickets, and were told that there were only 100 tickets left for the day. There were at least 200 people in front of us. Fuck. I really, really, really wanted to see the Alhambra.

Next best thing: Finding the Mirador San Cristobal to get a panoramic view of the place, with a dazzling mountain backdrop and a gorgeous glow in the sunset. We'd have to wait it out to get that view, but first and foremost, we'd have to find it. The mirador isn't on any of the tourist maps, and while guidebooks mention it, they don't tell you exactly where it is.

We made our way through various plazas and tightly-jammed streets, making numerous traffic violations along the way. Taxi only street? Fuck it. Yield to people in the roundabout? Screw that, no one else is! J got us oriented on the map and Elena played lookout while I concentrated on driving through the nightmarish maze that is Granada. Finally we made our way on to an uphill cobblestone street that seemed promising, if a little narrow. Then it got narrow. And narrower. Until finally, there were mere inches between the car and the walls on either side. Not to mention pedestrians trying to make their way up the street.

"Are we even supposed to be on this??"

"I don't know, but there's a bus in front of us, so why not?"

At this point, I was thankful for Seat's German and Spanish ingenuity. Powered retracting sideview mirrors? Check. Enough power to make it up San Francisco style hills without burning the clutch? Check. The turning radius of a pygmy mouse? Hell yes. We were able not only to squeeze through the impossibly tight street, but also somehow cross what looked like a small footpath to find free parking on a residential hillside overlooking the gorge behind the Alhambra.

So we'd made it up the hill unscathed, and BOOM! There was a sign: Mirador Panoramico. This afforded us a full panoramic view of the Alhambra, up on top of its hill. Still, there was no promised backdrop of the snowy Sierra Nevada in the background, and we were hours from the sunset that would make the Moorish palace glow in all its splendor.

Still, it was magnificent. All my disappointment from not getting in started to wash away.

It didn't hurt that we found a great restaurant nearby, letting us indulge in cerveza, vino tinto, patatas, lamb skewers, braised rabbit - you name it. Beautiful Andalucían dishes called, and we answered. All in a gorgeous, quaint setting, probably the nicest Spanish eatery I've had the pleasure of sitting in.

We walked around a bit and shopped, laughed at the hippie dreads who are known to frequent this neighborhood (Albayzin), and enjoyed the charms of the small cafes, artisan shops, and magnificent views all around. Despite the traffic woes and the overcrowding of the Alhambra, Granada is sooooooo worthwhile.

Returning to the Mirador around sunset, we took in the amplified colors of the twilight sky and the glow it cast upon the Alhambra. There was a little snow on the ledge of the mirador, which made everything that much more surreal and interesting. It was the perfect environment in which to enjoy an espresso and the company of good friends.

Although we'd initially planned to drive back via the scenic, snowy Sierra Nevada route, we decided it'd probably be too icy and treacherous in the dark, and swung around to make our way home the way we came. Only minutes later, after crawling through more ridiculously tight streets (or were they walkways?) we came upon what we were looking for in the first place: The Mirador San Cristobal. While the view of the Alhambra itself was a bit obscured, right behind it were the magestic white mountains, and beneath, the enormous valley and all the glowing lights of Granada. In the distance, we could see the mountains around which we had driven in the day, crested in a dark tone of orange from the sun that was now hiding behind them. Spectacular. No crappy picture could do it justice, anyway.

Any remnants of earlier disappointment were washed away. Other than the fact that by the time we'd discovered this spot, there wasn't enough light for great photos. But who cares? In the camera of my mind, it'll be remembered as one of the most beautiful views I'd ever laid eyes upon.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Morning After Pill

Soma. Naproxen. Pseudoephedrine. All things to help me sleep, kill my pain, and clear my head.

Not because of any culture shock from yesterday's trip to Morocco. But from the transit. Hundreds of kilometers on the odometer. Hours on ferries, buses, and even the back of a camel. It was a full day. I'm beat, but I'm ready for more.

Shortly we'll be off to Granada, about 150km away, to check out the Alhambra.

Hence, I've whipped up another big breakfast, this time with a bit more Spanish flare: A fritata filled with zucchini, pancetta, salchicha de ave... you name it. I'm fueled up. Bring on the day.

Aventures en Afrique

Salaam aleykum. Alors, aujourd'hui, j'ai parlé mes troisième et quatrième langues de cette voyage. Français et un petit peu d'arabique.

Pourquoi? Because we went to Morocco, yo. Where the official languages are Arabic and French.

After arriving in Tarifa, J went in to enquire about day trips to Tangier, and we got hooked up just in time for the 11:00 am sailing on the fast ferry, as well as a full-day tour once across the Strait. Several Cruzcampo beers later, we were aboard FRS' Thundercat I, a catamaran that'd get us to Morocco in 35 minutes.

Only, thanks to all sorts of delays, it took us 3 hours. We arrived and were herded into our tour group, only to be berated by our tour guide for being late, and for not having our tickets stamped properly. I guess 90% of us on the tour were too excited to be going to Morocco and had our passports stamped instead of our ferry tickets. Oh well! I just made this trip for the stamp, anyway. Because I'm a passport stamp whore. Ok, that and we thought it'd be cool as hell to say we've been to Morocco.

Tangier isn't anything at all like I imagined. Sure, there were actual people wearing actual fez hats and actual zaytunas - the traditonal brown Moroccan cloak that looks like something a druid would wear. Or perhaps a Jawa. But no, it doesn't look like Tatooine, and there isn't even much by way of sandstone walls or round-topped minarets. If anything, it has a French or Spanish colonial look.

Our bus made its way to the Medina (the old city), and we were guided through a main street, with merchants hawking every sort of locally available vegetable and fruit. Walked into the Restaurant Hammadi, we were treated to plush seating, four live musicians, and a delicious lunch consisting of bread, soup, beef kabobs, couscous with chicken, a honey-laced dessert and mint tea. J and I opted to try the local brew, "33," which was disappointingly lacking in character. Elena, on the other hand, went for the local version of orange Fanta, which disappointedly tasted like the US version - bright orange and sickly sweet. It was an otherwise fine meal, and we had a good laugh at the expense of the vegetarians. Especially since they were served "vegetable" couscous, with the veggies obviously stewed along with the chicken like everyone else's.

We were then walked through the Souk (marketplace), being hounded by poor touts selling all kinds of useless, touristy junk. "No!" was the word of the day. Crappy little ceramic and goatskin drum? No! Wooden camels? No! Cheap metal bracelets? No! Crappy fezzes? No! Colorful leather wallets? NO! NO! NO! Luckily, our guide did his best to keep these guys off us, at one point calling the cops over to keep us (somewhat) harassment free.

This, of course, is because he wants us to save our money to spend at his friends' overpriced carpet cooperative. You know, the type of place that doesn't want Moroccan Dirhams but gladly accepts dollars and euros. Admittedly, the carpets were fine, and if you could drive a bargain, you could walk out with a decent deal. But the high pressure sales tactics were a bit off the wall. In fact, if anything, Mohammed - the man giving the presentation on carpets - was a bit scary. He'd yell, and sternly tell us of the quality of his artisans' carpets. He'd yell and expound and stress what a value he was selling us, only cracking a smile or telling a joke occasionally. Between him and the guide, it seems to me like Moroccans have this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde switch, where they can flip-flop between charming, affable fellow and crazy gangsta mothafucka in nanoseconds.

One American sucker in our group bought a carpet. Admittedly, they're very nice, but he was stuck lugging this gigantic parcel the rest of the day, which occupied his hands and prevented him from shooing off the touts. Who, by the way, started hounding us again as soon as we left the carpet shop. Elena was approach at least three times by the same guy trying to sell a shitty little drum, each time with the starting price of 20 euro, and each time lowering it to 99 cents. Each time, the answer was NO!

We were then led to a spice and herbal shop, where Ali, the modern Moroccan version of a medicine show salesman put on a highly entertaining presentation about various spices and herbal remedies. He, too, suffered from Mr. Hyde disease, interrupting the show every few minutes to furiously cuss out his brother in Arabic. Very entertaining.

Unlike the carpet gig, however, the prices were more than reasonable, so I wound up with a haul of good stuff. I bought saffron, "the king of spices" at 12 euro for 6 grams - an amazing deal if you're familiar with saffron at all. I also bought several packages of Nigella. Not only because of its anti-sinus and anti-snoring properties, but because I so lust for cooking host Nigella Lawson that I had to buy her namesake herb. Silly, I know, but now I can say I sleep with Nigella every night. I topped my shopping bag off with several bars of musk, just to see if the anti-mosquito effect really works. If not, it's only 2 euro down the drain. Deal!

Sadly, I didn't realize until well after we'd left the place that I only got 8 euro in change instead of 26. I thought the rolls of coins the cashier gave me were worth 10 each, but instead were worth 1. Oh well... I was in fucking MOROCCO!

On our way out, we were once again mobbed by the same group of touts. Elena was once again harassed a few times by the same idiot trying to sell the same shitty drum. Either he's the most persistent junk merchant on earth, or he has the memory of a goldfish. Trying to deflect the attention, when another high-pressure fez sales associate turned up, she said, "Hey J! Didn't you want a fez?"

The guy ran after J and started trying to push his cheap wares on him. Starting price: 10 euro. J wouldn't have it. He lowered his price to 3 euro. Secretly, I longed for a cheesy-ass fez, so I interjected. "How 'bout the same price for two?" The guy's eyes lit up and he gladly accepted a handful of shrapnel for a couple of shitty souvenir hats. Immediately, another guy selling fezzes jumped into the fray, insisting that he'd talked to me first. I waved him off. "Whatever, man. Yallah!" My super-limited Arabic actually came into good use. As soon as I uttered a bit of his mother tongue, the guy backed off.

Don't fuck with a polyglot.

I looked down at my new fez and realized that it's a faux Louis Vuitton. I shit you not.

We finished our walk through the Medina and hopped on the bus again. Looking at the clock, it was getting late, and we knew we were coming close to our ferry's departure time from the port. But our guide had more friends to feed, so we got a tour of the outskirts of town and ended up on the top of a hill where several men were waiting with camels for us to ride. All at the discount price of... one euro! Nope, no sarcasm here. One euro to get on the back of a cool-ass camel and take it running around a small dirt area is totally worth it. Never mind that I stepped in all sorts of camel dung, and caught a huge whiff of camel fart when my ride decided it needed to expell some gas. Ewwwww. But all was forgiven. My camel was so cute, I could hold no ill will against her.

Back on the bus, we looked at the clock and thought, "Oh shit!" It was about 30 minutes to sailing time, and we still had to go to the immigration officers to get our exit stamps sorted. We took comfort in the fact that everything runs late on Moroccan Standard Time, so we'd probably make it, no problem.

Wrong. We missed our ferry's gangway by about 30 seconds, and had to wait around for the next one. Which, of course, took nearly forever to get going, but overall it wasn't as long as the first crossing. In fact, it was pretty damn quick once it had embarked, and we had no problems getting back into Spain.

Driving in Spain is dreamy as it is. Roundabouts instead of cloverleafs, people who know the rules of passing on the left, people who don't block your way when you're going well over the speed limit - If only I could bring the country's road sensibility back to the States. What made the drive home even better was our first foray onto the Autopista Peaje - the network of toll roads that criss-cross spain. Wide, well-lit lanes, super-long tunnels that bore through the mountains, and seemingly no Guardia Civil to stop you from shattering the 120 km/h (75 mph) speed limit - all at a super-low toll. Our 120 km or so run on the AP took less than 45 minutes, which is pretty impressive, even for the middle of the night.

Overall thoughts on Tangier? Everyone says that Tangier isn't worthwhile, because it's like the Tijuana of Morocco. A port (not unlike border) town, with a culturally watered down mish-mash of people and too many beggars and touts. Personally, I thought it was fantastic. Yes, the lack of stereotypical imagery was a letdown. If anything, much of Tangier is vibrant and modern and not unlike any other European city, with cafes, young well-to-do people walking about on mobile phones, and fancy cars and suburban tract houses. Also, there wasn't an impressive amount of Arab architecture to check out on this tour. In fact, the city's old mosque seemed pretty rinky dink to me, and I thought I'd at least see some more intricate Moorish architecture. Oh well, there's always the Alhambra in Granada for that! Finally, I think J triggered the best analogy when he first mentioned that the zaytunas were similar to Jawa cloaks: steely, persistent, and annoying little bastards trying to sell you junk that probably isn't theirs to begin with. Mind you, I'm not generalizing all Moroccans in any way. Just the annoying little bastards hounding you on the street every chance they could. Even then, they're probably making a more honest living than myself or anyone else reading this. Otherwise, between my interactions with various merchants, folks at the restaurant, and our guide, the place has a surprisingly warm and friendly vibe, and I woul dlove to come back and explore both Tangier and Morocco further.

Before going on this trip, I considered the daytrip to Tangier and had read all the nightmares and horror stories from others who'd done it. These people are wussies. Yes, there are annoyances. Yes, it can seem awfully third world at times. And yes, these tour operators are in the business of making euros. But it's all worthwhile. Put your preconceived notions aside and go for the ride. It may not be everything you expect, but it certainly isn't everything you fear, either.

How Low Can You Go?

So we hopped in the Seat ass-early in the morning and headed as far south on the continent as we could: Tarifa. It's the mouth of the Strait of Gibraltar (incidentally, mere miles from the Rock itself), the point where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic, and windsurfing and kitesurfing capital of Spain. And home of the most magnificent fucking sunrise ever. Ooh, and that's Africa off on the right. freakin' AFRICA!

Considering it's almost midnight and we left around 7:30 this morning, I'm exhausted. Destroyed. ¡Muy consado! Just enough energy to download photos and check email.

I'll get back on the computer after a few (or many) drinkies.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Early Bird Gets the Worm

I don't quite know what the worm is, but it's certainly early. It's not even 6:30 yet and I'm showered, have coffee in me, and I'm raring to go.

We're going to head south today, at least to Tarifa. Considering it's the southernmost point in Europe, we can't drive much further...

No Fiesta. Just Siesta.

I guess we're just getting more used to the Spanish timetable. After getting home, Elena passed out in her bed. J and I passed out on the couches. I just woke up with my face in a puddle of drool, having had the most egotistcal dream of a handful of Spanish girls competing for my *ahem* attention.

Waking up to reality wasn't so bad, though. Instead of heading out, we dove into more bread. And cheese. And wine, definitely wine. In typical Spanish fashion, we dined late on a great selection of local goods. A mellow night for sure, but a quality one nonetheless.

Tomorrow we party. After I get back to those girls in my dreams...

You Spin Me Right Ronda

So we started to make our way down the coast, stopping at the first gas station and market that we saw to fuel up and stock up on drinks and snacks. It's Christmas day in a Catholic country, after all.

Where would we go? Algeciras? Tarifa? Cadiz? We saw the signs for Ronda and made a right. Heading north from the coast, we found ourselves in some sort of post-industrial wasteland. Near a corridor of warehouse-sized furniture stores, we saw garbage and junk littering the streets. It looked like an abandoned neighborhood. Junked furniture. Old clothes. Piles of rotting food waste. A stray horse eating it. What the...?

Eventually we got on the right track, and made our way up the windy mountainous roads. The views of Andalucía from a high elevation are simply breathtaking. Big, craggy mountains, fertile valleys, verdant hillsides, sheer cliffs - this was the making of an amazing road trip, no matter what the destination was.

Of course, the best way to spoil a good drive is to get stuck behind a tiny Citroën doing half the speed limit. With very few passing opportunities, this can be extremely frustrating. And then you make the pass, only to get stuck behind another weenie Citroën minutes later. So either these cars are extremely gutless, or the drivers are idiots. Considering one of them was consistenly braking uphill, I'll go for the latter. When I finally did get an opportunity to make a 140km/h pass, I went screaming in the opposing lane and pulled back in time to avoid a head-on... right behind the Guardia Civil. Oops. I had to drive like a grandma from then on to avoid provoking the officer to avoid an on-the-spot fine. You know, special for foreigners.

I ended up avoiding the cop by taking off on a side route into Ronda, and as we made our way into the town, the crappy suburban architecture and cramped streets and general look of malaise was all a bit underwhelming. J located the old town area on the map and we made our way to it.

Wow. Now this is the type of Andalucían town we were looking for. Sweeping views of the valleys beneath, an amazing ancient bridge spanning the Tajo gorge in the middle of town, charming old architecture, and people so nice you wouldn't believe it's a tourist destination. And surprisingly, a lot was open, considering it's Christmas. We expected to stop and take a few pictures, but after finding a parking space (these come at a huge premium here), we took some good time to do a little exploring, shop for local crafts, and eat a local meal.

Ok, so the meal was less than spectacular, but I won't get into the gory details of cold calameres fritos, bland meats, or uinimaginative salad. At least the beer was ice cold. And soooooo necessary after all that driving.

The drive back was uneventful. We made a stop in Marbella proper, which partially helped shatter its image as a tacky playground for super-rich tourists. Behind the facades of bars and clubs and resorts catering to well-to-do Brits, there's an actual old town, a charming residential area, and familys playing in public spaces - the way it should be.

This hasn't stopped me for wishing we'd spent the night in Ronda, but what do I have to complain about? Perhaps tonight we'll hit up one of these cheesy bars or clubs and have our first proper fiesta.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas Morning

There's no anticipation. Everything's relaxed. No drama to deal with. No presents to open.

But there's still one thing that makes this Christmas morning. Getting up and "unwrapping" the window, to beautiful pink hues in the sky, a deep blue Mediterranean, and palm trees gently dancing around. And making a huge family brunch.

J made coffee, Elena got the bread and set the table, and I whipped up a gigantic omelette using some thick pancetta, beautiful Andalucían peppers, mushrooms, and cheese - glorious cheese! We also had some fresh fruits, a carafe of orange-carrot juice, and a little more cheese on the side. Is there anything better in this world than soft, unpasteurized cheese??? This made for a fan-fucking-tastic Christmas brunch.

Everything's closed today, except maybe the churches, so we're thinking it's time for our first aimless road trip. Where will it be? Who knows. We figured we'll just point the car south and go go go. Hopefully the gas stations are open.

Night Driver

Having familiarized myself with the Mediterraneao highway (A7) by day, it was time to take it on at night.

J's flight came in this evening, so it was the perfect opportunity to check out the autopista in darkness. And I mean darkness. In the stretch between Fuengirola and Malaga, there are no street lights and very few other cars. The lane markings have no reflectors, and most of the opposing traffic is driving with high beams. These are not the ideal conditions to be pushing 140 km/h on hilly roads.

But what the hell, I'm fully insured, right?

Picking J up in Malaga was easy and breezy enough, and the 40km drive back to Marbella just as much fun as the first leg.

We got home in time to watch some horrendously cheesy Christmas Eve programming - the host of the program looked like the Spanish version of Dick Clark, only with a little more gay flair. At midnight, I popped open a bottle of cava (that's the español version of champagne for you non-winos), toasted, and got ready to pass the fuck out.

Quiero Comprar... Todos!

We went to the nearby grocery store to stock up on supplies, considering everything's going to be closed on Christmas.

With this being Spain, we've stocked up on cheese, jamón, more cheese, more jamón, wine, wine, and more wine. We also got some other staples - including these gigantic unrefrigerated eggs. These supermarkets sell everything. I passed on the 100% Black 3-CD compilation ("¡La mejor musica negra!" WTF?), but we couldn't resist the absolute political incorrectness of Conguitos. They're chocolate covered peanuts, and the packaging looks like this. Again, WTF?

I also bought a spindle of CD-Rs so I can burn some music for the car. At the freakin' market. Awesome.

A Room With a View

We've settled into our digs at the Club Alanda Marbella. It's awful. The bedrooms are too big, the huge windows let in too much light, and the amenities are too luxurious for a minimalist traveler like me. I need squalor to be happy.

What's up with these views of the Mediterranean from every room? Is that Gibraltar I see off in the distance? I came here to see Spain, not some territory of Great Britain! Geez, what am I supposed to do here? Maybe I'll take a nap to get my mind off of these horrible circumstances.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Chaos at the Kiosk, Rockin' the Roads

J, that bastard is sleeping in.

He didn't buy his ticket to Malaga on time, so instead of being on our ass early flight, he gets to take off in the afternoon. Elena and I, on the other hand, had to deal with getting up early, hopping on the Heathrow Express, and fighting the crowd at the airport.

Luckily, we spotted some of British Airways' automated check-in kiosks. No line, no waiting. Sweet!

Yeah, that'd be great if the machine didn't jam up and eat the boarding passes. Fuck. Not this crap again.

Fortunately, while Heathrow is as much of a clusterfuck during the holidays as any other airport in the world, BA has some pretty excellent customer service, and we were re-checked in and ready to go in minutes. Disaster averted.

"Let's get some breakfast," I said.

"Dude, there's hot breakfast on the plane," Elena replied.

"I am NOT leaving London without having a full English breakfast, dammit."

And so we sat down at the airport outlet of Giraffe and ordered breakfast, waiting for our gate to come up on the departures board. Two bites in, the sign said "Now boarding." ARGH.

I scarfed like I was in some sort of competitive eating contest. I'm getting my fill of eggs, bacon, potatoes, tomato, etc. at all costs. And in time to make our flight.

We crammed into our coach seats, only to have our takeoff delayed by Heathrow's lingering fog problems. ARGH.

Eventually, we arrived in Malaga, got our luggage, only to wait in a car rental line that seemed to take hours and hours. The same crying babies from our flight all happened to be waiting for the same car rental company (Goldcar Europa). Mental note: Pay a little more for a car next time, just to avoid the hellish wait.

When we finally did get our car, it wasn't what I ordered. I had booked a Mercedes-Benz A class, and instead we got this Seat, the Spanish arm of Volkswagen Audi. It's actually not bad at all. A 5-speed diesel, super comfy, spacious, and with a kickin stereo system. Perfect for a bit of comfort on Spain's crazy autopistas.

Lanes are narrow, there are no shoulders, and you generally get only 50 metres or so to merge with traffic. On the other hand, speeding seems to be de rigeur here, and roundabouts make life so much easier. I could totally get used to this...

In n Out

We finally motivated and left the luxurious surroundings of our hotel somewhere around 8:30 tonight.

Plans to meet up with Amy (a friend from SF) were scrapped, as were my grand plans to check out the Tate Modern. But dammit, I was gonna knock off one of my must-do's. So off we went to the French House for dinner and drinks.

Of course, the French House was all booked up. No room at the inn this Christmas weekend!

But that wasn't going to stop me from introducing Elena and J to my all-time favorite pub. Surly, weird old men, elbow-to-elbow seating, enough cigarette smoke to seize the toughest of lungs. What's so great about this place? It oozes old school cool, that's what. It was Charles DeGaulle's headquarters for the French Resistance. To keep things cozy, they have a strict ban on mobile phones and flash photography. They only serve half-pints so that your beer is always fresh and cold. There's also the illusory benefit that you're only spending £1.30 a drink, which really makes sense after you've had a few, right? Drunk logic:

"Dude, that round was less than £5!"

"I know! I love this place!"

After fooling ourselves into thinking we'd gotten a bargain, and probably breathing in enough smoke to give us emphysema, we went down to Gerrard Street - London's Chinatown - in search of food. Not an issue, considering half the restaurants are open 'til 3am. Why did I not find this street on previous trips???

Walking from window to window, we settled on Luxuriances, a peking-style Chinese joint. We gorged, completely demolished the white tablecloths, and walked out full. The £10 prix fixe menu is chock full of good stuff. Spare ribs, fried seaweed, cashew chicken, sweet and sour, veggies... wow. But the real stars for me were the sweet corn soup and the aromatic crispy duck. You see, when I was a kid here in London, this sort of stuff was my first taste of Chinese food and was the standard by which we judged all other Chinese food. And since then, my parents and I have been chasing the same sort of corn soup and duck in the States, with few (if any) happy results.

I was so happy, I wanted to call my mom and gloat. I think I'll just send her a snotty email.

Alas, dinner was so big and took so long that we missed doing the bumper cars at Leicester Square. Which is a shame, because we planned on smashing into J so much that he'd puke up an entire Chinese buffet for all the little chavs and chavettes to pick through.

Now we're home, full, and ready to pass out. Of course, I'm sure we'll be hungry in 15 minutes. No matter where you are in the world, it's still Chinese food.

Off to España in the morning!

Rip Van Winkle

Umm, scrap all the plans. We all just slept much of the day away.

Why do I get the feeling this is going to be a recurring theme?

Pints, Pounds, and a Piping Hot Shower at Paddington

Ah, there's nothing like being crammed in a gigantic flying metal tube with hundreds of your closest friends. Fortunately, Virgin is among the cooler of the airlines out there, because of one thing: Scrummy flight attendants. Ok, two things: They also have on-demand entertainment. Which doesn't bode well if you want to sleep, but hey, I finally got ot catch Little Miss Sunshine. Score!

Unfortunately, I got virtually no sleep on the flight, so by the time we arrived in London, my stanky ass was about ready for a shower. That was the group concensus... but not before having some celebratory pints! Never mind that six pints cost us in the neighborhood of $70. Ouch. Note to self: Don't drink at the hotel bar. Hell, don't drink in London!

Other than steep bar prices, the Hilton Paddington is very nice. It's directly above the Paddington railway station, so that'll make our early morning escape to Heathrow that much easier in the morning. On top of that, the service is stellar, the room's nice, and were welcomed by a virtual aquarium on the TV. I know, I'm so easily impressed.

So we've each taken our hot hot HOT showers (soooo necessary after a 10 hour flight) and are ready to take on London. On the must-do list: The Tate Modern, the French House, and hitting up the bumper cars at the Bob Wilson Funfair in Leicester square. Let's hop to it!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Launch Imminent

So in a few hours, I'll be boarding a Virgin-Atlantic flight from San Fran Disco to London, my gateway to adventures in Europe.

Providing this whole fog fiasco at Heathrow doesn't throw a wrench in this finely-tuned travel machine, I'll quaff a few pints, have a Full English, explore a museum, and then be off to Malaga, Spain, and onward and upward as I loop back to London. It's gonna be 16 days of boozin', cruisin', and hopefully not losin' anything.

Although I've planned and studied somewhat furiously, nothing but transit dates between major cities have been set in stone. So who knows if I'll be writing under the influence of lager, sherry, sangria, kif, or french fry grease.

Here goes nothin'... See you on the other side.