Morocco/Spain diary: Day 19

19 February, 2015

Wednesday, 1 October, 2014. 11:33

We are on the train from Zaragoza to Barcelona, with just over an hour to go until we arrive.

We got up at 07:30 this morning, to give us enough time to shower and have breakfast before leaving to catch our train. This morning I had a fried egg on toast with mushrooms. The buffet has small elliptical glasses filled with yoghurt and Seville marmalade, which I tried, before some muesli and fresh fruit, finishing off with a hot chocolate and churros. There were also huge slices of rich looking chocolate cake this morning, but I avoided those.

We checked out and walked with our bags to the nearest bus stop, which was about ten minutes away. A number 34 bus arrived almost immediately to take us to Estacion Delicias. A stop at one end of the station was named Estacion Delicias Salidas, which I took to mean “exits” as in “arrivals”. But as we discovered when we stayed on for the next stop of Estacion Delicias Llegados, “salidas” also means “departures”. So we had to walk the considerable length of the station from the arrivals end to the departures end. We had plenty of time though, as the Barcelona train an hour before ours was just arriving as we entered the station.

We scanned our luggage through the security check and then waited on a comfy couch for our train, M. reading a novel and me reading up on Barcelona from our guide book. When we passed through the ticket checking counter to go on to the platform, the lady told us that our carriage, number eight, was right at the bottom of the stairs. We waited there and it turned up on cue, so we had no trouble boarding and getting our seats for the trip.

Although it was clear in Zaragoza, the countryside all around it appears to be fogged in, much as when we travelled from Madrid the other day. The sun is just breaking through now to reveal the Spanish countryside, with farms on plains scattered between lumpy hills and patches of forest.

Hotel Villa Emilia view
View from Hotel Villa Emilia, Barcelona.

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Morocco/Spain diary: Day 18

25 January, 2015

Tuesday, 30 September, 2014, 10:20

We are just finishing off our late breakfast in the hotel buffet. We decided to sleep in and eat late because the museums we want to visit this morning don’t open until 10:00. The breakfast buffet here is huge, with dozens of different types of meats and cheeses and pastries, as well as several types of both cakes and biscuits. There are churros and hot chocolate (to which you can add star anise or lemon slices or chunks of cinnamon bark), pancakes, frittatas, fried eggs, multiple different types of sausage, bacon, several bowls of fresh diced fruit, lots of different types of bread and bread rolls, five types of cereal (including muesli for the first time on the entire trip), five types of fruit juice, mineral water both con gas and sin gas, a coffee machine which makes seven different types of coffee at the touch of a button, and even a bottle of opened red wine. It’s enormous and would be very tempting, but at this time of the morning I really just want muesli and fruit.

14:23

We are taking a drink break at the cafe El Picadero on Plaza San Pedro Nolasco. M. tried to order a cappuccino but they didn’t make those, so she got caffe con leche. I tried to ask for an orange juice, but ended up with a fizzy orange soda. (I asked for “juego“, which I thought was “juice”, but looking it up I see that actually means “game”, so who knows what the waitress thought I was asking for.) After finishing the drinks we’ll order some sandwiches for a very late lunch.

Roman theatre stage
Roman Theatre of Caesaraugusta.

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Awesomely average

15 January, 2015

I am starting up a new Dungeons & Dragons campaign using the new 5th edition rules. I’m going to run a group of friends through the first published adventure for the new rules – Hoard of the Dragon Queen.

Accordingly, the players need to generate 1st level characters. I’ve decided to use the random method of stat generation, which is rolling 4d6 and adding the best 3 dice together to form six ability scores, followed by the player assigning them to the ability scores any way they want. As a fallback, if the whims of Fate hand a player horrid bad luck and a hand of awful scores, they can choose to take the default score set listed in the book (15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8) instead of the rolls. I still kind of like the slight uncertainty of randomness, but this method at least removes the chance of being stuck with an unfun set of scores.

Anyway, today several of the players rolled their stats. Mostly they were a decent spread of scores. But one player managed to roll: 12, 12, 12, 11, 12, 12.

Now, adventurers are above average individuals, and the best 3 of 4d6 method is designed to generate above average scores. Average is nominally the result of a straight 3d6, which has an average score of 10.5. So five 12s and an 11 is actually above average in every single ability score.

While the player was lamenting his luck and trying to decide whether or not to fall back to the default score set, another player came up with the following backstory:

You come from a small village. While growing up, you realised that you were naturally better at everything than anyone else in your village! You were stronger, faster, more athletic, healthier, smarter, wiser, and everyone loved you. Any task you tried your hand at, you quickly mastered and could outperform your teacher. So, you decided you were made to be… an adventurer!

And so you left your little village and went out into the world to seek your fortune. You are supremely confident in your skills. After all, you can fight, you can cast spells, you can sneak and pick pockets, you can do healing – all better than anyone in your home village! So when you joined an adventuring band, you decided that any task that came up was your responsibility. Need someone to sneak around and scout the enemy – you! Be in the front row to protect the weaker fighters – you! Parley with hostile humanoids – you! You are keen and bright-eyed, and eager to volunteer for any and every job the adventuring group needs!

We all ended up laughing so much that I think the player is probably going to keep his very slightly above average scores, and turn it into a roleplaying windfall.

Morocco/Spain diary: Day 17

14 January, 2015

Monday, 29 September, 2014. 09:52

We are waiting in Atocha Station in Madrid for our train to Zaragoza, which departs at 10:30. We got up at 07:30 to shower and then have breakfast in the hotel, before packing our bags and checking out. Today I tried the sunflowers seeds sprinkled over my cereal, only to discover too late that they had been salted! So I had to stir the salty seeds through the strawberry yoghurt to mask the saltiness.

We paid for the breakfasts as we checked out, then walked out into the cool morning air. It was a shirt walk to the Opera Metro station, where we caught the lift from the plaza down to the station, to avoid carrying our luggage down the stairs. We caught a train to Sol, and switched lines to get the train to Atocha Renfe, right below the long distance train station. Once here, we used a lift again and then went through baggage control, where they x-ray all luggage going on to a train. We are now sitting in an airport-style departure lounge area, with the platforms visible below us through glass walls. There are a lot of people waiting here; I presume many of them will be on our train, which goes to Barcelona, although we get off midway, at Zaragoza.

15:11. Hotel Catalonia El Pilar, Zaragoza.

We have arrived in Zaragoza and are taking a short break in our hotel room, since everything around here seems to be closed from 14:00 until either 16:00 or 17:00, including all the museums and cathedrals and other stuff we might want to see. We were silly and had lunch early, at about 13:30, when we should have been sightseeing and then taking a two hour lunch from 14:00!

Hotel Catalonia El Pilar, Zaragoza
View from our room at Hotel Catalonia El Pilar.

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Morocco/Spain diary: Day 16

5 January, 2015

Sunday, 28 September, 2014. 09:26

The yoghurt here is not as good as it was in Morocco. We’re having breakfast at the hotel buffet, which costs 7.95 euro. It’s an extensive buffet with eggs, sausages, bacon, lots of bread and bread rolls, croissants, pastries, cereal, yoghurt, cakes, Spanish omelette, cheese (Edam, Brie, and a fresh white cheese), cold meats, fresh fruit, juices, dried fruit, a bowl of sunflower seeds, and more.

19:03

We are sitting at a place called La Vinoteca, in Plaza de Santa Ana, a small square in front of the Teatro Español. We have just ordered some patatas bravas and albondigas to eat with some glasses of Alfar red wine from Rioja. The sun is starting to go down and the day is very pleasant with plenty of activity in the square in front of us.

Plaza de Santa Ana
Relaxing in Plaza de Santa Ana at the end of the day.

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Hunter Valley trip

31 December, 2014

On the spur of the moment, my wife and I decide to take an overnight driving trip to the Hunter Valley, 100km north of Sydney. We left on Monday, 29 December, and drove up the quick way, using the freeway until the Cessnock turnoff, where we cut inland to the valley. We stopped for lunch at Tatler winery, which has a cafe that serves tapas-like lunches. We had some duck liver pate with lots of trimmings, and goat’s cheese tarts, which was plenty for two people to share.

Goat's cheese tarts

We drove around various places, stopping at Handmade in the Hunter markets at Kevin Sobel’s winery, browsing around the stalls there. I bought some chilli sauce from the Hot Chilli Woman.
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Morocco/Spain diary: Day 15

26 December, 2014

Saturday, 27 September, 2014. 11:51

We are sitting in Marrakesh International Airport, waiting for our flight to Madrid. It’s a very small airport by international standards, with one large waiting area and what looks like just three gates. It looks like they don’t even have jet tubes, and we might have to walk across the tarmac to board the plane.

We got up a bit before 07:30, and thankfully the hot water was working again, so we both showered and dressed for today’s travel. We repacked our bags from scratch and regained enough space to fit everything in. I am carrying the fossil plates we bought to make sure they don’t get smashed in the luggage, and M. is carrying the ceramics we got in Fes.

Our final breakfast in Morocco was leisurely. This time the cake was an orange cake, and the varying bread product was thin squares of fried pastry, all crispy with no doughy part, sprinkled with sesame seed and a few spots of honey. The yoghurt selection today included pistachio yoghurt, which we both tried. I scraped the fuzz off a kiwifruit and bit into it, but it was very sour. We saw Bev and Colleen again, and the rest of their tour group, who ate at the large communal table, while we sat at a table for two. Colleen said there was a mix-up with their dinner last night, and she got left behind when she went back to her room to collect something, and they had to send a taxi to pick her up and take her to rejoin her tour group!

After eating, we packed and double checked we had everything, then left the room, handed the key back to one of the cleaning ladies, and sat to wait for our airport transfer at 10:45. We took the time to check how to get from Madrid Airport to our hotel for tonight. It looks like we can use the Metro, but we will have to change lines twice to get to Opera, the nearest station to the hotel. Fortunately from there it’s only about a 50 metre walk to the hotel.

During our trip here in Morocco, several of the people we were travelling with accidentally took euro out of their wallets instead of dirhams and didn’t realise it. Someone told a story about people accidentally paying with euro and the merchant taking it without comment, thus making a huge profit at the expense of the unfortunate traveller. So we kept an eye on other people’s money and corrected their mistakes a few times.

M. has checked out the few shops here in the airport waiting lounge, and spent the last of our dirham notes, using 70 to buy a small parcel of chocolate coated almonds. All the prices here are marked in euro, not dirhams, but they accepted the dirhams. The chocolates are ridiculously expensive, but we won’t get another chance to spend our dirhams.

13:20

Our flight to Madrid should have started boarding 15 minutes ago, but the plane hasn’t even landed here yet.

We wanted to get rid of our last handful of dirham coins. I looked for a charity donation box, but couldn’t find one. So I suggested we could give them to the toilet cleaning ladies when we use the toilets before getting in the flight, even though when I went earlier I saw no evidence anywhere of them collecting money. But then I found a charity box in another wander, and dropped all the coins in. And them M. went to use the toilets, and the cleaning ladies had their hands out asking for coins as she emerged!

Leaving Marrakesh
Boarding our flight from Marrakesh to Madrid.

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Morocco/Spain diary: Day 14

26 December, 2014

Friday, 26 September, 2014. 18:10

We are relaxing on our extra day after the tour!

We woke up leisurely a bit before 08:30 and dressed to go to the roof for breakfast. Jill and Jay were there, with bad news overnight. Air France is on an extended strike and their flights out of Morocco to Hong Kong via Paris have been cancelled. So they were busy figuring out what they could do about that. Also present were Ben, Maria, Karen, Heather, Greg, and Graham, with everyone else having left early.

For breakfast this morning they had cooked flat crumpet-like pancakes with big bubbles in them, and there was a big bowl of fresh fruit: apples, bananas, and kiwifruit. I tried a pancake, then had a bowl of corn flakes with yoghurt, and then cut myself a fruit salad and had that with yoghurt too. Karen and Heather were ordering lunch from the riad’s food menu, since they were leaving shortly after lunch time, and M. decided we’d stay in for dinner tonight rather than wander the streets at night any more. We figured one set menu of salad, couscous, and fruit for dessert would be enough for us to share, so ordered just one of those. The price was very expensive at 220 dirhams. We think they charge so much and need the orders early to go and buy ingredients, since we assume they actually don’t cook food here very much – it’s not really a restaurant.

After breakfast we said goodbye to everyone, and to Lahcen as well who we saw hovering about before he checked out and left for home. I thought Ben said he might be hanging around the pool about 4pm this afternoon, but he doesn’t seem to be here any more, so maybe he’s gone to the airport already too.

We prepared for our final day in Marrakesh and set off to walk north towards the Koutoubia Mosque with the tallest minaret in Marrakesh, near the Jemaa el-Fnaa square, and then on to some of the parks and gardens in that direction. Ben had said one of them was a “cyber park”, with free WiFi and computers. We ran the gantlet of the busy streets and had a close look at the mosque, which had an area of old ruins immediately adjacent to it on the north side. The exterior of the mosque looks quite old and in poor repair, but it is apparently still an active mosque. Perhaps the interior is nice, but we couldn’t have a look to find out.

Koutoubia Mosque
Koutoubia Mosque.

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Morocco/Spain diary: Day 13

22 December, 2014

Thursday, 25 September, 2014. 18:59

We are relaxing just before dinner with the group, our last dinner of the tour.

We woke up at 07:40 and got ready for breakfast at 08:00. It was a bit late being prepared, so we hung out on the roof terrace in the cool morning air for a bit until it was ready. The repast consisted of baguettes and roti with jams and butter, plus a selection of corn flakes or chocolate cereal, and yoghurt. I hadn’t had cereal for several days, so I had two bowls of the corn flakes, one with apricot yoghurt and one with strawberry yoghurt. A crunchy breakfast after so many days of bread and jam and boiled eggs was luxury.

00:04 (just after midnight)

We have just returned to our riad after the last dinner of the tour – a long and special event at a fancy hotel restaurant in the new town area of Marrakesh.

Winding back to breakfast, we assembled for the final walking tour of the voyage. We met the local guide, a man named Mustafa, wearing a light brown jellaba with the hood up, and short horizontal glasses. He led us out through the hectic streets to the prime ministerial palace Palais Bahia, which is the only palace in Morocco which visitors are allowed inside. He stopped on the street along the way to explain some of the history of the Berber kings and the palaces, including this one.

Entering the palace gates was an immediate breath of fresh air, as the traffic vanished, to be replaced by fruit trees and a peaceful courtyard. The only thing to dodge now were the hordes of tourists. There were dozens of huge tour groups of 40-50 people being led around by guides carrying flags and signs. I haven’t seen so many tourists in one place since… probably since the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, actually.

Palais Bahia courtyard
Palais Bahia courtyard.

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Morocco/Spain diary: Day 12

21 December, 2014

Wednesday, 24 September, 2014. 08:30

Aït Benhaddou is a popular tourist spot because it is a day trip from Marrakesh. Apparently the village here is swarming with tourists at lunch time, and becomes deserted overnight. Although the hotel we’re staying at seems to have hundreds of rooms, and a luxurious swimming pool, we seem to be the only people staying here.

We woke with the alarm at 07:15 after probably the best sleep of the trip so far. Breakfast from 07:30 was a familiar looking selection of bread, jam, honey, boiled eggs, and freshly curled butter in a dish. The fried bread here was small squares which looked different to the donut rings in other places, but tasted the same. The bowl of apricot jam was enormous, a huge salad bowl full of the stuff. We were the first there on the terrace, joined by Leanne and Michelle and Terry soon after. The view from the terrace was amazing, on to a sunlit slope of mud brick buildings. After packing the bus we are heading on an hour long walk through the village up that hill to see the view before driving to Marrakesh.

Ksar Aït Benhaddou in dawn light
View of Ksah Aït Benhaddou from breakfast.

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