The idea was to take a cruise at the end of our European trek, because it would ensure that we’d get some relaxation and we’d be able to unpack our bags and stay a while (while still seeing a lot of new places). We set out from Barcelona. The original itinerary had us going to Casablanca, then out to the Canary Islands to Las Palmas and Santa Cruz de Tenerife, onward to the Portugese island of Funchal, then back to Spain. Around the southern coast of Spain we’d hit Malaga and Alicante before swinging back to Barcelona. Very cool. I’d heard good things about the Canary Islands and while I knew the film was shot in a Hollywood backlot, Casablanca is one of my all time favorite films and visiting its namesake would be cool. It would also add a continent to my visited list.
We arrived at the port to find out our itinerary had been changed. It seems bad weather was forecast for the Canary Islands and ships were trying to avoid them. I’d really been looking forward to this, so it was certainly a bummer. But, these things happen, and again, this trip had been pretty amazing so far. So, after loading onto the boat and realizing we were surrounded by some of the oldest human beings on this great planet, we set off for Casablanca.
Looking out the window at Casablanca was not quite the romantic experience I’d hoped for. What the brochures aren’t going to tell you is that the cruise ships pull up in the middle of a major, semi-industrial commercial port. Casablanca is a major shipping hub and we were surrounded by cargo ships and cargo containers. Once we left the port, taking a tour bus with the Moroccan George Clooney (who maybe looked a bit more like the Moroccan Alan Arbus), we found the city to be one in the middle of a major transition. Half the city was under construction, with roads being rebuilt, new buildings going in, and cement dust hanging in the air. The most impressive thing we saw was the Hassan II Mosque. The building was absolutely enormous and beautifully crafted. I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body, but it was beautiful and an heck of a bit of engineering. The most wonderfully tacky thing we saw was Rick’s Cafe, where we had a pretty good little meal and some excellent kitsch. I believe there are actually a handful of different Rick’s in the city, all playing off tourists like myself. But ‘tis all in good fun. If I’m being honest, Casablanca did not wow me. In light of what I’d come to see, I’d be curious to revisit the city in a decade or so. I wonder if it might not be a much more impressive and exciting city then.
Our second stop, and our first alternate, was Tangier, where we arranged to take a trip out of the port city to visit Tetouan, an ancient and storied city. The medina (the old city), now a UNESCO World Heritage site, is amazing. It’s like something out of a movie. You’re walking through a modern city when you come to a gate in a wall. Passing through, you’re in a maze of tight, twisting alleyways and streets, like a dry version of Venice. There’s a market all around, with vendors on either side selling spices, fruit, nuts, fish, freshly butchered goat, and more. The center of the street is a trough for run off water and yes, some viscera and fish juice. People crowd past you, shopping for fresh food or a bootleg DVD. Sometimes somebody on a Vespa comes trundling by. In spite of my expectations, this didn’t end up tripping my anxiety and claustrophobia. It was actually pretty chill and the kind of place I could see myself visiting frequently if I lived in the area.
From what our guide told us, the month before we visited had been unusually rainy and consequently the countryside between Tangier and Tetouan was marvelously green. If I was going to compare it to somewhere, I’d say it looked like rural Ireland, sheep included. The only major difference was spotting tiny mosques in towns instead of churches. Otherwise, it had that pastoral, rolling hills of green thing going. Tangier, which we sadly had little time to stop and see, appears to be a hip, young, fashionable city. It is what I think Casablanca is on its way to being. Apparently a lot of money was sunk into modernizing and improving the infrastructure of the city a decade ago and those forces then moved to Casablanca. Tangier looked like a city that would be fun for someone who liked the beach or the nightlife.
A word of warning for when you book a tour, which I would recommend. You’ll probably be taken for a ‘demonstration’ of persian rugs. At first this might seem like just a quaint stop. However, the rug merchants are looking to sell and frequently go for some hard salesmanship. My advice is show no interest whatsoever and don’t take the bait. Everybody’s got to make a buck. I get that. I am, however, not a fan of the hard sell.
We then crossed back into Spanish waters and landed at Malaga where Rebecca and I boarded a bus that took us to Granada. When she first started working on the plans for this trip and Granada came up, my first thought was that I wanted to visit the Alhambra. We tried to get tickets, but even a year out, we were too late. Turns out they don’t let very many people in and we’d missed our chance to sign up. …Sad tuba sound… We figured the tour bus would at least take us past the palace/fortress and we’d be able to glimpse it. Turns out, we pretty much toured the entirety of the grounds, seeing almost everything I could have hoped for. I was pretty over the moon. There are odd rules about guides in different areas, so if you book a tour out of Malaga, you’ll have a guide who will pick you up and take you to Granada and back, but you’ll have a different guide in Granada. Be aware, for tipping purposes.
Cartagena was next up and our second alternate stop. We didn’t book anything, no tours or specific events. The ship docked close to the downtown so we decided to simply do our own thing and find our own way. We walked around, got kinda lost trying to find our way into some Roman ruins (man, those were poorly marked), and generally scoped out the city. Stopping in at a seafood themed lunch spot we grabbed some drinks and tapas. Because the first place we stopped at was almost exclusively fish-focused, we drifted on after a few bites, finding another place with slightly more variety. It was here that two things happened. The first is, we had some really good flan. The second is that I learned to be very grateful for our change of itinerary. I happened to see the TV in the restaurant showing some news footage of cars being washed down streets and various things flooding and being destroyed. The 2017 hurricane season was still a fairly fresh wound and I thought it was some news footage of that. Turns out it was live, showing what was happening in the Canary Islands. We started to learn that the islands had been hit really hard by a storm and that many people were stuck there. We’d dodged a big, wet bullet.
Next was Alicante, where we took a bus out into the country, visited a winery and saw a weird little church that was designed by a friend of Gaudi (of Sagrada Familia fame). In that church was a pipe organ made of marble. It was unfinished at the time, but what was there was really something. It had a unique sound and I’ll be curious about how it sounds when it’s finished.
By this stage we were pretty exhausted. Our next port was Mallorca and it just so happened that two friends had recently, in two totally different trips, gotten violently ill with food poisoning upon visits to Mallorca. We used that as an excuse to spend the day relaxing on the ship and we did not regret it. It was wonderful to have the ship almost entirely to ourselves, relaxing and taking advantage of the quiet.
Our last stop was Marseille. Here we booked a bus tour that took us out to Avignon, the city where the papacy moved for some time during a major conflict within the Catholic church. We didn’t get near enough time in Marseille, mostly riding through the core of the city in a bus, though we did get a lot of cool information from our guide. In some ways it reminded me of my adopted city, Washington D.C. It has a pretty rough past with a great deal of seedy stuff having gone on (it’s the “French” in “The French Connection,” for example). But it’s done a lot in the last 20-30 years to clean up its act. Our one big stop in Marseille was the Notre-Dame de la Garde, a beautiful church situated above the city. There was a funeral mass happening while we were there, so we didn’t see much inside but the view of the city from the hill was impressive. I hope I can go back and experience more of its charm. Avignon was the very picture of quaint French civility. Through various circumstances, it managed to avoid the conflicts of the last couple of centuries, preserving history in a way that isn’t always common in Europe. It even has a large section of its medieval wall, still in excellent repair.
Taking a cruise is always an odd experience. As I mentioned in my post on Barcelona, Spain is England’s Florida. By that, I mean a heck of a lot of British retirees live or winter there. This was the most homogenous cruise I’ve been on. Probably 95% British and 98% old as hell. Once in a while we’d see someone we’d think was a young guest, but they’d almost universally turn out to be off duty crew. You get a chance to meet folks you might never run into otherwise. We met the Two Margarets, a couple of ladies from Chicago. They were a trip. One was a very Catholic lady who reminded me a lot of my mother, except super-Chicago. The other was one of those brash old ladies who’d been through a heck of a lot of life and gave no F’s. Her story of an affair with a photographer in the leadup to the Tet Offensive was…something. We also met Deb and Peter and darn it I wanted to be their friends. Sadly, though always charming, I have a feeling Peter was one of those Brits who is startled by Americans. There was something of a classic British Sitcom patriarch about him.
I assume that the person who needs to read what I’m about to write will never read what I’m about to write. Here goes nothing. If tours are offered in multiple languages, you should definitely try to take one offered in your preferred language. If, as a completely, totally, 100% not based on an actual people example, you were say…I don’t know…French Canadian, and tours are offered in multiple languages that do include English, but also include French, and you can barely speak English but do speak French…Take the tour that’s offered in French!!! Don’t take the tour that’s offered in English and then spend the entire tour jabbering at each other in French at a high volume and then having to continually ask what’s happening because you aren’t listening. Everyone will hate you. Not just the South Africans.