Kimmery's Guide to Southern Spain (and Tangier)
I’m flying on Labor Day weekend 2019, which means the airport in Charlotte is a snarl of stressed people who are about to miss their flights. I make it, barely; deja que comience la aventura!
As soon as I’m aboard the plane, I encounter the first of two unexpected connections I’ll make on this trip. My seatmate on the outbound flight is an enthusiastic Portuguese-American who, we discover to our mutual delight, grew up in the same California neighborhood as my husband.
The second instance, however, is not quite as positive: I will find myself bumping into a man in a cuisine market in Madrid who hails from North Carolina. And not only that, but he’s from Charlotte, my city; and not only that, but he lives in the same neighborhood, just off the same street. What are the odds? Here we are, two strangers 4000 miles from home, scarfing down tiny tuna tartare tacos in the same raucous room in a city of millions! As I marvel aloud at the random small-worldness of it all, he starts shrinking away from me with the approximate expression of someone who’s just been informed he has eaten a baby. Cautiously, I sniff my armpits (yeah: bad) but I think the actual issue here is my friends. They’ve had too much Rioja and are laughing so hard they look like they might fall over backwards.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First I must get to Barcelona, the initial stop on what will be a blitzkrieg tour of Spain, along with one bonus city in Morocco. Among other things, my girlfriends and I will enjoy the Picasso Museum, the Barcelona Olympic Park, Montserrat, a Spanish vineyard/winery, the Sagrada Família, Park Güell, the Casa Milà, the Catedral de Sevilla, a flamenco show, Real Alcázar, the Alhambra in Grenada, Hercules’ Cave in Morocco, the Tangier Medina, and the San Miguel market in Madrid, not to mention the unexpectedly scenic beachfront Spanish naval base in Rota. That’s a lot to pack into seven days, y’all, but we are powered by the phenomenal organizational skills of our travel-savvy friend Holly*. I’m excited: this will be the first time I’ve been on a trip involving planes, trains, cars, boats, and camels.
DAY ONE/TWO: BARCELONA, MONTSERRAT, and SANT SADURNI d’ANOYA
I arrive in Barcelona at 11:00am and easily navigate through the airport. I have a small espresso (delicioso) as I wait for my friend Katrina who lives in southern Spain. As soon as she deplanes, we grab a taxi and head into the city to meet our four other best girlfriends from medical school. We have one other friend who couldn’t make it—Natasha—so, as is our custom when traveling without one of us, we’ve cut out an oversized picture of her head, taped it to a stick, and will pester various hot Spaniards to pose with it throughout our trip.
We are staying at an Airbnb** in the El Born district of the city, so we first must visit the property management office to get keys. This turns out to be in a tall building with spectacular views of the city:
We cannot check in until 3:00pm so, after a joyous reunion amongst the six of us, we head straight for the Picasso Museum. I’m not going to spend a lot of time describing the Picasso Museum, since Picasso is known to everyone. However, if you are under the impression that he only painted literally and metaphorically misshapen people, I’ll say this: Picasso produced this painting—Science and Charity—when he was fifteen. Fifteen!
Our apartment on the Carrer de l’Argenteria is a basically an IKEA showroom: modular and efficient, although not without a certain brick-walled charm. By American standards it’s small, but it manages to pack in four bedrooms, along with a galley kitchen, a living space, and even a tiny rock-lined courtyard.
By now we are all stupid with jet lag so naturally we go out in search of alcohol. The streets are narrow and paved in stone, meandering between creamy stucco buildings with wrought-iron balconies. It’s jammed with leather shops and art galleries, restaurants and gelaterias.
We find a tapas place called Bodega Biarritz in the El Gotic section, stick Flat Natasha in an empty wine bottle on our table, and eat until no one can function. Midway through, I surreptitiously reach under the table to unbutton my pants, which I will forget about, causing them to slide halfway down my hips as we leave. (Side note: If you want to get me drunk, I’m a cheap date. My medical analysis of the situation: either I’m allergic to sulfites, lack alcohol dehydrogenase, or am just a lightweight weenie. Likely it’s all three. My friends know this, of course, and therefore politely discourage me from partaking. Just kidding. They know this and therefore gleefully offer me extra wine at every opportunity. I will say this, though: every time I’m in Europe I tolerate wine a billion times better than I do in the States. We must add formaldehyde or something to our imported vino.)
The waiter keeps bringing tray after tray of miniature food: speared stuffed olives, little potato slices, Iberian xx ham croquettes, skewers of savory chicken and beef, sautéed vegetables, tiny stacks of eggplant lasagna, quesoXX, bread and manchego cheese drizzled in pesto, all manner of cured meats. All of it is fresh and tangy and accompanied by wine. After dinner, he brings us six shots of some sort of dessert drink, which is creamy and delicious.
Bloated and happy, we collect Flat Natasha and stagger out into the night. Wandering around the Santa Caterina market, we ogle the food on display as if we have not just eaten enough to stun a hippopotamus, stopping to shop a bit along the streets surrounding the Plaza Real. Perfect first day.
In the morning, we are collected by a tour guide named Alex, who is going to take us to Montserrat and then to a vineyard for a wine tasting. Alex is charming and beautiful, with a lovely accent and a friendly, open manner. She hugs us and air-kisses our cheeks, then leads us to a van to meet the driver. As we pass out of the city, Alex points out various landmarks: the major ports of the city, the Maritime Museum which is connected to an ancient section of the old city wall, and a quarry mountain called Mont Juic, which contains a cable car and a funicular railway, as well as an ancient cemetery. Alex comments on the burial grounds as we zoom by. “See,” she says, gesturing to a series of crypts cut into the hillside, “here we have a sort of beehive for passed-away peoples.”
As we approach Montserrat, some forty-five minutes to the northwest of Barcelona, Alex describes the geography of the region, pointing out the Pyrenees Mountains on the border of France and the unusual geological structure of Montserrat (the “serrated mountain”) itself. Its silhouette is noticeably distinct from other mountains, bubbling and dripping with bizarre rock formations at its top and along the sides, some of them resembling rabbits or elephants or other creatures. Alex asks us to come up with theories as to what geological force created the mountain’s weird shape, promising she’ll quiz us later. I think about this: wind? Some source of water? I can’t quite figure it out.***
After ascending a twisty road, we reach the monastery/basilica and its associated school, market, train station and world-famous boys’ choir. We’ve decided we want to touch the Black Madonna, the icon for which the church is most famous, so we join a queue leading toward the building. Important: if you want to visit Montserrat, arrive early. As the day goes on, there’s a backlog of cars tangled up on the hairpin turns along the mountainside. Since parking is limited, if you get there late, you’ll have to wait for someone to leave before being admitted past a gate.
Planning your arrival carefully is also key for seeing the Black Madonna, because it’s only available to see at certain times. According to Alex, it is also good to get there before the Russians do, “because they make a very serious line.” Feeling pleased that we have avoided hordes of serious Russians, we enter the church.
This has been a site of religious significance since the Romans built a temple to Venus here. The church, along with other churches in the Catalonia region, functioned also as a watchdog; they used the bell tower to warn of invasion so each monastery or cathedral was located within hearing distance of another one. Napolean burned it in the eightieth century and Franco executed resistant Catalonian monks in the twentieth. But the best-known story here involves the Black Madonna, which was reportedly carved in ancient Jerusalem, lost during a Moorish invasion after the priest who hid it was killed, and rediscovered by little shepherd boys on Montserrat in the ninth century.
As we ascend the stairwell toward the Black Madonna, Alex points out glittery mosaics of women wearing what appear to be nun outfits****, explaining that one side displays “virgin saints,” while the other contains the “mother saints”. I’m not going to get into the whole Virgin/Whore dichotomy perpetuated by centuries of patriarchal hypocrisy***** but let’s just stipulate that none of us are on Team Virgin Saints, okay? We snap a quick selfie in front of the other side. Yay, Mother Saints!
Pro tip: just past the Black Madonna, there is a little alcove with a secret. if you whisper into the corniced molding at one edge of the room, a person with her ear pressed to the same decorative molding at the opposite end of the room hears you as if you are whispering directly to her.
A priest (monk?) comes into the sanctuary while we are there and begins singing a mass, which is eerily beautiful in spite of all the tourists milling around in their poorly fitting athleisurewear. We pause to listen and then head through an outdoor corridor where you can donate coins to light a candle. You can also scribble a prayer and tuck it into the rock wall. To me, though, the most moving thing outdoors is in the courtyard in front of the church entrance, where twelve statues of the Apostles grace the wall above the entrance. Each of them holds the weapon that reportedly killed him: Peter a cross, Thomas a spear, and James a stone, etc.
There’s also a giant wire head outside, which, for some reason, I absolutely love. It’s by the artist Jaume Plensa and is titled Anna. (Although … surely that is a man’s head?)
There’s an accompanying placard in French and Spanish. My French translation skills are poor but my Spanish translation skills are nonexistent so I’ll give it a go in French:
The room before the Basilica has lots of visits from the sun and also it makes the change from the nasty space to the sacred space. A beautiful sight is the sculpture Anna by the artist Jaume Plensa. This sort of thing is important. The fundamental point here is humanity defending humans, with the goal of life, something else, and beauty is the royal in the divine.
It’s possible I got some words wrong there, so you may want to look this up on your own.
We visit a little outdoor market to sample cheese and honey. It is SO GOOD. We also walk up the hill to an overlook, which is a perfect photo spot.
Then we find our driver and head for the next thing: lunch!
Alex takes us to a village called Sant Sadurni d’Anoya, where we enjoy a four-course lunch at a restaurant called Ticus. I have melon carpaccio, mushroom risotto, codfish in olive oil with romanesque sauce, and a sampling of several desserts. The entire meal is exquisite.
On to the winery: I already told you I’m not a wine person so this is not my thing. My friends, however, are all obsessed with cava, the Spanish sparkling wine equivalent of champagne and they love it. We go to Parés Baltà,a family-owned biodynamic winery and sample various reds, whites, and cavas and learn about how they’re made.
Once back in Barcelona, we bid farewell to Alex and head to dinner at a place she recommended: Llamber, in the El Born section. Again, tapas. If the tapas place the night before had the ambience of a homey local bar this place holds more of an upscale vibe, with the tapas served on artisanal wood boards underneath chandeliers that appear to be made of exploded honeycombs. Our waiter, whose name we misunderstand as Seymour (Simo? Semoh?) cannot understand us either, even though two of us speak very passable Spanglish. No matter what we say, he smiles and shouts “Perfecto!” The food is excellent and it turns out to be shockingly inexpensive: €157 for the six of us, which includes drinks.
DAY THREE: BARCELONA and SEVILLA
A new guide today: Nicholas. Nicholas is an earnest, highly informative Barcelona native whose enthusiasm for his city cannot be overstated. Like Alex, he has an innovative and picturesque way of phrasing things (“…and here is where we have seen the concerts of the Red Hot Cheeli Pepeers, along with the most beloved Bruce Springsteen. Yes. We dance until we are completely broken.”)
On the way up Mont Juic (the mountain of the Jews?) Nicholas breaks down the sections of the central city a bit more so we can understand the geography and character of the neighborhoods: El Born, El Gòtic (the gothic quarter), and the boulevard of Las Ramblas. Nicholas repeatedly refers to the old medieval wall that surrounded the city in its Roman days as ‘the potato,’ presumably because it is spud-shaped. Either that, or I missed something crucial.
Mont Juic is the premier spot to take photographs of Barcelona. This has attracted legions of dudes selling selfie sticks, which we refuse on principle and later regret, since it takes us the six of us 15 minutes of scrambling around every time we try to pose for a selfie, most of which will turn out to contain a distorted view of our heads and no scenery whatsoever.
There is a plethora of culture up on Mont Juic: Joan Miró, the 1992 Olympic Park (Nicholas speaks wistfully of the American dream team), the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catyluna, an amusement park, the magic fountain, and something I didn’t quite follow about a castle of repressed people. From up here you have stupendous views of the city, including the old bullfighting ring, which Nicholas was not keen on, and a hellish-sounding club tower where forty thousand people apparently go partying every night. The next time I am in Barcelona, I might have to stay a night or two at the Hotel Miramar, which apparently has insane views.
As we descend into the city, Nicholas points out more sights, accompanied by a short but impassioned discourse on his views of the monarchy of Spain. After this, our next stop is the most famous attraction in Barcelona: the Basilica de la Sagrada Família .
To say this cathedral is magnificent is akin to saying the sun is hot. It is also marvelously different from any of the traditional gothic-style European cathedrals. Work on it began in 1882 and is scheduled to be complete in 2026, on the 100-year anniversary of the untimely death of its architect, Antoni Gaudi, who was, as Nicholas put it, “blind faith-ed but open minded.” In 1926 Gaudi was crushed by a tram and presumed to be a beggar because of his shabby clothing; he was discovered just prior to his demise to be lying broken in a hospital by his distraught protégé, Eusebi Güell, another of Barcelona’s most famous citizens.
Words, of course, cannot do justice to the experience of standing in the cathedral but I’ll attempt a brief shot at it. My photographs also did not do it justice.
Gaudi was known for his art nouveau style but the cathedral surpasses this, blending historical elements with his characteristic innovation, resulting in one of the most complicated architectural projects ever undertaken. First, the exterior: when completed, there will be eighteen spires, representing the Twelve Apostles, the Virgin Mary, the four Evangelists and, finally, Jesus Christ. There are three grand façades to the structure: the Nativity façade to the East, the Passion façade to the West, and the Glory façade to the South, each of them stylistically different and crammed with so many figures and embellishments you could spend a full day studying each one. Every square inch is intentional and representative; there are no random design elements.
Inside, the structure’s height is achieved by utilizing massive branching columns, each of unique design. The effect is that of standing in some dazzling supersized forest, alight from the stained glass of each facade. Composed of warm primary colors, the west-facing facade mimics a sunset, while the cooler blues and greens of the east-facing facade provide an illumination more representative of morning. Depending on the time of day and season in which you visit, you’ll experience color within the church differently.
If you visit, the audioguide is excellent. Pro tip, which basically applies to every tourist attraction ever: schedule this ahead of time and skip the long lines!
The Gothic Quarter
The next part of the tour consists of multiple centuries of cultural, architectural, and historical significance crammed into about two hours in Barrio Gótico section of Barcelona. For the two of you still reading, I am going to condense to bullet points of a few quirky highlights that you may not find on more serious guides. I mean, of course go and check out the aqueduct and wall ruins built by the Roman Emperor Augustus and the Cathedral of Barcelona and all the museums. But if you appreciate subtler and weirder details, here are a few:
—There are fantastical animal gargoyles adorning the Cathedral of Barcelona. Look up and you'll see lions, unicorns, elephants, and witches who’ve been petrified as external cathedral plumbing for all eternity.
—There is a seriously peculiar tradition in Barcelona of famous-people figurines in the act of, uh, defecation. They’re called Caganer and you can see them in shop windows. Apparently they became popular in nativity scenes, of all things. I am not making this up.
—References to April 23rd: if you happen to find yourself in Barcelona on this date, that’s a big deal. It’s Saint George Day (the festival of Sant Jordi) and it is historically celebrated by women receiving roses and men receiving books. This, obviously, was in need of change, since one gender got an eternal source of entertainment and knowledge and the other got something that would rot in three days. Now, apparently, everyone gets books and flowers and the streets are filled with booksellers and flower vendors. Sounds heavenly.
—If you happen to spy an ‘M’ on a door or gate, you may be looking at an ancient symbol of the Knights Templar.
—Another symbol you may stumble across at the site of an old prison adjacent to the cathedral: the shield of the Spanish Inquisition. This features a central cross, with a sword to represent the fate of those who defied the church and an olive branch for those who were ‘repentant’, all surrounded by the words: Exurge domine et judica causam taum (Arise, O God, to defend your cause; Psalm 73)
—Check out the neo-Gothic bridge from the Palau de la Generalitat to the house of the Canon (Pont del Bisbe). You can walk underneath it and observe a series of stone heads representing real people on the wall of the building. One is a thief with his nose cut off and another represents a plague victim, and so on.
—I’m going to wrap up this section on a grim note. Don’t miss the scarred facade of the Plaça de Sant Felip Neri, where in 1938, in support of Franco during the Spanish civil war, Mussolini took it upon himself to carpet-bomb civilians in the city. The convent at the time was being utilized to shelter evacuated children and thirty of them died in this particular atrocity. As citizens rushed to aid the survivors, a second bomb exploded, killing an additional twelve rescuers.
Park Güell and La Pedrera
Barcelona’s love affair with all things Gaudi continues as we hit the Park Güell. This is a world-famous collaboration between Güell and Gaudi to build a park and a series of homes inspired by natural, organic shapes. It was never finished and instead became a national park.
Not far away stands Casa Milà, also known as La Pedrera, an organically-shaped apartment building designed by Gaudi. It was futuristic at the time and it is futuristic today. Of note, the chimneys on the rooftops are said to have inspired the stormtroopers of the evil empire in George Lucas’s Star Wars.
After what seems like about twenty days crammed into one, we retire to our flat and take a nap. Just kidding again! We do no such thing. Instead we race to the airport to catch a Vueling flight to Sevilla. (Side note: The flight was so cheap! Why are flights so expensive in ‘Merica??)
From the Sevilla airport, we take taxis to our quarters, which, delightfully, is a penthouse flat facing the Sevilla Cathedral. It contains three steep stories on the top of a building, including a rooftop terrace directly across the street from the XX facade of the church.
We throw our things down and race to dinner—an outdoor tapas place, not far from the river—so we’ll have time to make our 10:30 showing of the Los Gallos flamenco performance.
I didn’t realize we were going to this show until we arrived in Sevilla so I’m going to summarize flamenco from a position of complete ignorance. It’s like a combination of tap dancing and twerking, but with a lot more effort and emotion. I mean: a LOT MORE EMOTION. Here there are three male singers wearing various faces of anguish (and occasional amusement), two extraordinarily gifted guitar players, and one male and three female dancers. The expressivity and talent of the performers, especially the dancers, is stunning; I have no idea what the storyline is but I’m swept up by all the passion. I may require sedatives to calm down.
But actually: no. By the time the performance ends at midnight, the long day catches up to us and we are noodles. You’d think, under the circumstances, that we’d limp home and crash, but this is our only night in Seville and we are in possession of this fabulous patio, which is currently bathed in moonlight and the golden glow of of the uplit spires of the cathedral, not even thirty feet away. We take our drinks outside and reminisce about the stupid yet exciting escapades of our medical school days and the unbreakable bond of our decades of friendship. Together we’ve lived through hijinks and bad romances and scholastic challenges and intercontinental relocations and husbands and babies and teenagers and terrible illnesses and the loss of loved ones and the literal life-and-death intensity of our careers and through all of it, it takes only a phone call to summon instant, unconditional support from people who love you.
This is what you pray to find in one friend, let alone seven.
DAY FOUR: SEVILLA AND ROTA
We’re tired but game on! Lexi and Mary heroically shuffle out at the break of day to secure some good coffee, which we enjoy on the balcony. I torture Mary, our most ardent photographer, by making her take pictures of me and my next book cover on the rooftop lounge of our flat (see above) and then we cram everything into our suitcases, drop them at the rental office, and sprint for our time slot at Real Alcázar, which, luckily, is only a few yards away. Thanks to Katrina and Holly, we’ve snagged hard-to-get tickets for a viewing of the interior of the Royal Palace, which the Spanish Royal family—King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia— currently utilize when in Seville. There’s a audioguide, which is incredibly helpful, given how literally every item in here has a remarkable story.
From there we tour the attached palace and grounds of Alcazar: XX. I’m going to go ahead and admit something, no matter how shallow it is: this place is Instagram heaven. Yes, I am aware that I am gazing upon over eleven glorious (and inglorious) centuries of European and Moorish history, not to mention the various caliphates and empires who’ve dwelt there, with all the attendant upheaval and significance. (And of considerably less cultural significance but still very, very, very interesting: this was the film setting for the fictional kingdom of Dorne in Game of Thrones, including the spot where Prince Doran Martell was murdered by Ellaria Sand.) But still, shallow or not, I can’t wait to post some photos from today: Alcazar is beautiful in ways that are hard for my unaccustomed Western brain to describe. I take 100,000 photos.
We manage to grab another wonderful meal in a small cafe near the church. Burrata! Paella! Some kind of wine and spritzer mix that even I find crisp and delicioso! After this, we have a short break until it’s time for our cathedral tour so, like fools, we hoof it across town to see the Plaza de España. I am in love with this place, partly because there are tile mosaics of all the regions of Spain but also because there is a Spanish version of The Little Free Library there. I suffer a setback when the strap on my favorite pair of sandals breaks, leaving me certain my friends are going to have to put me down like an injured racehorse. But, like magic, a man appears selling flip flops. As Seymour would say: Perfecto!
Sevilla Cathedral: we are back to Gothic. In fact, this is the largest gothic-style church in the world. I keep thinking of Ken Follet’s epic novel about medieval church-building as we walk through the vast space. Everywhere you look is another marvel, including the sepulchres of Christopher Columbus and Juan de Cervantes. You can walk up a 30+story ramp to the bell tower, which affords utterly ridiculous 360 degree views of the city, including our very own little rooftop.
It’s eight minutes until 3:00pm and Katrina hatches up a plan to video an unsuspecting Holly at the moment when the bazillion-ton iron church bells begin to toll a few feet above our heads. I catch wind of it and get in on the action, counting down the last sixty seconds while Katrina trains her cell phone on the side of Holly’s face.
“Thirty,” I murmur quietly, flashing all ten fingers three times in a helpful visual signal. “Twenty-nine, twenty-eight, twenty-sev—”
Within a resounding twang, the bells explode above us. Katrina and I both shriek, flinging our hands up protectively. I feel myself bending double at the waist and then snapping back up, like a violently jolted marionette. My heart pounds wildly. Holly, meanwhile, displays all the reactivity of a tree stump. After finishing a long, impassive gaze at the horizon she turns around and dubiously eyes us.
“What’s wrong with you guys?” she says.
“Holly. Are you deaf?”
“I knew they were going to ring,” Holly says. “It’s three o’clock.”
Katrina somehow manages to glare at me through helpless laughter. “I think maybe trying to count on my fingers slowed me down,” I say meekly.
We need a refresher so we find a sidewalk cafe for some gelato and cava. Then it’s off to the station, where we catch the last train to El Puerto de Santa Maria. I like trains, which are infinitely preferable to airplanes. They’re roomy and bright, with comfortable seats, big windows, and minimal, if any security hassle.
Cadiz is the nearest big town to our destination, the naval base in Rota. I hope I’m not giving away any top-level governmental secrets when I say that Katrina’s husband—I’ll call him Tripp—is a bigshot military person. This means that Holly and Tripp and their children have moved every couple years in service to their country, occasionally landing in some fairly exotic destinations. This is one of the best.
Tripp picks us up and drives us to the base. Their home is located on a cul-de-sac overlooking a sunny beach and a bright blue stretch of ocean. He’s cooked up a feast for us and we eat outside, bathed in the crisp golden light of the approaching sunset. It’s almost like … wait for it … being inside a glass of cava.
DAY FIVE: TANGIER, MOROCCO
Allow me to create some anticipation. This is my favorite day of the trip.
We rose early for a predawn drive to the southernmost coast. The drive alone is worth it: as the sun rises over the hills, it illuminates an endless vista of low hazy blue mountains, rolling umber fields of wind farms and olive trees, and horned brown cows, broken up occasionally by mediterranean villages with white-walled homes tucked against the hills. Every so often we see the stark silhouette of an enormous bull shape rising against the hills; these billboards, once the advertising image of Osbourne Group, a Spanish sherry company, had their words removed after a commercial billboard ban. The images, however, had become such a beloved emblem of the country that they were allowed to remain.
We reached Terifa, the port city, and caught a ferry to Africa. (Tip: once on the ship, try to get in the passport control line as early as possible. They’ll stamp your passport there and then you can enjoy a coffee or wine in a comfortable seat with a table as you watch Tangier—a gorgeous, sprawling city tucked between two mountains—slide into view across the Straight of Gibraltar.)
Once we reach the terminal in Morocco, a man in a fez greets us: “Holly?”
“Yes,” she says. “How did you know?”
“I was told five womans were coming,” he says, beaming. “Allow me to take you to Jamal.”
Jamal is our guide. If you ever visit Tangier, you want him. He’s a courtly gentleman with an engaging smile and a laid-back manner. Immediately he reassures us: Tangier is a liberal Muslim city, tolerant of foreigners and their various cultural practices. This is good because in additional our, uh, irrepressible personalities, we are all wearing shorts. This would not fly in much of the country, and certainly not in most Muslim countries, but Tangier is apparently more accepting of our wicked ways. And indeed, there are a mixture of styles on display as we walk through the city: plenty of men and women in kaftans, but also plenty of Western dress. Plus, we have Jamal, who apparently knows everyone in Morocco; everywhere we go, someone greets him with enthusiasm.
Jamal and our driver, Youssef, begin with a drive through the city, which is divided into two sections: the old town and the modern town. These sections are chiseled into their respective large hills and divided by a valley, providing sublime views in every direction. It’s early September and hot, but the climate is more temperate than you’d expect, cooled by the strong breeze wafting in from the sea.
We pass through a neighborhood dotted with expensive homes, which Jamal says is called the ‘California’ section, and then along a road winding through lushly landscaped mansions clustered on a hillside with views of the sea below; these, Jamal tells us, belong to various Moroccan and middle-eastern dignitaries, who favor the city for their vacation homes. This includes the the summer palace of the King of Morocco and the renowned 74-acre summer estate of the King of Saudi Arabia.
We pause briefly for a photo op at the spot where the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea meet in the Straight of Gibraltar. This, as they say, is where Europe and Africa kiss.
Continuing on: about twelve kilometers west of the city, we stop at a seaside cafe on Cape Spartel, where we sit under a banyan tree and sip green mint tea and eat a concoction of thick crepes smeared with some kind of sweet almond paste. (I am not a culinary critic, obviously). This, too, provides a spectacular photo op of the sea and an old lighthouse perched on the cliffs, which, I believe, marks the northernmost point of mainland Africa.
Our next stop, just a few kilometers away are the Caves of Hercules. According to legend, the superhuman Hercules had a layover here on his way to steal some apples and smashed an opening in the Atlas mountain between Europe and Africa, creating the Straight of Gibraltar. Actual human history is possibly even more interesting: this region has been occupied since neolithic times, providing shelter to prehistoric people, Phoenicians/Carthaginians, Romans, and various other empires before finally becoming Moroccan. Throughout the centuries, the caves were used as a stone quarry and may or may not have even been used a brothel before someone figured out they could make even more money luring in tourists.
The caves, which are part natural and part man-made, have an opening, which, when viewed from the sea (see flipped pic below), is in the shape of the continent of Africa. If you like, you can frame your profile within the space to create a cool picture.
Jamal hands us off here to a fellow named Mohammed, who, like his father before him, has been a guide in the caves for many, many decades. If I had one phrase to sum up Mohammed, it would be “Watch your head, my sister!” which he’s apparently been forced to shout to 100,000 oblivious tourists over the course of his life.
And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: camels on the beach. I mean, does there exist a more exotic-sounding sentence than Yeah, I was riding a camel on the beach in Africa and … ?
I’ll answer that question: No. There is not.
I’m going to have to exercise extreme restraint here not to include 10,000 photos because this is absolutely one of the most fun things I’ve ever done. It’s sunny and breezy and beautiful, our camels are well-behaved and do not us pitch us headfirst into the surf, and there’s something indescribably awesome about swaying around on camelback while flinging your hands up in inane poses to amuse your friends. My only advice: beware the mount and dismount portion of the experience. Expect a steep incline as the animal maneuvers up and down from its forelegs; you want to grip it with your thighs as if you are riding a horse.
When they finally pry us off the camels, we head to the Tangier Medina, or market.
This will prove to be both a highlight and a lowlight for me. The market is everything you’d expect a market to be: crammed with stalls selling everything from golden shoes to fresh-ground spices to jewelry. We wind our way through blue and cream alleys adorned with eye-catching doors, briefly stopping in a three-story luxury rug place. This is where I run into trouble.
Here’s the thing. There are no prices. You are supposed to bargain. Everyone knows this but we do it wrong and the result is a mess. Two of my friends, Holly and Lexi, try to good-cop bad-cop one of the vendors for some little item and he winds up stomping off in a huff, leading Lexi to coin the best term ever for the process: barguing.
I am not going to be a good barguer. I know this and yet I still screw it up. I want to buy a small rug and the man tells me his starting price and I panic at the absurd amount and blurt out my final price. In desperation, I go up by a hundred dollars and then on the next go-round, attempt to drop back to the original final price, leading the vendor to audibly wonder what he is dealing with here. I want to tell him that I could purchase five Moroccan rugs in the States for this price, but am stifled by the worry that this might be a culturally offensive thing to say. Actually, I am nearly rendered mute by my fear that everything I want to say is culturally wrong. It’s not a fair fight: on the one hand, you have the savvy proprietor of the shop, who knows the exact value of the rug; and on the other hand, you have me, a clueless infidel with her legs showing. I try to abort the whole process but now the vendor smells blood and throws in an urn I want—not the kind that holds the ashes of recently passed-away peoples, but more of a giant vase—and I agree, even though it is still way, way too much money. I’m just going to buy it. We need to leave. We are going to be late for the next thing and there is no time for more barguing. But then when the man rings it up, it is in euros, not dollars, which he’s promised me it would be and now my friends are anxious about the time and even Jamal, who is unflappable, is looking flapped. By this time the rug dude is also looking unsettled and thrusts a wad of cash at me so we don’t have to go through the whole process of canceling the credit card transaction and re-ringing it up. I thank him and we bolt.
I really hope all this stuff shows up at my house.
Anyway: the next part is better. We wander through tiny maze-like alleys, pass a famous wall through which James Bond once burst on a motorcycle and have another luscious lunch—olives, bread, lamb tagine, tea, baklava—on a second floor open air
patio overlooking the sea at La Terraza de la Medina. There are stunning Moroccan lamps everywhere you look. And best of all: right below us is a bookshop.
It turns out our driver, Youssef, is actually a famous Moroccan novelist and this is his shop, which as best I can tell is a kind of artistic hang-out spot for creative types: the Cafe Chrifa. He invites me in and gives me a copy of one of his books about Tangier******** and inscribes it to me in Arabic. (Any Arabic speaking friends out there want to help me translate??) During this trip--in 2019-- I am researching and writing my next novel, Doctors and Friends, which is about a brand-new new viral pandemic and is partially set in Spain and Morocco. I don't know it then, but Youssef and I will stay in touch throughout the real-life pandemic lurking in our future, and will become friends.
Sadly, this is the end of our day so we’ve missed at least a thousand cultural wonders. We head back to the ferry only to discover our tickets are for the wrong time: we have over two hours to wait. We ponder what to do: wander around the city without the guidance and protection of Jamal? Probably a bad idea. Try to bribe our way onto an earlier ferry? It’s completely full. We join a queue of other people hoping to make it on.
After a wait, a man comes and says go ahead, there will be room on the boat. Someone yells ‘run’ so we all start sprinting, loping alongside a group of young Japanese men and some older Scandinavian women. We reach the final barrier, in view of the gangplank, but are stopped by another man shaking his head. The ship is full, he says. There is no room.
After an agonizing wait someone else comes along and waves at us to go. We barrel ahead before he can change his mind and make it onto the boat right before it pulls out of the dock. Kylie and I head to the bar to buy everyone coffee and wine. She points across the room, where the young Japanese guys are high-fiving each other.
“Those guys were in the same boat as us,” she says. “They thought they weren’t going to make it.”
“Technically they were not in the same boat we were also not in,” I say. Kylie groans.
One note about the drive back: a short distance from Tarifa we notice a plethora of surf hotels. And then, we round a corner and see it: dozens and dozens of kitesurfers on the sea. Apparently Tarifa is a top kitesurfing spot. We pull over and watch for a moment, amazed that they aren’t colliding.
DAY SIX: GRENADA AND MADRID
Another early start! We pile in Katrina’s car, which I’m going to call Herman because this thing deserves a name. Herman is a peripatetic twelve-year-old tank-like American SUV who has chugged across three continents and an untold number of countries. Katrina, who is fearless, has whipped him in and out of crazed caravans of taxi drivers in Rome. She’s parked him in underground garages in Germany where the ceiling is an inch above his head. She’s churned him across the arid landscape of central Turkey and up icy mountain roads in Switzerland and parked him in teeny Smart-car spaces in Croatia and Portugal and the Czech Republic. If ever a car deserved to have a novel written about it, Herman is the one. I may do that someday.
After kissing Tripp and Katrina’s darling children goodbye, we all pile into Herman and drive to Grenada. The landscape changes, still dominated by acres and acres of precisely planted olive trees but becoming much more hilly as we enter the Sierra Nevadas.
We are headed, of course, for the Alhambra. It’s built into its own village on a steep hill overlooking the modern-day city of Grenada and it is one of the wonders of the world. Like the Alcazar, it’s a marriage of Moorish and European influences, all woven into a fortress consisting of multiple buildings and gardens. There’s too much history to go into here—Roman ruins, Isabella and Ferdinand, Christopher Columbus, Napolean, various emirates and sultans—but the upshot is a palace of utterly indescribable beauty. The rooms are of stone and plaster, with Arabic inscriptions carved into various geometric designs, graced by arches and columns and tile mosaics, all aglow in the effervescent sunlight of the region.
In one gorgeous alcove, Kylie and I wait patiently for some young continental couple to finish a complicated selfie so we can take our turn against a high arched window with a lovely view of the city beyond. As soon as they’re done we start to move in but we’re too late: the unending stream of an Asian tour group files into the space. I look at Kylie.
“We’ve literally missed our window,” I say, grinning.
“Would you stop?”
We pass into the famed hall of the Abencerrajes. This, legend has it, was the scene of a real-life Red Wedding-type scenario in which an irritable sultan invited some thirty gentlemen of the North African family Abencerrajes to a banquet and, once they’d gotten themselves situated, beheaded them. The twelve-sided fountain in the room contains a reddish discoloration on one side of the marble which has apparently been preserved in memory of this gruesome event.
After hours of photographing the sights, our iPhones explode and we grab a hasty lunch in the village. This, by the way, is the place to go if you are in need of brightly colored harem pants. I buy some for my friend’s baby and then we all climb aboard Herman and set off for Madrid.
It’s a long drive. Madrid seems to come up out of nowhere and all of a sudden we are zipping along the Paseo del Prada, with all its museums and monuments. With each turn, the streets get narrower until we find ourselves in an alley only a little wider than Herman. It turns out the garage in which we’ve been instructed to park is too small for even Katrina to be able to maneuver Herman’s bulk so we have to find another one. This entails a few hairy moments of chugging up and down teeny pedestrian-clogged alleys. The pedestrians do not appreciate Herman like we do and some of them whack him on his hood as if they are spanking a naughty baby. We locate another garage, and since I’m sitting by a door, I get out to ask two old gentleman if we can deposit Herman there for awhile. They ask for how long. With absurd confidence in my newly-acquired Spanish skills, I reply dos anos. The men look pleased. I get back in the car.
Katrina is not as impressed with my Spanish as I am. “You just told him we are parking here for two years,” she says.
After Katrina clarifies with the parking guys, we head for our flat. Again, it’s modern and nice, with sweet little wrought-iron balconies so we can hang out and watch the bustling alleys. We change and head out in search of food.
This is my last night. Everyone else is staying on in Madrid but owing to some obligations—not the least of which is that I have a new novel due—I’m catching a flight in the morning. So this night has to count.
Weirdly, parts of Madrid at night remind me of Times Square. There’s street music, gobs of people, big electric billboards, and even some kind of cop takedown involving a half dozen of those little European police vehicles. (One cops hauls away what appear to be dozens of fake Lous Vuittons in a garbage bag so probably no one’s in imminent danger.) But once you clear the big boulevards, you’re back in the stone-surfaced alleys with buildings decorated with gargoyles and whatnot. We make our way to the Mercado de San Miguel.
This is one of Spain’s magnificent food markets. In fact, it describes itself as one of the world’s premier gastronomic markets, allowing its visitors to experience the favors of every corner of Spain. There are dozens of stands’ each bearing different kinds of delicacies. You wander around, stuffing yourself on meats and cheeses and fish and desserts and wine. And, uh, vermouth, which is sold on tap here and tastes to me like the finest of cough syrups.
This is where we encounter the alarmed gentleman from North Carolina that I told you about in the opening of this piece. This seems like a good place to end … with the six of us eating and laughing and walking with linked arms through the market in Madrid, frightening random men and creating new memories to obsessively recount to one another over the next decades of our friendship. Adios, España!
*Names have been changed to protect the guilty
** There have been no new licenses for Airbnbs in Barcelona since 2013… the city is too crowded for affordable rentals for locals.
****I’m not clear on the terminology of medieval Catholic garb, obviously.
*****I did just get into it though, didn’t I? Heh heh.
******Writers tend to instinctively support one another, a thing that transcends cultures. Also, regarding Youssef’s book title: In English we say Tangier but in in the actual city everyone uses the French spelling, Tanger.