The Running of the Crazy People (Oh Yeah, and Bulls)

My, oh, my… I’ll try to go in chronological order, since that’s the only way I can attempt to describe a few days of chaos in a way that might convey at least a little bit of what San Fermín (Running of the Bulls) was really like. There were a few websites like TripAdvisor.com and Phillypena.com (this guy is super cool & helpful) that were fantastic resources, but no amount of information can really prepare you for something like this.  You just have to see it to believe it, so trust me, you should really go.  These people are the craziest, friendliest and most fun in the world.  If you don’t want to read the whole blog, you can check out our videos to get a small taste.

Ok, back to the beginning… Our bus arrived from Bilbao around 12:30pm.  Unfortunately, we didn’t book accommodations as early as we should’ve, so pickings were slim, unless we wanted to pay 350€ or more per night (no thanks), sleep in the park (too old for that), or stay an hour outside of town (too young for that)… so we took what we could get.  We ended up renting a room from this company who owns several apartment buildings around town and rents out the rooms for this event.  I believe the term that someone on TripAdvisor used to describe one of their apartments was “hell hole,” so I wasn’t expecting much.

We were told to pick up our keys at their “office”, which was about a 5 minute walk from the bus station.  This is when we stumbled upon our first of many drum march band parade thingies (sorry, but I really don’t know how else to describe it).  A few days later we ended up in another one of these (this time voluntarily), and it took the crowd 40 minutes to move the distance of a small block.  Therefore, I do not recommend trying to walk through such a parade if you’re actually trying to go somewhere – and especially not if you’re carrying luggage.

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Bilbao, Spain: Gawking at the Guggenheim

We have found the most helpful city in all of Europe.  Five people gave us advice on how to get from the airport to our hotel, even though we only asked one.  People literally came up to us on the street and offered help.  At first I thought, “Do we really look that lost?!” But after noticing a pattern over a few days, I realized that’s just the way people are around here.  We also had people offer to help us at the bus station and the Metro station… in fact, that was the same guy both times.  He even missed his train to help us catch ours.  Nice, nice people.

Our primary motivation for coming to Bilbao was to see the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry. This is definitely the coolest museum I’ve ever seen – even cooler than the Guggenheim in New York designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (and we are huge FLW fans, so this is a big statement).  There is not a straight line in the entire building – inside or out – everything is fluid.  It’s artistic and engineering genius.

Honestly, the only reason I came was for the building, and I wasn’t so much looking forward to following Scott around the exhibits.  I realize this makes me sound uncultured, but after a while all museums look the same to me, unless there is a specific attraction.  However, I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the exhibits in the Guggenheim were almost as interesting as the building itself.  The 12 Euro ticket was well worth it.  Oh, but they don’t allow cameras inside… except that everyone had cameras.  Unfortunately, I’m a rule follower, so we left our camera inside the backpack at the coat check, but if you’re the sneaky type and have a small camera, you can likely get away with a few shots… as long as you’re ok with answering to God and/or the security guards!

The museum is by far the main attraction in town, but the town itself is also lovely.  I have a friend in Barcelona who works as a flight attendant, and after a couple of trips to Bilbao, she said it’s a place she could call home.  After visiting, I can see what she means.  It’s such a welcoming city – beautiful, comfortable, medium-sized, super nice people… and tons of cool art stuffed inside one huge piece of art.

Aunt Janice & Uncle Dave Take on Catalunya

Aunt Janice has been one of our biggest supporters almost ever since she found out we were moving to Spain.  At first she wasn’t too happy about it, but the more she learned about Spain, the more she wanted us to move so that they could visit.

My mom (who thinks “Barcelona” is Catalan for “stairs”), gave her big sister all sorts of warnings before their big trip… “Now Janice, it’s going to be a lot of walking and a lot of stairs… Are you practicing?  Did you pack the Ibuprofen?”  So Aunt Janice & Uncle Dave were well prepared for the trip.  It also helped that my parents, being our first visitors, were our guinea pigs.  After we ran them into the ground, we realized maybe we had tried to fit in too much, so we have since improved our tour guide skills.  I’m sure they are glad to have made that sacrifice for the well being of our future guests. Right mom & dad?

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Málaga, Spain

I won’t beat around the bush.  Our overall opinion of Málaga: eh.

It’s a fine place, and many people we met at our hotel absolutely love it here; but in my humble opinion, you can get better versions of all the same things elsewhere in Andalucía, or other parts of Spain.  Better beaches, better Picasso museums, better castles, better Roman ruins, better shopping, better weather… We didn’t hate it or anything, but if you have a limited amount of time in Spain, my advice would be to not spend too much of it here.

We had a nice day at the beach when we first arrived, but the sun is very intense here, so we both got a little burned, even with sunblock and an umbrella.  Not miserably burned, but enough to make you think you better not go back again tomorrow.  So there goes the primary source of entertainment in this city.

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Ronda, Spain: white-washed romance

I’m not sure how I decided that we needed to visit Ronda.  Every time it would come up in discussions about our itinerary, Scott would say, “Sooo… what’s in Ronda?” And I never really had a good answer, besides that I heard it was really beautiful.

We actually ended up cutting our time here to 1 night, to give us a little more time in previous locations… since we weren’t too sure why we were coming here anyway.  But somehow we ended up staying for 3 nights.

We were completely unprepared, so we exited the train station to find out there are no city buses and no taxis around, so we hoofed it about a mile to our hotel.  Giuseppe (our GPS device) told us the shortest route… but what Giuseppe didn’t know, is that this particular route sent us all the way down a steep hill, across a bridge, then all the way back up the hill on the other side.

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Gibraltar, United Kingdom

We managed to hit 3 countries on 2 continents in 2 days, with less than an hours travel time between each of them.  The southern tip of Spain was not only the perfect launching point to hit Morocco, but also the British territory of Gibraltar.

The Spanish buses don’t take you directly into the U.K. territory, but the bus station is conveniently located about a block from the border.  You can spot the infamous Rock of Gibraltar from miles away, but after crossing the border, you’ll encounter one of its most unique traits before you even get to the rock.  You will cross an airport runway.  It’s the only runway in the world that has a stoplight, where traffic (both by vehicle and foot) can cross freely between take-offs and landings.  We first crossed it by bus, but later went back again to walk it on foot, just to say we did.

That was only the first of oddities found in this 2 ¼ square mile plot of land.  We crossed the runway and headed directly to the cable car station, which takes you to the state park on top of the rock.  While in line, we were approached by a guy selling a tour.  We had no intentions of even paying attention, but he was doing such a great job at selling to the people ahead of us, that we ended up signing up ourselves.  It turned out to be only 1 Euro more expensive than if we had done it all on our own, so it was a pretty good deal, and we liked the guy.

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Tanger, Morocco

According to Rick Steves, Tanger is no longer ‘the Tijuana of Africa.’  But according to the Moroccan guy in the carpet store in Tanger, “You should really spend some time and go south, because that is the real Morocco!”  So, picture some place between those two descriptions.  Not the cleanest, but not a complete slum; a place of interest, but not at all representative of the rest of the country.

Either way, Tanger is all you get if you want a day trip from Spain.  At some point I would love to take a longer trip to go deeper into Morocco, but for now we just got a small taste.

With the high speed ferry from Tarifa, Spain, which takes about 35 minutes, we were in Africa in no time.  We had done a lot of research in advance, and read plenty of reviews on whether or not to hire a *official* guide, how to do so, etc.  The common thread we recognized was that no one really felt like they had done things right the first time.  We heard tons of people say things like, “We did this, but if I were to go again, I’d do it this way…”

Part of the culture in Morocco is to negotiate.  I don’t think haggling is one of my strengths, so part of me always feels like I’m being taken advantage of.  Based on the various blogs & forums we read, I don’t think I’m the only one that feels that way.

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Tarifa, Spain: This Place Blows!

I found out first-hand that Tarifa is the wind capitol of Europe.  It’s a cool little town, but not quite a “destination” for most people, unless your goal is to windsurf, kite surf, or find the fastest way to Morocco.  We were here for the latter.

Most people don’t go out of their way to visit Tarifa, but it’s worth a look if you’re in the area.  Not to mention it’s faaar better than Algeciras, which is another common gateway to both Morocco and Gibraltar.  That place blows too, but not because it’s windy.

Tarifa sits on the southernmost tip of Spain, and you can actually see Africa from there.  I’m not sure if the ferry we took across to Morocco was actually a high speed, or if it’s just fast because it gets blown between Continents by the strong off-shore winds.

We arrived mid-afternoon and hit up a rooftop beach bar for a late lunch.  We had just come from Cádiz, where the beaches were completely full before noon, so we couldn’t figure out why the beach in Tarifa was pretty empty – especially on a Saturday afternoon!  Well, after we finished our lunch we decided to park it under an umbrella for a bit, and that’s when we discovered our answer.

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Cádiz, Spain

I think we only heard English once the entire time we were in Cádiz.  It was awesome.  Its beaches are definitely a tourist destination, but mostly for the Spaniards.  Cádiz, the oldest continuously inhabited city in western Europe, is only connected to the mainland by a small strip of land.  It’s pretty far down there and the public transportation is terrible, so most backpackers or foreign tourists don’t make their way down… but we did, and it was well worth the trip.

Getting into Cádiz isn’t too difficult (especially if you’re coming from Seville), but getting around the town stinks.  The train is used a bit like a Metro/subway system, as you can use it to get from one end of town to the other.  The problem is that the trains only go once an hour (in Barcelona we complain if we have to wait more than three minutes for the next Metro train).  The buses are just as bad.  The good news is that taxis are cheap, so it’s a good option if you just missed the train and don’t want to wait another 59 minutes.

Depending on where you stay, many things are within walking distance.  Both the train & bus station are near the Old Town.  There are also beaches in that area, but “THE” beach, Playa Victoria – the greatest beach in all of Spain – is a bit of a hike away.  We opted to stay near that beach, and go into town for the day, but you could also do it the other way around, depending on your priorities.

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