After our restful break in Benalmadena, we decided to venture on to Marrakesh, Morocco via Barcelona, Spain (cheap tickets sometimes make you fly in strange directions – but we wanted to see Barcelona anyway). Barcelona was probably my favorite city in Spain. We ate great food, saw many interesting sites and met some very nice people.
We started our time in Barcelona in a hotel/apartment style rental just a few blocks from Barcelona’s famed La Sagrada Familia. We stayed at the Hispana Suiza 7 (in case you’re wondering), booking in advance via the internet gave a great rate on the apartment which had two large rooms, a kitchen and ……a washer/dryer combo unit. (By this time on our trip a washer was great, and a dryer was like we had died and gone to heaven)! This really was a great place to start exploring the town and the first afternoon there we decided to just walk the streets and take it all in. We made our way toward the main shopping district in L’ Eixample on Passeig de Gracia (I’ll let you decide who came up with this itinerary), since that is where there are also some unique and architecturally significant houses by Gaudi and Puig i Cadafalch , the Casa Batllo
Phoebe and Tessa outside Casa Batllo
and Casa Amatller, respectively. While we just enjoyed Casa Batllo from the street on this day, we were able to go into the first floor of Casa Amatller. Here we were able to see some detailed photographs of the house and see a short video (in English) about the restoration effort and family that lived there. The Amatller’s were a well to do family that made there fortune in chocolate and were pioneers in mass marketing and product branding. It was quite interesting to see some of the details of this, the first house in the area, to be redone in the new modern architectural style.
Since the next day was expected to be reasonably nice (rain was starting to come into the forecast) we decided to take the big red bus around town (a great way to see stuff and get an overview of the place). Our first step off was to explore the Guell Park. This is where the home of Antonio Gaudi was during his later years and it has now been turned into a museum. The park itself was an unsuccessful housing development that was supposed to be modeled after the English garden city movement.
Sitting under the walkway
Girls at park entrance
Being caught in the first sprinkles of rain, we went into Gaudi’s house/museum, which was interesting – with examples of his furniture and some photos of his time there. It also provided a nice view of the city. More spectacular to me were the grounds themselves with the space he created with his unique style of construction, with overpasses incorporated into the hillside. The entrance to the park itself is quite spectacular and moves up some stairs into an area that was intended for a market. This is covered by a large deck that has many of Gaudi’s signature elements incorporated into its construction, curvy walls with benches designed to fit your bottom nicely (actually modeled from a women sitting in clay) supported by columns mimicking trees. We were happy to spend our late morning and early afternoon here wandering around the area and looking at all the interesting things he incorporated into the gardens.
On top of walkway overlooking the city
Along the walkway - some funky angles
Tess and Phoebs on market deck
Mosaic in ceiling of covered market
We hopped back on the bus to explore a little more of the city getting off in the city center to walk around see some of the cities churches and buildings (and to squeeze in a little more shopping – if we found anything really cool). We ran into some great shops – Tessa was the big winner, scoring a really cute dress to go with her boots (she looks a little to grown up in this one). We also got some great advice from a local shop owner on places to eat. We ended up at a pizzeria he recommended and loved it, and the next night we went to a restaurant called Blanc de tofona – which ended up being one of the culinary highlights of our trip.
The next day, Thursday, was supposed to begin our next couchsurfing adventure in a small town just outside of Barcelona called Sitges. Unfortunately, this became our first (and only) couchsurfing disappointment in all of our travels. The best we could figure (there was a small language barrier) was our host had an emergency and had to leave the house for a couple of days. However, she failed to inform us of this and if it was not for the fact that we where double checking with a quick call before we hopped on a train to her home, it might have really been ugly. As it was, we ended up spending the rest of the day trying to secure accommodations for the next two days during a busy holiday weekend. We managed to get another night at our nice hotel (at a much higher rate) and Kate booked us into a hostel for Friday night (more on that later). Since we had wasted our afternoon and early evening away, we decided to splurge on dinner by going to dinner at upscale restaurant that was recommended by our new shop owner friend. It was quite the dinning experience. One the girls and I will always remember. See Phoebe and Kate’s post for the details.
So instead of seeing the La Sagrada Familia on Thursday before leaving for Sitges, we ended up there on Friday, waiting in the rain to get in with the rest of the tourist.
Tessa and Phoebel by Jesus statue outside Temple
It was all worth it in the end, because the temple is fantastic. We opted for the audio tour, and between it and the museum (below the structure) we were able to learn about many of the innovations Gaudi incorporated in the building’s construction. It was really very fascinating. We were all impressed with his genius, and Tessa was especially enthralled with his modeling of the structure with string and weights. This is a not to be missed stop on anyone’s tour agenda of Barcelona (and the world for that matter). The construction of the building goes on to this day and it is not expected to be completed until some time around 2026.
Inside the Temple
After leaving the temple we went back to our hotel to collect our bags and find our way to the hostel. This all went smooth until we went to check in and discovered we had inadvertently made reservations for Saturday instead of Friday – and they were full for the night. We quickly got back online and found a room just outside of town, close to the airport. We would have to go back through the city to get to the hotel, so after seeing the church (and discovering Gaudi’s brilliance) we all decided that we really should tour his house in town, the Casa Batllo – noted above. So we went there fully encumbered with our backpacks, dropped them off in the lobby and took the home tour. Again Gaudi did not disappoint. The house was awesome. It had great views of the street from the main dinning room with windows that completely opened to the street. Gaudi also opened up the inner courtyard space to flood the building with natural light.
Looking up to courtyard roof covering
He made unique use of all the space, all the way up to forming halls the attic space (used by the servants) into a beautiful rib like structure. My words cannot begin to do the building justice. Go see it, if you get the chance!
Me and my beatiful wife on the roof of Casa Batllo
We eventually made our way to our hotel and crashed for the night. We got up bright and early the next day to get to the airport and head to Marrakesh, Morocco. Everything was going smoothly, until I realized – 20 minutes before boarding the plane- that I couldn’t recall packing the all important (containing makeup, medicine, and expensive dental apparatus) makeup kit! I made a quick call to the hotel to confirm my heart sinking realization… yep they had it. I will be forever grateful to Kate for keeping her cool in this situation; she was the model of an understanding spouse! Kate and I made the quick decision to move on without it, and to have it sent onward to our couchsurfing hosts in Paris. The kind hotel staff said they could ship it to us. So, in the end, it all worked out fine as the bag was waiting for us when we got to France, and we were able to get by in Morocco with a few small toiletry purchases.
So even with rainy weather and the slight disruptions in the travel plans, Barcelona was a wonderful end to our time in Spain. I will definitely put this on my places to see more of in the future.
When we were in Malaga, my Nana and her best friend, Greta, came out to visit us for over a week! We went to the town called Sevilla, where we honestly had the best tour guide yet. Her name was Concepcion and she showed us around the town everyday.
Phoebe and Greta at lunch in Sevilla
It is sad to say that the overall vibe of Sevilla is extremely touristy. Even as we walked around to all of the churches and cathedrals or road the big red bus around the city (which is a touristy activity no matter where you go), the city appeared to be one large tourist trap.
Walking around the churches was wonderful though. The main attraction appeared to be the church in the main part of the city, known for being the second largest church in current existence. A giant minaret spiraled up to the top
View outside minaret tower
before opening into a large belfry where you can see over the whole city. It is really an amazing must-see site that should be on anyone’s list when they visit.
Minaret tower from town square
Church towers in Sevilla
But after seeing multiple churches and cathedrals, we decided to pack up on the last day and hit the “big red bus tour”. There were just so many things to see that you lost track of the “Exposition” buildings, churches and famous factories that flew past. It was simply a relief at the end of the day to stumble back into the hotel and watch the flamenco dancers that were performing in the courtyard.
I think that the city would have been utterly delightful, possibly one of my favorites on the whole trip, if every single store front, booth, and sign was not dedicated to the tourism industry. Storefront after storefront had ridiculous flamenco-dancer-aprons and snow globes featuring the famous cathedrals. All the newspaper booths sold big red bus tickets and “I was in Sevilla” buttons, and it’s easier to find a sign pointing to the nearest tourist sight then to find an actual sign with the street’s name.
Phoebe and I watching dancers at our hotel
But Sevilla, none the less, was overall a very pleasant city and I loved sharing it with Nana and Greta! It would be a definite suggestion for anyone going to Spain.
Seriously, if I’m going to catch up on this blog (and before all the memories garble together), I’m going to have to give the down-and-dirty versions of our daytrips in Spain! So here we go Granada…
Tessa and Phoebe are becoming quite accustomed to the cafe lifestyle! Here they are at a cafe in a square in Granda enjoying the very evil Spanish treat of churros and chocolate. Nothing like fried dough and hot chocoate pudding to make you feel like a local!
We started off early in the morning for our day trip to Granada. We read that the star attraction there, the Alhambra & Generallife Gardens (an old Moorish fort/palace and its adjoining formal garden) sold a limited number of timed tickets so we wanted to get there early. We drove the two hours through nothing but olive groves – I read that Spain has 30 million olive trees, and I think we passed every single one of them on our various day trips – and finally when the snow-topped Sierra Nevada mountains came into view, we knew we were close.
This is what all of the towns and villages look like in Andulusia - so charming I want to find a old farmhouse and grow me some olives! Seriously, they are really picturesque!
Our best laid plans were a bust – were were there by 10am but they had no tickets available until 3pm… and then it started raining. No worries, we’d just head into town and check out a few old churches and wonder the streets looking for treats (the treats are to in fact bribe the girls into going and seeing MORE churches) until our tickets were good.
In Spain, the very best ham comes from black pigs that are fed nothing but acorns. Little piggy be afraid... be very afraid...
This is one of the things that we love about Spain, and Europe in general... the public spaces. Every few blocks you come across a little square or plaza, maybe it has a fountain or a statue, and there are cafes, old men playing games, pigeons, kids, the random flower stand, and a guy playing an accordian. America would be SO much cooler if we'd just work a few of these squares in here and there!
So we spent the day wondering Granada, just revealing in the Spanish-ness of it all. With 3pm quickly approaching, we headed back up the hill to check out the lifestyles of the rich and ruthless from centuries bygone.
The Generalife Gardens were part of the Alhambra's complex, but are across a ravine on another mountain. They were awesome, very formal with lots of cool buildings and hardscape making it seem more like a floral village rather than just a garden. It was a little early for their roses to be in bloom, but the wisteria and lady's bank were putting on quite a show, as were the orange trees.
Endless hedges with secret entrances - oh this place would be a ROCKIN place to play Manhunt!
The Alhambra is a huge complex of buildings built by the Moorish Sultans starting back as early as the 900’s and continuing on and off through the 1400’s. There is a huge wall, an alcazaba (fort), a palace, and a cool round building that I can’t seem to find the name of, but it’s like a huge round open space in the middle surrounded by two floors of rooms ringing the open space. I think I remember it being something that the Christians built after the conquest, maybe as a place to live, but I could be very mistaken… anyway, we thought it was super cool!
The Alhambra as seen from the Generalife Gardens
All the girls in the middle of the cool round building.
The Palace was a beautiful building with very ornate carvings, lots of pretty arches, fountains, amazing tile work, and great views. Here is an arch with some carvings from afar...
The carvings up close - most impressive...
This is the view from the very tip top of the highest tower at the Alhambra. Tessa gets the props because she was the only one that made the climb!
Every room in the Palace had different tile work - the patterns were endless and the tile was teenie tiny.
Some of the patterns, like this one, made me dizzy just looking at them! Each piece of color was about the size of a US dime.
All and all, we really enjoyed Granada and the Alhambra. My advise for anyone else going would be to buy tickets online in advance (duh Kate!) and go on guaranteed sunny day (but not a really hot one) because its 90% outside and you do a lot of walking. It is one of the more impressive complexes, nice to have it all in one central location, and I really really did enjoy the gardens.
Yes, I know, we have fallen woofully behind in our blog posts – its just so hard with all the beautiful sites, sounds and food to sit down long enough to write!
But I must stop and capture for posterity the wonderful time we’re having in Spain… a beautiful county with rich culture, lovely people, beautiful countryside, dynamic cities, and of course amazing food!
Our “home base” in Malaga allowed us to really explore the region of Andulusia. Our first big roadtrip was to Cordoba. Spring in Cordoba was like walking through an orange grove in full bloom. The entire city is filled with orange trees and flowers! The smell of orange blossoms used to remind me of growing up in Florida, but now that memory will forever be replaced with thoughts of the Patio de los Naranjas (Court of the Orange Trees) in Cordoba!
The historic city of Cordoba is within the old city walls. The streets are narrow, cobblestoned, and every window is dripping with flowers!
If you are lucky enough to catch someone leaving their building, you might get to peak inside their courtyard and see one of the spectacular courtyard gardens that Cordoba is known for. One weekend a year they have a courtyard tour where buildings vie for the honor of being the courtyard-of-the-year. This was a winner one year.
And this was a winner another year.
The big attraction in Cordoba is the La Mezquita-Catedral. Back in the day, it started as a tiny little Christian Church, then the Moors came though and built a massive, and I mean MASSIVE mosque on the same site. I think it was like the second or third largest mosque in the world at the time. It is famous for the hundreds and hundreds of pink arches that hold up the massive roof. I’m pretty sure I read that the interior footprint of the interior of the mosque is the size of three football fields! Just the mosque itself is amazing and impressive, but not to be outdone, when the Christians came back through in the late 1400’s they decided to build a full size cathedral right smack dab in the middle of mosque! They blew out a few hundred arches, raised the roof, and built one of the prettiest cathedrals in the world! Our pictures do it NO justice, so please put it on your list of places to see in the world .
Outside of the mosque/cathedral. Not as impressive from the outside as some of the other cathedrals, but still FAB!
A close-up of the girls in front of the same fountain, just because I think they're cute!
A few of the beautiful arches. I tried my darndest to capture more of the space, but my photo skills held me back!
A bit of the "new" cathedral's ceiling
A bit more of the ceiling...
Phoebe and I trying to take in the ceiling. We would have preferred to lay down on the floor, but there were too many darn tourists there and we surely would have been stepped on.
As amazing as the mosque/cathedral was, the highlight for me is always the gardens. After a quick lunch of fresh bread with jamon and Manchego, we headed over to the Alcazar de los Reyes Christiano (Castle/Fort of the Christian Kings). The castle was cool, but the gardens were amazing! Everything was in bloom, and while a sneezing nightmare, it was totally worth it!
Climbing to the top of the castle
Loved Cordoba! I don’t think there could be a prettier time of the year to visit there then in the springtime, but I bet its charming whenever you go. It was a bit touristy, but overall a quaint town with lots of cute little hotels, nice cafes, and very manageable historic sites (some of the other historic sites are so massive and spread out they are hard to do in one or two days, and can be exhausting for the kids). I would happily visit again… maybe next time I’ll time it so the roses are in bloom instead of the orange trees…
After our time in Madrid, Kris, Jack, Phoebe, Tessa, Kate, and I all piled into the minivan Kris had rented and made our way south. Our destination was a townhouse near the beach just outside of Malaga, in the small town of Benalmadena. As Kate mentioned in her previous post, everyone in the Wells clan, especially me – since I do the majority of the packing and unpacking, were very excited about being able to have a home base from which to explore the south of Spain. Somewhere that would enable us to be able to pack just a small day bag for our travels out to see the sights of Cordoba, Seville, Granada and any other quaint town we might stumble upon.
Everyone but me, outside of the oldtown overlooking the city.
The trip down to the townhouse was fairly uneventful. We were supposed to arrive in the early evening to meet the caretakers of the townhouse to get the keys. We were already running a little late, since we stopped in Toledo for a little lunch and a quick tour of the town. It was a cool old city, but a little packed in with tourists. We had a little lunch and made time for a few pictures.
Jack performing the Bell tradition of statue mimicking
We finally turned off the freeway into Benalmadena about and hour late, thinking we would find the place quickly. Unfortunately, the final directions I had written down were a little off (and the signage in the area wasn’t helping any). We had turned into the right neighborhood, but the map posted on the wall of the neighborhood didn’t show the street we were looking for. We ended up driving around for another 15 minutes before finally turning on the computer and fortunately having the google map still in the cache. Seeing we were in the correct neighborhood we followed our newly rediscovered map. Confidently we drove up a steep hill in anticipation of cresting the top and driving onto the final street where the townhouse was located. We all could do nothing but burst into laughter as we crested the hill into an empty construction lot, with no hope of driving through it to any street. Once we regained our composure, I turned the car around and tried from the other direction, fortunately that worked and we were able to find our new accommodation. However, the caretakers were out for the evening, so we just made sure we knew where to get back to and went out for a delicious Spanish meal of fried squid, fried and grilled grouper and an American style cheeseburger. We returned later to the house after dinner to meet the caretakers and get the keys.
Sunrise from the deck of the Benalmadena townhouse. Not too shabby!
As our gracious hosts had told us, the house was great. Three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a spacious living room and dining room and a well appointed kitchen. After nine months of constantly moving and not having our own space, we were finally able to settle in somewhere. We quickly figured out the neighborhood and where we needed to go for things like groceries, and internet. Kate ran into some of the neighbors (French who spoke English) and discovered a local soccer team that were willing to take the girls in for soccer training on Saturdays. Both Kate and I started an exercise regime to try and work off some of the good food we had been eating. Things in Spain were looking pretty good!
Our next big adventure was to get Jack to see a professional soccer game, European style. Krissy had done all the research, she had checked Yahoo sports and found a game being played in the nearby city, Almeria – a three hour drive away- that was to be played at 11:00 AM on Easter morning. Tessa and I signed on to make the trip with them (Kate and Phoebe took a pass) and the four of us all got up bright and early to get on the road by 7:00 to be sure we could get there on time and get tickets. The drive ended up taking a little longer than planned, due to some construction and since we really didn’t know exactly where we were going once we got to Almeria. Fortunately we had allowed enough time. We ended up meeting two young guys, and using our basic knowledge of the Spanish language, got them to understand we needed directions to the soccer stadium. They graciously said/motioned “Follow us, we’ll take you there”. We assumed they were going to the game too, but they weren’t. They did get us close enough to see the stadium, pointed us in the right direction and waved goodbye. As we drove up to the stadium, ready to cheer for the local team, our hearts sank…nobody was there (maybe that’s why they weren’t going to the game)!
Now what do we do? We needed a recovery plan. This is an old city. Who cares if it is Easter in a majority Catholic country where everything is shut down for the holiday (and for four hours after lunch). This city has some unique history; we saw a castle on the way in; there must be something we can see……right? We headed for the nearest tourist information office to see if it was open and if there was anything we could do in this town, since we were here anyway. We soon discover, Kris had actually gotten the information for the game correct…if we were going to watch the game in the USA in the eastern time zone. The game was schedule for 5 PM Spain time. Now it was noon and we had five hours to kill. Fortunately for us, the main fort (or Alcazaba) was open for the day and there was a open restaurant nearby. We grabbed a bite to eat and made our way to the fort for some sightseeing. We all enjoyed the seeing the Alcazaba which was originally built in the 11th century by the Muslims who then ruled the area. It was perched high above the city and gave us panoramic views of the coast and inland areas. Jack and Tessa really enjoyed climbing all the ramparts and seeing the cannons and large doors. There was also a great garden that still used the basic channels, reservoir and wells established when the area was first built.
After we finished exploring the Alcazaba it was time to make our way back to the stadium for the soccer match. This time we knew exactly where to go and made it to the stadium easily. We had plenty of time to get tickets and got good seats right down on the field katy-corner from the goal.
Front row seats, go Almeria!
Jack, Kris and Tessa pose before the match.
The game was great! We saw a beautiful header goal for the home team and cheered them on through the first half. The onlyl thing missing from the full soccer experience was the beer (the only served NA beer, whats up with that!) We decided to leave at half time since Kate and Phoebe were expecting us back at 5:00 PM, it was already 6:00 PM and we knew we had at least a three hour drive ahead of us. We got back just before 9:00. Just in time to keep Kate from going into complete nervous breakdown with visions of us lost in Spain or in some accident on the side of the road.
In the end it all worked out fine with all of us getting to see a game and a little of the city at the same time. Kate forgave us for coming home so late and said she was really glad she was not along for the ride and the “extended” visit.
In front of the Royal Palace (I think - so many pretty buildings!)
During about our third week in India we decided we needed to stop moving around for a bit and rest our tired backs. Our onward tickets to UAE and Egypt were already bought and our plans made – so we had 2 more weeks of moving and then… what?
And now I’ll make a long story short… my best girlfriend from high school (hey Kel!) is engaged to a great guy (hey Mariano!) who has a really cool sister (yeah Koren!) who very generously offered us her townhouse in southern Spain way back last year when we were planning our trip. At the time we thought maybe we’d go and stay a week or so, but when we decided we needed to stop moving for a while I thought of her offer, and after a few emails we arranged to stay for a MONTH! Woohoo!
So, onward to Spain – to Malaga and the Costa del Sol via Madrid. As fate would have it, half my family was already planning on being in Spain the week we arrived. My sister Claudia and stepmom Bo were on a high school trip with Caud’s school, and my cousin Sydney was there visiting friends (we had a great dinner with her our first night in Madrid – so funny!!) Then, my sister Krissy and her son Jack amazingly arranged to meet up with us in Madrid and join us for a week down south (amazing, because she has one year old twins at home!). So it was like a little family reunion!
Our first night in Madrid with my cousin Sydney!
Madrid was awesome. We all loved it and were SOOOO happy to be in a “first world” country again (our idea of the high-life is being able to drink the tap water!).
In Madrid, we decided to do the most touristy of things to kick off our trip – hop on the Big Red Bus tour! I know… it sounds lame, but with three kids, three jet-lagged adults, and 1000 years of Spanish history to tackle in three days, it was the only way to go! Madrid was the perfect city to do this in… it brought us all over the city, we got to see all the sites from high above the traffic, and when we saw a museum, palace, or giant hill that needed to be rolled down, we just hopped off the bus!
My sister Krissy, nephew Jack, Tess & Phoebe cruising Madrid on the Big Red Bus!
Jack and Phoebe taking part in our family tradition of rolling down any large grassy hill we can find - in this case behind the Del Prado Museum!
Madrid is very pretty – lots of great architecture, fountains, tons of parks and lots of green space. We had been good about not shopping too much up to this point, but it was in Madrid where we started slipping down the slope of retail therapy… the shops here are amazing, and everywhere. Tess, Phoebe and I did a great job justifying our purchases because it indeed was springtime in Europe and much cooler (both temperature-wise and cool/hip-wise) and we only had clothes for hot weather! And the baby clothes – wow! The Spanish babies are the best dressed I have ever seen. The other funny thing that all of us noticed was that the older people here (grandma and grandpa-aged) are impeccably coiffed! Smart suits, dresses, furs, hats, lovely handbags and jewels and beauty shop hair dos. Phoebe commented that when Auntie Tasch and I are old that we should move to Spain so we can dress up every day and walk around together. I think we might just have to do that.
Tess, Jack & Phoebe at a park in Madrid.
Spain has been doing its best to displace France as the culinary capital of the world. And I have to say they are doing a pretty darn good job! We opted for tapas and bar food over the fancy-smanchy dining rooms of Madrid, but we still ate like kings. By FAR our favorite and most often eaten meal was fresh bread with Iberica ham (or Serrano ham…those acorn-fed piggies sure are tasty!) and Manchego cheese. Grilled veggies, mystery sausages, anchovies in olive oil and lemon with crushed sea salt, and gazpacho rounded out many-a-meal. And in Madrid, we couldn’t pass up their famous churros and chocolate! Yes, churros like we have at home, but freshly fried, and served with a cup of “hot chocolate” that is more like hot chocolate pudding that you dip your churro into. OMG! I’m getting fat just writing about it!
All and all, Madrid is definitely a city to come back to and spend more time in. We didn’t even scratch the surface of the museums and cultural sites I wanted to see, plus there really are some amazing restaurants that I need to experience. I would definitely put Madrid high on my list of places to come back to.
Phoebe & Jack in their scarves, cruising the streets of Madrid, lookin so hip!
After days of living in relative luxury, we decided to head down the Nile (or maybe it’s “up” the Nile – in any event, we headed south, which seems to be down to me!) and visit the other not-to-miss historical treasure trove of Luxor (ancient Thebes!).
Cairo train station
We had the option of flying, but being the budget-minded travelers that we’ve become, we opted to take the overnight train – saving us the high cost of airfare (Egypt Air has a monopoly) and a hotel for the night. Plus, Olivia (my 20 year old sister) has never been on an overnight train, and you haven’t really traveled if you don’t have the overnight train notch on your backpacking belt! So after a FULL day in Cairo, all five of us piled into a cab and strapped our backpacks on the roof for the 10pm trip to the train station for our 11pm departure.
As usual, and for reasons still not clear to us, we cause quite a stir at every train station we enter. The stares, gawks, and finger pointing were even more than usual, as we were sharing the train with an entire battalion of Egyptian army guys who were literally falling out of the train to get a closer look at Olivia. The CONDUCTOR of the train that came in before our train actually stopped everything he was doing and took pictures of us with his cell phone for a good 10 minutes (I am not kidding one single bit) and would have continued I am sure if it was not for everyone in the station YELLING at him to move his train!
Our best overnight train was from Shanghai to Beijing and I would rate it a 5 on a scale of 1-10. This one was a two, mayyybe a three. Was clean-ish (mind you my definition of clean has changed dramatically), but the food sucked and it was very lurchy. Also, Olivia was totally freaked out by the bathrooms (squat pots on a lurching trains…fun!) so her back teeth were floating by the time we reached Luxor. Without going into details that would embarrass my sister, let me just say that Phoebe and Tess offered her lessons and moral support, and I really really meant to be more supportive but I couldn’t be because I was laughing too hard.
Olivia & Tessa's train compartment. The brown panels behind their head and the platform they are sitting on convert to beds.
Luxor was a lot smaller than we expected. Our hotel was right on the Nile, quite nice and surprisingly reasonably priced. Across the river from us was an agricultural area pretty much untouched by the modern world. The coolest part though was that the hotel pool was on a barge-like contraption that actually floated IN the Nile. Pool water and Nile water did not meet, I assure you. We spent every afternoon on the pool deck watching the feluccas (traditional Egyptian sailboats) sail the Nile, and the farmers and herdsmen bringing their animals to the riverbank for their afternoon water.
The scene from our hotel of the riverbank across the Nile. Yes, real camels!
We went sailing on the Nile at sunset on a felucca...
Tessa skippering the boat - she's quite the sailor!
The sightseeing in Luxor was intense. The Valley of the Kings really is a valley of the kings – like hundreds of kings and their sons (mostly) are buried in these pretty incredible underground bunkers carved hundreds of feet into the mountain stone. We were able to visit four of the graves, but have no pics as cameras are forbidden. So let me try and describe it to you…
The Nile runs south to north and has a green fertile band that runs along each side of it for, I’m guessing 5-8 miles wide. When the fertile band ends, it totally ends. I’m talking lush green field to sand (yes, truly sand, like you see in the movies and on bad postcards). About 5 miles from where the sand starts is a mountain range of rock mountains. Not a single bush, tree, shrub – NOTHING but rocks. There is a deep valley that runs through the mountains, dissecting the mountains and running perpendicular to the Nile. The mountain towards the back of the valley naturally looks like it has a pyramid on top of it.
As we all learned in school, the great pyramids and all the other really obvious burial extravaganzas got broken into and looted early on. The kings in the later eras took note and decided to hide themselves and their treasures a little better, hence the Valley of the Kings. Their “workers” (don’t EVEN suggest to the modern-day Egyptians that slave labor was used) dug tunnels (the sizes of the tunnels corresponding to wealth and self-importance of the king) deep into the rock, sometimes hundreds of feet long and 20 feet in diameter. In the tunnels we visited, every square inch of space was covered in really colorful, highly detailed hieroglyphics that have survived thousands of years in really vivid, beautiful condition. I was really shocked and amazed, they almost looked retouched, but I’m pretty sure they weren’t.
I am really really glad I got to see them, because at some point someone that knows about archaeological conservation is going to come into power in Egypt and say “NO WAY – stop parading all these tourist though these fragile environments. As you climbed deeper and deeper into the tunnels to where the burial chambers were, you could feel the humidity from the breath of all the busloads of people cycling through. Ugh.
Hetshepsut's burial temple
Next on our tour was the Deir el-Bahri of Hatshepsut, the burial site of the first of only four female pharaohs. This amazing building was in COMPLETE rubble, and I mean complete rubble when found in 1800’s. It is being re-constructed, piece by piece, to this day – in a joint project through the University of Chicago and Poland. Poland you ask? Yes, Poland. We don’t get the connection either, but they’ve apparently been working on it for years and years and are credited by the Egyptian government with saving the Temple. GO POLAND! It was really interesting to see the place being rebuilt, the parts we could visit were beautiful and interesting, and when you look towards the piles of rubble left to be rebuilt you can begin to appreciate the enormous task a bit.
You can see the cracks in hieroglyphics because they pieced all of this back together from rubble. The colors were still amazing after nearly 5000 years!
One funny thing about driving around the east and west banks in Luxor were that there are ancient ruins ALL over the place. There’s a field of sugar cane, and a bit of a column sprouting out of the middle of it with some other column pieces littering around. We saw pharaoh heads (really big ones, like the size of a mini-van) in the backyard of an apartment building. In some places they were fenced off (barely) and in other places they were just, well, there… A few times we saw men dressed as I’m sure they were dressed 1000 years ago lugging hand-made bucket of sand and, well, precious ancient Egyptian shards of stuff around to who knows where? If there were officials and trained archeologists around, they disguised themselves very wells as down-and-out manual laborers.
These were some of the random ruins that were just "around". Note the chainlink fence. It was only about 100 feet long, otherwise you could just cruise in and out of this area at whim. So weird.
Our last day in Luxor was spent at the Karnack and Luxor Temples. And for all of you reading this now who are old enough to remember Johnnie Carson, you can now hold the envelope up to your turbine and divine the rest of this blog instead of just reading it…
Tessa at the Avenue of the Sphynix at Karnak Temple
At the Karnak temple, the hieros were deeply etched into the plaster and stone. We learned that the this technique was used here because the pharoh that built this temple didn't want later rulers to come in and etch their names over his name.
Karnak columns. There were like 800 or so of these, and each one takes about 5-7 men with joined hands to encircle each one!
The temples were really spectacular. Massive, imposing, amazing – the superlatives that I need to describe them are just not there. Even with the zillions of tourist trying their best to ruin my view, I still loved being in both spaces. Both temples were in various states of ruin up until the 1800’s, and they are still digging and discovering new areas and treasures every day. As a matter of fact, just this week Olivia sent me a link to a news story of a huge treasure trove that was unearthed along the Avenue of the Sphinxes almost in the exact place we were standing – seriously we very well could have been literally ON TOP of them! Kudos to the University of Chicago who has been working for decades in Egypt to reconstruct these great monuments – and if you have any children that are really good with both legos and jigsaw puzzles – please send them their way!
This is the entrance to Luxor Temple. We visited it at night as they have it lit up beautifully! There were two obelisks here at the entrance, but the king of Egypt gave the other one to France, and now it sits in in the middle of the Champs-Elyse in Paris!
Luxor Temple with our guide!
More columns. Sorry, they're just so pretty!
You know we had to do it at least once...
Couldn't open my blog about Egypt without posting my version of the Sphinx and the Pyramid...
Aside from Tessa developing an irrational fear of camels – our time in Egypt was awesome. I have to say, Egypt was on my “list” of places we absolutely HAD to go to because I thought it should be, not because I was really dying to go there.
Plus, almost everyone we spoke with about Egypt was like “good luck with that” and “it is SO insane there… dangerous, dirty, and difficult…” Needless to say, after our dangerous, dirty, and difficult time in India, Egypt was sounding more and more like work, and less and less like fun. But there’s those darn pyramids, and all that history, and in my mind, we couldn’t very well go to the Great Wall of China and then not see the pyramids because it was gritty – right? Plus, my sister Olivia wanted to meet up with us for her Spring Break (a month in New Zealand just wasn’t enough!) so after a few lovely days in UAE and our first McDonald’s purchase in 10 months (free wifi with purchase!) during our layover in Kuwait – we made our way to Cairo.
Egypt was great! Yes gritty, yes crowded and polluted and, yes the traffic was a bit crazy (the little electronic guy on the crosswalk sign, he literally RUNS when its time to cross – we didn’t even see that in Shanghai!) but we liked it. Cairo is massive, I mean like 2nd largest city in the world massive, but thanks to my dad and stepmom, we stayed on Zemalack Island which is rather large island right smack dab in the middle of the Nile. Back in the heyday when Cairo was obviously highly influenced by French architecture, Zemalack was where the embassies were, and where the embassy staff lived. Lots of really old fabulous houses and apartments remain, along with tree-lined streets and the coolest restaurants and shops we found in all of Cairo (and you know us – we looked!).
Walking across the bridge over the Nile between the island of Zemalack and the downtown. That is our hotel in the background - nice view!
Cairo? Paris? I'm so confused!!! This is one of many old cool downtown Cairo buildings.
Our very first night in town we made a beeline for a Cairo classic – El Sid – for a feast of Egyptian delicacies… the rabbit, lamb in yogurt sauce, fool (a lentil, noodle, and tomato sauce dish – my FAV!), and pigeon stuffed with rice and dried fruit (YES – we ate pigeon!) were amazing. The vibe was awesome… great music and fruit scented sheesa smoke… and the décor SO exotic… dark woods, funky north African lanterns and spinning table tops. LOVED IT!
Camels are very terrifying creatures. Especially when you step out of the van with one 10 yards away, which is about as close as I ever wanted to be to a camel. Or will ever want to be. They have two knees, look like they’re skin is too big for them, have a jiggling lump on their back, and their pelt looks like if you go up and pet them you’ll get a handful of grimy, sweaty and possibly snotty fist of sand. They constantly seem to be staring at you as if your fingers are a kind of vegetable, that they know will taste horrible, but deep down must be good for you. They also stand much taller then you’d think. Of course, their 12 feet tall, but when they say 12 feet tall, you don’t except that that’s probably tall enough for a horse to walk under. The camel was so disgusting you couldn’t look away from it, which of course caused the guy holding it’s reins to walk over to our little brigade and ask multiple times if I wanted to get on and ride the camel to take a picture (Not trying to follow Jay Staats example, So I shall NOT ride the camels at the pyramids). I had to wrench my eyes from the monstrosity to look at the pyramids.
They looked- different then I was expecting… They didn’t seem to be the correct size, although I couldn’t remember whether they were smaller then I thought they’d be or larger. They also didn’t look the same size if you stepped forwards. 20 yards away from a dog, you can tell it’s about the size of a coffee table. If you walk 10 yards towards it, it still looks the size of a coffee table. 10 yards back from my current position, I would have said “It looks small,” where as, at my current position I was thinking “Huh that’s strange it suddenly seems larger now.” Within ten more yards I would abruptly stop, look up and have to rethink my whole perspective of it once more because it was now MUCH larger then it had seemed earlier, as if the dog that looked like the size of a coffee table 20 yards away suddenly looked the size of a horse 5 yards closer, and then suddenly looked like a house 5 yards away from it; maybe it was the sand dunes playing tricks on the eyes.
I also expected it to be somewhat smooth. They looked so much different from the ones in the movies, that I think they might have photo-shopped the imagery in the movie. Surprisingly, the best comparison I could come up with for them was the picture on the dollar bill. All I could think of is that someone could make a fortune selling tickets to rock climb those. It’d be a huge seller and would make enough money to repair any damage to the pyramid and more. They’re the perfect size and even a total beginner really couldn’t fall off of them.
On our way to the next pyramid in the famous chain, we stopped by the sphinx. The sphinx has a very long history as our guide informed us. It was originally a cliff that one of the pharaohs decided to carve to make his pyramid’s front look more beautiful. Turns out the nose is missing because napoleon decided to blow it off as a joke. The guide let us stop and offered to take our picture kissing the sphinx. Who can say no to that?
At the next pyramid, my dad and I decided to go into the tomb. We went down a very small hole in the side of the pyramid at a steep decline. The experience was very good practice for crawling through vents, which I one day might need to know as part of my ninja training.
We went down, through a small corridor, up to the chamber, where we were in a very stuffy room. Knowing I could be cursed, I took off my bracelet and waved it around me in a circle before putting it back on. It’d have to do.
We walked back through and emerged into the light, where our guide pushed us along back to the van.
Isn't that just great? You can see up its nose...
If you’re flying in from Mumbai to Dubai be prepared for some culture shock. Flying into Dubai’s new international terminal is like stepping into the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, minus the smoke, liquor, weirdoes and scantily clad women. After arriving at our gate we rode the moving walkway through large arched hallways made of glass, marble and glittering gold for probably a mile.
The girls infront of the lift, notice the waterfall in upper background. I could only get in two of the elevators.
The girls stopped briefly on our way to make use of the bathrooms (see Tessa’s post). Once through customs, we entered one of three glass elevators the size of a small living room in front of the 150 foot tall, 100 foot long waterfall. The elevator brought us down three stories to the baggage claim area. From the airport we hopped into an immaculately clean, large Toyota sedan and were driven to our new accommodations. This was about as polar opposite as it comes to our experience of arriving in Delhi’s international airport (look back in the blog to get our take on that).
As far as accommodations go Dubai was another couchsurfing success! Our gracious host for our time in Dubai was a delightful, funny and intelligent young woman by the name of Staci Haag. She took all of us into her nicely appointed two bedroom apartment in Dubai proper, which ended up being a great departure point for our explorations of the city. Even thought she had work obligations for the week, we stayed up chatting into the night, discussing her work in promoting democracy in the region and the trails and tribulations of working in the environment that is the Middle East. Her stories were all very interesting and entertaining. (We certainly wish her the best with the work she is doing there).
After our time in India, we all decided we needed some good all American style consumerism, and general merriment. Therefore, the first item on our agenda was hitting some of the UAE’s gianormous malls for some shopping.
Butterfly cutouts hanging in on of the malls huge atriums
Here again, the Las Vegas analogy comes into play. We went to a mall that had different themes to the sections, (like Rodeo Drive with the upscale shops and an old time Arabic bazaar). We went to the mall that has a full size ice rink, the world’s largest saltwater aquarium, an indoor ski slope, and a water show outside in their fountains.
Water fountains sync'd to musical score outside the mall.
This mall was right next to the world’s largest skyscraper. We had originally planned to go skiing here, but after looking at the cost ($80/per for two hours) and the size of the hill, we just decided it just wasn’t worth the cost. It was pretty cool (and a little weird) to see this inside the mall.
Once we were done exploring the malls, we had our sights set on one of Dubai’s two water parks for some good clean fun. The girls and I choose to go to the Atlantis Resort water park out on the famed artificial palm tree shaped island. (Kate opted out on this adventure. When she saw some expat’s that had nice blonde hair she inquired about their colorist; after that she was on a mission to restore here beautiful hair to it’s normal color from the stripper blonde shade she acquired in Thailand. She knew this would be an all day job). This park had some great slides built into a pyramid type tower about six stories tall. On some of the slides you rode on tubes down a curvy bumpy track and where deposited into a lazy river which you could either ride back to a conveyor, or dump yourself into the rapids ride which would take you around the park. Also, on the highest level of the tower you could go without a tube down an almost vertical drop through a tube in a shark filled aquarium and out to a waiting pond. Phoebe was tentative at first, but later in the day got up the courage to do it. I was very proud of her, seeing as she was probably the smallest person I saw taking the plunge on that particular slide!
On our last full day in Dubai we were invited to a party thrown by some of Staci’s friends. Unfortunately, only the girls and I went, since Kate had one of her dizzy spells and just needed a day in bed. We had a great time at the party as it was like a traditional American Bar-bq, with the added touch that it was the day before Easter and the host had eggs for the kids to color. Tess and Phoebe both grabbed and egg and went to town! We all enjoyed the grilled chicken, sausages and a garden salad, while the girls regaled everyone with stories from our adventures.
Our quick stay in Dubai was most pleasant and a much needed respite from our third world adventures. We got in enough time to prep us for our next stop, Cairo – which we knew would be a little challenging! We all agreed we enjoyed our quick stop and would be happy to go back and explore a little more.