Segway in Cartagena, Columbia

The Churches were our Landmarks in the Old City

This is our very first port of call in South America, so we are able to tick one more continent off our lifetime travel goal.  

As soon as we stepped outdoors, we were besieged by the heat.  This is the closest to the Equator I have ever been and it rained all last night so Cartagena is like a steam bath, especially for poorly equipped Canadians like ourselves.  As we walked through the terminal and to our contact point, Jim has to keep reminding me to walk more slowly. Walking quickly in this temperature and humidity can cause heat exhaustion.

We find our bus with no problem and enjoy the AC.  Soon we are driving off toward the Old City.  The bus takes us through wildly differing neighbourhoods.  Some touristic and vaguely false looking and others very poor looking but oh so real.  Cracked sidewalks, cracked buildings, litter in big piles of cardboard, bits of wood, drinking bottles and a discarded shoe.  However, each house is painted up in its own vibrant colour; hot pink, turquoise, forest green, topaz, orange, and sunshine yellow.  And many, many of these homes are decked out with bright Christmas decorations.  

Cracked Buildings, Cracked Streets

The traffic is terrible!  I am so glad I’m not the one driving!  There is a lot of honking, lots of scooters zipping between the inching vehicles, and many lines of traffic trying to squeeze into one thin road.  As we drive along, I am amazed at the variety of skin tones I am seeing, everything from strong tea with milk to dark roasted coffee bean.  Later I am to learn that this area has been called “The Land of Seven Colours” because of the intermixture of peoples from the coast, the rainforest, Europe, Africa, and Central America. 

Finally we make it to our destination.  The Segway Tours.  Jim has always wanted to try a Segway.  When we travelled this summer, Jim often found himself  longingly gazing after a troupe of Segways on tour.  Me? I of course was a little more reticent.  I am a klutz.  I fall off everything. Bikes, skis, high heel shoes, you name it!

Serious Segway Seniors!

However, I must say, the Segway was remarkably easy to learn.  Yes, during the three minute individual part of the lesson, I couldn’t figure out how to make the machine turn right and ended up almost ploughing into the curb on the left.  I was rescued by Caesar, our guide and teacher.  Turns out I have a tendency to turn the handle like a bike, in other words, pulling with my left instead of pulling with my right.  It was an easy fix.  

The Segway tour took us through the Old Town, which is now mainly a pedestrian zone; only service vehicles, lots of taxis, and segways allowed in.  This was nice because we didn’t have to worry about fighting with traffic.  We could zip along to our hearts’ content.

Beautiful Colours and Beautiful Buildings in the Old City

 

The Old City is the area of town that was originally built for the high class, literally!  Only the high class were allowed to build houses that were three stories high. The middle class, two stories, etc.  Knockers on the front doors also told to which family the house belonged.  Iguanas were for royalty.  Seahorses for sea merchants.  A cross on a hand for clergy.  The number of studs on the door was also an indication of how much wealth the family had.  You can learn a lot by a front door!

One aspect of Cartagena that is both intriguing and perhaps a little daunting is the number of street vendors.  They can be quite aggressive but on the Segway, we could just zip right by and enjoy the sights without being pestered.  There are carts with shave ice, ladies with wash basins balanced on their heads full of fruit or baked goods, stalls with coconuts ready to be hacked with machetes, lime aid carts with fresh limes and ice water,

A Well Balanced Lady sells Fruit, Another sells colourful Purses

brightly woven purses, leather goods, beaded jewelry, to name but a few.  One type of cart called to me, it was a hot griddle with English muffin looking patties sizzling away.  They filled the air with a lovely cheesy scent.  They turned out to be made of white corn and white cheese and are a favourite breakfast pastry.

The tour was fascinating.  A chance to gain new knowledge and learn a new skill.  Yes, I was soon zipping along with the best of them on my Segway.  Mine was “L” so I dubbed her Little Lady.  I must admit, I was getting pretty cocky.  However, there was one spot where we went up a short steep ramp and suddenly, with the change of balance, Little Lady was bucking unexpectedly beneath me.  I was falling!  But then, I felt a sudden push. I was rescued again!  The rear guard fellow pushed me in just the right spot with just the right momentum to set me to rights.  This must be the worst spot on the tour for first time Segway users but they were ready to handle it.  Even for a klutz like me!

Art Meets Life: The artist has created a scene from city life, only to have a real Shave Ice cart park beside it!

 

 

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Swimming with Stingrays

Screwing up my Courage to Kiss a Stingray

I am so nervous!  I know hundreds of people swim with stingrays every day with no ill effects.  However, all I can think of is how the great animal lover, the Crocodile Hunter, died from the sting of a ray.  What if the rays can smell my fear, like a dog?  What if they exception to my sunscreen?  My deodorant?

I admitted my fear to my loving husband and he said with his tongue firmly lodged in his cheek, “Maybe I should take the hedgehogs instead.”

For those who don’t know the hedgehogs, Edge and Og, they are our palm-size mascots that have travelled with us for over twenty years.  Although small, they are fearless.

I woke up this morning dreaming of a movie’s death scene.  Mine.  I am lying on the beach, wracked with pain having been stung in the heart by a renegade stingray.  Jim has his arms wrapped around me and I, suddenly, look thirty years younger (Isn’t that always the way with movie death scenes?)  The camera closes in on my face as I wheeze out, “Never forget, I love y….”  One last shudder and I’m gone.  Jim buries his head in my chest in grief.  He’s sorry for that hedgehog comment now!

Still not deterred by vicious death threats, scary nightmares, nor even callous husbands, I shall set forth with Jim on our adventure.

…………….

(Several hours later)

Boats form a circle around “Stingray Island”

 

I am on board the local vessel that brought us to this Stingray City area.  I say area because there isn’t any land in sight except a dull green ribbon of the Cayman Islands.  (So much for my movie death scene on a beach dream.) There are at least six vessels anchored here, with their butts forming a circle.  The water is a beautiful pearl turquoise, getting paler as we near the sandbar.  We can now see hundreds of tourist heads bobbing in the water.  Then  we await our turn to back into the circle.

I am still hesitating.  Finding excuses like putting on extra sunscreen, or being polite and letting other people go ahead.  Jim was one of the first to climb off the aft and he’s now chest deep in azure water.  There are dark bathmat sized diamond shapes winging along under the surface.  People are crying out in joy and astonishment.  Those bathmats are stingrays!  I knew these were wild stingrays but I really didn’t expect them to be this free.  There is nothing holding them here, only the promise of a free meal.  Also nothing to stop that renegade stingray I dreamt about.

I have no trouble entering the water but as soon as I set foot on the sand, I know there is going to be trouble.  The guide told us that we should shuffle along the bottom with our feet.  Definitely do not jump or leap about.  However, I am short and rather… um.. buoyant.  The waves pick me up off my feet and I have no choice but to touch down repeatedly.  Isn’t that like jumping?  

Oh my gosh!  There, in the water, is our guide with this huge behemoth stingray draped over his arms and sliding up all the way to his chin!  As if greeting a long lost lover, he lifts the stingray’s “chin” and gives it a big kiss on its white underside.

A Female Stingray starts to Cuddle up to our Guide

“This is a female,” he explains. “You can tell because the female is softer.  You gentlemen will know what I mean.”  There are nervous laughs from those around.  Especially as now the bathmats are starting to circle.  They know their fresh meat is arriving.  I just hope they know the fresh meat is the squid the assistant was cutting up, not me!  Now the guide is explaining safety precautions and I listen closely.  “This,” he says, circling around the animal and actually grabbing the tail, “is the dangerous end.” He points to the lethal stinger.  “If the tail brushes against you, it will not sting.  Only this part will actually sting.  And don’t touch the spine.  There are barbs along the backbone.  That is the only part of the stingray that is actually bone.  The rest is meat.  In fact, some of the scallops that are served in the Caribbean are actually stingray meat. Not here,” he hastens to explain as people are already starting to identify with this smooth, friendly creature in front of us, “here there is a hefty fine.  Who wants to touch?”  

There is a general gasp and a titter of nervous laughter.  Some people actually step backwards.  

But not Jim!  Jim is in there like a dirty shirt.  With a grin spreading from ear to ear, he raises his hand and surges forward.  The guide tells him to raise his hands apart under the surface of the water and, suddenly, Jim has the fluttering weight of a huge stingray on his arms and chest.  A beatific smile of awe replaces the eager grin and it looks like he’s in love.  In fact, he too kisses the ray!

Now other people are clambering to touch this lady fish and Jim backs up respectfully.  I shuffle over to him and hang on.  He is much taller than I and can be my anchor when those big waves arrive.  Suddenly, something rubs along my left calf.  There are no tourists over there.  It’s a ray!  I can’t help but squeak and startle but even as I do, my mind is telling me how wonderful that touch felt.  It was smooth and silky, light as a feather, and the same temperature as the water. 

Now the Ray is getting Up Close and Personal

 

Oh, look at this, Jim has another ray in his arms and since I’m hanging on to him, I decide to touch the outer flipper as well.

Amazing! It really is smooth!  The upper-side, the dark side, has just a hint of rasp to it, like raw silk.  I had been expecting sandpaper like the skin of the ray’s cousins the sharks.  Surprisingly, the white underside is completely smooth.  In fact, if you squeeze the flipper ever so gently, the texture is rather like tofu.  Honest!

Now the guide is asking, “Who wants their picture taken kissing a ray?  Which couple wants to be first? How about you?”

Naturally, they point at the one who has proven himself the most fearless, Jim, and by association, me.

Thus it was that I actually was part of the pair that posed, surrounded by stingrays, “kissing” and getting back rubs from the tame/wild rays.  

I conquered my fears and no one was the wiser, not even the rays.  Big-Black-and-Pushy even accepted a morsel of squid from my hand.  It felt like a vacuum cleaner was sucking it up!

I am so glad I persevered and learned to love stingrays.  They are awesome creatures. 

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Moorish Baths… Very “More-ish”

Or:  Going with the Flow

Hammam Al Andalus Baths (picture taken from their website)

 

“Oh, dear!  This isn’t the right street.  We’ve gone too far!”  

My main beef with Granada is that for a tourist centred town, they sure don’t put up many street name signs.  B, L, and I are dashing, as fast as it is possible to dash in the heat of Southern Spain, to our 10:00 am appointment for the Hammam Al Andalus Arab Baths.  The ever present church bells have just tolled the hour and we have arrived, just in time… to the wrong location.

Now we must dash back the way we came and search some more tiny narrow streets for the baths.

The Hammam Al Andalus Baths were built to service the people who lived in the Alhambra, way back when, and it was also one of the first baths to reopen after they were banned in the 16th century.  I was expecting something grand, but even when we finally found the right door we weren’t sure it was the right spot.  Sure the little sign outside looked the same as the one in the brochure but it was just an ordinary door leading to an ordinary looking building.  Could this really be the entrance to the famous baths?

But then we entered.  Immediately, things begin to change.  

Relaxing by the Warm Bath (Image taken from the Hamman Website)

A pleasant woman takes our tickets and not a word, not an eyebrow is raised, at our being a few minutes late.  She asks us politely, in English, if this is our first time.  Is it that obvious?  She points us to the change room and tells us that once inside the baths, Antonio (as I will call him) will explain more.

Oh, dear!  I am nervous again.  I’ve never been to any formal baths before.  What if I don’t do the right thing?  What if I accidentally break some unknown Spanish mores?   

My first impression?  It’s hot in here!  Even in the dimly lit change room.  How am I ever going to manage two hours of this heat?  After our dashing about in the dry heat outside, to be hit by the wave of moist air is astonishing.  However, we all bravely change into our swimsuits, put our clothes in the lockers decorated with Moorish designs, and head through the swinging doors, up the narrow passageway into the baths.

Just before we enter, we notice a sign that pictures a person going, “Shhh.”  There is no talking in the baths.  We all three look at each other.  No talking?  For two hours?  Us?

Inside, it’s dark!  I blink and try to see through the steam and dimness but all I see is candlelight.  What happened to the building we walked into?  This place looks like we are in a cave!

Suddenly, a figure emerges out of the gloom and there is Antonio, asking us (in a bare whisper) again if this is our first time.  We really must look like English-speaking deer blinded by the candlelight!  L answers and he proceeds to explain the different baths.  I hear words like, “hot,” “cold,” “warm,” “tea,” and “important.”  However, he is speaking so quietly and in such accented English, I doubt I could have comprehended it all if he were speaking directly in my ear.  I do catch, “…but first, showers,” as he points down some marble stairs to an even darker room.  Antonio then retreats back into the shadows.

Those stairs are slippery!  Like they are filmed with both oil and hot dew.  Luckily the handrail is solid and we totter down to the showers without incident.  At least we think it is the showers; all we can see are alcoves.  I actually walk too far and almost walk into the next room.  I get an impression of near naked bodies (both men and women) face down on padded tables, each with someone rubbing their backs.  Ah!  The massage room!  I will store that location for later.

Back in the shower room, I feel a little chirrup of victory as I am the first of us three to figure out that the alcoves are indeed the showers and the almost invisible button is what you press to make the warm rain fall.

L then repeats a lot of what Antonio told her and I ask if there is a special order in which we are supposed to use the baths.  Is there a program?  No.  Not at all.  Any order you like.  Eventually, Antonio will find us again and tell us it is time for our massages.

So, together we head back up the slope to the baths.  We are still a little leery of our place in this alien world of heat, steam, and candlelight so we stick together like three lost souls.  First stop is the “warm” pool.  This is a lovely deep rectangle full of softly rippling water, large enough to do a few laps, as the only occupant is doing.  Columns rise from the water, supporting a wood inlaid ceiling.  Have we been transported back to the Alhambra?

As my toe makes its first tentative touch into the water, my knots of tension start to recede.  It is lovely and warm, hotter than a heated swimming pool yet cooler than a bathtub.  Perhaps because it is water, it cools my skin just enough to sooth my impression of the over-heated air.  I can’t wait to immerse myself.

All three of us are now in the water.  We can’t talk, but we can share delighted grins.  Yes!  This is what it’s all about!  I dog-paddle to the other end by the three trickling taps whose warm streams bounce on the marble slabs, filling the air with gentle water music.   My feet float of their own accord and I lie back, supported by warmth.  Suddenly, I am aware of warm droplets sprinkling my cheeks.  Rain?  No, I realize the taps’ water flow is splashing up a gentle mist.  It is like the first drops of a summer shower.  The rain-starved Vancouverite in me sighs as I lift my face to the  falling water drops.  Ah!  It is time to lie back and breath in the scented air.  Time to praise Allah or God or Mother Nature or Air Transat or what ever Power it is you want to thank for getting you to this place and letting you experience this peace.

At first I thought I would just stay here, in this pool, forever but eventually, with no words, the three of us decided to move on.  We try the steam room but the heavy heat and the overly incensed steam are too much for us and we move on.  Maybe if we had persevered we would have acclimatized, but to me it wasn’t worth the time.  There were too many other areas of the baths to explore.

We try a hot pool.  This one is tall and narrow.  The walls are covered with Moorish tiles and the decorated marble ceiling boasts slanting, carved windows like skylights at dusk high above us.  We really have been transported to the Alhambra!  Only to a room where one of the fountains has taken over.  The water, surprisingly, is not too hot.  It is soothing, muscle melting, and supportive.  By now, my eyes are acclimatized to the dimness and, as I lean back, I appreciate the beautiful wall and ceiling designs that rise up around me.  I finally have the chance to do what I wanted to do in the Alhambra… to follow a line in the geometric patterns as it flows from a central star, out to another star, bends round a comet shape, out to the the corner and back to the central star but at a different point than before.  At least I try to do this, but my eyelids grow heavy.  

Slowly, the three of us start to drift apart.  I discover a darkened little alcove where the hot water trickles in from a marble trough that comes from an even tinier mysterious alcove in the wall.

From then on, things start to blend together.  I try each pool in turn, discovering the beauty in each one.  Even the cold one has its glory, although I only dabble my feet in the shockingly chilly water, I find the cool, cave like room around it is the best place to sip and savour the honey sweet mint tea.

Since I don’t have a watch, and since there is no talking, I find time ceases to have meaning and all worries float away.  There is no right or wrong here. Being late?  It is of no consequence.  The trouble I’ve been having with my cell phone?  Unimportant.  I just slowly drift from one pool to another, from cold to warm to hot, lounging on cool marble or floating in warm water as the spirit moves me. 

Eventually, there is Antonio at my elbow, motioning me into the massage room where I wait my turn on a large, heated, octagonal marble stone.  The masseuse gives me a choice of four essential oils: lavender, rose, red amber, or pomegranate flower.  The latter, with its sweet but sprightly scent is my pick.

Oh! The Massage!  This was not a deep tissue, muscle agonizing pounding but the most relaxing of rubs I have ever had.  I swear there were times when my lady was using four arms!

Eventually, I was ready to return to the cool room and sip more mint tea.  It was there we three met up again, each face alight with bliss.  

All good things must come to an end and yet, with the zen-like understanding I had just gained, I knew I was ready to go.  

However, I must admit, I moved rather slowly and peacefully the whole rest of the day.  

B is going to do some research to see if there are such baths in Vancouver.  I hope so.  I am ready to go with the flow again!

 

 

 

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Playing Tourist in Granada

Granada Cathedral

Some places just seem to be built for tourism, and except for its lack of street signs and maze-like one way streets, Granada is one of them, especially after you ditch your car and explore on foot or public transit.

Yes, this is a street!

The bus is only a bit over one euro and a cab ride up to the Alhambra is only five.  We had four of us so we took a cab and what fun that is!  I knew that Granada was originally a Moorish city and that the inner streets were windy and very narrow.  What I didn’t realize was they were designed that way ON PURPOSE as defence against invaders.  And it works to this very day. Many parts of the city are designated taxi only and, boy! they sure do whip around those streets.  Pedestrians scatter into door frames as the cab flies by with inches to spare… And then you meet another taxi going the other way!  This is a 2 way street?  Impossible!  But, no, somehow, carefully, space is found to pass and the flying continues.  Who needs roller coasters?  Just take a cab in Granada.

The rest of the time we walked everywhere.  Most of the things you will want to see are within easy walking distance and the cathedral makes an excellent central landmark.  Most of the streets are cobbled, which gets rather tough on the tootsies, so we wore good walking shoes. 

Lined with Enticing Shops

We learned that the usual “Hop on/Hop off” bus tour was not that good in Granada because you can’t get to the good parts by car, let alone a bus.  Instead, we went to a tourist information booth and booked a walking tour.  This was so informative, and the views were great.  As it turns out, during our initial blundering, we had stumbled by a good portion of the tour, but now, thanks to our guide, we learned the history of the sites.

After the walking tour, we girls dropped Jim and went on a shopping spree.  L loves to haggle while B stands back and laughs.  B knows exactly what she wants and nothing else will deter her.  Me?  I’m a magpie.  I see something colourful or sparkly, or both, and I’m hooked.  I especially like the narrow alleys where so much of the merchandise is hanging on the walls outside the shops. You feel like you are in a bright rainbow of interesting treats reaching out to touch you on either side.  I got a skirt, lots of fans, pillow covers… Oh my!  I hope I haven’t gone over my luggage weight restriction!

Flamenco! (Apologies for the dim light)

Speaking of exceeding weight restrictions…that evening six of our group went off on a tapas crawl. Tapas bars in Spain give you some sort of finger food with your drink.  Once finished your snack and drink you stagger off to the next bar.  What fun!  And such variety!

Oh!  And I almost forgot the flamenco!  H&G found the perfect tiny venue in a modified cellar, of all things.  The music was amazing!  The dancing, extraordinary.  The singing  was stirring.  The guitar… oh my, the guitarist!  He was the glue that held the group together.  The whole experience had my heart pounding with excitement.

The next morning, L and B and I went to Haman, the Moorish baths.  This was heaven!  In fact, I’m going to blog about it next!  You’ll have to wait for my next post to hear about the Haman.

So…

1. Wander the streets in Granada’s old city centre.  Check!

In the days of silk trading, this is where the merchants would bring the camels to recover.

 

2.  Visit La Alhambra.  Check!

3.  See the cathedral.  Check!

4.  Take a walking tour.  Check!

5.  Shop till ya drop.  Check!

6.  Do a tapas crawl. Check!

7.  Watch and listen to heart pounding flamenco.  Check!

8.  Sweat it all out at the Moorish baths the next morning.  Check!

It’s fun to play tourist, especially in a city as perfect for tourists as Granada.

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La Alhambra

La Alhambra from Granada

Or:  Tiles and Ceilings and Fountains, Oh My!

There is really only one word for the Alhambra:  Amazing!  

Wall detail, showing some of the intricate designs

Having said that, I shall now proceed to contradict myself by filling the page with many other words.

Perhaps it is the sheer vastness of the palace.  Perhaps it is the long and varied history.  Perhaps it is the beauty of the Moorish artwork that covers the inside from floor to ceiling.

When confronted with something as overwhelming as the Alhambra, the only way my mind could process it was to look for details. The little things that add together to make the whole.  

The many marble walls are etched with looping, mathematically artistic Arabic writing. I found myself (much as a young child would do when learning to read) scanning the walls for the oft repeated “Praise Allah” symbol.  It looks rather like a handwritten “a W” or our hand sign for “OK.”  Whenever I found it I felt the same thrill as a child would in finding the familiar in a vast expanse of beautiful, yet unintelligible, mural.

You see varitions on the eight-point star theme repeated many times. This one is 16 point!

 

And, oh!  The tiles!  Some are laid out in the usual way of  repeated squares but with sunburst designs that match up with other tiles.  Some, my favourite, are done in huge interlocking shapes, with each line or eight-pointed star having its own tile.  When you consider the way those lines weave under and over each other, what an incredible logistical nightmare it must have been to create that wall of tiles!  I have heard that if you start in the middle eight-point star and follow one line through the labyrinth of other lines, it will lead outward like a maze, touching other stars, detouring around comets, leaping out and touching the far spaces of the wall and eventually lead back to your central eight-point star.  This is the symbol of your life.  You start with God when you are born and life leads you hither and yon, but as you journey you must return to God over and over again.  I longed to sit and follow one of those lines in the mosaic but, of course, I must follow my guide and make room for the other 7,999 tourists that visit the Alhambra each day.

The Famous Lion Fountain (If you look closely you will see that each lion is unique.)

Oh dear!  I haven’t mentioned the fountains yet!  The whole castle is built upon the idea of an oasis in the desert, complete with cooling caves and green gardens.  There is water in almost every room.  Often the water takes thin troughs that lead directly through the centre of the marble floor like a river flowing right through your room.  Sometimes the sources spring mysteriously from holes in the wall like an underground spring in the desert.  Sometimes, the rivers flow from one of the many fountains. The sound of this water rippling, trickling, and splashing adds a liquid white noise that adds an elegant and cooling atmosphere to the air, no matter how hot it gets.  And, oh! Does it get hot!  Our guide told us it went to 47 Centigrade this summer. Ouch!  Even marble would be hot at that temperature.

And then there are the ceilings!

Even the ceilings are dripping with decoration.

 Sometimes ceilings of beautiful white marble that drip like stalactites in a cave.  The intricate designs remind me, as plebeian as it sounds, of the inside of egg cartons, the eight-sided cones in the middle that support the eggs.  But these are hanging upside down in interlocking patterns.  Other ceilings are massive, carved inlaid wood.  One of the main rooms boasts a ceiling that slopes inward in seven slanting layers.  These represent the seven levels of heaven.  Seventh heaven (yes, that’s where the saying comes from) is the highest a human can obtain.  There is an eighth level, but that is reserved for God alone.

I am so very glad that La Alhambra is not reserved for God alone.  In fact, with all the political and cultural fighting that has gone on between the Moors and the Catholics, it is amazing that La Alhambra has survived to this day.  It is still there, looking plain but imposing on the outside, high on the hillside overlooking Granada, waiting to welcome its eight thousand visitors a day.

An inner garden in the Alhambra like an oasis in the desert.

 

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Hiking through the hills of Southern Spain

 

G and B quickly out-pace me as we hike through the hills of Southern Spain.

When you first see the hills of Southern Spain, especially after a long, very hot summer, you may be forgiven if you thinks they are nothing but scrub bushes, rocky soil, and dry trees.  However, take a closer look and you soon discover an absolute wealth of treasures.

Avocados Dripping off the Tree

For one thing, each mountain, from bottom to almost the tippy top is ringed with terraces.  Imagine the generations of work that has gone into building those!  Generation after generation, century after century, millennium after millennium, Roman, Moors, and Spanish, have all contributed to the terraces.  It looks as though the countryside has been trimmed by giant pinking sheers. 

A Branch Laden with Olives

 

The birds of Southern  Spain are abundant and varied.  They are quiet during the heat of the day but fill the air with song in the morning and evenings.  In the morning there is one that I swear sounds just like a phaser blast from the original Star Trek!

Then, when you hike through these orchards, the wonders appear before your eyes.  Many old favourites are there: apples, oranges, rosemary, squashes, and grapes.  Then there are the products we are used to seeing on grocery shelves but Canadians never see growing at home.  Things like almonds, olives, avocado, cashews, and pomegranate.  

Baby Custard Apples, Also called Cherimoya

The real surprises are the trees it took me a lot of Google searching to identify.  One being what we sometimes call “custard apple” and sometimes “cherimoya.”  These trees have a lovely pattern of alternating leaves along long branches.  

The one that took the longest to identify was a tree that looks a lot like the avocado but the leaves are a darker green and greyer underneath.  The fruit is obviously very prized here because huge orchards of them are often encased in vast greenhouse-like swathes of reinforced plastic. These turned out to be nispero or loquat and are indeed very important here.  The season is much earlier than September so there was no fruit left to give me hints.

Prickly Pear Cactus. Don’t even think about picking the fruit without gloves or tongs. Those tiny invisible spines are insidious!

 

Can you imagine the feeling of discovery as you wind your way up through the ancient orchard covered hillsides on an early morning hike?  The actual plots of each type of plant are small so every turn greets you with new scents as you brush by basel and fennel, rosemary and mint.  

There was a lot of climbing involved in our hike but that brought a wealth of vistas.  Itrabo, all gleaming white and clean, is a real delight from above when seen sparkling in the morning sun.

It takes time, but hiking though the terrain of Southern Spain can be a real treat to all the senses!

 

  

 

Itrabo Catching the First Rays of Morning Sun

 

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First Impressions: Spain

We have left France behind and are now exploring Spain.  We have been here before, once to Barcelona,

The Red Dot is Ítrabo, Spain (thanks to Google Maps)

which we loved, and a couple of quick visits elsewhere in Spain during our early travelling days when we were still doing bus tours, which we didn’t enjoy very much.  Now we are staying with H&G (we travelled with them in Australia last year.  If you want you can read about that trip in my archives) and H’s sister, Ir, and our mutual friends, B and L. 

Jim and I flew into Malaga from France after a delayed flight surrounded by kids fresh from the overstimulation of EuroDisney.  I got so tired of being bumped by Mickey Mouse ears, stepped on by fully-clad princesses; and if I have to hear “Let it Go” from “Frozen” one more time…

It was difficult finding our friend, L, in the Malaga airport since her cell phone refused to work.  Finally, asking for the help of a kindly pilot, she used his cell and left us a message as to her whereabouts.  Thus, once armed with a new upgraded larger rental car and Google maps, we headed out into the Spanish night.

Since it was dark, it was difficult to formulate a good impression of Spain except that it was hot!  Then, once we were out of the city of Malaga, the wonderful aromas of the countryside started perfuming the car.  They are so different from those of night in Canada or in France.  I couldn’t wait to try to discover what was causing those lovely scents.

In the morning, we could see that all those hills we drove through were lined, bottom to almost top, with terraces.

 

The other thing we noticed was the roads were going up hill and down dale.  We had the impression of rather mountainous terrain.  Quite a change from the gentle slopes of wine country.  

This impression was further enhanced when, ninety kilometres after leaving the airport, we left the main highway to take the road up to what will be our new home for two weeks, Ítrabo.  Talk about winding this way and that!  Switch backs and encroaching banks, narrow tracks and looping turns!  I was glad there were signs to point the way because I had no idea which direction was north, south, east, or west.  

At one point the road actually warned (in universal picture language, thank goodness) “road narrows” and “windy.”  We all three gasped.  More narrow?  More windy?  How is that possible?  We soon found out.  Now, in defence of the road to Ítrabo, we did drive this road a couple days later when we weren’t dead tired and it was full daylight.  It was like a completely different road! Sort of…

Which way to Itrabo?

Once we got into the tiny town of Ítrabo (1,100 people), as instructed by our friends H&G and B who had arrived earlier in the day, we parked in front of the Post Office and phoned the apartment.  Jim was told under no circumstances was he to drive any further into town.  After this point, the streets narrow into one way tracks and finally donkey cart width.  Did I mention Ítrabo is built on a hill?  No?  Trying to back up through steep, windy, narrow streets that would not fit our upgraded rental car was not a good idea.  On the way to the Post Office, we had passed a couple of restaurants with knots of patrons celebrating Saturday night, but here, in the gloom of eleven o’clock, it was eerily quiet.

Then, like a heavenly light, B suddenly appeared beside the car.  She had dashed down a flight of stairs to assure us we were in the right place.  G was hiking up from the apartment to the parking lot above the town where he was getting his car to lead Jim through the maze of streets, choosing only the ones that stayed wide enough for our car.  Despite the fact it had taken B only moments to come down the stairs, we were told it would be much easier to wheel our luggage down from the parking lot.

Already, I was feeling happier.  We hadn’t got  lost, only turned around a few times. We had found our way and now our friends were there to guide us.  And they spoke English!  Did I mention I don’t speak Spanish?  No?  Perhaps you understand why I find Spain a little daunting.

However, after trundling the suitcases and backpacks down the incredibly steep streets (I have never wished my suitcase came equipped with brakes before), G stopped in front of an ornate wooden door.  Suddenly, there was H, welcoming us with smiles and hugs.  In moments our luggage was in place and we had a tour of the house.  It was absolutely lovely!  All white with Moorish influences, lots of levels, lots of sitting rooms, and lots of outside decks.  

Before long we were sitting on a cool deck under a fully laden grape arbor, sharing a glass of Spanish wine with good friends and nibbling the midnight snacks H had put together for us.  As I delighted in the sheep milk cheese,  flavourful peaches, rich olives, and spicy meats I decided I was going to like Spain a great deal.

Sunset over Itrabo

 

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