2009 TUNISIA plus SPAIN, PORTUGAL, MOROCCO

¢heap-mos(t) formerly known as Cosmos

Day 1, Saturday, September 5 Transatlantic Flight
The Tunisia trip is new and since it's ¢heap-mos(t), formerly known as ¢osmos , it's less elegant than what others offer. I take the StuporShuttle at 8:45 AM (not in the rain, fortunately since ...) at 9:10 AM. It's NOT another 4 AM pickup but turns out worse. For the second time (see the Africa trip notes from 2008), the StuporShuttle driver fails to show up and I have to phone and have a long argument with Dispatch since the driver claimed to have been there - except right at the last of the discussion he mentioned that it was a series of apartments - and I don't live in an apartment. So finally, over an hour late, I finally get picked up. I just barely make it to the gate in time - they are already boarding.

1Continental CO 152Houston - Newark12:05 PM - 4:15 PM3:104:15
2Continental CO 62Newark - Madrid8:30 PM - 9:25 AM6:559:25

Day 2, Sunday, September 6. Madrid - Fly to Tunis, Tunisia
Time Zones: Some differences are expected normally but with the Daylight Time/No Daylight Time, there are quite a few differences. Compared to Houston: Morocco is 5 hours later, Tunisia & Portugal are 6 hours later, and Spain is 7 hours later. See notes at the end of this to see what happens EVERY time we cross a border.

Finally arriving in Madrid. I have to claim my luggage, go through their Customs / Immigration, etc. After that, it's a full check-in with documentation at the AirEuropa (not Tunis Air) counter. Unfortunately AirEuropa changed their schedule drastically (they deleted the mid-afternoon flight) so I have a miserable almost 10 hour layover instead of the original 4. I have plenty of time to buy junk food at the airport - except that there are no working ATM machines in the waiting area despite all the shops. That almost 10 hours got LONG! I change a few US$ into Euros so I can at least get a bottle of water. Interesting note: they have rooms for smokers called "Zona de Fumadores" throughout the terminal - but of course there is insufficient ventilation so the smoke doesn't all stay in the rooms.

Eventually after that miserably long wait it's on to Tunis. There are, at first, no gate attendants to take tickets so we start boarding about 30 minutes late, but make up the time during the flight.

3AirEuropa UZ 1083Madrid - Tunis6:50 PM - 7:50 PM2:0025:45

During the flight we are "treated" to a 2-hour AirEuropa commercial (video) instead of the usual TV fare. As for "fare," we don't get any. There are menus in the seat pockets but no mention is made of them or any food or beverage service. Interesting scenery at night - there are many widely-scattered small lighted villages or resorts along the Africa coast. Immediately on arrival in Tunis as we are getting off the plane and way before even Immigration (which seemed to take forever) and Customs, we were still in the limited access walkway and have to go one-by-one through a scanner for something like 'Health and Sanitation' (or something like that) checks where they appeared to be checking body temperatures to see if anyone had an elevated body temp/fever (there are signs around concerning the H1N1 virus). Our luggage was also scanned (x-ray) again before we could leave the gate arrival area.

(Weather: Tunis temperatures average 2 weeks prior to the trip: 95.5 - 74.9; range 104-72)

Cosmos called in late July to double-check the air schedule. Apparently someone in their office had mangled the information we sent in. Our tour director (Aileen originally from the UK and now living in Tunisia; driver is Chebib) IS indeed at the airport to meet some of us - others are still due in a bit later. Check into the hotel. It's very late so I missed the time for the WELCOME DECEPTION (deceptive welcome?) and of course ¢osmos (¢heap-mos(t)) doesn't include dinner but I would have missed that anyway. We will have 26 explorere (make that 25; one never showed up) on this tour; 10 are from the US, the others are almost all British. The hotel does have an ATM in the hotel so I get some Tunisian Dinar. Hotel: Sheraton. (SF) Nice hotel; some service fair, some excellent.


PART 1: TUNISIAN ADVENTURE

Cosmos: From Berber villages and awesome historical architecture to spectacular rocky gorges, Tunisia's blend of European sophistication and Arabian exoticism awaits. Start in Tunis, Tunisia's capital. From Tunis, it's on to the medina and mosque of Sousse, where Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, and Arabs who settled the city left their mark. Then on to the old town of Monastir and impressive El Djem, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with the remains of a 3rd-century Roman Colisseum that originally seated 30,000. Next it's Sfax on the Gulf of Gabes, Tunisia's second-largest city. At Matmata, see the incredible underground troglodyte village used in the original 'Star Wars' movie and then the salt lake of Chott El Jerid, an important oasis on the caravan route between Algeria and Tunisia. Ride the 'Red Lizard' train through the spectacular gorges of Selja before seeing the Roman ruins at Sbeitla. After the Grand Mosque at Kairouan, the vacation ends with a stay in Tunis and a chance to visit Carthage, Sidi-Bou-Said, and the Bardo museum. The tour features ancient cities, natural beauty, and warm hospitality.

I didn't realize when I booked the trip, but it's the middle of the month of Ramadan so almost everything closes down during the daytime hours. Also most of the places we would have stopped for rest/drinks/etc are closed. Some of the drives got really long. This is definitely NOT the time to come to a Muslim country.


Day 3, Monday, September 7 Tunis - Sousse - Monastir - El Djem - Sfax
After two long days of travel, it's time to see things. After a nice breakfast (even though it wasn't ready when the restaurant opened at 6, we leave at 7:30, drive to Sousse, known as the "Pearl of the Sahel" and blessed with a mild climate. Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, and Arabs who settled in this beautiful fertile city have left their imprint. Walk through the medina (what Medina? We just go to a tourist souvenir shop where we can buy water and use the WC) with its tiny, colorful shops and bustling with local activity, and enjoy endure a boring visit to the Mosque Mosque which we can't go into and there's not much to see in the courtyard.

This - the Mosque visit - should definitely be deleted since we can't go in (we're not Muslim) and there is nothing to see in the inner courtyard. Leave Sousse and head towards Monastir, a city nestled in the shade of its walls. Here, visit the Old Town. Wrong again - we stop to go into the Mausoleum which is beautiful from the outside, but ho-hum otherwise. A much better use of time would be to go into the old fort - the Ribat - instead of that Mosque and the Mausoleum. Aileen agrees with us and urges us to tell ¢heap-mos(t) on the end of trip survey.

Then we head for El Djem (they spell it El Jem). There is a late (overpriced) optional lunch with what is supposed to be turkey breast (remember those UFO entrees on my Russian trips) but it is so overcooked as to be un-cuttable with a knife, but it does turn out to be "gnawable." I won't buy any other optional meals on the trip.

El Jem itself is the site of an impressive UNESCO World Heritage Site which features the remains of an imposing 3rd-century Roman coliseum that originally seated 30,000. This turns out to be an excellent stop despite the late afternoon heat and humidity. Today's destination is Sfax on the Gulf of Gabes, a former Barbary pirate stronghold and now Tunisia's second-largest city. (B,D) Hotel: Mercure (F)

Day 4, Tuesday, September 8 Sfax - Gabes - Matmata - Tamezret - Douz
Today we start out at 7:30 with a walking tour and visit to the Medina of Sfax but there isn't much to see/do since most all of the shops are closed for Ramadan. We can see the architecture (is that what you call it) and something of the way it's laid out, but that's all. Then we continue to Gabès, a city situated in a four-mile-long oasis on the Mediterranean shore which is famous for its spice market. For centuries this was the first port reached by caravans of spice traders coming across the Sahara, and as we visit its colorful market we see how it remains a center of the spice trade to this day. Later, after a brief photo stop to see a "maritime oasis" (name??) hidden down in a ravine (wadi?), turn inland and head for Matmata, renowned for its underground troglodyte village that was inhabited until the 1960s and served as the setting for the original Star Wars film. Matmata is a town of underground houses quite striking in appearance. Built in caves that are dug into the walls of sunken craters for protection from summer's torrid heat, the dwellings here are more examples of Tunisia's distinctive architectural styles.We have an included lunch at a Troglodyte style hotel - a typical Tunisian lunch (and another reason NOT to go to the show tomorrow night!)

Follow the twisting road and stop in Tamezret, a complete contrast to Matmata and featuring stone houses and streets lined with high walls ... but where we stop for pictures, we can't really see much of anything of the town - which looked interesting as we drove through it, but we can't see it from the stop. Continue to the desert outpost of Douz, the largest oases in western Tunisia and gateway to the Sahara. Douz is where all roads end, with the Great Eastern Erg, an immense expanse of the Sahara, stretching to the south. We get in fairly early - 4:15 - but dinner isn't until 8. As usual, the hotel's version of where to set the a/c temperature is NOT what I would like; the thermostats in the rooms will turn the a/c on and off, but changing the temperature dial has NO effect on how cool the air gets. Also the hotel's elevator (tiny) seems to work only occasionally (whenever it choses) so we decide to haul ourselves and our luggage up the flights of stairs to our rooms rather than risk being "stranded." Later but before dinner, (don't) take an optional camel ride into the desert during which one of the nomads leads the camel around for about 40 minutes. No thanks - I've done 3 camel rides on previous trips - plus of course, there is the unexpected price increase. Nice buffet dinner tonight - despite being a "mob scene" with so many people. (B,L,D) Hotel: El Mouradi (F)

[Late Note: ¢heap-mos(t) strikes again! Optional trips in Tunisia have to be paid for in cash, not credit cards, but it seems that ¢heap-mos(t) can't / won't tell me what currency - Pounds, Euros, Dollars, Tunisian Dinar??? I may just decide not to take any of the optional trips on this part of the trip.] . It turns out to be either Pounds or Dinar being the only currency available. And even more: the prices are much higher than what is given in the documentation we received. Rip-off?

Another note: we can't take any Tunisian money out of the country so have to exchange any extra to something else when we leave the country ... and can change only 30% of what we still have original exchange receipts for.]


OPTION: Desert Experience Dress as Laurence and Florence of Arabia (according to our Tour Director), and travel by camel into the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert - as we have always imagined it (ha!), with an opportunity for a great (?) view over the desert. (Based on the price = $25, it's not much of a ride so no thanks.) £10 £15.50

Day 5, Wednesday, September 9 Douz - Kebili - Chott El Jerid - Tozeur
We depart Douz earlier than usual this morning (7AM which means getting up at 5) although we are not scheduled into Tozeur until just after noon so there is time for the optional 4x4 tour. We make a quick extra stop at Dbebcha to see the miniature mountain range. This is a set of cores of sand dunes which were left after a strong "dust devil" (desert tornado) came through and stripped away all the loose sand which had made up the original large dunes. Our route then takes us across the Chott El Jerid, the largest salt flats in Saharan Africa. This 20,000-square-mile expanse shimmers in colors from silvery brown to pink and soft green, becoming a shallow salt lake when sufficient winter rains fall to fill it, but remaining dry most of the time. At a mid-point photo stop, I get some Calcium Sulfate (Gypsum) "Sand Roses." The landscapes here are otherworldly.

We have now seen at least a small bit of each of the four types of desert: 1) Erg, (the main large-sand-dunes desert which we saw very briefly on the edge of Douz; 2) the Reg which is a desert with an almost total stones / rocks / gravel surface; 3) the Chott or salt surface desert; and 4) the Steppe or small brush covered surface - the most common of the 4 deserts.

Our eyes get a bit of relief as we pass through the oasis town of Kebili along the way to Tozreur. In Kebili we make a stop at an unexpectedly nice private museum. The highlights of the museum were the "real life" displays (life-size dioramas) showing the early Berber life; this museum wasn't just a collection of display cases with a bunch of artifacts.

Tozeur is an important oasis on the ancient caravan route between Algeria and Tunisia and our destination for tonight. For two thousand years, this city has thrived in a lush oasis on the edge of the vast emptiness of the Sahara Desert-as a remote and fiercely independent enclave for much of that time. In its old section, elaborate designs in yellow brickwork decorate the walls lining narrow alleys and passageways with the same traditional patterns that are found in the local Berber rugs. We feel the true oasis atmosphere here as we catch brief glimpses of byways where spring-fed canals water date palms, flowers, and crops of plums, grapes, pomegranates, and strawberries.

After a nice buffet lunch, in the afternoon how about an exciting optional Jeep excursion to the mountain oasis of Chebika? This evening, (don't) consider an optional folklore show with dinner. (B,L,OD) Hotel: El Mouradi (F)


OPTION: The Mountain Oases Join a jeep tour (no, not like in the picture above - I hope - it's supposed to be a 4x4 (enclosed with air conditioning) Toyota Land Cruiser and very little of the trip is off-road) to the remains of the oasis towns of Chébika, Tamerza, and Midès - set in stunning mountain gorges and boasting histories going back to ancient Roman times. These were very active towns until a massive flood in 1969 essentially washed them away. Small parts of Chébika and Midès have been rebuilt, but Tamerza is totally abandoned. Head first for Chébika, a village set on a terrace overlooking an oasis and a deep ravine. We can climb over the hill above the town for a panoramic view and/or go down some steps into the ravine to see a nice, small waterfall. Then after a brief photo stop at a scenic ravine, discover the Roman and Byzantine history of Tamerza, strikingly situated on the walls of a huge canyon. Only the remains are left and are on the opposite side of the canyon/water shed draw and we can only see them, not visit. After going to Midès, a village perched above a beautiful palm grove at the site of a gushing (?) spring and their version of the Grand Canyon. Also in Mides, there are some vendors peddling souvenirs (as usual). One of them has what he claims are meteorites - but they definitely are NOT. We were also supposed to see the larger "Grand Cascade" at Tamerza, but didn't stop for that due to heavy rain last night which made the paths very slippery and dangerous. (I took this one despite the payment hassle! Nice trip despite the omissions.) £24 £29.50

OPTION: Bedouin Food & Folklore Under a big tent in the oasis enjoy a traditional Tunisian meal and watch a folklore show with dances, acrobats and a fire eater. This evening go for an excursion into the desert for a lively presentation featuring the culture of the Berbers, a traditionally nomadic group found in several North African countries including Tunisia. We see typical folk dances, perhaps a belly dance (our tour director says that she's not exactly beautiful), and a demonstration of Berber horse- and camel-handling skills. This excursion includes a dinner of Tunisian specialties. {Aileen warns us that although the show is excellent, we would have to put up with extremely loud music, MANY people smoking, and uncomfortable seating - so I definitely "pass" on this one.} £18 £24.50

Day 6, Thursday, September 10 Tozeur - Red Lizard Train - Gafsa - Sbeitia - Kairouan
After breakfast, leave at 8AM in a light rain to drive to Metlaoui Selja by 9AM to board (before 10AM - we have to get there at least an hour early to be sure to get our reserved seats or it's standing-room-only.) the "Old Bey's" train, known as the "Red Lizard" or Lézard Rouge, a century-old narrow-gauge railway. Once owned by the Bey of Tunis, the train's red cars are furnished with antique brocaded armchairs and brass fittings recalling an earlier era. The coach some of us were in is the typical Victorian style, padded seats, mirrors on the walls, photos, etc. The ride takes us through the spectacular nine-mile-long Seldja Gorge, whose sheer walls of red (?) rock rise over 300 feet above us. The journey through the narrow Selja gorges affords plenty of opportunity to take photographs, thanks to the fact that the engineer stops a couple of times along the way at the best places. The trip takes 50 minutes uphill with the 2 stops, 10 minutes for the engine to swap-ends, and only 37 minutes non-stop back downhill. Our trip has to be coordinated with the schedule of the many phosphate ore trains making the round trip many times.

Following a decent lunch stop in Gafsa (and a subsequent trip back the hotel to retrieve someone's camera), we (don't) travel to Sbeitla for an included visit to the Roman ruins because this is cancelled due to Ramadan: the authorities often close early anyway, and during Ramadan may not open at all - so we skip the stop. We will get extra time and extra stops in Carthage on Saturday to "make up for this." Instead we just drive on to the sacred city of Kairouan, a city with a spiritual feel whose domed mosques and minarets we may glimpse from the distance as we approach for an overnight stay (B,L,D) Hotel: El Kasbah (SF) Rated SF but I would put at as F at best but it has fantastic architecture.

Day 7, Friday, September 11 Kairouan - Dougga - Tunis
Kairouan, this holiest of Tunisian cities was founded in AD 670 by Oqba ibm Nafi who, according to legend, slipped on a golden cup that came from Mecca and was hidden in the sand at the spot where Kairouan is now located. When he picked up the cup, water burst forth from the ground. The ornate Great Mosque here dates from the early in the Islamic period and is the fourth-holiest site in Islam after Mecca, Medina, and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. It's built almost exclusively from stone, columns, and decorations from older Roman ruins. See some of the pictures.

In the 14th century, Kairouan was home to Ibn al Khaldun, whose masterwork the Muqaddimah has been described by noted British historian Arnold Toynbee as "a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind." Ibn al Khaldun's work reflects the level of achievement Islamic scholars attained in medieval times-and this same cultural richness shines from the historic architecture that we see inside Kairouan's walled medina.

This morning after breakfast, we leave at 7:45 for several stops in Kairouan. The first is the Visitor's Center which is also the site of the Aglavit Pools (something like a group of cisterns) and where we can get photo permits for the city. Next is the Berber's Mosque which is nice with many beautiful mosaics and we can go in if we remove our shoes. Third is the beautiful Grand Mosque (we can't go in but we can look) and they have a very early version of a sundial in the courtyard. The fourth stop is almost next door - the Governor's (he owns it) Carpet factory/shop. We almost feel like we are being given a real hard sell and will be held hostage until someone buys something. We then journey to to Dougga for lunch.

The highlight of the day is Dougga, the best-preserved ancient Roman city in North Africa, the most extensive in Tunisia and spectacularly set against the backdrop of the Atlas Mountains and a UNESCO World Heritage Site: here stand the remains of a complete town that once had 5,000 residents, including villas, temples, baths, a paved street, and a forum, making it easy to imagine life in this place in the second century AD. The temple known as "the Capitol" and the Lycinian Baths are particularly well preserved.

Later, we head for the capital city of Tunis for the next two nights.(B,L,D) Hotel: Sheraton (SF) 2 nights. I get a much nicer room this time: the a/c works and there is a complimentary bottle of water. However the dinner tonight at the hotel is poor.

Day 8, Saturday, September 12 Tunis. Excursion to Carthage & Sidi-Bou-Said
A delightful blend of ancient and modern, Tunis has a colorful medina and a contemporary city center. Tunis was one of the greatest cities in the world during the reign of the Almohad and Hafsid dynasties from the 12th to the 16th centuries. We witness the legacy of that era in the hundreds of stunning palaces, mosques, and fountains in the city's medina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Our first stop today is the Medina. It's really just a quick walk in through the France Gate, down one very narrow lane to the Mosque and then back out - but a bit over two hours is allowed - mostly wasted time. Enjoy included excursions to the ancient Carthage city ruins which evokes the romance and tragedy of the legendary era of Queen Dido and Aeneas chronicled in Virgil's Aeneid. Scattered ruins help us envision where the mighty city of antiquity once stood, sending its fleets for trade and warfare across the Mediterranean, including Hannibal's famous but doomed campaign against Rome in the Second Punic War. After Carthage was conquered, the Romans destroyed the old city but established a new one of their own on its site, which lasted for almost another 500 years.

We were told that we were to get an expanded visit; if this is expanded, the regular visit would be really minimal. We first made a quick stop at some cemetery - virtually just a drive-by, then another drive-by photo stop at the circular Punic Port (seaport). The only real stop was at the huge Roman Antonine Baths (3rd largest in the Roman Empire). Last was a drive-by photo stop at the old Roman Cisterns. And that was Carthage. Definitely NOT what I would have expected, particularly for a supposedly expanded visit! Bah-Humbug! Boring! Dougga was tremendously better.

Near Carthage, we pay our respects to the American soldiers who liberated Tunisia during World War II with a drive-by view of the North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial. This 27-acre memorial is the final resting place of 2,841 American military dead and also honors 3,700 soldiers whose remains were never found. In December 1942, American forces landed in Tunisia for their first transatlantic deployment of World War II. Things started off badly, with German General Rommel deriding the U.S. strategy as inept. Yet the hard lessons learned helped the Allies eventually turn things around, defeating the Germans in North Africa and preventing them from establishing another front in the war.

We continue to the seaside village of Sidi Bou Said, a feast for the eyes with its houses painted in deep blue and gleaming white. Set on a hill with a sweeping view of the Gulf of Tunis. This picturesque town has drawn artists including Paul Klee, and offers many galleries and shops on its flower-filled streets. We can drive the coach in only so far then have to transfer to a mini-bus for the mile drive up the hill to the hill-side town. The paint scheme is interesting, but otherwise it's just a long narrow street of souvenir sellers. Very boring. Not only that, but 4 people missed getting back to the mini-bus on time and between a wait there and sending our guides back to (unsuccessfully) look for them, we lost almost an hour. They had taken taxis back to the hotel. This put us late for the next stop and cut the time there in half.

We have a shortened visit to the famous Bardo Museum, Tunisia's national museum of archaeology. Located in an 18th-century royal palace, it displays a spectacular collection of ancient Roman mosaics along with sarcophagi and statues from the Roman and Carthaginian periods. This has turned out to be pretty much a wasted day. Not only that, but dinner at the hotel tonight is one of the worst on the trip! And although I don't know it at the time, there's always tomorrow .... (B,D)

Tunisia notes: The roads, other than short stretches near Tunis (nice 4-lane) are often rough, irregular edged 2-lane black-top. The scenery is, except for the date palms and olive trees, almost an exact match for west Texas, New Mexico, and southern Arizona (which means it's generally pretty boring). Temperatures are warm and humid (est: 75-95). The food is good in the hotels but watch out for too much olive oil - it's in all the foods. Air conditioning is on in the hotels, but minimal. Internet availability is very poor or not available at all. Do NOT come during Ramadan - too much is closed and/or unavailable. Highlights: Train, Dougga, and the 4x4 drive into the mountains.

Selected pictures
Click to enlarge



PART 2: SPAIN, PORTUGAL, MOROCCO

Day 9 (2), Sunday, September 13 Tunis - Barcelona - Barcelona - Madrid
Get up very early to get to the airport by 4:30 so I miss breakfast. Fly on to Spain for the second tour of this trip. It's a miserable day, but No break or extra nights needed. Unfortunately I have to go through the Barcelona airport in order to get a decent arrival time in Madrid. Grumble, grumble, growl and gritch! With a 2:40 break, there should be no problem to connect - I hope. At least there are more Barcelona-Madrid flights. But oops ....

4Tunis Air TU 514Tunis - Barcelona6:00 AM - 8:25 AM1:253:50

Note: Daylight Savings time is in effect in Spain but not Tunisia which is the cause of the very early 6AM departure: if Tunisia were on Daylight Time, it would be a 7AM departure - matching into the European air schedules. One hour time change. No troubles on the first flight except that check-in takes a VERY long time and when we are supposed to board - the door to the JetWay is locked and nobody has a key. The flight is uneventful and we even get in a bit ahead of schedule.

This gives us a false sense of security. For the second flight, when it got to be time for boarding, there is a bit of a problem. Another something is missing - the airplane. It eventually shows up and we take off "only" about 45 minutes late - but the problems are NOT over yet:

5Air Europa UX 2154Barcelona - Madrid11:30 AM - 12:45 PM1:155:45
5Air Europa UX 2154Barcelona - Barcelona12:15 PM - 12:500:352:50

We barely got off the ground when it feels a bit like the plane ran over something. About 5 minutes later there is an announcement that our starboard engine broke and we have to go back to Barcelona. When we get ready to land, they have us get in the crash position - head down and covered - and after we do manage to land safely, we see that the airport staff had ambulances, fire trucks, crash vehicles, police, etc all over the place - just in case. Two fire trucks and an ambulance follow us all the way to where we have to park (outer Siberia) and we are herded onto shuttles for a long ride to the terminal. There we are given re-boarding passes and confined on the ground level of the terminal. Areas for food, etc., are on the next level up, but if they let us up there, we might escape. But at least we're safe. I did notice that the Captain let the plane roll a very long time - all the way to the end of the runway with no hard braking or thrust reversal as if he didn't want to risk really blowing up the engine. This is the first time in almost 300 flights that I've been on a plane with which had a significant problem - while in flight.

We know that things will work out ok even if we are going to be quite late. They have to find another plane, another crew, get us loaded, get our luggage transferred, and eventually:

5RAir Europa UX 2154RBarcelona - Madrid3:40 PM - 4:551:159:55

We're "only" about 4 hours late and I've missed the 2PM, the 3:30 PM, and the 5 PM shuttle pickup for transfer to the hotel - so I have to take a taxi (as per instructions) and hope for something of a refund. What a day!

Check into my hotel. The rest of the day (what rest of the day?) is (not) free to see some of Madrid. Tonight, meet our Tour Director (Vitor from Portugal; driver is Abdel from Morocco; 42 Victims crammed into a mid-sized coach after ¢heap-mos(t) switched from a larger coach), fellow travelers and we even get a dinner! but the dinner isn't impressive either. Why didn't ¢heap-mos(t) tell us about that option? There are actually two virtually identical tours heading out. The other one ("Platinum" level) is more expensive in that the coach is a luxury one. The itinerary is the same. (B/D) Hotel: Praga (F) VERY tiny room most efficiently designed to utilize almost every square inch of space for furnishings so as to maximize the difficulty in moving around. 2 very cramped nights. Why is it that I have to payI>¢heap-mos(t) a single supplement and then get stuck in a half-size room / walk-in closet??? I should get a reduction in the room cost! This isn't the only time it happens on the trip.

(Actual Madrid temperatures average 2 weeks prior to the trip: 93.9 - 66.7; range: 98-63.)


Cosmos: Combine highlights of the Iberian Peninsula with the fascination of a Morocco vacation. Start in Madrid, Spain's grand capital. Spaniards says Madrid is the nearest thing to heaven. See its famous sights on a guided sightseeing tour. Visit fortified Avila with its towers, then Salamanca, a spectacular renaissance city. Enter Portugal and arrive in Coimbra, a charming hillside town overlooking the Mondego River. Visit the Batalha Monastery, the Sanctuary of Fatima, and arrive in Lisbon, the exquisite city of explorer Henry the Navigator. Learn about Lisbon, Portugal's capital, on a sightseeing tour. Spend two nights in spectacular Seville before boarding a ferry for Morocco. As we arrive on the African continent, motor to the old walled city of Fez for two nights. Visit the traditional medina on a city tour. Next head through the Middle Atlas Mountains to Marrakesh, known for its colorful Djemaa el Fna, a square bustling with acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, and food stalls. See Casablanca, then Rabat, capital of the Kingdom of Morocco. Re-cross the Strait of Gibraltar to mainland Spain. Drive through the Andalusian countryside to Granada for a treat: a visit to the exotic Alhambra complex, residence of Moorish kings. Retrace the footsteps of Don Quixote as we travel past the windmills and castles of La Mancha, then return to Madrid for the conclusion.

Day 10 (3), Monday, September 14 Madrid
After last nights meeting and dinner, the tiny cramped room, and an at-best so-so breakfast (overcrowded, poor food and it runs out quickly), etc. I'm not expecting much from this tour particularly since this is supposed to be one of the best hotels of the trip.

Start off the day (8:30 AM) with a tour: Cosmos claims that the optional trip to Toledo is rewarding. Toledo, former capital of Spain, to see the 13th century Cathedral and one of Europe's oldest synagogues, and admire El Greco's masterpiece in the chapel of Santo Tomé. The splendid setting of this old walled city above the Tagus was made famous in El Greco's painting, and even now it's like a great open-air museum of Spanish history and art. We get back about 1:30 or 2 - just in time for a quick lunch snack. We are still in Ramadan so the Morocco part later in the trip may also be a real messed up deal even though Ramadan is supposedly going to end somewhere near the end of our Moroccan visit.

Of the Spanish capital, situated 2,180 feet above sea level, the Spaniards say it's the nearest thing to heaven. We've only a day here and it's certainly worth making the most of it by joining the included guided sightseeing tour: a full panoramic drive by way of the Avenida Mayor, Puerta del Sol, Parliament Square, and a picture stop outside the Royal Palace. See Gran Via, Paseo de la Castellana, Cibeles Fountain and the Cervantes Monument in the Plaza de España. (B)

OPTION: The Majestic City Of Toledo The panoramic view of the city is an awesome experience, and visiting Spain's main Cathedral is truly unforgettable. See one of El Greco's most famous paintings, the "Burial of Count Orgaz", in the church of Santo Tome. Drive through Castilian landscapes to the old capital on the Tagus River. We also make a nice photo stop for an overlook of the city. We have time for a brief visit to a Damascene steel workshop which is a waste of time. €45

Day 11 (4), Tuesday, September 15 Madrid - Avila - Coimbra, Portugal
We're on our "regular" ¢heap-mos(t) sized coach now - and by both Spanish and Portuguese law, we have to wear our seat belts - due to the lack of traffic regulations (or lack of following same). After another very poor breakfast, leave at 8:15 and travel west for a visit to fortified Avila with its many towers. It's a nice stop and the weather is very cool both here and in Salamanca, but Vitor keeps us almost running with almost no chances for pictures. We do a photo stop later for a wide angle view, but we're looking almost directly into the sun so very poor pictures. Darn - best walled city I've ever seen and no real pix! I may raid the internet for pictures for my records.

Next is Salamanca, just six miles from the spot where Wellington routed Napoleon's army in 1812. We spend some time wandering around (no guide, not even Vitor) Plaza Mayor, the grandest square in Spain and down to the Cathedral. The streets between the Plaza and the Cathedral are a very nice walking area but it seemed that every third or fourth lady had a micro-mutt in tow and every time I turned around I almost stepped on one of the little varmints. They were a definite risk to "navigation." It's also our lunch stop (on our own) for whatever we want. Next we go across the frontier. From here, descend to the valleys of the Serra da Estrela to Coimbra for the night. Hopefully the dinner is decent. (HA!) (B,D) Hotel: Dom Luis (ST) Another very small room with a noisy in-room a/c, but at least it works but it means no sleep. A one-star hotel at best - if even that. It's even a member of the "Best Worst Western Chain."

Day 12 (5), Wednesday, September 16 Coimbra - Fatima - Lisbon
This morning, enjoy an orientation tour of Coimbra (which means get off the coach, get a 5-minute set of directions of whatever is in which direction, and we're on our own for 1.5 hours; this is Vitor's usual method when we don't have a local guide), celebrated for its beauty and ancient university. Later, travel southwards to Batalha with a visit to its beautifully sited monastery (so-so). We drive on to Fatima where we have lunch. Afterwards, today's highlight is a visit to the Sanctuary of Fatima (chapel, old and new Basilicas). Then around the corner we waste an hour with a wine bodega and some wine tasting at a local winery. The only good point, a drawing for a prize using numbers we received at lunch - and I won a replica of an early Portuguese astrolabe - the first time I've won anything on a tour. Then it's just a long drive to Lisbon. A sterner and more desolate landscape accompanies us to Lisbon for our overnight in Portugal's capital. (B) Hotel: Roma (ST) 2 nights. (best hotel so far anywhere on the trip.)

OPTION: A Real Portuguese Evening A tasty dinner at a typical Lisbon restaurant nightspot, located within the arched vaults of the 17th century palace of Saint Roque and specializing in Fado Melodies & Folklore entertainment. Sit back and enjoy the after-dinner entertainment of folklore and Fado with a total of 21 artistes. On the way back to our hotel, enjoy unforgettable views of the illuminated city. €48

Day 13 (6), Thursday, September 17 Lisbon
Henry the Navigator made Lisbon the 15th-century mistress of the seas. After a nice breakfast we have sightseeing with our local guide to see Henry's monument, the Belem Tower, starting point for Portugal's great navigators and explorers, the Moorish Citadel, and the impressive Black Horse Square. We also see the Sao Jorge Castle, the Monument to the Discoveries and the famous Jeronimo's Monastery. Actually the city tour was more of a "drive-by-shooting" type tour. We made only three stops: Belem Tower (no time to climb it) where there is also a "replica" of the Dos Santos trans-Atlantic plane, the Henry the Navigator Monument (with the sun from the wrong direction), and the Jeronimo's Monastery (but not the Museums part). There are 38 bus loads of tourists here at the Monastery at the same time we are here.

Spend the afternoon in the Alfama's tile-decorated streets, or take an optional excursion to coastal Estoril and Cascais. I had planned to do this option, but after re-reading the description several times and listening to Vitor's description, I decide to "pass" on it (and a chance to ride in the "Platinum" coach with a beautiful local tour guide). I just hunt around for some lunch instead. For a taste of home, how about some McBarf-Burgers? I'll "miss" this hotel, it's definitely the nicest one on this trip. (B)

OPTION: Sintra & Portuguese Riviera Drive along the scenic ocean road -- the Portuguese Riviera -- past the wealthy cosmopolitan playground town of Estoril with its famous Casino. Stop in the attractive village of Cascais, a small but bustling fishing port and resort, for optional lunch. Then to Sintra, with its Royal Palace, favorite resort area of Portuguese royalty through the centuries. Highlight is a visit to the 15th-century Royal Palace decorated with the most important collection of 16th-century tiles in Europe. We have free time to shop or sightsee before returning to Lisbon. €35

Day 14 (7), Friday, September 18 Lisbon - Seville, Spain
It rained quite a bit last night and is still raining off and on (a couple of time quite hard) all day with heavy overcast. Fortunately today is just a "driving day" with no special stops of any kind planned. The only bad part of this is that with the seat rotation, this was my day to have a front seat - wasted. With no special stops and the weather, no pictures today. Side note: gasoline here is €1.319 per litre; €5.0122 or $7.14 per US gallon.

After another good breakfast, leave Lisbon about 8:45 via the Vasco de Gama Bridge (at 13km or about 8 ¼ miles it's the longest in Europe) and drive through the Alentejo region with its woodlands of cork and eucalyptus trees. From the rolling plains of the Alentejo we travel southwards across the Sierra Morena all the way to the brilliant light of Andalucia. Admire its white-painted villages and plantations of olives, figs, and almonds, while traveling by way of Beja into Seville. I chose not to do the optional tour tonight - too expensive for breathing lots of smoke and enduring much loud noise - and since I don't drink so the "free" drink isn't a deal either. (B,D) Hotel: Don Paco (ST) 2 nights. A nice ST hotel for two nights.

OPTION: Classic Flamenco Show No visit to Spain is complete without the thrill of a good flamenco show, and the art of flamenco is at its best in Seville. You will be taken to a select location to enjoy the guitars, castanets and whirling skirts. One drink is included. €38

Day 15 (8), Saturday, September 19 Seville
We have the day at leisure (or we can spend lots of money on options) in one of Spain's most colorful cities. I spend this morning (9AM departure) enjoying an optional sightseeing tour including the highlights of this "vibrant" city.

The Splendors tour is actually just another "drive-by-shooting" for the most part though it IS a 4 ½ hour excursion. We do a bunch of the "drive-by" on the way to Italica. There is very little except the arena that is truly in the "original" state. Some other areas have been partly rebuilt: modern walls about 3 feet high where the original walls stood in order to show the layout of the various buildings. (The small home is 1500 square meters - yes, meters, not feet.) The remains of the arena are quite impressive, however. Then we do some more "drive-by," or dash-by, the Giralda Tower, Alcazar and the Santa Cruz quarter on the way to visit the Cathedral to see Christopher Columbus' tomb. I wish there had been more chances for pictures.

Back to the hotel about 1:30 to check the burger-barns for lunch, and buy some food at the "next door supermarket" for the ferry crossing tomorrow (where we are scheduled to have lunch on the ferry.) With neither lunch nor dinner included today on the tour, getting food from either the supermarket or McBarf Burgers seems to be best for today and tomorrow noon. (B)

OPTION: Splendors Of Seville A panoramic drive through the centre of Seville to the outskirts of the city for a visit to Italica, a Roman city founded by Scipio. The Roman ruins include an amphitheatre, baths, theatre and various buildings containing mosaics. The 2,200 year old city is the birthplace of emperors such as Trajan and Hadrian. Return to the city centre and after a walk through the Santa Cruz Quarter enjoy a visit to the magnificent Cathedral (ABC!), which is the third largest Christian church in the world. €30

Day 16 (9), Sunday, September 20 Seville - Ferry to Morocco - Fez
An interesting drive today which starts off at 7:40 with views of a bunch of fields and 100-150 wind turbines on the hill-tops before reaching the coast for boarding the fast-ferry Alboran for a 50-minute (11/9 to 9:50AM) crossing of the Straits of Gibraltar from Algeciras to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in Africa. We gain two hours as we do: it's two hours earlier in Morocco. We can see the "Rock of Gibraltar" but don't get a chance to visit anything there. Sometime during the hour on board, we are supposed to either buy lunch or eat whatever we bought at the grocery store yesterday in Seville. The grocery store is very much the better deal.

Crossing into Morocco, we're warned a) don't even think about the tap water - it's dangerous - including juices at breakfast, ice, etc.; b) don't brush our teeth with tap water; c) don't eat un-peeled fruit, salads, etc. since they have been washed with tap water. This is true even in our hotels. "The food hygiene here is non-existent". (So what CAN we eat or drink? Answer: bread and bottled water - or McDonalds)

Almost as soon as we get onshore and pick up our national guide, Khalid, we cross the border from the Spanish enclave into Morocco. The border crossing takes about 45 minutes - it would have been longer except that we hurried getting off the ferry and were the first bus in line. Besides the usual getting our passports stamped, and a random luggage search etc., just as in Tunisia where we had to go through a scanner for a "health check," here a doctor comes onboard the bus and uses a hand scanner to check each of us to see if we have a fever. The second bus would have to wait for us then take their 40-50 minute turn, etc. Hopefully the currency exchange there will be open so we could change money. Moroccan money is not available before that. We were out of luck there so had to wait until we arrived in Fez (Fes) to change money there.

Next, drive south along what was once northern Africa's infamous Barbary Coast. Join the new motorway (just a road that's not quite as rough as the regular ones) for the drive south. We turn off the highway at Tetouen onto the National road system (more potholes and bumps per square foot), then turn west over the mountains on the very narrow, rough, twisting, road and corkscrew our way fishtailing around the tight, narrow curves relying on the bus horn to avoid wrecks. We bypass Meknes finally arriving in Fes about 4:30 with a quick stop to change money.

We are stuck in this (somewhat minimal) hotel for two nights. At least the a/c works, we have a refrigerator for our water, and the bathroom is MUCH better arranged than that disaster in Seville. It's that everything is old (though decorative) and some of the facilities in the room are about to fall apart - the desk, the bed, the toilet, the luggage shelf, etc. More inconveniences: the hotel has motion-sensor switches on the hallway lights on all the floors with the lights set to be off most of the time (reasonable). However the first few times I went to, or left my room, the lights were out (making it very hard to lock or unlock my door in complete darkness) and didn't come on when I was moving around. The sensors were apparently failing. I eventually figured out that the one-and-only motion sensor was right in front of the elevator and didn't cover anyone coming or going by the stairs or coming out of their room - so using the stairs as I did, I had to start walking away from my room at first - to the elevator area to get the lights to turn on - then back to my room. Why the stairs? This hotel, as in most of them, has very tiny, limited size/weight elevators. Here it's 4 people or 2 people with luggage (or they might fail) and anyway, only one of the three elevator works, and they are SLOW. So most of us made it our habit to just ignore elevators and use stairs if our rooms were on the lower floors. It's faster and simpler.

The dinner is good, but ¢heap-mos(t) has us in a side room where there are no water bottles on the tables: we have to buy our own ... as usual.

One bit of good news - it has just been announced that today is the 30th day of Ramadan so it will be over when the sun goes down today/tonight. However tomorrow is the Feast of Ramadan during which Muslims make up for all the fasting and virtually everything will be closed since it's a major holiday feast. (B,D) Hotel: Menzeh Zalagh (ST)

Day 17 (10), Monday, September 21 Fez
The hotel apparently hires a guard to sit across the street all day when busses are here to protect them from theft or vandalism. They even have a man who sleeps on the sidewalk by the busses at night. He was just getting up this morning when some of us came down for the early (6:30) breakfast.

Today we leave the hotel (after our very poor breakfast with no hot food offered at all) at 8:30 for a quick drive through town, then visit the Medina, the oldest and largest in North Africa, on the included sightseeing and "enjoy" the maze of uneven, broken narrow streets through the dull-colorless bazaars and the grimy atmosphere where over 98% of the shops are closed (except those selling food for the residents) due to the Ramadan Feast.

I asked our National Guide, Khalid, about meteorites and he seemed to have never heard of them being available / sold in Morocco - or anywhere. Later in the trip when I had found a postcard showing the Tamdakht Kasbah, I showed it to Khalid and told him about the recent fall. He had never heard anything about it at all. Interesting.

During a guided tour of this 'City of the Mind', we see the hidden courtyards, mosques and tiny workshops, the ancient bazaar, a multitude of cats of all sizes, colors, and ages almost outnumbering the people, and also make the usual mandatory shopping stops including a carpet co-operative, a textile facility, and a metal-smith artist who works in bronze. This afternoon is at leisure in ancient Fez with its position of scenic (?) beauty (?). The recommended lunch stop is at McDonalds which is conveniently located just across the street (yes, that is what is recommended by the tour people because the food hygiene there is good.) I don't normally eat at McD's or Burger King during trips, but on this one, they have been regular stops since the food elsewhere is of questionable quality/ hygiene. I go there in the late afternoon and call it both lunch and dinner. (B,OD)

OPTION: Imperial Dinner Our program gets under way with an illuminated tour of this Imperial city. The evening continues with a typical four-course Moroccan dinner at the "Al Fassia" restaurant located in the old part of the town - an ideal setting to soak up the exotic atmosphere. The dimmer includes wine, local mint tea and Arabian and Berber entertainers will complete our "Moorish" experience. €43

Day 18 (11), Tuesday, September 22 Fez - Middle Atlas - Marrakesh
After another cold miserable "breakfast," we're off at 9:00 for a very long drive to Marrakesh. If the trip is so long, why didn't we leave at 7:45 or 8? We eventually get into Marrakesh well after dark. This is stupid. Even though Ramadan is over and the Feast was yesterday, most Moroccans consider today and tomorrow as holidays so other than food souks, almost nothing is open, even the regular "comfort" stops. At least we are now out of what I consider to be one of the worst hotels (facilities and food) I've ever had the misfortune to have been in.

We are supposedly enjoying very brief glimpses of North African mud-walled village life reminiscent of Beau Geste while traveling through the rugged Middle Atlas Mountains on our way to Marrakesh, our base for the next two nights. It's actually a scenic drive reminiscent of the better parts of west Texas and northern New Mexico. Just as in Tunisia, they use lots of Prickly Pear cactus for fence borders (besides all that growing wild, and this far south, there is also lots of Blue Agave. I could easily have taken over a 100 pictures, but since we are driving on the National Road Wagon Trail, our bus sways, bounces, and fishtails down the trail making it impossible to center any picture. Also the window glass is tinted giving false colors, and also major reflection problems. Add to that, Abdel is still driving using his horn and relying on intimidation - we're larger than you: get out of my way! Thus getting any decent pictures at all is totally impossible. Definitely a no-pictures day. Gritch! Maxi-Gritch even!!

At one point as we bounce, sway, and fishtail down the road, the driver apparently doesn't see a speed bump and we hit it at full wagon-trail speed. We all go airborne almost hitting the ceiling of the bus. Various articles such as water bottles, small bags, books, etc. are scattered everywhere. The bus engine and transmission make funny noises for a couple of minutes but it keeps running. Riding in the rear of the bus as I'm doing these days (seat rotation) is definitely no fun! I wish I had started near the back and "rotated" out of there while we were still in Spain and Portugal with their mostly fair to decent roads. (B,D) Hotel: El Andalous (F)

Day 19 (12), Wednesday, September 23 Marrakesh
Some of us are up early for a decent breakfast. They even have hot (OK, slightly warm) food so this a decent hotel with nice rooms but with limited a/c adjustment and no mini-bar refrigerator for our water. Our included city sightseeing tour starts at 8:45. We almost feel as if we've stopped the march of time. Marrakesh has always been a meeting place - first just a group of nomad tents, now a bustling city. On the tour, see the Koutobia Minaret, make a very (too) long extended visit to the Bahia Palace (and it was extremely hot with no moving air for ventilation). It's not all that great. The local cats were much more photogenic! We also make a stop to visit a Herbologist. Vitor "strikes" again saying that we will come straight back to the coach; we don't, we go on to the square so I don't have my camera and miss many more good pictures. The tour ends in Jemaa el Fna Square where acrobats, dancers, snake charmers, and fortune tellers are there to entertain us and I miss all those good pictures. While we were having lunch in the Square, several cats were checking out the (open air) restaurant looking for handouts. One young, small cat kept climbing up on a chair to get up on our table to get some of our food.

Besides the afternoon optional excursion to a Berber village, there is an optional evening excursion which will be a fitting doubtful choice (??) to end the day. Another oops ... By the end of that horrible drive we suffered through yesterday, those of us sitting in the back of the coach were almost totally wiped out. That, coupled with the stifling heat of the Palace really "did me in" and although I had booked the Berber Option, and it was the one I was most looking forward to doing on the trip, I had to pass on it or maybe just "pass out." GRITCH!!! (B,OD)

OPTION: Discover The Berbers Of Atlas Our picturesque drive from Marrakesh takes us through the Gorge of Oued Orika, following the River Ourika banks through mountain foothills dotted with red clay villages. Experience the Berber way of life by visiting a true Berber home giving us the opportunity to learn more of their daily life. During the excursion we will have tea and cake or homemade bread. €22

OPTION: Oriental Dinner & Show An illumination drive of Marrakesh, a four-course dinner with delicious Moroccan specialties and wine and a spectacular oriental folklore show with music and dancing. Many of those who took this option received an extra bonus: a "dire rear." €43

Day 20 (13), Thursday, September 24 Marrakesh - Casablanca - Rabat
After a bad night with no sleep (the people in the adjoining room played loud music until well into the early morning hours) I decided to get up at first light and go out for a walk to "enjoy" the invigorating smell of car exhausts combined with a swam of flies. But after an almost decent breakfast, we leave Marrakesh at 8:15 (today I'm stuck on the very back row, left side - the worst seat in the bus and with the least leg room) and also with about twice as many flies as people and who hitch an economy ride north, to head out on a long (for these supposedly better roads) drive north by way of Settat to Dar el Baida aqua Casablanca, the most western of Morocco's cities, and it's largest city. It's the second largest city in North Africa after Cairo ... and its distressingly boringly modern so very dull - in fact Khalid says that no tour group spends much of any time in the city.

Did Humphrey Bogart really say 'Play it again Sam'? We find out on our orientation tour. Answer: if he did, it wasn't here - he supposedly never came to Casablanca ... and there are at least 5 locations claiming to be the original "Rick's." The only sight-seeing stop here is the Hassan II Mosque after which we head to the center of the city and the Plaza de McDonalds for lunch (and KFC and Pizza Hut - I go to KFC for a nice change from McDonalds). There is a bit of time for us to spend the last of our Moroccan money for souvenirs.Later in the afternoon, continue northwards to Rabat, Morocco's modern capital, for city sightseeing where we see the Royal Palace (just like the Russia trips: not another gilded palace!! and a boring stop to boot!) and Hassan V Tower with the adjacent "unfinished Mosque" then fight our way through the traffic and spend a small part of the night. (B,D) Hotel: Rihab (ST)

Day 21 (14), Friday, September 25 Rabat - Ferry to Spain - Granada
We have a second occurrence of a special "extra": after the poor dinner last night, several more people have that unfortunate malady. It's going to be a rough day for them.

We have our longest driving day today (532 miles; the 2nd highest was 394 from Seville to Fez). As some novelists write, "It was a dark and foggy night when " we get up at (3:00 for no breakfast to speak of, and no porter service to haul our luggage down several flights of stairs for a 4:30 departure (daylight is still some time off) to retrace our way northwards for the ferry port in Tangiers which we don't see since we take a roundabout way to the port. After going through the major hassle of Moroccan Customs / Immigration, we return to the Euros currency world on the ferry even though it's a Moroccan ferry. It's the first ferry crossing to Spain so it's only 15 minutes late though the advertised 35 minute crossing takes 50 minutes.

Crossing the Straits of Gibraltar to mainland Spain loses those two hours we gained on our southward leg of the journey and along with the distance we have to go, is the reason for the ultra-early departure. Disembark at the port of Tarif about noon for an even worse ordeal as we go through a REAL hassle (and thoughts of the Spanish Inquisition) with the Spanish authorities who make us take everything off the bus while they give it a thorough check to find all the drugs we are smuggling such as "Moroccan Chocolate" and all the illegal immigrants hiding in the luggage bays or in cavities under the bus. (Two "stowaways" WERE found on the other bus but none on ours.) We have to haul all of our luggage into the terminal to be x-rayed, etc. and some is searched (random selection.)

Then, eventually a bit after 1PM we leave Tarif and drive along the coast with occasional views of the sea and finally get a comfort stop and lunch a bit after 3PM. We continue past overbuilt condos and other commercial businesses and directly to the heart of Andalucia and over the Sierra Nevada to reach hilltop Granada but no time for any city tour or even drive-around. It's now almost 6PM so even with the time change, its been a very long day. No pictures today - just a very long travel day. We spend the night in hotel Don Juan (ST) Minimal room, no space for luggage - (ST-) at best. (B,D)

Day 22 (15), Saturday, September 26 Granada - Madrid
After a noisy night (nightclub almost directly across the street) and a so-so breakfast (and a micro-Spanish Inquisition as we leave the restaurant to make sure we don't take even crumbs of food with us), we leave at 8:15 and drive just out of town (again there is no local drive for us to see Granada) and a local guide takes us on a tour of the Alhambra Palace, a summer complex built by the Moorish kings - a magnificent example of Moorish architecture (and here we go again with yet another gilded palace! but this one is very nice!). Visit the adjacent exotic water gardens of the Generalife, the royal summer residence, where we can enjoy the views over the town of Granada and its hills. It's about a three hour visit (we have a timed ticket and have to be there at a certain time) but the visit is well worth it. Also, fortunately, today is a bit cooler than before and somewhat overcast, so it's also a pleasant visit. The palaces and grounds are beautiful!!

This afternoon, drive past what seems like endless miles of olive tree fields (the largest area of olive trees in Spain) and have another mid-afternoon (2:30) lunch, but it's in a nice new facility. After than we continue into the very heart of La Mancha, famed for its windmills where Don Quixote tilted at windmills as his faithful Sancho Panza looked on, and pass through the wine centre of Valdepeñas, its roads lined with 'bodegas' (wine cellars). About 5:15, the trip is essentially over as we arrive at our hotel. Now it's just waiting for the time to go to the airport for that long, long set of flights home. We spend our last night of the tour in Madrid. (B) Hotel: Praga (F/ST)

OPTION: Welcome Farewell To Madrid Drive to the old quarter of Madrid. Walk to the Plaza Mayor and visit a "tapas" bar to enjoy sangria and "tapas" in a typical Madrileno atmosphere. Dinner at a nearby restaurant is followed by a tour of Madrid by night. €35

Morocco memories: 1) the National Wagon Trails; 2) all the missed wonderful pictures of some great scenery and rural life due to the roads trails and swaying, bouncing, fish-tailing bus; 3) "everybody" smokes making it far less enjoyable to be outside; 4) not only don't drink the water, but no juices, salads, ice, etc; 5) a tour director who prided himself on his great (make that mis-used, mis-pronounced) English making it so easy hard to know what he is saying, either information or directions; 6) bus being driven by relying on horn and intimidation; 7) the horrible hotel in Fez. Highlights: the (unphotographed) scenery between Fez and Marrakesh. The only other real highlight is the visit to the Alhambra on our last full day in Spain. At least we ended the otherwise pretty much dull trip with something nice to see.

Day 23 (16), Sunday, September 27 Homebound Flight
I luck out this time for breakfast: they start serving at 7 and I don't have to be ready to go until 8:45. At least it's a decent departure time, and hopefully a reasonable amount of time in Newark to get through Customs & Immigration, and make the connection. At least I don't have to go through another check-in process. The second flight was delayed 30 minutes (the incoming plane was late) but they made up most of it. (B)

6Continental CO 63Madrid - Newark11:35 AM - 2:20 PM8:455:10
7Continental CO 88Newark - Houston7:30 PM - 10:20 PM3:5017:45

I didn't have a long wait for luggage or the StuporShuttle so I made it home by 11:45PM.

COSMOS: Particularly on the Spain/Portugal/Morocco trip, the hotels were generally at least one quality level lower than the information showed. I also strongly resent having to pay a single supplement to "make up for" the no-second-person in a room, then getting stuck with half-sized rooms, single beds, poorest location, etc. I should get a refund. Having the other so-called "Platinum" tour along with us showed a very distinct difference in services, and quality of food service and facilities. This distinction made some of us feel like 3rd class citizens. In many cases, the differences were quite obvious. Why wasn't it available to us who booked direct with Cosmos? The Tunisia trip was nice with decent hotels and food, but I'm quite disappointed with the second trip due to the two comparisons: SPM - Tunisia and SPM/Cosmos-Platinum.

Selected pictures
Click to enlarge





AIR SCHEDULE:
1Continental CO 152Houston - Newark12:05 PM - 4:49 PM3:443:41
2Continental CO 62Newark - Madrid8:30 PM - 10:05 AM7:358:30
3Tunis Air TU 167Madrid - Tunis6:35 PM - 7:50 PM2:1525:45
4Tunis Air TU 514Tunis - Barcelona6:00 AM - 8:25 AM1:253:50
5Air Europa UX 2154Barcelona - Madrid11:30 AM - 12:45 PM1:155:45
Barcelona - Barcelona12:15 PM - 12:500:352:50
5RAir Europa UX 2154RBarcelona - Madrid3:40 PM - 4:551:159:55
6Continental CO 63Madrid - Newark11:35 AM - 2:20 PM8:455:10
7Continental CO 88Newark - Houston7:30 PM - 10:20 PM3:5017:45

COUNTRIES:
TUNISIA 7 nights
SPAIN 6 nights
PORTUGAL 3 nights
MOROCCO 5 nights

OPTIONAL TRIPS:
Day 4DouzCamel ride in the desert£10no
Day 5ChebikaJeep Excursion into mountains£24yes
TozeurFolklore show with dinner£18no
Day 10MadridToledo€45yes
Day 12LisbonPortuguese Evening€48no
Day 13Coastal Estoril and Cascais€35no
Day 14SevilleFlamenco Show€38no
Day 15Seville Tour€30yes
Day 17FezImperial Dinner€43no
Day 19MarrakeshBerbers of Atlas€22yes but cancel
Evening excursion€43no
Day 22MadridFarewell Dinner & City Tour€35no

OVERNIGHTS / MEALS / HOTELS:
Day 2Tunis¢Sheraton (SF) ****
Day 3SfaxBDMercure (F) ***
Day 4DouzBLDEl Mouradi (F) **
Day 5TozeurBLOEl Mouradi (F) ***
Day 6KairouanBLDEl Kasbah (SF) ***
Day 7TunisBLDSheraton (SF) ****
Day 8BD
Day 9MadridB/DPraga (F) **+
Day 10B
Day 11CoimbraBDDom Luis (ST) *
Day 12LisbonBRoma (ST) ****+
Day 13B
Day 14SevilleBDDon Paco (ST) ***
Day 15B
Day 16FezBMenzeh Zalagh (ST T?) *
Day 17B
Day 18MarrakeshBDEl Andalous (F) (ST/F) ***
Day 19B
Day 20RabatBDRihab (ST T+) **
Day 21GranadaBDDon Juan (ST-)
Day 22MadridBPraga (F) **+
Day 23HomeB?home


TIME ZONES MESS: (day # in parentheses)
(1) Houston - New York, >1 hour later
(2) New York - Madrid, >6 hours later
(2) Madrid - Tunis, <1 hour earlier = net 5 hours from NY; 6 from Houston
(9) Tunis - Madrid, >1 hour later = 7 from Houston
(11) Spain - Portugal, <1 hour earlier = 6 from Houston
(14) Portugal - Spain, >1 hour later = 7 from Houston
(16) Spain - Morocco, <2 hours earlier = 5 from Houston
(21) Morocco - Spain, >2 hours later = 7 from Houston
(23) Spain - New York, <6 hours earlier = 1 later than Houston
(23) New York - Houston, <1 hour earlier = finally I can tell time.

CURRENCY (as of Sept 2):
Spain and Portugal both use the Euro. Morocco & Tunisia have their own currencies.
Spain/Portugal Euros: 1 = $1.4231$=0.703 Euro
Morocco Dirham:1 = $0.1261$=7.945 MAD
Tunisia Dinar: 1 = $0.7591$=1.317 TND
British Pound: 1 = $1.6161$=0.619 GBP