I am excited and nervous at once. It is my first time crossing the Atlantic and my first time traveling to a foreign land. Of course, I've visited Canada several times, but it just doesn't seem like a foreign country to me. In some sense Canada represents what America could be: it's clean, there's little crime, and its people seem content. Hell, even an urban liquor store in Canada gives off a happy vibe, unlike the dirty, rundown equivalent in the U.S. with its barred windows and bulletproof glass.
But, one thing Canada lacks is excitement—it is very boring. Its citizens cannot take full blame, for they number only 30 million. There are about as many people in California or in the State of New York as there are in the entirety of Canada, the second-largest country in the world. The culture lacks critical mass.
Now, I have the opportunity to visit Spain, a mere fraction of the size of Canada but with over 40 million people. Oh, they also have a rich history dating back to Roman times and beyond.
I am traveling to attend a meeting of the International Planetarium Society in Valencia, Spain. The conference will last the better part of a week, then I have set aside another three weeks to be a tourist.
My friend, Pram, was already traveling in Europe so we arranged to meet in Valencia and spend the balance of time after the conference on tour. We discussed some of the possibilities, including Barcelona, southern Spain, Morocco, and Ibiza. We seemed to find common ground with Barcelona, Madrid, and Morocco. So, I made a hotel reservation in Barcelona and Pram made arrangements for Madrid and decided to meet in Valencia.
València is the third largest city in Spain with about 800,000 inhabitants. I was traveling there for a meeting of the International Planetarium Society, which worked well as the cost of traveling to Europe and back could be expensed. I flew directly to Madrid from JFK in New York and then took a smaller, hour-long flight to València.
Our conference was in la Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciències and occupied much of my time. This afforded few opportunities to explore the city center, which is about a 15-minute bus ride away. However, by the end of the conference, I was making more of an effort to venture into town and explore the bars and discos by night.
València does seem to be heading in the right direction, though one still sees the sales pitch in the tourist brochures that suggest some level of desperation. València remains overshadowed by the more popular tourist destinations of Madrid and Barcelona. Still, València is a nice city and, as it was my first exposure to Spain, I enjoyed the new food, the Spanish people, and the culture.
From València, Pram and I took the train to Barcelona. It was an agonizing, four-hour trip because we were sitting in front of obnoxious people. Barcelona provided a great pay-off for our suffering though. I became enamored with Barcelona's architecture, its friendly people, its rich history, and its insane nightlife. I hope to return soon to this city by the sea.
We stayed in a hotel right off the Plaza de Catalunya, the city's main square. I tried to strike a balance between seeing the city and going out and partying. I partly believe that I can party anywhere, so why should I travel 1,000 miles to do so. On the other hand, I also think this is the best way meet the locals. I tried to be somewhat disciplined though, getting in before 7 in the morning. One could easily stay out later; I believe Pram rolled in around 9 or 10 some mornings.
Our typical day involved waking up—early if we didn't stay out too late, early afternoon if we did—and seeing some sights. We ate a late lunch (the Spanish way) with a few courses and some wine, then continued to see the sights until it was time to get ready for the evening. Around midnight, one goes to the bars for a nice chat with new friends; the discos come to life around 3 A.M. My nocturnal tendencies were completely (and overly) satisfied here.
From Barcelona, we took a plane to Madrid then connected to Casablanca. The flight from Madrid to Casablanca is about an hour and a half, but Morocco is two hours behind Spain. Now, instead of 6 hours ahead of New York, we were only 4 hours ahead.
Once we arrived at the airport, we rented a car and drove into the city. This city is almost impossible to navigate as there aren't many street signs and the entire city naming system is undergoing arabization. Even Royal decrees have played a part in swapping names around town. Add to this confusion the chaotic driving and the fact that we were leading a two-car caravan filled with people we had met on the plane, and it quickly became a nightmare. In the end, we picked up someone off the street who, after some confusion, ably led us to our hotel. I'd always heard people in Morocco were extremely generous; however, we were putting this to the test sooner than I'd hoped.
While I hate to disparage any place, both Pram and I did not care for Casablanca too much. So much so that within hours of arriving we canceled our second night and decided to head to Marrakech the following morning. But, Casablanca will forever be my first impression of the Muslim world. We spent the remains of our day on a long walking tour, from the Crowne Plaza to the medina, through Casablancan slums and around the glorious Hassan II Mosque, then back through the center of town.
Our drive from Casablanca to Marrakech was not too pleasant. We had the usual problem getting out of the Casablanca; adding at least 30 minutes spent lost in the streets of the city. We also stopped by the Casablanca airport to ask the car rental guys about the red, exclamation point light that appeared on our dashboard this morning (out of brake fluid, that's all).
I was hoping for a four-lane highway to Marrakech, but I was too optimistic; the road is two-lane and very crowded. While the distance is only 150 miles, it took about 4 hours, dodging over-packed trucks, buses with people hanging from the doors, taxis going from town to town, and wealthy, Moroccan sports car drivers.
Finally, we came upon a huge congregation of adobe buildings in the distance. The haze hanging over the flat, sub-Saharan plain was daunting. I don't precisely know what my impression of Marrakech was before I arrived there, but it's safe to say that whatever they were, they were wholly wrong. Marrakech is not the European-like city of Casablanca, rather, it appears like an oversized oasis in the middle of the desert. The red-orange buildings reflect the hue of the surrounding earth and, aside from the minarets sprinkled around town, none appear to be over three stories tall.
Once in the city, we were pulled over for speeding. Pram skillfully begged his way out of the 400 dirham (about 45 USD) fee, which must be paid on the spot. We parked the car just inside the medina and walked around looking for a place to stay. At times we were guided, other times we were on our own. We ended up splurging for a nice resort hotel that cost a lot, but was a nice refuge from the bustling city.
Fes is the great imperial city of Morocco. Founded in the 800s, it remains the lifeblood of the country. Fes is altogether different from both Casablanca and Marrakech. Tucked between the Middle Atlas and Rif mountain ranges, the city is more compact than other large cities in the country.
We begin with our drive from Marrakech to Fes. Starting in the low desert around Marrakech at an elevation of 1,500 feet, we skirted the High Atlas mountains as we drove northeast to Fes. Some of the distant peaks reach over 4,000 meters (over 13,000 feet). Along the way we passed through many towns, several wilayats, or provinces, and lost our way a few times (which should surprise no one by now).
We arrived in Fes and were quickly picked up by a faux tour guide who was on his motor bike. He showed us to some hotels in New Fes, but it was too far from the Fes el-Bali medina. He then took us to a riad just inside the walls of the medina, the Dar Masmoudi, where we decided to stay.
The entire Fes el-Bali (Old Fes) medina is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It contains nearly 10,000 narrow streets and alleys covering 740 acres (100 acres smaller than Central Park in New York City). Within this medieval medina live about 160,000 people, 223 people per acre or 142,454 people per square mile. Compare that to the highest population density areas in New York (Upper East Side) that are around 100,000 people per square mile. And, since most buildings are under four stories in Fes el-Bali, the population density in Fes is all the more meaningful than in New York, where we have 40-story apartment buildings.
After spending one week in Morocco, I was ready to resume my affair with Spain. Morocco supplied a deep cultural experience, but it's a harsh existence. The afternoon heat is brutal, the
foreigness of the customs is a little stressful, and the driving is certainly like no other place I've visited.
I was ready for something more Western.
Rather than stay at the same hotel downtown Casablanca, we decided to look for something closer to the ocean. We nervously drove into town and headed for the seaside. South of the enormous Hassan II mosque lies the beaches and resorts that line them.
After a week in Morocco, we were both ready to return to Spain and a more familiar world. Upon leaving Fes, we drove back to Casablanca and stayed another uneventful night in an old seaside hotel on the Atlantic. The following morning we flew to Madrid.
We had 4 nights in Madrid, then I would fly home to New York and Pram would return to Amsterdam to continue his travels. Although Madrid is a larger city, I preferred Barcelona to Madrid. I felt there was more cultural richness in Barcelona. However, Madrid, with a population twice as large as Barcelona, has the critical mass to foster an energetic, bustling feeling on the streets. Since there are very few bars and clubs in Morocco, we were back on our schedule of sight-seeing and Spanish nightlife.