Saudi Arabia: Between sand and abayas

img_3252Traveling to Saudi Arabia generally requires an official invitation before a visa is issued. I was fortunate to be invited to speak, for the second time, at KAUST – King Abdullah’s University of Science and Technology. Both the University and the King are/were pretty amazing.

King Abdullah was in his eighties when he decided to create the ultimate university where the brightest brains in the world would study, research and develop science and technology.

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Kaust campus

“The University shall be a beacon for peace, hope, and reconciliation and shall serve the people of the Kingdom and benefit all the peoples of the world,” said the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. And so a towering beacon is the focal point of the campus.

I flew for several hours across Saudi Arabia, seeing nothing but brown sand and the odd road beneath me. I arrived by airplane in Jeddah, a small chaotic airport. Cleared immigration quickly and walked outside through the exit doors where many men in white or beige robes waited for arriving passengers. A driver from KAUST collected me and drove me about two hours north of Jeddah, where KAUST is located near the town of Thuwal, built on desert sand and flanked by the Red Sea.

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The Eye

KAUST feels like a vision. Its buildings are ultra modern, eco friendly and state of the art. The university library is built from alabaster so that, at night, the light shines through the walls. Walking around the campus is like walking around in the future.

The university is the main focus of KAUST. The ‘town’ surrounding it is there to support it and make research viable. Wide avenues flanked by palm trees are lined with homes, ranging from townhouses to near palaces in size. This is where graduate students live, university professors and other staff, but also all staff that make KAUST tick. It is the ultimate Pleasantville to live but quite different from the rest of the country.

There is a supermarket, banks, fast food outlets, a dining room, coffee shops and corner stores. Several recreation complexes offer pools and squash courts, running tracks and more.

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Me on my moped

A preschool, elementary school, middle school and highschool are home to all KAUST children. The ‘compound’ is incredibly safe: children can walk to school, ride their bikes or take a (free) bus.

Within the compound, which doesn’t really feel like it is enclosed, women can drive, work, teach, even wear bikinis on the beach.

As soon as I left the compound, though, I had to wear an abaya to cover up clothes but not my hair.

During my week of author presentations at the elementary school I stayed in a beautiful room in the Kaust Inn. A kind teacher lend me a moped and thus I was able to ride to school and all over the ‘town’.

Each day I rode my moped to school, then explored, visited teachers, stopped at a coffee shop or went to eat dinner by the pool. The air was a balmy 25 – 30 degrees in December. But in the summer the mercury can reaches 50 C here!

I enjoyed a beautiful dinner and great conversation in the home of a Palestinian teacher and her family. img_3304

And some other teachers kindly treated me to a long anticipated trip into old Jeddah. Wearing black abayas and in the companion of two male teachers, we walked around old Jeddah. Not many westerners get to see this historic city, which was declared a Unesco World Heritage site. Traditional homes are at a point of collapse and I hope that restoration will not come too late to save the leaning, traditional buildings with sagging, wooden balconies.

We roamed narrow alleys in the dark, a souq with stalls selling roasted peanuts, pumice, prayer beads, dried sap, Qu’ran stools and much more. The people were friendly, smiling and greeting us.

img_3203When the call to prayer danced through the night sky, men flocked to communal wash basins to wash hands and feet, then streamed down the alleys to the mosque.

Later, we passed a mosque with a minaret that was said to be over 800 years old. “Please,” a man in long robes gestured, “come inside, come look around.” Everyone was kind and gracious.

We sipped avocado smoothies, watched old men sip tea on wooden benches, and young men playing dominoes in a circle on the ground. They all laughed and waved as we, westerners, walked by.

Driving Jeddah’s choked main roads – it is a city of 2 million – I was taken aback to spot a Tim Horton’s and signs to IKEA, jarring me back from a charming, middle eastern setting to a generic western influence.

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Jeddah is only about 60 miles from Mecca. This explained the chaos at the airport. At any given time, muslims from all over the world flock to Mecca. When I arrived at the airport for my return flights home, hundreds of women were sitting outside on the sidewalks, next to bundles and bags. I wouldn’t want to be here during Hajj pilgrimage when millions of Muslims from all over the world ascend on Mecca and the Jeddah airport. I had to push my way through a packed crowd of families, carts, piles and piles of luggage, to get to the doors. Huge endless line-ups flowed from check-in counters right to the exit doors. “Really?” I asked a uniformed security guy. “No ma’m,” he smiled and led me straight to a first class check-in counter where a polite man handed me my boarding pass, even though I wasn’t flying first class.

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Mosque in Jeddah

Then I made it to a packed departure hall where people of all colours, in all possible kinds of traditional clothing and languages, sat on chairs and floors, eating, drinking, praying and sleeping. I revelled in soaking in the exotic colours of so many cultures. Finally, at 4 AM my flight boarded and a few hundred people pushed and shoved their way into busses, up the long outside staircases and into the Boeing 777.

About 40 hours later, 4 flights, many time zones, and a lot of degrees difference (I went from + 32 to -23!) I was home. Grateful to be able to do author visits to international schools, what a privilege.

Dazzling Doha

 

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It’s a startling experience to emerge from an underground, state-of-the-art parking garage full of Lexus and BMW’s, to a lot full of camels! In the Middle East, old and new have a tendency to rub shoulders.

img_2916My favourite place to visit in Doha was perhaps the souq. Historically, the souq is where all trade took place. The gold souq, the falcon souq, the spice souq. Because Qatar’s sandstone buildings did not withstand the ages, the ‘old’ souq here is new. It has been build to resemble a historic one with dark ceiling beams and narrow passages. It feels, sounds and smells wonderful. Indian traders offer anything from plastic sandals to glittering cloth to pots large enough to hold an entire goat.

img_2892At night, after dark, the souq is alive with people milling about, buying things, smoking a water pipe, sipping coffee. I love how safe it is here. Many of my North American friends say “Be careful going there!” but I feel safe knowing that people do not steal, do not carry guns and do not harass women. I can walk down dark alleys with no problem at all.

One of my favourite parts was the falcon souq. Falcons are an important part of Qatar’s heritage. These birds are highly skilled and trained, costing up to a million dollars! img_2983The souq is next to the Falcon Hospital…no kidding. Falcon trainers walk around with a hooded bird perched on their gloved fist. These birds can travel in the cabin of airplanes on Qatar Airways and even have their own ‘passport’ with inoculations etc. listed.img_2981

Next to this new/old souq is Katara: a beautiful part of downtown dedicated to culture. Besides the mosque is a gorgeous marble amphitheatre, a pigeon tower, and buildings housing cultural workshops.

I worked in 5 international schools in Doha, all beautiful buildings with lovely students from many countries, many of them second language learners. One boy in Grade 5 told me he speaks 5 languages…

 

 

Did you know that the weekend in the Middle East is on Friday and Saturday? On Friday many people attend a sermon in the mosque, then have family time to do things together. Stores are often closed on Friday. It takes a bit of getting used to going back to work or school on Sunday!

img_2940One day we visited Sheikh Faizal’s Museum outside the city. What a fascinating place. Apparently the Sheikh was a hoarder. He collected things that made sense, but also a lot of things that made no sense at all. I kept wondering if his wife/wives despaired at his tendency to collect stuff. At some point, he simply had a colossal building build to house all of his stuff: a huge collection of ’50 and ’60 American cars. Matchboxes. Coins. Boats.

img_3029However, some of his stuff is allowing an important part of Qatar’s history to be preserved, perhaps not because he meant to preserve it but simply because he collected it. The museum has a room full of dinosaur bones and fossils (pretty special in the Middle East).

There is a room dedicated to the first medical doctor in Doha, a female! Complete with all of her tools, even a rare wooden bicycle ambulance.

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Pigeon Tower, Katara

I was floored to see rooms on world religions, including Jewish prayer shawls and a Roman Catholic confession stand. There were endless rooms of breathtaking carpets, one woven with real gold. A collection of Qur’ans including the world’s smallest Qur’an, a tiny square inch.

The museum is now serving as a practise ground for students studying museum sciences. Display cases are being build, Middle Eastern clothing and jewelry is being displayed, carpets are being protected. It feels like order is slowly turning the chaos of piles of stuff into a fascinating museum collection. A great place to visit if you want to see Arabian heritage.

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Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

A much more traditional, established museum is Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art. Its art collection includes Middle Eastern ceramics, jewels, scripts, calligraphy. A visiting display, this time, shared China’s terra cotta warriors with Qatar residents. But what really caught my interest, was the building itself. Amazing architecture has the outside top of the building resemble a woman’s traditional Qatari face mask. batulaThe inside of the building was equally impressive with its gleaming marble and intriguing lines, mirrored in the water.

If you have time to spend in Qatar, be sure to take a desert excursion. These are available for half or full days but also overnight trips. To sleep under the starry sky in the desert, in a Bedouin camp, is a wonderful experience, complete with camel rides and dune buggies. A tour company will pick you up at your hotel. However, Qatar is not cheap. In the old souq there can be a little bit of bartering, but prices of restaurant meals, groceries, clothing, souvenirs and tours are high.

https://www.visitqatar.qa

http://www.fbqmuseum.org

http://www.mia.org.qa/en/ img_2869

Qatar: from Bedouins to Buicks

img_2710Qatar, a small peninsula country in the Middle East, is difficult to understand*. Ruled by an Emir, Qatar once was one of the poorest countries, but now it is one of wealthiest. This change happened in a very short time thank to oil and gas.qa-map

92% of its + 2 million inhabitants live in the capital city of Doha. But the strangest fact is that only around 10% of the population is Qatari. The remaining 90% is expats, mostly from India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and other countries where men seek work. These foreign workers run the stores, clean the hotels, drive the taxis and build the buildings and roads. img_3095

Qataris were a nomadic people until recent history. Living a difficult life in the desert was no longer necessary once oil was discovered. Those three letters changed life forever here. The desert was reshaped into an ultra modern city with all of its conveniences.  The Emir, the ruler, decreed that all Qatari would receive an income from the profits of oil. No one over the age of 18 needs to work, although Qatari do hold government and managerial positions. The daily chores are performed by people who come from all over the world to find work and who send home their income to support families overseas. The young man who drove me while in Doha put two sisters through school in Bangladesh and supported his mother in raising her family there.

img_2879The buildings of Doha are incredible. It reminds me of how my husband Kees once worked with a group of high school students to help them design the skateboard park of their dreams. He gave each one a bit of play dough and told them to shape their favourite jump. Doha feels like different people dreamed up their favourite building and then just built it. qatar-national-convention-center The skyline is made up of vase shaped skyscrapers, at night highlighted in different colours. The torch hotel is shaped like a torch. The new Sidra hospital resembles ships sailing into port. The national library made me think of a gigantic airplane. Each building is executed in marble, glass, chrome – with dazzling results.lw6272_55199331_720x450

In the process of changing lifestyles, Qatar runs the risk of losing its heritage. On my first night here I was lucky enough to witness the Dhow Festival. Dhows are long, sleek traditional wooden boats that plow the waters of the Gulf. Along the Corniche, the boulevard that skirts the water, were demonstrations of traditional skills: opening pearl oysters, handmaking fishing nets, buildings boats, making palm leaf baskets. Older men sat crosslegged on carpets to demonstrate these skills. img_2721However, they had all been brought in from Oman because Qataris no longer have or practise these skills. Different shaped head dress or different coloured outfits indicated people from different Middle Eastern countries. There was singing and dancing, even the playing of conch shells. Strong coffee was brewed in copper kettles on hot coals while thousands of people strolled along, in a sea of white (men in starched thobes) and black (women in abbayas). Little boys in spotless white thobes ran along, free as birds. Flocks of young, veiled women giggled and strolled along the boulevard. It was an enchanting, Arabian night! img_2803I always like knowing, during festivals in the Middle East, that there is no drinking of alcohol involved. I always feel safe because there is virtually no crimes here. Severe punishments ensure that no one steals. I was even told that you can leave your bank card in the ATM machine and no one will take it…. I didn’t test it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is true. There is virtually no pickpocketing!img_2772

The temperatures were amazingly perfect while I visited. In summer it can be 40 or even 50 degrees C but now it was a beautiful 24… Qatar has one or two days of rain each year and, as luck would have it, I experienced both of these days. Rain fell so furiously that, within an hour, streets were flooded. Homes, even the airport, flooded. This happens each year. Traffic comes to a screeching halt as roads flood and are impassable. Two days later, it’s all dried up for another year…

In my next blog I will tell you about some special sites to visit if you are in Qatar.

* A note of caution: as with my stories about any place I visit, I do not pretend to truly know Qatar after only visiting there for 2 weeks. My stories are merely aimed at sharing my personal experience there, and I might well get much of my understanding wrong.img_2758qfis-mosque_dsc3152

Exploring Spanish Cities

img_2391One of the cities we visited in Spain was Ronda. Ronda is a mountaintop city in the province of Malaga, Andalusia. The town is set dramatically above a deep gorge. Puente Nuevo, a stone bridge spans the gorge. Plaza de Toros, a legendary 18th-century bullring, is one of the touristy city’s landmarks.

Another hill side town we visited was Compéta. It is on the Costa del Sol and is eye blindig white. img_2529Up in the hills, along hairpins and winding roads, we drove. Along the way we had been told to keep out an eye for another village with a beautiful cemetery. Of course, passed it and then had to drive a few extra kilometers before we could make a U-turn. But it was worth it. I’ve never seen such a unique cemetery: it reminded me of a beehive. Apparently this is the only round cemetery in Spain. The origins or reasons are not known but new graves are stucco’ed on top of each other. img_2523

Another few kilometers uphill is Compéta. We parked the car as soon as we could and then walked through the steep, white village and on for a hike in the hills.

Then we made our way to Grenada to visit the Alhambra. As a small boy, Kees learned about the Alhambra and never forgot his visions of this mystical, mysterious place so it was high on our bucket list. The first lesson we learned here was: plan ahead. All the websites had told us to buy entrance tickets ahead of time, even though we would visit on a Tuesday in November. So we went to book online, about 3 or 4 days ahead of time and were told that all tickets were sold out. The websites also stated that a limited number of tickets would be available on the day of the visit but you would have to line up at 8 AM. We read several accounts of people who tried this, only to stand in line for a long time and then to be told there were no more tickets for that day. We hoped to avoid that.

img_2547It seemed to us that we would always be able to join a tour and obtain tickets that way. But when we tried to book a tour, they were full – even two days ahead of time! We were now starting to worry.

But when we arrived at our hotel (see the previous blog of our crazy race through Granada), they told us they would check online that night. And voila, tickets magically appear for sale again. We were happy not to have to join a tour group but to buy the (much cheaper) regular tickets. We rented audio tours at the entrance so that we still had all the pertinent information on the history of Alhambra. The only other confusing thing that was online, was about selecting a time. It sounds like your ticket is limited to a few hours each day, but this is not true. You just need to decide which time you’d like to tour one of the sites: a palace. They limited the number of people inside so you pick your own time, show up and get inside. The rest of the place is open to you all day, both before and after your palace tour.

img_2584We had pictured Alhambra as a Moorish mosque. However, it is an ancient walled city with remnants of houses and streets, restored palaces and gardens. You can easily walk around all day.

Click here for historical details and a virtual tour: https://www.alhambradegranada.org/en/info/historicalintroduction.asp

Our hotel was in Albaicin, a neighbourhood that is believed to predate the Alhambra, which has its origins in the 9th century. We found it reminiscent of Jerusalem.

The old palaces, reflected in pond, with fountains and incredible ceilings were the highlight of our visit.img_2597

If you visit Grenada, we do recommend the hotel at which we stayed (http://www.casabombo.com/espanol/) but be sure to contact them for directions! I’m told they can even meet you somewhere. If you go by car, I’d stay somewhere else! But the rooms and the views are great.

Right in the backyard of the hotel, but you have to walk around the ‘block’, is a treasure of a restaurant: https://www.facebook.com/trilloalbaicin/  It absolutely had the best food we had in all of Spain but was pricey (so we celebrated our last night in Spain – a day early…).

And then our month of exploring Spain came to an end. I learned many things. I didn’t know that Spain had so many mosquitoes…. I learned that most people here drink coffee in glasses rather than cups. I found more dog poop and people smoking here than I had expected, kind of like Holland ten years ago. I learned that basically all stores and offices close at 2 PM, then stores and restaurants all open again at 7 or 8 PM. The streets are deserted around 3 or 4 PM, but around 7 PM people start to reappear. They stream back into the streets, populate the squares. Kids, people with strollers – they all come out at night, especially on the Plaza Mayor of any town. It was neat to see such a social street life.img_2606

Madre Mia! Driving in Granada

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Compéta

Don’t ever think that you’re a pretty suave traveler, because you’ll immediately get punished. I felt that we were doing pretty good – having driven all over Amsterdam, Paris, Brussels, New York; all over Costa Rica, found our way in old Jerusalem, survived Bangkok and Shanghai.

But then we visited Granada.

Our previous AirBnB was in a tiny little village on the coast. The address had a name and a number so we felt confident. But once we found the highway exit to the village, we hit dirt roads and potholes. Each corner led to another narrow dirt road without a name. We tried them all and ended up in so many backyards. After three turns into the same driveway, a Spanish woman in an apron came to talk to us. She used her hands a lot and between that and her rapid Spanish, we figured out that she had NO idea where this ouse might be.

A German couple in the next house came outside. They spoke no English but between German, Spanish and gestures we understood that they, too, had NO idea where we had to go. After a long debate, the man pointed up one road and up, up, up. We left to give it another try. They called after us, in German, “If that doesn’t work, come back and we will have a room for you to stay!” Such kindness.

img_2472The road up, up and up was the right one. It was the same width as our car without any barriers between us and the valley floor below. There were several houses at the top but none with numbers. In despair, I emailed the AirBnB and with seconds, the door opened and it was our hostess!

After driving through many Spanish cities, we decided that we had enough of traffic, narrow streets and none-existing addresses. Seville was OK because we stayed on the outskirts with our car and walked into the old city. La Linea/Gibraltar was OK but a bit unnerving, especially since they don’t seem to have street addresses and we could not find our B&B for the life of us.

So when Granada was next, we decided NOT to try and drive into any old parts of the city. Muchas gracias. We would stay OUT of the old city. We’d be smart and stay away from AirBnB’s that mentioned the words ‘central’, ‘close to’, or ‘old’. In fact, we decided to book a modern looking hotel that offered free parking. That way we would just walk into the old city.

Great.

Good move.

We booked it online, entered the address (an actual street name and number!) into our GPS and left the coast for Grenada.

First we decided to swing by the cute town of Compéta. That turned out to be a twisting, winding 30 KMs from the coast up into steep coastal hills. The road hairpinned left and right, along steep slopes, with not much of a guard rail. But we made it and it was worth the drive. Gorgeous, quaint town – eyeblinding white buildings. Beautiful.

The way down was windy-ER, steepER, twisty-ER!

img_2536But then we drove a big highway and sailed, unsuspecting, into Granada.

Our GPS kicked in and we meekly followed its instructions, left here, right there. UNTIL… it sent us closer and closer into the city center.

“Can’t be right…” I thought fleetingly.

Kees was driving and started grinding his teeth as the streets got narrower.

“Is this right?” he asked as the GPS wanted to send us across a main road and up a very narrow looking one. “I think so….” I hesitated. In that instant we both decided that the wider road looked more attractive and, ignoring the GPS, Kees turned right instead of going straight.

That’s when all hell broke loose.

We found ourselves driving down a lovely wide street. The problem was that the lanes were only for “Taxi” or “Bus”.

We tried to look like a taxi or a bus but it didn’t seem to work. People looked at us funny.

We drove several blocks hoping the lanes would change their minds. They didn’t.

At some point, waiting for a light to change, a big guy on a motorbike knocked on our window. Kees rolled it down. “‘Ola!” the guy grinned, “I ‘elp you, yes?”

“OK, yes please…” We were ready for some help here because we were now right in the city center driving in wrong lanes and our GPS kept yelling at us to turn left, no right, no recalculating!

The guy said ‘follow me’ and we happily did but then realized that he didn’t know where we were supposed to go. He guided us up a street that ended in a plaza with no way out. We parked, I hopped out and showed him our iPad with the hotel’s address. He glanced at it and said, “OK, I take you there. Follow me!” (I think, because he did not speak English).

We managed to turn the car around and followed this big guy on his motorbike.

img_2560He zigged here, zagged there, left, right, left. The roads got narrower and narrower.

We went up steep hills, around crazy sharp corners.

“He doesn’t really know where we’re supposed to go, does he?” I asked Kees who was concentrating hard on not losing this one big motorbike rider in a city centre full of motorbikes.

We stopped again. I explained, in Spanish, the hotel name, the street name, the closest main street.

“Mia madre!” he exclaimed. “Si! I know. Follow me.”

And back he jumped on his bike, racing this way and that.

The streets became alleys. The hillside steeper.

A sign said ‘historic old city’…

At one point he jumped off his bike to help guide Kees between two walls with literally one centimeter on either side of the car. We had to fold in the side mirrors or we wouldn’t fit. I felt like we were driving into a trap that we’d never get out.

“What if he’s taking us some place totally different?” I asked Kees.

He nodded, gripping the steering wheel tighter, trying to think of alternatives.

“Let’s just forget about this,” I said after an hour, “We’ll cancel the hotel, skip Granada, go somewhere else.”

Kees nodded but kept following the motorbike rider who finally stopped again.

He made Kees park and follow him on foot, down some stairs. I stayed with the car with visions of Kees being lured somewhere… What if he never came back?

But eventually they both came back, shaking their heads. We drove on and started to recognizes corners, walls with which we had earlier close encounters…

The GPS was no longer yelling at us. In fact, a few times it said “Park your car and walk to the address.” Then she lapsed into silence all together.

We stopped again, after about an hour and a half of this, and discussed the situation, in Spanish, with some parked taxi drivers who all sadly shook their heads and mimed parking your car and walking down steep stairs…

“No way!” I said, “the hotel advertised with parking. It’s not in the city…”

They shook their heads more sadly and agreed that “parking must be elsewhere. This hotel you can only reach on foot….”

We found a parking spot, which seemed to be a sprayed-painted-over bus stop. “Ees OK,” our motorbike friend insisted as we left the car and now followed him on foot down staircase and through alleys where even Granada drivers don’t seem to venture.

After more wandering, more asking, more head shaking, we found it.img_2509

In an alley that reminds us of Jerusalem, we found one house door with one tiny tile above it ‘Casa Bombo’ – by god, the name of the hotel we booked!
We were shaking by now. Didn’t even know where we left our car so we dragged our motorbike friend inside and made him tell the hotel guy, who was very understanding. Obviously we were not the first shaken guests who had wandered for hours. He poured us water, made us do some deep breathing exercises and ignored our wish to cancel the reservation.
We said goodbye to our motorbike friend. We still weren’t sure why he helped us for two hours. Was he a Spaniard proud of his city? Did he want money? He never said so but we did give him some.

Then the hotel guy piled us into a tiny little van that was totally scraped and scratched, busted and dented, and drove us – like a bat out of hell – up stairs and around bends through alleys that no sane driver would ever drive. ‘Lo and behold he found our car.

We transferred our luggage and hope to find the car back in the same spot in 2 days but we have no idea where. He took us back, showed us a gorgeous room with breathtaking views of the Alhambra, fed us beer and sangria and said “Everything’s OK.”

I actually saw a car driving up stairs here! Next time, I’m NOT booking a hotel in an old city center.

I hope.img_2554

Rocking Gibraltar

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Salt Spring Island, where we live, is a small rocky island in the Pacific Ocean. It measures 74 square miles and has a population of 10,000.

Today we spent the entire day on the rock of Gibraltar, a small rocky outcrop in the Atlantic Ocean. It measures 2.5 square miles and has a population of 30,000.

I can’t image how people spend their entire lives living on this tiny rock, so crowded with houses, narrow roads and steep edges.

img_2409We researched Gibraltar a little bit before coming here but the online information on sites like the official tourism website, Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor, was confusing. I tried the website for the cable car – but nowhere could we find out the exact answers to our simple questions: how much is a one-way ticket? – can we buy a one way ticket that includes the nature reserve? – how long is the way back to walk and is it marked? So we hope to give you that information here, to help you plan your trip to Gibraltar.

It is an interesting place with a unique history. This rocky toe that Spain hesitantly sticks into the Atlantic Ocean, at the point where the ocean turns into the Mediterranean Sea, really ought to belong to Spain. History, however, claimed it for the British. Reminiscent of Hong Kong, this strategic harbour was claimed by the British in 1713 already. To our surprise, the local Spaniards we talked to felt that it was a good thing. “Without the British here, Gibraltar would just be another rock in the ocean,” they told us, “Now it is an attraction, an oddity that brings us jobs and a good economy.”

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Walking across the runway

We found an AirBnB literally a stone’s throw from the border. Just a small bedroom in a crowded apartment building, but it offered a safe parking place inside a garage. We managed to get inside (both us and the car) – very complicated because they don’t seem to have street addresses and all the bloques of apartments looked the same – and walked across the border. It is possible to drive across the border but at rush hour you face long line-ups. Plus, worse, once you get into Gibraltar, there is no place to park. You might as well walked all the way. The first thing you walk across is the almost none-existing border patrol. A bored official waved us across without looking at a passport. Then you walk across…. the airport’s runway! If a plane comes in, you’ll have to wait. But without planes, you just cross the runway under the air traffic control tower. A weird experience.

Once across the border, people speak perfect English, cars have GBZ on the license plates and prices are in pounds rather than euros. However, you can pay with either. One button on the cash register converts the price for you.

img_2421Rather than taking an organized tour, we hopped on a city bus and, for 1 euro, rode it across the entire length of the island to Europa Point, the southern most point of the rock. From here you can see the mountains of Morocco. It’s nice to see a Roman Catholic church right next to a mosque. Further on the island we noticed a synagogue next to a Hindu temple. A local assured us that all people, of all races and religions, get along just fine on this rock.

We walked back for about 8 KM to town, along narrow roads with not many sidewalks. Most noticeable was the lack of signage. No signs towards ‘downtown’. We often had to ask which road to take. We ended up in town by the cable car station.

The signs there still did not answer our questions about options and costs and I overheard several others in line commenting on the confusing prices. In the end, we had no option to buy a one-way ticket and dished out about 60 dollars (or 45 pounds) for 2 tickets to the top. The way back was included even though we wanted to walk. The ticket also included caves, tunnels and a nature reserve. If you want just one of these, you had to buy a ticket that included them all. You can buy a simple cable-car-only ticket but then you can’t visit any of the sites at the top. I find this price a bit “over the top” (no pun intended) for a 6 minute cable car ride. The views, of course, can’t be beat as you look out over southern Spain, the ocean and towards Africa. img_2429

Jumping monkeys aiming for backpacks were included in the price. The nature reserve wasn’t terrible well defined but I hope that a portion of our money helps to protect plants or birds, somehow. There were absolutely no signs at the top telling us which way to go. We asked a few times before finding the right path down.

img_2459It was a good hike until we came across caves. We hadn’t read much about the caves before but since we had paid for it, we decided to go in. And we were pleasantly surprised. The caves were well worth the visit. Huge cavernous spaces filled with stalactites and stalagmites, created over thousands of years. Ever changing lights turned the caves into quite a light show.

From there, a very precarious rocky trail led downwards, with broken railings and no signs.

We made it back to town, were we had a well deserved coffee and apple pie at the Trafalgar Pub. It seems a bit out of place, in this southern part of the continent, to hear the Queen’s English and see British pubs with fish and chips. We strolled back through Main Street, past tax free shops and Irish pubs, red mailboxes and English telephone booths. Back across the runaway and into Spain. A fun, interesting day full of contradictions that, somehow, get along. Just like the people that call the Rock of Gibraltar home. img_2475

Seville, Spain

img_2278After driving throughout Portugal and Spain, we decided to crash on a beach for awhile. Hoping to avoid crowded shores with highrises, we booked an AirBnB apartment in a small town called Matalascañas.

The flat was just perfect – a small kitchen, comfy couch, Ikea furniture, a separate bedroom and – best of all – a large window overlooking the beach and Atlantic ocean. We slept, made our own breakfasts and lunches. We worked, having good wifi available. And we walked on the beach. Kees hiked for miles while I sauntered along the waves.

There were plenty of little shops and cafe’s nearby. But funny enough, just as we were getting used to Spanish restaurants closing from 4 till 8 PM and eating very late, the restaurants in Matalascañas all closed by 7 PM and there was nothing to eat after that…

img_2315After a few lovely, restful days it was time to explore Seville. We had done our online homework and decided that we did not want to drive in downtown Seville, but we did need a place nearby with parking. We found a room in an apartment building that sounded good, including a parking spot. And the location was indeed perfect to walk into the old city center. Getting into and out of the apartment building felt a bit like serving time, with several locked gates and complicated lockimg_2323s….

We walked into the city through the ancient city gates in a huge stone wall. We enjoyed walking the labyrinth of alleys, crooked little streets, churches and shops. At one point, we were very ready for a cup of coffee. Several places had hard, wooden stools or didn’t look too inviting so we kept walking until we spotted the perfect place: a cozy, Spanish coffeeshop with wicker chairs, lots of plant pots and heat lamps on the sidewalk. We picked a table and made ourselves at home. However, the man who approached us did not come to take our order. “Would you mind terribly to move again?” he asked. “Why? We want coffee…” I said. “No,” he insisted, “we are filming a movie here… I’m sorry.” Turned out we had crashed the film site of Game of Thrones being filmed in Seville right now. We did find coffee around the corner, but not as nice a place…

We also found the famous Cathedral of Seville. Build on the 12th century site of a Moorish mosque, this is the 3rd laimg_2325rgest church in the world. Its construction took place from 1401 to 1506. Size and age alone were impressive enough. We walked its cavernous spaces, the ship of the church, admired the side rooms with art, paintings carvings….
I did get a kick out of seeing the tomb of Christopher Columbus, whose name really was Cristobal Colon. Somehow ‘colon’ just doesn’t have the same ring as ‘columbus’, does it? I would have been skeptical about this truly being his grave but apparently recent DNA tests have confirmed that his weary bones do indeed rest in this spot.

As we exited the church we were once again exposed to calls of “madame, a horse carriage ride?, a tour?” We ignored them all and walked along the winding streets, the Plaza de Toros, the treelined Avenida de Hercules, and the ancient Alcazar. We hopped on a city bus (any C bus) that drives around the perimeter of the old city city. The city bus is 1.20, a lot better than 18 euros for the Hop-on bus – although you also don’t get commentary with the city bus.

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Flamengo dancer in Seville

The best thing we did was splurge on tickets for a flamengo show. Seville and flamengo are synonymous so we felt it was a must to see a show here. We asked locals for their recommendations: Casa de la Memoria and Tablao Flamenco El Arenal. I’m sure there are many others that are good. We picked the lateral and bought tickets for their 7:30 PM show. Arriving early paid off since we got the best seats, although almost every table was good in the small room, around the small stage.

We bought the least expensive seats that only included one drink. You can also purchased tickets that include a full dinner. You can buy tickets online or in many souvenir shops on the same day.

The music and caliber of the show blew us away. A cast of 10 played guitar, sang and danced. Colours and sounds whirled together and left us exhausted – as if we had danced all night! A colourful end to memorable day in a colourful city.