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Marrakesh Express

Day 89 August 11 Casabermeja to Casablanca Day 90 August 12 Casablanca to Marrakesh Day 91 August 13 and Day 92 August 14 Marrakesh

sunny 35 °C

In the famous lyrics of Crosby, Stills and Nash, "Would you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express ... all on board that train!"

In a dramatic change of scenery and culture, we head to Morocco.

All we had planned before we left is: fly to Casablanca and fly out of Tangier 14 days later. Morocco was on Jen's Bucket List, and perfectly fitted into the Tommy Trip Planning Extravaganza. We had some tips from my great friend, Fly, a true Hitchhiker of the Galaxy (but when in mere mortal form, goes by the name, Pete Miers) and a colleague of Jen's who gave us some town names and that's about it.

We are about to be taken well outside our comfort zone.

But first, we have to leave España, we farewell our host Luis in Casabermeja, and head into Malaga for one last expedition to try to buy a Spanish Cycling Shirt - Jen has patiently endured me searching every bike shop could find in Spain for a souvenir cycling shirt...but we're out of luck. So its on to the airport. Missed our exit by 1 second, have flashbacks of Zagreb as we end up on gravel roads trying to get back to the freeway. Thirty minutes later than we expected, we dropped our buzz box off with no scratches and checked in. We gave ourselves plenty of time as we've found Spain's infrastructure and services are "variable". ¡Nos vemos España!

It was cool to see Gibraltar from the air, with the clouds materialising above. The Pilot's directions seemed to be, follow Costa del Sol and make a hard left at Gibraltar, 'cause that's exactly what he did and we press our faces to the window to catch our first glimpses of Africa.

We are relieved to touch down in Casablanca Airport following our 13th flight of the trip. We navigate the chaos of Immigration where there is little organisation and a sea of nationalities merging and pushing their way through the queue. We haggle a vintage Mercedes Über style taxi and had quite a respectable taxi ride through peak hour traffic to our hotel getting our first glimpses of Morocco. I fully expected it to be mad dash. Russians still have our vote as being the craziest and most dangerous drivers on the road. Sadly, we did see Scooter vs Car en route. But help and emergency services were quickly in attendance.

Our plan is to only spend one night in Casablanca then the train to Marrakesh as the song goes. First priority was buy the train tickets which was a breeze. Now, for dinner.

We had seen a local market near our hotel so why not plunge in, immerse in the culture, live like locals. Talk about being immersed!

This market was as big and confusing as I have ever seen. Narrow lanes, full of stalls selling clothing, shoes, home wares, food, butchers, fishmongers, souvenirs, glasses, handbags, leather etc and thousands of people squeezed into the crowded area.

We are instantly amazed, our eyes were not wide enough to absorb what we were seeing. Within 10 minutes we are utterly bewildered and we were lost (although we didn't know it yet). After 20 minutes it dawns on us we are well and truly lost. I'm a person who needs to know where he is at all times and I'm usually very good at directions. I thought I had kept a heading that would bring us out of the maze roughly where we went in. Somewhere in the sensory overload, I had lost all sense of direction. Trying not to panic, with Jen nervously joking that we best be careful we don't miss our train tomorrow morning, with the aid of Maps.Me, we emerge onto a main road about 30 minutes later. Once we get our bearings again, I realise we are 180 degrees in the opposite direction where I thought and 2 kms up the road. I am even now still trying to figure out how on earth we got there!

First time on this whole trip that I had a little nervous twitch of what I might have gotten ourselves into. Saying that, we never felt in danger or threatened and, as we have found throughout, Morocco is a quite safe place for travellers.

After escaping the market we eventually found a place for dinner. We are welcomed into a traditional restaurant, furnished with Berber couches and low tables, by a charming young man with a degree in American Culture / Literature and Masters in Cinematography. We slump into the cushions and were quickly drinking sweet mint tea to calm our frazzled nerves. Our new friend with impeccable English is keen to welcome us to his country, telling about his hopes to join the movie industry, but for now he works in this restaurant. As its getting late, we are the only diners and he takes great care of us (apologising profusely that there is only one menu item left). Within moments, two sizzling steaming tagines of chicken, raisins and almonds are presented before us. Delicious! With our tea finished and our bellies full, our friend loved to chat. He was so glad to have westerners in the restaurant and wanting to travel in Morocco. He also wants to learn as much as he can so he can follow his dreams. He emphasised how safe Morocco is and it is nothing like the rest of Africa or Middle East - keen to distance themselves from the terror and fear hurting the World.

We didn't know it yet, but this wonderful hospitality would not be a one off occasion and we are about to be amazed by the finest Moroccan Hospitality.

The next morning, after haggling over a $3 or $4 Petit Taxi - a tiny car with nearly 600,000 kms on the Odometer - and even though the price changed somewhere between embarkation and disembarkation - it took us 4 km to the train station for our trip to Marrakesh.

We happily pass the time on the platform, people watching and soaking up the atmosphere.

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Today's Quiz - how many Safety Hazards can you spot?? [Construction side immediately opposite the rail platforms]

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Then, as a local businessman with a warm smile and kind eyes nearby explains, our train is delayed by 45 minutes. He introduces himself and we strike up a conversation with our new friend, Jamal. He is friendly and worldly and keen to talk to us. He proudly shows us photos of his Japanese wife and 4-year old daughter who speaks 4 languages. We will later discover that it is not unusual for Moroccans 6-8 languages or more: Arabic, Berber, French (a legacy from French control), Spanish, English, Italian, Portuguese and German. Everywhere we go, waiters, guides, merchants, and spruckers speak every language - switching from one to the other with ease, depending on what nationality they think the potential "target" is. Jen delights in being mistaken for a Spanish Senorita. It makes sense though. For centuries, Morocco has been a trading route for caravans and travellers passing between Africa, Middle East and Europe. Being able to communicate and sell their wares to any and all travellers has been a necessity for generations. Languages are in their DNA.

Jamal is keen to share great tips for a successful trip in Morocco and made us feel so welcome. He gave us his phone number, encouraging us to contact him if we needed any help during our stay and eager to meet again in Marrakesh. Unfortunately we weren't able to coordinate a time with him but will keep in touch.

The train arrived (over an hour late) and we were on our way. Following the chaos on the platform, we scramble aboard. We establish that we are in the correct carriage as the train trundles out of the station, but our seats are occupied. It seems that even though tickets have seat allocations, this is only a guide. As we were unlikely to supplant a large family who wished to sit together, we set off in search of seats for the 4 hour trip. Again, this is a happy disposition as it turns out the seats we find are opposite a Moroccan born man who lives in Florida, travelling with his Moroccan Fiancé. We have a great chat. He is charming and expresses gratitude for our tourism and for visiting his nation. We have giant grins on our faces at the series of lovely interactions, and it fells like we've chatted with more locals in the last 24 hours than almost our whole trip.

Right - now for our greatest challenge to date - getting to our Riad through the Medina. We are met at the Marrakesh train station by a driver (who patiently waited for our very late train). He takes us to the edge the Main Square of the Medina, Jemaa El Fna.

Fortunately, a host from the Riad comes to greet us and guides us through the Square and through a myriad of tiny laneways and alleys we would have no hope of navigating to Raid Ilayka.

It's as if we've entered a portal to an alternate universe as we step through the tiny door into a cool courtyard filled with trees, cool tiles, water fountains and roses everywhere.

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The warmest of welcomes from the friendly smiles of the staff and a pot of Moroccan Tea - aka Moroccan Whiskey. A fiercely hot tea of dried mint, ginseng and other ingredients (which are probably a Moroccan secret) poured over fresh mint and super sweetened with about 3 teaspoons of sugar. We develop a liking for the tea and it is surprisingly refreshing on a stiflingly hot day.

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We can't quite believe we get to stay here for the next 3 nights!

The view from the top is also spectacular with its view of all the roof tops, mosques, minarets and thousands of satellite dishes.

As there is know way we'd be able to find our way out again, one of the staff escorts us back to the Square, giving us bearing points as we go. We wander getting a feel for the place, the sights, sounds and smells assaulting every sense. The Medina has both a large outdoor square as well as catacombs of stalls and residences.

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The large square features hundreds of raucous food stalls in an outdoor BBQ that pops up every night all selling something different.

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Each stall has a couple of guys shouting for your attention, - "Hello, Hello, Hello, where you from?" "Australia?" "Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi" "I love Australia" "You from Sydney?" "Ah Brisbane, beautiful City!" - all trying to entice you to eat at their restaurant. It is pot luck regardless. With salesmanship in their DNA, they are sharp as a tack. They aren't easily fobbed of with a platitude like, "Not right now, maybe later" or "Next time" because for sure, they remember every face and will call you on why you did not honour your promise when they see you again. We were hooked by a funny fellow, "Okay, see you later Alligator", causing us to chuckle and pause for long enough to get a menu in our hands. Okay, why not, this place is as good as any. The wonderful part though is that the transaction doesn't end there. It isn't just about getting you to sit down - its a whole interaction. As we were leaving, after enjoying a a lovely meal in the crazy chaos, he sought us out of the crowd, to thank us and chat some more. "Hamish & Andy...do you know them? I love Hamish & Andy, they are funny guys. In a while, crocodile!" We left with full bellies and smiles on our dials!

We are quickly discovering Moroccans are hugely social and amazing communicators. They talk to each other genuinely and intently, often with an arm around a shoulder or a hand placed gently on a forearm, with eye contact, communication is real and from the heart.

We also experience, the call for prayer. It happens 5 times a day and devotees can go to the mosque, but don't have to, but ideally, if you can, you do. Otherwise, pray at home or wherever you are. We learn much about Islam during the next two weeks. About being a practical Muslim and discover that it is not imperative to pray five times every day - although you should aspire. You pray if you can, but if have commitments then pray as often as you can. The five times also equates the to the Five Pillars of Islam to be a good Muslim:

The Five Pillars consist of:

  • Shahadah: sincerely reciting the Muslim profession of faith, ie believing in God.
  • Salat: performing ritual prayers in the proper way five times each day.
  • Zakat: paying an alms (or charity) tax to benefit the poor and the needy.
  • Sawm: fasting during the month of Ramadan.
  • Hajj: pilgrimage to Mecca.

We learn that Moroccans are moderates, and their hearts are pained by the extremes in other parts of the world. They recognise other religions - Christian and Jewish especially, acknowledging that all recognise a God, however, each learns of that God through a different Prophet. Their religion also specially forbids the killing of children, woman and old people - again, we feel their genuine pain at what they see happening in the World masquerading in the name of Islam. Morocco doesn't have a great social welfare system so Zakat is taken seriously, with a coin or food often given to a disabled or poor person on the street.

Glossary

Medina is a walled city and contains the old part of the town. In centuries past, towns needed to build protection from invaders and maintain borders.
Riad is a guest house. Formerly it would have been the home of an entire family. Upon marriage a son and his wife live with his parents. Parents become grandparents, and the circle of life repeats in one house for generations. The distinguishing architecture is to have the balcony on the inside and a court yard in the middle.
Kasbah is a small castle that housed and protected a collective / cooperative of Families, living together. A mini-Medina of sorts to keep the families secure from marauding tribes and nomads. Given that everyone knows that Kasbahs rock, everything is called a kasbah - restaurants, hotels, buildings, cafes and so on.
Hamman is a traditional Arab bathhouse involving a sauna, lathering with black soap (an oil based thick paste), scrubbed like there's no tomorrow then covered in a coating of oil to protect from the harsh outdoors. Hammams are hugely popular. Each medina is full of them and now have all the usual day spa treatments like massage, pedicure, manicures.
Berber one of three historical Arab tribes. Berber means "desert dwellers" in the Arabic language and said to be how the term Barbarian was coined by the Romans when the Empire sought to conquer them but, being semi nomadic, were unsuccessful. Hence, the original meaning didn't suggest they were barbaric as we understand the term but more akin to a foreigner, outsider or uncivilised in the sense of being outside the Roman Empire.
insha'Allah an Arabic term meaning "if God wills". Moroccans are genuine and spiritual people. They have faith in the good in people and the world. We have many wonderful interactions and in saying farewell, there is a heartfelt "insha'Allah", wish that our travels continue well, that our paths cross again and we stay safe.

The next day, we seek out a Hamman for a little pampering. TripAdvisor lists hundreds of places and thousands of reviews. The "Excellent" ones over the top and the "Poor" to "Terrible" are frightening (one which involved the police, and another with CCTV privacy breaches as well as mention of cockroaches). Armed with a recommendation from Jamal, we thought it best to book in person to check out a place first.

Three months on the road and sleeping in a lot of crappy beds with lumpy pillows has taken its toll and we are in need of some body work!

Walking the streets we are transfixed absorbing the scenes we encounter.

We come across the taxi rank - a place, it seems, where old Mercedes come to die

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Its stepping into another era.

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We go into the Saadian Tombs for a quiet wander. Sultan Ahmed el Mansour constructed the Saadian Tombs in Marrakech during his rule of Morocco in the sixteenth century as a burial ground for himself and his descendants. This led to approximately two hundred members of the Saadian dynasty being buried here, including Sultan Ahmed el Mansour who was laid to rest in 1603.

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We learned that this is what a pomegranate tree looks like.

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We then continued our stroll around the Medina and got dragged into a spice/perfume/tea shop. Again, consummate salesmanship The shop assistant saw us coming and knew he had some prime tourists ready for the easy picking! These shops are scattered throughout the Medina and the colours plus smells of the spices and natural perfumes are very enticing to sample.

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They start with an offer of directions, then ask you where you want to go, where are you from, okay, then come over, let me show you some things. The problem is once you have stopped to talk and entered the shop then you are well and truly in their clutches but in super friendly way. It is a well oiled machine, suddenly there is a tray with some hot sweet mint tea. A silent team of assistants support the main salesman as he performs his magic. "Please, have some tea, it is our hospitality". As each potion, tea, perfume is brought out, we feel more obligated to buy something. Moroccans also communicate with all senses, especially touch - gentle and kind. Quickly our hands and arms are massaged with oils and perfumes. A clay mask is applied to Jen's hand and after a few minutes, wiped clean with rosewater. Now compare, see how smooth and soft and clear! Jen keeps whispering to me, "you know we are gonna have to buy something". This something turns out to be $60 of tea, block of cedar wood and the clay for face masks. The shop assistant basically cleaned out my wallet. I naively opened it, to check how much currency I actually had and whether we had enough I was about 20 dirhams short, but, before I had a chance to suggest putting something back, happily he took it all. Our mistake was that, whilst items were priced it was not each but per gram! We walked out with a smile on our faces, a great experience, some nice products we like, chatted with really friendly locals and that feeling of "I think I paid too much, but I'm not sure". As we left, the shop team were already going to work on a bunch of Chinese tourists they'd snagged. We're sure they would have slugged them big time - the poor suckers already had the clay masks all over their faces, had accepted tea and were now making a rookie error of sitting on a row of stools which magically appeared....big mistake!

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We love wandering around. Stalls selling bounties of dried fruits and nuts are everywhere. We bought some amazing almonds and dried figs that we happily munched our way through.

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Orange Juice stalls are everywhere and their attendants yell at you to entice you over. A fresh glass of 100% orange juice is 7 dirhams - about $1 and a nice treat.

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Some can be a bit sneaky with the change if you don't have your wits about you.

We returned to the square for dinner and take in the atmosphere. During the day the square is relatively quiet but as night time falls the number of people treble and the square comes alive. At any time you have people selling balloons, watches, mobile phones, oils, paintings, cigarettes, perfumes and drinks. At the same time there are bikes, cars, donkeys, motor bikes all weaving between the people.

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[The smoke you can see are the BBQs getting set up for dinner]

Bands are playing, monkeys doing tricks and snake charmers playing with Cobras. On principle, we did not photograph or give any attention or money to snake charmers, monkey tamers or ride the horse carriages. We are not fans of animal tourism for entertainment.

We visit Medesa Ben Yousef which is a school for the Islam studies - like a monastery. It is very simple but the tiles, colour and building architecture is very unique. We get a sense of Islam which is very different from what is presented in the media and what we see in Australia.

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Unfortunately on the way back we got lost, again. My phone lost connection but quickly a local grabs us and shows us out of the maze of streets. It does cost a few dollars but this is a usual occurrence with travellers. Locals are always eager to help a traveller to their destination and then there is a request for money. Usually a few coins does the trick.

After a hectic morning, its time for our Hammam - Les Bains de L'Alhambra. We have no idea what to expect but know that we will need to leave dignity at the door. We are ushered through the process by quietly spoken women. The first part in a sauna/steam room where the ladies wash us, lather us in black soap, leave us to cook a little on the benches in the steam room then we're scrubbed from head to toe with an exfoliating mitt - 3 months of travel is sloughed off. More steaming, then wash down. What follows is a wonderful parade of foot rubs, eye masks, orange and rose petal baths in candlelit grotto, head massages and then an hour full body massage with Argan oil. Definitely what the Travel Doctor ordered. Our skin shines!
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Dinner again was in the square and again we sit in amazement and watch all the going on of the Medina.
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[The smoke you can see amongst the crowd on the left are the BBQs we saw earlier being set up for dinner]

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A dust storm was rolling in. It was amazing to watch.

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This little fellow was using all his best skills trying to negotiate a cookie from the vendor, but she wouldn't budge.

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The Henna Ladies are positioned around the Square, encouraging you to get a tattoo done. We were warned against this as they use chemicals which are bad for skin.

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Call for evening prayers.
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And of course, when you drive a Ferrari you think you can park anywhere, including in the Square.
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The Band got the whole place pumping
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With locals going about their evening
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It is truly an amazing place.
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Well our time has finished in Marrakesh and we have had a fantastic time.

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The food was delicious, the Riad with its Moroccan architecture was beautiful and we were treated like royalty - especially at breakfast.

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The people are friendly and the whole place full of excitement.

We pack and prepare for our next 4 days of something we never expected to do and probably once in life opportunity.

Morocco - a country full of surprises.

Posted by tszeitli 14:23 Archived in Morocco Tagged market train casablanca marrakesh culture_shock Comments (4)

Bienvenidos a Barcelona: Gaudi, Picasso and Ramblin' On

Days 69 to 72 Barcelona

sunny 38 °C

Jen and I have always wanted to visit España, especially to have a chance to hablar Espanol, even though its been a while since our lessons.

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Renowned for its architecture, unique Catalán culture and cuisine, Barcelona's sights are so immense it has two different circuits on the HopOnHopOff bus. Today was see as much as possible and get our bearings.

Past the Torre Agbar, Barcelona's Water Board tower.
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And most famous of Gaudi's work, La Sagrada Familia, we then continue along to the foothills of Tibidado and its architecturally significant Hospital of the Holy Cross (incidentally where Gaudi expired),
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and then back into the town near Plaza de Catalunya.
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Barcelona is a celebration of Gaudi, and his distinctive style is everywhere - Casa Batllo and various aspects of the cityscape. We see his influence in numerous buildings in the city streets.
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He was a visionary. Although he would have been wise to keep an eye out for trams on 7 June 1926 in order to avoid his untimely demise. Nevertheless, his design lives on forever in Barcelona and his loyal disciples have diligently continued to work tirelessly on his greatest masterpiece for over 100 years.

We swapped across to the orange line west, down through the Arco de Triunfo de Barcelona,
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down past the el Bonn, World Trade Centre and up Montjuïc hill to the Olympic stadium.

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Another Olympic Stadium ticked off but then the heavens opened (which has been incredibly rare for our whole trip) and we're marooned for 40 minutes. First bit of serious rain since we were in Moscow wandering through Red Square in mid June.

Back on the bus and continued to the Place de Espanya, FC Barcelona stadium - Camp Nou, where Messi, Neymar and team mates are demi-gods.
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down Avinguda Diagonal and back to nearby Place de Catalunya. We then walked the path of the Orange bus via the Arc de Triomphe and ended up at the Beach. It did seem strange that earlier in the day we saw people with surfboards walking through the streets, now we realise why, not realising there was a surf beach.
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Then as the old buildings changed to boats and marinas we see the beach and surf at Patja del Bogatell. Again, we appreciate how unbelievably lucky we are in Oz for the beaches we enjoy.

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Thousands of people along a 10km stretch of beach. Not a spare piece of sand - and not sand like we enjoy, more akin to the underlay we buy by the cubic metre from landscaping suppliers for paving the back patio - in addition to being littered with rubbish and cigarette butts (both in the water and on the sand).

We walked along the beach road back onto the Green bus and made our way back to our apartment. We realised how enormous Barcelona is and the volume of tourists that visit. Out apartment host warned us that Barcelona is not the real Spain but has developed more into a tourist attraction. We are immediately struck by the "Tourist Version" of everything - especially Tapas for Tourists: jamon, queso, patatas bravas, albondigas and tortilla - en mas together with the usual tourist menu of hamburgers and pizza, after a few rounds of tapas, the lack of variety is a little tiresome.

The city itself is very well laid out with wide avenues, diagonals to enable quick cross city journeys, and loads of bicycle tracks. It has four distinct areas; the Gothic Quarter; the normal shops, churches, old Spanish buildings and apartment areas; the hill with the 1992 Olympics and palace area; and then the beaches. Each area is so different, full of tourists and loses its Spanish feel. Think of a bit of Melbourne for its old style, Sydney for its beaches, the Rocks and the marinas and Adelaide for all its churches all wrapped into one with swarms of tourists in 35+ heat.

The next day, Jen woke up with the dreaded stomach bug (damn, Tourist Tapas!). We had tickets for 9am to go into the unfinished La Sagrada Familia.

A little bit of history first.

Gaudi devoted himself to this church right up until his death in 1926 his altercation with a tram. When he died they had only built a small portion of the church but the building project continued. It started in 1882 and the forecast for completion is 2026, commemorating 100 years since his death.
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The building was designed with 6 towers with the main one at over 173 m tall is still to be built. From an engineering perspective it would be a nightmare of a construction site and would have been difficult to comprehend how this church would be built without modern construction techniques.

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The church is nothing like any other church you will see and its ideas around the structures was based on numerous types of environmental concepts. The use of natural light and the lead light is what hits you the most. Jen & I have become a bit jaded with the almost grotesqueness of some churches we visited - gold, gilt, dark, and heavy.

Gaudi's vision is for a celebration of life and nature. The way the light comes into the building and changes colours throughout the day is spectacular and unique.
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The internal columns are variously porphyry, granite and sandstone and the shaped to represent trees reaching up to the heavens. The natural light gives life to the trees and creates a feeling of being in a magical forest. We could sit there for hours as the sun moves and continuously casts different shadows and colours on the walls and columns - Blues and Greens in the morning as the sun beams in from the east and Yellows, Reds and Oranges as the day progresses, with the sun radiating from the West.

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Whilst unfinished, the magnificence and magic is already becoming evident. The stained glass at the very top tier isn't yet coloured, but gives a hint of what is to come.

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The outside is heavily Gothic and quite weird with fruit on top of steeples made of glass so they sparkle like gems, sections telling stories, pigeons, turtles, rough cut stone, curves everywhere and somehow how it all makes sense.

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The light and colour is quite hypnotic, and we could have stayed there all day and not taken it all in.

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We also walked up one of the towers to get a spectacular view of Barcelona. You get a better appreciation of how unfinished it is and how difficult it will be to finish this magnificent piece of architecture that was designed over 100 years ago.

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Back inside we took a little more time to soak up the place.

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The next day, we walked the Gothic Quarter which has retained its charm, en route to the Picasso museum.

Picasso was born in Malaga but as an early teenager he moved to Barcelona to master his trade. This museum took us through a journey of this life in art. His early years as an 11 year old art prodigy in the late 1800's to around 1915, starting with traditional styles and his development through the Blue and Cubism periods and then pushing boundaries and his style changed dramatically to what we all come to recognise as Picasso. What hit me was how Picasso saw the world, especially faces differently, as if his eyes refracted the image differently, breaking it down into its essential components. He was able to paint simply and efficiently. One piece, "Portrait of Sabanes with ruff hat and feather" of his long time friend and personal assistant Jamie Sabanes, who requested Picasso to paint him as a 16th century aristocrat.

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His friend quoted on the painting as saying, in relation to the warped likeness, "it exactly captures all my distinctive features as efficiently as possible". I think this describes Picasso's work perfectly. He only includes in a work, those features that are absolutely essential to capture the true nature of the subject - features and emotion. Picasso, in summing up his own work, "it took me 4 years to paint like Raphael and a lifetime to paint like a child". He was prolific with the volume of pieces, as well as experimenting with different media including ceramics and stencils. The last part of the museum was a body of work by Picasso and his detailed interpretation of another painting called
Las Meninas.

A painting of the Royal Spanish family first painted by Diego Velázquez, the leading artist of the Spanish Golden Age, in 1656.
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Picasso had been fascinated by the piece hanging in the Prado in Madrid since a young man. Having been a successful and prolific artist most of his life, despite the lean times in France in his twenties, Picasso was able to indulge his desires devoting an entire series of 58 paintings during 1957, performing a comprehensive analysis, reinterpreting and recreating several times.
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The little princess was singled out many times as well as the dog, who was reduced to a childlike version. Poor Perro!

After lunch, we then spent the rest of the day walking through the Gothic Quarter where it is possible, down the alleys and lanes, to get a feel for the Real Barcelona.
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Then along the waterfront and along Las Ramblas, keeping an eye out for pick pockets with the sea of humanity.

Our assessment of Barcelona is that its a little too touristy for us - we can appreciate the history and vibrancy of this city but in only a short visit, its difficult to distance from the tourism overload.
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Next its on to Madrid. Our original plan was to catch the train, but after some frustrating research, I found that the 3 hour train cost nearly as much as a 1 hour flight. So we flew.

We set off early.

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I had to do a fair bit of research for this day and it involved hiking with our bags, airport bus, a massive Barcelona airport, an even bigger Madrid airport, subway to Plaza del Sol with 3 changes and finally our apartment. I was very impressed as my scheduling, all went beautifully smooth! We got to our apartment at 12.30 pm, great location, only to be advised check in not until 4 pm. This was no appreciated especially when the temperature was 38 deg c.

After chilling in a cafe for 4 hours, we got into our apartment, directly above the bustle of Madrid and hit the streets for dinner. We are instantly struck by a totally different vibe than Barcelona. Just 50 m from our apartment was full of little restaurants and bars with proper traditional Spanish food and plenty of locals. It is much easier to relax in a place when surrounded by locals, rather than tourists. This was the Spanish Experience we were after! We drank sangria and devoured delicious tostadas followed with grande calamares. We closed the night with a stroll around the Plaza del Sol along with hundreds of other locals and street entertainers. The place was full of life, and we knew we would enjoy the next three days.

Madrid is also a few degrees hotter than Barcelona so now we are hitting a laconic heat of 38 deg c and at night time it does not get lower than 30, even still close to 35 at 11pm. But we don't mind, there is such great energy in this place.

Hasta luego Barrrrr-the-llooona.....Hola Ma-drrrrid.

Posted by tszeitli 01:14 Archived in Spain Tagged beaches art architecture barcelona culture train olympics gothic gaudi aeroplane tourists hot tapas sangria hoponhopoff Comments (3)

Day 3 of our Siberian Incarceration...

Day 19

overcast 20 °C

Morning town = Perm 2 , travelled 3600 km, 1500 km to go

Day 3 activities ....... See previous day activities. Still nothing changes.

We had a 30 minute stop late this morning and so I did the " Mission Impossible" challenge, get 2 coffees from the station and get back before the train leaves. I sprinted out the door, onto the platform, up the steps and found a coffee machine. Deciphered Russian words or so I thought, Inserted coins, dam the machine is broken. Look around and have to go deep into the station....sprint. Found second machine, put coins in, all good, 2 coffees and 15 minutes to go. Sprint back. Jen is relieved. I then found out I got 2 hot chocolates...doh!

In the late afternoon I decided to check the dining car to see what is there and see if it's like the Chinese one that was full of smokers. This dining cart was actually very clean but only looked like selling food snacks. What I did now realise was it had a fridge and I could buy beers...sweet. It took me until the last day to find this fact out...doh! The last night now was about trying to finish off all food, drink our wine and the beer we had bought.
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Although, with two rounds of beers under our belts, this night for the first time we had a visit from the police! They stuck their head into our cabin, and our table had empty beer bottles and a wine bottle. We were quickly chastised for drinking in our cabin and told to get rid of the evidence - "Drinks No!" they barked. Maybe it was lucky that we found the dining car fridge on the last day - or we thing we weren't supposed to bring them back to our cabin.

Almost there.....we arrive in Mockba tomorrow morning at 4.12 am.

I have caught up on reading my book and Jen has finished two books.
Bananagrams tally Tom 2 Jen 3.
Yahtzee tally Tom 7 Jen 5

Posted by tszeitli 23:27 Archived in Russia Tagged food train beers troublemakers Comments (3)

Forests, Farming and Crumbling Factories

Day 17

sunny 20 °C

Having departed Irkutsk yesterday afternoon, we travelled through the night.
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In the morning we arrived in Ilyanska. 800 km's down, 4300 to go!

We had the cabin to ourselves as our tour package includes that we have 4 seats. The next cabin had two quite elderly traditional Russian ladies and at one point they had a guy in his mid 20's sleeping on the top bunk. He did not look very happy! This was our first full day on the train and basically it consisted of:
Wake up, breakfast, morning ablutions, travel paperwork, bananagrams, yahtzee, snooze, read a book, lunch, cleaning lady comes in, blog writing, snooze, read a book, bananagrams, yahtzee, chips, wine, dinner, book and finally bed.
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All this is interrupted with train stops, people watching and checking out the tracksuit fashion of Russian men. The constant view out side the window was forests, farming and numerous run down and/or crumbling factories and buildings. The houses and farms rustic and simple and the norm for each house was to have the back yard farmed and a small glass house / poly tunnel. The cities we pass through centre around factories and buildings. Our assumption is they are left over from the socialist days and once Russia was formed these factories were just left to fall apart. It just looks like Russian infrastructure is falling behind and there is just not enough money to redevelop Russia. Sustaining capital investment needed!

I worked out the chart in the corridor of the carriage detailing time tables and the distances. Also I can map the whole trip using maps.me on my iPad. The whole trip will be 5093 km, 85 hours of train travel and living in a 2 1/2 m 1 1/2 m cabin. The sun does not go down until about 1am and dawn is about 3 am. The rest of the carriage passengers have changed over as they stop and get off and new passengers get on.

Day 1 finished: all good except iPad and surface batteries are flat. I have resorted to good old hand writing of my blog. Jen is happy and already finished one book and onto her second.

Posted by tszeitli 02:03 Archived in Russia Tagged train books sleep farming incarcaration Comments (0)

Somewhere South of the Russian Border

Day 14 Ten Hour Border Crossing - UB to Irkutsk on the Train and we've hit a slight technical difficulty

sunny 18 °C

Our cabin proves remarkably cosy, the rhythmic motions and gentle clunking of the train means we sleep soundly, occasionally stirring as we passed through towns. I woke up during the night to some shunting and banging of carriages but snuggled back into my bunk and back to sleep. Gradually as morning dawned and our neighbours began to stir, we noticed the train wasn't moving. Usually that means the toilets are locked so not ideal first thing in the morning. When the train is stopped at a station, it is possible to hop off and use the toilets at the station, but one must be sure to know exactly when the train departs as it will leave without you, no whistle or warning.

Jen and I decided to get up and see what was going on. To our utter amazement, the scene that presented itself was unreal. We'd hit a slight snag...no train.
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During the night, at the border town of Sukbaatar, our train had departed and all that was on the track at the deserted platform was our one and only carriage at an empty station. Nervous laughter and realisation that there was not much we could do about the situation took a little while to sink in. Definitely no dining carriage and no chance of the train leaving without us!

Our "friendly" steward of course did not offer to share any explanations or timeframes for when we might be again in motion.

A very helpful man with a satchel full of foreign exchange swapped our remaining Chinese Yuan and Mongolian Tughrik to Rubles - at surprisingly competitive rates (all without the aid of a calculator or wifi). Even at 5am there was a lady sitting at a desk in front of the toilets collecting 200 TGT from each person. We and our fellow marooned westerners now had to wait here for about 4 hours until the Mongolian border control came on to check our passports, and then customs, and a procession of uniformed officials inspecting us, our papers and our lonesome carriage. Once that was done, we got connected with a new engine and we were back in motion toward the Russian Border.

I did have a run in with the lovely (not) Russian train attendant who told me very sternly not to take any photos of the rolls of barbed wire fencing that was laid out at the point we crossed the border into Russia. "It is forbidden!" she barked, after I'd taken a photo (even though there was no prior explanation).
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During the crossing, we were confined to our cabins. This didn't bother us too much as we had surprisingly good cappuccinos courtesy of our trusty boiler and a packet mix.
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After about 30 minutes, crossing the border we pulled into a station at the Russian border town of Naushki. We figured we'd spend a short time here, passports, papers and the usual procession and we'd be on our way. But, again, with some banging and shunting, our engine departed, and we were once again, abandoned.
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We waited at Naushki for another 5 hours of Russian border control and eventually, rejoined to a full train, we were back on our way heading towards Irkutsk.
All in all, the border control was not as tight a security as I thought it would be, just painful having to sit around to go through the process but still all part of the travel experience. The rest of the day was enjoyed in our carriage, chatting with other travellers, eating snacks, reading and catching up with diaries...until our devices' batteries died.
The Russian scenery is totally different to Mongolia and now we are seeing rivers, forests and greenery along the journey. Fortunately, we could rest and get over our colds and begin our challenge of Bananagrams and Yatzee - not that we're competitive!

Posted by tszeitli 10:25 Archived in Mongolia Tagged train siberia technical_difficulties Comments (2)

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