Come Aboard My Smithsonian Study Tour of Spain and Morocco

mosque-hassan-casablanca All content was accurate when this story was published in November 2012.

The itinerary for Smithsonian Journeys' cruise in southern Spain and Morocco aboard Travel Dynamics' Corinthian II was impressive: ancient mosques and sultans' palaces, centuries-old souks, and native cuisine in some of the region's finest restaurants.

But on the first evening of our nine-night adventure, the talk among the passengers was not about shopping, food or architecture. Instead, everyone was buzzing about the three professors who would accompany us on our journey: Peter Awn, Harvey Cox and Jodi Magness, from Columbia, Harvard and the University of North Carolina, respectively.

Think of the three as the Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga of the study tour world, and you'll have some idea of the excitement they generated among this well-traveled crowd.

As the newbie, I only knew that this voyage, a tour called "Coexistence of Cultures and Faiths" -- which the Smithsonian was cosponsoring with the Art Institute of Chicago, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the alumni groups of Harvard and UNC -- would be different from other cruises I'd taken.

I'm not usually a tour person, but I was tempted by the list of cities we'd visit -- Seville and Granada in Spain, and Marrakesh, Casablanca, Rabat and Tangier in Morocco -- and even more so by the prospect of having professors of religion and archeology onboard to analyze and explain the history, architecture, art, politics and culture of this fascinating region. The small trip size and gorgeous ship clinched it.

I felt a little guilty that first night because, true to collegiate form, I hadn't read all the books on the Smithsonian's reading list. But it wasn't like there was going to be a test at the end ... was there? This was still vacation, after all.

First Impressions

Corinthian-suiteThe sponsors had chartered Travel Dynamics International's Corinthian II, a 114-passenger yacht that's more like a luxurious floating boutique hotel where you're waited on hand and foot. We became very fond, very fast, of the energetic young staff, whose collective mission seemed to be to keep us as pampered as was humanly possible. For the next 10 days I was "Miss K.C.," while my travel buddy, Marty, was addressed by the staff as "Sir Martin" -- a title he became a little too comfortable with by journey's end.

We were quite taken with our stateroom, a corner suite with two large picture windows, decorated with deep blue fabrics and rich rosewood paneling. Three full-length closets, lots of bureau drawers and bathroom shelving gave us more than enough storage space. Fresh fruit arrived daily, and our mini-fridge was kept stocked with bottled water and soda. I spent many a late night lounging in my plush robe, reading and watching movies on the room's DVD player.

The rest of the ship was just as appealing. We discovered the pleasures of the top deck, with its inviting chaises and a hot tub that we never did use. The ship also boasts a library with (balky and expensive) Internet access, a cocktail lounge, indoor and outdoor dining rooms, an exercise room, a beauty parlor (a wash and blow-dry was a steal at $30), a 24/7 open bar and an elevator serving all decks.

It's no exaggeration to say that mealtimes were one of the trip's highlights, and not just because of the first-rate cuisine. Every breakfast, lunch and dinner became the setting for stimulating discussions on politics, history, art, education, family, travel and religion. Our fellow travelers ranged in age from 50's to 80's and included artists, physicians, lawyers, bankers, teachers, community volunteers, entrepreneurs and executives -- all well traveled, all with stories to tell.

As we table-hopped each night, I fell in love with Suad, a Palestinian refugee who'd fled to the United States in 1948, and whose eyes still teared up when she recalled her homeland; Ruth, a plucky widow from Brooklyn who was on her sixth study cruise ("I love the Smithsonian!"); and Giselle, who survived a girlhood living underground in Nazi-occupied France to become a top U.S. educator.

The Stars of the Cruise

jodi-magnessOn that first evening in Seville, we gathered in the ship's lounge to meet the distinguished lecturers who would share their insights and expertise. The news that Professor Awn, a renowned Islamic expert, had been called away on an international emergency was greeted with groans of dismay.

But Jodi Magness, a vibrant young archeologist with a buzz-cut-and-rat-tail hairdo (oddly, it worked), won us over right away with her enthusiasm for all things ancient. Harvey Cox, a soft-spoken professor with big ideas, promised unique insights into Christian-Islamic relations and his special interest, Morocco's emerging democracy. And Terah Walkup enticed us with images of the art and architecture of the fascinating -- and little-known -- period of Spanish history known as the Convivencia, or Coexistence, when Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together in relative peace for seven centuries (from the Moorish conquest of southern Spain in 711 until the Spanish Reconquista of 1492).

Well, more or less. As the lecturers emphasized, tolerance levels among Muslims and Christians varied, and there were inevitably periods when adherents to each religion cracked down on the other. But the fact remains that Jews and Christians coexisted with Muslims when the Moors ruled southern Spain. The great lesson for the post-9/11 world is that the three religions respected one another's cultures and shared their traditions over centuries. We saw the evidence of this time and again in the art and architecture of the cities we visited.

In fact, our first glimpses of this shared culture came before we even left port, when we squeezed in a quick walking tour of Seville before our afternoon departure for Africa. As we strolled the city's plazas, streets and alleys, I admired the architecture with new perspective. The minaret of the cathedral, the Jewish star in a Moorish window grille, the Quranic calligraphy in the Alcazar -- all told the story better than words ever could.

As we headed out to sea, our lecturers kicked off the "entertainment" portion of the trip with four presentations in two days. From Jodi, we got a sort of "Western Mediterranean Archeology 101" survey course about life in Roman Iberia and North Africa. She fed us delectable tidbits of history, such as the Roman propensity for communal latrines and for serving mice as appetizers.

Terah, our art expert, pointed out hallmarks of Muslim design. We learned to watch for mirror images, repetition, horseshoe arches, Arabic calligraphy and -- in Spain -- floral motifs and creatures of paradise, such as birds, gazelles, lions and peacocks.

And Harvey brought us up to speed on the astonishing changes in Morocco's political landscape. No PowerPoint presentations for this guy. Passing out photocopies of a 2002 New York Times article about King Mohammed VI's marriage, he drew our attention to the 24-year-old bride's Botticelli curls -- uncovered -- and her independent career as an IT professional. The message was clear: the country is not mired in the past.

Marrakesh Not-So-Express

Tour director Peter Graham, a droll Brit, briefed us on what to expect in Morocco.

Passenger: "What kind of money do they use?"

Peter: "They'll take anything. They'll take your grandmother."

MarrakeshIn the port of Safi, a low-key town where blue roofs and shutters dominate a landscape of whitewashed houses, we learned that the Moorish-Iberian influence worked both ways: we could have been in Portugal. Then we settled in for the 2.5-hour bus ride to Marrakesh. I don't think any of the passengers realized quite how far inland the city was. There was some grumbling over the efficacy of spending five hours on a bus in order to spend seven hours in the city, but no one wanted to miss seeing this fabled destination.

Mercifully, the drive was broken up each way with a stop at the luxe Sofitel Marrakesh, where I had the best couscous of my life. It wasn't the kind of place I usually frequent, so I relished the sumptuous setting. Morocco, by the way, is not a dry country; everywhere we went, the wine flowed.

I was disappointed to learn that our esteemed lecturers would not be leading our land tours. Alas, they only enlightened us onboard. We explored our destinations via motorcoach, in highly structured tours led by local guides. Luckily, mine were uniformly excellent, personable and well informed; others on our cruise said they did not fare as well.

In Marrakesh and Casablanca, our local guide was Fattah, a 41-year-old university grad whose self-imposed mission was to educate the world about his country. He was also a Berber -- the indigenous ethnic group of North Africa that comprises about half Morocco's population. Fattah talked frankly about his country's shortcomings, especially its poverty. But he proudly pointed out Morocco's traditions of tolerance and said he believed the king was popular and reform-minded enough to maintain stability.

As we speed-walked through the old Mellah Quarter, the medina and the souk, I looked longingly through doorways and storefronts and remembered why I dislike tours: I wanted to poke around at my own pace. We visited a madrassah (religious school), a palace and the famous Place Jemaa El Fna, home to snake-charmers, chained monkeys and the people who love them. But for me, the high point of the afternoon was the jewelry store-cum-museum where I agonized over a selection of antique necklaces. I left with not only jewelry, but an ornate mirror and a hamsa -- a hand-shaped amulet to ward off the evil eye.

That night at dinner (vine-ripe tomato tart with carmelized onions, ginger and lemongrass pumpkin soup, and baked halibut with tomato and mushroom crust), we talked about our adventures. "I was bewildered by all the stuff. I didn't want to be taken," confessed Florence, who nevertheless returned from the souk with three antique kilim rugs.

Casa and Rabat

ChellahCasablanca, Morocco's industrial center, is called simply "Casa" by locals. As our bus passed Rick's Cafe, of "Casablanca" fame, Fattah sniffed, saying it wasn't even authentic but merely a re-creation from the movie. He took us instead to the mosque of Hassan II -- the largest mosque in the country, with the tallest minaret in the world at 689 feet. The place is a wonder, and we marveled at its construction. Even better were the architectural flourishes that Terah had prepared us for: tilework, plaster moldings, arches, inscriptions. And even better than that was the fact that we could visit at all: It's one of only two mosques in the country that's open to non-Muslims.

And sadly, that was it for Casa. The second half of the day was reserved for Rabat, the Moroccan capital. En route, Fattah talked freely about the challenges facing his country. "Many Moroccans feel there are two laws and justice systems, one for the rich and one for the poor," he said. However, he said he and many others are optimistic about the country's future.

In Rabat, we visited a 12th-century casbah (fortress) and 17th-century palace, wandered through the medina and admired the city's French Deco architecture. Stunning sights all, but it was beginning to feel like any old tour.

And then, we hit the day's highlight: the Roman and medieval ruins at Chellah, on the outskirts of the capital. Originally settled by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, the city was later abandoned by the Romans and taken over by the Muslims. Jodi's lectures came to life as we walked down streets paved by the Romans, admired the crumbling ceremonial arches and viewed the medieval Muslim tombs. Today, the only residents are the majestic storks that have built their nests atop the minarets and towers.

Touring Tangier

TangierTangier, that most magical of cities, is the legendary home of poets and artists who came to visit and never wanted to leave. I didn't want to leave, either.

That hilly terrain, those beautiful umbrella pine trees, those heart-stopping views of the sea -- were we really in a desert country? In the medina, we wended our way through winding alleyways, and once again I wished I had time to explore at my own pace. Our destination was the American Legation, now a National Historic Landmark -- in fact, the only one outside the United States. Its unassuming entrance belies the riches within.

As we entered, we stepped onto U.S. soil: the two-story, 45-room building was a gift from Morocco to the United States in 1821. (Fun fact: Morocco was the first country in the world to recognize the fledging United States, on December 20, 1777.) The building was a diplomatic mission until 1961; now it's a nonprofit museum and cultural center, and it offers literacy classes for women in the neighborhood. With its impressive artwork, antique furniture and rugs, exquisite tiles and ornate woodwork, not to mention a truly impressive toy soldier collection (it belonged to the late publisher Malcolm Forbes), the place is a must for anyone who loves old buildings.

Did I mention we were seeing all of this in the pouring rain? No matter. Our spirits remained high as we ducked into the Cafe Marhaba, a narrow, gloriously boisterous teahouse, for a spot of mint tea and a chance to hear music played on ancient instruments by four men dressed up in tribal gear. Touristy, yes, but great fun.

That evening, Terah told us that we'd truly been following in the footsteps of Matisse. When the artist visited Morocco in 1912, it rained during the first three weeks of his visit to Tangier. We could relate.

Our next lecture, an overview of Islam by Harvey Cox, added new layers of meaning to everything we'd seen. From the beginning of the trip, I'd been struck by the welcoming attitude of just about everyone I'd come in contact with: shopkeepers, kids in the streets, museum guides, friendly locals. This wasn't just Middle Eastern hospitality, I now learned. Cox emphasized that the prophet Mohammed preached tolerance. Jews and Christians were considered to be "Peoples of the Book," people to be respected; it was a tenet of Muslim law.

"Think about it," Cox said. "There's never been an instance of a Muslim leader threatening to burn a Bible."

The Rain in Spain ...

It's a testimony to the grandeur of the Alhambra -- the 10th-century Muslim fortress-cum-palace that was "repurposed" by Christians after 1492 -- that we didn't complain too much about the cold, damp and rain as we made our way around the UNESCO World Heritage Center.

AlhambraWe were back on Spanish soil, in the glorious southern city of Granada. With more than 3 million visitors a year, the Alhambra is the most visited site in Spain, and no wonder. With its ornate palaces, towers and gardens, it's considered the finest example of Islamic art in the western world. A compelling site, yes -- but thanks to our lectures, I saw it as more of a summing-up point for everything we'd learned and seen on this trip. With its many-layered history (founded by Muslims, influenced by Jews and Christians, and taken over by Christians), it symbolized everything we'd learned about the sharing and interweaving of cultures. Yet the predominant Muslim themes -- austere exteriors, lovely central courtyards, arches, fountains, geometric patterns, reflecting pools -- shone through.

That night, as Jodi lectured on the ancient Jewish communities of North Africa, her exuberance was tempered by the sudden violent lurching of the ship. We were approaching rough seas. The staff put up rope lines so we could make it to our rooms, and we were tossed around by the waves for hours. More than a few people didn't show up for breakfast the next morning.

But all was calm when we set out next day for Gibraltar, our final stop. How can you not like a place where there are more tunnels than roads; where the locals speak Spanglish, drive on the left and say "Cheerio"; where wild but tourist-savvy Barbary apes pounce on your head and try to steal your sunglasses? Pure fun, and a nice way to end our explorations.

Packing up that night, as I stuffed my hamsas, necklaces and other treasures into my suitcase, I remembered my initial nervousness nine days earlier. As it turned out, I shouldn't have worried about my lack of preparation for the trip; we'd been well briefed all along the way, and the lecturers had always been available to answer questions or expound on insights.

Happily, there was one last talk to attend before we disembarked -- Harvey Cox on the state of Islam and Christianity today. As usual, he knocked it out of the park, incorporating what we'd learned and imbuing us with his reality-based optimism. "We keep hearing that we're fated to a clash of civilizations," he said, "because of the history of religious conflict and the centuries of bloodletting. It's just not true."

We knew this now. We'd just spent more than a week exploring a land where Jews, Muslims and Christians had coexisted relatively peacefully for 700 years. More than a few of us left feeling that, with luck, it could happen again.

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