As a blind traveller, Fraser Alexander experiences a rich sensorium of smells, sounds, textures and tastes in Iberia and Morocco.
For a blind traveller, I suggest venturing to Spain, Portugal and Morocco — lands of contrasting pleasures and unique curiosities.
A few Iberian and North African pleasures come immediately to mind. The musical exotica of flamenco, the fado and the Berber bagpipes. Suppering Spanish-style at a tapas night, chewing on churrasco-style Portuguese chicken and sampling the sweet and savoury Moroccan madness that is bastilla. The soothing sangrias, the posh plonk, the Moroccan whiskey. The musky, incense smells of the cathedrals of Spain, the rich aroma of fermented grapes in the wine cellars of Portugal and the souk smell-fest that is the medina of Fez. Touching tile mosaics at the Alhambra, the haptic happiness of the paved monument to the discoveries in Lisbon, handling a snake in Marrakesh. Syrian silver shopping among the Damascene artisans of Toledo, pretentious port wine purchasing in Portugal, the bartering bluffery that is tannery trading in Fez.
The curiosities of myths, legends and true tales leave indelible memories. The Spanish shenanigans of Ferdinand and Isabella, Joan the Mad and King Juan Carlos; the Portuguese plots involving Pedro and Ines, Henry the Navigator and Pombal; the Moroccan tales of Ba Ahmed, Moulay Ismael the Bloodthirsty and Mohammed VI.
In terms of the multisensory aesthetics, the medina of Fez is a treat par excellence. A rich sensorium of smells, sounds, textures and tastes, the barrage of sensual input is fascinating. Pleasant smells waft from shops selling saffron and olives, and from carts laid out with yellow, pink and white slabs of nougat, from thyme, almond, walnut, lemon and barley bread, from coffee and tea souks and from spice shops offering cumin, nutmeg and cinnamon. Acrid smells waft from tannery vats filled with limestone and pigeon excrement, from butchers' stalls displaying the heads and testicles of sheep, from the steaming snails and from the fish souks.
A bewildering array of familiar and unfamiliar sounds greet you. The sounds of chickens flapping, of shrouded merchants talking, laughing and bartering, of the gurgling water fountains, of the sawing of wood and donkeys on the cobbled paths are familiar, but sounds such as wood carving, brass artistry, stone chiselling and the click-clack of two-pedal looms less so. Having four guides for our group helped greatly in availing myself of tactile opportunities.
Many of the lanes are adorned with flowing Arabic calligraphic inscriptions and the touchable materials include marble, stone, carved cedar wood and plaster. As my hands move, our guide, Youssef, explains: "The five tile colours are purposely chosen: blue is the sky, white is purity, black is depth, yellow is wealth, green is Islam. This symbol radiates from a central eight-pointed star. The figure represents Allah, because paradise is said to have eight doors. In the Koran, one design, repeated many times, stands for the unity of God."
Arriving at the Cathedral of Toledo, considered to be the magnum opus of Spanish Gothic and one of the greatest Gothic structures in Europe, our guide, Davide, gives it the colloquial "Holy Toledo".
This white limestone colossus has more than 20 chapels, five naves, 88 pillars, more than 750 stained glass windows and 72 vaults. Having a schoolboy knowledge of religious architecture at best, I'm battling with terms such as clerestories and triforia, colonnades, apse, sepulcher and Mudejar influence, but loving the many legends our guide reveals.
The choir's free-standing altar features a 13th-century Romanesque stone figure of the Virgin Santa Maria la Blanca, the patron saint of the cathedral. Legend has it the Virgin Mary came down from Heaven to pay a visit to Toledo.
Inside the cathedral is the stone believed to be the one Mary stood on as she delivered her message to Toledo. Next to the stone is this mosaic tile which reads: "When the queen of the heavens put her feet on the ground, She put them on this stone. Kiss it for your consolation. Touch the stone saying with total devotion: 'Revere this place on which the Holy Virgin put her feet.'"
Passing the flea markets in Madrid, our guide observes: "After robbing you, the pickpockets are nice enough to place your wallet back into your handbag, well, your money doesn't have your name on it, does it? That's the cathedral of bullfighting. In every family there is a bullfight fight. Sixty per cent of us are against the bullfights. There is a saying here that you don't talk about politics, religion and the bullfights!"
We pass the building that symbolises Francisco Franco's time as dictator and our guide sarcastically comments: "Here Franco entertained nice guys like Joseph Stalin, Chiang Kai-shek, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini."
Our evening soiree in Seville is flamenco. This Andalusian art form based on folkloric music traditions of southern Spain is a fusion of singing, guitars, dance, vocalisations, clapping and finger snapping. We get the running instructions to go with the flower-throwing routine — a touristy sequence of premeditated plaudits between sips of free-flowing sangria. The guitar interludes (falsetas), the castanets, the stomping and the clicky-clappy routines are pretty intense whether the form is fandango, rumba or tango.
Our bus mates asked us what we made of it all. "Not bad," I say as the Americans laugh at the Kiwi-ism of using understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of its contrary. Even funnier, apparently, that the variations in the intonation convey the amount of enthusiasm.
At Lisbon's Monument to the Age of Discovery, a giant mosaic world map charting the dates and locations of European explorers' first encounters with the rest of the world, I briefly discover the discoveries by feeling the huge pavement compass with my feet and hands. It's a spatial-awareness and configuration-recall challenge that would be even more interesting had we more time.
Bound for Morocco on the ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar, we discuss illegal migration. Smugglers stow people any which way. Inside car engines and dashboards, under and inside trucks, in hidden compartments in boats, in suitcases, on board jet skis, small dinghies and boats.
On foot in Marrakesh, we rock over to the kasbah, congratulating ourselves for hilariously negotiating the confluence of mopeds, donkeys, bicycles, horses, donkeys with trailers, horses with carriages and stray cats.
We visit the Berber pharmacy. Turns out the Moroccan pharmacy is the panacea for any disease, disorder, dysfunction, ailment, abnormality or syndrome. It matters not your preferences for route of administration, the Berber apothecary has an option: inhalational, sublingual, gastrointestinal or dermatological — even bespoke preparations are possible.
With humour clearly an important component of the point-of-sale marketing mix, there's no shortage of options. Gags about impotence, snoring, ageing and baldness must be safe bets with most audiences.
Our French-speaking guide had the natural humour needed: "This mixture of 35 herbs and spices is great for women who can't cook. For the Moroccan Viagra, you mix one teaspoon with hot water, drink it and 10 minutes later — rumpa humpa! Don't mix too much because the effect is immediate! Look at me, you wouldn't think I was 90 years old would you?"
So there's your one-stop for anything prophylactic, antidotal, detoxifying or analgesic. As we emerge with an armful of non-medicinal luxuriants, I'm thinking it's the kind of place where visiting would be hazardous if you were prone to yawning, belching or sneezing. You could perhaps challenge them by claiming you suffer from euphoria.
Marrakesh's Jemaa el-Fnaa ("the assembly of trespassers") is one of the best-known squares in Africa. An authority on shopping, my wife, Christina, is, however, befuddled in shops laden with bejewelled sandals, leather pouffes, kaftans, natural perfumes, Ramadan tea, alligator and iguana skins, babouches, cactus silk shawls, lentil soup ladles, candle holders made from recycled sardine tins, engraved brass teapots and Tuareg figurines.
Daily life at the Jemaa el-Fnaa bustles along with the sounds of snake charmers and monkey handlers, the local musicians, storytellers and fortune readers, the pleas of the henna tattooist ladies and the tea-drinking, chess-playing men. We didn't encounter the blind tapping their sticks and asking for alms that we had read about in our Marrakesh guides. Fully immersed in the Jemaa el-Fnaa vibe now, Youssef helped us with the docile-snake photo and the malodorous-monkey photo gig.
I'm sitting in the corner of a Fez leather shop in trepidation awaiting developments with my wife's leather jacket selection. As per the pre-determined purchase strategy, Christina emerges and acclaims: "I've found the most waaaanderful leather coat, how much is 7900 dirham?" (It's about $1130.) I do a theatrical scowl and the haggling begins with Mr Fez giving the hackneyed old "Special price for illogical reason A, B and C". The sorry sir, sucking of teeth and big lung expulsion routine gets to the inevitable stalemate at 2500 dirham. With a dejected look, we make our way to the exit and — surprise, surprise — Mr Fez announces: "This is your lucky day! My boss wants you to have the jacket."
Back in Spain, in the capital city of the Costa del Sol, Malaga, we walk to Plaza de Larios to get an appreciation of its rich 3000-year history of Roman, Muslim and Spanish cultures. Just a stone's throw from Malaga Cathedral and around the corner from the birthplace of Pablo Picasso, we enjoy the quaint tranquillity of an alfresco coffee accompanied by a street entertainer playing a pan flute version of Elton John's Candle in the Wind. How European, how civilised, we think.
Having lunch at an outside table in Granada, a homeless lady, realising we can't see, charmingly pours our drinks and cuts our sandwiches for us. We smile with a gracias, our opportunistic friend responds with a pleasantly genuine de nada and our fellow travellers chuckle as our street-smart maitre d', quite chuffed with her €5 gratuity continues on her merry way down the Martinez de la Rosa.
Now strolling the gardens of Alhambra, our entertaining and cheerful guide, Auxi, enlightens us on the Generalife. The summer pleasure gardens of the Emir are proudly maintained avenues of tall cypress hedges that form a grid with intersecting paths. At each intersection are fountains or benches. I touch the arched openings cut into the hedge to get some appreciation of how the green rooms are defined. The cleverly irrigated rooms contain faintly scented roses, bougainvillea, marguerite daisies and lilies.
Auxi assists with a great tactile experience that is touching the cauliflower-like red cockscomb as the water gurgles from fountains and cascades in the background.
We enter the summer palace and I'm running my hands over the four materials that are used in the Alhambra as Auxi explains their texture and utility. Plaster, wood, marble and ceramic. The upper part of the walls have Arabic inscriptions — mostly poems praising the palace. Much of this ornament is carved stucco rather than stone. Tile mosaics with complicated mathematical patterns are largely used as panelling for the lower part.
Similar designs are displayed on wooden ceilings.
We finish with a final tapas night in Madrid. Time to revel in an unadulterated Spanish tradition at the historical Casa Maria tapas bar. It is an underground tunnel. These tunnels once connected the main square with the Royal Palace. In the times where nobody knew what the royals looked like, and the royals wanted a night on the town, they would dress like beggars and use these tunnels to get to the main square.
It is a fast-flowing dining experience, too many delights to mention or recall. With intermittent slurps of sangria, the line-up includes olives, meatballs, calamari, prawns, chorizo and croquetas. The waiter approaches with a napkin, bizarrely saying: "This is a napkin, it is used for your lap."
Knowing that the unfamiliarity of serving a blind person often impacts on common sense, I refrain from a sarcastic response and instead joke about the souvenir saving them on laundry. With the decadence of a King Carlos, we round off the night with churros con chocolate. What could be more satisfying than a deep-fried stick of crispy dough dipped in thick, melted chocolate?
So the tour is over. The questions remain — what is the mysterious Third Secret never disclosed after the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima? Why did Henry father no children? Was Joanna really mad? And why didn't evidence of the philandering ways of King Carlos bring about his demise at the hands of YouTube many years earlier?
It seems only right to leave the last word to Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra — an extract from Don Quixote: "When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!"
• Cosmos 16-day Spain, Portugal & Morocco tour begins and ends in the Spanish capital. Prices start from $2839pp, twin share.