Daniel and I took the easy, clean and cheap Madrid Metro straight from the airport to the Sol station. We met up with our friend Edward, just in from Minnesota that morning, on the way up to the hostel where he had already made a reservation for the three of us. We spent the afternoon walking around the web of streets, winding out from the Plaza del Sol like spokes on a wheel in the El Centro district–populated by, in addition to the Spaniards and international tourists, monuments of soldiers on horses, angels overlooking the city, stately lions, naked goddess women slaying crustacean enemies, and Colonial style white marble-like buildings overlooking cobblestone plazas. Street performers scatter about the streets, string quartets and human statues (some of whom were deceptively still, others quite wiggly and not very statuelike), life size toy soldiers painted green to the eyelashes, bullfighters, human gargoyles, solitary cellists, and people in random costumes not doing anything (e.g., wearing a gorilla suit and having a cigarette, hoping for tips).
The city is quite lively, but not too noisy, due to the fact that most car traffic is restricted to a few main thouroughfares. The wind was strong and blustery, and the luminous-clouds-on-cerulean-sky contrast so intense, like your vision just got better. The city has a lot of nice parks, including the central Parque el Retiro with vast green spaces (mostly looking like you’re not allowed to sit on them) and a funny little station where pensioner Madrileños can sit on benches with stationary bike pedals planted in the red gravel at their feet and get in their daily exercize. At the heart of El Retiro is the Estanque, a smallish man-made lake with square cement shores and people on rented boats rowing away, teenagers splashing each other with their oars. The city itself doesn’t have a main body of water to it, as Ted pointed out, and it has a feeling like something is missing–there are certain parts of town where we would look out over a hill and expect to see a river or lake, but be greeted with a street instead. We ate picnics in the gardens of the Royal Palace, feeding bits of crusty bread, granny Smith apples and soft, bland queso fresco (fresh cheese) to those sparrows brave enough to approach us.
Madrid unfortunately doesn’t have as many free museums as London–at least, we didn’t know about them– but a lot of the more famous museums have a few hours a week where you can save your nine Euros and get in for free. We saw the Reina Sofia art museum during it’s free hours, which from the outside is a massive modern glass structure that could be a hospital with a lot of money and a creative architect, and from the inside a pleasant juxtaposition of clean windows, black glossy plexiglass and pocked, ancient looking stone floors and moulding. Its collection is impressive and very interesting; we liked the melamine board installation painted red to look like bricks, a clear plastic tube sculpture filled with lights and water looking like an aquatic roadmap on the floor, and a whole room of somber WWII-era ink drawings. The museum houses Picasso’s black and white masterpiece Guernica, flanked by security guards and art-viewers trying to take a good photo from outside the door of the gallery salon. In a glass case nearby are the studies that Picasso created in the making of the huge painting, arguably more interesting than the piece itself. We toured Museo del Prado, a staggeringly large collection of paintings and statues more classical and idealistic than the Reina Sofia’s modern collection, including Velazquez’ Las Meninas, considered by some art scholars to be the best painting in the world. An exciting anomaly in the museum is the room filled with Goya’s Pinturas Negras (Black Paintings), dark and morbid and fascinating.
Four days after arriving, we took the Metro back to the airport and boarded a flight to Morrocco. We arrived in the Fez airport in the afternoon, greeted on the tarmac by palm trees, a clear blue sky, and a mess of people clearing immigration, overwhelming the tiny airport’s staff. We didn’t want to take a taxi and had read that you could take bus 16 to the Medina, where we planned to stay, and walked out to the curb on the side of the road where we hoped the bus stopped, as there weren’t any signs. There was a man with a shaved head, a cream colored scarf and a velour suitjacket slung over his suitcase sitting at the roadside, and we shyly asked him in highschool French if this was the bus stop. He responded in English, and proceeded to give us advice on exactly how to take the bus to the Medina, chatted with Ted for the whole busride and even got off the bus with us at our stop to indicate where we should walk, and that we should turn left at the fountain plaza.
We ended up getting lost anyway, but were helped by numerous people along the way, including two young women and a little girl in full head coverings and floor length robes, policemen who gave me incredibly long and detailed directions in French, complete with hand gestures (of which I understood the words left, red and round), and a man who stopped us on a street to tell us that the road we were walking on didn’t go anywhere. I have to admit, from some of the other experiences we’ve had with advice on the road, my guard was raised and I was a little worried about someone trying to scam us or try and get us to stay somewhere we didn’t want to stay. My worries were totally unfounded though–people were genuine and just generally helpful.
We finally made it to the Medina’s Bab Boujeloud gate, which is cradled by tall limestone walls with hollow windows, punctuated at strategic intervals by minarets. We spent the next few days exploring. The walkways are narrow and winding, with enough curves and switchbacks to be generally counterintuitive, but still fairly relaxing to walk in– it’s actually the largest car-free urban zone in the world. I have heard Fez’ Medina compared to Jerusalem in the way it looks, and it certainly did feel more Middle Eastern than African. Women wore clothing in varying coverage levels, from some women with long shirtdresses but no head coverings to women covered head to toe, including black gloves and a veil.
Wandering the markets of the medina is a pretty intense sensory experience. We were surrounded from every angle by vendors with their fares laid out on the cobblestone walkways–zucchini, cabbage, onions, lemons, carrots, avocados, melons, strawberries, eggplants, oh my. Stalls with dried figs and dates exploding out of burlap sacks, green and black and kalamata olives, pickles, cashews, sunflower seeds, dry grains and beans and pasta. Butchers with huge cuts of meat on display in the open air, a grotesque camel head hanging by a ruff of skin on it’s neck, tongue hanging out, flesh and spine exposed from behind, live chickens and pigeons tied with yarn to their cages, squawking and screeching and generally making a ruckus. Brightly colored leather products everywhere–shoes, bags, pillows for the floor. Stalls with shampoo, soap, instant coffee, water, soda. Jewelry–earrings, ornate bracelets, giant necklaces, rings with colorful stones, even an ivory pistol. Everything apart from the butcher shops smells of ripe fruit, cumin, sandalwood, thyme, fresh mint, donkeys, rose petals and tanned leather. People all around speaking French and velvety Arabic, bits of Spanish and English peppered in. And the cats! There are cats and kittens everywhere, slinking in the streets, camped out on pallets of produce, baskets of garlic, velour pillows originally intended to be jewelry displays, begging for steak tagine and couscous at the tables of the numerous outdoor restaurants. Cats screamed and mewled outside our guesthouse window, prowling the overlapping corrugated metal roofs below our room. A rooster nearby had a broken internal clock, and despite its earnest and persistent cock-a-doodle-dooing attempts, couldn’t make the sun come up at 2:30 in the morning. On one of our last nights in Fez, I woke up at 4:30 am to the eerie cacaphony of the Muslim call to prayer, interspersed with the rooster crowing, dogs baying, and the occasional honk of a truck.
I ended up getting stuck inside floored for three days with food poisoning (I think it was the chicken pastilla, a savory pastry dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon–maybe it was made from one of the forlorn pigeons in the market). Mohammed, the proprietor who worked at Pension el-Kasbah every other day, tried to help me. He checked in on me while I was in our room and face-down in the toilet, advising that I only drink bottled mineral water (um, yes), and even went out to the market for me, coming back with a cone of graphing paper filled with one dirham worth of cumin (approximately the size of one of those green-topped spice jars at eleven cents US). He explained that it was Arabic medicine, which when swallowed dry by the handful and chased with water is apparently supposed to make tummies better (he taught by example, tossing back a handful himself). I was sick enough that it only helped for about an hour and the result was unearthly green when I saw it again.
On the third day I was sick, Mohammed brought me to his home where he lived with his wife, mother, sister, and neices, only a 2 or 3 minute walk from the pension. Through a four foot doorway and up a winding set of stone stairs, we entered a tiny apartment, with a dining room full of a low table covered with a plastic tablecloth, a kitchen, and a lounge with a TV off to the right, which someone thoughtfully changed to an English-language crime show for me. I sat with the littlest girl, maybe 3 or 4 years old, with soft curly hair, milky skin, intense big brown eyes and rotten baby teeth. She was brave and friendly, kissing my hand, climbing on the couch next to me, trying to feed me blobs of orange marmelade from her sticky little fingers (I figured, what the hell, I was taking incredibly strong antibiotics anyhow). Mohammed had gone back to the guesthouse and I couldn’t communicate very well with the women–the mother only spoke Arabic and I still couldn’t speak French so I couldn’t understand most of the lively conversation flying back and forth across the table–but the little girl spoke the universal language of Tickle (she started it). For dinner, they fed me corn bread and another, thinly layered bread, olives, marmelade, olive oil and soft cheese, with sweet milk tea and coffee. We ate on the table without plates, them urging me, “Mangez, mangez!” (Eat, eat!) I still couldn’t eat very much, but it was nice to be cared for like that. A little bit of on-the-road, substitute mom time.
We saw our friend from the bus, whose name was Abdel, a few more times. He invited us to contact him if we ever go to Paris, where he lives, and gave us his email address. On the bus on the first day, Abdel told us that while Paris was one of the most beautiful places he had ever been, Fez (his hometown) was the friendliest. And I have to agree with him– the people in Fez were overwhelmingly kind and definitely went out of their way to help us, total strangers. Early on, after we bartered the price of our room down to an affordable price, Mohammed had agreed to the rate on the condition that we give him a souvenir from America. On our last day I shot a photo of him and a few of his family members, and left him with a pen from Jorgensen Financial Services in Tyler, Minnesota before leaving for the airport.
We got back into Spain for a few more days, and got to experience the trademark Madrid bedtime: never. The country had won a world cup finals game (this was in early May), and feisty fútbol fans roared in the streets until about 10 the next morning. We also went to a free midnight showing of a Monet exhibit, which was a perfect way to end the European/North African leg of our trip. The next morning we saw Ted off to Minneapolis and caught our own flight to Lima.