¿Qué pasa por la calle?
Everything looked very quiet in Melilla on that Sunday. Suddenly, unlike in Morocco, the streets were almost empty. Our dumb Garmin GPS took us through the smallest alleys of the city, eventually leading us to some narrow stairs which we were suppose to fly down I guess. We eventually made it to a gloomy looking hotel which Abby checked out. Fortunately, it was closed. We carried on riding and turning in some empty streets and finally stumbled upon two better looking hotels in a deserted avenue.
It was pretty expensive compared to Morocco, even during off-season but what the heck, we weren't planning to stay there for very long anyhow.
Together with Europe came a certain set of rules which we did so well without, on the other side of the border. I really couldn't tell if these rules existed or if they were only present in our minds. Even though the hotel carpark was only at the corner, that street was a one way only. A few hours earlier, I wouldn't have hesitated to ride the few meters that separated me from the car park. Not anymore. Instead, I took the long way around and made sure to respect street signs. When we unloaded our panniers, the Transalp was of course parked in front of the hotel doors, on the sidewalk. I had moved it there from the tarmac because of yellow lines that forbid to even stop there despite the traffic being inexistent. But then we weren't too sure if leaving the bike on the sidewalk was allowed either, despite of the lack of passersby, so one of us remained next to it while the other was taking our stuff inside. When I returned from the car park, I lit a fag. Not that I wanted one right then but I knew I couldn't smoke inside the hotel so I packed up on a bit of nicotine beforehand.
And I did all that without even being told to.
Is this really what it takes to be "civilised", in the norms?
I didn't feel myself as having been particularly "uncivilised" a few hours earlier, in Morocco.
But I certainly was in jollier mood.
Now, without going suicidal, I somehow felt more like a punished dog of some sort. Something was turning grey in my head. The sky, however, was the same blue as when we had left Al Hoceima earlier.
Morocco had been so liberating with its laid-back attitude and understanding kindness. Had the West completely lost it? Were powers so certain of their control that they could afford applying extra weight on entire populations forever? Looked to me like the Northern parts of the Mediterranean Sea needed their share of revolutions just as much as the Southern ones. No wonder cases of cancer were multiplying with such "vibrations" in the air! As for me, I felt like kicking a rubbish bin but I didn't find one. I found large plastic containers instead. I didn't feel like I needed to hurt something that big so I quited the idea and returned to the hotel after flicking off my cigarette butt into the gutter, something that would have cost me a 1500 bucks fine if I had done it in Hong Kong.
I had too many bad habits, I was doomed in such a square world, condemned to stick to my cell... room, office, computer screen, with "Unwanted Eccentric" tattooed deep in my face! I was probably edging the limits in the Seventies but I had turned better, I had corrected my ill-tempered manners in many ways. I never got kicked out of Hong Kong for instance, which was quite an accomplishment in my view - not sure if I could have made it in Singapore. Anyway, I felt I had done the best I could. All these video cameras that kept a check on me in public areas were not giving me any sense of security at all. I just felt as if my old schoolyard had expended, what a nightmare! You couldn't expect safety from a schoolyard, only detentions.
Prisons and schools being full, I feared disobedient eccentrics would have to be detained at home.
For instance, if you had been caught by a public cam disobeying the red dwarf that prevented you from crossing the street, the next thing you'd see was a blue computer sending you a blue notice that said: "You have been found guilty of violation of the article FBI18769000 concerning pedestrian safety. You are therefore been notified that, from 12-15-2012 to 01-01-2013, your presence in any public area will result in your arrest." Et voilà !
If another public cam caught you Christmas shopping, a team of robocops would be sent after you and you'd have to leave all that champagne and foie gras in the automatic safebox at the reception of the police station while you were left to rot in your cell in the company of a weirdo claiming to be Santa Claus and trying to make you hop on his knees !
Abby and me took a long walk through the sleepy city that afternoon, me throwing lots of cigarette butts in gutters while I still could, and then we went to visit the fort area with its defense walls that plunge into the floods. Everywhere was very quiet. A few kids were having a swim near the rocks while others were braking bottles on the shore to prevent the swimmers from getting out of the water. We watched for a while but nobody drowned nor bled to death so we left to watch a couple of seagulls in love on a lamp post that reminded us of Kate and William's wedding on the tele.
We carried on towards the port, foolish enough to expect being able to grab some food there but it was too early. We searched for the ferry tickets counter which was closed as well but at least we could check the schedule for the next day. Walking in Melilla streets on the way back to our hotel, we spotted several Chinese groceries as well as Chinese retail stores and cheap jewellery shops. We had not seen any in Morocco where margins of benefit must be much slimmer.
When we entered the restaurant that evening, we could almost feel as if we had returned to Morocco. The TV was on and large groups of football supporters were loudly cheering the action on the screen... just like in Morocco. Actually, I think most of these people were Moroccan, after all we had not left Africa yet.
We were biting at some "tapas" when suddenly an acquaintance came in. It was that Spanish guy who had played his recorder in that coffee shop in Al Hoceima and had taken everybody's attention away from Sarkozy who, like a little Heracles, had gone to crusade against the modern Libyan Antaeus.
People are well mannered, they don't point fingers but I guess a cute Chinese girl with a long bearded mid-aged Caucasian, both wearing motorcycle gear isn't such a common sight regardless where we would go. So the Spanish dude recognized us as well and came up for a little chat. He was quite old but he wouldn't take a chair and sit with us.
He was a biker too in his old days. Not that he was riding anymore, too old for that and traffic had got more dangerous too these days, oh no, he was rather taking buses now but as long as he could watch his football on the tele, he still saw himself as a sporty guy.
At one point he was about to show me some sort of picture from his wallet but then he went "Ooops!" and stashed it away.
Still, I had seen something in silver paper stuck in the wallet. It really looked like a piece of hashish wrapped in aluminium paper, so I giggled:
"Haha! What have you got hidden there huh!?"
He laughed bringing his index finger to his lips.
"Shh! Don't say anything. I am supposed to be too old for this!"
"Nah!" I said laughing "There's no age limit for this sort of activity!"
"Well, some people might take offense... I don't know." he objected with a smile.
"As long as you're not doing it here..." I laughed.
He looked a bit shocked by my comment but then offered,
"Do you want some?"
"Hmm, actually I won't mind" I replied "just coming from Morocco and everything, yes thank you, I could do with some."
The Spanish old man reopened his wallet discreetly and, hiding the stuff in his palm, pretended to give me a handshake to pass me... a condom!
Smoky ol' dude indeed!
The next day, we woke up earlier than usual to pack up and be ready for the morning ferry to Almeria. We bought our tickets just before passing the customs. We got our passports verified and that's when we finally got a serious border check with a dog sniffing our panniers and tank bag while being told to stand a few meters away from the Transalp. No boots sniffin', are you sure? Alright then, and off to the ferry we went.
In Almeria we had several missions to accomplish, mainly three in fact. We had to change our front tire. We had used it for nearly 30000km all the way from UK, it had it. We also had to look for a new GoPro cam to replace the one we had lost in Bouarfa. The GoPro support had pointed at a certain KP Sport outlet in Ejido, a little ride away from Almeria, where we could find what we needed. Also, We kept piling up video recordings of most our rides and about half of our USB drives memory capacity was already full. I didn't know how long it would be until I could start editing these clips but I definitely didn't want to lose them. So a nice little backup wouldn't be too much of a luxury after all the shaking we had.
Ok, let's get out of that ferry first. I've got no idea why the customs began checking passports right at the bottom of the disembarkment platform forcing all the other vehicles to stop on the slippery slope but we just waited on board that the last car had reached the ground before getting on with it. Then we rode to the exit of the ferry pier only to be stopped again by a line of custom officers with a dog. Standing next to each others like they did, cowboys style, with their legs opened wide, I thought they might be up for a bit of target practice. I slowed down but they just signaled us to pass. Hmm... Moroccan cops never looked like cowboys, they couldn't with the uniforms they wear, dating from the sixties.
We didn't have to ride around in Almeria for too long before we spotted a decent hotel with a proper stable for the Transalp.
After refreshing, we took a walk around and found a shop selling electronics and computer gear. One terabyte should be enough for now. I was impressed by the small size of USB drives. In Hong Kong they were as big as a dictionary when we left, now they were as small as a deck of cards.
The next day, while the laptop was busy duplicating one drive onto the other, Abby and me went looking for a front tire. It took us a while and we ended up at a Honda workshop in the suburbs. Spanish suburbs are beautiful places to visit, the walls are covered with magnificent tags which I dutifully shot, one by one, with our Ixus... Abby's a patient girl.
We left the Transalp at the garage and walked all the way back to town. We visited some ruins near the Alcazaba which we went to see the following day. The view over the city was stunning, like some sort of giant puzzle made of cute houses and attractive terraces. The gardens were in full bloom, the sun was shining but not too hot, Andalusia was at its best. We enjoyed walking in the maze of small, quiet and sunny streets with their flowery balconies, protected by wrought-iron and bordered by colorful ceramic tiles.
The ride to Ejido, on excellent tarmac along the Mediterranean Sea, was perfect for testing our new front tire. As we eventually figured out, there was no need to wave at other bikers in Spain, there were just too many of them. Most rode nice bikes and brand new models.
We found the KP Sport shop about twenty minutes before closing time and purchased our new HD GoPro cam. The staff couldn't speak anything but Spanish. It had been the same at the Honda workshop and at the electronics store, but so far, patience and kindness had efficiently made up for it. We liked it here. Prices were too high but people were cool. Stress didn't seem to have much grip on them. Everyone smiled quite freely and encountering moody attitudes was rare.
However, the level of noise was pretty high compared to Morocco. At coffee shops or inside restaurants, it sounded almost as loud as in Hong Kong, everybody seemed to be talking at the same time, each of them trying to speak even louder than the next. Abby and me often couldn't hear each other unless we joined in the racket. One morning, at breakfast time, I suddenly grew annoyed by all the hullabaloo and I used my teacher voice to cover it once and for all. It did work. My job offers at least one tiny advantage, the clutter decreased in volume for a little while.
At night, the rubbish collection took place at around 1a.m, not long after people had eventually given up partying in the streets and then we were free to sleep until at least 8:30a.m when the drilling would begin on higher floors, just like in Hong Kong. In fact, during one of our walks around the city, we discovered a huge storage place that was called "Hong Kong Import Export" in which just about everything produced in China could be bought. The Chinese owners spoke Mandarin.
In fact there were many Chinese families living in Almeria. Most of them came from Mainland China and ran grocery shops. They were the last ones to close down late at night.
Abby and me found ourselves envying them. These couples of Chinese grocers looked quite happy to spend their days together in their little shops. The husband would be watching Chinese movies on his laptop behind the cashier while his wife was serving the customers. It wasn't much but what else could we reasonably wish to ensure a happy life together? Each of us having a nine to five job in two distinct locations, even as teachers? Nah! No way! We had been every minute together since our departure from Hong Kong, it worked, we loved it and each other. And we didn't want it to stop, ever.
Our mood wasn't much tuned to Spain yet though. We missed Morocco big time and found ourselves hanging around the pier area where we could find Moroccan restaurants that served couscous and tagines. It helped a bit. Still, we felt that we had not had the time to really give Morocco a try when it came to finding a job there. Sure it would have to be teaching again but we had not even sent one application letter, we felt awkward about that, maybe we had missed our chance.
The road to Granada, through the Sierra Nevada, was a total riding treat. No wonder so many cowboys movies were shot in this region with the spectacular white mountains in the background. All these flowers in the trees made us feel as if we had reached some sort of Shangri-La again. Soon after, we passed a Native Indian village complete with white tepees, a shooting location we guessed.
And then we arrived in Granada. Being still in our missing-Morocco mood, it didn't immediately jump to our eyes that this was probably the most pleasant and beautiful city we had ever seen. But the Andalusian feeries took quickly care of that. The first hotel that Abby tried wasn't doing the trick so we ended up in a small narrow street where we found the Hotel Lima.
So now I've got three locations on my list of marvelous places to stay: The riad Baraka in Chefchaouen, "Chez Ali" in Zagora and finally this Hotel Lima in Granada. It was, by very far, the most expensive of the three but we felt we were being treated accordingly.
We couldn't have dreamt of a more Andalucian environment ! The place was like a museum with Spaniard antiques, sculpted furnitures, delicate paintings and ceramic plates on the walls, full armors on the sides of doors, spears and swords, glassed-in wrought iron lamps, old tapestries, gigantic amphora, mysterious old wooden coffers which instantly transported us back to the times of Conquistadors.
The owners of the "casa" were very warm and gentle. They obviously loved their job and their hotel. They found a place in their own garage for our Transalp. If, for the first night, our room was a little small and fragile considering our equipment, we had plenty of space in our magnificent suite, the following night, a treat we offered ourselves, and the dinner that went with it, since our birthdays were due to come soon. One lived only once and it did match very well with the rest of a town that gathered so much beauty, it seemed almost unfair.
We didn't hurry up visiting it though. The first afternoon, we went as far as the end of our street and found a large public square surrounded by coffee shops and terraces. We didn't make it any further that day. It was enough sitting there, letting the whole Andalusian world sink in while having a chat with two young dudes from Montreal who were on their way back from Morocco as well.
The next day, after a humongous breakfast at our hotel taken in the arms room that served as restaurant, Abby and me, armed with our Canon, began investigating the old streets of Granada. We truly fell in love with the Spanish and Moorish atmosphere we encountered at every corner. As much as Nouadhibou had looked deprived of all beauty as much Granada seemed to be having it almost in excess. Each time the eyes would land somewhere, each time there would be something stunning, shiny, stylish and beautiful.
I just looked at the floor of a shop once, as we bought some postcards and sure enough, there were some ceramic tiles there in the shape of a David Star. The walls of the houses in the streets were decorated with flowery balconies and sometimes with religious icons. A large palm would hang at some other balconies, as a sign of Christianity. Impressive Wrought iron lamps hanged at every corners. Everything looked neat and bright while the colours chosen to paint the old buildings prevented the passersby from being blinded by sunlight. Many shops, from the street, looked like caves of Ali Baba, I felt home. They shone with sparkles of gold or brass or silver glittering in the shadow among piles of colorful drapes and shawls. A flamenco band played in front of the cathedral where we soon entered for a bit of cool air. The stained-glass windows drew sharp spots of psychedelic colours on the antique and holy stone walls and forced the severe place to take its part in the smiling fiesta.
And indeed, there was joy in this cathedral as we could witness the baptism of an unknown little girl.
I was still under the impression of what Abby had said about Berber babies and I watched, surprisingly moved, and filmed the ceremony. I remembered my parents saying how I was crying and yelling during my own baptism, probably embarrassing the whole assistance to the point that I was never taken back into a church ever again after that. Later on, my attitude never really changed, I never liked churches, schools, holiday camps, sport gatherings, communities, concerts, political parties, armies, teams, Disneyland or supermarkets. But now I was looking at that little girl smiling despite of having her head spread with cold water and I thought how she possibly was having a better start at social life than I had done.
Allowing a bit of peace to enter ones heart from time to time wasn't such a bad thing, was it? After all, which made one old faster, rebellious anger or quiet acceptance ? I wasn't quite sure anymore all of a sudden.
"That's why you're getting fat !" I rudely told myself, trying to shake the mellowing feeling I was getting soaked into, but I knew then, that one of these days, I should really try and make peace in myself. How long would I, or even could I, "Don Quixote" my life away, the way I had done so far... and at that, not necessarily with the best results?
Wasn't it about time to give up on all those vain mills and buy a grocery?
Churches can do that to innocent people, you know, it should be denounced... so I went to buy myself a white T-shirt with Picasso's Don Quixote printed on it as a sort of conjuring shield. It matched pretty well with my age and my long beard... and with the Ol' Transalp too! Maybe it was time to call it Rocinante! So I went back into the shop and bought a Don Quixote sticker for our Honda Rocinante.
Still a bit melted by the cute baptism, we carried on walking all the way up to the Alhambra, following first a busy avenue where tourists, at the terraces of coffee shops, drank glasses of orange juice next to Arabs, dressed with chech and burka, sipping mint tea while smoking a narghile. The mixture of two cultures wasn't only present in the architecture and decorations of Granada, it felt encouraging. Then we walked along a small stream of water and took a rather stiff path up to the famous gardens.
Spring was definitely the right season to visit the place. These were the most enchanting gardens we had ever seen! Not only were they blooming, original, interesting, romantic and clever, they also extended to the medieval shape of Moorish palaces nearby and further down to the whole city of Granada at their feet, with its white squarish shaped houses and their top terraces, its Andalusian churches ringing the bell at a slow pace, its shadowy squares full of life and music and its narrow streets leading to more serene intimacy. Then the eyes can finally embrace the whole region with series of green hills leading to the chain of the Sierra Nevada mountains and their snowy peaks, brightly white under the blue sky.
Should we just get our tent and camp here!?
Nah! I've got hay fever, I wouldn't survive very long with all that pollen.
Still, we stayed long enough to empty two camera batteries and then relied on sunlight to try recharging them just enough for a few more pictures. It worked for a little while, not long.
On the way back to our hotel, we met a group of people yelling "Good-bye Mama!" and cheering loudly around a donkey, on which sat a smiling young bride, led by a very happy groom. Just imagine that in Hong Kong, they'd get arrested!
We had the entire arms-room for ourselves that evening to enjoy our dinner of paella cooked by our host's mother and served with a bottle of excellent Spanish red wine. Our host was a true gentleman, both witty and discreet. After our meal, we retreated to our luxurious bedroom with another glass of wine and a sense of having just experienced one of the most brilliant day in our lives.
I know that, in any good story, there should be a bit of sauciness involved. And I know this point would be a perfect opening line. Unfortunately, this being a true story, some things shall remain private. Use the Internet !
The next morning, after breakfast, the wife of our host gave both Abby and me a big good-bye kiss on both cheeks and opened the gates of her garage to let us take our bike. We loaded our stuff and off we rode, away from that stylish pearl Granada had proved to be.
Destination Malaga, direccion Malaga, Olé ! Dunno why, I liked that name. I liked Spanish. I liked Andalucia and I liked my Don Quixote T-shirt ! Throttle !
Riding in Spain made a noticeable change from Morocco. There were much more and much faster traffic now. More petrol stations too, there was no need to worry about them anymore. The tarmac was always in pretty good condition which was good news for me. My back wasn't feeling much better but not worst either so there was no point visiting an unknown doctor and give him a chance to spoil our journey with freaking x-rays.
We checked in at one of Malaga Ibis hotels which always provided good connections to the Internet and safe carpark. The ride had been sunny and beautiful but, by the time we had taken a shower and changed, the sky had turned to water grey and a chilly wind had begun to blow. Was the Rif horrible weather able to travel that far? It really felt like it.
The following day wasn't much better. We had a meager breakfast at a coffee shop nearby and we began walking the streets as we had done in previous cities. We saw lots of tourists with maps that always seemed more concerned about being heading in the right direction rather than just look around them. It seemed a little strange to us. We knew when we were getting too far, when we could only see trees and cows then it was time to make a U-turn. Some dudes, however, just wouldn't breath easily without their precious map. They had made plans, they had a tight schedule to respect, sharp trajectories, precise photos to shoot, all serious stuff, couldn't afford getting lost. Lawrence of Arabia and Christopher Colombus were complete wankers in comparison!
What was that? Efficient traveling? Productive sight seeing? Reasonable time management? What!?
Although, thinking of it, we weren't really different in our way. What really was all our electronic stuff about? We took thousands of pictures, shot loads of video clips, spent hours writing this blog, wasted ages on the Internet, for what purpose?
Wasn't it, as well as sharing it, an attempt to store traces of our precious present so as to serve it again to ourselves as a good past in an uncertain future?
What matters the most, the event or its memory?
Neither would matter if we did lose ours one day, really. In the end, map readers and photographers were both just trying to deal, in their own ways, with the anguishing passing of time.
Malaga streets were full of tags of all sorts, from Japanese manga to airbrushed gothic representations. Some, more classic, displayed religious scenes and icons. The city seemed a little less touristic than Granada. It wasn't as charming being perhaps more functional, with it's Hong Kong style container port for example.
We walked along some large pedestrian streets with rather original human statues, or even fountains, and we arrived near Malaga cathedral. As we entered the garden that leads to the gates, we were greeted by a squeaky golden human robot who gave me the screechy finger when I shot a photo of him.
"Hallelujah !" I said. My Spanish's still poor.
We hesitated entering the cathedral. Five euros per person for the right to enter a praying area!? That was new to us. Ok, in Morocco, mosques entry is mostly forbidden to non-muslims but damn, charging for it wasn't much better, was it!?
What was happening to religious proselytism these days ? I could just imagine the preacher at my door going:
-"Hello and may God bless you. Have you heard about Lord Jesus?"
-"Er... no, don't think so. Who's that? An English person? Are you the police? What has he done?"
-"You can hear all about Him at the mass next Sunday in your nearest church. I sell tickets for the show, how many would you fancy?"
-"Do you make rebates for unemployed bikers?"
And what about Muslim mosques being shut to infidels? How did they expect folks to become fidels if nobody could join up for a good Allah worshiping session? I mean, Abby and me have been subjected to the muezzin's loud prayers, five times a day, for a period of six months in a row and we weren't about to convert at all! It didn't do the trick, only proved the failure of the whole yelling idea really. And no one had ever shown up at our door asking if we'd heard about Lord Allah so how did one became a Muslim in these uneasy conditions!?
Synagogs didn't open their arms very wide to "goys" either and it was difficult to convert to Shiva without looking just like a skinhead. What ever happened to spirituality?
Alright, alright, we were going to pretend the five euros entrance fee were for charities. We would see that cathedral!
-"Take off your cap!" the ticket puncher reminded me.
-"Sure but why me !? What about her" I replied pointing at Abby's head.
-"Women are allowed to wear hats" he nodded.
-"That's gender discrimination!" I said.
-"Absolutely." he admitted.
"So," I thought "even after paying five euros, if I'm Jewish, I couldn't keep my kippah on. Same, if I'm Muslim, I'd have to take off my cute kufi. I'm just bold, does it make it less costly?
Why were gods so worried about hats?"
It wasn't worth five euros or perhaps five euros weren't enough, I wasn't sure which. How did one value the work and the beauty of a cathedral? As a praying area, I thought charging for entry was outrageous and unethical. As an art and architectural center, it was worth much more. After all what was so impressive in cathedrals, apart from the echo? The craftsmanship. I just looked around and up the pillars and I could imagine armies of workers, Christian or not so Christian,
trying to do their very best to raise an astonishing building that was here to last for generations and generations. To me, that's where the true beauty really stood, in a bunch of lucky bastards who were brilliant enough at what they were doing to be chosen and given a chance to leave a part of themselves down here, for eternity, regardless of their social status. They must have felt great.
However I wasn't too sure about the statues. As much as the architecture of the cathedral had impressed me, as much I had found the extreme severity of the religious representations to be deterring, worrying even. Could we focus more on the forgiving and a bit less on the guilt please ! I paid five euros, remember !?
Of course, we were more or less inconsciously heading to the Picasso museum as well. He was born in Malaga, his house could be visited but we doubted he had ever drawn anything interesting onto his parents toilets door so we had decided to skip it.
The museum however promised to contain some pretty interesting pieces, no doubt. A few years earlier, I had very much appreciated my visit to Paris Hotel Salé which offered a huge collection of Picasso's work through all his different periods and on various supports. I expected something similar, if not better.
I was wrong.
There were only a few dozens of paintings hanging here and there, nineteen on the ground floor, a few more on the second, all mixed up in a pretty eclectic order. One of the painting had a quote by André Malraux posted on the wall next to it. It made me smile. Malraux, as a Culture minister in France from 1959 to 1969, was a fervent defender of popularizing the arts and, as such, encouraged the masses to go and discover their museums by dropping the price of entry tickets. Obviously in this museum, the solidarity with the great man had stopped at the cashier.
I was surprised when a young girl in uniform prevented me from taking pictures, even without flashlight, a right that was naturally granted in Paris. I objected of course but only to find myself watched closely by an army of young ladies in uniform during the whole visit as a result. It pissed me off and I'm sure Picasso himself would have been mad. His Don Quixote, on my T-shirt, was beginning to give me an itch. So, when we returned to our room that night, I uploaded my whole personal digital collection and made my own free Picasso exhibition on my website.
Then we took a beautiful slow walk up to the Alcazaba, through meadows and blooming trees featuring fresh new leaves. We had a sigh at the sight of the site at our feet with its busy coastline, its impressively large arena and old governor house.
Granada however, from our point of view, looked more harmonious seen from the top. Perhaps being part of the UNESCO world heritage helped.
The modern concrete buildings of Malaga spoiled it a bit for us, we were becoming picky.
We went down the Alcazaba and, after filming a poisoned cat agonising on a sidewalk for a while - I was going to YouTube it too that night, Don Quixote was sick of folks poisoning the streets and not even having the guts to see what they did - we carried on to the Gibralfaro, a sort of mini-Alhambra of the best Moorish made.
Then we searched for a library that would have a English copy of Cervantes "Don Quixote" for sale because Abby was beginning to look at me strangely. She needed to understand.
We kept looking for it but failed to find a single copy. We concluded that English speaking people had probably never even heard of the ol' great Spaniard, felt sad for them and went back home after a dinner of "jamon" (smoked ham) and shrimps with "vino tinto" (red wine) in a small street nearby.
As I was googling, that night, for a free English copy of Don Quixote on the Net (and found one easily), a mail from my good friend Philippe in Paris informed me that we were only a few kilometers away from his grand-parents original homeland, a little village called Ardales, at the top of a windy peak, on the way to Ronda. The ride there should be cool and it was off the beaten track so why not ?
Philippe had said "windy" so I did not expect what fell upon us! Now he was right about the ride being cool, very beautiful indeed... when one can take the eyes off the tarmac that is, which is nearly never! Would you take your eyes off the road during a signal 8 typhoon? You wouldn't be on the road at all, would you, and me neither! We made such a nice little wall for the wind to play with, Abby, me and the Transalp once it was loaded with a tank bag, a top bag and the panniers, let alone the side fairings that are quite large. I felt like some sort of picador picked up by a bully gust.
Things turned frankly hazardous to health in Ardales itself. We thought we had seen stiff slopes in Portugal and in Chefchaouen. Nope, we had not! Now could someone please explain why some folks had the idea of building their village at the top of a stiff peak like that, constantly beaten up by a maddening wind? I mean, what could have been lurking down there?
What sort of monster, beast, Ardalesian devil waiting to chew up the innocent villager from behind an olive tree does it take to frighten an entire population and force it to pile up at the summit of a peak? You gotta be seriously scared to accept to climb up these slippery paved streets every day to go back home... a home where you access the attic by the door on the left and the cellar by the one on the right!
Haha, it was time for our Transalp to justify its name! I would even suggest the name of "Transardales" to Honda for their next touring model if ours could make it up there safely.
Alright, clearly, once we had begun climbing those mountain goats paths disguised as city streets, there was no question of ever stopping before reaching some flatter ground. If we had, the front tire wouldn't have had enough hold and we'd have slipped backwards due to our weight. Fortunately, there was a little church at the top of the village with a tiny car park that looked quite horizontal for the region. I stopped there and let the Transalp breath, not that she had coughed or anything but, you know how it is, being a bit old, we had to be nice to her.
Not too surprisingly about a third of the houses were locked and for sale. We watched a few locals labouriously climbing their way back home while we were wondering if the temperatures were different from a house to the next due to their differences in altitude. We did our bit of walking around too ourselves, but well, not too far... we couldn't leave the bike unchecked for too long, right!?
The way back down was a perfect opportunity for me to demonstrate to Abby the excellence and need for engine brake. No Darling, I wasn't going to just let the bike roll down to the bottom, engine off, so as to save gas, nope!
We arrived in Ronda in the middle of the afternoon and despite of the general atmosphere of siesta, we managed to find an hotel that could accommodate us for a couple of nights, had wifi and a safe parking for Ol' Rocinante.
Then we took to the streets for our usual primary investigation walk. The sky was a little greyish. Ronda seemed a pretty touristic place with series of large squares surrounded by numerous coffee shops and terraces, pedestrian streets filled with restaurants and a multitude of souvenirs outlets.
We didn't really know why but Ronda looked as busy with tourists as Granada had been despite being much smaller. We never really checked Lonely Planet before heading to new places in Andalusia. All these cities on the map sounded so familiar, we just knew we should go and check them out, nothing more. And we liked that. It kept a nice element of surprise.
That's how we got the shock of our lives that late evening. After about an hour of hanging around, we had found ourselves at the entrance of a public park and I had suggested to take a walk inside to take a look. At the end of the main alley, we could see the countryside at the horizon, with a few mountains. Was that park marking the end of the city ? I walked a bit faster than Abby while watching the mountains in front of me until I reached some railings that seemed to limit the park.
Putting my hands on the cold metal, I naturally looked down to the level where I expected the ground to be... nothing! I lowered my eyes even more... still no ground! In fact I was standing on a sort of balcony hanging on the edge of a giant cliff next to an abyss of more than a hundred meters deep! Breath taking!
Abby was coming, as unaware as I had been, so I jumped to her and told her to close her eyes. I led her to the balcony and let her see the bottom of the world at our feet. We stood there for a long while, enjoying the stunning panorama, one that we normally only got a glimpse at on planes.
The more we explored Ronda, the more we liked it. We discovered the famous bridge, above a narrow 100m deep chasm between the rocks, that joins the new town to the old city. Houses, hotels, restaurants, gardens and terraces were built right up to the edge of the abyss and we had a respectful thought for all the sleep walkers who, surely, must have perished there by the hundreds.
Our original hotel being booked for the week-end, we changed for another one not far and enjoyed an even better room with a little terrace above the roofs, it was lovely.
In Ronda, each little street we took seemed to lead to something charming and interesting, a shadowy little square with a cute church, a Moorish water system, a chapel, the Arab baths, a recreation center for horses, the most ancient bullfighting ring in Andalusia, made of limestone and where a few "corrida" were still being held each September. We spent long hours exploring the cliff itself, down to the stream of water that flows under the tall bridge. Flowers and blooming trees were everywhere and the landing panorama never ceased to be a prefect excuse for a breath catching pause. By then the sun and the blue sky had returned, we were in heaven.
Being such a tourist spot although pretty quiet in this season, the prices at restaurants were a bit high but we found a very sympathetic one in a tiny one way street, not too far from the Plaza de Toros, serving delicious family food and good wine. I had some interesting conversations about music with the owner of the joint, a fan of Eric Clapton, the Stones, Marley, the Clash, in short a connoisseur. He joined me in the street for a fag. The legislation about tobacco had changed in Spain last summer and, along with France, Hong Kong and many other unpleasant locations, nobody could smoke in bars and restaurants anymore, apart from "jamon".
-"So even you, the owner of the place, can't smoke in your own restaurant?"
-"Nope. Nobody's allowed to. Before I had a sign on my door that told customers that smoking was allowed in my place. Those who didn't like it could visit another non-smoking restaurant, there was no problem. Now, nobody can smoke anywhere anymore, I don't see how this means progress but that's how it is."
He shrugged and, throwing our cigarette butts in the street, we went back in for a free shot of local liqueur.
"To Clapton Amigo, salud! Smokers not dead!".
The medal for possessing the most elaborated maze in Andalucia should be granted to the old town of Cordoba. There was very little difference between it and Moroccan medinas. Many little streets weren't much larger than the path to riad Baraka in blue Chefchaouen. However, each time we looked inside the front door entrances, we were rewarded with the sight of incredibly cute flowery patios surrounded by shadowy and elegant Moorish arcades and refreshed by charming ceramic fountains. It looked very romantic and peaceful, we almost felt like starting a family straight away in one of these houses because obviously, you could only live very happy in such heavenly places.
So it was quite alright for us to just get lost in the pretty maze and see interesting places as fate took us to them.
We went to visit an old Jewish synagog but were mostly impressed by its garden and the amount of tourists in it. Then, for four euros a ticket, we gained the right to explore a typical Jewish house, very sober, with a large David star in the middle of the yard that was drawn with loads of flat pebbles taken from the Guadalquivir river nearby. There weren't many things to see in that house, only a few antic household items and some explanatory posters on the walls but the simple beauty of the place was cool. Jewish symbols could be spotted about everywhere, baked into ceramic plates, sculpted in wooden furnitures, hammered in wrought-iron, painted on walls or on glass, even carved into golden jewels. We discovered that Muslims and Jews share a common symbol, the first felt protected by "the hand of Fatima" while the latter wore "the hand of Myriam" for good luck. They looked exactly like the same hand to us.
Then, a few feet away from the Jewish house, we found a similar one, but Andalucian this time, which we could visit for two and half euros. There, we stumbled upon a flamboyant garden and rooms filled with an exuberant collection of artifacts and objects of art, some for sale. Delicate furnitures, strange antics, old books, fine glassware, Moorish clothes, brass lamps, ivory boxes, silver tea pots, rusted Arab swords, ancient amphora, colourful carpets, sculptures of capitals and busts.
Everywhere was pure enchantment, not a wall without a set of decorative ceramic plates, paintings or shelves full of weird curiosities. If my kids had left their room in that state, I'd gone mad at them. There wasn't a single spot left empty.
The ancient owner of the place had used the underground as a paper workshop and as we visited the dark place, we stumbled upon some Roman mosaics as well. There were two gardens in this house but the walls that surrounded them were so diversely full with lush vegetation, they felt more like some kind of urban glades. Both the Jewish and the Andalusian gardens featured a deep water well that looked very small, almost like petrol drums compared to Western wells. The gardens were paved with the same flat pebbles we had seen in the Jewish house, some grey, some black, planted vertically in the ground, the one next to the other, so as to form patterns and drawings as well as keeping the place dry and fresh. Some people definitely knew how to live!
At the end of an alley, we found a fountain, nicely set in a wall with ceramic tiles, a Moorish sort of shade and a large rectangular basin full of yellow flowers floating among pink roses and white daisies... a very refreshing and pretty spot.
It was interesting to have a glimpse of two different life styles, thanks to these two neighbouring houses, both beautiful in their rather contrasted ways, one dominated by sobriety and religion, the other by generosity and style.
We were having lunch in one of those romantic Andalucian patios when suddenly, a melodious voice began chanting an air of Flamenco in my back, accompanied by a Spanish guitar. It almost made me forget my fork! What a singer! I wished my good friend Denis, a talented musician, could be here with us and hear him! I am quite picky when it comes to music but there, I couldn't understand how such a talent could be walking the terraces and restaurants. That guy's voice should sell on CDs and make him famous!
Of course we visited the Mezkita cathedral which, originally, was a huge Muslim mosque but had been recycled into a Christian place of worship when the Arabs were kicked out. They overdid it a bit, I mean, it was so huge and there was so much deco everywhere, it became a bit of a laugh really. Some rooms looked as if they had been used as a storage for the looting of the El Dorado so much gold they contained.
Despite of it, some of the statues were definitely staring at the visitor as if he'd committed the original sin all by himself, while unfriendly skulls could be found all over the joint, even below Jesus's cross. It made me boil a bit.
"Damn," I thought "better feel guilty for yourself, Matey, coz where did you guys get all that gold from in the first place huh? Incas? Got a receipt for it? I've heard of Valladolid debate, a bloody shame really, so better not point the finger at me or I could talk!"
We also found a myriad of chapels, dedicated to a whole army of saints, all around the place. Tell me about monotheism!
No St. Abby, St Pascal nor St. Transalp though, tss!
It was nice to see two religions morphed into one single place of worship, even if one had kicked out the other, but they'd better give a thought about making God look a little friendlier and a little less "bling bling" if they were serious about converting non-Harley bikers.
Suddenly the sky turned threateningly dark so we quickly left Cordoba before being stroke by divine lightning.
Jerez de la Frontera
Although we had never been in Jerez, I had already driven a bike there, thanks to PlayStation. That's a strange feeling, going to a place one has only seen in digital form. It was a bit like going to see a film after reading the book. Was I going to be disappointed as well?
Quite the opposite. It felt good to finally be allowed to get down from that darn virtual bike and visit the place for a change! We had to be quick though because the GP events would resume three days later... not on screen, the real thing!
That meant rooms were going to triple their price so we'd better hurry.
The cathedral was a beauty and a curiosity with its detached bell tower. The stained glass windows projected very nice spots of colours onto the walls but, like in Cordoba, some of the statues, a representation of people burning in the flames of hell and a few metal skulls screwed into a wrought-iron fence didn't make the place feel very cozy.
The Alcazaba was the main attraction in Jerez when there was no GP racing on the program. It really was worth visiting. For a start, it wasn't too huge and there was plenty to see, a small antique Arab mosque next to some Arab baths and a spot to explain and display how olive oil was made, a splendid garden with flowers blooming between old olive trees. The camera obscura on top of the octogonal tower was a very interesting experience too. We had never seen one. It would be perfect for a Moroccan riad with that central opening all the way up to the terraces. We should tell Joseph about them.
But Jerez is a small town, a bit like Le Mans. More and more bikers were pouring into town. We had to leave, but where to?
Abby and me looked at each others. Should we ride to Greece now? We were a bit tired really. We were on the move since Zagora and we had been to about twenty different places the past one and half month. How about a rest?
Yup! That's how we rode back to Tarifa the day the GP races began. The roads were full of champs who zoomed by on their sport bikes. As for us, we slowly rode most of the way behind a van. The bursts of wind were so fierce and so unpredictable, I just couldn't go over 60km/h with all that wall of luggage we were dragging. So that van was quite welcome to open a safe tunnel for us into which I could accelerate to about 90km/h.
We were going to take the ferry back to Morocco and take a few weeks searching for work opportunities, leave our resume and see if we could stay there for good. Meanwhile we should take a well deserved rest and take it easy. We had to plan our trip to Greece a little further and catch up on our blog which I didn't have much time to work on lately.
A few moments later, the ferry dropped us in Tangier where the customs made no fuss about letting us in again. We had a big grin on our faces. We were back! Wel...wel...wel...welcome to Morocco yo!
Posted by Pascal Leclerc at 09:35 PM