Exploring Japanese Ceramics

… Better Late Than Never

It’s annoying to write a travel blog 4 months after a trip but hey, I got busy. Really busy, making pottery until my fingers bleed, moving into a new house, and most importantly getting Kevin the Cat resettled in his new home. (Kevin is doing great, by the way…)

Here is the set-up: I visited a small town called Seto in central Japan (near Nagoya) for a 1-month pottery extravaganza. I was to live in a pottery studio and spend my days learning the craft of Japanese ceramics, which is beautiful, meticulous, and really hard to do. The Explore Japanese Ceramics tour was arranged by a lovely gentleman whom I never met named Mr. Nagamine, and due to a combination of language barrier and my own laziness the ‘tour’ agenda was never really clear to me. I was told to show up at the Owari Seto train station at 10:00 am on November 20th, and that’s basically it. I put my fate in the hands of the Japanese pottery gods. Luckily for me, the Japanese pottery gods seem very cool and I had the time of my life.Untitled

Why We Should All Live in Japan

Before I delve my adventure I’ll free-associate an obnoxious listicle called ‘Why We Should All Live in Japan’. In no particular order, here it is:

  • The Japanese excel at bathroom technology. It’s been said many times, many ways but it is so true it has to be said again. American bathrooms suck. Terribly.
  • Cats, cats, cat!!!!!
  • Craft in Japan is heartbreakingly beautiful. I want 5 lifetimes so I can apprentice in all of the country’s handicrafts.
  • Japanese old people are super human. They never get cold and can survive on a thin trickle of green tea.
  • Japanese children are adorable and do chores, seemingly willingly.
  • Japanese grocery stores are a treasure trove of amazing products. In this post alone I reference the grocery store APITA 3 times.
  • Soft serve ice-cream spirals counter-clockwise in Japan, which means you have to lick the cone clockwise or it falls off the cone. Maybe may not be relevant but I wanted you to know…
  • Cats!

I had an inkling from my Tokyo Detour  that I’d love this experience, but man I love Japan. It’s wonderful.

The Road to Seto

Jeff and I had a month back home in Salt Lake City before I left for Japan, and I thought it might take some time to get my travel legs back. Within 3 hours of arriving in Nagoya I was eating peanut butter out of a jar and hang-drying stockings in a capsule hotel, so yeah, I got back into the ‘Asian traveler’ swing quickly. This is what one does when one’s luggage is lost in Hong Kong AGAIN (it feels personal now).

Nagoya is the third largest city in Japan but is often overlooked by travelers since there isn’t much to see. I found Nagoya pleasant, and enjoyed eating noodles and exploring the Nagoya Central Train station. That sounds pathetic, but the train station is impressive and you could shop in the stalls for days. After two days in Nagoya, it was time go meet Sensei, the pottery master who would be my guru and babysitter for the next month.

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This noodle place was the BEST! I ate there 3 times in 2 days….

As per my instructions, I arrived at Owari Seto train station at 10:00 am sharp and was met by Sensei’s young apprentice, a woman named Megumi. (side bar: Megumi is an amazing teacher and I feel so lucky to have met her.) Sensei happened to be away at an international pottery festival in a mountain village called Sasama, and it was suggested that I could go meet him if I could manage a many-tentacled train route solo. Take a byzantine train journey to meet a stranger in a remote part of a country I don’t know? How could I resist? Megumi pointed me in the direction of Sasama, and I was off. With all due respect to the impressive Japanese train station, this journey was not efficient. Seto to Sasama involved 3 local commuter trains, 2 subways, a bullet train (Jaynie’s first shinkasen) and an honest to god steam train.

Sasama

Sasama is known for two things: ceramics and green tea, both of which were on display in glorious abundance. Over the years, the town’s population has aged and dwindled, and the bi-annual SASAMA International Ceramic Art Festival was organized to bring awareness to the region’s rich traditions. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this experience given the remoteness of the locale, but the Ceramic Festival was a surprisingly international affair, with participants from Spain, Russia, Singapore, France, and even a few Americans. All of the participants had lovely pieces on display, and there were several interactive pottery exhibits that were a real treat.

After wandering around the festival stalls for a bit, I crossed paths with Sensei, and was delighted to meet an incredibly warm, friendly, and excitable man. Sensei Hiroshige Kato has been doing pottery for over 40 years at his family studio, Kasen Pottery Studio, but he insists he’s still learning and hasn’t yet reached mastery. Sensei took me to the incredibly legit guesthouse he’d arranged for me, and I spent the rest of the next two days hiking the hills of Sasama, eating stolen persimmons (shhhh), soaking in communal bath water, and even confronting a wild boar (possibly a piglet, but it was scary).

My Seto Kazoku and so Much Pottery

After the festival wrapped up, Sensei and I made our way back to Seto. I admit that I was relieved to make the return trip by car rather than train…

Back in Seto I settled into the studio and had major fun exploring the local grocery store APITA . Sensei and Megumi told me that 3 other ‘guests’ would be at Kasen Pottery Studio during my stay: a Brit named Rachel, a Brazilian named Paola, and another American named Leslie. I waited like an over enthusiastic kid who had weirdly arrived at summer camp too early, and over the next week my new kazoku (family) trickled into the studio. Together, we settled into the routine of learning Japanese pottery. I cannot overstate the utter loveliness of my Seto Kazoku. Being surrounded by such kind, interesting, and fun companions made this a once in a lifetime experience.

At this point in my Japanese-pottery-narrative, I don’t have much to say (weird, I know). It’s an unusual thing to be entirely engaged in a process and I’ve never experienced it before. I slept, I threw pottery, I slept, I threw pottery, I ate persimmon, I threw pottery. Every morning when I woke up, I was delighted that I got to spend another day in the studio. I was completely and wonderfully consumed with the process of pottery making. Sure, I got frustrated with things (trimming on a chuck is just unnecessary), but I never got sick of throwing pottery, not even a little. The experience of spending such a span of time on one thing was unbelievably satisfying and I am lucky to have had this time.

When we weren’t throwing pottery until our fingertips bled, the Seto Kazoku and I explored Seto and had great adventures around town. We visited Seto’s museums, made several visits to a great soba shop (that I still dream about), and scared lots of elderly people on the public busses. Oh, and we made lots of trips to APITA. Lots and lots of trips to APITA. Megumi and Sensi were great hosts, and put together several wonderful evenings of hotpot as well as a surprisingly frightening cooking adventure making takoyaki.

Farewell Kasen!

As our time at Kasen came to an end, Rachel, Paola, Leslie, and I decided to make a special ‘thank you’ meal for Sensei and Megumi. We ruled out British food (disgusting), Brazilian food (way too expensive to buy meat in Japan), and any American dish that needed an oven (that is to say, most American dishes). That left us with fajitas, which are American-ish, and a delectable no-bake Brazilian desert called brigadeiro (sweetened condensed milk + butter = happiness).

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Fajitas and sake. Best farewell meal ever.

It was bittersweet to say farewell to Kasen Pottery Studio. I didn’t want to leave, but I felt grateful to have had such a genuine and rewarding experience. I left with a renewed commitment to seeking meaningful travel opportunities and to keep time in my life for ceramics and craft. Also, I kind of missed Jeff and the kitties so I guess it was time to go home.

Leaving Seto, I was homeward bound for Salt Lake City until the next adventure.

P.S. Look at what I left with!!!!!

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So many bowls!!!! Hummm, now I think I need to make some plates. Japan 2019???

Marrakech and Reflections on the Trip

After our trek through the mountains and desert, we arrived in Marrakech for the last 4 nights of the trip. Marrakech is quite a departure from the rest of Morocco: it’s fancy and caters to a different type of tourist, shall we say. Froufrou Americans playing out Arabian nights fantasies abound and we were shocked to see people drinking beer! Yeah, that never happened in Fez. That said, Marrakech’s gentrification meant that the food options were infinitely more appealing. We did see camel head stew here and there, but normal food was possible, and that is all I ask.

Marrakech is a shopper’s paradise (yet again) and we went a little nuts (yet again). We spent lots of time haggling in the souks and scored more very unnecessary but very fun items to cram into our bulging luggage. In one shopping stall we noticed two wholesome looking American chaps bargaining in what sounded like perfect Arabic. We were impressed and found out that they were studying Arabic in Amman, Jordan. We considered kidnapping them, but luckily they agreed to do some haggling for us so we didn’t have to. It was great fun, and now I have a new life goal: learn Arabic. Or maybe just some numbers in Arabic…. Let’s be real.

Marrakech is grimy, chaotic, and full of motorbikes, just like our journey’s starting point of Ho Chi Minh City. Really, we couldn’t have planned a more fitting finale for the Big Trip. The center of Marrakech is the Jemaa el Fna, a square and marketplace where you can buy a monkey, watch snake charmers, and (I presume) get horrific food poisoning from grilled meats. Jemaa el Fna is the physical embodiment of ‘sea of humanity’, drawing people from all over Morocco, Africa, and the world and was made a great symbolic end point for the trip.

On our last evening in Marrakech, Jeff and I headed up to the rooftop of the iconic Café de France to overlook the Jemaa el Fna at sunset. The call to prayer blared, the birds swooped, and the city put on it’s evening show. As we sipped our Fanta and watched the sunset over the square, we reflected the past 8 months and jotted down some highlights and low points. We were hungry, so most of these were food related.

Jeff and Jaynie’s Highlights and Low Points
The numbers

Steps walked: 2,355,942

Days traveled: 246

Places slept: 59 beds + 2 sleeper trains

Countries visited: 27

Flights: 24

Haircuts: 8

Food poisonings: 1.5(ish)

Best Specific Foods

Jaynie – masala dosa (Malaysia), pizza (Naples), fresh myzithra (Crete)

Jeff – crispy beef noodle soup (Hong Kong), milk tea (Ipoh), humus (Tyre)

Best Overall Cuisine

Malaysia, India, Greece

Worst Overall Cuisine                 

Bali, Uzbekistan, Morocco

Worst Individual Meal

Serendib in Negombo, Sri Lanka (we’re still upset)

Top 15 moments we can’t recreate (but wish we could)

The Sinhalese Bar with John and Mr. Low (Malaysia)

Diving in Pemuteran (Indonesia)

Day trip to Rottnest Island (Austrailia)

Train ride from Colombo to Galle (Sri Lanka)

Bus from Beirut to Tyre (Lebanon)

Soviet bunker wine tasting in Kakheti (Georgia)

Exploring Fergana Valley (Uzbekistan)

Sleeper train from Samarkand to Urgench (Uzbekistan)

Tour of Moscow with Olga (Russia)

Gorat and the Gypsies (Romania)

Sunset on the Pnyx in Athens (Greece)

Cooking local food in Apostoli (Greece)

Myrtos Beach (Greece)

Food tour in Naples (Italy)

Haggling in the medina of Fez (Morocco)

The Bottle Cap

The English ‘Coast-to-Coast’ walk is a classic hiking route from the Irish Sea to the North Sea. I once read that there is a coast-walk tradition for the hiker to pick a pebble on the west coast, carry it with her for the journey, and leave it on the east coast to signify that the journey is complete. In this tradition, Jeff and I saved a Tiger beer bottle cap from our first evening in Ho Chi Minh City and carried it for the whole trip – from South East Asia to the edge of the Sahara – and planned to drop our ‘pebble’ in our last destination. The bustling square in Jemma el Fna seemed like the perfect home for our bottle cap, but when the time came to leave it behind we couldn’t do it. After all the roads we traveled, we wanted to keep our symbolic token of the grand journey and keep our journey ‘incomplete’. For now, the bottle cap comes home with us. And also I kind of like lording over Jeff that I’m good at not loosing things.

Until the next adventure!!!

Note: be advised that while ‘Jeff and Jaynie’s’ grand adventure is done, I’ll be heading to Japan in a month for a pottery related adventure. I’m staying at a hotel that offers complimentary tooth brushing (yay?) as well as a carbonated bath (definitive yay). It should be interesting so stay tuned.

 

 

Morocco – The Atlas Mountains and Sahara

The final road (trip)

From Fez we embarked on our final road trip of the trip. We met up with Lathin, a guide we hired to take us through the Atlas mountains, into the Sahara, and finally on to Marrakech. As we all know I hate camping very much, but it seemed poetic for our last big adventure on this trip to be a trek on the edge of the Sahara. I also suspected (rightly) that there might be some interesting rug opportunities in this kind of adventure, so I sucked it up.

Monkeys and Nomads

We drove south from Fez through Ifran to the cedar forests of Azrou. The forests are in the mountains and the area has an unexpected Swiss-chalet vibe. The region is a winter-getaway spot with ski resorts and outdoorsy activities. Coming from the hot chaos of Fez, it was surreal how autumnal the Azrou forests felt. It almost felt like home, actually, except that there were monkeys scampering around and date vendors along the road. A certain someone (not me for a change) went a little overboard on the dried fruit and ate his body weight in dates over the course of our three-day journey.

Like most of Morocco’s nomads, Lathin is an ethnic Berber and he chatted with us about the hardships of nomad life in the modern world. Nomadic people are disenfranchised by the government and suffer frequent harassment. Around noon we passed a nomad camp that Lathin knew and decided to stop for a cup of tea. Over minty tea we chatted with a young mother and found out that her husband had died in an accident 3 months ago. She has four children and her situation seemed pretty bleak, but Lathin promised to return before winter with some clothes that he gets from a British NGO.

Camel Safari

After tea we headed on to the town of Merzouga, located on the edge of the Sahara desert and the border with Algeria. As the sunset we saddled up for a camel trek into the desert to our evening’s accommodations, a Saharan Berber camp. It sounded like fun, but after about 30 seconds on our camels both Jeff and I wanted off. They were uncomfortable, unruly, and suffering from a bout of gastroenteritis (like everyone else in Morocco). Jeff’s camel was just gassy but my camel seemed to be constantly peeing-a-little-bit and pooing-a-little-bit. The intimate familiarity with camel bodily functions does slightly decrease from the magic of a Saharan trek, but only slightly.

After about 30 minutes on our camels the sun went down, and walking through the Sahara in twilight was magical, farts and all. With no light pollution, the sky was fabulous and trekking over the silent dunes was surreal. When we finally arrived at the camp, we found a hodgepodge of other travelers (mostly British) and got a kick out of spending the evening with them and our Berber hosts. I even joined in on a drumming session. And I enjoyed it!!! I know – first camping, now a drumming circle? Who knows what will happen when we’re back in Utah.

Mud Cities and Rugs

At sunrise we trekked back to Merzouga and Lathin took us to the town of Tinghir. The valleys of the Atlas Mountains are dotted with ‘mud cities’ like Tinghir, which was built around 800 AD as a waypoint along Saharan trade routes. The walls are made entirely of mud and straw and have to be rebuilt every few years. The central ‘square’ of Tinghir is a big open space for holding markets and has a gigantic blackened recess in one wall to contain the communal cooking fire during weddings. Tinghir and other mud cities are visually stunning, and exploring one up close really gave a sense of life in an ancient village.

On the outskirts of Tinghir is a cooperative that sells rugs woven by nomadic women. Naturally, my ears perked when I heard this and I haven’t had this much rug fun since we were in Uzbekistan. As we settled in for a cup of tea and a ‘chat’ with the man running the cooperative Jeff and I both knew good/bad things were about to happen. We bought a fabulous rug made by the Beni Ourain tribe, known their free-form geometric designs and neutral color pallets. We’re inching toward that Qatar Airways baggage limit….

With our new rug in tow, we headed toward the Todra Gorge, a massive orange limestone canyon in the High Atlas Mountains. Jeff and I were amazed at how much like Moab this place feels, except that Todra Gorge canyon is bigger. The walls rise up almost 1,000 feet on either side, and it’s impressive. From Todra we continued on to Dades Valley, which was equally spectacular and Moab-y. We stayed overnight in a guesthouse overlooking Dades Valley, and the sunrise was one of the most spectacular we’ve seen.

The Road of 1,000 Kasbahs

The next day we continued east, passing through a route known as the ‘Road of 1,000 Kasbahs’. Like Tinghir, the Kasbahs (or fortresses) along this route were part of a medieval Saharan trade route and each family group would have lived in their own fortified mini-village. The scenery and Kasbahs are incredibly atmospheric, and not surprisingly lots of TV shows and movies are filmed here. Everyone wanted to talk to us about Gladiator, Prince of Persia, and Game of Thrones. There are three decently sized movie studios that have set up shop in the nearby town of Quarzazate, and this has really been a boon to the local economy. We visited the most famous Kasbah in the area, the impressive UNESCO site Ait Benhaddou, and the lesser visited but much more interesting Kasbah Telouet.

After a long 3-day journey through the High Atlas Mountains, we crossed Tichka Pass, the highest pass in Morocco, and headed toward our final destination: Marrakech.

Morocco – Fez (and food poisoning, too)

It’s not a good omen if the bus driver is cleaning up vomit as you board your long-haul bus. Not a good omen at all. The drive from Chefchaouen to Fez was windy and never ending, but maktoob, our fate was written.

Arriving in Fez is to stumble upon a fever dream interpretation of the Arab World. At this point in the trip it takes a lot to jolt our senses but Fez was like sticking a paperclip in an electrical socket (or perhaps a Japanese bath). The smells, the heat, the absolute chaos of simultaneously avoiding teenaged touts and a slow moving donkey on 3 foot wide street – it’s overwhelming in the best way possible. The labyrinthine medina of Fez, called Fez el-Bali, was established around 800 AD and settled by refugees fleeing Moorish Cordoba. Fez el-Bali is the largest walled city in Morocco and thought to be the largest car-free urban area in the world. Getting lost is inevitable, and it was our main activity in Fez.

The City

My favorite thing about exploring Islamic-built cities is that you never know what’s behind the door. Never. You’ll be roaming a concrete maze of uninteresting buildings, then you open a door and find the most beautiful garden you’ve ever seen. The riads of Fez are a perfect encapsulation of this outerworld–innerworld dichotomy. A riad is a traditional Moroccan home with a high, windowless outer wall and an interior courtyard surrounded by various rooms. The courtyards are usually the centerpiece of the house and are richly decorated in stunning tile and woodwork. We stayed in a riad called Dar Skalli that was build in the 1300s – that is roughly 28 generations. So cool!

Fez el-Bali is home to the University of al-Qarawiyyin, which was founded in 859 AD and is the oldest continually operating university in the world. Much to my irritation, non-Muslims are not permitted inside so we just had to peek at the doors. As far as I could tell the mosques in the old city are also aren’t really interested in tourist visits. I’m sure they’d let you wander inside but it just seems a bit harram so I didn’t push it. A handful of madrassa’s do allow tourist visits (for a small fee of course) so we spent a few minutes in the Madrassa Bou Inania. It was built in 1351 and definitely gives you the feel of what these old religious buildings were like.

After two days of getting lost in the Medina, we booked a taxi to take us to the old bourjs, the towers, where you can view the old city. I don’t normally get excited over views, but this was spectacular. We visited Bourj Sud (South Tower) and Bourj Nord (North Tower) and we were able to get a sense of just how big the medina.

The Shopping

It is simultaneously good and very, very bad that Morocco is our last stop on the trip. I want to buy everything here and I kind of can since we’re heading home on an airline with insane baggage limits. Jeff and I are going to easily max out Qatar Airlines 100-lb per person baggage allowance. Good lord, that’s shameful. Shopping in Fez was my dream – good stuff to buy and very theatrical haggling. We ‘won’ some pretty blankets, a nice Berber platter, an adorable bronze kitten statue, and I even found the elusive ‘perfect leather jacket’. It’s baby camel leather… should I feel bad about that?

The leather jacket purchase was the culmination of doing exactly what you shouldn’t do in Morocco. First we got talked into following some hustler down a shady alley to view to the leather tanneries from his rooftop. He then handed us over to our next ‘friend’ who simply wanted to talk about some leather products. Just talk, lady! We then played out a ‘Pretty Women’-esq scene where Jeff and I tried on 100 leather jackets. Naturally, the last and most expensive jacket I tried on was perfect. After vigorous debating I played my trump card with the ‘walk away’. At the door my ‘friend’ cornered me and whispered angrily, “Fine, I’ll take your price. But be quiet. I’ll be at your hotel at 8:00 pm with the jacket and have cash.” See what I mean about stuff you shouldn’t do in Morocco? Anyway, after that thoroughly engaging negotiation I ended up with a fun new jacket and a ‘bonus’ handbag.

After all this time… food poisoning

It pains me to say this but the food in Morocco is kind of gross, and Fez food seems to be one standard deviation grosser than average. There is a certain Uzbek-ness to the meat here and every dish could benefit from some salt, spice, and herbs.

Throughout this trip we’ve been vigilant about three food rules: eat local food, eat at busy restaurants, only eat hot food. These rules have gotten us through SE Asia, India, and Central Asia with no problems. Regrettably, our resolve fell apart in Fez. The local food is grim, like spleen stuffed with ground meat grim. After surveying the options (anchovy sandwiches, a goat head stew, and said spleen) we settled on a tourist-centric café with hipster leanings. Bad things happened, and I hope that my digestive system will recover one day. Some food-borne bugs stay with you FOREVER and I have a suspicion that this little ‘souvenir’ will be as persistent as the norovirus of Burma 2013. Damn it, Morocco.

Last haircut of the trip

On our final ‘relax’ day in Fez Jeff got his last haircut of the trip. He’s had some hilarious adventures in hair along the way, but this guy did a great job. We’ll miss $1.50 haircuts at home…

Our time in Fez was eventful with all of the shopping, grooming, and almost dying from food poisoning, so we were ready for a something less chaotic. From Fez we headed to nature (weird) for a 3-day journey through the Sahara and Atlas mountains.

Morocco – Tangier and Chefchaouen

From the tip of Spain, we took a ferry across the Straight of Gibraltar to Morocco. It is intensely bizarre how geographically proximal yet culturally disparate these two places are. It seems like it should be impossible. And yet, after a short ferry ride we found ourselves at Tangier-Med, the boring “container port”-cousin of Tangier proper. We strained our atrophied haggling muscles and got to work figuring out how to get to our hotel. Our phones don’t work in Morocco, so that made things extra fun.

After protracted negotiations, we ended up in a shared taxi for the 50 km+ drive to central Tangier. The ride was a great ‘Welcome back!’ from the Arab-world and we loved every minute of it. Our cab-mates were 5 extremely agitated men, who by the tone of their voices were either professing an undying hatred of each other’s mothers or talking about the weather. I’m sorry – I just can’t tell in Arabic. The most entertaining gentleman was slightly older than the others and seemed to be the peacemaker. In a moment of drama, he ended the argument (or discussion) by clapping twice and kissing the back of his own hand for emphasis. How can you argue with that? (the ‘final word’ emoji :  👏👏😘  )

Tangier

Arriving in Tangier, it was obvious that this is an odd place. I don’t think that the word ‘seedy’ is exactly right, it’s more like ‘mottled’. The city began as a Berber outpost for trade with the Phoenicians, but Tangier’s recent history was shaped by a three way colonial tug-of-war between France, Spain, and Britain. In 1923 this struggle resulted in a unique political situation that established Tangier as an ‘International Zone’ – essentially an economic DMZ – that was ruled by a bizarre committee of 9-member states (including the US, I might add). Until Morocco’s independence in 1956, Tangier’s ‘Interzone’ was an international haven for mis-fits like Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac. Homosexuality was widely tolerated and the city was called “Queer Tangier”. Wow, times have changed. After Moroccan independence this cosmopolitan flair was lost, but a shifty vibe remains. In Tangier the touts are remarkably tout-y (fun new word) and hashish offers are ubiquitous (we declined… we’re no fun).

We stayed in the center of Tangier’s old city – the Medina – and though small the Medina offers marvelous exploring and people watching. We visited a well-preserved Kasbah (or central fortress), and the small Kasbah museum was surprisingly interesting. In addition to some great tile, the museum had a fascinating exhibit of old maps illustrating trade routes. Jeff and I spent like an hour obsessing over our new favorite map: the Tabula Rogeriana. It was created by the Muslim cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi in the 1100s for the Sicilian King Roger the II, and it depicts the entire Eurasian continent with the south at the top.

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Is this not the most amazing map you’ve ever seen? Is it not?!?!
Chefchaouen

From Tangier, we took a bus south to the wee town of Chefchaouen nestled up in the Rif mountains. There isn’t much to do in Chefchaouen except soak up the ambiance of the town, but it’s incredibly atmospheric so that’s a strong draw. The town was founded in 1471 as a small Moorish fortress to protect Muslims and Jews fleeing the turmoil in Spain. The architecture in the town’s central Kasbah reflects this Andalusian providence and really gives you a sense that this place was on the edge of the known world. In fact, Chefchaouen so isolated itself from outsiders that no Christians were allowed to enter the town until Spain ‘absorbed’ it in the 1920s.

You’ve probably seen pictures of Chefchaouen – the streets are fabulously beautiful and bright blue. It really is stunning, especially if you can see beyond the horde of Chinese tourists Instagramming every inch of it. I’d like to congratulate the team who conceived the ‘Chefchaouen’ marketing campaign in China – they did a remarkably thorough job. Jeff and I devised a game wherein you get a point if you can spot a Chinese person without a camera to his or her eye. I might have seen one, but Jeff says she was Japanese so I don’t get a point. (👏👏😘 )

In addition to new-money Chinese, Chefchaouen draws quite a few ‘drug tourists’ from Europe and North America. Marijuana cultivation is a major industry in the surrounding Rif Mountains and drug use is oddly tolerated in this otherwise conservative region. What a fun combo: photo-grubbing Asians and dreadlocked American potheads. Luckily the Chinese stay near one especially Instagram-esq street and the druggies stay near the central square, so if you wander away from these places you have a quiet mountain town to yourself.

A highlight for us was spending the evenings on the rooftop of our guesthouse. The town is built on a gentle hill and our location near the top gave us a full view of the rooftops below. A surprising level of activity happens on rooftops. Aunties hang out laundry, kids scamper about with kitties, and as the sunsets a handful of crackly and asynchronous muezzins blast the call to prayer across the town. It was a pretty magical experience and completely lost in a photo (sorry Chinese tourists).

After several relaxing and uneventful days in the Rif mountains, we girded our strength for the next destination: Fez.

Gibraltar – The Edge of Europe

Hidden picture challenge: Can you find three Barbary apes nestled on the Rock of Gibraltar in the photo above?

Much like the beleaguered Neanderthals, Jeff and I staged our last European hurrah in Gibraltar. How fitting. True, the Neanderthals were pushed to edge of Europe by hostile homo sapiens and we are fleeing the tyranny of the ‘90-day Schengen Visa’, but if you think about it it’s basically the same thing.

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That’s it! Nah, nothing ridiculous about having a wee slice of the UK there.

We made our way from Algeciras to the Spanish town of La Lí­nea and crossed on foot to Gibraltar (or ‘Gib’, as the Brits absurdly call it). This was the lamest border check-point I’ve seen. No stamps, pat-downs, or vaguely menacing men with guns. Where’s the fun in that? Though the bureaucracy is minimal the logistics of the crossing still manage to be comical. The main road into and out of Gibraltar (Winston Churchill Boulevard, of course) bisects the runway of Gibraltar International Airport. When planes need to land or take off (which happens often), traffic is halted and it’s quite a spectacle. I understand that space is limited but this is absurd. The bus we were on waited for three RyanAir flights. Come on!

The Full English

Coming from the land of wine and tapas, the deliberate and aggressive British-ness of Gib is striking: retro red telephone booths, excessive signage cautioning you to ‘mind’ things, and pasty-faced pensioners abound with nary a straight smile in sight. There is even a weather pattern that regularly envelops Gibraltar in fog. You can’t get more UK than that. I have to admit that while Jeff and I hide our heritage behind thousands of dollars of orthodontics and chin jobs, deep down the UK does feel comfortingly familiar. In this vein, we began our time in Gibraltar with cups of milky tea and a hearty full English: beans, a tomato, blood sausage, and fried eggs.

Loads of History

There aren’t an abundance of sites in Gibraltar, but the Rock has had an outsized impact on human history. As I alluded to, Gibraltar was the densest site of Neanderthal settlements in the prehistoric era, and it was likely the last site of Neanderthal habitation before extinction (at the hands of our ancestors). Later, Gibraltar was an important place for the Carthaginian and Roman Empires, for whom it was a holy place and considered to be the one of the two ‘Pillars of Hercules’. The name ‘Gibraltar’ is a corruption of the Arabic phrase Jebel Tariq – or the Mount of Tariq – and is a reference to the Moorish conqueror of Spain (Tariq), who invaded the Iberian Peninsula via Gibraltar. So yeah, lots of things have happened on this rock.

The British history of Gibraltar began in 1620, and the territory doesn’t seem to have any interest in divesting from the crown. In fact, last year over 99% of the 30,000 Gibraltarians voted to stay in the UK, which that helps to explain the aggressive British-ness of the place. Everyone living there just acts like it’s perfectly normal to have a 2.6 square mile island of UK on the southern edge of Spain. “Spain? What is this place? We’re British.” Okay, fine.

The Rock (and Barbary Apes)

One of the few ‘activities’ in Gibraltar is a cable car to the top of the rock. I sat this one out since it sounded terrifying, but Jeff made the trek up and loved the views. He saw lots of plaques memorializing British naval history (oh, the grand tradition) and saw plenty of monkeys. The little buggers are feisty, and he saw two people get attacked by them. The patrol officer up there said, “Ah, don’t worry. The monkeys are vaccinated.” Oh great, then it’s totally fine if they bloody my arm.

To round out our very British day, we went to Lord Nelson’s Pub for a proper pint. We chatted with a barman from Leeds, and he told us that young Brits go to work in Gib to earn money and have a bit of an adventure. They earn wages in the British pound, enjoy a lower cost of living, and can travel throughout southern Europe cheaply. I can understand that impulse, and it helped to provide some context for how a weird little place like Gib can exist. Young Brits work there, and old Brits retire there. Gibraltar has a pleasantness to it that I didn’t expect, and it was an enjoyable last hurrah in Europe.

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From Gibraltar, we said goodbye to Europe and headed to our fifth continent and our last country: Morocco.

Spain – Is this heaven?

As we left Malta I turned to Jeff and said, ‘Well, not every place can have gypsies, hammams, and exciting cheese. That’s okay.‘ Enumerating the three tenants of Jaynie-topia, little did I know that in a mere one-hour we’d be in a country rich in not one, not two, but ALL of these elements. Oh boy, Spain is great. Much like I felt when we got to Sri Lanka, I’m embarrassed that we’ve overlooked this country for so long. What’s wrong with us?

If you visit only one country in Europe it should be Spain. The country has a fascinating history that spans the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Visigoths (they’re always fun), the Arab moors, the Umayyad dynasty (from Damascus!), and eventually the northern ‘re-conquistadors’. Most countries in the European Mediterranean have similar histories but in Spain these layers seem more architecturally visible, with conquerors using the structures of the conquered rather than completely destroying them. When the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella conquered Granada in 1492, they actually made the fantastical Islamic palaces in the Alhambra their home. They kept much of the architecture unchanged and ruled from a room decorated with Islamic motifs and passages from the Koran. We’ve seen far too few instances of cross-cultural reuse in our travels, and I really loved this about Spain. (I’m still mad at Sicily for destroying all the hammams after the Norman Invasion in 1061. Why?)

Our travels in Spain were limited to the southern part of the country: we began in Valencia, drove to the palm forest at Elche, curved inland to Granada, took a train to Seville, and finally bid farewell in Algeciras.

Valencia

After some travel burnout Valencia was the breath of fresh air we needed. The city is like Berlin on the Mediterranean. Sunny and lovely, investments have been made in public transportation, bike-ability, and great public spaces.

The gem of Valencia is the Mercado Central, a huge covered marketplace built in 1928 and housing over 300 small shops selling all kinds of food and drink. The goodies sold here are my cat nip and Jeff had to rein me in – Spanish jamon, salty cheeses, fancy olive oil, and dried fruit are everywhere. Valencia is famous for its unique variety of horchata and we drank gallons of it at the market and the nearby Horchateria Santa Catalina. Valencian horchata uses an unusual African legume called tiger nuts and it is thicker and less sweet than the Mexican-style horchata at home.

Historically silk production and processing was a huge industry in Valencia, and it was fun to learn about the city’s connections to the Silk Road. After spending what felt like eternity exploring Silk Road hubs in Uzbekistan, both Jeff and I are pretty intrigued with all of the threads (obnoxious pun here) of the silk industry around the world. Originally Arab traders brought silk to Valencia as a terminus at the western end of the original Silk Road, but they found that the notoriously finicky mulberry tree (i.e. silk worm food) could be grown in Valencia. Valencia’s silk trade peaked during the 15th century, and there was even a scheme to start a ‘new Silk Road’ from Valencia to the new world. Jeff very politely suffered through the silk museum in the Velvet Weaver’s Guildhouse and a visit to the Lonja Silk Exchange building, which was built as the seat of ‘silk power’ in the roaring 1400s.

Elche

From Valencia we rented a car and drove down to Elche, the only palm grove in Europe and one of the biggest palm forests in the world. The palms were most likely planted by Carthaginian settlers in the 5th century BC, but an irrigation system built by the Moors in the 800s allowed the grove to flourish. Jeff and fam visited Elche when he was a little kid, and it was fun for him to revisit his childhood adventures.

Granada

After Elche the Arab quotient increased steadily until we reached Granada. Much of Granada’s Arab district, Albayzin, was build by craftsmen from Damascus and the wandering the district was a highlight. I love a good ‘Arab-flair’, and Granada is Arab-flair minus the headscarves and plus ham. Truly, this is heaven.

The Alhambra

Annoyingly, visiting the Alhambra necessitates one to plan in advance (pfffff). There are daily limits on the number of visitors allowed inside and a ‘strong recommendation’ that tickets are purchased 2 – 6 months in advance. After some frantic scrambling and a bit of luck (a.k.a. a lot of money) we were able to find a tour of the Alhambra with two spots left. Phew.

The Alhambra, or the ‘Red One’, was initially built in the 800s as a relatively small fortress on the remains of a Roman settlement. The Alhambra of today, however, is best known for the beautiful Generalife Gardens and several glorious Islamic Palaces, which were built by the Islamic rulers of the Emirate of Granada between 1230 to 1492. These gardens are so serene and the palaces were truly beyond compare. Really, it’s one of the prettiest places we’ve seen during this year of travel.

Gypsies + Flamenco

Once again, a free walking tour resulted in the discovery of a nearby gypsy neighborhood – Granada’s Sacromonte. Did you know that gypsies invented flamenco? Neither did I. Located just outside the city walls, the Sacromonte neighborhood is comprised of a series of cave dwellings, troglodyte homes is the technical term. The origin of the Granada gypsies (and why they live in caves) is unclear, but it is likely that Christian gypsies saw a business opportunity in Granada after Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews during the inquisition. Unlike any gypsy community I’ve seen, Granada gypsies are welcoming to tourists and run a profusion of eateries out of their caves. Jeff and I spent a pretty memorable evening in Sacromonte listening to flamenco music, drinking sangria, and watching the sunset on the Alhambra.

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The view of Sacromente from an upper street.

But wait… there’s more. Granada has several hammams, including the exquisite Hammam al-Andalus housed in an impressive 13th century building. It’s not a true hammam (painful naked scrub downs, etc.) but it’s a beautiful atmosphere and a very nice experience. Predictably, I loved it so much that I made Jeff come back with me for a second time. Even he thought it was a beautiful hammam and we schooled multiple Spaniards in asceticism in the cold pool (they’re very delicate).

Seville and Algeciras

From Granada, we took the train to Seville. Seville is absolutely pleasant but after all the excitement in Granada we didn’t do much. We sat in pleasant cafes and ate pleasant food. One day we mustered the energy to do a day trip to neighboring Cordoba to see the Mezquita de Córdoba, but that was about it.

From Seville we took a bus to the southern port town of Algeciras, where we got a taste of small town Spain. Algeciras is basically the stopping off point for tourists going to 1) Gibraltar or 2) Morocco (or in our case both). Algeciras is sleepy but pleasant, and we spent a day resting there before the next adventure.

After loosing our travel mojo a bit in Malta, Spain was a great way to reinvigorate the last leg of our travels. Fabulous architecture, gypsies, good food, and hammams – Spain has everything a person could want (as dictated by me). Next up, a visit to wee Britain in Gibraltar and then on to Morocco!