What is rafting the Grand Canyon like?

This September/October, I had the unforgettable opportunity to raft for 21 days down the Colorado River through a portion of the Grand Canyon with my parents. Prior to the trip, I had gone on a few other rafting trips before, but still knew very little about rafting. Now, post-trip, I am hardly an expert, but I can at least answer the top questions that I had before!

Where do you do the rafting, exactly?

The navigable portion of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon runs from Lee’s Ferry, near the middle of the border between Utah and Arizona, to Pearce Ferry, right before the Colorado River runs into Lake Mead at the border between Arizona and Nevada. In between, the river snakes for 280.5 miles. We stopped at Diamond Creek, however, 225.9 miles down the river.

An excellent map from one of the whitewater river running companies, Rivers & Oceans.

How do you get to raft the Grand Canyon?

Because of the high demand for rafting trips down the Grand Canyon and the limited capacity of just a few private/non-commercial launches a day (472 private trip launches total in 2017), there is a lottery system for permits. When applying for a permit, you can specify up to 5 desired launch dates, for a trip lasting up to 21-25 days. In February, the National Park Service notifies the permit winner(s) for the following year.

For 2017, there were 5,550 applications for 472 private permits. That makes a 8.5% chance of getting a permit. But certain times of the year are much more popular (e.g. 371 applications were submitted for September 19th, 2017, when the weather gets more temperate and motor season ends, versus only 1 application submitted for December 14th, 2017, which I imagine is a less ideal time to be in the Canyon). Thus, there was in reality a 0.78% chance of getting a permit for our specific launch date.

My lucky mother pulled both this permit and a previous one less than 10 years ago. While she’s on this lucky streak, I don’t think it would hurt to apply for the actual lottery… In any case, I’m also very lucky that it was my own mother who got the permit, as my chances of getting invited on a Grand Canyon rafting trip would be similarly low otherwise. Although for the record, I do bring a few things to the table: documentation, photography, a helping hand, and a knack for spontaneous gift-giving!

Alternatively, you can also forgo the whole permit system by booking a commercial trip through a company that will provide guides and most of the gear. The number of commercial launches is also limited, and commercial trips have fewer days (16-18). It’s also not cheap – a 16-day trip that I found which covered the same distance, from Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Creek, costs more than $5,000/person.

What do you pack?

Organizing and packing is the biggest part of a river rafting trip, especially in the weeks preceding the trip. Everything that you need to eat, wear, and use for 21+ days, along with some group gear like tables, kitchen supplies, and bathroom supplies has to fit on the raft. It must be accessible when needed, but also packed in water-sealed bags/compartments and strapped down so that you won’t lose it if the raft flips. No wonder why, in response to the question “So how hard is rafting the Grand Canyon?”, the river guide writes, “The biggest challenge is often arranging the logistics of an extended river trip.”

We made it especially hard on ourselves by only leaving 5 days to get everything prepared. The 5 days consisted of mad dashes to Costco, where we tried to estimate with limited success how much food we needed for 21 days, hurried orders on Amazon for items that we were missing, and frustrating searches through piles of dusty gear. We got it all together on time, but just barely!

Packing 21 days worth of food and gear on the raft at the put-in at Lee’s Ferry

A very incomplete list of essential river gear:

  • Personal floatation device (PFD) with a knife (to cut yourself free if tangled in ropes) and a whistle
  • Helmet, in case you fall out of the raft and hit rocks or items on the raft
  • Sunglasses with a strap to keep them attached to your head, and a backup pair in case the first pair gets knocked off
  • Sunscreen
  • Quick dry clothes
  • Splash jacket and pants, to stay a little less wet
  • Waterproof sandals with traction
  • Good hiking boots
  • Folding chair
  • Tent
  • Down sleeping bag
  • Headlamp, so that you don’t step on a scorpion or fall in the river in the dark
  • Satellite phone, to call for help in case of emergency
  • Badge balm or some sort of cream for cracked hands and feet
  • Baby wipes, because bathing in the river is cold
  • Beer and coffee – I didn’t personally bring any on the trip, but i have it on good authority that this is critical to survival

Where do you stay at night?

Campsites are usually located every couple of miles along the river, and they can range from large, flat sites with multiple, well-marked sites to small, steep sandbars where it’s difficult to find many places to pitch a tent. No matter the camp, the one thing they have in common is sand.

A camp ground along the Colorado River

The great thing about camping while rafting is that space and weight are not much of an issue. My parents brought two air mattresses that each occupied more volume than their actual tent. If you can fit it on the raft and you can lug it up onto the beach, then you can bring it!

Every night, you pull into a camp ground, tie the boats down, unload the rafts, and set up the kitchen and your tents/sleeping area. And every morning, you pack up your things, load them back on the raft, and tie them down so that they won’t leak or disappear if the raft flips upside down. It’s a cycle that’s repeated every day, for 21+ days. By the end, I got pretty damn efficient at packing my tent and fitting everything onto the raft at record time.

Our campsite on laundry day

What do you eat?

It’s possible to restock water at various springs along the way, but there’s only one opportunity to get food of any kind (at Phantom Ranch). That means that all food that you need for the entire duration of the trip has to be packed on the raft at the beginning and has to last until the very end. That doesn’t mean that the food options are limited, though – we had scrumptious hot meals every day, and only resorted to cans for the last few days (though those meals were delicious too).

Appetizers on the river

The standard system for food is that everyone is in charge of their own lunch, but rotating cook teams make dinner and the following breakfast for everyone. With 10 people and 4 cook teams, we were in charge of dinner and breakfast for all 10 people every 4 days. It’s a great system because you can sample other people’s cooking, and it’s positively delightful on days when you’re off duty to relax and wait for dinner to be served. It’s something I kind of which could be implemented permanently – just get a group of friends together and rotate hosting dinner parties for each other every weekend. Not a bad idea!

Some highlights of the menu de la rivière:

  • Egg habanero
  • Blueberry pancakes with maple syrup, bacon, and mixed fruit
  • Pita bread, falafel, and couscous
  • Handmade beef and celery dumplings
  • Jambalaya with jalepeno cornbread
  • Chips and salsa, beef tacos
  • Steak, garlic potatoes, and beans
  • Lasagna
  • Ham, sauerkraut, potatoes, and carrots
  • Cherry chocolate cake
  • Peach cobbler

To cook the food, we had what basically is a portable, no-impact kitchen: a small propane stove, a kitchen box filled with all of the pots, pans, dishware, and utensils that one might possibly need, a fire pan and dutch oven, and a few tables. Enough to cook everything on the menu and more! The only dishes we couldn’t make were ones that require refrigeration – though if you pack the coolers right, you could conceivably serve ice cream on day 11, like my parents did on their first Grand Canyon rafting trip.

Preparing breakfast in the camp kitchen (photo credit: Dave)
The dutch oven

Clean up follows a rather ingenius system involving four buckets, river water, some dish soap, dish sponges, and a capful of bleach. The four buckets, arranged in order, are:

  • Swamp bucket: a bucket of plain river water where all the food scraps are wiped off
  • Soap bucket: a bucket of boiled river water with dish soap
  • Rinse bucket: another bucket of plain river water to wash off the soap
  • Bleach bucket: a bucket of river water with a capful of bleach, to fully disinfect
Doing dishes with the 4-bucket system (photo credit: Suzanne)

Where do you…er, do your business?

There are no toilet facilities along the river, so you more or less have to take bathroom matters in your own hands. Or, more literally, in your own raft.

Peeing in the river is standard practice, to keep the land around the river clean. But because poop presents a greater health risk and is harder to dispose of, rafters must carry all of their poop out of the Grand Canyon with them. Yep, you literally pack the poop on your raft along with all of your other belongings and float down with it until the end of the trip.

Early rafters found that ammo cans from army surplus stores made great poop containers. They’re durable, watertight (and therefore, thankfully, airtight), and easy to stack in the raft. Thus, ammo cans became the standard river toilets. And because the metal walls of the ammo can leave two parallel grooves in your butt when you sit on it, it became known as the “Groover.”

The groover in the middle and a pee bucket on the right

The Groover and associated terminology is one of the elements of rafting that I think should be incorporated into everyday life. For instance, some Grover-related sentences:

  • “I’m going to get my groove on” -> “I’m going to go poop”
  • “Everybody groovy?” -> “Has everybody who needs to poop pooped?”
  • “I lost my groove for three days” -> “I’m constipated”

As for bathing, every (hopefully voluntary) swim in the river or side streams is tantamount to a bath. However, the river water is around 55 degrees Fahrenheit, which can be refreshing in the hot sun but freezing in the shade. Thus, solar showers, black bags filled with water that can heat to 120+ degrees Fahrenheit under the sun, are an alternative.

Bathing with a solar shower

What are the rapids like?

Rapids are the first things that came to mind when I thought of rafting down Grand Canyon, but in reality they comprise just a small portion of the river. Rapids of various sizes appear in fairly frequent intervals, though, so oftentimes I barely started to dry my butt out from a previous rapid before getting hit by another one.

Rapids on the Colorado River are rated on a scale of 1-10, roughly equivalent to the International Scale of River Difficulty from I to V. The difficulty of the rapid differs depending on the water level, but most rapids are rated 6 or below. Then you have small “riffles” that are too inconsequential to be rated and may not even be on the map. They can still be quite a ride, though – I suspect that some “riffles” on the Grand Canyon could probably qualify as sizeable whitewater on other rivers.

Bigger rapids, rated 7 and above, generally need to be scouted. This consists of parking the rafts just above the rapid and hiking out to see it from land, in order to figure out what hazards to avoid and to identify a suitable line down the rapid.

The boatmen scouting a big rapid

The biggest rapid on the river is Lava Falls, a class 9 rapid at Mile 180 (nothing is class 10, which I imagine would just be unnavigable).

There are plenty of horror stories involving Lava, though most boats make it through unscathed. Not that that’s very reassuring when you’re looking at it from above and listening to its thunderous roar.

Getting ready to go through Lava Falls

In the end, all of our rafts made it through Lava just fine! There were some pretty close shaves, but we adhered to the mantra of “stay in the boat, black side [bottom of the raft] down,” which is a big success in my book!

What else do you do all day?

One of the biggest benefits of floating down the Grand Canyon is being able to access various slot canyons and hikes that are difficult or impossible to access from above. Hikes may lead to clear streams and waterfalls to bathe in, Native American artifacts to examine, or simply ancient rock layers to explore. Some of the most popular places to stop along the Colorado River:

Nankoweap Granaries

Ancient granaries built high up in the walls of the canyon, with a great view of river winding off into the distance.

Nankoweap granaries at sunset

Little Colorado River

An opportunity to wear a lifejacket like a diaper and slide down a (sometimes) turquoise stream.

Outfitted with a diaper life jacket
Where the Little Colorado River (white) joins the Colorado River (green)

Elves Chasm

Where you always imagined fairies would live.

Elves Chasm, paradise on Earth

Blacktail Canyon

See “The Great Unconformity” up close: 550 million year old Tapeats Sandstone resting on top of the roughly 1.6 billion year old Vishnu Schist.

Spanning 1 billion years at the Great Unconformity

Thunder River

A raging waterfall that blows out of the canyon wall and creates a thin oasis strip in the middle of the desert.

Thunder River

Matkat Canyon

A narrow slot canyon with deep pools, that can only be accessed in some areas by shimmying up between the two walls with all four limbs.

Shimmying up Matkat Canyon

Are you really disconnected the entire time?

Yes, in that there is no cellphone service in the canyon. Disconnecting for 21 days was a healthy digital vacation, but with the side effect of an early bedtime – An “Oh god, it’s not even 7pm yet??” bedtime.

However, there are some other ways of staying in touch. Every group brings a satellite phone to use in case of emergency, and a member of our party brought a satellite/GPS device that could download weather forecasts and send and receive texts and emails.

About a week in, as well, is Phantom Ranch. This is the only place throughout the trip that allows for contact with civilization.

Servies at the Phantom Ranch lodge. Send a postcard by mule!

The Phantom Ranch lodge is about a mile away from the river, and it’s there that you can use a payphone, buy and mail a post card, pick up some ice, and buy some snack foods and cold drinks (but no ice cream and popsicles, a major disappointment!).

Any other questions that I didn’t answer?

Comment below, and I will try to answer it or call upon the wisdom of various river rafting experts.

Whale and dolphin watching in Sao Miguel

Dolphins seen at the Azores, Portugal

Whale watching is one of the top things to do in Sao Miguel, but I was hesitant because I already went whale watching in Mirissa, Sri Lanka. Sure, there are probably more whales here, but how different could it be? As the saying goes, though, you regret the things you didn’t do, right? So in the end, I went again.

Most whale watching companies cost at least 55 euros for a four hour boat ride, but I got recommendations for a company called Moby Dick. It’s the cheapest option at 35 euros, as Moby Dick bypasses the agencies and thus spares its customers the commission fee. It also has great reviews, and after going on a tour, I’m pretty confident that it’s just as high quality as – if not better than – the others.

The company runs two tours a day (subject to weather, of course), one in the morning at 9am and one in the afternoon at 2pm. I joined the 9am tour, since the sun was less intense in the morning, and it left me time to see the island in the afternoon when the clouds had mostly burned off.

Moby Dick tours at Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal

Note: Call and book a ticket in advance at least the day before, because you can’t count on no shows for a spot – something I learned the hard way.

Non-Bottlenose Dolphin

About half an hour on our way out to sea, we spotted the first animals of the day. I embarrassingly don’t know the name of these dolphins – just that they are not bottlenose dolphins, which we saw later. But if you can identify them, please let me know.

Dolphins seen at the Azores, Portugal

Almost all of the other boats blew right past these dolphins on their quest to get out to the whales, but our captain stayed in the area to “play” with them. He purposefully created waves with the boat that the dolphins liked to ride, so they swam up to and around the boat. Looks like I picked the right company!

Sperm Whale

Pretty soon after that, we spotted the first whale. All you can see of it is a long gray ridge sticking out of the water, with the occasional spray of water.

Whale seen at the Azores, Portugal

It hung out at the surface for a couple of minutes, and then treated us to the classic shot:

Whale seen at the Azores, Portugal

Over the course of the tour, we saw three sperm whales total. Unfortunately no other species of whale, but still quite a treat.

Portuguese Man of War

Throughout the tour, I noticed these little plastic sacks floating all over the place. I’d seen them – and even accidentally stepped some dried out ones, which looked like inflated light blue balloons – at the beach the previous day as well. At first I thought they were small packaging pills littered everywhere, but then… “Hey wait…isn’t there that infamous jellyfish called the Portuguese Man of War? And aren’t we technically in Portugal…?”

Portugese Man of War seen at the Azores, Portugal

INDEED. Well, if I had any desire to swim in the cold Atlantic, that certainly was gone now.

Sea Turtle

On our way back, we got another delightful and unexpected treat: a sea turtle, just chilling at the surface and soaking up the sun. By a stroke of photography luck, I caught it just as it raised its head out of the water. I think this is my proudest picture yet!

Turtle seen at the Azores, Portugal

Bottlenose dolphin

The tour concluded with a visit by a school of bottlenose dolphins. Just as with the non-bottlenose dolphins, the captain played with the dolphins by creating waves for them to ride alongside us.

Dolphins seen at the Azores, Portugal

After several failed attempts, I finally managed to catch one in the air:

Dolphin seen at the Azores, Portugal

Moby Dick Tours

At the end of the tour, the captain, who is also the owner of the company, gave us a presentation about the dolphins and whales that we saw as well as some background on the company.

Moby Dick Tours at Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal

I missed the first part of the presentation, hence why I can’t identify the non-bottlenose dolphins. But I did hear that there are much fewer dolphins and whales here this year since their main food source has moved, likely due to global warming.

I also caught some facts about the company: It’s the only one with a boat that is made of wood, which is better for animal watching (it has different vibrations than steel or plastic, so the animals come closer?) but a hell of a lot harder to maintain. You can also trust that the owner/captain knows his stuff, since he sailed by himself across the Atlantic. Overall, you can tell he has a lot of passion for his job, and he’s also very familiar with the area and the animals, which was evident in the number of animals we saw on the tour.

Conclusion? Definitely glad that I went on the tour and gave whale watching another shot. While I was a little underwhelmed with whale watching in Mirissa, it was most certainly worth it in Sao Miguel! Weather might have played a part since it was dreary on the day I went in Mirissa, but there’s a clear reason why the Azores is a top whale watching destination. And home ot lots of other intersting creatures as well (just stay clear of the Man of War!)

Festival of Santo Antonio in Lisbon

Lisbon decked out for San Antonio, Portugal

June is the month to go to Portugal, because the entire country is lively with festivals and celebrations. In Lisbon, the biggest holiday is the celebration of Saint Antonio on June 13th. I was lucky enough to not only be in town for the event (by a total happy accident), but also to have a local friend to celebrate the holiday with!

Celebrating Sao Antonio with a local friend in Lisbon, Portugal

Saint Antonio is one of the patron saints of Lisbon (Saint Vincent is too, but for some reason people don’t seem to care as much). The story goes that he once collected money to help a poor woman get married, so on this day, a certain number of couples can get married for free with their weddings paid for by the state. It’s said to be lucky, as – allegedly – none of the couples married this way have gotten divorced yet.

Another story goes that a girl once got mad and threw a statue of Saint Antonio. It hit a passing soldier on the head, and he fell in love with her. This seems like a form of blasphemy that probably shouldn’t be rewarded…but regardless, as a result, girls also pray to an upside down statue of Saint Antonio for a husband.

One hallmark of the holiday, and also the season overall, is basil. Little flower pots of basil are readily available on the streets. Boys traditionally gave basil to girls that they liked, so the basil also comes with little love poems. Apparently, if you lean down to smell basil with your nose, it will die. So instead, pat the basil with your hand and smell it rather than the basil.

Basil for sale in Lisbon, Portugal

Aside from basil, sardines are also extremely common. Similar to basil, this may just be a coincidence because sardines are readily available around this time of year.

The celebration of Saint Antonio is essentially a massive street party that lasts until the following morning. All throughout the city, people set up colorful streamers and little food stalls selling sardines, chorizo, pork sandwiches, and, of course, beer and sangria. The prices are extremely cheap, around 2-4 euros for a plate of food and 1 euro for a drink.

The streets of Lisbon during San Antonio, Portugal

Lisbon decked out for San Antonio, Portugal

Around evening, the locals start to pour out onto the streets. They order food and drinks at one food stall, sit a bit to eat, and then move on to the next neighborhood. In between food stalls, there are also always places to stop for a 1 euro drink. Shops set up beer taps outside, and you can even find some homemade sangria – from what I can tell, this woman just opened up her window and started selling drinks:

The streets of Lisbon at night during San Antonio, Portugal

We went to the Alfama area, where it seemed like the entire city was out wandering on the streets. There were young children who probably haven’t yet started school, and older people who conceivably could be their grandparents. All mingled together, out enjoying themselves into the wee hours of the morning. It truly is a festival for the whole city!

The streets of Lisbon at night during San Antonio, Portugal

The streets of Lisbon at night during San Antonio, Portugal

Even by 4am (when this photo below was taken), the streets were still as busy as ever.

The streets of Lisbon at night during San Antonio, Portugal

The festival of Saint Antonio was definitely one of the highlights of my trip. Thanks so much to my local Portuguese friends for allowing me to tag along with them and for speaking English on my behalf!

Celebrating Sao Antonio with a local friend in Lisbon, Portugal

Celebrating Sao Antonio with a local friend in Lisbon, Portugal

Word of caution: there are plenty of places to get drinks, but very few bathrooms. This poses less of a problem for boys, but I had to hold it for a good three hours before I was able to get back to a proper toilet.

Scenes from Chefchaouen

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

Chefchaouen is the famous “blue city” of Morocco. It’s a small town tucked in the mountains, and its main draw is that it’s doors, walls, stairs – almost everything – are in shades of blue.

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

There are a few theories as to why the city is blue: one is that the blue color drives away mosquitos – – if this is really true, I will readily paint everything I own blue. Another is that Jewish refugees introduced the blue color when they migrated here. But whatever the reason, it spread throughout the city, and it is probably the best thing they could have done for tourism!

The best way to explore is to just wander through the narrow streets and go wherever seems to be the most blue. Around just about every corner, there is an instagram-perfect scene!

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

Even if the road dead ends, you’re still rewarded with some phenomenal sights.

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

And the beautiful doors:

Streets of Chefchaouen, the blue city of Morocco

Door in Chefchaouen, Morocco

There is also a short and very worthwhile hike up to a mosque on an opposite hill to get a view of the entire city:

Chefchaouen from a distance, Morocco

Chefchaouen from a distance, Morocco

Whatever the reason for the color, it’s a beautiful, calming town!

Camel ride and night in the Sahara Desert

Camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

Camel riding is the activity most closely associated with Morocco, so I booked a desert tour specifically to do just that. The camel ride was just a small portion of the tour, lasting for only 1.5 hours each way from Merzouga. In between, we spent the night at a camp in the Sahara Desert.

Camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

Just as the desert tours are most likely all operated by one company, I get the feeling that there are only a few places that conduct camel rides. Our driver dropped us off at a hotel at the edge of the desert where dozens of other tourists had already gathered. Some were on 2-person private tours, and some were on huge 16-person group tours like the one I was on. It didn’t matter, we were all funneled here for the camel rides into the Sahara Desert.

Starting point for camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

After checking us in, the staff at the hotel informed us that we were leaving as a group at 6pm, when the Sahara had cooled down and in time to see the sunset en route. We could bring a little bag for water, our cameras, and whatever we needed overnight, but otherwise we should leave everything else on the vans.

At 6pm, we all gathered outside the hotel where the camels were waiting. They were already tied together in strings of 5-7, patiently sitting in a row. The staff split us up into groups somewhat arbitrarily, and each string of camels got its own driver/guide that led the camel up front.

While we waited, they showed us how to tie our scarves into head scarves, which they insisted was necessary for sun and sand protection in the desert. Given that it was a pretty calm day and the sun was already on its way down, I think they brought us more joy as a touristy gimmick than real functional benefit.

Camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

And we were off! When the camel gets up and sits down, it does so one side at a time, so you really have to hold on to avoid being thrown off backwards or head first. It’s similar to horsebackriding, lurching with each step. The rocking is especially bad when the camel goes down a sand dune and sinks deeper into the sand.

The camels are extraordinarily well trained; when the rope comes undone (as it did twice for my camels) and there is nothing pulling it forward, it simply stops and awaits further orders.

Camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

It’s also worth noting that the camels move extremely slow. Slow enough that I could easily outpace them at my normal walking speed, even moving through sand. So I understand their usefulness if you are traveling with heavy loads, but solely as a means of short-term transport, they’re not the best option.

Our guide was a nice person with a fondness for practical jokes. He helped us take pictures while we were on the camels, but he would pocket our phones with a note of thanks and not give them back until a while later. Our guide struggling with his turban:

Our guide on our camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

As we rode on, the shadows got longer and longer and the dunes glowed ever more orange.

Camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

Just before sunset at 7:30, we stopped to climb one of the taller sand dunes to see the sun drop below the horizon. The sand is ultra fine, making it a little difficult to climb but very fun to slide down!

Sunset in the Sahara desert, Morocco

Along the way, we saw some scattered camps tucked between the dunes. Little black boxes clustered together in larger rectangles. According to the guide, these belonged to nomadic Berber families that lived and worked in the desert, including at the camp that we were headed to. We arrived at this main camp after another half an hour or so, just before it got dark.

Camping in the Sahara

The camp consisted of many tents around a central square/camp fire, with only two toilets for the 60 odd people. The tents had beds and sheets in varied conditions and could accommodate up to 6 people, but we were also free to sleep outside. Even when night fell the temperature didn’t drop too low, so you could sleep inside without sheets and outside with a thin blanket.

At night, we had a surprisingly nice meal (considering that we were out in the desert) of soup, bread, chicken tagine with vegetables, and cut up fruits. Then, the guides all gathered to play Moroccan drums for us.

Dinner at camp in the Sahara desert, Morocco

Most people retired to bed by 10:30-11:00, since we had to get up bright and early at 3:30 to ride back during sunrise. It was painful to get up, but the starry sky was breathtaking without any light pollution! (And also, unfortunately, impossible to capture on camera).

Just as we stopped for sunset, we also stopped briefly to appreciate the sunrise.

Camel ride in the Sahara desert, Morocco

Sunrise in the Sahara desert, Morocco

By 6am, we were back at the hotel where we started, and where they had breakfast waiting for us.

This is where we said goodbye to the camels. They’re a little scruffy looking with patches of missing hair, so I’m not sure how well they’re taken care of. It struck me that people are often up in arms about elephant riding and how inhumane it is, but doesn’t the same thing apply to camel riding? The camel has traditionally been a beast of burden, but it also doesn’t feel quite right to exploit it for touristic purposes.

In any case, I did enjoy this ride, but I think it’s a one-time thing – unless I’m somehow part of an actual caravan next time!

Cooking Class at Amal Women’s Center in Marrakech

Cooking chicken tagine at the Amal Women's Center in Marrakech, Morocco

What better way to learn about Moroccan cuisine than to cook it?

Online I found several cooking classes offered, but I went with the Amal Women’s Center because it benefited a nonprofit organization. For 300 dirham ($30), we would learn to cook and later eat a Moroccan meal of chicken tagine, Moroccan salad, and Moroccan mint tea.

The facilities of the Amal Women’s center were beautiful:

Cooking class at the Amal Women's Center in Marrakech, Morocco

They had all of the ingredients prepared for us, all we had to do was put it together.Though the chicken tagine involved multiple spices, the recipe is surprisingly easy. Honestly, all we did was chop onions (under pretty close scrutiny, because there were about 4 kitchen helpers for just the three of us in the class) and spoon ingredients in the amounts specified. We were done in about 10 minutes.

Cooking class ingredients at the Amal Women's Center in Marrakech, Morocco

We covered our tagines and took them outside to little individual charcoal grills. They had us use bellows to get the fire going – these things are quite effective! A few spurts of air, and you get a little crackling fire.

Cooking chicken tagine at the Amal Women's Center in Marrakech, Morocco

The chicken cooked for about an hour or so, with two breaks in between: one to flip the chicken and put the oil in (it goes in later so that the chicken has a chance to absorb the spices), and another to add some more water.

While we waited for the chicken to cook, the staff told us a bit about the women’s center and the work that they do:

Amal Women’s center

The mission of the women’s center is to empower women by training them for and helping them find sustainable employment. Kitchen jobs are the target, a big industry in Marrakech and an easy transition for women as they likely already have cooking experience. For six months, the center trains the women in technical skills and soft skills like punctuality and cleanliness, and then they are responsible for helping the women find a kitchen job after the program. But their main goal is to teach and show the women that they can be independent; they don’t have to be dependent on anyone.

They primarily focus on women from four disadvantaged groups:

  • Single mothers: often ostracized by society and even kicked out by their families for having premarital sex
  • Widows
  • Divorcees: divorce is still not very common, and it is frowned upon. Women legally have the right to get divorced, but few exercise it. And if a man divorces a woman, it means that she was a bad wife.
  • Orphans: receive help from the state until they are 18, but then afterwards they are on their own without much support.

While women in morocco legally have a lot more rights than they did before, culturally and socially, they still face a lot of issues that hold them back. It is undesirable for a woman to seem too independent, and there are problems with education.

There is no sex education, so many women do not even know the basics about their bodies and sex. Some women who already gave birth to children don’t know what it was that made them pregnant – it sounds ludicrous, but if nobody tells you, how do you know? Abortion is also illegal, and some women die because the try to abort the baby themselves. Alternatively, their family might take them out of the country, where they have the baby and leave it there. But some men still abide by the age-old test of checking if the hymen is intact to determine virginity.

Anyway, a very good cause!

And a very good meal:

Cooking chicken tagine at the Amal Women's Center in Marrakech, Morocco

I’m not sure if I’ll be able to reproduce the meal on my own, even though I have a recipe list. But I got more than just culinary knowledge from this class. Thank you Amal, and keep doing the good work!

I also learned a neat tidbit: locals serve Moroccan mint tea by lifting the teapot high while pouring, and there are a couple of reasons for this. (1), it cools the tea a bit on its way to the cup. (2) the more sugar there is in the tea, the more foam there will be when you pour the tea up high. Sugar was a precious commodity, so this was a way to demonstrate to guests e was sugar in the tea before they even tasted it.


Chicken and Preserved Lemon Tagine:

Ingredients:

1 1/2 tsp ginger powder
1/2 tsp black pepper
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp finely chopped parsley and cilantro
1 pinch saffron
1/2 tsp ras el hanut
1/4 preserved lemon pulp
1/2 lemon juice
1 small oninon, finely choped
2 chicken breast and legs
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 handful olives
1/2 preserved lemon peel, thinly sliced
water

Instructions:

  1. Combine all spices into mixing bowl
  2. Place chicken into mixture and coat well
  3. Spread onions evenly in tajine
  4. Place chicken on top of onions
  5. Pour rest of spice mixture over chicken
  6. Cover tajine and place on low heat for 1 hour
  7. After onions have browned, pour oils
  8. After 10 minutes, pour water in tajine up to lid line
  9. Check periodically to add more water to the lid line
  10. 10 minutes before finishing cooking, place olives and lemon peel on top of chicken

Moroccan Salad

Ingredients:

4 tomatoes
1 cucumber
onion to taste
2 tbsp parsley and cilantro
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1 tsp cumin
1 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp olive oil

Instructions:

  1. Chop everything
  2. Mix!

The Alcazar in Seville

Gardens at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

The Alcazar in Seville is very similar to the Alhambra in Granada, but smaller in scale. It is just as impressive, however, and it has something that the Alhambra doesn’t: the distinction of serving as a set for Game of Thrones. That’s right, this is Dorne!

The Alcazar was a palace for the Almohades, the previous Muslim kingdom in Seville. When the Spanish monarchy conquered Seville, it took over residence of the palace and built a gothic addition. To this day, the Alcazar is the official Seville residence of the royal family. But they often prefer to stay in fancy hotels instead, which is good for tourists because the Alcazar shuts down when the royal family stays there!

Salon de Almirante

Seville was the center of trade with the Americas, and this very hall was where all of that trade was controlled politically. The hall is filled with paintings from the time period. This one features the Virgin of the Navigators, Colombus, and the ships that were used to sail to America.

Painting of the Virgin of the Navigators in the Salon del Almirante of the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Patio de la Monteria (Hunting courtyard)

This main courtyard is where the king’s hunting party would congregate before leaving for a hunt, thus giving rise to its name.

Alcazar palace exterior in Seville, Spain

Directly from the audio guide: Looking up at the front facade of the palace, there are many styles present. The top part is the style of carpenters from Toledo. The middle is in the Granada style, as seen at the Alhambra, and the bottom features blind arches of Sevilla.

Facade of the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

The Palace

The inside of the palace is every bit as grand as you would expect it to be, even starting from the vestibule.

Doorway in the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Roof in the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Patio de las Doncellas

Walking straight inside the palace, you soon find yourself at the Patio de las Doncellas (Courtyard of the Damsels), which is one of the most iconic courtyards of the Alcazar. It features 4 pools, representing the 4 rivers of heaven, which split the courtyard into 4 pieces, representing the 4 known continents of the time.

Patio de las Doncellas at the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Hall of the Ambassadors

At the end of the Patio de las Doncellas is the Hall of the Ambassadors, the most famous room in the Alcazar. Because this:

Game of Thrones scene in the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

And this!

Game of Thrones scene in the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

That’s right, I’m more excited that actors were here than because this place has hosted actual royalty and historic events.

But the hall itself is truly marvelous, you can see why they picked this location. No set could ever compare. Some background on the Hall of Ambassadors: this splendid main hall is also called hall of the half orange for the shape of the ceiling.

Salon de los Embajadores at the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

It’s just about impossible to get the entire hall in one picture, and for the picture to convey all of the intricacies of the place. There are so many details that many are easy to miss, like the fact that all of the monarchs are painted in a row between the golden ceiling and the blue tile walls. Not to mention all of the meticulous carvings.

Salon de los Embajadores at the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Salon de los Embajadores at the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Salon de los Embajadores at the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Patio de las muñecas

Another well-known courtyard in the Alcazar is the Patio de las Muñecas, or the Courtyard of the Dolls. The audio guide said that the name is derived from carvings of dolls in some of the arches, but I have a feeling that we were lied to.

Patio de las Munecas at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Nothing looked remotely like a doll to me…

Patio de las Munecas at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Cuarto del Principe (Prince Suite)

Even though the palace is Moorish, it hosted the Spanish royal family for centuries. As a result, many rooms were given new names, like this one: the Cuarto del Principe, or the Prince Suite. This room is so named because it is where Prince Juan, the only son of the Catholic Kings Isabella I and Ferdinand II, was born.

(To be honest, I’m not sure if this photo is of that particular room, but it’s representational of the rooms in the palace and is one of the only ones I managed to get without any people in it)

Room in the Palacio del Rey Don Pedro at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Gothic palace

The Spanish monarchy also added on to the original Moorish palace of the Alcazar by building a Gothic Palace right next to it. This palace is more similar to the other ones in Spain, with high arches and massive tapestries.

Gothic Palace at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Gothic Palace at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Fuente del Mercurio

Going outside from the Gothic Palace to the gardens, you first pass the Fuente del Mercurio, or the Fountain of Mercury. This beautiful fountain was a reservoir in Moorish times.

Fountain of Mercury at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

See the Fountain of Mercury in the background, to the left?

Game of Thrones scene in the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Banos de Maria de Padilla

A dark passageway underneath the Gothic Palace leads to the Banos de Maria de Padilla. There used to be beautiful gardens in this location, but after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the gardens were converted into this (whatever this is…I just know it’s beautiful) to offer more support to the palace.

Banos de Maria de Padilla at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Gardens

And finally, the expansive gardens themselves! I can’t really communicate how big they are, except that it takes about 30 minutes just to walk through them, without stopping to enjoy the plants or the view.

The gardens are the location of another very famous scene:

Game of Thrones scene in the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

The Water Gardens of Dorne! It just wasn’t quite as romantic or nearly as empty when I was there.

Gardens at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Gardens at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Other locations in the gardens didn’t appear on camera, but were similarly beautiful:

Gardens at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain

Gardens at the Alcazar in Seville, Spain


Thus concluded a morning spent in Dorne (with about 5,000 of my closest friends). With such gorgeous and unique locations, it’s no wonder that they chose to shoot scenes for The Game of Thrones here.

Not to say that the Alcazar is not spectacular by its own merit, just like the Alhambra. But knowing that it was featured in a hit TV show just increases excitement a bit, and there’s no harm in that!

Flamenco Show at Zambra Maria la Conastera

Flamenco show at Zambra de Maria la Canastera in Granada, Spain

The walking tour guide that I had in Granada was a local and a flamenco lover, so we all asked for her recommendations for the best shows in Granada. Her favorite was a gypsy-style show in Sacromonte, Zambra Maria la Conastera.

Zambra de Maria la Canastera in Granada, Spain

The guide mentioned that there were generally shows every day but they might get canceled, so I made a reservation online and then paid when I got there. It’s 22 euros for an hour long show and a drink (sangria or beer).

The venue itself is an actual cave, decorated with pots and pans and tributes to great flamenco artists of the past. I got there 30 minutes early, so i got one of the best seats in the house!

Stage of Zambra de Maria la Canastera in Granada, Spain

Stage of Zambra de Maria la Canastera in Granada, Spain

The show started with a guitarist:

Flamenco show at Zambra de Maria la Canastera in Granada, Spain

Then came the dancers, one after another. Flamenco is a very expressive and passionate art, and because this was the gypsy style of flamenco, the raw emotions were even clearer to see.

Flamenco show at Zambra de Maria la Canastera in Granada, Spain

Flamenco show at Zambra de Maria la Canastera in Granada, Spain

Flamenco show at Zambra de Maria la Canastera in Granada, Spain

Flamenco show at Zambra de Maria la Canastera in Granada, Spain

I’m not sure if this style of Flamenco is typical, but it was great to see Flamenco with gypsy flair!

The Alhambra

Court of the Myrtles at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

The Alhambra is one of the most popular destinations in Spain. It’s one of those things that you have to book at least weeks – sometimes months – ahead of time. I was unaware of this fact until I arrived in Spain, but luckily I overheard some other tourists chatting the first day I got to Spain:

“Oh, you’re going to Granada? Did you book the Alhambra already?”

“Oh yeah, of course, I got them, like 3 weeks ago.”

Roger that. I made a mental note, and jumped online for Alhambra tickets as soon as I got back to the hostel.

The official ticketmaster site was already booked out for the following three weeks, and the only option I found within a two week time frame was a Spanish tour on a separate site with a 30 euro mark up.

Well…I could brush up on my middle school Spanish, and at least it was a ticket inside, right? But thankfully I found an English tour at the end.

What makes the Alhambra so popular? Well…

Alhambra history

Granada is the last Muslim city on the Iberian Peninsula, and home to the last and longest reigning Muslim dynasty on the Iberian peninsula: the Nasrid Dynasty. The Nasrid Dynasty began in 1238, and the Nasrids lived in Granada for almost 260 years with a constant Christian threat in the North.

Finally, the last sultan surrendered the city to the Spanish monarchy in 1492, with the conditions that his people would be respected and not be killed, and the Alhambra would not be destroyed. The Spanish monarchy did not quite honor the first request (can anyone say “Inquisition”?). But thankfully they followed the second, leaving us the magnificent Alhambra to visit.

Fun fact: “Granada” in Spanish means “pomegranate.” After the sultan’s surrender, the Spanish monarchy added a pomegranate to the bottom of their crest.

Spanish crest

The Alhambra is the Nasrid legacy. “Alhambra” means the “red one,” because it was originally built with the red clay from the hill.

The Alhambra sign in Granada, Spain

The Alhambra is not a single building, but a self-contained city that once held a population of around 5000 people. It consists of three parts: (1) the Alcazaba, or army fortress, (2) the Medina, where commoners lived, and last but not least, (3) the Nasrid Palaces. They were built in that respective order. It’s hard to say how long the Alhambra took to build, because it has seen many transformations – the Christians modified it when they took it over, and there have been restorations all the way into the 20th century.

In addition to the walled Alhambra, there is also the Generalife (pronounced “he-ne-ral-lee-feh,” not “General life,” like an insurance company). This was the royal family’s private garden, connected to the Alhambra and also enclosed for safety. Much of the Generalife gardens are still original, but most of the other gardens around the Alhambra are new.

Over the years, the Alhambra belonged to the monarchy, private owners, and finally, in 1868, the state. A guide said that it was abandoned for centuries between private owners and the state. As recently as 50 years ago, anybody could go up to the Alhambra and walk around it freely. Gypsies squatted and partied there, and one neglected BBQ burned down a part of it. In 1980, UNESCO finally came and declared it a world heritage site. Since then, it’s been cleaned up and restored significantly. It’s also a lot harder to get into the Alhambra now!

The Tour

Since I booked a tour, the tour company gave me specific instructions on where to meet and when. It’s best to take these instructions very seriously, because the Alhambra is the one thing that is strictly on time in Southern Spain. The Nasrid Palaces are the problem, as space is so limited. The other areas do not have a specific entry time, and many parts of the Alhambra (two museums, a public hammad, and a church) are free. Just to make extra sure, I got there almost an hour ahead of the tour time.

Some people had the same idea that I had: book the Spanish tour, and hope that you might be able to switch to the English group instead. However, the tour group was quite strict too, as they have a set number of tickets for each group. In the end, the non-Spanish-speaking members of the Spanish tour simply got an English audioguide – hey, they got an entrance ticket, which is what’s important!

Notes: April and May are some of the busiest months at the Alhambra, because they fall within the narrow window when weather in Granada is pleasant. Our guide mentioned that in Granada, “there are 9 months of winter and 3 months of hell” – the rest is April and May!

Be careful when booking tours – read the fine print. I met someone in my hostel who booked an Alhambra & Generalize tour for more than 70 Euros on Viator. When she actually got to the Alhambra, she discovered that the tour didn’t cover the Nasrid Palaces, the centerpiece of the Alhambra.

However, there was also someone else at my hostel who didn’t book a ticket to the Alhambra beforehand at all, but managed to get one from the hostel. She got it for almost the original price and for the following day, no problem. So if you didn’t book a ticket yet, there are always ways. (I’m happy for her. But goddammit!)

Make sure you save your ticket while you’re inside the Alhambra and Generalife, because you need to scan the ticket multiple times to get into different buildings. I think our tickets were used at least 5 times.

Puerta de Judicia

We entered the Alhambra through the Puerta de judicia, the Door of Justice. It’s an original Nasrid gate from the 13th century.

Justice gate at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

The gate has both Islamic and Catholic symbols. For the Islamic symbols, in particular, the hand represents the 5 pillars of Islam, and the key symbolizes wealth (as in, the key of the city). There is a legend that “the day that the hand holds the key, the Alhambra will disappear” – a.k.a. when the Alhambra is destroyed, the gate will collapse.

Nasrid Palaces

The palaces were the private quarters of the sultan and his family. Over 260 years, there were 24 sultans – that’s an average of a little more than 10 years per sultan. Clearly life wasn’t easy, especially with the constant Christian threat in the North. But home life wasn’t easy, either – sultans could marry up to 4 wives, and they had many concubines that also lived in the palaces with them.

Entrance to the Nasrid Palaces at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

We were instructed to wear our backpacks in front inside the palace, since the materials of the palace are easily damaged. The patterns are all done on plaster, which is pliable enough for carving intricate epigraphs and geometric designs. In addition to plaster, the Nasrids also used ceramic for wall tiles and cedar wood for the ceilings (also good for carving and gives off a perfume that keeps termites away).

The Mexuar

This is the first chamber that you see when you enter the palaces. Very fitting, as it is the public reception hall.

Column and ceiling of the Court of Machuca in the Nasrid Palace of the Alhambra, Granada, Spain

The hall is decorated with ceramic near the bottom and detailed carvings at the top of the columns. In the patterns, the motto of “only Allah is the victor” is repeated multiple times.

Wall tiles of the Court of Machuca in the Nasrid Palace of the Alhambra, Granada, Spain

Toward the back is a Mirhab, a private mosque. Unfortunately visitors are not allowed to enter, but you can tell how beautiful and detailed it is even from afar.

Mirhab of the Court of Machuca in the Nasrid Palace of the Alhambra, Granada, Spain

Mirhab of the Court of Machuca in the Nasrid Palace of the Alhambra, Granada, Spain

Palace of Comares

The Palace of the Comares is the largest part of the Nasrid Palace, and includes both where the sultan received guests and where the royal family lived.

An iconic scene from the Alhambra, the Court of the Myrtles. It is a Roman-style courtyard, and so named due to the myrtle bushes that line the pond on either side.

Court of the Myrtles at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Court of the Myrtles at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Water is an important part of the palaces, for many reasons. In the desert, he who is rich has water, not gold – so to demonstrate wealth, the Nasrids brought water to all parts of their living quarters with sophisticated pumps and fountains. Water was also used in religious ceremonies, and was thought to purify the air and the soul.

The Hall of the Boat, where visitors waited for the king. It’s long been thought that the name came from the ceiling, which is shaped like a boat (“barca”). But the true origin of the name is from the Arab word “baraca,” of “blessings.”

Hall of the Boats in the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

The Hall of Ambassadors, the most majestic hall in the palace. This is where the sultan received guests. The hall is lined with little alcoves on all sides, where guests would sit as they talked to the sultan, who would be in the center most alcove. In this way, nobody could see the sultan while talking to him, for safety purposes.

Alcove at the Hall of the Ambassadores at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Hall of the Ambassadores at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

The ceiling of the hall is made of 8000 pieces old wood, all fitted together like a puzzle.

Hall of the Ambassadores at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Unfortunately, most of the floor has been worn down over the years and replaced, but there is still an original patch roped off in the center.

Original floor of the Hall of the Ambassadores at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Palace of the Lions

The Palace of the Lions was a hidden paradise for the royal family, which they usually used solely for fun and gatherings. As with the rest of the Palace, it was enclosed and protected from all sides.

The palace’s namesake is a fountain in the center supported by lion statues. The lions are a symbol of power, as well as the Nasrids’ African origins. But there’s something a little odd-looking about them, as the statues were probably produced by an artist who either (1) never saw a lion in his life or (2) never carved a statue of a human or animal before because Islam prohibits the use of icons. I don’t know that I would call the statues lions if I wasn’t told that that’s what they were, but sure, I trust you!

Palace of the Lions at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Surrounding the statue in the center are rows of white marble columns, reminiscent of palm trees.

One of the rooms of the palace has a plaque commemorating Washington Irving, who stayed in the Alhambra in 1829 to write the “Tales of the Alhambra.” Lots of legends arose from his pen, but most are romanticizations and most likely not true.

Washington Irving plaque at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

In this palace, as well, there are rooms specifically built for Charles V when he had his honeymoon in Granada and stayed in the Alhambra. The main room has a fireplace, which is a Christian contraption – the Nasrids had a much more sophisticated heating system: underwater heating.

Alcazaba – The Army Fortress

The Alcazaba is the army fortress, necessarily located at the highest point of the Alhambra and with the best view. A lot of the Alcazaba is restored, because in 1810 Napoleon’s troops stayed here briefly and bombed it when they left.

The Alcazaba at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

The Nasrid army numbered more than 10,000 soldiers total, but only a portion of the army lived in the fortress. These were the special soldiers that protected the sultan and where therefore allowed to live within the walls.

The soldiers lived within barracks, usually a simple room with shared latrine and hammad (public bath). In addition to those, there were also holes dug in the floor for dungeons and grain storage.

The living conditions weren’t great, but the view is unparalleled. The beautiful white-walled Albacin is laid out on the opposite hill before you:

View of the Albacin from the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

The Medina

The Medina was the area of the Alhambra reserved for commoners. About 4000 people lived in the Medina, commoners who served the king and court. They had a better standard of living than those outside the wall and also enjoyed some special privileges, like not having to pay taxes.

Not much is left of the Medina. Now, its mostly a passageway lined with impressive hedges:

Hedgerows in the Medina of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Generalife Gardens

The Generalife gardens were the sultan’s private quarters for enjoyment, located outside the Alhambra walls so that he could (physically) escape state and family drama. This was also the coolest place in Granada because of the summer breeze.

Much of the gardens have been newly restored, including a concert hall area in front that is used for concerts at night.

Concert hall at Generalife gardens at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Generalife gardens at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Generalife Royal Palace

Within the Generalife gardens is a protected royal palace. It used to be completely enclosed for safety except for the balcony (which has low windows because the Nasrids sat on the floor). Now, however, many more arches have been built into the wall to show the view of the Alhambra.

The royal palace has a Persian-style courtyard in front:

Patio at the Generalife gardens at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

And a smaller courtyard in the back, built for a sultan’s favorite wife. Legend goes that the wife had another lover, and they would meet under the cypress tree. The sultan found out, and killed all the male members of the lover’s family. However, this is an example of a false legend because cypress trees didn’t come to Andalusia until the 19th century.

Cyprus tree in the Court of Sultana at the Generalife gardens in the Alhambra in Granada, Spain


Having been through the Alhambra and Generalife gardens, I can see why it’s such a popular destination and sold out weeks in advance. I’m glad that I was able to enter, but I wish that I could have had more time – I could have picked just about any room in the Nasrid palaces and stared at the ceiling in awe for a full day.

It’s a testament to the technological and aesthetic advancement of the Nasrid Dyanasty that they could have built something so amazing, and that it still stands to this day.

La Sagrada Familia

The stained glass windows at la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

La Sagrada Familia is the biggest landmark (almost literally) in Barcelona. It has been under construction for 151 years (since 1866), and is still scheduled to need 9 more (concluding in 2026). How, you might wonder, could anything take so long to build? But once you understand the intricacies and history, the number doesn’t seem far fetched any longer. Literally everything in the building has meaning, and no detail is too small.

From the beginning, la Sagrada Familia was intended to be a place of worship for the people, by the people. The structure is the Bible written in stone for all to understand the story of Christ even if they cannot read, for half of Spain was illiterate at the time it was started. And even though it’s been under construction, people have always been allowed to use the church for prayer and religious ceremonies.

It’s largely been funded by donations (which, nowadays, tourist tickets contribute to), so one of the reasons why construction has taken so long is because it stopped during years with tight resources and war.

Antoni Gaudi

Antoni Gaudi is the master architect behind la Sagrada Familia. He was not the original architect, but he took over the project at age 31 in 1883, and made significant changes to the original plans. It became his life work, and he labored over it for 43 years until he was hit and killed by a tram driver on June 10, 1926 at age 74.

Knowing that he wouldn’t live long enough to see la Sagrada Familia completed, Gaudi started building it in an unconventional way: instead of building horizontally across in layers and then working up, Gaudi worked on one facade (the Nativity facade) first, so that he could at least see it finished.

Early picture of la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

Gaudi also left behind detailed notes and plaster models of what he envisioned, on display in the museum below la Sagrada Familia. Miraculously, subsequent architects and builders have stayed true to his wishes.

Tickets

It gets very busy and they limit the number of people that can go inside, so book tickets ahead of time (and save by booking them online). Once inside, you can spend as long as you want. Tickets also come with a free audio guide.

There are two completed towers, the Passion tower and the Nativity tower, that you can include in your ticket as well. However, you can only choose one of the two, and you also have to pick a specific time slot. From my research online, I found that the view might be better from the Passion tower, but the Nativity tower has a bridge that allows you to get a closer look at the details of the exterior. Hence, I went for the latter.

Towers

There will be 18 towers in total, each symbolizing different things. The central, tallest tower symbolizes Jesus, a second smaller tower symbolizes Mary, 4 lower surrounding towers symbolize the 4 evangelists, and the 12 bell towers, 4 per each facade, symbolize the 12 apostles. When the tallest tower, at 172.5 meters, is completed, La Sagrada Familia will be almost as tall as the nearby hill of Montjuic. But not taller, because Gaudi believed the work of man should never surpass the works of god.

This picture shows just 4 of the short bell towers. They are something around 110 meters tall, so you can just imagine what the completed 172.5 meter tower will look like!

The Nativity facade at la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

Nativity Facade

The Nativity facade (shown in the picture above) is the only one that Gaudi supervised to completion. It features the birth of Jesus and also prominently features Joseph and Mary.

The birth of Christ statue on the Nativity facade of la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

Gaudi took great pains to ensure that the sculptures were as realistic as possible. They were made using casts of real people and animals.

Interior

Inside, the many supporting columns represent trees in a forest. They even branch out at the top, as real trees do. This also serves a functional purpose – they can support extremely tall structures without using buttresses. The central 4 columns are made of the strongest materials, as they support the tallest tower, and they bear images of Mark (the lion), Matthew (the angel), John (the eagle), and Luke (the bear).

The four evangelist columns at la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

The beautiful stained glass is carried out by a modern artist in accordance to Gaudi’s will. The east, the side where the sun rises, has stained glass in cooler hues. But the west, where the sun sets, has warmer hues that turn brown, so as to symbolize the cycle of life. The study of light was very important in the design, for, in Gaudi’s words, “the sun is the finest painter.”

The stained glass window at la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

The stained glass windows at la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

The stained glass windows at la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

Sunset through the stained glass windows of la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

Another place where this careful attention to light is present is in the steeples on the ceiling. Gaudi played with many shapes, finally developing a cone made of twisted hyperboloids, which was the best at funneling sunlight.

The funneled light at la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

Nativity Tower

The way up to the Nativity Tower is in a closed off area to the right of – you guessed it – the entrance on the Nativity Facade. You wait in line for a small elevator that only carries 6 people, and follow a very set route.

Almost right off the elevator is a little bridge, from which you can see a great view of Barcelona in the distance. The other side offers a glimpse of construction work on the other towers.

View of Barcelona from la Sagrada Familia, Spain

Past the bridge, the only way is to go down the spiral staircase.

Stairway down the Nativity tower of la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

Along the way, there are many other viewpoints. This is not even from the top, but it sure is high!

View down at Nativity entrance from the Nativity tower of la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

Passion Facade

The Passion Facade is the second facade that is now almost complete. It depicts the end of Jesus’s life, with the crucification and resurrection. Gaudi meant the facade to display the truth and pain of life, and thus the entire facade is very barren. The most striking features on this facade are the row of columns that look like ribs, and slanted columns that remind the viewer of stretched muscles.

The Passion facade of la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

A modernist artist was commissioned to do the sculptures, which are all in the same stark style.

Figures on the Passion facade of la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

Glory Facade

The last facade is the Glory Facade, currently still under development. An artist already made the doors of the facade, however: the text of Our Father in Catalan, surrounded by the same text in 50 different languages.

The door of the Glory facade at la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

Museum

After walking through the entire basilica, the tour continues from the Passion Facade to an underground museum. Here, you can see old plaster models and some of the thinking behind the designs.

The museum left me in awe. Especially these three pieces:

1. A deconstruction of the ellipsoids that Gaudi used, and how he carefully chiseled them to remove all excess pieces while still maintaining structural integrity.

Ellipsoid diagram at the museum at la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

2. An explanation of the hyperboloids that Gaudi used for the towers on the ceiling. He pioneered the use of hyperboloids in this fashion, which lets in the maximum amount of light possible.

Hyperboloid diagram at the museum at la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

3. An upside down model exploring weight distribution and support. Gaudi hung little bags on thread to see how gravity acted on them and the shapes that he could create. When flipped over, this represented the barest design that could be constructed to support a proportional amount of weight.

Upside down model of hanging bags at the museum at la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

HOLY SHIT. I have virtually no understanding of architecture and construction or even physics and geometry, but even I can appreciate its difficulty. Gaudi managed to push existing architectural boundaries, both aesthetically and functionally, while still taking painstaking detail and assigning meaning to everything.

No wonder why it took 43 years!


After going through the museum, I couldn’t help but go back to wonder at the entire basilica again from start to finish. Altogether, I spent 3 hours in la Sagrada Familia.

I’ve already got my calendar marked for 2026, when la a Sagrada Familia is finally completed! Given that la Sagrada Familia is only about 70% done now, it seems very optimistic. But the year 2026 marks the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death. It’s almost an arbitrarily set deadline – I guess they couldn’t make the 150th anniversary of la Sagrada Familia’s construction (2016), so that was the next closest thing. But since everything else in the building is hugely symbolic, I suppose that such a goal is only fitting!