From al-Andalus to al-Maghreb, and Beyond

Thursday, July 30, 2009 | Malaga, Spain (map)

The break in Portugal and southern Spain has been good for us. Here, tourists take a carriage across one of Ronda's many bridges.
Before returning to Morocco, Jacqueline and I spent the last days of our Iberian roadtrip kicking around Andalucia.

In Zafra, we discovered Secreto Ibérico. At a café in the old town's main square, both of us ordered the mysterious "Iberian Secret", left unexplained by the menu, on the waitress's recommendation. It turned out to be a tender pork fillet, seared to juicy perfection—perhaps our best meal of the entire trip.

Our next stop, Ronda, was a picturesque stone-and-mortar town split by a deep chasm, its sandstone cliffs housing the swallows that swooped through the evening skies.

We wandered between tapas bars, shopped for espadrilles, sampled local wines and prosciuttos, and climbed the city's ramparts for a view of the surrounding horse pastures.

Sipping Porto in the Douro

Monday, July 27, 2009 | Pinhão, Portugal (map)

After a long day's drive, we enjoyed a glass of white wine in the quinta's garden.
The next stop in our Portuguese road trip was the Douro Valley, famed home of Portugal's most celebrated export—vinho do porto, or port wine. Though its production begins like that of traditional wines, port is infused with brandy partway through the fermentation process, increasing both the alcohol and sugar content of the wine and adding yet more layers of complexity to its flavor.

The Douro River runs from the mountains of northeastern Portugal westward to the Atlantic, where the city of Porto is located. Around midday, Jacqueline and I drove into the valley some 150 km upriver, near the town of Lamego. The valley at once appeared impressively large, especially considering that almost every inch of soil for as far as we could see was terraced with grape vines.

At Peso da Régua we turned onto the narrow road that wound along the riverbank, toward the town of Pinhão. A train passed by, chugging through tunnels and over trestle bridges on the far shore.

Aveiro: the "Portuguese Venice" Proves a Good Catch

Wednesday, July 22, 2009 | Aveiro, Portugal (map)

Brightly painted houses are just part of the unexpected flair of the fishing town of Aveiro, on Portugal's Atlantic coast.
All on its own, the town of Aveiro might have justified our entire road trip through Portugal and southern Spain.

On the Atlantic coast halfway between Lisbon and Porto, a wide expanse of salt marshes surrounds Aveiro. They begin at the town's edge, and stretch to the horizon in a geometric array of shallow ponds and grassy dikes. This patchwork, and the occasional ramshackle pump house, are the relics of Aveiro's once famous but now fading saltworks.

The town itself—perfectly quaint like every other city and village in Portugal—straddles a series of canals plied by brightly painted gondolas. In this "Portuguese Venice", a renaissance is clearly underway. The narrow rows of traditional fishermen's homes have given ground to new pedestrian thoroughfares, a flowing shopping center integrated elegantly into the town's center, and even a

Though the Meter Man Lurks, Lisbon Still Delights

Monday, July 20, 2009 | Lisbon, Portugal (map)

Each of Lisbon's hills has a distinct atmosphere, from the seedy to the sacred, making the city a thrill to explore.
Why, oh why, did we decide to drive?

I first began to ask myself this question on the highway just outside Lisbon, as we sat in full horizon-to-horizon gridlock, creeping imperceptibly toward the Portuguese capital.

Strangely, when we finally reached the center of the city it looked almost deserted. Late on a Sunday afternoon, most shops were closed and the pedestrians were few.

So too were the parking spaces. Thus, while Jacqueline and I walked around downtown searching for a suitable place to stay, our rental car sat in a garage, racking up a substantial bill. We finally opted to stay in the brand new Shiado Hostel, on Rua Anchieta in the Chiado district, a hopelessly parked-up maze of narrow streets sandwiched between two of the city's most popular neighborhoods. The car spent the night parked far, far away.

On the Algarve Coast, Discovering Portugal's Charms

Saturday, July 18, 2009 | Lagos, Portugal (map)

Praia Dona Ana sits between the cliffs and shimmering waters west of Lagos, on Portugal's Algarve Coast.
Saturday morning we accompanied Jacqueline's family to the Málaga airport to say our goodbyes. Afterward, there was no master plan; we just needed to be back eight days later for our flight back to Morocco.

In a snap decision, we scrapped our plans of public transport and rented a small Opel four-seater. At a gas station on the road to Sevilla, we picked up a road map of the Iberian peninsula, adding to our minimal library of knowledge on Spain and Portugal (which until this point consisted only of our as-yet-untouched Let's Go! Spain and Portugal guidebook). Our Iberian road trip had begun.

Eager to reach Portugal, we hurried across the rolling plains of southwest Spain toward the border.

After four hours driving, as we neared the Rio Guadiana, which separates southern Portugal from its larger neighbor, the radio stations took on a different flavor. Raucous Spanish rock songs gave

Southern Spain: We Could Get Used to This

Wednesday, July 15, 2009 | Marbella, Spain (map)

Spain's Marbella Club Hotel: now those are some nice digs.
The second leg of our trip with Jacqueline's family took us from Marrakech to southern Spain.

We planned to stay outside Marbella, the nightlife capital of Spain's Costa del Sol, where a Powers family friend owns a condo. However, when the airline misplaced our bags—including the one with the condo's keys inside—Jacqueline's dad Jeff picked up the phone. A few calls and an hour later, we pulled into the swanky Marbella Club Hotel, for decades an exclusive beachfront retreat of Europe's rich and famous. Framed black-and-whites of Spanish royalty lined the walls of the reception; our room came stocked with a plate of chocolate-covered strawberries and fresh fruits. This was a lot better than any "Plan B" I might have come up with (as Jacqueline was quick to point out).

* * *

The next day, after several hours' waiting at the Málaga airport, we moved into the condo, located just down the coast from Marbella in San Pedro de Alcántara. The family relaxed on the porch that

Marrakech: Summer Vacation in the Red City

Monday, July 13, 2009 | Marrakesh, Morocco (map)

Marrakech's Koutoubia Mosque looms large over the old city.
After a grueling and nearly sleepless week, my last five minutes in Rabat were a whirlwind: toss reports on boss's desk, shut down computer, sprint three blocks home, dump fridge contents into trash bag and give to building caretaker, shoulder backpack, cut power, fumble door lock, sprint four blocks to train station, board train and collapse.

My latest contract finished, I was finally, unbelievably heading out for two much-needed weeks of relaxation. First destination: Marrakech, surely one of Earth's least relaxing cities.

I taxied up to the Villa des Orangers in mid-evening and ducked through the thick wooden door, hidden amidst a grease-blackened strip of mechanic shops.

Jacqueline and her family were inside the hotel's opulent central courtyard. Her father and stepmother, and her ten-year-old twin brothers Jack and William, were visiting for several days