Malcolm, Tracy, Richard and Lorna
go to Morocco, June 2008

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Saturday 31st May 2008. London to Paris.

We are all so used to travelling by air that travelling overland seems like a great adventure. Tracy and I meet Lorna and Richard in Kings Cross railway station at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning to catch the Euro-star to Paris. The Kent countryside rushes by for a while before the view turns black as we rush through the channel tunnel. After 20 short minutes the French scenery starts to rush past instead.

From Paris's Gare De Nore station, our map indicates that our departing station is just 5km away along Canal St. Martin so we set off for a stroll with our packs on our backs. It was only then that I started to regret having packed 6 bottles of beer into my pack. We stopped for lunch at Hotel du Nord on the bank of the canal where a famous French movie (?) of the same name was filmed.

By 7 p.m. we were boarding the overnight train to Madrid. Our tiny cabins barely had enough room for us let alone our baggage so we spent most of the evening in the dining car where the cuisine let down the nations reputation. The wine, scenery and company made up for the tinned vegetables. By the time we got back to our cabin our beds were made so we climbed in and were rocked to sleep, waking only when the train stopped.


Sunday 1st June 2008. Madrid.

In the morning the scenery was still rushing by but as we ate breakfast it changed from totally flat to mountainous without the train having noticeably climbed a hill. Terraced hillside, rocky valleys and mountain streams faded away as we entered Madrid.

After navigating the metro to our hostel and depositing our bags we venture out for a stroll around town. The architecture is similar to that of Paris or London with large stone faced buildings topped with domes and statues. One unusual building did have large stone busts on the windowsills, which must have blocked the view a bit. Plaza Mayor had some interesting art on display and even some good stuff. Eventually our empty tummies lured us towards the cafes, but as usual, the tourist ones were not much cop and we ended back at Catedral, a bar restaurant on Calla Jeronimo with a very ornate interior that we had noticed on the way. We filled the table with tapas and beer then munched away for an hour or so.

Without stopping for a siesta we set off to see how far it is to the train station where our train leaves from early in the morning. Before we get there we are distracted by the Botanical Gardens and while away another couple of hours in it.


Monday 2nd June 2008. Madrid to Algeciras.

We wake at 7 a.m. to lug our packs down to the train station to catch the 8.40 train to Algeciras. Train travel is most relaxing with hours of nothing to do but watch the scenery go by, read, watch the movie or sit in the bar and watch yet more scenery go by. The scenery consists of cultivated fields as far as the eye can see, this is followed by countless hills of olive trees. After a stop at Ronda we weaved through the familiar mountains of Andalusia. Eventually we leave the scenic mountains as the train reaches its final destination of Algeciras.

The port is a short walk from the station but the first ticket office we reach is closed for siesta so we head deeper into the complex of new buildings. We finally find the right ticket office but there is no-one there and they are not due back until 4 p.m. so we settle down to wait for an hour. When the ticket office finally opens we find that the slow ferry that we want is cancelled and the only choice left is the fast cat' at 5.30 so we settle back down to wait again.

As Spain and Gibraltar recede behind us, Morocco finally appears in our sights. After we work our way out of the chaos of the port we try to find the bus station for the timetable of the buses to Chefchaouen but it must have been moved since our map was printed as we are given directions off to the new part of the city. Our packs are getting heavy so we give up and head back to the old city (Medina) to find a place to stay. We end up at the Hotel Continental, a grand old place from the early 20th century which brings to mind black and white Agatha Christie movies.

In the evening we have the dining room to ourselves and are served wonderful tajines that make the whole plodding about with backpacks thing worthwhile. The dining room is exquisitely decorated in the style of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, or is it the other way round? Our room is excellent, with a balcony overlooking the port area, which somehow seems OK.


Tuesday 3rd June 2008. Tangier.

For the first time this holiday we managed to get a lie in till 9 a.m. and stretch out breakfast to 11. We decided that this should be a relaxing day so we strolled up to the main square just outside the medina, then up to the old English church. Back in the main square we partake in a glass of sweet mint tea and watch the world go by.

We ask a couple at a nearby cafe what the food is like but get a thumbs down and a recommendation but before we reach the recommendation we are lured into a tourist restaurant to be subjected to a loud Moroccan band and below par food.

Disappointed, we adjourn to the hotel for a siesta. Every now and then a call to prayer gets going like an air raid siren winding up but before we know it dinner time has arrived so we set off again through the labyrinth of tiny, shop lined passages in search of better cuisine.

Richard spotted our lunchtime recommendation called "Restaurant Populaire" so we decided to give it a go. This turned out to be a top recommendation where we had a magnificent, many-course meal, starting with the obligatory bread, roasted almonds, olives, dips and mixed fruit juice tasting mainly of figs. The aperitif over, the first course started with a dish of prawns in a sauce of spinach and coriander followed by grilled John Dory and squared baby shark. Next came roasted pine kernels in honey, strawberries in honey and water melon. By this time we were all fit to burst so they brought petrol flavoured tea to wash it all down with. As we staggered out, wicker baskets and rough wooden spoons were thrust into our hands as parting gifts. Not being able to sit for a while, we joined the rest of the townsfolk for an after dinner stroll around the markets.


Wednesday 4th June 2008. Chefchaouen.

After our posh breakfast of pastries and coffee on the terrace we heft our bags of to the bus station to catch the next bus to Chefchaouen in the Rif Mountains. Once out of the city the countryside reminds me of Andalusia. Not much of a surprise given the proximity.

At the coach station we had no idea which way to the town centre so we reluctantly followed one of the illegal guides. He found us a cheap hotel but a reasonable place to eat but most of what he told us was hard to believe.

The medina was much like that of Tangier, a maize of narrow passages lined with little shops selling all sorts of tat. Children played freely in the passages which were too narrow for cars to traverse.

With a little help from the barman from the Riff Hotel we managed to find one of the few bars in town. The Heineken tasted better than no beer at all so we stayed for 2 bottles before going back to our lunch spot for dinner. The Lamb Tajine was good but not half as good as that at the Continental Hotel in Tangier.


Thursday 5th June 2008. Rif mountains.

Come the morning we all decided that the cheap hotel was not quite up to scratch so we moved to the Hotel Marrakesh with its comfortable beds, hot running water and dry walls.

Once resettled, we foraged in the markets for bread, cheese, olives and fruit before following a path out of town towards an abandoned Christian/Muslim church on a hill. A hopeful guide told me that it was built as a Muslim church but a Christian preacher came and filled in the round windows to make them the shape of a cross. When the Muslims noticed they stopped going there and the church fell into disuse. He then told me that there were fields of marijuana on the next hill, before I escaped his tightening web.

After a relaxing lunch under some trees we walked towards the fields but never found the marijuana plants (not that we were looking, or knew what to look for).

On the way back into town we stopped for yummy ice cream and freshly squeezed orange juice then earthy mint tea. In the evening we found a table at one of the many outdoor restaurants in the main square and watched the world go by. Many of the old men were dressed in thick woollen cloaks of browns and greens with pointy hoods. It was a bit like a Gandalf convention. Many of the women wore similar cloaks but of lighter materials and colours. Most of the younger generation wore jeans, T-shirts and other western style clothing. We ended the evening with a beer at the only other bar in town in the Hotel Parador.


Friday 6th June 2007. Above Chefchaouen.

After our dull breakfast of dry French bread and jam we picked up some lunch at the market and set uphill to the other side of the medina.

Lorna and Richard decided to take a day of rest so it was just Tracy and I who walked out through where the medina wall should have been and up through a graveyard. The path led on up through a natural rockery of alpine plants and plastic detritus.

We stopped for lunch overlooking the town then headed up through a pine forest and dirt track until we reached the top of the tree line. Chefchaouen looks unbelievably far below us with birds of prey flying about in between. The walk back into town is tiring but we stop in the square for tea to revive us and to watch the wannabe wizards go to prayer.


Saturday 7th June 2008. To Fez.

The bus to Fez leaves at 1 p.m. so we have time to get up slowly and take a last walk around the medina markets to collect lunch.

The walls of the medina distinctly delineate the new from the old. Inside, the houses are built from stones and rubble, plastered then painted blue or white. Outside, the houses are built from a concrete skeleton filled in with clay bricks before being plastered and painted. This results in regular shaped buildings more than 2 storeys high but the old irregular buildings have so much more character.

At midday we heft our rucksacks down to the bus station to catch the 1 p.m. bus to Fez. Five hours later we emerge from the bus station into the hot dry atmosphere of Fez. We checked into a dull business hotel because we just could not be bothered to search for something more atmospheric on the heat.

While Lorna and Richard traipsed into the medina in search of food, Tracy and I ate in the empty hotel restaurant. We ordered a bottle of wine that had floral hints of cherry, vinegar and headache. Later, Richard and Lorna returned, weary and hungry from their search and ate at the hotel.


Sunday 8th June 2008. The souk in Fez.

To save our legs we took a grand taxi to one of the further medina gates then walked back through the souk, the largest of its kind of market in Morocco. As we walked through different sections the produce changed from clothes to shoes to crafts to raw food. The shopkeepers seemed to make no effort to keep the flies off the raw meat. On one stall two sheep's heads appeared to be for sale and on another a basket full of snails made casual bids for freedom. All the streets were narrow so all the produce had to be brought in on hand carts or donkeys. Many shops are just 3 metre cubes with the shopkeeper standing out on the street trying to entice passers by to enter.

We pick up something like onion bhaji without the spices for lunch and walk on. A monumental mason is chiselling out patterns and inscriptions at his bench in the street while next door another craftsman hammers designs into metal plate for lantern shop. We stop for mint tea before weaving our way through the labyrinth of alleys to where we can catch a cab back to the hotel, pick up our bags and head on to the train station.

A train is waiting at platform 2 but it is earlier than expected. After numerous double checks, which still leave us wondering, we hop on and hope for the best. The train flies by cultivated fields, dry river beds, farm houses and collections of shacks. At Meknés we take a couple of Petite Taxis to Ryad Bahia (, a traditional town house set around a central garden or courtyard. The taxis left us with a waive in the general direction of the Ryad. As we wandered, lost as lambs, a shopkeeper insisted on leading us round the houses past Ryads of his choice before finally showing us to the one we were looking for. This turned out to be suspiciously close to where we started but I suppose we should be used to this by now. The Ryad was exquisite in its Moroccan-ness, just like you might see in the movies. We were led up stairs from the central courtyard to rooms built above the roofs of surrounding houses. It was here that we whiled away the afternoon looking out at the views over the city and watching storks circle in the thermals.

The delicate sounds of birdsong was unceremoniously drowned by Moroccan and western music broadcast to the city without the trouble of radio waves. This carried on through to midnight, at one time competing with the call to prayer amplified by megaphone.


Monday 9th June 2008. To Meknés.

We took our breakfast on the top terrace in the morning sun. The bread and honey were nice but by this time we were getting a little tired of the repartition.

The souk started near the front door of our Ryad and although it was just another warren of tiny shops crammed into narrow alleyways, we were happy to wander down them staring at the odd sights of animal intestines, severed heads and chickens being slaughtered. At each step the smells would change from raw meat to herbs then donkey poo. Cats and beggars slunk about waiting for handouts. The cries of cockerels competed with sales banter, which was drowned by ghetto blasters. A few people would talk to us out of interest but most used it as a prelude to a sale.

Back in the square near our Ryad we notice a digital thermometer read 39 degrees centigrade as we drink the juice from freshly squeezed sugar cane. The local cats get the benefit of the chewy bits from our lunch of lamb kebab, which ends up being most of it. The heat of the day takes its toll on Richard and Tracy who siesta while Lorna and I take in the local museum (Dar Jamaď). Mercifully, the labels on the artefacts were written in French and Arabic saving me the bother of trying to read them and even Lorna gave up after discovering that they conveyed only the obvious.

Considering the absence of attractive eateries in the area we decide to eat at the Ryad again and were mightily grateful. Back out in the streets the locals had come out to eat and shop in the cool evening air. Small food stalls sporting open fires had appeared to serve sausages and corn on the cob. Shoppers milled about gazing at wares laid out on bed sheets carefully illuminated by open flame gas lamps.


Tuesday 10th June 2008. To Asilah.

Regretfully we departed from the peaceful and friendly Ryad and set off in two petit taxis to the train station where we boarded the 11:30 train via Sidi Kacem to Asilah. As the tracks turned north the landscape turned from large dry fields on wide plains to smaller, greener fields on rolling hills. Occasional groups of sheds must be the farmhouses as there are no other likely candidates. Groups of people work in the fields to gather the crops by hand and load them onto a horse drawn cart.

As we travel we listen to a recorded story based in 1962 so the scenery moving past our train window fits in rather well.

We arrive at Asilah station and walk across the tracks to where an old Bedford van is bussing people into town. The hotel that Tracy and Lorna picked this time is just outside the medina gates and conveniently close to the only off licence in town. Once settled in we all take a stroll along the harbour wall, just enjoying being by the sea with the gentle heat of the late afternoon sun, the cooling sea breeze and the smell of dead fish. The fishing boats have laid out their wares on hand carts so we stop to stare at sharks, skates loosing their skins and crabs desperately trying to escape. A customer directs us to a good restaurant so we go there and watch fresh fish being unloaded from a small van and decide to stop and eat. The crabs are still desperately trying to escape but they soon simmer down in the pot.


Wednesday 11th June 2008. Asilah.

Asilah is too relaxing an environment to do much at all so after a long breakfast by the harbour we just stroll through the town and just stare out to sea, occasionally stopping for drinks and snacks.

After an afternoon of walking along the beach I am spotted by the local we saw yesterday who recommended the restaurant the evening before so I sit down to chat and drink beer. It turns out that he is a property developer who was born in Asilah, moved to London, moved back, bought some cheap land and is now building exclusive, secluded properties for rich folk. I left them to go for a swim and went with my travelling buddies to the bottle shop to buy something to sip or glug as the sun dipped down below the horizon. Once the sun had gone we nipped round the corner for another fish supper before bed.


Thursday 12th June 2008. Back in Tangier.

The buses to Tangier leave every 15 minutes so we are in no hurry over breakfast. Our bus came in a few minutes after we arrived and we were soon roaring up the the coast road to the sound of grinding axle bearings. In between the dull housing developments there are large stretches of beach with sand spits and blue lagoons. At one point we saw a cluster of pink buoys floating in the water which Tracy later suggested may be flamingos. A small forest flashed by containing a diverse selection of trees, none of which I could name.

All too soon we were entering the suburbs of Tangier with its concrete, high-density housing blocks. It is a long hike from the bus station to the medina but we make it all the same because the new town is not worth visiting. We devote the rest of the day to eating and drinking, mostly at favourite haunts from our previous visit. We start with lamb and prune tagine at the Hotel Continental where we are staying again. Lunch is shuffled down with a walk round the American Museum but later we relax with a glass of mint tea and watch the locals go about their business in the main square.

A walk along the beach is alluring but we fail to dip our toes in the sea or build sand castles. Curiously, camels instead of donkeys take tourists for rides along the beach but we prefer to find a sun terrace to drink beer and watch the sun go down. We plan to visit Restautrant Populaire for dinner so leave it as late as possible to allow our appetites to grow as large as we expect the meal to be. After stuffing in every large crumb we waddle off to bed.


Friday 13th June 2008. Back to Algeciras.

We awake in our luxurious room and trot down our own corridor to our own bathroom, such is the extent of our rooms. Sadly it is our last day in Morocco but we still enjoy breakfast on the sunny balcony while gazing across the harbour. The Continental Hotel is a wonderful place even though it is a little worn at the edges. The glory of the original building is undergoing a face lift to its upper bedrooms but the rooms on the lower two floors compare favourably to the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain.

With heavy hearts, we trek down to the port for the 10:30 crossing to Algeciras in Spain. After finding a pension near the train station we hop on a bus to Gibraltar. In this little bit of England abroad we find lunch and a beer at the Lord Nelson pub. After that there is not enough time to climb the rock so we just stroll up and down the main street until we are bored enough to go back to Spain.

Algeciras may have its endearing qualities but we find none of them, not even a decent place to eat. The bar we end up at sells only Cruzcampo, which must be the most boring beer in the world so we give up and go to bed.


Saturday 14th June 2008. Back to Madrid.

We all rose early from a peace-less night of uncomfortable beds and noisy neighbours to catch our 8:30 train to Madrid. The train wound slowly up into the mountains providing fantastic views into the tree lined, rock topped mountain-scape. We passed through many deserted stations on the way. The lifestyle seems lonely compared to our people crammed city existence, although our main worry is the walking distance to the nearest pub.

After a stop at Ronda for the restaurant coach to fill up on bar snacks, the mountains plateau out and the train picks up speed. The hills roll on for miles with nothing to see but olive groves and sunflower fields. The infrequent trees become notable landmarks. After Cordoba, the landscape broke out into vast rolling plains of dinky trees with mountains in the far distance. The next time I look up we are on the flat grassy plains of Spain where the rain is reputed to fall. Finally the landscape changes from barren emptiness to a clutter of concrete boxes as we enter Madrid.

Back out in the heat we head for a veggie lunch spot to satisfy Lorna's craving. After that we pop into our favourite brewery pub to satisfy everyone else's craving. Sadly we had eaten too many beans to do the tapas justice but it was good to drink beer that almost had a taste. The Madrid metro saw us easily to the other railway station where we caught the overnight train to Paris. We did not have adjoining cupboards to sleep in this time so we all squeezed into one for our dinnertime feast of cheese, ham, bread and stale tapas. Fortunately we had sufficient quantities of beer and wine to wash it all down and Cognac to top it off with. The unevenness of the Spanish railway tracks kept me awake during the night and the French made up for their smooth tracks with severe delays, so we could have slept in after all. Still, the breakfast made up for it.


Sunday 15th June 2008. Back to London.

Another metro followed by another train, this time it was the EuroStar to London where we reluctantly parted from Lorna and Richard, our travel buddies, to take the tube home.