May 29, 2008

I am staying in the medina of Fez, right in the heart of the old city. The riad is a traditional building with three indoor stories and two outdoor terraces. It is at the end of a long narrow alley, right and left, and under a building, and past a fountain. Then you get to the main door (above).
The first floor has the kitchen, a common sitting room, and two other sitting rooms (one for males and one for females?) where meals are served. There is a lot of natural light, as the centre is open to the outside (covered one story up from the rain).
The second floor is where my room is, and two toilets (a Turkish/squat one, and a Western one). The photo is of the room across from mine, which is almost the same as mine. The windows open up to let air into the room.
The third floor is more bedrooms. Climbing up another flight of stairs takes you to the first terrace, which is partly covered to keep the rain out of the main house. Up another small ladder and you get to the top terrace, with a view of the other rooftops and the city. There are a lot of satellite dishes in sight, part of the old walls and forts, and a few mosque towers (minaret). Below is a video from the top terrace around 4:00 in the afternoon when you can hear the afternoon call to prayer (muezzin). If you listen closely you might also be able to hear the birds, the sheep, and maybe a few cars.

May 28, 2008

I've arrived in Morocco, after a 6 hour delay at the airport. Ryanair prides itself on being the largest airplane carrier that's 'on time' in Europe. I even saw a plane at the airport with 'Bye Bye Latehansa' written on it.
Well, first they had to chane the plane's tire, then we had to get off the plane, then the replacement plane didn't come (RyanAir books their flights close together so I don't think they wanted another flight delayed), then they had to fix the engine, then after 6 hours they gave us 5E vouchers to buy food and finally we got a new plane. And then it was finally off to Morocco.

May 25, 2008


Toledo is only an hour bus ride from Madrid, so I decided to spend a day there. It's a really nice old city, that was very important during the Moorish period. The streets are narrow, and full of cool, old buildings. The citizens of the city were getting ready for Corpus Christi so the city and streets were being decorated with flowers and banners which was cool to see. Apparently they'll have some big procession through the old town.
The old city is on a high hill with a great view of the surrounding areas, and most of the wall still seems to be in tact. I spent a bit of time in the new city (looking for a kebab which is was severely craving but of course couldn't find for the life of me) which is rather drab and ordinary. It was a nice city though, and great to get away from all the cars in Madrid for a day.

May 22, 2008

The Bull Fight...

It's one of those things that is typically Spanish -the bull fight. I decided that it was time to check one out, and with ticket prices listed as low as 4.40€ I figured it wouldn't hurt. I stepped out of the metro at Plaza de Torros - Las Ventas in front of a massive, round, brick building. Madrid's grand bull fighting ring -if you make it here, you make it the world over. It looked like something out of the Moorish period with the way the windows were shaped. It was incredibly impressive, and amazingly efficient. People marvel at how the Romans were so organized at the Colosseum, but now I can imagine how incredible it would've been. Throngs of people walking everywhere, shouting, smoking, people selling tickets, fans, snacks, and police here and there to make sure everything was alright. I bought a ticket about 15 minutes before the fight was to start, and walked up to the highest level of the building, to the second last row.
Despite being several stories up and far away from the actual ring I could hear the matador shout, and the bull ram into the horse's armour. The seats were concrete and delineated with lines. Each 'seat' was about 2 ft long and 1 ft wide. There are no aisles, and the people in the row above you have their feet at the back of your seat. For 1,20€ you can buy a relatively comfortable cushion (or bring your own), though I opted to sit on the concrete. Luckily nobody was sitting in front of me, so I had a bit of extra leg room.

The whole spectacle starts off with the different actors entering the ring, and walking around. The officials, the picadores, the matadors, the men who clean up the blood and smooth out the sand, and the horses and men who drag the bull away at the end -and they each get their applause. The fight starts with a horn, and a stunned looking bull that walks into the bull ring.

Half a dozen men with pink capes (only the matador uses red) wave and shout at the bull, making it charge at them. This is to work up the bull's adrenaline. The bull charges, and the men either run behind a wall, or play with the bull a bit. Next another horn blows, and two armoured and blindfolded horses come out. The bull eventually runs at one of the horses, there's a thud, and the bull is stabbed in the back. This obviously makes the bull angry. Soon the trumpets sound again, and the horses go back behind the walls. Next, several men will have the bull charge at them while the stab it with two long prong looking things (the ones that stay in the bulls back). Depending on how good they are, the crowd will either cheer or boo. The clip below is from the fight last night.

Another sound of the horn, and the main matador with a red cape walks into the ring. Everyone else leaves the ring; it's time for the real fight to begin. A hush falls over the crowd as the matador has the bull charge at him a few times. When the matador has the bull pass closely by his side in quick succession, the crowd shouts "Olé" or "Buen" each time the bull makes for the red cape. You can see a good succession of charges, and hear the crowd in the clip below.

After a while, everyone knows that it's time to end the fight. The matador takes his sword, and stares down the bull. A swift thrust to the back, and the sword should go deep into the bull, causing the bull to stagger around for a minute before falling over dead. If the matador hasn't made a good stab, then the crowd gets upset. They don't want the bull to suffer. The other men with pink capes come running out to get the bull to charge, stagger, once or twice before the fight has ended. If it has been a good fight, the crowd erupts in cheers, but if not there's only a mild applause. The matador gets to keep the ear of the bull as a prize.

Three horses are brought into the ring, to drag the bull away. It's usually used as meat, and sold in expensive dishes at expensive restaurants.
There are usually two bulls per matador, so the whole 'fight' can last around 2.5 hours depending on how many matadors there are. Of course the fight is before dinner (7 to 9 PM) so everyone snacks on candies, sausage, pork cubes, cheese, and alcohol.
While it may appear to be a bit bloody, it's not as barbaric as it may seem. The Spaniards tend to cheer for the bull, and get angry if the bull is teased too much or if the matador doesn't stab the bull properly and puts the bull into agony.

May 19, 2008

My sister came to visit over the weekend from Paris. It's only been a week since I've seen her, but it was great to have her here for two brief days. She arrived Saturday morning, and left really early this morning. We managed to see most of the important sites in the city this weekend, but I think our legs are now feeling all the walking we've done. The weather wasn't amazing, so we did have a few games of dodge the raindrops. My sister wanted to 'eat her way' through Madrid, so that's what we tried to do.
On Saturday we saw the major squares, and had some yummy tapas for lunch (patatas bravas, tortilla espagnola, and croquettas). We took a coffee break while enjoying a view of the royal palace, before going into the cathedral next to it which is controversial (for being so modern I think). We walked to El Retiro, a large park in the east of Madrid, and layed on the grass in the sun with some horchata and vanilla/chocolate ice cream. We picked up some pastries, then watched some traditional Madrid dancing as part of the San Isidro celebrations while having some sangria. For dinner (at 9:30PM) we had a picnic of sandwiches with jamón and chorizo, before heading out to a few places for drinks and more tapas.
For brunch on Sunday we had churros con chocolate (also very good, especially since the chocolate is so rich), before wandering through a few markets including El Rastro (one of the big/old outdoor markets in Madrid). We decided to check out the Prado and Reina Sofia museums in the afternoon, which was nice but a bit painful too as we'd been walking so much. Although the Dalí was rather interesting, we dragged our feet through to the exit. Continuing with the food theme we had a 'traditional' lunch/snack/dinner of kebab which turned out to probably be the best one I've ever had. we then found a little teteria near La Latina for some tea in a Middle Eastern setting. And of course we had to try some turrón (almond nugat). If I do say so myself, I think we did pretty well on the mission of eating our way through Madrid!

But of course it goes without saying that it was great to see my sister again, and I'm looking forward to seeing her again later this summer in July.
Two-Day Official Food Tally:
Tapas (x5)
Coffee (cortado)
Ice cream
Pastries (x3)
Sangria (1.5L for 1Euro!)
Jamón sandwich
Cañas (a few)
Churros (x4) con chocolate
Bailey's coffee
San Isidro...
May 15th is San Isidro, who is Madrid's patron saint. Thursday (the 15th) was the official holiday so most people took the Friday off too (puente, aka bridge), and of course there were celebrations all weekend.
There were all sorts of performances, dances, and fireworks throughout the city. Most of the museums were free on Saturday and Sunday, and were open until midnight. People who dress in the traditional Madrid costumes are called "Chulapos" and "Chulapas", which is a grey suit for men with a hat, and a dress with a head covering and a flower for women.
Here's an interesting comic I found in a local paper. It's a torro who says to the matador "Not for San Isidro fiestas nor for milk [an expression], Oie, I'm non-religious", referring to the fact that the saint's day is a holiday and that there are an extra bull fights over the next two weeks for the festival.

May 13, 2008

Regional Dancing...
I've arrived in Spain! The weather hasn't been as nice as it was in Paris -a bit cloudy and a few showers here and there, but the sun has come out from time to time.
I was in Plaza Mayor, one of the big squares in Madrid, and there was some sort of regional association festival. So for the better part of the afternoon groups from different regions of Spain played their traditional music, and performed dances in traditional costumes. It was actually quite interesting because the regions are quite varied and have a relative degree of independence in Spain (i.e. in the Basque region, the Basque language can be used with the local government). Unlike France, Spain hasn't had as tight central control over the various regions for a long time.

A short video of a regional dance, performed to the music of a type of Spanish bagpipe (smaller and higher pitched than the Scottish Highland pipes) and drums. Check out the pipers' pointy, black hats!

This is another short video of a regional Spanish dance, and in this one the music is performed by guitars and castanets.

May 12, 2008

Cheaper if you´re Chinese...
Yesterday I went into a little corner store that happened to be run by a Chinese man. About half the items had no price tags or labels, so I picked up a box of crackers and asked the man in Mandarin:
Me: How much is this?
Him: Huh? (a bit of shock)
Me: How much is this? (still in Mandarin)
Him: Uh, 2.70. (€)
Me: Hmmmm (thinking it´s a bit expensive)
Him: Less expensive, I´ll give 2.40.
Me: OK.
So that´s 30 cents that I´ve saved by taking Mandarin class!

May 09, 2008

Early on Tuesday morning, and with a cursory glance at my passport and nobody at customs, I had officially arrived in Paris at 6:30AM. I took the RER into town, and met up with my sister. The flight over with Zoom was pretty good, and the food decent, but I was tired from being up all night. A short nap later and I was ready to go. My sister and I headed for a walk through Paris, past the Bastille, along the Seine, and to Notre Dame. We've both been inside the cathedral before, and frankly it's not the most amazing cathedral that I've seen. Unless I were to actually see Quasimodo swinging from the bell tower, I don't know if I'd wait in the huge lines to go in. My sister and I bought some supplies, and made a ham and cheese sandwich in a baguette, and had lunch in the park behind the cathedral over-looking the river. It´s been great seeing my sister again, and catching up with her. We haven't seen each other since last August.

The jet-lag caught up with me, and I slept in on Wednesday. We got some pastries for breakfast, and ate them in a little park. The pastries in France are one thing that I've really missed about the country (another is the yogurt). I spent the afternoon with my sister wandering around Paris, along the Seine and by the Louvre.
In the evening I met up with Marie and Martine (they taught French in the same city in China as me last year) for dinner. It's been almost a year since Marie and I left China last year, and it's hard to believe it's been that long already. Martine made a gourmet meal of French food that she knew I`d have a hard time finding or cooking in Canada. We had Kir for starters (white wine with cassis), three types of bread to dip in the sauces throughout the meal, Coquilles St. Jacques (scallops) raw with lime juice and herbes, asperges (like a large white asperagus) with an olive oil and egg sauce, veal with carrots and a light white wine/orange sauce, 5 types of cheese (3 goat, 2 cow), then strawberries with pepper and creme fraiche, the maple cookies that I brought, and an espresso and chocolates to cap off the evening. The food was all absolutely amazing! We had a great time remembering some of the China adventures, and they laughed because my accent has a bit of Quebecois twang to it now -which Martine said she liked because it reminded her of the old barons who still spoke with that accent in the Loire Valley up into the 20th Century.

The weather has been absolutely amazing -up to 27C and sunny- which is apparently lucky for me because it's been bad weather for a while now. On Thursday we walked by the Hotel des Invalides, had a drink while lying on the grass in front of the Eiffel Tower, and walked along the Seine again. In the evening my sister took me to a great little crepe place in the student quarter, where there were ham & cheese crepes with tomato, lettuce, onion for only 3.50E! They were amazing, the best I've ever had. We sat outside in a square (which was round) with some beer and Magnum ice cream bars for dessert.

Friday we went up Montmarte to check out the Sacre Coeur. I've been to Paris a few times (don't know how many?), but the last time I was at Sacre Coeur must've been almost 7 years ago. It was nice to explore the area again, and to see the artists and winding little roads. My sister took me to the Amelie cafe, where they've now got a huge poster of Amelie inside. It was less touristy than I expected, and there were actual Parisians in the cafe. In the evening we went to the Louvre for free (it's free on Friday nights for those under 26).

May 01, 2008

Travelling Again...
It's been a busy school year. I've learned a lot, and enjoyed most of it. But now that summer's here I'm off travelling again. So this summer the first leg of my vacation will start in Paris, Madrid, and Morocco, and continuing on from there. It should be a grand adventure, and I'll be posting a few stories and photos on here throughout the summer. So sit back, and have a vicarious summer vacation.
I'm going to steal a line from Kim who quotes Mark Twain in saying "Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."