Europe, 2019

On April 26, I embarked on my next adventure. I flew from Christchurch to Madrid to start this adventure. The blue dots on the map above are the places I visited.

Part One:

Spain 

Portugal

Morocco

Part Two:

Germany – I’ve been to Germany before, but  not Berlin

Poland – I’ve been to Poland before, but not Warsaw

Lithuania

Latvia

Estonia

Local time: April 27. The flights all passed without incident. I did get to “sleep” with an Irish girl from Dublin. By that I mean, she was in the seat – Row 84 – adjacent to mine from Christchurch to Dubai. She was lovely, to be sure.

I did actually meet up with some of the group I’m travelling with at the airport. Their yellow “Insight” labels on their bags stuck out. I arrived at the hotel about 5 and out again at 6, for our “welcome” dinner. There are 33 in the group, and as I expected most are Australians. Bearing in mind, there were 2 x Cosmos tours, 1 x Trafalgar tour, and 3 x Insight tours all meeting in the same spot at the airport, I was left wondering how we will visit the same locations without tripping over each other.

There are 2 other women from New Zealand who live in KatiKati. There’s a couple from Peru, and a couple from (god help us all) Texas. At dinner tonight, the man from Texas is SO LOUD, that even though we were divided into three tables, everyone could still hear every word he said. It’s possible he won’t survive the trip.

Dinner (and there are no photos as it was served piece-meal) was excellent. Roja (not sure of the spelling), but it was cold soup, quite thick, made from capsicums, tomatoes and spices. It wasn’t to my taste. Then we received a wedge of hot potato/onion slice, a fish croquette, a chicken croquette, a spear of white asparagus, a small dessert which was of cheesecake consistency with a berry jus, followed by a lemon sorbet. It was a little strange, but interesting. The asparagus was fabulous. All this was served with multiple bottles of a great red wine. Ahhhh.

Madrid

Last night, I tried reading for a while, but it was soon obvious – after I’d read the same paragraph 3 times – that that wasn’t a happening thing, and so I gave in and went to bed at 9pm. Out like a light. Woke at 5am and knew that that was it. (It’s 6pm now, and the group is going to wander into the Plaza Mayor for “dinner at leisure” which means it’s not part of the tour, and so I’ve decided to do some writing, and go to bed . . . I’m tired.

Firstly, a group update. There are 7 women on the tour without men. The 2 New Zealanders called Liz and Lizzie, an American called Sandra, and 3 Australian women who are travelling together: Maree, Greta and Bernice. The tour director is called Meagan, and is an Australian in her late 20s or early 30s who lives in Munich with her Irish boyfriend who’s a local guide there.

On the bus from Madrid to Salamanca (where we’re staying tonight) she talked a lot about the things we’re seeing and the areas through which we were driving. The Texan whose name is Ben was charming when he and I talked one on one, but incredibly rude to his wife as well as the bus driver.

After breakfast, we went for a drive around Madrid, a city of 3.2 million people which has only been the capital of Spain for the last 500 years. There were lots of references to Christopher Columbus – I suppose that even though he’s Italian, the King of Spain did fund some of his trips (I remember an interesting snippet regarding this. The wealthy people of Spain who also backed Columbus were not allowed by the Catholic Church to get any recompense for the money invested. They could get their original investment returned from any gold etc that Columbus found, but there was no interest to be charged or paid. The Catholic Church called that “usury” and it was forbidden.)

The oldest monument in Madrid is not Spanish but Egyptian. When the Aswan Dam was being built in the 1960s, UNESCO sought assistance from many countries to rescue some of the temples that would be drowned as the Dam filled. The ruins of the Temple of Debod is in a park of its own.

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From there we went to the Prada Museum where we had a local guide who was very knowledgeable about the paintings. I’m not much into art, and so I was bored to tears in the Hermitage a few years ago, but wandering around looking at some of these paintings AND the back stories that Anna told made them very interesting.

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The photo above is of a painting done by Vasquez who had been told exactly that he was to paint. But he wasn’t up for that. And so he told the story of the royal family of Spain as he knew them. The Queen in the middle had 24 pregnancies (8 children survived to adulthood). As a consequence, she had no teeth and it’s pretty obvious from the painting that she didn’t. The man in blue on the left is the heir to the throne, but he was more interested in men than women, and the woman to his left is to be his wife BUT she has no face, as she hadn’t been chosen at that stage. The little boy in red is the youngest son of whom Charles (the king) was very fond, BUT the child wasn’t his. Evidently, the queen put it about a lot and the father of the boy in red was the man on the right of the painting. The woman on the extreme right of the painting holding the baby is Charles’ daughter. So the Queen’s lover was her son-in-law.

Ah. The life of the rich and famous.

Avila was our first stop – a beautiful walled town entered by way of a number of escalators. Cobblestone streets and quaint buildings abound, and I found a cafe where I had lunch.

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On the way from Avila to Salamanca where I’m writing this and where we’re staying tonight, we saw a huge cross on the side of a hill. There’s a church dug into the hillside with the cross, and this is where Francisco Franco is buried. There is a considerable amount of friction regarding this as the church is located in the Valley of the Fallen, and many people do not think it’s appropriate for his body to be there. So there’s ongoing discussion about exhuming him and planting him somewhere else. Watch this space . . (Don’t, really, I won’t be updating . . . ) 

And so to Salamanca – there’s a font also called “salamanca” and any sign-writing in this city has to seek approval unless it’s in that font. This city is a huge university town with 40,000 students here throughout the academic year.

Had this hotel had a bar and/or a restaurant, I might have gone in search of a drink and something to eat. But it doesn’t. So I won’t. Tomorrow we’re off to Lisbon. 

When we left Fawlty Towers this morning, we were all laughing.

Fawlty Towers I hear you say? I thought you were in Spain. Well so did we.

Let me talk about my room last night because it transpired that everyone had the same experience. My television didn’t work, which to me didn’t matter – so much so that I didn’t complain about it. But the air conditioning? Well, that was something else. It was on, but the room just kept getting hotter. So I called Reception to ask how to get it to work, assuming the problem was mine. The receptionist suggested I close the window. Well I’d tried to open it with no success (because the room was like a sauna), so I declared that wasn’t the problem. Shortly thereafter, there was a knock at the door, and before I could open it, the receptionist was there, opening the window. And she left.

At least I then had a room that was cooling down.

When we arrived, Meagan had said she was going to guide us into the central part of the city on a walking tour, and then she would point out places where we could eat. I decided that I didn’t want to do that, and so I asked if the hotel had a bar and a restaurant. She said that they only served breakfast. I had water and decided that I didn’t need anything to eat anyway, and so didn’t question any further.

About 10pm I decided it was time to go to sleep, and as it was noisy outside, I closed the window, assuming that the air conditioning would kick in then and keep the room cool. WRONG! About 3am I got out of bed, peeled back the 24 layers of curtains and opened the window. Aaaahhhh!

Breakfast was from 7.30, so bearing in mind I hadn’t had any dinner, I was ready for breakfast at 7.30. As I walked towards the lift however, I was greeted by a number of fellow travelers who suggested I return to my room. They had gone to the breakfast room to be very rudely turned away by the man in charge, who said that our group wasn’t due there until 8am and to go away. They all had the same story about overheated rooms and televisions that didn’t work.

When we tried again about 7.55, there were so many stories about the boss man – I suggested he might be PMT – that the comparison to Fawlty Towers was immediately made. When asked for cutlery, he refused pointing to cutlery at other places on other tables. He hid the salt and pepper. People had been told off for taking more than one bread roll at a time. There was a story about another guest walking out the door with an orange from the bar in her hand. She was MADE to walk back into the room, and put it back on the table.

Wow!

I also found out that not only was there a bar, but there was also a restaurant serving dinner. Ah well.

We spent most of today in the bus making our way to Lisbon which is where we are now. We had two toilet breaks at service stations (reminding me of all the service station breaks on the Scandinavian trip in 2017), before arriving at Fatima for a wander around and lunch. This is the location where in 1917, supposedly the Virgin Mary appeared to 3 children on May 13, and then on the 13th of each month for 6 months. On the last apparition, she gave the children 3 secrets. 

On the coach heading towards Fatima, Meagan showed us to a 30 minute documentary on what happened there. I confess to a large amount of eye-rolling, and in the end, I switched off, and zoned out. It was boring. It required/requires a huge amount of either faith or suspension of belief, and I have neither.

Talking about “none” / NUN – see what I did there? I was educated at a Catholic girls’ school my entire life from the age of 4 to 17. I am an atheist. This has left me with no tolerance for people of faith. I simply do not understand. I accept that people are all different, and that people who believe also believe that they are right and I am wrong. So be it.

There’s lots on google about Fatima. And the place where the supposed apparition took place is HUGE. The photo above is the original cathedral that was built on the site. But there’s an even larger one to the right that I didn’t take a photo of.

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I followed the masses into the area, took a photo and wandered off into town to walk past a thousand tourist shops selling rosary beads and holy water, and statutes of Mary . . . . . Good grief. I stopped at a restaurant and sat in the shade, ordering some fish. The waiter turned up with a chicken salad. Ok, so my Portuguese is non-existent, but I’d pointed to the fish dish on the menu along with its picture. It certainly wasn’t chicken salad. The chicken salad was actually quite palatable, and of course very healthy.

Back on the bus eventually, Meagan commented that she doesn’t believe that history is boring and gave us a history lesson to prove her point. She talked about the origin of Portugal. I’m afraid I zoned out. History is much more entertaining when it’s told as a story. When she finished, she said loudly “so who says history is boring?”. I was amused to note that there were only a couple of voices who commented. I suspect that like me they had zoned out as well.

I’m off for a drink and something to eat.

I did learn something today that I didn’t know before – and that’s always good.

In 1940, then-dictator Francisco Franco pulled Spain out of Greenwich Mean Time as a gesture of goodwill to Nazi Germany. While geographically Spain should be on the same time as the United Kingdom and Portugal, its clocks are in the same zone as countries as far east as Poland, meaning fewer hours of light in the morning, and more in the evening.

So when we leave Portugal, we will have to put our watches back an hour – except those of us with Apple Watches which change automatically.

I’m sitting at the desk on the 9th floor of this hotel where we are for 2 nights, and that is my view. Pretty spectacular really.

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PS. The Texan is still alive. He was actually almost quiet today, but he’s one of those people who’s managed to annoy or upset every one of the group I’ve talked with. Most mention his loudness, and all his rudeness. Maybe someone else will do him in and save me the trouble.

There’s a mall across the road from the hotel and I’ve just returned from an adventure into a supermarket where I didn’t understand any of the language (although I now know that the Portuguese for chicken is “prango”). I’ve done this before in other parts of the world with varying degrees of success. It’s not possible to even remotely guess what is in a packet when the writing on it is in Uzbek or Turkish. My only fear was walking out a door that wasn’t the one I entered and having no idea where I was, but here I am.

Portugal has a population of around 11 million. Our local guide who joined us early this morning gave us a history lesson as we drove around the city. I started this paragraph with lots of history – and then deleted it all. It was tedious and I don’t like history to be tedious so it’s gone.

In 1755, an earthquake struck Lisbon. In modern parlance, it was probably about a 8.5 or thereabouts on the Richter scale. But it wasn’t just the earthquake that destroyed the city. It happened on November 1 which is All Saints Day – everyone was in church, and the shaking knocked over all the candles, which led to fire consuming the city. In addition there was a tsunami. The death toll was anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000. So the city was destroyed and everything in the old part of the town dates back to the 18th century. I found it interesting that this city defines itself by the earthquake, just as San Francisco does, as does my home town, Christchurch.

As we drove from the hotel down to the river Tagus, we drove down Avenida da Liberdade where all the designer stores are. The rent is €30,000 per month – you need to sell a lot to cover that. Wherever we stopped there were 1000s of tourists. And it’s still only April.

We arrived in Seville, Spain, in the early afternoon to a temperature of 31 degrees. Far too hot for this delicate rose! Our local guide conducted us on a tour of the old part of Seville with lots of history and narrow streets. But I can’t really say I enjoyed it. It was just too hot for me. The point of this excursion was to visit the Cathedral which was built in the Gothic style in the 1500s and is Spain’s largest and the third largest in the world. I hired a helicopter just so I could take a photo (see image at the top of this page) to show what it looks like from above, because on the ground it’s impossible to get a photo that shows any more than about a metre of a wall, and then there would be 100 tourists in the way anyway.

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The reason I came to Europe at this time of the year was because it wouldn’t be too hot here or too cold in the Balkan States. Whew! I got this part wrong. However, I should point out that Seville in July can get to 45 degrees! I wouldn’t be leaving the room with its air conditioning ever.

But I digress. The cathedral was exactly what would be expected. Full of gold, full of extravagances, and full of tourists. It boasts the largest altar in the world . . . Who knows? But all the best bits (in terms of gold etc) are behind iron fences to keep greedy fingers off, I assume.

On the drive yesterday morning, apart from lots of grape vines, and olive trees, there were also a plethora of cork trees. I guess I’d never thought about where cork comes from, but today I found out. Cork is extracted from early May to late August when the cork can be separated from the tree without causing permanent damage. The tree needs to be 25 to 30 years old before the cork can be extracted.

Seville was founded as the Roman city of Hispalis, and, in 712, it was called Ishbiliyya when the Muslims conquered it. It was finally incorporated into the Christian Kingdom of Castile in 1248. The city was important for its trans-oceanic trade even though its river-port is 80 km from the sea.

In 1519, Magellan left from Seville to explore the world. However, the silting of the river gradually forced the trade to move to Cadiz. I cannot think of Cadiz without mentioning the episode known in history as “singeing the King of Spain’s beard”. In the period (remember I used to teach history and my specialist period was Tudor and Stuart England), of April to May, 1587, English spies had suggested that there was an accumulation of ships in Cadiz, and rumours abounded regarding a Spanish attempt to invade England. So Francis Drake was charged with the job of seeing if he could do something about this. He took some ships and headed to Cadiz. The port contained a large number of Spanish ships (all made from timber of course), and Drake sent fire ships (which were just small barges that were set on fire before being sent on their way with the tide) into the harbour in the hope of setting fire to the Spanish ships with considerable success – hence the singeing part of the phrase.

As we drove south heading to Seville, the weather was really misty and cool, lulling me into a false sense of coolness. There was even heating turned on in the bus for the delicate Australians.

There were many fields covered in solar panels that we drove past too. So . . I consulted Google. We’d been told that Spain is leading the way in Europe in terms of solar power, but Google had a different idea. Spain used to, but the financial crisis of 2008 meant that Spain could no longer afford to do so. There is no denying that Spain has more sunshine hours than any other part of Europe so it makes sense.

On the bus today, Meagan noticed I was jotting down notes and asked what I was doing. I told her that I write when I travel so I can remember what I’ve done and where I’ve been otherwise it all blends into one and a year later I have no idea what I got up to. She asked if I could give her the link so she can read it.

Meagan talked about what to expect over the next few days as tomorrow we head to Morocco. She talked about the ferry across and how we have to take everything off the bus with us. She said the crossing takes about an hour, and the sea can be rough. The Dramamine that Nick brought me back from the States last year because it’s no longer available in NZ, and because it’s most effective in warding off sea-sickness, is still sitting in the drawer at home. However, I overheard Judy mention that she has some, so when the opportunity arose, I asked her if she had some to spare. She said she would be pleased to share. Whew.

On the subject of Judy – she’s the Texan’s wife – he seemed to be much nicer to her yesterday. None of any behaviour – good or bad – would probably be noticeable if he wasn’t so loud. Anyway, I heard him ask her a couple of times on the bus if she wanted the window seat. Later in the day, I heard her tell him off in a really picky way, so maybe I misjudged him and there’s a history of disrespect between them which would make all behaviours previously mentioned not acceptable, but understandable.

There are about 10 optional excursions on this tour. Initially, I didn’t sign up for any of them. They are extra and they cost extra. If you’re not on an optional excursion, you’re entertaining yourself. This morning, there’s an optional excursion to Cordoba which returns in the late afternoon. I’m writing, so I didn’t get on the bus at 8am to go. Instead I lolled about in bed, sleeping, as it was 8.30 when I awoke. (More about the bed later.)

This photo is where we dined – it was built in 1670. The man in front is an Australian in our group – he’s in every photo I took of the place, and to crop him out would mean there was nothing of the photo left, so we’re stuck with him.

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I changed my mind about two of the optional excursions because I felt the need to be more social. So last night, I signed up for the Andalusian dinner experience. I suppose there were about 24 of the 33 of us there. I sat with Mark and Chany (they live in Washington DC, and Chany is Peruvian). We had a wonderful evening chatting, eating, and drinking – well Chany and I drank – lots of red wine. Mark doesn’t drink because it gives him a headache. He’s a property valuer – and travels a lot because of this. Chany is an interpreter and whilst we were chatting had a phone call about a job that will take her to Detroit for the weekend all expenses paid, plus $5,000 in the bank. Mark told me this proudly.

The food needs a mention. No photos I’m sorry. There were 8 courses, all quite small, and all different. Olives with Iberian ham and bread, grilled aubergine with honey, a mixed salad with tuna, chickpea and chard (not to my taste), cod with a tart garlic sauce, beef cheek stew, pork with fries, and a white chocolate mousse. When I started writing, I really didn’t think I would remember all the dishes, but I amazed that I did. All this was consumed over about 2 and a half hours with lots of wine and chat. Our young Spanish waiter gave us lots of attention after Chany started chatting to him in Spanish. It was a great evening and one I’m pleased I didn’t miss even though the cost was €63.

Leaving the restaurant to get on the bus and return to the hotel, one of the Australians – Jim – with whom I’ve chatted a bit called out to me to tell me he had been defending the honour of my country at dinner tonight when a discussion began about ownership. I immediately turned around and said “not the old pavlova debate surely?”. Everyone laughed.

I started writing on my return to the hotel, but about 11pm gave it up and went to bed. On one occasion during the night, I did actually contemplate sitting on the chair to see if that would be more comfortable. Not only is the mattress VERY firm (not a dint to be seen or more importantly felt) but so is the pillow. Just as well there’s another dinner tonight with wine . . .

Dinner tonight was a Flamenco evening. There were at least 300 people seated at tables in the room on three different levels. (Goodness only knows what would have happened had there been a need for an evacuation.) The show started as the tapas arrived: cheese, croquettes, potato squares and olives with bread (dry). The lights went down and the dancing started.

There were two men in particular with long hair who would throw their heads back in order to put their hair off their faces. They thought they were gorgeous. It would have been better if we had had a 30 second description of the story behind each dance. The only one that most people knew the story of was “Carmen”.

The salad course was a huge plate of goodness only knows what – it was too dark to see. Everyone at the table where I was seated touched and left it. I chose the Cod Confit which came with rice and potato balls. There will be no vampires in my room tonight. LOTS of garlic. Then dessert was ice cream. I enjoyed last night’s dinner much more because it was possible to chat with the people with whom I was seated.

But I have Dramamine for the ferry tomorrow. Yes!!

When I went downstairs this evening for a drink before dinner, I was greeted with calls from people who went to Cordoba this morning asking if I’d heard about Phil. So once on the bus heading to dinner, Phil took the microphone to tell us about his excitement.

On a walk around Cordoba, he ducked into a store to purchase a hat (a very fine one he insisted) and when he reappeared, the group was nowhere to be seen. He checked down all the alleys and couldn’t find anyone. His phone wouldn’t find a signal and he tried to score some WiFi with no success. So he hailed a taxi to take him to the train station, and returned to Seville and beat the bus back. I’ll bet he makes sure someone knows he’s off to purchase something whilst we’re in Morocco otherwise he might vanish, never to be found again.

We were up early yesterday morning, in the bus and on the way to Tarifa to board the ferry to get to Africa. We left Seville at 8am and arrived at Fez about 6pm, so it was a long day sitting. Judy had given me a couple of Dramamine and I took one before leaving this morning. The package she showed me said that they would not make the user sleepy. Wrong! I couldn’t stay awake all day. I was sitting on the bus dozing off all the time. I tried to keep my eyes open, but had no success in doing so. (I was interested to note that the one I took for the return crossing didn’t have any effect at all – well not in terms of drowsiness, anyway.)

The ferry crossing only took about an hour, but it took almost that long to actually get through the Moroccan passport control. There were two men at the counter on the ferry, and the queue must have been about the same length as the boat. And what was worse, there wasn’t really anything to hang onto. It seemed I’d no sooner got the stamp than the boat had docked and it was time to get off. So no real need for seasickness medication – possibly.

We had had to take everything off the bus and put our cases through the x-ray machines leaving Spain, and so we had to do the same arriving in Morocco, and then we were on the bus again.

In Tangier (our entry point) we had collected our national guide. It’s not possible to tour around Morocco without one of these. Ours is called Najib, and although he speaks excellent English, his accent is strong and requires concentration in order to pick up on what he’s saying. He comes from Tangier which, he said, makes him a tangerine. There are 2 official languages in Morocco – Arabic and French.

There’s rubbish everywhere and the footpaths are non-existent. The food stalls abound, but those that amazed me the most were the meat stalls where the meat is still hanging, waiting to be chopped up. Goodness only knows how long it’s been sitting there, and what delightful bugs come with it.

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Ramadan – the Muslim month of fasting, when nothing at all can be consumed from sunrise to sunset starts on Monday. The guide assured us that it won’t make any difference to our trip, but that remains to be seen. In most Arabic countries, on Friday which is the Muslim holy day, most shops are not open, but this is not the case in Morocco.

Morocco has a population of around 38 million, with a literacy rate of around 48%. Education for 9 years was only made compulsory in 2005. Najib stressed the religious toleration of the country where 95% are Muslim, 3% are Christian, and 2% are Jewish. From 1912 to 1956, Morocco was occupied by the French from whom the country had borrowed a lot of money which they couldn’t return.

As we drove from Tangier to Fez, we drove through countryside that was completely covered in crops. On some occasions, it was easy to pick out what the crops were, but on other occasions, it was tricky.

We are staying in Fez for 2 nights – last night and tonight, in the Marriott hotel which is quite posh – not, of course, as posh as the hotel I stayed at in Ashgabat in Turkmenistan – nothing will surpass that.

Last night, we dined in the hotel. We’ve been given strict instructions on not drinking the water, and not eating salads or anything that might have come into contact with water. The dinner was buffet style with a huge selection of salads, which many of our group seem to have piled on their plates anyway. There were 2 different chicken dishes, at least 4 different hot vegetable dishes, potatoes, rice, spicy lentils which were delicious, followed by a large selection of desserts. I ordered a glass of wine (which tasted a bit like a merlot), and, towards the end of the meal, a young waiter came around to collect payment for the beers, wine etc, I was in the embarrassing situation of not having any cash on me. Not only did Jim pay, but he ordered another glass of wine (which was much nicer than the first), so I need to sit at his table tonight and pay for his beer or wine.

This morning, we went on an adventure to explore the city. We had three local guides with us – Muhammad called Momo because there are millions of Muhammads, Bob (that was what we were told to call him) and Najib. My side of the bus got to follow Bob through the labyrinth of the markets of Fez AND NO ONE GOT LOST. It was really quite terrifying because the streets were so narrow and twisting, and turned so much that, if you hadn’t been paying attention, it would have been easy to get left behind.

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Bob decided he wanted to have a photo taken with me. Whilst we were posing, he asked me where I came from and when he asked what city, he asked if I know Papanui Road because he knows some people who live there. He told me that he would make sure I get a really good deal for a carpet when we get to that part of our walk, asked me my favourite colour (I pointed to my hair), and we carried on. I was stupid enough to think nothing more of it.

We walked for hours and hours.

On some occasions, the alleys were so narrow (see the middle photo below) that we almost had to walk side-ways. You certainly wouldn’t want to be claustrophobic. The sights and sounds that bombarded us were amazing as were the smells, although some of these were not at all pleasant. There are cats everywhere – well actually kittens more than cats. Lots and lots of kittens.

Eventually, I was thinking that if we didn’t get the chance to sit down soon I was going to have to ask, when we stopped off at the carpet place. As you would expect it was full of mainly young men and lots of carpets. We had repeatedly been told that it was a co-operative and that all the money paid goes to the women who make the carpets. I couldn’t help but wonder why the women weren’t selling the carpets. I am sure they would have had more success.

However, I was seated comfortably, ready to watch the performance as the men tried to get my group to part company with their money, when Bob collected me and took me into a side room. He was followed by 4 men who proceeded to pull out and throw down on the floor, carpets which had blue in them. Some were large carpets and some were small ones.

I’ve been there before. I spent hours in a carpet place in Uzbekistan where my American companions parted company with $10,000 (US) for a carpet. I knew what to expect. Bob asked me what I thought the asking price would be pointing to one carpet. I said €2,000, He looked surprised, but quickly added – but not for you madam. I’ll bet you know the words that appeared unbidden in my head.

Carpets got smaller and smaller, and so of course did the price. When there were about 10 carpets on the floor in front of me (remember I was separated from the rest of the group), Bob finally said to me, “so what would be the lowest you would go to purchase one of these beautiful carpets”. I turned to him and said “I don’t know where you got the idea from that I was going to buy a carpet, because I have no intention of doing so.” And I got up and walked back into the other room where one couple were in the throes of buying a carpet. (I later found out that they have paid € 1,500 for the carpet to be made to their specifications and sent to them in Australia. The cynic in me wonders if what they think they’ve paid for ever arrives.)

It was all a bit overwhelming really. Maybe he thought that because I was travelling on my own, I must be a wealthy widow with buckets of money. When I emerged from this room, Meagan came over to me and asked me if I was all right. So I told her the story. She was very concerned that I had felt so uncomfortable, and asked if we can talk more about it tonight. And we will because I want to find out what it was I did that led “Bob” to the conclusion that he did. She had come into the room whilst all the carpets were being thrown down and asked me if I was all right. I had mouthed that I was coping.

After the carpets, we went to a tannery. We were supposed to go into the shop and up the stairs to watch and smell the process. I declined. I’ve seen that before and didn’t need to smell it again. Angela, one of the women from the group, was trying on a suede jacket. She had decided she liked the style of the one she was trying on, but not the cloth or the colour. She wanted a leather jacket in black. I was stunned. The jacket she had on was a mulberry shade and looked stunning on her. And I told her so. Besides which, I felt she was much better off taking the jacket with her rather than having one made to be delivered to the hotel before we leave in the morning. I did not say that to her though. For some odd reason, she changed her mind, and took the mulberry suede jacket.

The man who was in charge of taking the money said that the one she now wanted was more expensive than the one she had paid for and was going to be made for her. I did intervene and told her that she wasn’t to pay any more for it than she already had. I left her to it. She left with the mulberry jacket at the price she had already paid. As we left, I then told her that I thought it was a much better idea that she leave with a jacket. How could she possibly know how well the one that was made would fit which she then had no way to get adjusted?

Bob then lead us back through the labyrinth eventually arriving at the bus and then we headed back to the hotel. We left the hotel at 8.30 this morning, and by this time it was 1pm. I had had 3 glasses of water, and a cup of coffee. While we were checking out the carpets, we had had a cup of mint tea . . .  I’ll bet you can see where I’m going with this. I hoped that I didn’t sneeze. I was barely able to control my bladder as it was.

On the way to dinner tonight, I called into the shop which is located within this hotel. There was a large variety of ceramics as well as leather and jewellery on display. I purchased the ring and bracelet. 120 dirham converts to less than $20 NZ, and I’ve never seen anything like it before. It was impossible to even look today at the thousands of stalls we walked past. To look meant to be hassled and it wasn’t worth it. 

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I had dinner this evening with the three ladies who are travelling together – they are from Victoria and live about 2 hours away from each other. So of course I had to ask how they knew each other. They all used to camp in the same place when their children were small and have been friends ever since. Their husbands are all at home. They are sharing the same room, but this hotel isn’t very accommodating in terms of toiletries and towels. Both yesterday and today, they’ve had to go in search of enough for them all.

And at dinner, I noticed the service was very sexist. The gentleman who seemed to be in charge of the dining room asked the people at every table where there were men if they would like some wine or beer. He didn’t come to the table when I was sitting there on my own, and he didn’t come when there were 4 women sitting at the table. I tried twice to get his attention so I could order a glass of wine, and decided I couldn’t be bothered. So I’m sober tonight!

At 2am yesterday morning the clocks went forward an hour for what google calls daylight saving, but what is actually a Ramadan time change for Morocco only – from what I could gather. I assumed that because it was a local occurrence in Morocco only, my iPhone wouldn’t change automatically and so before I turned out the light, I took my phone off automatic, and manually put it forward an hour. I woke before the alarm which I had set for 7.15 as we had to be on the bus by 8.30, and had to have our bags at our doors by 7.30. All sorted, I made my way to breakfast. I sat with Geoff and Jeanette (Geoff has decided I’m his personal IT person as I have sorted out his WiFi a couple of times now), and I was amazed when people from our group started arriving for breakfast at what my watch and phone said was 8.15.

Determined that I wouldn’t be the person who held the bus up, I went to the foyer to see our suitcases sitting outside waiting to be loaded onto the bus. It turns out that somewhere along the way, my communication devices had jumped another hour and so I was an hour early. Ah well. I would rather be an hour early that 15 minutes late.

On Saturday, as we drove to the market, we passed a donkey whose penis was extended making it look like a third leg. I had noticed it, of course, and uncharacteristically made no comment. (No one on this trip has figured out what a dirty-minded girl I really am.) Isma, on the other hand, noticed, and loudly said to Joe who was sitting beside her “What’s that on that donkey?” She must have looked again because her voice rose an octave as she exclaimed, “Is it his dick? Really?” Those of us who heard her laughted uproariously.

From chatting with people and casually observing them, I surmise that lots of the marriages are second marriages (at least) for many people. This observation has come about from hearing some people refer to their “ex”, and also, the way in which people treat their spouses. There’s respect and genuine affection and care.

Yesterday, on the bus, I discovered that beside the controls for the air conditioning, there is also a USB plug. How come I didn’t notice this before? It was so much easier to be able to charge my devices without having to juggle them in the hotel especially seeing the second I take my key out of its container, all the power to the room turns off.

Yesterday (Sunday) we drove about 500kms from Fez to Marrakech and arrived about 4.30. There’s an optional trip to a market this evening, but I hadn’t signed up for it, and I’m very pleased I hadn’t. It’s 32 out there.

As we drove along the main highway (as opposed to the mountain road that runs through the Middle Atlas Mountains, and is very narrow and full of bends), Najib educated us about all sorts of things regarding Morocco. (I actually wrote 10 pages of notes . . . . . It’s all right. I won’t be lecturing, but just writing about the interesting bits.)

The cactus in this photo are what’s most often used as fences. It’s strange to see rows and rows of cactus around enclosures of all varieties.

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He talked about agriculture, how to eat like a Moroccan (using two fingers on your right hand only – I know why Muslims do nothing with their left hands, but I must ask him to find out what he will say. The left hand is the “shit hand”, the one used to do the less attractive daily activities like wiping one’s posterior.). This discussion came about because he talked about how important wheat, and therefore bread, is in the diet of a Moroccan. Bread is used to scoop up sauce and meat from the tangine. Couscous is rolled into a ball and eaten like that. So of course, the first thing that has to be done at the table is to wash the hands, especially the fingers of the right hand.

Up until 1994, the land used to be owned by the government, but now it’s privately owned. Najib said “I repeat . . .” And if he used this phrase (and he does often) he was stressing something he thinks is important for us to know, but the cynic in me says “so why is he repeating this?” It’s almost as if it’s a mantra and to convince himself this is the case, he makes sure we know this is the case. Strange.

On many occasions, there are only stones to mark the property boundaries. 50% of all crops are kept in the country, and the other 50% are sent to Europe. Morocco only imports wheat, cornflour and rice because they don’t produce enough for their needs.

For a long time today as we headed south, we drove by what looked like tenement housing in strips – there were thousands of them. I asked about them, but was told it was housing. Duh!

Then Najib decided it was time for another lecture – this time on Islam. He talked about the 5 Pillars/Commands of Islam:

1. Believe in God and the prophets of whom both Jesus and Mohammed are examples

2. Pray 5 times a day – this should be in a mosque where at all possible. The mosque is only used for prayer and nothing else. The call to prayer which echoes around any Muslim city 5 times a day must be live – it cannot be a recording. The second prayer ceremony on a Friday is the most important. The prayer usually takes 7 to 12 mins, except on Friday when the Imam gives what we would call a sermon.

3. Collection of money – everyone gives 2.5% of their profit to people in need.

4. Ramadan – 40 days of fasting which starts on May 5 or 6. It’s forbidden to eat, drink or even have sex during daylight hours at this time. People should behave. They should not talk loudly, or swear. It’s more forgivable to eat than it is to swear during Ramadan. They break the fast with soup and almond pastries, and then go to the mosque. After 2 hours, they return home for dinner and then go out to meet friends and socialise. If you’re sick, pregnant or travelling then you can forgo the fast, but you must fast at some other time during the year.

5. It’s compulsory for people who can afford it to make the pilgrimage to Mecca once in their life-time. But it’s expensive – it can cost from €5,000 to €6,000. The pilgrimage is to make amends for all the bad things done in a person’s life.

He stressed the peaceful nature of Islam and that nobody can kill in the name of Allah. He said that “jihad” means to respect people and to be nice to people. He also said that Islam respects everyone’s religion. Hmmm.

Then it was time for lunch and we stopped at a service station where there was a McDonald’s which most of us had. Most of us forgot to ask to have no salad in the hamburger and NONE of us remembered to ask for our drinks to have no ice. Oh dear! I told Meagan and Najib – the latter assured me that McDonald’s use boiled water to make their ice. We will see.

The next lecture was on education . . . . . . Suffice it to say, it was a repeat of what he had already told us only in more detail.

Yesterday evening when we arrived, there was an optional tour with dinner. I had chosen not to go, and met up with Mark and Chany for dinner in one of the many restaurants in this hotel. We had a very pleasant evening chatting away over a couple of glasses of wine. I had steak with fries (no salad) and asparagus. Divine – well the asparagus was. The steak was ok. (I was alarmed, however, when I converted the cost into $NZ – $71 for an acceptable piece of steak (not a great piece or even a good piece), 4 stalks of asparagus, 1 bottle of water and 2 glasses of red wine.)

As an aside, I was sure that I had paid for dinner with my credit card, and so didn’t go to checkout and pay. Meagan told me that I hadn’t paid. I was so sure I hadn’t signed to put dinner on the room that she asked for a photo of my signature. And there it was. Talk about embarrassing. I’ve now given her my card details so she can pay the hotel. It’s May 10, and the charge still hasn’t appeared. . . . . . .

My room in Fez had two double beds joined together – neither of which had a comfortable mattress. My room here in Marrakech has a king sized bed, and a mattress that is really comfortable. But I don’t understand feather pillows. They are full of air and when you put your head on them you squash them down to nothing, except the wings that fly up on either side of your head and threaten to suffocate you. I used three pillows which I leant on to squash down in the end.

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The photo is the view from my balcony. By local law, all the buildings in Marrakech HAVE to be in that ochre colour. It would be interesting to have a photo from a helicopter of the entire city all the same colour with lots of green from the trees in between. Although this part of the country only gets about 100 to 150mm of rain every year, it’s really green. Najib said it was from the snow, but then later on, said that the snow never falls in the city but in the Atlas Mountains, so I don’t know.

I’ve just returned from breakfast – there was an optional tour which left this morning at 8, but there were so many people from my group in the breakfast room, I wonder how many people actually went on it. There’s a sight-seeing tour for all starting at 10.45. I will be on that.

It was interesting sitting in the dining room though. There were almost no Asians which isn’t the norm, and lots of French-speaking people with bronzed bodies. Most of them were older with weathered faces and, as a generalisation, they were all quite skinny. Their plates had a couple of pieces of fruit on them. I was seated by the door and noticed these things. C’est la vie.

As we got on the bus about 10.30 for our excursion into the old city, I was heard to say “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun” . . . . It was already 34 degrees! I’m now back in my room with the air con on 15 degrees and cooling down. When I get really hot, I go bright red in the face, and everyone gets concerned that I’m about to expire. But that’s just me. Once more, we had a local expert to guide us through the turmoil of motorbikes, horses, donkeys and carts, cars and of course, thousands of people. 

We went first to the palace of the Grand Vizir (sp?) with his 4 wives and 24 concubines (Mrs Texan asked in a plaintiff voice what a concubine was. Really?) There were so many people in the palace (which is no longer used and so is just a collection of empty rooms) that it was impossible to move, and very possible to get lost. Meagan was the rear-guard, (that’s her in the photo below) making sure no one got left behind, and pushing aside people who were tagging along with our group to try to get into the palace without paying.

As we were walking through the market area, I would have loved to stop and purchase some post-cards to send home, as well as some t-shirts for my grandsons (after all, what’s the point in having a grandmother who travels to exotic places if there isn’t any evidence for them to skite about) but it wasn’t to be. It was too crowded and too frantic for me to chance it.

Eventually, just as I was about to expire, we turned into a herbal shop (for want of a better description) which was cool and had seating. I gratefully sat down to watch what turned out to be a very entertaining performance. A young woman proceeded to talk with us about all the various herbs that were available and the features of these herbs. There were teas, and orange oil, and argan in various guises. Her patter was so good that she had us in fits of laughter most of the time. But the biggest laugh came when she talked about a herbal viagra (for both men and women) and how important it was to only use a teaspoonful in hot water. She said not to use any more otherwise you would end up with something like this – and held up a club, a large club.

Eventually the sale part of the event started, and she was good. She held up all the items she had previously described, and passed around so we could smell them all, and started to tell us the prices. Often her offer was to purchase 3 and get 4! I was surprised at how much people from the group bought. The last item on the sales pitch was the herbal viagra. I put my hand up for 1 – for a friend I said loudly – as everyone laughed, and then she offered me 4 for the price of 3. I said “Why not? I’ve got lots of friends . . . . . ”

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On the way back to the hotel, we dropped off people at the market, and then at the Mall. They are going to make their own way back to the hotel. All I could think about was a shower and cooling off. I did check out the shop that’s in the foyer of this hotel, but there are no post-cards or t-shirts there. 

As we left Marrakech on Tuesday, Najib pointed out that Ramadan started in Morocco and in other parts of the Muslim world, it started on Monday. I was going to ask him why this is and what decides the day on which it starts, and decided not to. His ability to pontificate (a word I’m sure he would dislike) is overbearing, and I wasn’t all that keen to engage in conversation with him.

As we drove out of the city, we noticed a “house” on a hill on the outskirts. On enquiring about it, Najib said it was a house given to Jacqueline Kennedy in 1963 by the then King of Morocco. When I had access to WiFi (the coach WiFi isn’t on in Morocco – because there is no signal was what I was told when I enquired), I tried to find out what the truth was about the house. Besides which, I wanted to see if I could find a photo that was better than the one I had taken from the speeding bus. There is definitely reference to her being given a house, but no mention as to where it’s located and of course no photos. So I’m none the wiser.

On the coach, the movie Casablanca was played. Meagan had purchased it in the souk yesterday as a treat. I bought the movie on DVD some years ago, watched it, and lent it to someone. I then promptly forgot about it, and the DVD was never returned. When we arrived in Casablanca, we drove past Rick’s cafe which still exists and provided the back drop for the outside shots for the movie.

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As we headed north, the temperature dropped and so by the time we arrived in Casablanca, it was a pleasant 24 degrees. Highly tolerable for me. We stopped somewhere on a coastal part of the city, and I had coffee. I didn’t need food, but there was nothing else to do as it seemed to me that we were filling in time. We did cruise by the mosque below which is less than 20 years old. Its claim to fame, however, is the height of its minaret – at 220 metres, it’s the highest in the world.

Then we had time for shopping. We’ve been to lots of markets, but never with time to actually do any shopping without running the risk of being left behind. I’m running out of time to get anything from Morocco as Wednesday night is our last night in this amazing country.

All I wanted were some t-shirts and some post-cards. But the market was as I expected – full of pushy men. If they just left me alone to browse and check products, then they would get a lot more money from me. A young man in the market “adopted” me. He said he was born in Italy and spoke 6 different languages. I’d asked because his English was excellent. On finding out that I was from New Zealand, he immediately talked about the wonderful woman we have as president who spoke so eloquently after the shooting, and made it his mission to help me get t-shirts. I had expected there to be a catch, but there wasn’t. He took me to a stall selling what I wanted, told the men there who spoke no English what I wanted and the sizes I wanted, but then it all got quite complicated. I did end up with 3 t-shirts, but I suspect I paid more for them than I should have. In addition, I suspect the sizes are all wrong. All I wanted to do in the end was get out of there.

Najib had continually sung the praises of the hotel where we stayed – fabulous huge rooms with huge television sets, and an absolute banquet. In fact, the room isn’t as good as some previous ones, although it is larger. But the dinner tonight was not a banquet. None of the dishes were labelled so I had no idea what I was eating. Tagines are, of course, the main dishes of Morocco, but none that we’re had have enough sauce. Bearing in mind, he told us how to slop up the sauce with bread, we’ve never been able to do so. There were only 2 meat dishes – meatballs, and something that might have been the stomach of some animal. Certainly not to my taste. But the soup was good and so was the dessert.

Bags had to be out by 7.30 this morning and we won’t see them till tomorrow. Because there is nowhere for the bus to park at the hotel in Tangier, it is going to be put into a secure location. We were told to pack overnight things only.

We drove a couple of hours to Rabat where we had a stop to visit the mausoleum of some dude or other, but I wasn’t particularly interested as it wasn’t very old. When you’ve seen the mausoleums and mosques that I saw in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, then these are mere pups. The location was, however, very picturesque. The pillars were put in place to support the roof of the mosque, but the architect died before his design was completed and that’s how it’s stayed. Later on, we stopped at another service station for lunch, and this time to get rid of our remaining Moroccan dirhams as no one will exchange them. I’ll bet the service station loved us.

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As we approached Tangier where we are staying for our last night, we stopped at the side of the road to pick up a police escort – in front and behind the bus. Young men have been known to attach themselves under buses that are going to Europe – like our Insight Tour bus – hang on for grim death, and make it to Europe. Meagan told us of a young man around 12 who was discovered when he crawled out from under an Insight bus, burnt and battered, but alive. Ever since then, there’s been an escort. This is another reason why our bus has to be locked up overnight. While we were waiting for the front part of our escort to arrive, those of us seated on the left side of the bus behind the driver, watched a skinny lad (with a small bag) of about 14 I’d guess, nonchalantly make his way across the 4 lanes of traffic. He got to the middle of the road, spotted the rear escort, and nonchalantly turned around, returned to the other side of the road, and vanished from view. (UPDATE: he turned up at the hotel where we’re staying for any other attempt. This time, the police took him away.)

We took our escort for a drive along the part of Tangier that hugs the Coast – firstly the Atlantic Ocean, and then the Mediterranen Sea. It was a bit hazy, sadly, so we couldn’t see the Rock of Gibraltar from afar, but we will visit it tomorrow.

On our arrival at the hotel, there were lots of steps to climb. The first section was fine – they were shallow, and there was a rail. The last section leading to the door were steep steps, and there was no rail. Sadly, I put the thought in my head – don’t fall, Madeleine . . . and I stumbled on the last step. Had I been at the back of the group, no one would have noticed, but I was in the lead. Nothing damaged or too badly bruised (my pride doesn’t count), but I hadn’t packed a spare pair of pants thinking I wouldn’t need them. They’re a little dirty.

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Grand Hotel Villa de France

The hotel in which we’re staying tonight is called Grand Hotel, Villa de France, and in Room 35 of this hotel, Matisse painted his views of Tangier. It didn’t really look like that at all.

The hotel was built in 1880, and feels like it. I turned on the air conditioning because I couldn’t get the window open. It only provided heat, not cold air, but I’ve now got the window open. There’s a market a block away and the cacophony of noise emanating from there is amazing. Still, it’s Ramadan. All will be quiet in an hour. We’ve been told we must not leave the hotel between 6.30 amd 8 pm this evening under any circumstance. The streets will be empty, but more importantly devoid of any form of security or police. There might be nasty people around though. That’s all right. This place has a bar. Guess where I’m going as soon as I’ve finished this update?

I did indeed go to the bar about 6.30 to discover that not only was the entire group already there, but they’d been served with nibbles as well. I got a large gin and tonic, and joined the group. When it was time to go into dinner, I returned to the bar to get a glass of the local red, and moved into the dining room. I ended up sitting at a table with Jim and Janelle (remember? I owe him a drink). Jim bought a bottle of the red I was drinking and, as he and I were the only ones on red, we drank the lot. It turns out that Jim and Janelle are also going to Barcelona at the end of this trip, and so we will meet up in Barcelona. Wonderful. I really don’t mind travelling on my own, but it’s always nice to have someone to drink with.

Last night, the downside of sleeping (or at least trying to) with the windows open was rapidly apparent. There was so much noise outside. Someone had a swim in the pool about midnight (even though it was supposedly closed),and the mattress was too firm for me. In addition, the hotel last night was the first one in Morocco where we hadn’t been provided with water. I had taken the remnants of the large bottle that was on the table at dinner, but I only had a sip because there was no way to get any more. Bearing in mind, I’d had lots of wine, and then we had gone to the bar where I’d had coffee, I spent the night feeling pretty dehydrated. We’re all looking forward to cleaning our teeth normally – under the tap.

Our police escort awaited for our drive to the port. Najib also joined us for the short trip – I’m guessing so that he could get his tips. Bearing in mind how condescending I’d found his whole attitude, there wasn’t one from me. Then we were through passport control with our suitcases, stowing them on the bottom deck and up the stairs into the lounge, to head back to Tarifa.

It took us about an hour and a half to get to the British overseas territory known as Gibraltar. It had never occurred to me to actually look on a map (?) to assess this location. So, in my head, it was an island dominated by a rock. And in the middle of the sea between Africa and Europe. All my life, I’ve had this image. All my life I’ve lived in ignorance. Gibraltar is NOT an island. Gibraltar is not in the sea between Africa and Europe. Gibraltar is strange.

I “borrowed” the map above from Google. Where the map says Parque Natural del Estrecho is where the port of Tarifa is. So we drove over the hills to Algeciras and then on to Gibraltar. I had to get this map because I was so ignorant of the location. Now I know.

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Gibraltar has an area of 6.7 km sq, and is bordered by Spain to the north. The landscape is dominated by the Rock at the foot of which is a densely populated town of about 32,000 people, primarily Gibraltarians, although every day that number is increased by at least 10,000 workers who help in the service industry.

We stopped in the town square for lunch and a wander around. Our body clocks said it was only midday, but, as our watches had gone forward 2 hours on arriving back in Spain, it was early afternoon. Six of us went to the same restaurant where we had fish and chips and a beer. (Why did I have a beer? I hate beer. GOK.) There was so much food that there was no need for dinner last night. Wandering around the shops afterwards, I was finally able to get some postcards, stamps and even managed to jot a few words on them and post them. I will arrive home before they do.

Because the roads are so narrow and steep, we switched to 2 small buses for our tour around the rock. We drove up to check on the monkeys (not very many around today) and go into the caves. St Michael’s Cave is the name given to this network of limestone caves located within the Upper Rock Nature Reserve, at a height of over 300 metres about sea level. There are more than 150 caves in the system and they are visited by more than a million people every year. Today was not a day for me to have a look. 

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The striped shirt belongs to Judy from Milwaukee – (the wife of the Texan who isn’t a Texan at all). I watched the monkey just sitting on the table beside her pretending to mind his business. Then he spotted Judy’s backpack at eye level and deciding to investigate, pounced on her back and pried open the compartment. Judy shrieked, the monkey screamed, and a man came rushing with a rolled up newspaper with which he smacked the monkey. We had been told NOT to have any plastic bags at all because the monkeys know that plastic bags usually mean food. It was amusing to watch people who hadn’t been told that being attacked sneakily by monkeys. All the monkeys I saw looked very well fed, and when I asked our local guide, he said they get fed all the time up the top of the rock so they don’t go down into the town in search of food.

Then, it was back through passport control (no stamps sadly), back on the coach and on our way along the Costa Del Sol (Sunshine Coast). We stopped briefly at Mijas where everyone on the tour EXCEPT ME wants to get an apartment as a holiday home. Personally, I couldn’t think of anything worse.

The photo above is just one small section of the teeming masses of granted lovely looking houses and towns, but they are so overwhelmingly full of people. This town is on the side of a hill, so in order to get to the sea if you were in need of a swim, you would need to drive because it’s really steep. Then there would be the buses of tourists arriving every day. And the predominant language being spoken was English with an English accent. The water might be warm, but it’s not for me. I can think of any one of a hundred beaches in New Zealand where there are only a few people which would suit me better – even though the sea would be colder. Besides which, I don’t much care for the beach anyway. Sand in my toes is all right, but not in my hair. (Oh, that sounds so bah humbugish!)

Last night and tonight, we are here in Torremolinos on the Costa del Sol. Last night I slept like a log – air conditioning on 15 degrees, snuggled up in a duvet with lots of pillows. My room here is located on Level 1 which is in full view of the pool and the ocean, and the thousands of beach beds by the ocean. However, outside my room is a large grassed area where something’s going on. There are lots of people milling around and boxes of equipment that could be a sound system. Lots of chiefs, but not to many Indians I’d say. I took the photo below which is the view from my room last night. This morning it would be impossible to take a photo because the glare is amazing.

It must be time for a final update on the TEXAN. I now have no idea why I decided he was from Texas – possibly because he was so loud. He and Judy actually live in Milwaukee, Illinois. He used to be associated with the rail in Chicago. I know I’ve made mention of how loud he is many times, but I eventually realised that he’s definitely on the Aspergers – Autistic scale. His filter doesn’t work and he doesn’t understand what’s appropriate behaviour and what’s not. This is why he talks the way he does. Judy has learnt how to handle him and when he tries to joke about “losing her” as he has, it’s an attempt that he’s obviously heard other people say and get away with. But he doesn’t have the tone right. So once I realised this, I stopped being so critical. See? I said earlier I tend to judge first and make changes later. 

Tonight was the Mediterranean dinner. There were 26 (out of 33) in attendance and what a night we had. First we stopped for a group photo. The restaurant provided lots of wine – and then the food arrived: salad with roasted bell peppers, prawns in chilli butter, anchovies and calamari. Then it was salt encrusted sea bass, followed by dessert – ice-cream and coffee. On arrival back at the hotel, a group of us went to the bar for a night-cap and a boogie. 

On the way to the venue, Meagan had told us that our entertainment tonight was provided by a man who was better looking than Mario (our driver, who’s gorgeous). I immediately thought the opposite . . . . . .  I was right. No teeth, no voice and no guitar skill. But he was amusing in a way.

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There’s a cough going around the bus. It seems that Vivienne had it when she arrived and she was really hacking away last week, but this week others have been succumbing, and I noticed a tell-tale wheez and cough last night. Nothing else – so no cold, not runny nose, just the cough.

Yesterday in Torremolinos, some people went off on a tour of Cordoba in the morning, but by the looks of the number of people I saw at breakfast when I made it there just before they closed down, I would think not many of the group went. Like me, they preferred to lounge around in the sunshine and the pool, although I did hear Sandra say that the water in both pools was cold, and certainly no one was swimming in the sea which I imagine was the same way. I went for a little wander in the morning, before it got too hot, and then lounged around too, reading mainly.

On the way to Granada, we stopped off at Alfarnate which is a valley in Andalusia with lots of olive trees. We not only received lots of information about how the olives are harvested, and the oil extracted, but in a neighbouring village we had lunch. John, who showed us around the operation and accompanied us to lunch, left the UK 21 years ago, and showed us where he lives across the valley. He was very knowledgeable and entertaining, and there was the opportunity to not only try the oil, but purchase it too.

I asked him later how the visiting had all come about, and he said that 2 young men from the village had gone to work in Torremolinos, and had been asked about visiting by some tourists there. So they started taking small groups to their village, and it grew from there. Insight have been visiting for 2 years now, and during the season, he does his thing about 4 times a week.

For lunch, we were divided into 3 groups to go to the homes of three different women. I was with the group where Chany was, and so had the advantage of a Spanish-speaking person on tap so to speak. Salad, meats, cheese, bread, soup, pork stew and potatoes, fruit, coffee and liqueurs.

On our arrival in Grenada, we had a short time to sign into the hotel before heading off to visit Alhambra in the late afternoon heat. This is a palace and fortress complex that was originally constructed in AD 889 on the remains of a Roman fortification, and then largely ignored until its ruins were renovated and rebuilt in the mid13th century by Nasrid emir Mohammed ne Al-Ahmar, who built the fortress as it now appears. By the end of the 15th century, the Moors had largely been removed from the area, and it became the Royal Court of Ferdinand and Isabella (who funded Christopher Columbus’s expeditions). It fell into disrepair again, was occupied by squatters and then rediscovered following the defeat of Napoleon, by British and other European romantic travelers. It’s now one of Spain’s major tourist attractions, 

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On the way back from Grenada to Madrid, we drove through Don Quixote country, and stopped at a little village in La Mancha for lunch. They weren’t really ready for another tour bus, but there was a great gift store, and so I did some shopping. I just had time to grab an ice-cream before it was time to get back on the bus. There area is, however, full of windmills – just as you would expect . . . .

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The Farewell dinner was full of laughs and fun, and the food was good too. The final group photo was taken, feedback forms were handed to Meagan, and we settled into some serious wine drinking – and food of course. I even remembered to take some photos of the establishment and food. Despite the meringue being set on fire, the Bombe Alaska we received did not reflect the size of it at all. It was so disappointing that I didn’t even take a photo. 

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Reflections on this tour:

  1. I’ve never been on a tour before of this size where I actually got to know (and remember the names of) all the people in the group
  2. My qualms about the age of the tour director were proved to be foundless (interestingly enough, lots of people I talked with had had the same qualms and had them dispelled as well). Meagan managed to win over all except one tour member – Chany remained unconvinced and was quite negative about the whole experience sadly. She continually compared the experience with the Viking cruises she had done, and our trip always came up wanting.
  3. I didn’t ever find anyone with whom to misbehave. In fact, I didn’t find anyone who even remotely seemed to suggest that they were up for anything. There were definitely some serious drinkers on the tour – Jim, especially, but I soon came to realise that the only person in the world that Jim was interested in was – JIM. It was always all about him, and I couldn’t be bothered when there were so many other nice people.
  4. Consequently, no one on that tour knows me at all. I guess that’s not a bad thing.
  5. I got to visit 4 countries / territories I’d never been to before. Yah!

On Monday morning, there was a couple from Australia who were on the same train to Barcelona. So we shared a taxi to the station. Vivienne had told her husband, Hilton, to make sure that he divided the taxi cost by 3 and then make sure he paid 2 parts of it. The fare was €9.40 and so he paid it all! Bonus.

The train sped through the countryside at around 200 kph and even served lunch: 2 sandwiches, a biscuit, a chocolate bar, a cold drink and a hot drink if you wanted it.

And so now I’m in Barcelona.

When “Origin” by Dan Brown came out a couple of years ago, I devoured it, but whilst reading it (it’s set in Barcelona) I constantly flicked off and googled the places and things about which he was talking. Because the story mainly takes place in many of Gaudi’s buildings, I determined that I had to come and see for myself.

The hotel is a pretty ordinary one, but it has an amazing lift entrance. See the image below. I’ve never seen a lift entrance like this one. My Hotel is in the old part of the city, a stone’s throw from a dozen or more churches (whose bells ring every 15 minutes all day and all night), and also the Cathedral of Barcelona. I’ve wandered around these streets a lot, and every time I turn another corner, it seems there’s another church. 

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Today, however, I saw the reason I’m here.

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The Sagrada Familia is stupendously amazing. I’ve looked at lots of photos of it, but nothing could prepare me for the experience. The building doesn’t follow any expected rules, and has bits sprouting all over the place. And of course it’s not finished. Gaudi assumed responsibility for the architecture and design in 1883. When he died in 1926, it was about 25% complete. It’s now about 70% complete – helped by the 4 million people who pay to visit it every year. The expectation is that it will be finished by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death.

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The brown colour in the image above indicates the work that is complete. So there’s still a lot to go. In order to complete the building, two large apartment blocks and a road will also have to go.

The photo at the head of this page is a borrowed photo in case you hadn’t realised it. It simply wasn’t possible to take a photo of the entire complex. But I do have some amazing photos of the bits of the building.

Then we went to check out some more Gaudi designs at the Parc Guell. The guide I was with in the Sagrada Familia was amazing. Her passion for the church shined out. For the rest of the tour, I was with a guide who had both English and Spanish speaking people in tow, and there were too many of us, and, of course, he had to keep on talking, first in English and then in Spanish.

I’ve been to the Giant’s Place in Akaroa. It had never occurred to me that the idea of the woman who’s created all the tile edifices there would have come from someone else. But there you are. You never know when you’re going to learn something new.

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Our final excursion was to see Casa Mila – La Pedrera. We walked down the road to check out the last house, but it was covered with scaffolding. Very disappointing. 

By that time it was past 8pm. As I had had nothing to eat since breakfast, I got a taxi back to close to my hotel (I know my way around this area a little now) and stopped off for Sangria and tapas.

But before I finally update this and go to bed, there’s an anecdote I need to relate because I nearly got caught. Everywhere I’ve been in Europe (and North Africa) I’ve been warned about pick-pockets, so I’ve been very careful about carrying my handbag in front of my body usually with my arm wrapped protectively around it. As I was approaching the Cathedral this morning, with the zips on my bag done up, I was approached by two women speaking in Spanish and trying to force a carnation on me, mouthing something about Flamenco. I didn’t understand anything except the word “flamenco”, however. One woman tucked the flower that she was insisting I have on top of my handbag, and they both stood there with their hands out and some small coins in them. I was saying NO and trying to give them back the flower, when I found one of the women had OPENED my handbag, and had her hand in it. I yelled at them both NO and pulled my bag back to me. Clever really when I took a step back and thought about what had transpired. Thankfully, they didn’t manage to get away with it. I wish I’d known some strong swear words in Spanish. I don’t somehow think the English or French swear words I know would have worked. 

The bells. The bells. The bells. It’s 10pm. There are three different tones of bells going . . . .

Montserrat is a mountain range about 60 km from Barcelona. It is also home to a monastery (actually there are 3 of them in total). I was there because the mountain range fascinated me more than the monastery did. The range isn’t all that tall with the highest peak being only 1,200m, but it’s the saw-toothed shape that’s truly interesting. 

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The monastery has been there since about the 11th century, but much of it was destroyed by Napoleon first, and then Franco. In 1940, Herman Himmler visited it in order to acquire the Holy Grail, which, rumour had it, had been secreted there. He left empty-handed. It was this story that gave rise to the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” where Indiana had to get to the Holy Grail before the Nazis did!

The shape of the mountain/s and its various faces have been created by wind and rain. And the shapes are really amazing.

Both my tours (yesterday and today) were organised through Julia Travel and so yesterday I shared with about 35 people and a few more today. The guide was born in Italy but obviously loves all things Catalan, and her English was sometimes difficult to understand. There were a variety of people from a variety of countries. Whilst waiting for the tour to begin, I was talking with a couple from India who live in Tennessee. They are on their way to Frankfurt where he’s been sent from his place of employment to do some work. They watched out for me in the scramble to get on the bus. 

There were a LARGE number of LOUD Americans too. I have to share the story of one American man whose partner was very quiet. They were in their early 50s I’d say and had just been doing a cruise which was about their third one in the Mediterranean. They did their last cruise with their daughters (of which they have one each). They had both been married to women in former lives. But the loud one converted to Mormonism at the age of 19, and was basically made to get married and procreate which wasn’t the way he was wired. I never talked with this gentleman. But you can read how much I found out because of the volume of the voice.

(As an aside, I’m sitting in my room at the hotel with the television on BBC News which is the more preferable of the English speaking channels, and I thought “I recognise that voice”, not having been paying any attention to what was going on as I focused on writing. And it was Jacinda Ardern, our Prime Minister talking about the Christchurch Call.)

I dutifully went for a walk through the Basilica.

There’s a cloister right around the middle of the church where most people walked to touch the extended hand of the Black Virgin (True!). I didn’t go, of course, and was at the back of the church, and just happened to take the photo below about 5 seconds too soon. The tourist in the light towards the top of the photo turned around and blessed those of us in the church. I laughed. It did occur to me to applaud, but I am pleased to report that I refrained from doing so.

By the time I’d been outside for a while, I was cold as it was very windy and quite cool up there, so I retreated to the warmth of a cafe for coffee and a sandwich about 5.30. Late lunch and early dinner. Sorted.

And there’s no UBER in Barcelona. It’s been banned apparently. It’s been interesting to compare the cost of taxis to and from the pickup point for the tours. The first one was €12 by a woman. The remainder have been around €5 or €6. I was definitely had the first time then.

Adventure 1 and 2 complete (almost). Adventure 3 starts tomorrow in Berlin.

My Veuling flight from Barcelona to Berlin was a “cheap” flight, and so there wasn’t even any water for free on offer. I bit the bullet and purchased a bottle of “agua con gas”, because for a few centimes more, I was given a much larger bottle.

The flight was in sunshine, but with no possibility to identify what was down below because of the thick cloud cover over most of Europe. I did get a glimpse of snow covered mountains which I presume were the Alps, and that was about it.

I will be VERY surprised if I don’t come down with something in the next couple of days. There was a plethora of snotting, and sneezing, and blowing of noses, and coughing on the flight, and no one seemed to be all that careful about who was being covering by droplets of snot and bugs. I’ve dug out the Vitamin C tablets. (Update: heavy head and drippy nose arrived within 12 hours.)

The exit from the airport was SO easy, I didn’t quite believe that I wouldn’t be yanked back to have my suitcase x-rayed, or my passport checked . . but nothing. The taxis in Berlin are pale yellow. In Barcelona, they are bumblebee coloured – yellow and black. In Lisbon (I think it was) they were a dark teal. The driver spoke reasonable English, but didn’t engage me much in conversation until he decided to ask if I was travelling on my own, and when I replied I was, he wanted to know why. My reply floored him: “none of my friends wanted to come with me”. I confess then to a moment of disquiet, and looked around the cab for his number or something with which to identify him. But he had another way of fleecing me. The read-out on the meter read €29.80. He flicked it and it came up €41.40. I argued. Why does it say €29.80 though. He insisted that €41.40 was the price. What could I do? I had been thinking of giving him a tip. I felt more like kicking him.

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My room in the Park Inn, Alexanderplatz, is on the 21st floor. And the hotel has 3 restaurants, and a couple of bars. I had had one piece of toast for breakfast about 8.30. All I was interested in was food to be fair. But before I went to the only restaurant that was open at 4.30, I googled the menu, and found that the specials included lots of different asparagus dishes. It’s spring here. I wanted asparagus. The menu that was handed to me didn’t have any on it, so I asked for the “specials” which apparently weren’t available until after 6. However, the waiter checked with the kitchen and gave me a different menu. So with my second glass of red wine, I had fillet steak and asparagus (both white and green). YUM.

At the table beside me were 6 older African-Americans (1 man and 5 women) from the Deep South I gauged from their accents. As I was leaving, I stood by the table and asked “how come there’s one man with 5 beautiful ladies?” He spun around and asked where I was from. When I said where, he said “we’ve been there.” I asked if they traveled together to which he replied “yes”. “Oh you da man all right!!” I said and walked off while they were all roaring with laughter.

* * * * * * *

It’s been interesting today to wander around the historical parts of Berlin that I’ve wanted to visit for so long. I’ve come to realise one very important thing. I’m here at the wrong time. For example, the Berlin Wall. There’s not much of it left now, and as a teacher of history, I researched so I could look at the photos from the 1960s when it was erected. I remember teaching about it. I remember drawing (I was such a great artist!) an idea of Germany, divided in 2 with Berlin in the eastern part. I remember then drawing lines to show how Berlin was divided. So, I’m here in the wrong time. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to walk into a time machine, and observe what it was actually like? I remember thinking exactly the same thing when I first wandered through Red Square.

So I had to make do with a very small piece of the wall. I couldn’t believe when it came down in 1989. I didn’t think I’d live to see the day when Soviet control would disintegrate. I’ve lived through so much amazing history.

In 1945, with the defeat of the Nazis, Germany, and Berlin were divided amongst the 4 allies: USSR, USA, France and Great Britain. The idea was that the winners would cooperate to bring about a conclusion to fighting, and sort out a peace treaty. But Stalin and the USSR had other ideas. In addition, the USSR controlled a larger part of Berlin than did the other 3 countries.

By 1952, the USSR closed off the border between their part of Germany, and the other allied parts. But the weak link in terms of people escaping from Soviet control was Berlin. More than 3 million East Germans escaped to the “free” part of the country, and the USSR determined that Berlin was the weakest link. On 13 August 1961, a barbed-wire barrier that would become the Berlin Wall separating East and West Berlin was erected by the East Germans. Two days later, police and army engineers began to construct a more permanent concrete wall. Along with the wall, the 830 mile zonal border became 3.5 miles wide on its East German side in some parts of Germany with a tall steel-mesh fence running along a “death strip” bordered by mines, as well as channels of ploughed earth, to slow escapees and more easily reveal their footprints.

At Checkpoint Charlie, I remembered so many stories of people trying to get out. Soon after the construction of the wall, a standoff occurred between U.S. and Soviet tanks on either side of Checkpoint Charlie. It began on 22 October as a dispute over whether East German guards were authorized to examine the travel documents of a U.S. diplomat named Allan Lightner passing through to East Berlin to see the opera. By 27 October, ten Soviet and an equal number of American tanks stood 100 yards apart on either side of the checkpoint. The standoff ended peacefully on 28 October following a U.S.-Soviet understanding to withdraw tanks.

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The Berlin Wall was erected with great speed by the East German government in 1961, but there were many means of escape that had not been anticipated. For example, Checkpoint Charlie was initially blocked only by a gate, and an East German smashed a car through it to escape, so a strong pole was erected. Another escapee approached the barrier in a convertible from which the windscreen had been removed, and slipped under the barrier. This was repeated two weeks later, so the East Germans duly lowered the barrier and added uprights.

The Brandenburg Gate was built in the late 1780s. It was commissioned by Frederick William 11 of Prussia (Prussia was the most powerful of the Germanic states and would unify all the states into Germany in the 1870s). On top of the gate is a “quadriga” – a chariot drawn by 4 horses, which faces east. When Napoleon invaded and defeated the Prussians in 1806, he took the Quadriga back to Paris. When the Prussians defeated Napoleon in 1814, the Quadriga was returned to Berlin.

Yesterday afternoon, I felt so sick – stuffed head, runny nose, and aches in places I’d forgotten existed, that after I’d finished recording my excursions yesterday, I went and had something to eat (Weiner schnitzel with asparagus – which I didn’t finish), and by 8pm, having had a very hot shower to try and warm me up, I was in bed. This is unheard for me. I NEVER go to bed before 11pm. But I needed to get warm, and I thought that the thin duvet on the bed, and the room’s heating turned up as high as it would go, might do that for me.

The only English channels on the television are BBC, CNN and a couple of other news channels. I’d had enough of the news which here seems to revolve around the Trump v China fight, and the outrageous abortion stand in Missouri and Alabama. There was a movie on that I recognised (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in Mr and Mrs Smith), but it was dubbed into German. In Spain, I watched (well for 2 minutes) CSI and NCIS in Spanish. It was odd to have a different voice coming out of LL Cool J’s mouth. Anyway, I watched the whole movie in German, and then went to sleep, warm at last. When I woke at 6am, my first thought was the realisation that the aches at least had gone. As long as the cold stays in my head (as opposed to heading to my chest), all will be good.

Today, I’ve seen even more parts of the Wall. There are sections which are as they were – in their original colours, and parts that are completely covered in graffiti. But there are bits of wall still in situ – just a slab of wall with nothing around it to identify it. What gives all the slabs away is the graffiti.h

And then there’s the memorial wall which shows an East German soldier jumping over the barbed wire the day it was erected and escaping to the west.

I visited the German Resistance museum dedicated to those in Germany who risked and lost their lives resisting the Nazis. The point that I thought was best about this memorial was that it doesn’t shy away from the fact that most Germans supported the Nazi regime, and the first room highlights the support Hitler had, with many photos of citizens and children cheering on the Nazis. 

The Silent Heroes Memorial Centre is dedicated to those who hid or supported persecuted Jews. Most stories do not end well. Some of the most famous items on display are the lists of businessman Oskar Schindler. He was a member of the Nazi party who devised ways to bring Jewish workers to his factories, thereby saving them from being sent to concentration camps.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – also known as the Holocaust Memorial – is a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. It consists of a large site covered with 2,711 concrete slabs arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field. An attached underground “Place of Information” holds the names of approximately 3 million Jewish Holocaust victims, obtained from the Israeli museum Yad Vashem. In another location, there is a memorial to the Homosexuals who were also exterminated. The thing that amazed me is the way the city of Berlin has embraced, and recognised its history.

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church is exactly what I think should happen to Christchurch Cathedral. The church which, along with so much of Berlin, was destroyed in the last 16 days of the war as the city was bombed into submission by the Allies. The remnants of the original church (sometimes called “the tooth”) have been incorporated into the new church. The part on the right which is covered in scaffolding is part of the new church. The Berliners decided that it shouldn’t be rebuilt and left so that there was a reminder of the horrors of war.

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If Christchurch MUST have a new Anglican Cathedral, then why can’t the design incorporate what exists with something new? My personal preference would be for the remnants to become a memorial. The broken cathedral (did you know that the spire has fallen at least twice before 2011 in previous earthquakes?) would mean no more money needs to be spent commemorating what happened on that day.

Sorry. I’ll climb down off my soap-box.

I can’t say Berlin is a beautiful city. There are things that are beautiful – buildings mainly: the central railway station (the glass tunnels on either side of the main building fascinated me), the Reichstag (parliament) building, the River Spree which meanders through the city, and in some parts reminds me of the canals/rivers of Copenhagen and St Petersburg, the Victory statue that after WW2 the French wanted to destroy, but it was in the British sector and so it stayed. The TV tower and the view of the city from it.

But the view below from my room on the 21st floor shows the real impact that Berlin has. (The photo doesn’t really do justice to the large number of parks I can see.) There are so many parks and green areas that I ended up with an overwhelming sense of green. My hotel is in what was formerly East Berlin.

Just across the road there’s a building that used to house the East German Department of Statistics. It’s fallen into disrepair post the unification of the city in 1990, and has sat there with broken windows and graffiti everywhere. But there’s a plan to re-purpose it. That’s another thing I’ve noticed about the city. There is so much construction going on that if I were to return in 10 years, the city will look totally different. I took that photo from my window. All the buildings in this area are Soviet looking in design – boxy and functional.

For a while yesterday, I thought I wasn’t going to get out of Berlin. When I awoke, I could hear voices on loud speakers and music blaring out, and I thought there was a concert going on in the area 21 floors down in the park beside my hotel. As my plane wasn’t due to leave until 4.40, I wasn’t in a hurry to leave the hotel and get to the airport. So I went to breakfast as late as possible, and then put a “do not disturb” sign on my room door, and sat and read. About 11. 45 with checkout imminent, I got everything organised and went downstairs and checked out.

Every other time I’ve left this hotel, there have been dozens of taxis outside the door. But yesterday morning, there were none. So I went back inside and asked the concierge about where to get a taxi. She waved me off and told me to go to the station. I should have stood my ground, but like a fool, I wandered off in the direction her hand had indicated. She did say when asked what was going on outside “they’re demonstrating – they’re always demonstrating.” I later found out there were actually TWO separate demonstrations in the area around my hotel.

I walked a couple of blocks, and saw a whole lot of people with suitcases standing beside a bus stop, so on examining the sign on the post, I stopped too. There was a bus going to the Tegel Airport in 10 minutes. Eventually the count-down on the sign began and got to the time, but no bus appeared. A man came past and said something in German (not surprising of course), and of course I didn’t understand him. I did ask him if he spoke any English, and he didn’t. He pointed to the train, and then where the station was, and the gist of it I understand – go to the station, get on the train, and then change to the train to go to Tegel. Gosh, I thought – that could be too much of a test for my lack of German. So I walked along the road instead, convinced that I would eventually see a taxi that I could flag down. And I did. It transpired that ALL the streets in the area were blocked off, and there were police everywhere. So there was no way I was ever going to get a taxi unless I went to look for it.

Best taxi driver ever. He spoke reasonable English and when I told him about my interest in history, he talked. He was born in Stuttgart and moved to Berlin in 1990. He regrets that – and wished he had moved at least 5 years earlier. He’s been reading all the old history books – pre World War 11 – he can find in his quest to understand how the holocaust could happen. When asked if he had come to any conclusions, he said that he would like to think it couldn’t happen again because our instant and constant knowledge of what’s going on everywhere in the world would prohibit it. I told him I didn’t agree. And so the drive to the airport passed really quickly. He said that he’s been accessing all the German newspapers, but can’t access online any newspaper from 1939 to 1945.

In addition, he only charged me €25 (instead of €41 that was the charge when I arrived). I gave him €30. He was worth it.

Tegel Airport is very small, but Terminal C is where all the cheap flights go from. So EasyJet was crowded and full of young people who pretended not to speak any English. The level of security was intense. There was no notice about what to take out of my bag, so I didn’t. Oops. I was told off for not taking my iPad out. I was told off for not taking my water bottle out – it was empty – and I was subjected to a full body scan, as well as a wand when the tiny 20cm zip decoration on the side of my shorts set off an alarm. I wasn’t impressed by their unwillingness to tell me what to do in English. It’s compulsory in all schools in Germany, so I didn’t believe that they couldn’t speak some.

The taxi driver from the airport in Warsaw, too, was great. He was keen to practice his English and made sure I knew what I should be checking out here.

I was too late for the Welcome Dinner for the group, so I sat in the bar and had a couple of drinks waiting for the tour to return, and my chance to meet Brad, the tour director.

Brad is very tall. I got a crick in my neck looking up at him. I’m not going to make any comments about my thoughts about him now. I was wrong last time, and maybe I will be wrong again. It’s been known. Breakfast and then on the bus this morning for our tour around the city. There seem to be 25 of us: 1 other woman from New Zealand (Auckland), some Canadians, some Americans, a family from Singapore, and I’ve not figured out how many Australians yet.

Chopin was born here, and most of him is buried here. And the people of Warsaw seem to be inordinately proud of him. So our first stop this morning was the park where there’s a monument to him. He spent half of his short life living in Paris. When he died in 1849, his body was buried in Paris, but his heart was taken to Warsaw, as requested by Chopin on his deathbed. His heart was sealed in what is believed to have been a jar of cognac, and smuggled into this city before being interred in a pillar in the Holy Cross Church (below).

On the 200th anniversary of his birth, every place where people thought he had been was marked, and around the city, there are 40 black marble benches with information on them about things he said or did. The interesting thing about the benches is that there’s a button on every one of them which, if pushed, plays a piece of Chopin’s music.

There was a country called Poland from the 10th century. In the 16th century, the commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania was formed, but this ended in 1795 when the area was divided up and controlled by Poland’s neighbours: Prussia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia. So Poland ceased to exist until post World War 1 when it was created again.

The Nazis attacked Poland on September 1, 1949, thereby provoking World War 2. They rapidly overran Poland which is very flat, and because of a previous agreement with the USSR, the Soviets moved in from the east, and once again Poland ceased to exist. At that time, Warsaw was the home to at least 360,000 Jews – the largest population anywhere in Europe. The Jews from Warsaw were sent to Treblinka when the Nazis started to empty out the Jewish ghetto being told they were being “resettled” in the east. .

Our local guide mentioned both “The Pianist” and “The Zookeeper’s Wife” as movies based on what happened in Warsaw. There’s also the book called “Mila 18” by Leon Uris.

We headed to the “old city” which is of course a total misnomer as 85% of Warsaw was destroyed in 1944 and 1945. By January,n 1945, there were 20 million metres of rubble because of the Red Army. The “old city” has been rebuilt in the same style as it was before the destruction but there is very little that’s old here at all. But some areas were built in what is called “Stalin grotesque”.

Warsaw has about 2.5 million in the city and surrounding areas – that’s how many people pay taxes. In reality, no one has any idea how many people there actually are. There are many churches in Warsaw most of which are Roman Catholic. Nine out of 10 people in Poland say that they are RC. Oddly enough, the churches were not closed during the years Poland was under the control of the USSR. 

As an aside, there were no Asians in Berlin. There are lots here in Warsaw (there’s a busload of them here at this hotel too).

These evening, about 15 of us went to a piano recital by the Dean of the Music School at the University. She played Chopin’s music for about 40 minutes for us – there was a brief intermission during which we were offered a glass of bubbles! (Update. The concert cost me €46 which is around $80. I’m not cheap, but that works about to about $3 per minute. Not bad work if you can get it.)

Yesterday, we drove from Warsaw to Vilnius which is the capital of Lithuania. It basically took us all day with a few comfort stops. All buses in the EU countries are fitted by law with computers that record how long the drivers drive. So our expeditions are governed by how far the drive can go before he has to take a break. We stopped for lunch in a small town called (I think) Augustau, still in Poland. Lots of people rushed off to find somewhere to have lunch. I walked into the supermarket, near where the bus stopped, for a look around. I was able to identify a bag of nuts and fruit to go with my water, and then at the counter, there were filled rolls, so I purchased one of those. The checkout chick spoke excellent English. The bread roll was edible and full of cucumber. The birds got lucky. 

But I’ll bet you’d like to hear more about my travelling companions. Because this is only a 7 day tour for me (many others are going on to St Petersburg, I know I won’t get to know much about most people, BUT some stand out – not only to me, but to everyone.

There’s a man from Texas (a real Texan this time), who’s loud, and full of himself. He is a lawyer and he lectures at Texas A&M which stands for Agricultural and Machinery (I know because I looked it up). He has an opinion on everything, and, of course, his is the only opinion that matters. But he hates Trump so he can’t be all that bad.

There’s another male American travelling on his own who’s from California who was on the tour of Norway and Sweden that Joan (the other kiwi) was on, and she said they were all fed up with him on that tour too. He’s very loud, but also dresses really inappropriately. Last night, it was a special dinner with drinks before. He turned up in short shorts, and a singlet. He’s a VERY portly gentleman and it wasn’t a pretty sight.

There’s a lovely American woman who lives on Vancouver Island who can’t understand how Trump hasn’t been assassinated yet. She reckons that if he gets re-elected next year, she will do it herself. There are two ladies from Canada who don’t live anywhere near each other, but met on an Insight Tour 10 years ago, and travel together every year. There’s another couple of ladies from Alabama, both in tertiary education there.

And on our second day in Warsaw, we were joined by another person from Christchurch – Mike Yardley – who writes for the Press, Travel section. Years ago, I emailed him to suggest that the Press might like to publish my thoughts and experiences whilst travelling, but I didn’t get a reply. Maybe I’ll mention this to him, and maybe I won’t.

Anyway, back to the trip. The map below is included not because I think you don’t know where I am, but because, yesterday I learnt something that I didn’t know before.

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The area around which I’ve put a ring is Kaliningrad, and it’s part of Russia. At the end of WW2, the area was full of Germans who, knowing what was going to happen in Germany, had fled there in the hopes of being ignored. When the Allies (Britain, France, USA and USSR) sat down to talk about what they were going to do with Germany, Stalin put in a plea for an all weather sea port. Murmansk and St Petersburg always freeze over during the winter, but Kaliningrad doesn’t. Bearing in mind what had happened to the USSR, and also bearing in mind, that in 1945, the Allies still didn’t know what the Soviet Union was capable of, they agreed and the USSR was given Kaliningrad as a special little piece of the Soviet Union – and now Russia – that is completely separate from the rest.

During the second World War, there were more Russians killed than the combined total of ALL other countries – in excess of 20 million. The Allies felt sorry for their losses not only of people, but everything else. So the USSR occupied Kaliningrad and purged the area of the Germans. (I hadn’t known about Kaliningrad. I don’t know how I didn’t know about it, but there you go.)

The EU parliamentary elections take place this weekend. I’ve learnt some very interesting things about the EU over the last few weeks.

After WW2, a group of countries got together and formed the European Coal and Steel Community with the idea that they would sell products to each other’s countries with no tariffs. In 1970, it expanded to include other products and countries (Great Britain joined in 1972), and in 1994 the EU was formed.

There are rules about who can belong to the EU and what they have to do, but there are even more exceptions to the rules which means some parts work better than others. Poland joined the EU in 2004 when its agriculture was still under-utilised because the size of its holdings – the properties were very small. Because Poland has a short growing time – much shorter than Spain for example, the EU controls who grows what. So farmers in some EU countries were paid to take out apple trees for example so that Poland’s apples could dominate the market. The countries in the west have better growing conditions, and longer seasons because the weather is better, and there’s been a great deal of resentment because of this.

However, the BIG problem for Poland moving forward is that the EU has benefited those people in the west of the country and in the cities. The small towns and small farms in the east of Poland have been largely neglected. And what’s happened there is that a new political party called PIS (which is run by the younger brothers of Lech Walensa from the Solidarity Movement that those of us who were around in the 1980s remember) promised that if elected to the Polish government, they would help the poor farmers in the east of Poland, and even offered them a monthly payment initially for any child after the first, and now it’s for all children. Bearing in mind, that most of Poland is Catholic, the families tend to be large.

PIS won the election on their own, which is something that’s not happened in Poland for decades (usually there are many parties forming a coalition to create a government on one occasion the number needed to create a government was 35 parties), and started changing things. The EU rules say that you can’t have a judicial system that’s elected. It must be independent. PIS changed that. PIS purged the state run television networks and it’s now a huge propaganda machine for PIS. In the west, the only television stations that are available, because they can’t afford cable, are the state owned ones. So they have broken the EU rules, and people are waiting in to see what will happen. The men from PIS are standing for the EU. So all hell could break lose in the throws of an extreme right party like this being there. 

This is only a drop in the bucket of what I learnt. I feel that I finally understand – sort of – how the EU works. But enough lecturing.

Last night, we met for drinks about 7, followed by dinner in the hotel. The hotel people had put all the wine out on the tables out the front of the hotel before we got there – and the wine all vanished, so we were relegated to a back room away from the front of the hotel.

Dinner was very good. Tomato soup, followed by roast beef and vegetables, followed by the strangest of desserts which was sort of cheesy and sort of not.

According to the Guardian newspaper, Vilnius is like the “G” spot. Nobody knows where it is, but when you do find it, it’s amazing. And it actually is. 40% of the city was destroyed during and after the war, but it has a very lovely old charm about it. 

Because the end of the school year is nigh, we’ve had to wrestle with large groups of children of all ages. I confess there were some today that I would have like to sweep over the bridge and into the lake, but I behaved.

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Because our hotel is right in the middle of the old town, it was lovely to wander around the old buildings. There are SO many Catholic Churches, but only one we were forced to walk into – the Catholic Church of St Peter and St Paul, and it was pretty amazing in terms in the interior which was all white. That’s the ceiling below.

And I didn’t get struck down much to my surprise.

Trakai is an island castle located in on an island in Lake Galve. The construction of the stone castle was begun in the 14th century. Trakai was one of the main centers of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Over the centuries, it increased in size, and eventually fell into disuse and disrepair. One of the photos I saw of it before it was restored made it look a bit like Eilan Donan in Scotland. In the 1940s and 50s, it was restored, and the people of Vilnius are very proud of it.

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Other sights around Vilnius – I confess after the first church I switched off. . . . . .

There are very few hills in Vilnius, but this one has the remnants of a castle that dates back to around the same time as Trakai.

My visit to Lithuania and my reporting on this beautiful country wouldn’t, however, be complete without my reporting on a vile event.

Just outside Vilnius is a park called Paneriai. It’s the most significant holocaust site in the whole Baltic region. There were possibly tens of thousands of Jews in this area at the beginning of the war. They were taken to the park, shot and buried in mass graves. The Nazis utilised huge circular pits the Soviets had dug during their occupation of the area. These were intended to house fuel storage tanks which were never installed.

The Nazis filled the pits with the dead in a scale not matched anywhere else outside the death camps. Wave after wave of deported victims were forced to undress, and line up in batches by the pits where they would be shot and covered with a layer of sand before the next batch came to the pits. This carried on until nearly all the Jews in Vilnius were wiped out. But it wasn’t just Jews: Lithuanian resistance, all political prisoners, Soviet POWs – all were executed here. In total the number of people killed there was at least 100,000 making the park one of the deadliest spots anywhere in the world. In the later stages of the war, with the advance of the Red Army, the Nazis were keen to cover up the evidence. So the corpses were dug up, cremated, crushed and ground up. 

When the Soviets returned, having “liberated” Lithuania, they set up a memorial honouring only the Soviet victims. It was only after Lithuania achieved independence that this was rectified.

Tonight, 20 of this group of 26 went out for a Lithuanian experience – Lithuanian food and music. Salad, followed by Lithuanian dumpling of sorts which is stuffed with ham, pork and potato, and there was also apple pie and ice cream which I forgot to take a photo of because I simply couldn’t face it. Too much food. 

The three gentlemen who entertained us with a variety of folk music also involved us in some of their polkas. In the photo above, they are using the instruments the Lithuanians used to use to let the people in the next village know about something that had happened. After they had finished their “call”, I asked what the message was that they had sent. The leader said it was “bring more beer!”. A very enjoyable evening.

We were on the road early this morning in order to get to Riga in time for the afternoon/evening activity.

Lithuania and Latvia were both late to become Christian (they were pagan, their crosses still have the sun on them) – not until the 12th to 13th century. The Teutonic Knights saw to that. So they have a language – Baltic, in common, but not religion as Latvia  as well as Estonia, where I’m going tomorrow are both Lutheran, and Estonia speaks a language more akin to Finnish.

In Northern Lithuania, we stopped to check out the “Hill of Crosses”. The precise origin of the practice of leaving crosses on the hill is uncertain, but it is believed that the first crosses were placed there after the failure of the rebellion (against Russia) in 1831. It was bizarre to say the least. And of course, at the entrance, there were the ubiquitous gift shops flogging crosses, rosary beads, and amber.

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During the Soviet rule, the site was bulldozed many times, but the crosses always returned. Over the generations, statues of Mary, carvings of Lithuanian patriots, and all sorts of other religious paraphernalia has been placed there along with the crosses. The exact number of is unknown, but estimates exceed 100,000. There were dozens of tour buses there!

Amber is found everywhere in this part of the world. The colours range from white to black, but mainly it’s yellow/orange – colours that I don’t find all that attractive. This is good because I wasn’t tempted to purchase anything. It’s been impossible to carbon date, but it’s estimated that some of it is at least 40 million years old. It was made by sap from trees dripping down into the soil and being cold pressed (basically) for millenia. 

The demise of the USSR is very pertinent to the history of the Baltic States, especially when it was Lithuania that was the first country to declare its independence.

The beginning of the end for the USSR probably started with the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Gorbachev was the leader, and no comment was made until questions were asked about the readings coming from the area, and Gorbachev admitted there was a problem. The second thing that happened was that the Soviet financial advisers told him that with the amount of money being spent on the military, by the end that year – 1988, the country would be broke. And that was when he came up with two new plans: Glasnost, and Perestroika – restructuring and openness.

I can remember Chernobyl (I selfishly remember thinking that the devastation that that event was going to bring to agriculture in Europe would be good for New Zealand). I remember Glasnost and Perestroika, but I don’t remember the Baltic Way. On August 23, 1989, around 2 million people from the three Baltic countries held hands at 7pm across the 600 kms of the three countries in a peaceful protest, to show that everyone deserves freedom. In previous decades, the Soviets would have sent in tanks to break up the demonstration. This time, they turned a blind eye. On March 11, 1990, Lithuania declared its independence.

And then we were in Latvia. It’s smaller than the other two Baltic states, with a population of 2 million, of which 30% live in Riga, the capital. This country is amazing in that it passed its first environmental laws in the 1700s. 60% of the land is devoted to forestry. 20% of the country is a nature reserve and nothing can be built there and no industry can be carried out there. The number one activity/sport in Latvia is walking, so that reserves are very popular. This country is very flat with most of it being less than 200m above sea level.

The thing I’ve enjoyed most about these two countries is the old towns which are small and pedestrian friendly. But there’s a feel about them that is indefiinable. They are quaint which is a hideous word, but I honestly can’t think of a better way to describe them. Last night on the way back to the hotel after dinner, there were 100s of people sitting outside drinking and dining.

This morning after we checked out of the hotel in Latvia, we spent the morning wandering around Riga. The first stop was the farmers’ market. I didn’t get it actually. Granted it’s huge, and it’s full of all sorts of produce from fresh fish to fresh bread, and it goes on and on forever (well not really, but you get the idea), but I still don’t understand why we spent three-quarters of an hour there unless, of course, it was to fill in time. Our local guide then lead us around the rest of the Old Town. I’d had a walk around last night (hence the photos already posted), but today was something else. We arrived at the market about 8.45, but we weren’t due to be in the bus to head to Tallinn until 1pm. Oh dear.

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But the upside was that there was an organ recital in the big church (Lutheran) at midday for 20 minutes (which would fill in some time) and it only cost €10 to get into the church. Oh dear again.

We dutifully followed the local guide as she escorted us around all the narrow streets. We had been told exactly where to go to meet the bus, and as we twisted and turned, I had a premonition of being there forever, never to be found again. (Much nicer than the alleys in Fez though and not as hot.) In the end, there were only a couple of blocks to wander around, and it was easy to find the meeting place.

And yes, I did spend €10 to sit in the Lutheran church and listen to the organ recital which was pretty amazing really. Four keyboards and a thousands stops. Then it was time to find the coach and head to Estonia. 

Brad, the tour director, about which I’ve said very little, decided on the way to Tallinn today to give us a history lesson pertaining to Lutheranism. He started with Martin Luther, and carried on to Henry V111. His “Henry V111” section wasn’t quite accurate, but his presentation/delivery is so good that it didn’t really matter. He tells history as it should be told – as a story with all sorts of interesting characters in it, and he does it well. In that situation, small digressions in accuracy can be forgiven.

The discussion on Lutheranism was pertinent because Lithuania and Poland are Catholic, and Latvia and Estonia are Lutheran. One of the really interesting things (well for me anyway) is that the Soviet Union didn’t obliterate the churches and abolish religion. Perhaps they realised that that would be a step too far, or maybe it was because the KGB also went along to church services with their notebooks to record the names of people in attendance, and the church-going population faded away.

At the end of World War 1, when the Baltic States were given their freedom (from Russia, Prussia and Austria), Lithuania and Latvia were granted independence, but Russia was reluctant to let Estonia go. Tallinn, in particular, was very important to Russia. Because of the bay in which the city is located, it never freezes over. St Petersburg which is only 360kms away freezes over every winter.

A war ensued and it wasn’t until 1920 that the Russians left. But they did not go quietly into that dark night. They destroyed everything as they left, tipped millions of litres of fuel out poisoning the land, and left lots of ordnance behind. The Estonians are still cleaning up.

Estonia has a population of 1.3 million, but it used to be a lot more. When Estonia joined the EU, all people in the EU were automatically given the right to live and work anywhere else in the EU, and a couple of hundred thousand Estonians went in search of greener pastures.

Estonia gets its wealth from lumber, and fishing. But it also has shale and so is able to produce lots of shale oil which, because it’s low quality oil, is used for the petro-chemical industry including electrical power making Estonia completely self-sufficient. It’s also necessary to talk about Estonia and Tallinn in terms of IT. Skype belongs in Estonia, and the country is very IT focused.

So, equipped with all this knowledge of the last stop on my 2019 itinerary, I launched forth to learn more and see as much as possible. And for the first time on this entire trip, the weather gods conspired to make sure that I got wet at least once. Some of the showers were heavy, and some not so much so. And of course, this has had an effect on the photos.

My room in my final hotel stay is 1313. (I kid you not!) Last night, the view changed. The first photo was taken abut 6pm and the second about 10pm from the same window. It was very foggy.

Our local guide today was Christina, and she was magnificent. She was funny, and entertaining, cynical and knowledgeable.

You know the jokes about the Irishman, Englishman and Scotsman? Well she told an equivalent. There’s a long history of German involvement in Estonia more from a trade perspective. And there’s an even longer history of Russian involvement in a dominating, controlling way. The Germans are powerful and arrogant. The Russians are wealthy and stupid. The Estonians are of poor peasant stock, but very smart. So there’s a German, a Russian and an Estonian who go up in a hot-air balloon. But there wasn’t much lift and so each was told by the operator that they needed to throw something out that was valuable to them, but not really necessary, over the side. The German took his gold ring off, kissed it and threw it over the side. The Russian picked up his samovar, kissed it and threw it over the side. The Estonian stood there for a minute, then picked up the Russian, kissed him and threw him over the side.

We wandered through the Old Town, being given information about the history of what we were seeing. It transpires that only about 15% of the people of Estonia profess to any religion, and of those, the majority are Lutheran. But the first church we saw on today’s expedition was Russian Orthodox.

We climbed to the top of the town for the view below. In the distance, you can see cruise ships. There were PEOPLE everywhere on this walk through the Old Town in the rain. And there’s a certain group of people who just won’t get out of the road so you can take a picture with as small a number of people in it as possible. So in the end, I started pushing to get through so I could get the photo I wanted. I didn’t need to though. Within about 3 minutes of my having pushed and shoved my way to the point where I could take the photo below, they had all vanished.

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There’s a story attached to the gull. Our local guide said it’s always there whenever she brings groups to that point. It never demands food as gulls usually do, it never squawks as gulls usually do. It just hangs around there all on its own. I googled to see if there were any stories about it, and there are mentions and photos dating back to 2014 – it certainly looks like the same bird of which I took a photo today.

Christina, however, had a story about man returning from war, who had nowhere to live, and this part of the town became his home. He would talk with people there, and ask them about their lives, and their countries, and tell them about the places he had been. Eventually, he died, and the gull appeared a couple of days later. And so some people believe the old man came back as this gull who looks intelligently at the people, who never asks for anything, and is just there.

Just after we left this spot, and moved on, the rain bucketed down for about 20 minutes. We all took refuge in various tourist shops in the area which, of course, all benefitted. It wouldn’t seem right to take shelter from the rain, and not purchase something.

Tonight, we have our farewell dinner. Nine of our group of 26 are carrying on to St Petersburg. But, although Brad is going with them, there’s nothing for him to do. In Russia, all tours have to be conducted by local guides. When I was in Moscow and St Petersburg in 2014, my travel agent had booked tours in both cities, but it had never occurred to me that it wasn’t possible to travel there any other way.

(I’ve tried putting blue dots on the map above. I tried very many times to draw lines between the places, but I would need a stylus to do it properly as my finger is too big.)

Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia

  • Madrid
  • Avila
  • Salamanca
  • Fatima
  • Lisbon
  • Sevilla
  • Tarifa
  • Tangier
  • Fez
  • Marrakesh
  • Casablanca
  • Rabat
  • Tangier
  • Tarifa
  • Gibraltar
  • Torremolinos
  • Alfarnate
  • Grenada
  • Madrid
  • Barcelona
  • Berlin
  • Warsaw
  • Vilnius
  • Riga
  • Tallinn

Places I enjoyed the most:

  1. Barcelona. By a country mile. After all, reading Dan Brown’s book “Origin” which is set in Barcelona, is why I went to Europe again.
  2. Berlin. It was awesome to visit the places, belatedly seeing I no longer teach, and because they are no longer the way they were when I was teaching about them, that I felt I knew so much about.
  3. The three Baltic cities I’ve visited. It’s impossible to single out one from the other. Warm, friendly, inviting, welcoming. The people are lovely and their cities are stunningly beautiful.

People

I emailed Meagan from my first tour because I hadn’t received the list of email addresses that had been promised. Two weeks later, I’m hard pushed to remember them from their names alone. The exceptions to this are Mark and Chany. But will I contact them? Probably not. Chany ended up being incredibly negative. I think she’s a high maintenance girl.

And from this trip? Lynn who’s from Vancouver and I have hit it off really well. She’s the one who told me about the t-shirt with the letters ITMFA on the front.

What have I learnt on this trip?

  1. Franco put the clocks forward in Spain to match Germany’s and they still haven’t been put back
  2. Spring is definitely the right time to visit Europe. It might rain, but it’s not too hot.
  3. I’ve learnt about the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
  4. I’ve stayed in 16 different hotels over the last 4+ weeks. At 11 of those I stayed 2 or more nights. At each of those 11 hotels, I made sure to hang all my towels to indicate that they didn’t need replacing. At all of those 11 hotels, my towels were replaced. So I’ve learnt there’s no point in hanging up my used towels.
  5. I’ve also learnt that people do not want to hear my reality. They want to hear what they expect to hear. So the answer to the question “how did you like Morocco?” MUST BE “great, fabulous, wonderful, amazing”. I have a couple of friends who always applaud my honesty about my trips bearing in mind how much money I fork out for them. They enjoy my honesty. But no one else does. So I will FORCE myself to give the answers people want to hear.

 

 

 

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