Thursday, March 26, 2009

It's Been a Good Time...

... to be in Spain, visiting our son.

Some observations from spending a lot of time behind the wheel:

  • Driving in Madrid is pretty easy. Deciding to turn into the old part of Seville is not something that should be undertaken without having some idea where one wants to go. I was reduced to "I'm going to follow that Mercedes, he has to be going somewhere." They are building a subway system in Seville, but until then, there are buses, a light rail line that doesn't go very far, and ... driving in a maze.
  • We think of Gibraltar as being a bit of Jolly Olde attached to the bottom of Spain. It actually is much more like a part of Spain that happens to belong to England. Yes, there are "Give Way" yield signs and rule-Brittania mailboxes. But it is not the Queen's English that you are hearing, and the houses have much more to do with la vida Espanol than with Swinging London.
  • Taking the expressway from one end of Madrid to the other is a lot like driving the New Jersey Turnpike in Essex and Union Counties. People who say "Oh, there's no sprawl in European countries like in the U.S." are people who have taken the bus or train from old city to old city and not driven themselves. What is different, of course, is that they have managed to combine suburban sprawl (including giant malls) with vibrant city centers. How this country could have been different had freeways not been driven into downtowns! European cities have freeways just like American ones, but they don't go into the heart of town.
  • If you love residential architecture, the thing to see in Seville is the Casa de Pilates. No, it's not an exercise facility.
  • Parking at the Imagen garage in Seville makes you realize that it really once was a country where everyone drove the equivalents of Fiat Cinquecentos and Renault 2cvs. Spain is no longer such a country. They don't drive pickups and there is no equivalent of the Crown Victoria, but the cars are mostly the same size as cars in America, and they drive the smaller SUVs and Chrysler Voyagers as well. There was even a Hummer in one parking garage.
  • If a parking garage is "Completo" in Spain, you don't drive off looking for another one, you just wait at the entrance until a space opens up and the sign turns to "Libre." In America you would feel like an idiot doing that.
  • You sure can go far on a gallon of diesel.
  • If taking the ferry to Tangier, you will have to run the gauntlet of tour guides -- but most of them will give up once you get out of the port, and most others who come by can be easily waived off. However, at least one of them -- let's call him Ben -- may make you his mark and stalk you for hours, patiently waiting across the street while you have lunch, letting you walk on the beach, but always there when you start turning toward the kasbah. My advice with the benefit of hindsight: Take a taxi from the port to the Place de France and come back at the old town from the direction of the new. There will still be touts, but not the ones who follow you for an entire day waiting to break you down, because they look for people who don't look like they know what they're doing. (Yes, I broke down.) Plus, when you get to Tangier by the ferry you see the old town and some restaurants with a line of idle men in front of them and think, well, this may be exotic, but it may be kind of creepy as well. Just five or six blocks away from this is a prosperous, lively, modern downtown area where many of the traditional Moroccan items, the leather goods and mint tea and the like, are on sale without bargaining or hassles, and where clearly a lot of the Moroccans do their own shopping. And the stores on the main street through the medina are run by people who are good salesmen and bargainers in a way we are not used to in America, but who are respectful of you as a customer and are professional and a delight to deal with without any intermediary. But the unofficial guide will never let you know this, of course, because his job is to take you to the out-of-the-way stores in the medina where he gets a cut.
  • At the same time, trying to get through the medina on your own is probably a bad idea. You really have no idea where you are, the streets are four feet wide and curve every 10 feet, and you get the sense that except for the merchants, the people who live there really don't want you there. They put up with it, because they always have, but they are the people who are living there because they either can't afford to live in the modern city or don't want to. I was a bit over my head to think I could simply stroll through unguided. So hire one of the guides wearing an official badge -- but make sure you work out how long you want to be in the medina, what sort of shopping you want to do, and what sights you want to see; and then once at the Petit or Grand Soccos, be on your own.

All this and I come back to find out they have killed the Ann Arbor News. Well, more about that to come.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Franco was still in power on my last visit to Spain (although he probably was close to still dead), and there's no way I would have rented a car.... I also got a bit paranoid just walking down the streets; that's another story.

But anyway, glad to see you back here.... I was beginning to worry.....

lois1lan (can't seem to make the password work here, but you know who I am)