Wrapping up the trip

Me, looking out to sea Cadaqués is in a right pretty corner of Spain, with dramatic rocky coastline, deep blue sea, and bright sun. It is a good place for hiking, and hike we did. I gave Miss Adventure control of the camera, and we spent a very pleasant afternoon rambling about. That night the city emptied and we slept in an actual hotel room, ate food from the grocery store (vegetables! rapture!) and went back out to enjoy the evening. Cassius and I ended up on bar stools in a place along the “Street of Shame”, a longish alley with several clubs on it.

Boats, by miss adventure As with everything else in that town, drinks were overpriced. The closest thing to a decent deal was a list of shots that seem to have been invented by pulling the names of boozes and mixers from a hat. Cassuis amused himself by buying me a couple of them just to watch me drink them. The bartender, having no sense of proportion (although she, herself was quite magnificently proportioned), would pour equal amounts of each ingredient into the glass. The results were horrific. After the second round there was a dispute about price, which surprisingly we won after we had already given up. The prize: another round of horrible shots. Hooray for us.

The next day we wandered the town, looking for a place to do laundry and get a haircut. I had mentioned losing most of my hair, and while Cassius thought it would be amusing to watch, Miss Adventure was quite excited at the prospect indeed. We did not find what we were looking for, and ended up sitting on the pebbly beach, stacking pebbles, throwing pebbles at stacks of pebbles, and (Cassius only) juggling pebbles. I created PebbleHenge, coming soon to a photo album near you.

PebbleHenge
PebbleHenge detail
Then it was on to the bus and over to, uh… What’s the name of that city again? It’s got the Dalí museum in it. Starts with an F. Never mind. The town has two things: A railway station and the Dalí museum. The museum is right cool, and definitely worth a visit.

Wait, there’s a third thing in F-town (map). An honest-go-god barber shop. After the museum, on the evening of my last full day in the hot country, I was shorn. My hair is short. My big bushy beard is gone. Somehow my request to keep it longer on top so my hair wouldn’t stand up was inverted; I now have a bristly brush on top of my head. Next time I will specify centimeters.

Getting hair and beard chopped off, amused onlookers This shearing process was of great entertainment value not only to my companions but to all the others in the place. I was the biggest thing to happen to haircutting in F-town in a long time, I’m sure. That night, chatting up a pair of Uruguayan bartenders, the camera came back out to show the “before” look. I had to point out I was wearing the same shirt to convince people that I had looked that way just that morning.

Cassius and I did the aforementioned chatting in Barcelona, and we did it without Miss Adventure, who was by then on her way to Madrid. I was sorry to say goodbye; she was a fun traveling companion and a congenial friend. Now it was just Cassius and me, carefully rationing our last euros, hanging in the smoll bar (I don’t think that name is Spanish), listening to surprisingly good music (Gang of Four was playing when we first walked past on our roundabout path to our hotel, then when we went back it was Violent Femmes followed by Lou Reed. The bartender who had made the mix CD had just been to a Femmes/Reed concert a couple of days before.) So we sat, watched the two girls pour unbelievably strong drinks, and tried to convince them to come to Prague. It didn’t work — they wanted us to visit Uruguay instead. Maybe someday…

The next morning started relaxed but it turns out getting to the airport can be complicated. No, I take that back, getting to the airport is really quite simple, it’s figuring out getting to the airport that is complex. For instance, there is a train, the R1, that goes there. We walked to a station where the R1 went. Several other trains went there as well, and none of them were marked with letter or number. On the platform is a sign, however, that says that the train to the airport comes here.

Only it doesn’t go there. The R1 isn’t running. We find this out by asking around among the locals on the platform, most of whom know no more about it than we do. We went back upstairs and found a sign that said to get to the airport we needed to get to Barcelona-Saints station, transfer to another train to another station, then get on something else to the airport. By this time we’re starting to feel the pressure. And, how to get to Barcelona-Saints? Which of the unlabeled trains passing through below, marked only by the end of their route, would take us there? Why was there no transit map within the ticket-controlled part of the station?

Finally we asked a security guard. He told us that all the trains went to B-S, and that from there we should take a bus. There was nothing written anywhere about a bus, but that turned out to be the best advice. Had it not been for Cassuis’ ability to speak Spanish, I might still be wandering the transit system of Barcelona.

When we got to the airport, we were time-crunched but not desperate — until we looked at the big board. There was our flight, with a departure time forty minutes earlier than our confirmations had said. Once we found our check-in desk (more great signage) we were told that the departure time on the board and on all the monitors was wrong. With a sigh of relief we checked our bags, made our way through security, spent the very last of our euros on food, and discovered that the gate number on our boarding passes was wrong. Fortunately the correct gate was right next door.

Back to Prague we came, back to the land of reasonably-priced food and beverage, back to the quiet streets of my neighborhood and the shocked expressions of the regulars at Little Café Near Home when they finally recognized me. As they say, all’s swell that ends swell.

Cadaqués

Ah, plans. Schemes. Nefarious plots. It is man alone who has the hubris to attempt to impose his will on the future. Every plan is based on the assumption that the universe is an orderly place where result follows cause, and chaos, while not controllable, is at least manageable.

Spain is not part of this universe.

The day began in Barcelona, in the Bohemian part of town (map). There were four of us in the room, Cassius and Brutus on lower bunks while Miss Adventure and I reposed above. Brutus was up first to head for the airport so he could jet back to Estonia and his job. His jolly cheerfulness was instantly missed, but we had Miss Adventure to add her own perky ray of sunshine to the mix, and on top of that she had ideas about places outside of Barcelona she thought would be fun to visit. After some discussion we all agreed that traveling to Cadaqués, a town known for Salvador Dalí and beautiful rocky shores, was a capital idea. One guide book listed a particularly interesting hotel/restaurant sharing the easternmost point of Spain with a lighthouse. It sounded cool, and one phone call later we had a room held for us. We had a plan.

Wandering in barcelona The bus didn’t leave for a while, so we knocked around town, wandering through the tourist shopping district (Miss Adventure is most certainly not a shopper, praises be), around and about a very pleasant park, grabbed some ice cream, and generally hung out. Miss Adventure turned out to be very easy for me to talk to, with a perspective and attitude that complements mine. She also has a good sense of direction.

On the bus, Cassius studied our new destination more closely, and pieced together bits and pieces to come to the conclusion that the hotel we had a room reserved in was in fact a ways out of town. “We’ll just get a cab,” Cassius said. I didn’t think there would be any cabs waiting to meet the bus, but I didn’t mention it at the time. We could always call for one. It would be pricey, but we would find ourselves in an isolated and dramatic location, a rambler’s paradise.

Night fell, the bus rumbled on, we all napped. Miss Adventure curled neatly into a pair of seats; I didn’t even try. The bus groped its way over twisting mountain roads like a blind grandmother, pausing often as it needed both lanes to go around some of the curves. At last, at last, we dropped down into town (map) and began to execute our plan.

We didn’t get far. We are now in a part of the country where it is assumed most visitors arrive by car (thus no warning about the distance to the hotel we liked). There were no taxis, and calling one was beginning to look impractical. We decided to find a place in town instead.

There are lots of hotels in Cadaqués. Some are small and funky, some are large and ritzy. Some of those listed in our guide books no longer existed. All the hotels, from the humblest pension to the gleaming four-star monstrosities, had one thing in common. They were full. In order to scour the town more efficiently we divided responsibilities based on skills with Spanish. Essentially I watched all our stuff while Cassius and Miss Adventure did the hunting.

All nighter! During the next couple of hours of futile search I got to spend snatches of quiet time with Miss Adventure as we waited for Cassius’ report, and I continued to be surprised byt the easy rapport we had achieved. The credit goes to her, of course. But there we were, with no place to stay and no way to get anywhere else. On one of her missions she managed to sweet-talk the night desk man at one of the hotels into letting us keep our bags there, so at least we would be less encumbered. The man also told her the closing times of the bars. Some restaurants closed at two, which was already past, but others stayed open later. One stayed open until five, and the breakfast restaurants opened at 7:30. We were on to Plan C: The All-Nighter. As I sat with Miss Adventure she became more excited about the prospect, and her mood quickly rubbed off on me as well. Cassius rejoined us and we agreed that the hotel bill for the night had just been redefined as a bar tab. We stashed our gear and off we went.

We settled into the first bar. I ordered beer, Cassius ordered rum and coke, and Miss Adventure requested chocolate milk. Miss Adventure, the tender young thing that she is, partakes of alcohol only in moderation. The drinks were pretty expensive, but we’ve come to expect that.

We were not there long before the bar closed, however. Some people were getting drinks to go, but we headed to the nearby night club, where things were still going strong. We sat on the patio and were shocked when we heard how much the first round of drinks cost. Cassius had ordered another rum and coke, and it had cost well over ten dollars. The beers were pricey, but not as ridiculous. The patio closed next, forcing us into the interior din and smoke, and we continued to nurse our drinks very, very slowly. Even converting our hotel budget to the bar tab wasn’t going to get us very far. Finally Cassius went to the bar for another round, but returned empty-handed. The bartender had asked for eight dollars each for beers and water. Cassius just left them on the counter and walked away.

It became apparent that we were not going to last until five o’clock in that place. After a while we departed, to see if there were any other possibilities. Another place, nicer-looking, just up the way had its door open but appeared to be closing. After a brief discussion Cassius agreed to go and ask if they would serve us. Miss Adventure and I hung back, waiting for some kind of signal as Cassius pleaded with the people inside. No signal came, so finally we went on in.

The bar was closed. The manager was just getting set to leave and her friend was helping. Kath, a youngish englishwoman who likes to say “wicked” popped open our drinks while Cassius chatted with Ralph, a refugee from Holland. And here’s the thing: Ralph was housesitting for his boss, and occasionally took in guests for a quiet under-the-table transaction. Cassius had told them we had no place to go, and suddenly we had a place to go. Plan D.

Looking up from ralph's place Ralph’s place was beyond nice. It was over-the-top sumptuous while retaining that Mediterranean spareness, and as we sat out on the veranda sipping champagne with Kath, listening to the waves lap the shore, we knew we were in a good place. It was getting light when we surrendered to the forces of fatigue; I was attempting an informal time-lapse sequence as the whitewashed buildings resolved out of the gloom. Kath, I must say, is all right. Ralph, too, proved kind and generous in our time of peril. I woke this morning in a comfortable bed, in an unbelievable villa on the harbor. Dang.

Let’s hear it for Plan D.

Back to Barcelona

I am very, very tired. When other people are awake, there is little opportunity to write, so most of what I’m getting done is during the limited times when everyone else is sleeping. I think I got more sleep on the boat today than I did last night. I stayed up late working in the little lounge room two floors below where we were sleeping. After we all stayed up late, I stayed up later. This was partly due to the noises I knew Brutus would be making when I went back to the room.

Finally, I had no choice, and I tiptoed into the dark, silent room. Dark it stayed, but not silent for long. The specific sounds are not important, but I must say that Brutus does put out a variety of sleep-inhibiting noises.

This morning, away to the boat. Once again the ferry was late, and I caught a napita (that’s Spanish for “napette”) in the terminal while the others went in search of sun and fresh air. Finally we took a bus around the harbor to clamber aboard the exact same boat we had come out on. Ah, the memories. We spent the first part of the voyage up at the top of the boat, watching Menorca ease past; it was not until much later that I managed to get out to the walkway near the bow where we had all gathered only a few days before. I stood, felt the wind, and watched the mainland approach. I thought about stuff, but nothing revelatory or even interesting. Just thoughts, running in circles, with no place to go.

Now I am back in Barcelona (map – rough location of hotel), and there is a new character in the travelogue. While I thoroughly believe that the world needs more Bonnies, this Blog can have only one without causing confusion. I need a name that is perky, outgoing, and strong-voiced. I’ll get back to you on that. She is asleep now in the bunk across from mine. I hope she is a deep sleeper because below me Brutus is starting to warm up.

I must sleep now. Not a choice, really. Stay tuned for our new accomplice’s name.

Menorca – Land of Stacked Rocks

People have been living here a long time. When the Romans came this way they found the island (map) already inhabited, and the locals were stacking rocks. They had already made rock towers and rock shelters and rock walls between fields, and they have been stacking rocks ever since. If you visit this fine island, ignore the guide books. They have no idea at all what it is that makes this place special. Get your ass out of Maó, pronto; it is nothing more than a shameless mortar-using hive of modernity. No, my friend, get out of town, and explore the back roads (lined with stone walls stacked over the centuries), take in the ancient rock stacks, dodge the horrible giant resort hotels and find a secluded beach or dramatic cliff overlooking the sea.

Then it’s time to stack some rocks.

Today limited time and high winds hampered my efforts somewhat, but I did get a couple of nice stacks. Right at the end I had another stack (Menorca 3) going, and it felt like I was pushing the boundaries of world-class rock stacking. Alas, the top two rocks, while improbable, were not aesthetically pleasing, and I blew the stack when greedily adding a very large intermediate rock to set up the edgy top rocks. For Menorca 3 I was near a heavily-traveled hiking trail, and I had a couple dozen passers-by linger as I experimented with different top treatments. Maybe it was the pressure of the onlookers that undid me. I wonder how I appeared to them, scruffy and dusty, as I assessed the local lithage, selected interesting candidates, and hefted them with great concentration — I imagine I looked like some mad rock-stacking hermit (an image that pleases me greatly). But time was limited, and though I finally had in my mind just what I wanted to do, Avis waits for no man, and returning the car late would have been very, very expensive. the rocks tumbled one more time, and away we went.

I did, however, manage to document one complete stack (later enhanced by my two companions), and one partial stack. (approximate location)

Rock Stack “Menorca 1” (photo by Brian Sweeny)
“Menorca 1” (background) and “Menorca 2 (incomplete)”
Menorca 2 (complete) is undocumented, as my camera’s battery finally gave it up and a strong blast of wind hit the delicate structure as I was making a meaningless adjustment, before a backup camera could be brought to bear.

My best work went undocumented this time around, and that’s my fault. I got greedy. Just one more rock. The one complete rock stack standing at the end of the day was relatively simple, but very elegant. I need to study that stack and learn from it. One more rock is not always the right decision.

An interesting crossing

I sit now in a large plaza in the town of Maó, the largest town on the island of Menorca. Pigeons strut about in idle hunger or relax on the warm ground; they take no notice of the older one in their midst. The elder bird scruffy and worn, but the others do not see their own futures in the other bird; they are not reminded of their own mortality. They are just pigeons, after all.

I am partially in the shade, with my legs protected but my black sweatshirt soaking up the sun. I sit, uncommonly comfortable, and I ask myself, “what happened last night?” I’m not sure, really, but something happened on the boat between there and here (whoever here is). Alcohol happened, that I know. A pretty girl cried on my shoulder. I stood in the wind watching the sea slide past. All those things happened without a doubt, but I think maybe something else as well. I just can’t put my finger on it.

Alcohol happened, and plenty of it. Alcohol on a boat, on a moonless night. On deck, near the bow, I the professor (“Is that Mars?” “Actually, that’s Antares, who’s name means ‘Not-Ares’, the greek name for Mars.”), enjoying the night with Cassius and Brutus, and of course dear sweet Emily. (Some characters in this little drama may have appeared previously in this blog under different names, but that’s not important.) We gathered, a tight little bunch. Emily is a proper and well-spoken English girl, and the rest of us, well, we are who we are, only last night all the more so.

We met Emily as we marched out to board the bus that would take us to the boat. Brutus was immediately very solicitous and helpful (as the married member of our little trio he obviously knew more about how to treat women than Cassius or I), and we learned that she was coming to Menorca to be with her family, and that she had just broken up with her boyfriend two days prior. As Professor, I prescribed her medication: alcohol. She was already ahead of me, and specified gin and tonics.

Alcohol happened. We sat in the bar for a while, then adjourned to the walkway outside, standing in the warm Mediterranean breeze and mist, chatting and laughing. The bar closed, we covered our rather astonishing tab, and still we stayed out there. After a while Cassius disappeared and returned a short time later with more beer. I received this bounty with joy, and didn’t ask too many questions. Cassius, crafty and fearless, had found a way to overcome the classic “Closed Bar” problem, a conundrum which no member of Star Fleet had ever managed to win before. And so, alcohol continued to happen.

As did Emily. Emily happened; dark-haired, blue-eyed, witty and intelligent, she happened. Brutus connected with her easily, attentive and helpful, friendly without being forward. Cassius, well, there’s a price to be paid for being crafty and daring — it leaves one cynical and acerbic as well. Not the way to win over the ladies, which just feeds the cycle. Finally there was Professor, me, exercising my limited knowledge of astronomy and other subjects, a roller coaster of lugubrious prattle and long silences. In the course of things, while alcohol continued to happen, Cassius left to liberate more of the beer unfairly trapped behind the closed bar’s bars, and Brutus went to bid farewell to some of the beer that had already served its purpose. I was alone with Emily. I asked a question — I don’t remember what — and she began to cry, happening in great sobs. She missed her ex. She was not happy about the breakup, not at all, and had been soldiering on with strength and courage before my question broke through her crumbling defenses.

Awkward, uncertain, I stood close but very far away, wanting to offer comfort, baffled, afraid. This is where you make a gesture, this is where you give someone what they need without thought of yourself. But, but… She’s a stranger, she’s a pretty girl, she’s a wounded bird, vulnerable, and anything I do is open to misinterpretation. (And, come on, let’s be honest here, it’s not like the thought of sharing a bonding moment with her didn’t spin enticing possibilities deep in my head. I’m not dead.)

I did what any silver-tongued smooth operator would do. I asked her permission to give her a hug. Holy crap, of all the things I could have done, short of pitching her over the side of the boat, that had to be about the lamest thing possible. Pathetic.

She didn’t answer, so I bit the bullet, swallowed hard, and hugged her. She really let loose then, and there’s nothing to say but she loves him and they’re broken up and she feels lost and alone and she wants him back and he was supposed to be traveling with her and and and…

Things I didn’t say: “It’ll be all right.” “I’m sure you will get back together with him.” “You’ll feel better in the morning.” I couldn’t say those or a hundred other things. Empty words, signifying no more than do the grunts and squeaks of a monkey at the zoo. Or, at best, lies. So I held her, searching for something to say that would make her feel better, but there was nothing, nothing but pain and contact, tears and silence. It was an honest silence, though, and it was the best I could do.

Brutus returned and immediately offered up the phrases I couldn’t. Perhaps she needed to hear them, perhaps they would even turn out to be true through some blind chance. Who was I to say? At that moment, however, his words felt hollow. Cassius returned, beer-laden, and after a couple of attempts Emily recovered her game face and banter slowly got back to safer topics. When she pulled away from me I felt the place she had been, empty now. Again.

What happened last night? Perhaps the question seems strange, since I just told you what happened, but there, alone in the darkness, it seemed like something else had moved, something I still can’t put my finger on. Alcohol happened, and a pretty girl cried on my shoulder. In the end she was grateful to all of us (especially Brutus — cheerful, giving Brutus). After everyone else went to sleep I returned alone to the walkway. I, Professor, stared ahead into the moonless black, and failed once again to determine if the sea foam was luminescing or just reflecting the last of the lights on the ship. The answer was inconclusive, as was the answer to the more pressing question: what just happened?

She had asked for my email address and this morning I gave it to her, but I don’t think I will hear from her again — unless, perhaps, she knows the answer to my question.

The Train in Spain

I’m sitting now as the sky gradually brightens, watching the landscape slip past my window. Barcelona is apporaching, another big city, but we’re not staying the night there. Tonight we will be on a boat, splashing around in the Mediterranean.

This has been a most pleasant train ride — smooth and quiet, augmented by the chicken and Russian beer Cassius scored as we waited to depart. Mmm… chicken. While on the train of course we had to go visit the club car (bar number 120), where we paid too much for beer but both agreed that there was some special charm in sitting in a bar and all the while getting somewhere. We hatched a couple of hare-brained ideas to exploit this good feeling — but those belong in the Get-Poor-Quick category, which has been languishing of late.

Not an eventful journey, but certainly a pleasant one.

Granada

Perhaps because Granada (map) is a large city, it appeals less to me. Perhaps it appeals to a sort of tourism I’m not as good at. It’s just that, for all the old things lying around, Granada is modern.

1492 was a big year in this town, as Ferdinand and Isabella finally gained control of the last of the Moorish holdout and set up their own shop here. (The former Calif was given a very large estate for his cooperation, and the Spanish promised to treat the Muslims well. They did for a little while, anyway.) Not long after that Columbus returned from the New World and fun was had by all. Some of the older Moorish architecture remains, and I find it much more pleasing than the imposing Spanish buildings that came later. It’s a shame that most of the mosques in the region were knocked down and replaced with cathedrals.

The biggest attraction in town, perhaps in all of Andalucia (Southern Spain) is The La Alhambra (As long as the Spanish are adding “La” in front of “Al”, I thought I’d go ahead and tack on a “The”). Some of the Moorish architecture in the old palaces is quite remarkable, especially the incredibly intricate molded stucco; I wished I could read the floral arabic writing all over the walls. The carved stone of the domes and arches was beautiful, and must have been a hell of a lot of work.

Courtyard with graceful pillars
Intricate stucco
The gardens were nice too, but hell, this isn’t a tour guide site. If you’re curious, go look up Alhambra in Wikipedia or wherever. I did take some pictures, the least sucky of which are now up in my gallery. (You can click any of these pictures to see a larger version, and if you just have to have the full-sized version of any image in the gallery, just ask.)

So that was groovy, a few hours well-spent, and there are lots more places in town (old churches, etc.) that we could poke our noses into, but I’m not that much of a nose-poker. I like to relax and get the feel for a place, but I haven’t managed that here, yet. I think it’s the bigness. I have put a lot of miles on the hiking shoes; if I keep this up I’ll get healthy. I better go find a beer somewhere.

Viva Zapata!

Last night I went to a place I really, really, liked. It’s not going to translate to the written word completely, but allow me to introduce you to one of the pinnacles of human society, the tapas bar.

In most parts of the world, one goes to a restaurant and orders a meal, or one goes to a bar and (perhaps) has snacks. The Spanish, however, don’t want to rush, they don’t want to be presented with a big pile of food, wolf it down, and then leave. Oh, no. Down here, not being in a hurry has been raised to an art form. If you’re going to spend a pleasant few hours in a place, perhaps chat with friends, perhaps read a book, you will drink slowly but steadily, and you will eat the same way.

Many bars here will have on display a limited variety of tasty little dishes that you can order for a reasonable price. It’s not always obvious what those dishes are, but there is generally food that fits any level of adventurousness. You can order several things at once, or you can periodically have another dish.

Zapata is somewhat unusual; many of the delicacies on display were uncooked, and prepared on order. Also unusual was that their menu actually reflected what they had, and they had some good, stuff, let me tell you. The Monteditas (little sandwiches) were a good value and really, really, tasty, especially the Zapata (pork, cheese, and stuff) and the salmon with roquefort.

We stayed quite a while, enjoying the atmosphere, some good wine, and nibbling on a wide variety of tapas. It doesn’t get much better than that. So if you find yourself wandering the streets of Cadíz and come across the place, do yourself a favor and pop in.

Cadíz

This afternoon found us in Cadíz, a port city on the Atlantic in southern Spain. Cadíz and Seville were boom towns back in the day, as most of the wealth extracted from the colonies in the New World passed through here. It all started with Christopher Columbus himself, who set out on more than one of his famous voyages from this port.

We arrived not by tiny leaking ocean-going boat, but by air-conditioned motor coach. We walked the perimeter of the old part of the city, and it’s quite nice. I took lots of pictures, and beyond that, there’s not much to report. Beautiful city. Many streets closed to vehicular traffic. Huge Carnival celebrations, apparently. Lots of streets with no cars. Lunch was good and it was cheap. They have the deepest, longest siesta I have yet encountered.

Those are the facts, and today, that’s all you get. Come on over and see it for yourself (or wait for the pictures, if any of them don’t suck).

All right, all right, I’ll give you this: I’m sitting at a sidewalk caf

Lazy day in Vejer

Street in vejer It’s an indication of just how good my life is that I can sit in a congenial tapas bar in a beautiful village in southern Spain (map), nibble good food, nurse beers out over a long stretch, watch the old men goof around, and call it work. I’m taking a brief break from writing, but I’ll be getting back to it in just a moment, after I decide what to nibble next. Electricity may be the limiting factor on my work day; I came out without a full charge, and outlets are few and far between. Still, I’ll nurse things along as far as I can, and I can always resort to writing things by hand. Crazy, I know, but if the cavemen could write on paper, so can I.

One thing I’ve noticed — in these little places, empty chairs at the tables along the wall are turned out into the room, rather than facing the table. It’s a subtle thing, and I doubt people here give it much thought at all, but the message is clear to me: even at the edges, you are encouraged to face into the room and be a part of all that is going on.

I hope, wherever you are, that your day is going as well as mine.

Road Trip to Gibraltar

It was a very pleasant day. I spent the morning puttering around, writing, then exploring Vejer. I stumbled across an Internet place and checked email, although the urgency has gone out of that. I found a little watering hole and, after watching as three people helped a woman negotiate her small car around and extremely tight corner (a forty-three point turn, I believe), I settled in and had a small beer and worked for a bit on Elephants of Doom. Overall, not a bad use of a morning and early afternoon.

I didn’t spend as much time at that bar as I would have liked; this day I had an actual schedule. At 13 o’clock I met with Cassius and his acquaintance Gabriel. Through the grapevine these two had stumbled on an opportunity to visit a guy in Gibraltar (map) and pitch a Web project for the government there. Gabriel is English but lives in a village near here, and has a car. At the appointed hour we hiked to his car, piled in, and headed out. We rolled past hundreds of giant wind turbines (“The same environmentalists who wanted them now want them to be taken down. They are chopping up birds, especially raptors.”) and windswept beaches (“This town is famous for its kite surfing, but the wind will drive you crazy. It is the only village in Spain with its own nut-house.”) and finally the rock came into view, with ships clustered around it, including a large cruise ship at dock.

Gibraltar from our lunch table We parked near the border and found a place to grab a lunch. It was a nice little tapas bar with all kinds of fresh seafood. We ordered too many things, and it seemed the guy was waiting for us to finish each one before starting to prepare the next thing. Each item was delicious. The bread was straight out of the oven, the octopus tender and succulent, the white fish of some sort light and tasty, and so on. The meal stretched out, which wasn’t a problem except that Cassius and Gabriel had an appointment. Finally it came time to leave, and Cassius went to settle up the tab. The conversation, he reports, went something like:

“We’d like to pay now.”
“You have to finish chewing first.”
“We’d like to pay now.”
“You have to finish chewing first.”

Apparently we were not allowed to continue nibbling after payment was made. Or something like that. Finally we were given a number, higher than expected but then again the portions had been bigger than expected, and payment became problematic. They wanted as close to exact change as possible, and that turned out to be a challenge for us. Finally pooling all our small change together we hit the right number and were free to go.

We crossed the border (where only a cursory glance at the cover of our passports was required) and we were in the United Kingdom. We took a taxi to where their meeting was to take place, selected a pub to meet at afterward, and I headed off to explore the town.

Gibraltar is small, but on the not-cliff side of the rock people are packed into the town area, leaving the flatter areas for industry. I ambled downhill and found the Road of Commerce. This road is the reason the cruise ship stops here, not the spectacular scenery farther up the hillside. The town is a massive duty-free shop, and this road is the center. Closed to vehicles, it was thronged with tourists, popping from shop to shop, loading up on booze and electronics. Tourists and schoolgirls. School must have just let out, because there were schoolgirls everywhere, in their modest maroon skirts and white tops, traveling in gaggles, laughing about whatever it is schoolgirls laugh about.

I grew tired of this press of humanity and turned uphill. Quickly I was in a somewhat run-down residential area. For all the money moving around down below, not much of it seemed to be making its way up to these apartment buildings. The streets were narrow and connected by staircases, and I began to doubt my ability to find the designated pub in time. I decided I’d best turn my wandering in that direction, although often I had little control over which direction I went. Several times I had to negotiate with cars in the narrow streets. I found the right pub, convinced myself it wasn’t the right pub, went down to the avenue of shameless commerce (less crowded now), found landmarks, and went back to the right pub. I had just sat down with a John Smith Bitter (ahhh… bitter) when the others showed up. Naturally they had to have a beer also, then we all headed out to explore.

Macaque in regal pose It was generally agreed that up (into the steeper parts of the rock, which was a park) was better than down. Eventually we did a fairly long hike up and around, affording us spectacular views of shipping and industry. Up had definitely been the right choice. There is a network of caves up there, but they were closed. (Gibraltar eschews the siesta and things close at 5pm. What utter barbarians.) On the way back down we met some macaques, the only wild monkeys in Europe. They are wild only in the sense that they can sleep wherever they like. The sun was getting lower, and the monkeys were hanging out on the outskirts of town, waiting for the right moment to descend for an evening of foraging. I imagine it would be right tricky to keep a monkey out of your trash bin. As we walked on, we turned to see a macaque following about 50 feet behind us, and two more following behind that one, evenly spaced, like a platoon of soldiers moving into dangerous territory.

I got some very, very close pictures; we’ll see how they turn out. We returned to the border on foot, which involves crossing the runway at the Gibraltar airport. When we got there the red don’t walk man was on and the gate was closed. We had to wait for a British Airways jet to taxi and take off before we were allowed to cross.

Finally we got back to the car and I, for one, was glad to be off my feet for the journey home.

Vejer de la Fronteria

Vejer Vejer (map) is what is called a “White Villiage”. Perched on a hilltop, the buildings cluster and pile upon one another, and are all painted white. It is a small town, but it is dense, the city is folded upon itself; the streets and alleys twist and writhe, climbing from layer to layer. Many streets are too narrow for cars, even some of the ones people drive on. It is breezy up here, mitigating what would be a harsh sun.

From the roof of the place I am staying one can see a long, long, way — all the way to Africa, in fact. Beyond a shimmering stretch of Atlantic rise the hills of Morocco.

The bus deposited me here during Siesta, so there were only a few places open. I wandered for a bit, up and down the steep streets. There were few other pedestrians, but there were kids roaring around on scooters and atv’s. Occasionally a car would have to wait while I trudged up a road to a place wide enough for me to get out of the way. Once siesta was over I walked back down to the tourist office, found where an Internet shop was, and sent Cassius and email telling him where I would be. Then, there was nothing for me to do but be there. I sat on the sidewalk outside the bar. (Inside was crowded and smoky — there was bullfighting on the TV. I was curious, but I needed to keep an eye on the plaza.)

I was sitting by one of the only two-way roads in the old part of town, but the downhill side was blocked by illegally parked cars. There seemed to be an unwritten rule among the illegal parkers, however, to leave occasional gaps long enough to allow downhill cars to duck out of the way when they met an uphill car. This worked 80% of the time, but more than once the downhill car would have to go into reverse and back up into the plaza to make way for the uphill car. If someone was behind the downhill car, they would have to back up as well. If someone were behind them… well you get the idea. A parade in reverse. The two locals who were out there with me would heckle and call out to friends as the cars did their delicate dance.

There is a big parking lot at the edge of town. There should be a big sign: “Welcome to Vejer. Leave your car here, for the love of Pete.” If it could handle the steep hills and paving stones, this may actually be a place where owning a Segway would make sense.

Once Cassius found me we settled in and went out to a place he knows nearby, then stopped into another that he had never seen open before. The first was nice, the second contrived and tacky, which gave us plenty to talk about. Most of the people in the second place were speaking English, few in the first place were. Fun was had by all.

Seville

Two things to know when you visit Seville: first, on the ubiquitous tourist map, north is not up, and second, don’t take anything personally.

I didn’t realize the thing about the map on the first day, simply because I didn’t really care where I was anyway. I set out in the correct direction relative to the train station, got to the center of town, got lost, found a hotel, and hung out. It wasn’t until today, when I had a specific place to be, that the map caused problems. As a result, I spent a couple of hours I could have been seeing cool things being lost. Oh, well.

As for “don’t take it personally,” I had been warned ahead of time that the residents here can be downright rude. I met a couple of very friendly, helpful people, but there were a couple of times I experienced the true Seville welcome. I think there is a dictionary of the looks they give you that I don’t know. I went into a little place to buy a bottle of water. There were other people there, so I set the water on the counter. The girl behind the counter stopped what she was doing and looked at me. To me, the look meant, “What do you want?” Apparently the look meant “You need to stand there a bit longer.” I opened my mouth to say that there was nothing besides the water, and she interrupted with “Just a moment.” Fine. She took money from the guy standing next to me, gave him change, and stopped. She stood, unmoving, looking at me. “This is—” I started. “JUST A MOMENT!” “Ok! Ok!” I said, waving my hands. She stood longer, waiting to see if I would say anything more, then very, very, slowly started to fill the other guy’s order, pausing every now and then to stare at me.

Not long after that I was in an electronics store, and the clerk looked past the people standing in front of me and hit me with a stare. Were it not for the fact that the others moved out of the way for me, I never would have recognized “May I help you?”

But that, I suppose, is Seville.

The city itself is impressive, and I regret only scratching the surface. The city center is one of the largest pre-car warrens of alleys I’ve ever seen, and it is great fun to just wander around. There are beautiful gardens and parks, and that Mediterranean sun just can’t be beat. But while I’d like to stay, Vejer calls and I must answer.

One the way to Spain!

My journey was no exception to this axiom, as I stayed at the Little Café Near Home (LCNH) after the game. I was just packing up my hardware when the guy at the next table tried to strike up a conversation with me. I think he was asking how I got the Internet there. That’s the question I answered, anyway (I don’t). The woman he was with did speak English (I got extra points for asking where her dog Dina was tonight), and we ended up talking until LCNH closed. I had always assumed the two were a couple, and he did refer to her as his přitelkinÄ› (which is a little more familiar than kamarada), so when another guy joined us and started hitting on her (and then some) I was a bit surprised.

The sound of the alarm was most unwelcome this morning. “Here we go,” I said as I hauled my sorry butt out of bed and considered the things I had delayed this trip for, still not done. I’ve had a bit of a cold the last three days, and that completely undermined the “boo-yah” attitude I needed, and the thought of going in to town to chase down things I needed was just too much. I’m sure I’ll feel much better about shopping on my way back from the airport when I return.

Statistically, more people stand in the fast line than in the slow line. Today I didn’t notice the sign over the counter that said (in Czech, of course) “Counter for people with bizarre problems we’ve never seen before”. The graying woman in line in front of me actually started shouting at poor Lucie, the woman who had to deal with a homemade dog carrier that had sharp posts sticking up and the wheels came off of. I have no idea what the problem was with the next group, but eventually it required a conference of several people to resolve. That’s when the next lady started shouting. I had to chuckle; the speed of the line was not going to affect what time we landed in Madrid. Finally things started moving again, at least until the shouting woman got there. There was some problem with her ticket, but fortunately this time it was resolved more quickly.

Now I’m sitting at the gate, and as I typed that last sentence the guy with the homemade dog carrier got summoned to the counter. Apparently he’s not out of the woods yet.

***

I’m in Madrid!

As I walked down the aisle in the plane, I thought, “Damn! There’s even less leg room that usual. Then I got to my row – an exit row! Horray! Once I was wedged between the other two guys, the flight attendant came by to give us the spiel about how to open the door in an emergency. “Czech? English? She asked. “Czech” the guy on the aisle said. She’s Pretty, I thought. I listened with rapt attention as she told us how dozens of lives, including our own, could hang in the balance. I nodded in understanding. Blue eyes, I thought. Luckily there were no emergencies on the flight, and the door remained safely sealed.

Continuing with a theme, there were two lines for passport control; only after I was trapped did I realize the other line was being serviced by two windows, while mine was serviced by only one – and there was some kind of problem with the guy at the window. There was quite a bit of consternation when some people were told to fill out a form and go to the back of the line – there had been nothing to indicate that anyone needed to fill out anything. I figured that would be my fate, too, but apparently not. I wonder where those guys were from.

After a few nervous moments while he flipped through my passport checking dates he stamped it, making it at least plausibly deniable that I didn’t know I have overstayed my visa. (I have been told I need to leave the European Union every ninety days now, whereas before I only had to leave the Czech Republic. If true, European Union countries could send a lot of Americans home if they wanted to.)

Things were getting interesting with the form-filler-outers when I cleared passport control, and yes, it involved more shouting. I am no longer in the land of stoic and reserved Czechs, not at all. All passport control places that I’ve ever seen are the same. There is a row of glassed-in booths, which contain uniformed bureaucrats looking for reasons not to let people into the country. There are lines of people waiting to be reviewed, and there is a zone between them, the land beyond the line that no one must enter until summoned. Violation of this rule undermines the the security of sovereign nations, and can lead to war.

The Form People, having been invited into this space only to be handed a form and sent packing, did not all leave The Zone, as it provided the only flat surfaces other than the floor for the filling out of forms. The bureaucrats shouted at them. Like proud Gypsy squatters, they held their ground. As I left, one of the Passport control guys had quit his glass cell and was waving his arms as one might to chase the goats out of your garden. I didn’t stand around to watch, wanting to get to customs before the people who had to wait for their bags.

Now I sit in the departure lounge at the train station, munching a fairly tasty sandwich. The security is tighter here that I have seen in train stations in the past; all bags are x-rayed and there is no more hanging around on the platform while you wait for your train to arrive. This feels more like an airport than a train station, although I should say the appearance of security is tighter; if the woman watching the X-ray screen opened her eyes while my bag went past I didn’t see it.

In summary, Tram Metro Bus Airplane Metro Metro Metro High-Speed Train Seville!