Around third, headed for home

June 30, 2013

We took the overnight train from Venice and headed to Vienna, Austria ─ Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss and The Blue Danube, where it is impossible not to hear the Blue Danube song once during the day walking around the city. As a matter of fact, in the Metro there is a “Classical Music” WC, really, that plays music so you can conduct while you, uh, you know.

(BTW the Danube is not blue but a slate gray in color) This was the first time we had been out of a Mediterranean country since the beginning of 2013 and olive oil was not a part of every meal; however the selections of sausages in stores and sold on the street for lunch skyrocketed in number.

One thing remarkable about the Vienna Metro is it is on the honor system, there are no guards standing around making sure you have a ticket. People come and go and it is assume they have purchased a Metro pass.

Vienna is clean and the Metro and buses run on time. Because of the predominance of classical music the street performers are the best in the world, no gypsy fiddle music. As with all the cities on this blog we spent lots of time in museums since rain and cold were constant in Europe this past winter/spring. Vienna had some lovely art museums both old and modern. One 20th Century artist to check out and I predict he will be one of the last century’s great ones is Egon Schiele. Schiele’s mentor was Gustav Klimt and his work is well known. Also in Vienna is the Hunderwasser house. Again words are inadequate to explain the curiosity and uniqueness of this man and his art.

Buda and Pest. Budapest. We stayed on the Pest side of the city divided by a river. The city is quite lovely with clean streets and many older buildings of the 18th and 19th Century. The Metro was the cleanest of any in Europe to my surprise. The people of this country are not the happy-go-lucky smiling types and their eyes never meet yours on the street. Service people in the shops are coolly efficient— A behavior left over from the Communist era no doubt. We did see a fantastic dance production of The Taming of the Shrew done by the state ballet at the gorgeous opera house. The Hungarian goulash, an international dish, is more soup than stew, but good. This was the first none EU monetary country and we did notice prices were on the whole a lot less for food and consequently we ate like savages. While we were there we went to a large spa complex, one of many in this thermal city and “took the waters.” The same day we went to the permanent city circus and had a great time. Budapest has a restored great synagogue that is the largest in Europe and second largest in the world. It is very impressive.

Krakow, Poland. This is the home of the late John Paul II, who is without doubt going to be a saint in our lifetime. In Poland he is already a saint. We an interesting salt mine outside of the city and there was a large statute of John Paul II carved out of salt in one of the deep salt rooms. We also visited Auschwitz, about an hour drive outside of Krakow. The location is actually quite pretty and serene. It was a rainy and cold day and we were in a small group lead by a guide explaining what life was like and viewing all the horrors of the death camps. No words can describe the emotions one feels nor is any logic applicable to understanding this infamous place.

After another overnight train ride we rolled into Prague. We liked Prague. It is as beautiful as Paris, with most of the buildings in the inner city restored and newly painted. Again we noticed right away the prices were sure a lot less for food and other goods. This is a country and city with a young population and the use of smart phones was second only to Israel. The young women dress sharply and trendy and blond was the preferred hair coloring. Like the Poles the Czechs are Slavic people and fair skinned and blue eyes for the most part. While we were there we saw an art exhibit of Alphonse Mucha, who literally was the poster boy for art deco. You might not know the name but when you see his illustrations and art it will be instantly recognizable. A visit to the exquisite Municipal House in the center of Prague and a tour is a must. Small charge, get there early for tickets as the lines are long. Prague is a four star stop on any travels through Europe. We took a two day side trip to the village of Cesky Krumlov in the south of the Czech Republic. This is World Heritage city and towns do not come more picturesque than this one.

From Prague we were around third base and headed for our final destination—Berlin, or to be more specific East Berlin. The Eastern part of the city is now the “Hot Spot” for Germany and all of Europe. All the museums, places of art and culture and history are in East Berlin. The skyline is filled with more construction cranes than any city in the world. There is an energy there and the population is young, hip and living the good life. Sunday brunch is a national event. After the fall of Communism and the reunification of the Germanys and Berlin, money moved into East Berlin and bought every other old apartment building and fixed it up. Mandatory tourist stops are Check Point Charlie, The Memorial to the Murdered Jew of Europe and a train ride to beautiful Potsdam. The Metro is a vast network of trains and lines and I am embarrassed to say after traveling on dozens of Metros around Europe we got lost. But there is a good reason—-it is the German language. In most countries of the world it takes six letters to make a word, the Germans use 14 letters. Try pronouncing a Germanic word with 23 letters in it. We also visited the Brandenburg Gate, the most visited site in Berlin — the first commercial store nearest the landmark is a Starbucks and two more doors down is a Dunkin’ Donuts and the Pergamon Museum where a entire Roman temple stolen from Turkey is on display. Yes, Berlin is happening. Unfortunately it was cold and rainy much of the time in Berlin. It was June and we are still bundled up in whatever warm clothes we had. Just our luck, this has been the coldest winter/spring in Europe since 1960. The Germans have confronted their Nazi past and no one can say Germany has candy coasted or marginalized what happened. There were plenty of reminders of their past throughout the city in posters, statues and memorials. There is one mystery about Berliners and it is called Currywurst. It is a sausage, covered with regular ketchup and dusted with curry power. The Berliners glorify this creation and fight over who made it first. It tastes like you would think—-sweet ketchup with a little tang of curry. This concoction has killed any sausage flavor. The Germans have never been culinary snobs and this proves it. There is a Currywurst museum and stands all over the city selling this treat. Why?  BTW Walking through one of the main plazas we pass some friends from Ajijic. We all looked at each other and screamed. What a coincidence to see Rodolfo and Cristina in Berlin.

From Berlin we flew to Dusseldorf and then nonstop to Cancun. Ah sunny Mexico! We brought the rain with us. It rained most of the time in Cancun. We did have an excellent Mexican dinner and there was a Mariachi band. Ah, the real Mexico. Unfortunately Cancun is not the real Mexico. The first two songs the Mariachi band played was “Volare” an Italian pop song from 1958 and then a Tijuana Brass, Herb Alpert song. They came to our table and I paid them 50 pesos to play “Guadalajara.” We were home. 11 months on the road. Two days later we arrive back in Paradise on the shores of Lake Chapala and have spent the past three week trying to find a rental, any suggestions welcomed.

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Italy or… wow, is there a lot of pasta on the grocery store shelves or what?

May 10, 2013


We took the train out of Nice, France. Our destination was Lucca, Italy. Lucca is a medium size Italian walled old city of 40 square blocks. We stayed just outside the wall in the “modern” part of Lucca. One neat thing is Lucca has made the top of the wall around the city a green belt and park. You can walk around, ride a bike, etc. all on top of the walls. Rossini (as in the William Tell Overture) is the cities most famous citizen. While there we did a day trip to Pisa and, you guessed it, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The tower really does lean and is made of white marble, it was actually more beautiful than I thought it would be. From Lucca we also did a day trip by train to the Cinque Terra area ─ a series of isolated seaside villages that are only assessable by train or boat . We wanted to hike in the surrounding mountains above the villages but there had been too much rain and the trails were closed; not to mention there was danger of landslides.

From Lucca we traveled deep into the Tuscany region and stayed in another walled city, Siena. Siena is world famous for the horse races they have around the town’s odd shaped plaza. Here is a link to if you want to see how crazy the race is.;_ylt=A2KLqIEF1IdRcW4Aphb7w8QF;_ylu=X3oDMTBvcTJzcm5xBHNlYwNzcgRzbGsDdmlkBHZ0aWQDVjEzMQ–?p=siena+horse+racing&vid=f0b2fc62f4022bd251211864f64abc64&l=2%3A35&

Siena is divided up into small neighborhoods with their own flags and marching band. The horses you see in the race all come from sections of the city. You might hear about the austerity in Italy, it is not in Siena. There was not one shop closed and as far as I could see the Italian angel of death has passed by Siena.

Our next stop was Florence which is the center of the Renaissance arts world; where there is more “old master religious” art per square inch than most anyplace in the world. It is a great place to see many of the fabulous sculptures by Michelangelo.

From Florence we traveled to Ozu artist residence about 45 minutes outside of Rome. It was wonderful spending two weeks in a really small village in the picturesque Italian countryside and the food they served us was the best we had in Italy. Ozu is just outside the quaint city of Monteleone Sabina(mountain lion) ─ a place where they might get 200 tourists a year who just happen to wander in. They don’t even have a hotel, only one b&b. When we arrived in April the country side should have been busting out with spring lush, but spring hadn’t “lushed” and it was cool and winter still nagged us at every opportunity. We stayed there for 2 weeks and Anita painted and I finished my murder mystery (first rough draft) and worked on my web site. From this secluded area we took a bus to the Eternal City of ROME.

I was a little apprehensive about going to Rome ─ all the talk about crazy drivers and the organized mayhem of Roman streets. Apparently the austerity in Rome has thinned the number of cars because the traffic was normal. There were a lot of tourists, make that a way lot of tourists swarming the streets and the usual ruins like the Coliseum, Circus Maximus, etc. We visited several more Roman ruins and now we were “ruined out” especially after all the Roman ruins in Turkey and Israel. No mas. We had gone to one too many Roman or Greek ruin. I will mention we were disappointed in the catacombs just outside of Rome. The tour cost $18 Euros and was too short, 20 minutes, and you didn’t see much except small niche holes in mud. 30% of the people buried in the catacombs were children, hence small niches. VATICAN

Rome is a sophisticated and cosmopolitan city. I could live in Rome. From Rome we went to Napoli. If Rome is sophisticated, Naples, or Napoli, is rough, tough and raw. People in a rush, a city of kamikaze scooters, this is a hell bent for leather city. It is a city that lives under certain death of Mount Vesuvius and sneers at the danger of sudden extinction. Napoli was also the dirtiest city we visited with piles of garbage everywhere. The one redeeming factor is this is the Italian city with the best pizza. (Not as good as pizza in the US–Anita) None of that flaky cracker crust with a smidgen of cheese. These are the real deal pizza pies, big, bold, thick crust, lots of cheese and meat ─ with a cold beer….ahhhhhhh. Another disappointment was Pompeii just a 40 minute train ride outside of Napoli. The Italian government has ripped out most of the good stuff like murals, artifacts, sculptures, etc. and put them in a museum in Napoli. The entire time we were in Pompeii walking around we saw zero as in not one person in uniform watching over visitors. The sites that did have remnants of murals or floor tile were locked up and not open to viewing. The government is ruining the ruins of Pompeii by neglect, so sad.

From Napoli we took an overnight train to Venice. Venice is one of the most visited cities in the world. They have over 12 million visitors a year. Don’t even think of going there in July through September. In summer St. Marks Square is shoulder to shoulder. The pigeons can’t even find space to land on. We were there in April and this is not close to high season and we found it very crowded. There are over 1000 restaurants and twice as many gift shops. Now you would think they would restrict visitors in some way ─── no chance Pinocchio. This is Venice, the city that gave the world international commerce. Think Marco Polo. Business runs this city and they want as many people as possible here. In Venice there are no such words as too crowded. Venice is the hotspot for romantics, newlyweds and women in particular just love the place. There is no doubting the charm and “cuteness” of Venice. I was told by an American who lived there the best and ONLY time to visit Venice was Christmas time.

We took the overnight train from Venice and headed to Austria, Vienna ─The city where it is impossible not to hear the Blue Danube song once during the day.

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Provence and the French Riviera

April 7, 2013

We flew from Barcelona to Marseille in about 60 minutes then took the train into the city. There was plenty of graffiti on walls on the train route into Marseille—not a welcoming sign. The city of Marseille is the second largest (population) city in France and conjures up for me clandestine boats silently rowing ashore in the fog with smuggled goods. The city has a reputation as the port of entry illegally and anything clandestine.

Old stereotypes died hard. Marseille is fairly clean (except graffiti) and the harbor area is a great place to walk around. It is the European Cultural City for 2013 and apparently cleaned up its act to get the honor.  As such we saw floating in the harbor a small homemade barge on which someone was playing a grand piano and a woman in a white dress was singing excerpts from operas. Guys in fancy shirts were trying to paddle the haphazard craft around. Damn, those French are so creative.   Maybe they were smuggling in opera singers and pianos? This was only one of a number of cultural activities going on that day.

Next we traveled to the city of Avignon deep in the heart of Provence. The city is known for the Palace of Popes. I learned that prior to Vatican City, Popes in the middle ages moved around from city to city. During this period of time the Popes were French so they stayed in Avignon and ruled there for a couple of hundred years. The city is charming, small and the old city is walled. It was cold and it rained most of the time. Ugh. We did have a few fairly nice days to visit Gordes, Roussillon, Saint Remy de Provence and Villenueve-les- Avignon, all lovely small villages.

From Avignon we traveled to Nice. Nice is a lovely city. It is located on the Mediterranean and is part of the French Rivera. Cannes is close by to the west. Nice was great even though the weather was crap most of the time. There were beautiful old buildings and wonderful museums including a Matisse and a Chagall museum. This is a multicultural city and the Russians have arrived and are moving in with their new found wealth. We took a day trip to Monte Carlo by bus for 1 Euro—one of the very few deals in the entire EU zone. You know you are in Monte Carlo when the bus passes by the Ferrari dealership. The city is basically condos with high end clothing stores and jewelry shops. This is the closest place to Rodeo Drive in Europe. The people who walked the streets and took the bus were all the slaves, I mean service personnel to the super rich who are rarely seen. For fun we looked at places for sale in the real estate office windows. Your basic condo studio was 1 million Euros. A large condo with an ocean view went for 5 million. These folks are the 1%ers of the 1%ers in the world.

A parting shot at the French. One thing I noticed is the dog owners in France rarely pick up the dodo from their dogs. I can’t figure this out. You have to watch your step even in Paris when you walk the sidewalks.

Next stop the land of pasta.

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Spain Ole

March 6, 2013

It was a cold and rainy morning when we left Asilah, Morocco. The cab ride in the old Mercedes was equally cold, the driver chatty and informative about the terrain we drove past. When we got to the ferry terminal in Tangiers the nice cab driver wanted us to pay twice what the going rate was. My wife objected and we paid half that. That is the one thing I hated about Morocco—folks just trying to overcharge at every opportunity.

Out of the taxi and one step toward the terminal building and we were surrounded and harangued by a mob to buy tickets for the ferry ride from their ticket office. I’d had enough. I yelled in Spanish (we were still in Morocco) Tranquillo! It translated. The guys looked at me and kept quiet. Anger is international. We then enlisted the help of a porter with a handcart to hump our luggage through the ferry terminal building. After buying tickets, we had another “helper” fill out much of the form and then wanted a “tip” for doing so. Yes, we are all just ATM machines for Moroccans.

Finally we made it to immigration and there was one guy working as slow as any human could. It looked like we would miss the ferry to Spain until a man in line told us the ferry always left an hour late and the ferry company knew how long it took to clear immigration. One hour later we left Morocco for the 35 minute ferry ride across the Mediterranean to Spain.

After all the problems in Morocco I was not looking forward to Spain but the travel gods were with us and we zipped from one bus ride to another arriving at our destination in Jerez about 1:30 p.m. We rented a car and checked into the hotel and went out for something to eat. Immediately you could see the “se vende” signs in windows and the vacant shops around the city. This part of Spain was hurting in the country’s recent financial recession. Then we noticed the retails shops were all closed and there were not many people on the streets. That seemed rather odd. To our amazement the restaurants were closed too for siesta and those that were open had only a handful of customers. Where were all the people? This was lunch time. We walked by a small shopping mall and it was dark and the escalator had stopped. We went in and it I swear I was in the Twilight Zone. All of the stores were closed and the shopping center silent and dark. Then I remembered what someone had told me about Spain. The Spanish have an interesting work ethic. It goes something like this: They start work at 10 a.m. work till 12:30, take a 3 hour lunch break and work till around 7 p.m. The merchants have cut back hours rather than eliminate jobs. Unemployment for the youth is 50%.

Now you would think that the Spanish would not be driving considering the price of gas is roughly $8 a gallon. But they are in love with their cars and like many Americans their self worth is apparently wrapped up in the possession of an automobile. Would a Spaniard stop driving and take the bus? Never! For a Spaniard to take the bus is an admission of personal economic failure once they have a car. Consequently in all cities in Spain there are no parking spaces on the streets. None. It is amazing. It is bumper to bumper to bumper parking on the streets. Because of this all the Spaniards are experts at parallel parking. As explained to me they would rather drive around for 60 minutes looking for a parking space than use a paid lot.

More of Spain’s oddness: In Sevilla we went out one bright morning at 9 a.m. to have breakfast and spied a Burger King. Closed. The place did not open till noon. WTF! We found a small café and for 8 Euros I got the smallest cup of coffee I have ever drunk and a piece of bread. Plus there was a 2 Euro service charge for the waitress to bring the food to our table.

Spanish cities we visited: See the pictures.

Sevilla. The Alacazar is beautiful and a great example of Moorish architecture.

Granada. This was our favorite city in southern Spain. It still had lots of charm in the old city (circa 10th and 11th Century) plus it had the incredible Alhambra palace and building complex. This is the way the 1/10th of 1% people lived in those days.

Malaga. It is on the Mediterranean and not much happening. They have a fortress overlooking the city that was fun to visit. It was a pleasant place to stroll around, very attractive.

Cordoba. The Mezquita which was a Mosque then converted into a cathedral after the Moors were defeated and left.

Valencia. This is a city where they have torn down lots of the “old stuff.” The city is known for oranges and beautiful women. I saw the oranges but the beautiful women escaped me. They do have a monster museum, aquarium and science center that has futuristic architecture and was wonderful to visit. It is the largest aquarium in Europe, btw. We had great paella which is the local dish.

Ronda. This is a small city surrounded by Spain’s “white villages.” These are small towns perched on the sides of mountains and all painted white. Ronda overlooks a large river gorge. It has very steep narrow winding streets and wonderful old buildings. Ronda deserves high praise and is a must see. The small town is a jewel in a really gorgeous setting. Hemingway came here to learn about bull fighting. In Ronda they made up the rules and procedures of bull fighting.

Our final stop before hitting Barcelona was a stop in Girona and then we drove to the Dali Museum in the town of Figueres. The Dali museum is…well…uh….ummm….I can’t describe it. You have to see this museum for yourself. In the vernacular Dali was one “Far out dude.” Unfortunately his nearby home was closed for January so we didn’t see that.

WE finally returned the rental car in Barcelona (I drove the whole way so Anita could navigate. She just loves maps you know) and took the metro and then the bus to our artist residence in Can Serrat near the community of El Bruc. The residence is located about 45 minutes outside of Barcelona and at the foot of a unique (small) mountain range, Montserrat, which is known world-wide and is a mecca for mountain climbers. Life at the residence is pretty quiet not much to write about. Basically Anita painted and I wrote. We took some day trips into Barcelona and saw the Picasso and Miro Museums among others. We took some time to hike around the area and we all went up to the famous monastery of Montserrat. We went to a local outdoor market and went to an outdoor restaurant and ate calcoks or spring green onions that are grilled and eaten dipped in a delicious sauce and we drank lots of wine with the onions—-a traditional Catalonian treat this time of year. Also The residence put on an opera concertone weekend with two tenors performing and we went to a concert at the little local church. We probably would have done more, but we did not have very good weather for most of our time in Spain.On one of our excursion into Barcelona we visited the Gaudi church, Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s Parc Guell, and the house he designed, Casa Batll, and built for a client. Like Dali, Gaudi was way, way, way out there.

After 29 days we left on a cold morning to fly to Marseilles France and begin traveling again like gypsies.

Spain? Ole!

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Morocco or Come with me to the Kasbah

January 24, 2013

“The invitation “Come with me to the Kasbah,” which was heard in trailers for a movie in the 1930s, Algiers but not in the film itself, became an exaggerated romantic overture, largely owing to its use by Looney Tunes cartoon character Pepé Le Pew, himself a spoof of Pépé le Moko. The amorous skunk used “Come with me to ze Kasbah” as a pickup line.”
When we first arrived by car from the airport into the city of Marrakesh we felt we were back in Mexico—the city’s car traffic was chaotic, drivers paid scant attention to traffic lights, impatient drivers honked if traffic didn’t  move, the streets had trash everywhere and the buses were crowded.

Marrakesh did have the most beggars of any city we visited and they were not shy about coming up to you when you were eating at an outdoor restaurant and begging food off your table. And speaking of food— the food is cheap, good and we didn’t cook one time in Marrakesh. The national dish is the “Tagine” —meat and vegetables cooked and served in a small clay pot. Bread with every meal as the Moroccans use bread as their fork picking up their food with small bits of bread, like Mexicans do with tortillas. If you are allergic to wheat you could not live in Morocco. Bread is served with everything, at every meal, all the time. Marrakesh is also known for its Medina and Jna el Fina plaza. In the plaza are snake charmers with cobras and vipers,(the snakes look docile and were not very active—good thing right?) women wanting to mark your hand with henna tattoos, jugglers, dancing women (that is, men dressed as women) vendors of cosmetics and Argan oil, trained monkeys and guys with odd musical instruments playing their hearts out for tips. Add to this chaos the plaza is crossed by motorbikes, bicycles, horse and buggies, mini vans and an occasional car. The houses in Marrakesh are predominately painted a brown sand color or an off-white. The color that you can paint your house is regulated by the government. You do get the option of painting your front door any color you want.
We took a short five day tour of the country, no Roman ruins this time,  it was primarily natural sights. The highlight of the tour and Morocco was the camel, no, to be more exact dromedary ride in the sand dunes to spend an overnight in a tentcamp. Because it is the off season we had the place to ourselves. Two guys served us and played Berber drums and we (No, just me and Anita) cuddled under warm clothing and blankets staring up at a sky full of stars listening to the music. Cold at night? Burrrr. The best time to come to Morocco I am told is April—not to hot, not too cold. In summer the temp can reach 50 degrees Celsius. On this private tour we traveled around the desert and over the Atlas Mountains with a guide and driver. We visited small Berber communities and markets. We went to visit two Nomad families, one that lived in a cave with the barest of essentials and the other lived in a tent. It was a pretty enlightening experience seeing how minimal a life they lived. The children didn’t even go to school. Our guide, who’s family owned the tour company was born in a Nomad tent, but at a young age his family moved to a city after his mother died and he went to school. We ate lunch at his sisters house, a beautiful women who never learned to read or write. We traveled the road of the 1000 Kasbahs. Kasbahs are big houses that are fortified and have two defense towers. They were built out of and adobe like material of mud and straw and all over the desert are kasbahs that are literally disintegrating and falling down since they were built with not much support and many are 500+ years old.In Morocco all the cafes, especially at night, are filled with men drinking tea, smoking and talking. Wherever you look there are men. Men are the shop workers (of course not in women’s clothing stores), the taxi drivers, the waiters, bus drivers, police and women (which I assume make up 50% of the population) make up 10% of the people in the streets. There is very little intercourse (however you want to understand that word)between men and women here as I could tell. Example: There are several channels on the TV where young women stand around in revealing clothing and prompt guys to call in so they can talk to them on the phone. I mean, how hard up can you be to spend your money on a phone call just talking to the girls. The vast majority of Moroccan women (Muslim) cover their heads with scarves. I am getting used to it. It is a great idea ladies if you are having a bad hair day.

Then we went to Fes, the city with the biggest Medina. A huge  old walled city with around 9000 narrow pathway like streets, the Medina of Fez is a walled city with madrasas, fondouks, mosques and palaces dating from Marinid rule in the 13th–14th centuries. At that period, Fez replaced Marrakesh as the capital of the kingdom. It is so easy to get lost in the maze of streets and it is recommended to get a guide which we did for a day. There is a  small English speaking population and while we were wandering we met an English speaking German woman who is married to a British man. We went to see their house, they bought a beautiful old moorish house for next to nothing and renovated it. Fes is a really unique place, a UNESCO world heritage city. It was an  interesting place and one worth visiting. Do not open a map on the street or in the Medina of Fez, it is a dead giveaway you are a tourist and several helpful guys will magically appear all wanting to guide you. You will find their services are not free. The other ploy they use is if you say you are going to this place or another they will say it is closed and you should go with them to their place. Any baggage handler will ALWAYS want more money than you give them .Taxis ON METER are cheap. I hate to say it but many Moroccans look upon tourists as walking ATMs to be fleeced. You are warned.

Finally we stopped for three days in Asilah, a city just south of Tangiers and on the Atlantic ocean. It is a small friendly town with a big Spanish influence. Most of the year it is a tourist beach town. In January it is quiet. The medina there is small, clean and lovely, probably the nicest we saw. This tragic thing about this town was the garbage on the beaches and in empty lots outside the medina. We found it appalling. It ruined the beaches for us.

We taxied to the ferry in Tangier and in 35 minutes we were in Spain.


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