Friday, 28 March 2014

27th March - our last day.

Reluctantly, we left Granada where it was a bright but chilly day.  Our destination was Seville about 3 hours way but via 2 points of interest.

Incredible karst scenery
Our first stop was El Torcal park, a park famous for its dramatic karst limestone scenery.  The guidebooks weren’t kidding – it really was incredible.  We followed a way marked path which took us about 1.5 hours and gave us a good flavour of the natural rock formations.  On route we say a large wild goat plus rock buntings and redstarts.  There were also 2 different but very beautiful Euphorbia growing profusely here one of which I’m almost certain was E. Wulfenii.

After the walk, Chris did some running repairs on the car.  He’d already established the cause of the car’s sudden loss of power.  A large hose in the engine had got a big split in it and was letting air into the engine causing the problem.  Chris took the hose off and wrapped a load of tape around it, and thankfully it’s made all the difference.

We then drove on the Laguna De Fuente Piedra, which has the 2nd largest colony of breeding flamingos in Europe.  The visitors centre was shut but from there we got a good view of the lake which is huge. Luckily for us, the flamingos were at this end of the lake so we got a god view of them albeit it from a distance.  We then wandered along some boardwalks and I identified black winged stilts, coots and northen shoveller ducks.

The mushroom.....
After that we drove to Seville.  I’d booked us an apartment in the back streets of the old town.  We had a somewhat hair raising drive as the streets were very narrow and our sat nav. didn’t know about some of them being one way or blocked due to road works.  Anyway, we got here in the end!  The receptionist recommended that we go and visit the “mushroom” a new and bizarre building, which has a walkway giving good aerial views over the city and only 10 minutes walk away.  She was right – it is a very strange structure and looked as it was built with balsa wood, which turned out to be curved steel plates all bolted together.  In the bottom of the structure were the remains of a Roman town, which we toured and then above there are supposed to be shops on a couple of the levels.  We went straight to the top and after a drink, toured the walkway which was a bit like a roller coaster.  We all loved the “mushroom” and thought it a very apt name.

After that, it was tapas time.  We found a very nice one to start in and then moved on to a very crowded one which the receptionist had recommended, which was fabulous.  Hanna kindly treated us to the last night’s tapas as a thank-you for driving and organising the trip.  It really was a great way to end our holiday, so thank-you Hanna!!

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

26th March

Today is Alhambra day – very exciting for me as have wanted to visit this for years and my dream will finally come true.  Hanna had visited before, but a long time ago, but warned us that we might be disappointed as we’d seen so many fantastic Islamic buildings in Morocco.

Court of the Lions
Anyway, after a light breakfast we set off walking up the hill towards the Alhambra.  Our hotel had told us that the walk should take about 20 minutes, which was pretty accurate.  I’d pre-booked tickets so all we had to do was to put the credit card that I’d bought them with into the machine and it spat them out on the floor very quickly.

View from Alcazabha
Our entry time for the Nasrid Palaces was 11am and we were told that we had to be there on time as hey were very strict about it.  As the time was 10.30am at this stage, we had plenty of time to saunter along the edge of the plateau admiring the gardens and various buildings along the way.  We found the queue for the Nasrid Palaces and were duly admitted.  It was quite crowded (impossible to get photos without people in them), but not so crowded that you couldn’t get to see and enjoy all the views and incredible Moorish architecture.  It was very similar to what we’d seen in Morocco, but still fantastic and we thoroughly enjoyed it.  We especially enjoyed the Court of the Myrtles and Court of the Lions, which both had traditional Moorish water features in them including rills which we just hadn’t seen anywhere else.

Interior courtyard of Charles V Palace
The Nasrid Palaces took an hour, which just flew by.  We then came back to the Palace of Charles V, which had a huge central round courtyard reminiscent of a bull ring.  It also housed two museums.  After that, we visited the Alcazaba, one of the oldest parts of the Alhambra and its military area.  There were several huge and imposing towers which we climbed for incredible views all around us – the old town below us on one side and the snow capped Sierra Nevada Mountains on the other.  Just stunning.
After that, we walked through the Partal area, which includes the portico of the Partal Palace, the gardens, which are very formal and have lots of clipped hedges and topiary, the Palace of Yusuf III and some ramparts with various towers.

Inspiring views of the Generalife
Out final stop was the GeneralLife which includes a Palace and beautiful gardens, which were used by the monarchs as a leisure area for relaxing.  Some of the gardens were being renovated with old clipped cypress trees that were past their prime being dug out and replaced.  The use of water in these gardens was just magical and was my absolute favourite spot of the whole complex.  Great long courtyards with buildings at either end were connected by covered walkways.  Within the courtyards were large pools in the centre with lovely fountains along the length of the pool and then gorgeous colourful flower beds either side. 

Alhambra in the setting sun - fabulous!!
We ended up spending 3.5 hours in the Alhambra and we all thought it fantastic.  We then walked back into the old town and had some tapas and a drink before going back to the hotel to shed some clothes as it had warmed up a bit.  Chris decided to take a break so Hanna and I wandered off to see the Cathedral, which was so large and enclosed by surrounding buildings, it was hard to get a good view of it.  All around were various squares full of tempting bars and cafes.  As the cathedral was shut due to a long lunch break, Hanna and I chose to visit the adjacent Royal Chapel instead as wanted to see where Ferdinand and Isabelle were buried – monarchs who both resonated with us and important as under their rule, Spain became united as one kingdom.  Apart from their marble effigy in the main chapel, we also visited the crypt where we could see their immense lead coffins.  We also saw Isabelle’s crown and sceptre and Ferdinand’s sword in the adjoining museum.

After that, we returned to the hotel and joined up again with Chris to enjoy the hotel’s free tea service which was very welcome.  Feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, we then decided to embark on the suggested walk around the old town.  This was wonderful and we got to see the Alhambra bathed in the evening sun from the St. Nicholas viewing point and very beautiful it looked too.  Our walk back town into the old town took us through a medina area very reminiscent of Morocco full of shops selling tempting wares.  Finally, we got back to the hotel and decided to chill out for an hour or so before going out to hunt for tapas and some beer/wine as most bars don’t open until 8pm.

We’ve been out and had a lot of fun in the crowded, friendly and noisy tapas bars.  Had a superb selection of tapas plus beers, wines and sherry!!   We have come back to our hotel feeling very mellow and content.  WE ALL LOVE GRANADA!!!!!!

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

25th March

We met up with Hanna at breakfast who had also been woken up at 3am by loud voices and slamming doors, so we assumed that there must have been some sort of “do” on somewhere and these were the revellers coming back to the hotel.

We got out of Tangier relatively easily as the traffic was a bit lighter at 7.30am  Getting through the port was also quite easy especially as some chap offered to get us the exit forms, fill them in for us and get our tickets.  Of course, he wanted payment and asked for “twenty”.  So, Chris gave him 20 dirham, which he wasn’t impressed by as he wanted 20 Euros!  We gave him another 20 dirham and just drove off!!  We then had our passports stamped, sorted out the car documents for exiting the country and then the car was scanned by a huge X-ray machine along with 3 other vehicles.  We all passed that test and then sat in a queue of cars waiting for the ferry to arrive.  It finally arrived at 10am – when we were supposed to leave! Our car was loaded just before 11am and we finally departed about 1.75 hours late....not bad at all based on our outward bound experience!  We have bets as to how far behind schedule we’ll eventually be when we actually get off the ferry in Spain.  Hanna and Chris’s money is on 1.5 hours late and mine is 2 hours and I already know that I’m the winner and was far too optimistic.

Yep, our 12.30 pm arrival time slipped to 14.40, but luckily our itinerary had allowed for that.  We had a 3.5 hour journey ahead to Granada on motorways so straight forward or so we thought.  At first we just couldn’t believe how easy the driving was – all cars going one way on the motorway, no sheep or cows to contend with, no pedestrians, no buses stopping for passengers, no police road blocks, no donkey and carts, people driving within marked lanes, no horns beeping........

However, we were driving up a reasonably steep hill (the drive to Granada from Algerciras is up hill as it goes through a lot of mountainous terrain), when the car just didn’t seem to want to go.  Chris had his foot flat on the floor and we just kept slowing down.  We’ve no idea what the problem is (a consultation on the web lists a multitude of possibilities ranging from a cheap repair to a write off scenario), but we hope the car will limp on to Seville (a short drive from here, and then get us home. 

A tantalising glimpse of the Alhambra from our hotel...
We’re now in Granada – in the old area - and it’s an absolute delight. We’re staying in a fabulous hotel and have been upgraded to superior rooms.  We arrived just in time to get our free afternoon tea which they finish serving at 6.30pm – of course, we foolishly sampled every cake there was and then went out for tapas.  We started off in a very modern and sleek tapas bar that specialised in seafood.  We ordered 2 dishes but also got 2 dishes free which was an enormous amount of food.  From there, we decided to check out another recommendation from the hotel which turned out to be a traditional, old fashioned tapas bar.  We just wanted a glass of wine, but ended up being presented with another free tapas plate, which we picked at. We decided to have one final night cap and this time turned away the next free tapas dish.  We understand now – a round of drinks gets you a free tapas dish.  We shall be much wiser tomorrow night.
24th March

We said good-bye to Rabat and set off towards Tangier.  It was reasonably easy to get out of the capital city and we crossed the bridge into Salé, a huge conurbation said to be very anti the West.  We were looking for the exotic gardens just north of Salé, but managed to miss them so had to turn round and ask at a petrol station.  Coming from the opposite direction they were much more obvious so we parked up and went to investigate.  A uniformed guy came rushing up to us as we were peering through the gate and told us the gardens were shut but he would check if it was okay for us to to go round them anyway.  He disappeared for a while, but eventually for less than €2 each we were allowed in.  The gardens were created in the 1950’s by a Frenchman and then restored in 2005 and taken over by the State.

Some frisky terrapins!
We were advised to follow the red route which we dutifully did.  The gardens were quite narrow at the top, but widened significantly as we moved down them.  Initially we weren’t impressed at all as they looked rather overgrown and unkempt.  However, as we moved down they turned into a mini assault course with steps , winding paths, stepping stones over ponds and rope and slatted wood bridges.  There were some beautiful coral trees there and also some of the biggest bamboo I’ve ever seen.  In one area, there was a lovely double rill with lots of jasmine in flower growing over a pergola – the scent was wonderful.  We also saw a lot of terrapins and birds.  So, all in all, we thought the visit was worth it.

We then got onto the motorway for a while to save us some time and got off at Larache as wanted to visit the Roman remains at Lixus.  The instructions to find the Roman town varied from guide book to guide book, but a seemingly new road (partially collapsed in one place) didn’t seem right.  We followed it to some sentry boxes guarding the entrance to a golf resort but were turned away.  We tried virtually every road in the area but failed to find Lixus which was frustrating as the description of the amphitheatre, acropolis, temples and fish sauce factories sounded really interesting.  One guide book told us that Lixus was close to being designated a UNESCO world heritage site, so we just couldn’t understand why there were no signs to it.  Hanna had flippantly said much earlier that maybe the Golf Resort had “consumed” Lixus, and we decided later she was probably right.

Having abandoned Lixus, we drove onto to Tangier where there were huge flags on all the approach roads and a huge police presence with masses of road blocks.  We were pulled over just once where a policeman checked our insurance documents and then waved us on.  We parked up at the hotel and, this time,were given pretty grotty rooms.  At the hotel we discovered that the King was due in town which explained all the police and flags.  As we had to get up early the next day, we opted for an early dinner at a “posh” restaurant as had run out of the local money and needed to pay on a card.  Hanna directed us to a hotel recommended in her guide book and w plumped to eat and drink in the wine bar.  This was about 6pm and we found out that food wasn’t served until 8pm, so we had no choice but to kill a couple of bottles of wine before dinner with several plates of almonds and crisps.  The dinner was delicious and we all went for the lamb chops.
We then wandered back to the hotel and an early night.  At this point I realised that we had a persistent and loud, steady and very intrusive buzzing noise in our room, but did my best to ignore it.  However at 3pm, we were woken by loud voices in the next room and lots of doors slamming.  At 4pm, the television in the room the other side was switched on at which point I got up and kicked their wall in frustration before stuffing my ears full of loo paper.  I did manage to get some sleep but didn’t want to get up at 6.30am when the alarm went off!!

Monday, 24 March 2014

23rd March

Hassan Tower
Yesterday at the car park, we had arranged to meet a guy at our Riad who would act as a tour guide and show us the highlights of Rabat.  Our agreed time came and went, and like all our arrangements with unofficial tour guides turned out to be a dud.  Undaunted, we set off armed with our guide book and local map as all the attractions are close together and easily walkable (as long as the weather isn’t hot).

We started off at the Hassan tower, which is the incomplete minaret of a mosque that was going to be the largest in the world when it was started in the 1195.  However, Sultan Yacoub al-Mansour died in 1199, so all construction work was halted.  The tower is about 140 feet tall – about half of its intended height.  The rest of the mosque is also incomplete with just the remains of about 200 columns and a few walls.

Mausoleum of Mohammed V
The tombs.....
Also on the complex is the mausoleum of Mohammed V, who returned from exile in 1955 and was recognised as Sultan after active opposition to the French Protectorate.  In February 1956, he successfully negotiated with France for the independence of Morocco and in 1957 took the title of king.  Commissioned by King Hassan 11 in 1962, it was completed in 1971.  It is a magnificent white building crowned with green tiles (green being the colour of Islam), the mausoleum is lavishly decorated and adorned with a wealth of traditional artwork.  Together with its namesake, the Mausoleum of Mohammed V is also the final resting place of King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah his two sons.

A mounted royal guard
Outside the complex at the 2 gateways, stand mounted horses complete with guards in their traditional red winter uniform and very grand they look too.  Similarly attired guards stand at each of the 4 doors of the mausoleum and are both tolerant and bored of being snapped with various tourists.  More buildings are to the left of the mausoleum looking towards Hassan tower, but I’ve no idea what their function is – the doors were closed, but we could see some magnificent fountains in them – sadly not switched on when we were there.

The Chellah ramparts
We then walked to the Chellah, which is a necropolis and Roman and medieval ruins all encircled by large crenulated ramparts.  The Roman city was an important port and we could clearly see the remains of the triumphal arch and forum.  In the 14th century, the site was used by the Merined sultans and you can see the remains of a mosque including the lavishly tiled minaret complete with stork nest as well as various tombs.
A lot of the structures were badly damaged in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.  Today, the site is really a tourist venue and now has some rather nice gardens which were heavy with the scent of orange blossom when we were there.  There are also an extraordinary large numbers of stork nests in the vicinity – I have never before seen so many and so close together.
Minaret and various stork nests

Roman remains
After the chellah we walked on to the gardens of the Royal Palace which our guidebook told us were unmissable.  These were a disappointment and it was mainly municipal type of planting with avenues of trees and lawns including some very nice coral trees.  We didn’t hang around long and walked back to the hotel via the new town and a light bite to eat.

We got back about 2.30pm all feeling a little tired.  Hanna retired to her room and Chris and I read our books on the sun terrace for a while and then went back into the medina to buy some Moroccan style lamp shades and sconces.  We then continued reading, but got a bit cold outside so moved down into the courtyard of the Riad.  Hanna is still not interested in food so Chris and I went out for a bite to eat in a restaurant by the river before coming back to the Riad and having some wine in our room. 

Saturday, 22 March 2014

22nd March

We regretfully left our delightful Maison D’hote and decided to take the motorway to Rabat which was scheduled to take about 3 hours.  We skirted the edge of Casablanca, which sounds so romantic but in the flesh looked very different, although to be fair areas near motorways of any major city are never the most picturesque. 

Completely over the top....?!!
The motorways make for interesting driving as they’re only 2 lanes with crash barriers between the 2 directions of traffic appearing intermittently for just small stretches.  Add to that, people cleaning up rubbish in the verges, buses stopping to off load passengers, people riding in the open backs of trucks, police road blocks and sheep and cattle plus the shepherd grazing at the edge of the road – you realise it’s very different driving to health and safety conscious Europe.

Chris once again did a brilliant job of negotiating the chaotic traffic in the city centre and we ended up parked near out hotel.  We’d been told to look for a large hotel as the landmark for where to park our car, but never saw it so Chris pulled up around the corner.  I then phoned the riad, and within 10 minutes a very charming man appeared who took us to the correct parking, fixed us up with a guide for tomorrow and then led us to the riad.  

Part of the Andalusian garden
The riad itself is lovely with the usual cool courtyard with a central fountain surrounded by the rooms.  We’ve got 2 rooms upstairs which are lovely and close to the roof top pool with its unappealing murky cold water.
We then set off to the Kasbah which is very close by and looked fabulous in our guidebooks.  In reality, it wasn’t quite so nice but I enjoyed the Andalusian garden and especially the tiny kittens playing in it!  We then wandered through the medina stopping off to look in various shops for Moroccan style wall sconces for our still to be designed Moroccan style rood terrace over our garage.  We found some nice ones but baulked at the price (about €20 for two), but having subsequently checked the prices on the web have decided they’re a good deal!

We’re now back at the riad relaxing before dinner here at 8pm.  It has very good reviews on trip adviser so am hoping we’ll be having a nice meal!!
21st  March

We started the day with brekkies up on the roof top restaurant of the riad with its fantastic views over to some large rocks where we’ve enjoyed watching locals collect shellfish accompanied by very nimble and fearless sea cats.  We booked a porter to wheel our bags through the town to our car, which had only been pushed a little bit down the road, but was thankfully still there, albeit with an accumulation of dust and some seagull poo.

We then drove up the main coastal route, which was actually inland a bit, to Safi, a large industrial port with rather toxic air from the cement and petrochemical plants which had both Chris and myself coughing.  We got a bit lost here too, but eventually found the correct road out of town that hugged the coast line and was a lot more interesting.  The land was very intensively farmed here with clearly demarcated fields on the flat land right by the sea and lots of delicious looking vegetables for sale by the side of the road.

The beautiful lagoon at Oualidia
Our next point of reference was a town called Ouladia that our guidebook suggested was an eyesore but had a superb protected and very picturesque lagoon – perfect for swimming.  We could see the lagoon well before we reached the town so drove down to it and parked up and went for a short stroll.  We passed by fisherman selling their fresh catches of various shellfish such as mussels, oysters and razor clams as well as huge spider crabs.  Some of their boats had been pulled up on to the beach and others were still out fishing.  We walked past them to the edge of the lagoon which really was extraordinarily lovely and not something any of us had ever seen before.  We enjoyed watching some kite surfers getting their gear ready, but we didn’t hang around long enough to see them go out onto the lagoon.

Oyster beds at Ouladia
We then decided to go to Ostrea 2, a restaurant famous in the area for its oysters as it’s literally located beside oyster farm number 7, which is in itself famous for its special French oysters and its high quality produce to rigorous EU standards apparently.  We followed some signs to the restaurant down an unpromising rough road and eventually arrived at our destination.  What a little gem this place is – a fantastic location overlooking the lagoon, which was much larger than we had appreciated, plus the oyster beds.  Chris ordered half a dozen of the oysters, I had the gratinated mixed seafood dish and Hanna the pasta with smoked salmon as she wasn’t feeling too well and wanted the simplest dish on the menu.  We were not disappointed at all - it was fabulous.

I then took over the driving and it was fairly uneventful until we reached El Jedida.  Our instructions for the hotel were rather sparse with directions and the sat nav, wasn’t as accurate as I would have liked. As a result I ended up on a toll motorway heading for Casablanca!!  We managed to get off it pretty quickly and annoyed the toll collector at the exit as we only had a 100 dirham note for a 3 dirham toll.   There was then a lively exchange between the driver and navigator (where Hanna wisely kept her counsel), but eventually we got onto a road that took us back in the direction we’d just come from.  There was one heart stopping moment when I was going round a roundabout and we heard the terrible screeching of brakes and realised that a car was coming on to the roundabout and heading towards the side of our car – thankfully, he managed to stop in time and I merrily continued on with a somewhat accelerated heart beat!!  I’m not sure if i should have given way to him on this particular roundabout or vice versa, but anyway, we got away unscathed.

We retraced our route back quite a way and eventually got back onto the road we’d been on about 20 minutes before.  This time we spotted a sign close to what our directions gave us so decided to give it a go.  We went up a very rough track that just didn’t feel right, but eventually arrived at our hotel.  Once we’d arrived, we were told of another much more straight forward way of getting here, but hopefully we’ll find that to get out of here tomorrow.  This place is delightful – a small boutique hotel with a very welcoming owner and a large black and white cat with attitude – he’s only attempted to bite both Chris and myself once each!  Hanna was still feeling unwell so retired at 4.30pm.  Meanwhile, I caught up on the computer and Chris relaxed reading his book in the garden. We then met up with some very well travelled and very nice Americans and spent a pleasant evening in their company swapping travel experiences as you do.