Inter-railing in Spain/Portugal/Morocco – April/May 2000
Spring 2000. Taking advantage of the Easter and May Day Bank Holidays, and having previously planned in meticulous detail a route plan that would have taken us all the way round Europe (and then dismissing it as being too ambitious!), two quite laid-back and lovesick individuals went on a journey around South-West Europe by train.
Well, predominantly by train anyway. It was an Inter-Rail trip. Of course sometimes it turned out that trains were not necessarily the way to go … !!
Some of this travel diary was written by Ian, and some by Laure. It thus might not necessarily flow quite as well as one would hope!
Day 16, the journey back to Birmingham, was not documented because we didn’t really see the point. As far as we were concerned, the Inter-Rail trip ended once we’d hit Laure’s home, despite the fact that she was not living there at the time! We didn’t consider the route back to Birmingham to be a specific part of our holiday. Odd, but true!
Note that we played quite a lot of scrabble on this trip. We’d taken a game of travel scrabble with us; somewhere en route (we *think* it was on the way to Leon) we lost one of the letter ‘N’s but once we knew that we played on without it. We actually played it for forfeits -> the loser got tickled that night by the winner for a number of minutes equivalent to the number of points they’d lost by!!!
Day 01: Friday 21 April 2000. Birmingham – Perpignan.
We both finished work on the Thursday evening, and met up at 7pm British Time at Digbeth Coach Station. It always strikes me as amazing that the second largest city in the UK should have one of the most run-down coach stations in the country – hopefully that will soon change however! We had a nice and pleasant journey down, and hoped that it was a portent of things to come. The coach arrived into London Victoria Coach Station about 15 minutes early, and then we had to wait around for an hour and a bit for our connection to Dover, and the real start of our journey.
The coach to Dover stopped in quite a few places en route, and was the slowest journey I’ve ever had to Dover, taking about 2 and a half hours. It being the middle of the night however it made sense that it didn’t fly down the motorway! We made it to Dover in plenty of time for our ferry to Calais, which was due to depart at 2:45am UK Time. The ferry itself was not great, obviously overnight ferries aren’t particularly stocked with luxurious amenities, like food … We also seemed to be sharing the ferry with a selection of misfits, druggies, and other strange types.
We reached Calais at 5am French Time, and managed to catch the free bus from the ferry terminal to the town’s railway station. We needed to get to Calais’ other station – Calais Frethun – and after looking at the rail timetables from Calais Ville we realised we’d have to catch a local bus instead. Here we were, nearly 12 hours into an Inter-Rail journey round SW Europe and we hadn’t set foot on a train yet!! We just about made it to the railway station in time, bought our compulsory TGV reservations – which were cheaper than we had anticipated – and took our first train, to Paris!
Laure’s Ticket to Ride!
We reached Paris about 15 minutes late, and had a wander around the streets nearby the Gare du Nord. We bought a couple of things from a Leader Price supermarket for what would be lunch, and then grabbed the metro to Gare Austerlitz to catch the train to Perpignan, potentially the longest single journey we would make, 9 hours and 10 minutes.
We had some problems finding seats on the train, it being quite popular and crowded and us not having made a reservation. We eventually found a couple of seats in the ‘espace-enfant’ coach, so we ended up sitting next to a compartment of kids playing games! In our little section there were nice enough people; Laure listened to a retired coach driver and another guy who used to work in the French colonies, and so had been in a lot of the places we were going to go on this trip! We looked a lot out through the window in the corridor; France has a lot of very nice countryside. At some point beyond Brive, the vegetation became a lot more yellowish-green and we knew we were in the South. In Toulouse all the people from our compartment got off.
Between Narbonne and Rivesaltes the landscape took us rather by surprise: the railway seemed to be built on a causeway, with the Mediterranean on one side and marshes on the other, and the whole area looked pretty deserted, with the bluest sky and the bluest sea. The marshes had very flat islands with short vegetation, that looked more like green stains on some kind of blue material. We very rarely saw a house, and it seemed like the whole area was a bird-watcher’s heaven! It looked almost as though there oughtn’t be a train passing here.
We finally arrived at Perpignan railway station, the ‘Centre of the Universe’ as Salvador Dali had put it. But then Dali was a rather odd bloke. It wasn’t as windy as we had been advised by someone it would be. The area around the station was quite nice. We went to the hotel we’d booked (The “Hotel Le Berry”), but it seemed that there was some kind of problem with the hotel. It wasn’t a major problem; the manager had managed to book us into the hotel next door, “Le Helder”. We never did find out what the problem was. The room had three beds, but no electricity point or phone, so we told the receptionist to wake us up in the morning. That room was supposed to be 210FF, but we only had to pay 120FF, which was the price of the hotel room we’d initially booked.
The facade of the hotel in Perpignan. Complete with palm tree!
We ate that first night at “Le Perroquet” restaurant, although there was no evidence of any parrot on the menu! Laure had “boudin a la catalane” which was not so good, beef sirloin and fries; Ian had chicken nuggets, “tête de veau sauce gribiche” and fries. It was a pleasant meal with RTL 2 playing in the background. We walked a little bit around our part of the town, though we were a little far from the centre. We noticed that all the road names were in two languages, each road had a French name and what we assumed to be a Catalan name. The town was covered with palm trees, and Ian pointed out he’d never seen one in real life before. We went back to the hotel and settled down to a deserved good night’s sleep.
Day 02: Saturday 22 April 2000. Perpignan – Zaragoza.
We had a little bit of a problem reserving the ticket for Perpignan to Barcelona, because the SNCF reservation system itself seemed to be having some kind of technical problem. We were advised to talk to the controller on the train, which we did, but all he suggested was that we ought to sit on the train and that he would come back to us later. He never did. The train was almost full, and we couldn’t sit next to each other. The only person who came to inspect our tickets was someone from the Spanish staff; he shook his head when we told him about the SNCF system problem, and he never returned to us either. So, because of bad organisation on both sides, we didn’t have to pay a supplement! Not that we minded!
The train passed over the Franco-Spanish border, and we stopped for a few minutes while the wheels were changed on the train; the Spanish railways have a different railway gauge to France so the position of the wheels needed to be changed. Our first views of Spain were of mountains shrouded in mist, it looked quite picturesque.
We arrived in Barcelona, in the nice and clean station of Barcelona Sants. Once again we had problems reserving tickets, although it was a bit more serious this time: the overnight train we wanted to catch to Orense in the west of Spain was full. We then tried to get to Madrid, and again all the trains were full. We kind of forgot it was the Easter week-end, hm, next time we will book in advance! We began to worry, but to think and eat a little we went outside and sat down at this fast food restaurant, “Pan & Cie” (think McDonald’s with baguettes), where Laure had her first Spanish freshly squeezed orange juice, which she found simply wonderful!
Ian decides he’d rather read a travel guide than pose for the camera. The world is grateful!
The weather was hot and sunny, and very windy, plastic cups were flying everywhere. We went back to the station and decides to take a regional train (no reservation or supplement) to Zaragoza, a couple of hours hence. This gave us an hour or so to spend in the town centre, so we took the efficient metro to the “La Ramblas” area, and had a wander round the stalls, saw a lot of touristy things for sale, flowers, jewellery, people making caricatures, etc…
We returned to the station and got on the relatively empty train to Zaragoza, hoping to find accommodation when we got there. The journey took four and a half hours and stopped practically everywhere, but we did go through the particularly scenic Ebro valley, with its olive trees and vineyards, and no cows, we noticed!
We came to Zaragoza at 8.45pm. In the station, which was quite modern and stylish, we once again attempted to get the night train, but we failed, so we walked into the town to try to find some accommodation. The guidebook we had said that the hotels are rarely full, and indeed the first hostel we tried (“Hostal Zaragoza”, at the end of a side-street) had a room for an average price, with TV and shower. Our room was just behind what amounted to a living room; it seemed to really be someone’s house with a few extra rooms hired out! The people there didn’t speak anything but Spanish, but we managed to communicate (just!).
After settling in a bit we wandered out to the town centre to look for food. We did eventually found a cafeteria in the centre, which was quite nice. Again there was some language trouble but it turned out all right in the end! We both had mushroom/salmon omelette, then Laure had three chicken breasts with Roquefort sauce and chips, Ian had an entrecote with chips. Laure finished with banana flambée with brandy, Ian with a lemon sorbet. The menus included 3/8 of wine. Before the starters arrived another waiter asked us if we wanted to drink, we said that we had already ordered one (which we thought was rosé) He served us a bottle anyway, so during the whole meal we wondered if we were going to be charged for the whole bottle, and would we still pay the price of the fixed menu if we didn’t have the normal quantity of wine, it only occurred to us in the end, when the bill came with just the price of the two menus, that a bottle of wine is 75cl, i.e. twice 3/8 of a litre!! We spent a couple of hours eating in total, and there was Spanish football on a TV in the background, and by the time we left it was after midnight. We wandered back to the hotel and went to sleep.
Day 03: Sunday 23 April 2000. Zaragoza – Ponferrada.
We got up at 8.30am, and left at 9.10am. Breakfast consisted of two rather naff doughnuts as we walked to the station. We tried to get on the next train to La Coruna, and failed. Once again we were also informed that all the trains to Madrid were full. We got out the map of Spain and looked for places that were roughly in the right direction. We chose Gijon, but although that was full as well, the helpful man at the guichet told us that we could actually get on the train to La Coruna until Leon, which suited us fine since Leon would certainly set us going the right way. Then we attempted to book tickets for our future trains in Spain, which was marginally more successful. We booked the train to Madrid for the 4th May, but the night train to Hendaye that same night was full in second class and our tickets didn’t allow us to travel first class. The guy booked us on a train to Hendaye for the day after, we would have to see if that was suitable for us.
We had a very pleasant 6-hour journey to Leon. The landscape was greener, and while it was mountainous at the start, by the end the land was much flatter. We also saw rain for the first time en route, though admittedly it was only a fleeting glimpse somewhere near Burgos. We had a very nice ham baguette on the train, although without butter (not that Ian minded that).
Upon arrival in Leon at 5pm we looked at timetables to see if we could travel any further that night. There was a train to a town called Ponferrada in three hours; we didn’t know where Ponferrada was but when we found it on a map it was exactly where we needed to go. We strolled to the city centre up the main street, over a picturesque canal, and towards the cathedral. It was Easter Sunday, and although we’d failed to make it to the pilgrimage centre of Santiago de Compostela (which is where we were actually trying to reach, strangely), we could at least see one major religious point en route. On our way we looked at book stalls, vaguely looking for a Winnie The Pooh one. The Cathedral Our Lady La Blanca is very nice. The square was extremely windy, but it was still very pleasant to walk around it. Quite a tourist spot, with lots of souvenir shops, we only bought postcards.
Leon Cathedral, Easter Sunday 2000.
We had dinner in a backstreet cafeteria. Laure had fish, squid and salad, Ian had mince beef burger and chips and an egg. Laure was absolutely charmed once again by the orange juice, which is pure bliss! They have funny machines to squeeze the oranges, there’s a really sharp blade that cuts them in two in no time and then they are crushed. They have so many of them over there that they don’t bother to scrape all the pulp from the skin. In town we were struck by the number of old ladies wearing fur coats! Very serene town, probably due to the fact there are so many old people.
Caught the train to Ponferrada, taking us still further West. Ian was quite pessimistic and thought we would end up sleeping in the station. We couldn’t find a train from Ponferrada to anywhere helpful in the night, but there was a regional train to Vigo at 6:00a.m. It was night time already when we hit Ponferrada, it was going to be a short night. Fortunately our first try for a hotel was again successful. The reception of the hotel was on the first floor of a building, we rang once, waited for five minutes and rang a second time. Then we heard some people coming upstairs, we thought they were some residents who might help. But they turned out to be the manager and her family, coming back from her father’s funeral. But the atmosphere was not too heavy, the woman spoke French and was strangely quite cheerful, funerals can be strange days. Anyway we got a small cosy room for only 3000pts with a wash basin and a view on the railway station; we could actually hear the announcements. Went to bed and had a big snog because we were quite happy to have got a cheap bed in a Spanish town that no one has ever heard of (and that Laure kept calling Profundera)!
Postcard depicting the pilgrim walk to Santiago De Compostela. Which, er, we didn’t do!
Day 04: Monday 24 April 2000. Ponferrada – Porto.
Got up at 5:00am. We were very close to the station, but Ian wanted to have a shave, and we generally got up at least one hour before we got on trains during the trip, just to be on the safe side. We got that train to Vigo, and it stopped everywhere. Half the journey was in the dark, so it wasn’t that thrilling, although it is nice to see the landscape appear little by little. Ian wrote a letter, Laure slept a bit and also walked around in the coach because her leg hurt. Most of the journey was made along the river Sil, the border between Spain and Portugal. There were a lot of vineyards, quite different from the ones in France. These have grown a lot. They are tall and their branches are stretched on some wires so that they take as much sun as possible. That day, it was however raining.
We arrived in Vigo at 10:45am. and our first impression was that it’s quite an industrial area. We looked for a cafeteria, wandering through the rain. The town reminded Ian of Liverpool, or at least how Liverpool used to be. It was a little naff, not the sort of town that you would recommend, but there was a certain charm about it. We found a café, and had a toasted sandwich with cheese and smoked sausage. They didn’t have a San Miguel (note – Spanish beer!) so Ian had a Carlsberg (!) instead. They also served a bit of Spanish omelette and strange mini fish pastries on sticks as appetisers.
After lunch we took a walk, got a panoramic view of the harbour and went up some stairs to some sort of fortification. It was still raining really badly, and by the time we got back to the station we were soaking wet; Laure even changed her clothes. The train to Porto was at 14:00. Before getting on it we had to buy stamps and find a post-box. On this trip, almost all the postcards that we wrote were sent from the town we visited after the one where they were bought.
Vigo. Not the sunniest, or prettiest, city in Spain!
In the station we also asked if we had to pay a supplement because it was going to be an international train, but a man told us no. We thought it was so strange that we asked again a woman, and she said no too. The train was not as big or crowded as Ian thought it would be, although it filled up in Valenca do Minho – the first town in Portugal. No one checked our passports.
The difference between the two countries was noticeable especially in the architecture. The facades seemed more ornate in Portugal, because they have this habit of tiling the outside of their houses. Laure thought it was a smashing idea, so you can have a house as clean outside as it is inside! As for the landscape there were nice pine tree forests.
Arrived in Porto at the Campanha station, took another train to Sao Bento, five minutes away. The station was very ornate which gave a good impression of the city straight away. While a couple of nice girls smiled at Ian, some old bloke came to Laure offering us to stay in his hotel; we had one sorted but the guy was really insistent and it was hard to make him get off our back. Our room was at the “Pensao Monumental” but we didn’t have the address. So, after booking the train from Barreiro to Faro, we asked the woman at the help desk, who had a really good French and English, were the nearest tourist office was. We found the hotel before we got there, it was on av. des Aliados, like the town hall and the tourist office. The Pensao had a very good standard with a manager who once again spoke very good French.
Typical Porto street. It looks a lot better when you’re there!
We relaxed a little bit in the very big room (two double beds, TV, bathroom). Went out from 19:00 until 22:40 to find somewhere to eat by the waterfront, where there were a lot of narrow streets that go up and down in all directions, and have funny-shaped front doors under stairs. We decided to eat at one of the few restaurants that were open, the “Peza Arroz”. Firstly they gave us menus in English and in French. They brought appetisers, sort of potato and fish balls, cheese and olives. We had “caldo verdi”, vegetable soup with a slice of smoked sausage. Then we both had salad, Ian had octopus (with tentacles 10″ long!) with chips and huge slice of lemon. Laure had roasted lamb a la Portuguese, ie strong tasting with square chips and rice and cauliflower marinated in vinegar. The portions were huge. Not the cheapest meal ever, but best value for money. Laure was brave enough to go for a dessert, a chocolate mousse that was like 80% cocoa chocolate syrup. For wine we had a bottle Portuguese sparkling rosé, which at 300esc was cheaper than the salad.
We went back to the hotel but we got lost for a good half an hour. One of the streets was really steep, going down, and wet, which Ian didn’t like! We could just imagine people driving there – hell! We noticed that there were a lot of dogs and cats. It still looked nice in the dark and the rain though. We finally got back with the help of Ian’s sense of direction. Watched a bit of strange Portuguese TV show, where two women sang the results of a sort of lottery, following which some guy dialled the number drawn. Went to sleep.
Day 05: Tuesday 25 April 2000. Porto – Lisbon.
Three minutes past midnight, very loud explosions woke us up. Laure genuinely thought that they were bombs, but then we thought they were fireworks. Laure got up to be clear in her own mind, and we could only see the glow of the explosions, which were seemingly directly above our hotel. We went back to bed, still feeling the building vibrating. In the morning we asked the receptionist what it was, and it turned out to be, as we had suspected, the anniversary of their revolution, that occurred in 1974. The woman also said that they now needed a new one!
Anyway, it was again another bank holiday; we suppose hence it was good that we didn’t come on this trip to go shopping! Outside it wasn’t raining, yet. We got to the riverbank again, because we had said that we wanted to see it in the daylight. On the way we stopped to have breakfast at a café, where we wrote a couple of postcards. We strolled over a bridge to the other side of the river looking for stamps, to what actually felt like a completely different town. From the other side we had seen a brass band marching but they had gone by the time we got there. The road was actually still being built there; it will probably look nice in the future. It started pouring with rain, and we found a stamp machine outside with a post-box. We used it, which was fun under the rain, and then went straight in the first bar we saw. Ian had a glass of Port (nuevo). Laure was used to it as her mum was “hooked” on the stuff, but it was the first time for Ian, who thought it was rich and strong but liked it. We had a bit of a problem to pay but got there in the end (Laure thought she didn’t want a note if possible, or maybe wanted more money!).
View of the Bridge. Weather hadn’t improved!
We walked back to the station, going via some stairs up a great big hill, which after a glass of Port was quite an ordeal! It got sunny going downhill, which was nice. Laure finally found a shop to buy a bottle of water. The guy was nice, because she didn’t have enough money but he gave the water anyway. We got a train to Campanha, then to Lisbon. The train filled up very quickly, and there were a lot of people standing, including boy scouts (singing scouts’ songs like the Backstreet Boys). We played scrabble a lot, Ian beat Laure 317 to 315 and we both got words that used up all our letters. We are becoming grand masters!!
We arrived in Lisbon station in hot and sunny weather, and tried to find the tourist information. On the way there we saw quite a bit of the city, including the yellow facades of the official buildings on the square by the water front. We also saw the end of the procession for the revolution, with lot of people wearing red carnations on their shirts, and cars with loudspeakers. We eventually found the tourist office, and there we were told that our hotel was quite far from the centre. We wanted to get to the waterfront and then get a bus, but finally walked all the way, for about 30-45 min. Lisbon’s back streets are a lot lighter than the ones of Porto, but they still had those nice tiled façades. However, some hotels there were really shabby, we tried one but it was full (fortunately!).
An overview of Lisbon. Notice the blue sky. Rare in this part of Europe!
We found our hotel in a small “traversa” off the avenue that the tourist office had indicated. We got a very nice room with a view on the estuary. We wanted to go out for a meal, but round the hotel, not in the centre. Unfortunately, the only thing that appealed was a Chinese restaurant, and we thought that would be silly to eat Chinese in Lisbon! We got a tram to near the centre. It was quite old and bumpy, slower than the bus but cheaper apparently. We tried to get in a seafood restaurant, but it was really busy and they didn’t pay any attention to us, which Laure took rather badly. In the end, we ate, guess what? Chinese! We had spring rolls, soup, chow mien chicken noodles, pork in spicy sauce. Laure had half a bottle of white wine, Ian two seven ups and a small bottle of water. All this for 11 pounds, much cheaper than an “English Chinese”! We went back by tram and went to sleep absolutely knackered.
Day 06: Wednesday 26 April 2000. Lisbon – Faro.
First day that wasn’t either a bank holiday or a weekend.
Took the tram again to the city centre, and went to the Virgin Megastore, shopped for postcards, and looked for a Post Office. We walked around a bit because we had some time to pass; it was quite sunny with a couple of rain clouds. Laure got soles for her shoes, and we bought a dictionary for our future lessons! Stopped for breakfast in a cafeteria. Ian complained that the lady at the table next to us was staring at him as if he was a piece of dirt. Nice orange juice as always.
Well, that’s the nicest looking Virgin Megastore we know!
Then we got to the fluvial station. We needed to get a small ferry from there to go to Barreiro Station on the other side of the estuary. It still took a full half hour. The boat arrived right at the train station, which was convenient. From there, we got the train to Faro. It wasn’t busy at all and it had nice green seats. It was also quite slow, and yes, it rained all the way, never mind.
In Faro we booked the coach tickets for our onward trip to Sevilla, the next day at 8:00am. It had started raining really badly, and we didn’t know where the hotel was, though this time at least we had the address. A street map should have helped us, we even wrote the name of the streets down, but still got lost in lots of small streets with no name (I do like that song BUT!). We stopped, tried to have people help us, but failed (which proves with a badly-designed road system, even the natives get confused!). We saw a restaurant that looked nice and we decided to go back there later. Ian left Laure on a square to go look for a map and put us back on track. Nice but stupid town, badly designed.
The receptionist at the hotel was very friendly, and he felt he had to mention he knew Hervé Christiani [Editor’s note : Who?? Must ask Laure to remind me]. Still no complaints to make about the room, we even had a remote control. The receptionist gave us an umbrella for us to go the restaurant, which was nice because we stayed under the rain more than we should have. We felt like Mulder and Scully, searching for someone in the dark and the rain! We just kept coming back to the same square, and there again it was like being in the X-files or the Twilight zone. I was looking for a green tiled building and Ian was trying to retrace his steps. We finally found it, on the last street there was to check.
We had a very nice meal. Ian had stuffed eggs with shrimp sauce and lettuce, pork with clams and chips, I had a shrimp cocktail, grilled squids with potatoes and salad. Of course we had cheese and olives as appetisers, as well as sardine spread, and we ate it with a bottle of very nice white sparkling wine, which came in frosted glasses and had a wine cooler. Saw Italy beat Portugal 2-0 at football on the telly.
The happy couple having a lovely romantic meal. And see the size of those portions!
Got back to the hotel all right, and it wasn’t raining. We saw “Who wants to be a millionaire” in Portuguese, with exactly the same set. The top prize was 50,000,000 Escudos (£150,000), and the guy took about 40 minutes to answer 5 questions – Reunion – McCartney – Poet Bruage or something like that – there seemed to be a lot of casual conversation between the contestant and the host.
We fell asleep very quickly afterwards (single beds?), Ian had a nosebleed.
Day 07: Thursday 27 April 2000. Faro – Almeria.
Another early start. Had to catch a bus at 8:10a.m. so we got up about 7:00a.m. and left the hotel about half an hour later. We turned down the offer of breakfast; we didn’t have time but also the bread wouldn’t be due until 8am anyway. We left the hotel but initially couldn’t find the written postcards; Laure went back into the room for a quick check but they were not there. Accepting them as a lost cause (well Ian, anyway) we sent off for the bus station.
Again we got lost in the back streets; even worse than last time as we had a time to meet. We went all through the streets before finding the right one. By this time we were both a little frustrated. Ian ran to the bus station with Laure following with difficulty, arriving at about 8:10am. Fortunately, the bus was a little late (always trust the buses for that!), so in fact we were in plenty of time, not that we could have known that of course!
The bus made a change from the train, although it was a little slow. We actually had to change buses in Ayamonte (just over the Spanish border) but the change was a seamless and organised one (we got direct tickets from Faro but the drivers of the coach had not decided where to organise the change). This second bus (Damas) was a bit nicer than the first one (Eva), although the toilets were unavailable! There was not a lot of difference between Spain and Portugal’s scenery in this part of the countries.
We got to Sevilla just after 1pm, and it was typically still raining. We enquired about a bus to the train station (which was a little away from the centre), and after picking up a baguette at some small pub/café place (big enough for four people to sit), we went to catch the bus on the other side of quite a long modern bridge. The fare was 150 pts each and seemed to go all around Sevilla, through the rather flash science / technology park, presumably built for the Universal exhibition a couple of years ago. We also encountered lots of traffic.
Eventually we arrived and found our way directly onto the train, since we’d had to book it. Ian did expect a kind of inter-city train, but all we got were two carriages, very smart and sleek, but quite a small train. And until Granada, it seemed to be full of English-speaking tourists! After there the scenery became very rocky and picturesque, some might say lunar. At one point a stone appeared out of nowhere and crashed into the window next to two American girls sitting nearby. After a very brief initial shock they seemed a bit nonplussed about it! After a while the weather cleared up, and we arrived in Almeria to blue sky and sunshine. Just as Ian had promised Laure!
First impressions were of a city cut off from the rest of Spain; it did look relatively different. Near the station there was an odd mix of palm trees and building works, and it appeared that Almeria also has a bad traffic problem; maybe it’s a generic problem to southern Spain. We didn’t know where our hotel was, so we went into a travel agent and asked them (it closed at 8:30pm so we assume that Almeria is dead in siesta time). We also needed to ask about ferries to Morocco, as only the Trasmeditteranea website had given any indication at all of a ferry to Nador. We were told that the Hostal Nixar that we had booked had become the Hostal Estacion, and that themselves didn’t handle Nador ferries, and we should ask at the port. We were told however that the ferry to Melilla that day wasn’t running due to bad winds. This was not a good sign.
We wandered over to the Estacion, only to be told that no name change had taken place (this seemed to be the lady’s answer to every question we asked) and that the Nixar Hotel was halfway across town. The prices were the same, so we booked in there instead!!! (Obviously not high season!)
After dumping our stuff in our room (106), we set off to find a restaurant. This actually proved more difficult than it sounded; after some time of walking round we only found cafes. Laure wanted paella. We did eventually find somewhere, so we went in and had food. We each had a mixed paella (rice, shrimp, chicken, pork ribs, squid, pepper, petits pois) and some dips. We got a whole load of chips and some chopped sausage and 12 dips to dip them in (two mustards, two blue cheese which Laure liked, two hot spicy which Ian liked, barbecue, tomato, raita, mayonnaise, tartar, and garlic). It was all very nice; some dips got attacked a lot more than others though! We wandered back to the hotel in a dark but very pleasant evening, and went to bed, ignoring the disco in the bar next door.
Day 08: Friday 28 April 2000. Almeria – Oujda.
After a fine night, we got up. Left the key on the receptionist’s desk, as she wasn’t there.
Wandered down to the port first, where it became perfectly clear that there were a lot of Almeria-Nador ferries. We got our tickets from Ferrimaroc for 11am as planned. After buying some cheese and bread from a Moroccan-run shop in the ferryport, we went back to town to look for some postcards and stamps. Ian wrote two while Laure read a little, then we went to the post office.
Not the best picture in the world of Almeria but meh what can you do about it?!
Ambled back to the port, down a very nice avenue lined with palm trees, with blue skies and sun overhead even though it wasn’t really that hot. We only saw Moroccan people at the port, Spanish people we assumed prefer to go to Melilla. The ferry (called the “Scirocco”) was alright; first we sat in the Pullman Lounge. When we left the port we went on the deck, then back in the ferry into what looked like a Starship Enterprise lounge, with an inverted funnel in the middle and plastic plants (and a ring of lights around on the ceiling). The ferry lacked entertainment, but then there were only 104 people to entertain.
Quickly the sea became pretty bad, and Laure started to get sick, finding it much more comfortable to lie down and daydream half-asleep. We attempted to play scrabble, but Laure kept having to go to the toilets every 10 minutes. Even though it was one of Ian’s least comfortable boat trips ever, his stomach could probably digest molten iron and he was alright. He wrote two letters and lost himself in the guide to Morocco.
About an hour before we arrived, a civilian came to us and said, in English, “Are you English? Give me your passports to get them stamped.” Laure had just woken up and asked “Where is it? Sure, in a minute.” Laure thought he was someone trying to help but surely we preferred to go to the authority ourselves. The guy left quickly, with a gesture of the hand meaning “Oh and after all I don’t care”. Twenty minutes after, when she felt better, Laure went to the information desk to enquire about stamping the passports. The woman was surprised we hadn’t done it, but then there had been no announcements. She said we could do it when we arrived.
When we got off we queued for passport control. When they saw ours were not stamped, they took them and we had to wait to the end of the queue so that the two policemen could take us to the official cabin/hut. As well as us, an old Moroccan man with a Moroccan passport also seemed to have trouble, but we didn’t know why. Anyway, who was behind the grilled window but the man who talked to us on the boat. He wasn’t very nice to us, saying that we didn’t want to have our passports stamped on the boat so now we had to wait. Of course he never said he was from the police, he didn’t have any uniform or an identification of any sort, and he hadn’t even insisted. I told him we didn’t know he was from the police, then he asked us if it was the first time we were in the country. When Laure said yes, he seemed to calm down a bit. We were finally handed our stamped passports back.
The ferry across the Styx … Picture taken at Almeria. Looked the same at Nador but here seen without the vomit stains.
We thought the coach station wasn’t far, but couldn’t find any signs indicating it. We asked a couple of guards at the port entrance (by this time we had noticed that Morocco is a heavily policed place), and they told us to get a taxi. Of course, ten minutes before, a horde of taxi drivers had hailed us (yes, usually it *is* the other way round). So we went back to them, and they asked for 1000ptas/60Dh to get there. We thought it was a bit of a rip-off but we didn’t have a choice. It turned out to be a fair way, about 10km. The port is not really in Nador, rather next to Melilla, and the lagoon is really big.
The taxi driver was friendly, and showed us a couple of things as we drove past them, like the Palais Royal, up one of the mountains. He wasn’t very helpful with the name of the mountains though. He was quite curious, but then we would find out that all Moroccans are. We hit a roadblock but were not stopped. Apparently it’s because of all the contraband. When we reached Nador town centre it became apparent that things were completely different than we were sued to, in many different ways. The buildings were light, there were wastelands between parts of towns covered with litter. The towns were really busy, a lot of men were at the cafes, lots of shops, and a dwarf woman was in the middle of a crossroads (“Everyone knows her” said the driver). We passed a couple of mopeds loaded with building material coming from Melilla. Laure wondered how *they* didn’t get arrested.
We arrived at the bus station, and the first thing that happened was about seven people asking us where we were going, and naming places. We ignored them and Ian spotted the counter where it said Oujda. The guy (again without a uniform, who looked about 12 years old) sold us the tickets, 25dh each. We found the coach, still surrounded by lots of people (young males). We gave our luggage to one, but still followed him to see what he did with them. When we boarded the bus, we noticed a couple of kids and people getting on to sell chocolate and yoghurt (temperature??). Laure asked one if he had any chewing-gum, he said no, but the guy sitting in front of us said “you want chewing gum?”, went off, and came back with two packets!! We talked to him quite a lot on the journey; he was a bit ‘sticky’, but friendly and interesting, his name was Fouad.
Arabic music was playing all the time. We drove through the mountains; it was quite dry because there was a drought at the time, and we passed over lots of wadis, but sometimes there were orchards of oranges, olive trees, and the occasional crop. It wasn’t quite desert either, a house here and there and some villages. We went through a few towns, including Berkane, famous for its oranges. We came through three roadblocks and were stopped twice. Again at one station, a kid came on to sell sunflower seeds, Fouad gave us a handful, and it took us the rest of the journey to get through them – Laure was more used to eating them than Ian.
There were several stops in Oujda, Fouad stopped with us at the one nearest to the Hotel des Lilas, which we’d decided we’d go for. He walked us there. They had a free room as we expected, in fact the receptionist had most of the keys behind him. We said goodbye to Fouad, who by now had already officially invited us back to Oujda again someday, and we went to our bedroom. The room was nice enough, clean, though the flush didn’t work, and there was no hot water, which was standard for Morocco according to the guide. The TV had only one channel. We plugged in the radio and Ian only found one FM station; a sort of station for French-speaking countries that actually played French music (eg David Hallyday).
Oujda lies only a handful of miles from the Algerian border (it is presumably possible to walk there), however due to the continuing civil war in Algeria, and the cool relations between Algeria and Morocco (over the disputed desert border which generally doesn’t even appear on maps, and the Western Sahara zone), the border has been closed for several years. A once thriving trading post city is now effectively a dead-end. Consequently no-one comes here any more. Which does make it very easy to find cheap rooms :p
The receptionist said there were a couple of restaurants around, and indeed we found one on the crossroads 100 yards away – Le Restaurant National. When we went upstairs to the dining area, we found the waiter in the middle of his prayer, kneeling on the floor. For food, we had harira and six beef kebabs each, chips, salad, and olives. The harira is a strong-tasting soup, meaty, tomato, lentils, chick-peas, spices, really good. The brochettes came with a small dish of sauce which Laure thought would be harissa and really strong, but it wasn’t. Again we didn’t have desert, we always seem to have far too much food to want one. However Ian had a real mint tea with mint leaves in the glass, and had great difficulty stirring the sugarcubes in.
We went back to the hotel and finished a game of scrabble that we had started on the boat, which Laure won 263-245.
Day 09: Saturday 29 April 2000. Oujda – Meknes.
We woke up several times during the night, thinking we’d slept for more than we had! Laure had heard the call to prayer at 4am and 6am, several people singing together. Eventually we managed to get out of bed!
We found for a place to have breakfast, three pains au chocolat, a croissant, a coffee with milk and a mint tea for 21dh. Wandered back to the railway station; it was pretty hot. Enquired about times, reservations and supplements, surprised that the supplements were so relatively expensive (28dh each). We had not decided where to go at this point – Fès or Meknes -, so we decided to phone a few hotels. After trying (and failing) to use a public phone box (not for the first time on this journey) we called up a few hotels on the mobile. Firstly we tried Fès, but we had no luck finding a hotel within our price range. Then we tried Meknes, and fortunately we succeeded (though we dreaded to think how much these calls had cost!). After paying the supplement we sat outside for a few minutes. Some guy out of nowhere talked to us, asking if we were going South. Said he knew La Rochelle blah, blah, blah…
Oujda. Half a million people with nowhere to go.
Went on the train, which was pretty full. We found a compartment with an old couple (bright purple djellabah, man with typical toque). They were there all the way, while some others got on and off. They didn’t speak French, but offered us a sort of sandwich with couscous, vegetables, meat and chips, which was quite good. Another woman gave us an orange and another offered yoghurt, but we declined that. The journey was long and the landscape changed several times – Mountains, desert, large regions of stony ground, a few isolated farms, packs of sheep that we wondered what they could eat. Cart tracks for roads, lots of wadis with remains of bridges, a lot of olive trees. Sometimes around a lake or river the ground was dry, and then you had large areas of greenery in the middle of nowhere. The towns looked pretty much the same.
The suburbs of Fès looked really poor, with a lot of idle people (possibly just not working that day, we still didn’t know when they had their Sabbath day). Litter everywhere, but then did they have an alternative? More landscape; mountains in the distance which looked a very light blue colour. Everything was wrapped in mist, and even the sky wasn’t blue but more like white. Coming to the end of the journey the railway was very bendy and there were a couple of quite long tunnels. Sometimes it was so green that it could have been Britain.
We got off at the Meknes El Amin Abdekhader station in the centre of the town. When we got off the train we were approached by a lone male American Inter-Railer; he wanted to know if we were staying at the Youth Hostel. Although we weren’t, we were able to give him directions as our guidebook had a map of Meknes in it. He was doing a tour of Europe as well, although he was doing it slightly more randomly; he didn’t know which town to go to next. He didn’t hear highly of Marrakech though and hadn’t even booked the Youth Hostel bed. It did seem strange to chat with someone like us, although we did see a few other backpackers here. It kind of implies what we thought, that Meknes was far more of a tourist town than Oujda.
We noticed straight way that it was busier than Oujda, we felt it was good that we started the trip with a “small” town (less threatening), to gradually get used to the country. We were aware of the “Faux Guide” problem; someone talked to Ian in English but he made it clear that he didn’t want to chat – the guy’s English didn’t allow it anyway. The hotel wasn’t far; 300 meters down the road. We got a room for 90dh, with two single beds and a washbasin, where there was hot water in the evening. The walls were painted in an odd way, yellow with pink paint splattered. Clean toilets just next door, with paper and flush working. No complaints again.
The hotel in Meknes. If only we’d been taught at primary school that throwing paint on a wall was actually a good thing!
Ian had to draw out some money. We decided to trust the cashpoint of the BMCE opposite the hotel, given that Moroccan people were using it. The bank was still open (at 6:30pm) if we had had any complaints. It was still early, so we decided to walk a little to get the atmosphere of the town. We had an idea in mind to eat at a rotisserie. There was quite a lot of traffic, especially blue “petit taxis” blowing their horns for no apparent reason. The buses were packed solid. The pavements were just as busy, with a lot of street vendors selling nuts and seeds, snails, sunglasses, fruits, etc. We bought some chocolate from one of them. Ian was ecstatic, we both really liked it. Laure thought that she was in South America; at least that’s what she imagined Cuba or Rio probably looked like.
We sat outside (to catch the life) the Rotisserie Karan, mentioned in the guide. We had a starter of cheese omelette, then we had a chicken between us, with chips, rice, and olives. It was very filling, and we did not finish our plate, but a cute grey cat helped us. It wouldn’t leave Ian alone! The waiter/manager/cook was very sycophantic, but still pointed out that service charge was *not* included! We were going to tip anyway, though. There was a guy sat at the next table, who had the same guidebook as us.
When we finished it was dark and raining, but only about 8:30pm, so we decided to go for a walk. We bought stamps at a kiosk (6 and a half dh, not as cheap as we had expected). We saw a cybercafe and decided it would be cheaper to go there rather than in Spain (5dh for 30mins). The entrance of the building looked gloomy and deserted, but then we saw the sign that said it was on the 3rd floor. Indeed, up there it was like going back to our civilisation. It felt strange to Laure to be the only woman but by then she was getting used to it. This however would be likely to be the case in England as well! We didn’t actually get to do much there; we had great difficulty in accessing the Spanish Railways (Renfe) website, which was what we had actually gone there to do, to check out times and methods of alternative journeys back through Spain. In addition, there was only one person on the IRC channel that Ian usually goes on, and he seemed to be away from his PC, so there really was no reason to stay there much longer than we needed to. At the next-but-one terminal, two young Arab males were busy downloading a video file of porn. Very moral! This was the first time that either of us had been to a cybercafe, and at 10dh/hour probably the cheapest we would ever go to!
Went back to the hotel because life was slowing down now. In our room we wrote postcards, read a bit, then snuggled in the single bed like we used to do in the old flat at West Bromwich!
Day 10: Sunday 30 April 2000. Meknes – Marrakech.
We woke up naturally. We had asked them to knock at 7am but they never did. We didn’t have breakfast because we didn’t have time, but we bought a croissant and a piece of “galette” (quite dry cake), which turned out to not be that great.
It was a long train journey, and the people on the carriage were not chatty this time. At Rabat (we think), four Moroccan medical students from France came on and never stopped chatting until Marrakech, mostly about medicine. We were both quite tired, but we still talked and played scrabble a bit. The landscape was still nice, although more like France or England. Sometimes though, when we thought it was very boring, it suddenly turned into mountainous desert. The train was annoyingly slow at times, and the track was again very bendy. Approaching Marrakech, an unexpected sight – two camels in a field near a farm. We thought we wouldn’t see any; what we’d mostly seen until then were donkeys. When everyone was getting ready to get off, we thought we were arriving, although nothing around us in the scenery was announcing Marrakech.
The station wasn’t very big, but it had interesting tile work as usual, and big photographs of the King and his princes. Music was playing. Outside the station there were lots of taxis, beige this time, most of them were Peugeot 205s. The drivers were asking us where we were going, as always, and pulled faces when we told them we wanted to walk. We had a map and we knew where we were going, the Medina area.
Marrakech was very different from the towns we had seen thus far, the avenues were very wide in the French part, lined with trees, and the walls were pink as opposed to white or yellow. It was really hot, and there were an awful lot of tourists, sometimes in horse-drawn carriages. There were also typically western restaurants and hotels (Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Ibis) It could have put us off, it did at first, but then that was another aspect of Morocco that we had to see, and as long as you know that this is not real Moroccan life, it’s OK.
We had quite a long walk and had to look at the map a couple of times, and soon we saw the walls of the Medina. Despite being in Morocco three days, it was the first time that we’d been to a specific Medina, however both Nador and Oujda were primarily native cities anyway. It didn’t look that different to the Ville Nouvelle anyway; that was until we turned a corner and onto a road leading to the Djenna El Fna, the main square in the Medina.
Even on the short road leading to it, there were hundreds of people wandering about. It was like Place de la Concorde in Paris, with lots of cars (and bikes, and mopeds, and people don’t wear helmets) and no road markings at all, and a pedestrian area. We thought they could improve it, but they probably don’t want to otherwise it would lose its atmosphere. There was an incredible density of people there, and because we wanted to first go to the hotel we didn’t see much of it. There was a snake-charmer and Laure naively thought she could take a picture of him. But someone quickly covered the cobra and another man came to ask for money, 10dh.
We checked into the hotel after passing a restaurant that seemed cheap enough. Double rooms had gone up 20dh since when Laure called. Again we had two single beds. The hotel was very interesting; bedroom doors opened onto a balcony around the patio. The floors and walls outside were covered in lots of broken tiles in different colours and shapes. That gave a very nice effect, plus it was really smooth to walk on. At the top, above the roofs, there were terraces, from which we had a view of the town. We sat a little bit, and checked the toilet which were “a la Turk”; that is a hole in the ground with a tap and bucket for want of a flush.
We went outside (after the receptionist took ages to fill in his forms), and ate harira, spicy Moroccan salad, and tajines of chicken and lemon at the restaurant we had seen earlier. The harira was fuller flavour but less spicy than the Oujda one. Football was on TV, and Laure was glad the food was hot because she was a bit cold. While Laure ordered, Ian went to post our postcards (big post office on the square). We watched the people go by on the street, and tried to guess the nationality of the tourists.
After eating we went onto the square; there were about 60 or 70 stalls arranged in a snail shape, with no.1 in the centre. People could sit and eat at them; brochettes, sheeps-heads, salads, fried fish, orange juice. The stallholders would hail you and almost command you to come and eat or drink. Because it was windy, the smoke was blown away but occasionally we choked a bit, but the smells were really nice.
Then we tried to find postcards and possibly a couple of gifts, so we looked in the shops around the square first. A man tried to sell Laure a knife, then we went deeper into the souk where you have less tourists. The streets were very narrow and winding, yet sometimes we had to avoid mopeds with two people on them which screamed around the corners. We had no idea where we were going, but figured that we’d hit a main road at some point. In Marrakech, Laure felt the looks from men a lot less disturbing, probably because they saw her as a tourist with money before seeing her as a woman.
Moroccan craft was very nice; there were polished wood objects, scarves, metal boxes and mirrors and nicely decorated teapots. We didn’t have that much money to spend, generally we preferred to feast our bellies and eyes rather than buy things. Of course a lot of people hailed us into their shop. Laure bought four nectarines from a man who seemed to have passed the age of retirement several lives ago – only 5dh in total for very good fruit. We found postcards for 2dh each, and stamps as well as a map of the country for Ian.
Somehow we got back to the square and we needed to draw out some money. We saw a cashpoint and we were going to use it, but a kid with a tray of doughnuts, shoeless, told us it didn’t work, and took us to another that did, and indeed there was a very long queue going to it. While Laure queued, Ian went back to the hotel to get a drink. Hundreds of mopeds were parked by the cashpoint. Ian returned to the hotel down a road with lots of mopeds parked in rows outside shops and cafes, like bicycle racks. He stayed in the room about 15 minutes.
After that it was pretty dark; we went back to the square to eat some food, and ended up with small beef sausages, 10dh for a plateful, with rice for Ian and chips for Laure, and hot sauce to dip in. It was very filling and the atmosphere was quite funny; the stall tenants were hailing people, one of them in lots of different languages, including Japanese. At some point he tried to guess some tourist’s nationality (and gave a whole list of countries, to which the tourist smiled amusingly and kept shaking his head), who indeed didn’t look Portuguese which he was. When we arrived, the benches around the stall were empty, but by the time we left, they were full. Laure got some orange juice and then we tried to find a cybercafe to try to get the info from Renfe again. We were marginally more successful than last time, but it did take 45 minutes and 15dh. We went back to the hotel, wrote postcards, and went to sleep.
Day 11: Monday 1 May 2000. Marrakech – Asilah.
At 4am Laure heard prayers. We woke up naturally around 6.30am, and we were very hot and sweaty. The sun was shining outside, and the sky was blue. We only got up when the watch alarm beeped though. We got ready, and tried to spend as little time possible in the toilets which had now become rather smelly!
The receptionist downstairs was sleeping in his cabin; the big entrance door was locked, but fortunately someone knocked on the outside, so the receptionist woke up and we could leave. It only took us about 30mins to get to the station, but we stopped for breakfast at a cafe along the way. The square Djmell was much quieter, pretty deserted, and there weren’t many tourists about.
We bought supplements and boarded the train. There were quite a lot of people for part of the way. We had to change in Sidi Kacem, and it was there where we realised that we no longer had a plastic bag that contained our camera. We tried to do something about it with the staff, who told us we had to phone back later when we got to Asilah, to see if they’d found it. The train to Asilah was crowded, there were even people in the corridor. We weren’t too much in the mood for talking so we read. The landscape was pretty much like Western Europe, very green. We saw a sort of fayre in the middle of nowhere; people selling hundreds of pottery dishes and the like.
Asilah again was a very beautiful town, a quiet seaside resort, very picturesque. We had to walk from the station to the hotel; the station being beside the main road to Tangier, on the Northern edge of the town, and we decided to take a short-cut across the beach. The temperature was very pleasant, and we met a young Moroccan man who chatted with us a bit. He knew where our hotel was, and said it was really expensive, and he was right. Laure called up Sidi Kacem station but was told that they hadn’t found our camera; we began to wonder if in fact we’d left it at the cafe in Marrakech.
Asilah, nice houses, beautiful sea, much more pleasant than Southport!
We arrived at the hotel (Ouad El Makhazine) and the receptionist said the room was 280dh. We said nothing at first, we were too surprised, as we thought the price was only 180dh. A porter took us upstairs to our bedroom which was the best we’d had on the whole trip, certainly the most spacious. There was one double and one single bed, sofas, three windows, a colour TV with several channels, a bathroom with bathtub and a pillar in the middle of it and hot water. We went downstairs again to enquire about the price of the room and to explain that we didn’t need that big a room. The guy wouldn’t hear a thing. Laure was going to ring another hotel when we discovered that breakfast had been included in the price. When we pointed out that we didn’t want breakfast we had 60dh off the price, so the room only cost 220dh. We decided to go for it because we didn’t really want more adventure, and the room was very nice, and we hadn’t had a decent hotel room in Morocco yet. The receptionist had kept mentioning the restaurant; did he really think we were going to eat there?!
A 15-minute walk took us to the sort-of cafe/restaurant quarter of Asilah; people hardly spoke French there (more Spanish). On the way there we spotted the bus station, and we decided we would get the bus to Tangier in the morning rather than the train. We found that couscous was really cheap and readily available, so we had one. At that point we were rather careful with our cash because we didn’t have much left and we didn’t want to have to draw any more money out in Morocco. Also we couldn’t find a cashpoint. The hotel was supposed to have taken credit card but the machine was “broken” so we had had to pay in cash. The harira was again different, it had noodles in it. The couscous was really nice and big, a lot of chicken and a lot of bread. It looked like a mountain on the plate and we couldn’t actually finish it. A meal for two was 75dh.
We returned to the hotel. On the way we bought postcards, and two purses as gifts for friends back home. In the room we lay in bed watching TV, we had more of a choice of channels this time but there was nothing worth watching, and so after a while (of watching the German-language music shopping channel) we went to sleep.
Day 12: Tuesday 2 May 2000. Asilah – Gibraltar.
We think we woke up before the alarm, which went off at 7am. We left the hotel, having given the key to a different receptionist, which suited us fine! It was a very nice and clear morning.
We wanted to get the 8:15am bus to Tangier, and we arrived early enough to have caught the 7:45am, but it was full. The guy at the station the day before had told us we could just turn up; we didn’t have to buy tickets beforehand. Hmmm. Anyway since we now had time we decided to have a quick breakfast at a nearby cafe – 2 croissants, coffee and another mint tea (with mint leaves in the glass like in Oujda). Laure went back to the bus station to try to buy the tickets; she had been told that you couldn’t buy tickets before the bus arrived – all a little strange! Ian saw a bus go past him with “Tangier” on the front, but it turns out that was a bus going elsewhere and not an early departure for the one we wanted. In actual fact the 8:15 never came ..
At 8:30 an old blue van turned up, a “grand taxi”. Quite a few people got on it and Laure didn’t think there would be enough room for us both. But this being Morocco they found a way, and everyone squeezed up on the nicely organised seats. It was a bit squashed; our backpacks were on our knees and we sat right at the back and still people came on after us! The journey itself wasn’t too bad, we thought it was probably quicker than a real bus. We didn’t have tickets, everyone just paid 20Dh to a small kid that was sitting near us. He didn’t speak French so he wasn’t any help to us to know when we had to get off; thus we tried the first principle of travel in a foreign country and got off when everyone else did, which bizarrely was at some petrol station near a roundabout somewhere in the southern suburbs of the city. Laure asked the driver where the ferryport was – he pointed to a road and said “one minute”.
It turned out that he obviously meant one minute by Concorde. It was a long uphill road to the seafront and then a further long road round the harbour to the ferryport itself. It was also getting pretty hot, which didn’t help. Along the way we bought our ferry tickets for the journey over to Spain; we were originally going direct to Gibraltar but that ferry left just too late in the day and we thought we might as well go through Spain. The people at the agency said “bien sur” when we asked if they took plastic which was quite funny given that they were the first and they actually didn’t accept Maestro. We did forget to show the Inter-Rail tickets which may well have entitled us to 25% off, but the fare was only around 450Dh so we didn’t mind too much. They also gave us our exit forms, which we’d need to fill in to leave the country. There weren’t any hustlers, which was a surprise given what we’d heard of Tangier; we only encountered one bloke who wanted to know if we wanted any Spanish money.
It was a bit of a hassle in the ferryport itself trying to find the right way, there were so many different administrative buildings and police offices. The terminal itself was right at the very end of the complex, and we checked in. Another youthful couple nearby asked us if we had a pen, it turned out they were backpacking too but they were heading to Malaga. They’d come in to Morocco via Tangier as well and they’d been hassled and ripped off upon arrival, so I guess we travelled the right way through Morocco.
A farewell to Africa! Last view of Tangier as the ferry departed.
The ferry was a lot nicer than the one we’d got the other way, although it left 30 mins late for no apparent reason. Things were actually open onboard, and the prices (which bizarrely were quoted in French Francs!) weren’t terribly high (6FF for a drink). Laure finally put on a short skirt without worry! We stayed in the restaurant/bar for most of the journey, though en route we did take turns to go onto the deck and take in the view of three countries on two different continents from the same point.
We arrived in Algeciras in Spain after a journey of 2 and a half hours, and were directed to the bus station by ferryport staff. The town wasn’t particularly nice, and we were happy to note that the buses went every half hour. We chose to take the one at 4:00pm, this gave us time to go to the main railway station and try to change our tickets for our future journeys through Spain. We wanted to cancel our reservation and make another one for the Madrid-Irun service. To the ticketing clerk there seemed to be a difference between “exchanging one ticket for another” and “cancelling one ticket and reissuing”. In the end we had a sort of cancelled ticket that we had no idea what it was for, and no money back, and the clerk didn’t seem interested in booking our preferred journey, so we gave up.
We wandered back to the bus station, and wondered if the bus driver would accept a 2000 pta note, which fortunately he did. We got the bus to the small town of La Linea de la Conception, which was bigger than we thought it would be (we expected a small village). Even so it was not a very long walk from the bus station to a main road where we saw a large traffic jam. Ahead of us was the large rock of Gibraltar, a pretty imposing natural structure that we noticed even in the hot Spanish sun had a rather large dark cloud on top of it. Welcome to Britain!
Everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you …
We walked down the road and through border control, which may well have been the first time either of us had crossed an international boundary on foot, in amongst a group of Japanese tourists. We had a little “discussion” just after we showed our passports and it ended up that Laure asked the border guard if he could kindly stamp our passports, which he did without making any problem at all. The stamp didn’t look particularly official, being GIB in big letters and a sun behind.
We had to walk over the runway (!) of Gibraltar Airport, and down quite a long main street to reach our hotel. All the way we thought that the town looked not a little like a quaint English country town, with the exception that most people we heard spoke either Spanish, or with a Scottish accent (?). It was very pleasant, quite busy, and larger than we thought.
We eventually found the hotel, with a nice receptionist/barmaid/cook/manager with an unusual accent (Laure thought she was Irish, Ian thought Gibraltan). After a slight mix-up over reservations (they had us booked down for another day!) we got a room anyway, twin beds, no TV, shared bathroom with the neighbouring bedroom, but very pleasant. The walls were lined with paintings by Monet. We went out and looked around for postcards and stamps, and to take a look for souvenirs. We noticed that perfumes and alcohol and the like were actually pretty cheap, you can tell it’s a tax-free haven! The stamps were 30 pence to everywhere in Europe and had a picture of a young Queen on it (maybe celebrating the last time she was there?).
Had a problem looking for restaurants as most of them seemed to close around 6-7pm, including the one in our own hotel. The receptionist recommended ‘The Clipper’, a pub in a street known as “Irish town”, and that’s where we ended up! On the way we passed a series of new bins, still wrapped in bubble-wrap, so we just had to have a go at popping the bubbles on them!! The Clipper was your typical English pub, nice and big and homely, complete with a large menu too – Laure had cod and prawn lasagne, chips, salad, and Ian had pork with honey/ginger, rice, salad. We also ordered a glass of white wine each, but in fact we ended up with two; they were late in arriving so they offered us a free glass in compensation which of course we gladly accepted! The waiter was French, oddly, though he was too busy to chat to us; it certainly was a popular place. The pub had TVs that were showing VH-1, and after so long on the move it felt strange to be watching a UK TV channel. We stayed in the pub for quite a while, chatting about politics and stuff.
We went back to the hotel, took a shower (in *hot water!), then took some postcards and books and went into the hotel bar to chill out. The TV was showing Sky News, then Sky One; we felt as if we would soon be home! We chatted with the barmaid (and a couple of other guests), turns out she was actually Norwegian and had an Italian boyfriend! We chatted about Gibraltar, travel, languages, and were informed that the cloud over Gibraltar was known as the “Levante” and was pretty much a permanent fixture. Typical that even on the Med, a British colony has to have British weather!! We finally went to bed at 12.15am.
Day 13: Wednesday 3 May 2000. Gibraltar – Madrid.
Woke up, not having really slept enough. We had a nice English breakfast and toast with jam/marmalade. The only thing missing was an egg because “the grill was not working”. [Editor’s note : It is only while typing this travel diary up, 3 years later, that I wonder why we didn’t ask to have them fried …]
A large square in Gibraltar. Notice the rock. Well you can’t miss it really :p
After Ian had a shave, we left. We again went up and down the main street looking for souvenirs; lots of shops were selling tacky things but then that’s what a souvenir often is! After buying some things we took the walk back to La Linea. It was a pretty grey day, and we thought we felt a few drops of rain. Went past the customs again, which basically consisted of two permanent portakabins on either side of the road, with a roof over the road. There seemed to be some building work going on around the border area, we weren’t quite sure what.
We got the bus to the nearby village of San Roque at 11:15am, from where we were due to pick up a train. We arrived in the town at 11:45am, and once again discovered it’s bigger than we thought it would be. Upon asking a kiosk vendor where the rail station was, we were informed that it was “cinque kilometres”. This was not good as we had a train to catch in 17 minutes; we had to catch a taxi. 900 ptas and 10 minutes later we were at the railway station, crowded by American and English tourists who we tried to avoid.
It was difficult to sleep on the train, and we did pass through some beautiful landscape. We had to change at the small town of Bobadilla, and caught the onward train to Cordoba. Most of the tourists were going to Malaga. We arrived in Cordoba with 9 hours to kill before the night train to Madrid. The train station we thought was quite sleek and modern, and was located on the North side of the city. We *finally* managed to book our tickets for travel out of Madrid, it turned out that 2nd class was indeed full but we could get a couchette.
It was a hot day, about 32C, and after securing our backpacks in some lockers on the concourse, we walked round in the heat, map in hand. It was quite a nice town, very obviously religious (with churches etc). After a little walk we tried to find something to eat. Ian wanted to go to a tapas bar and Laure wanted fries, but in the end we settled on a baguette and pizza slice in a backstreet cafe. We ambled across the two bridges over the Guadalquivir River, the second one we went over in a very strong wind and could just about see where we were going! We actually got lost at some point, we walked off the map and didn’t know where we were going, but fortunately it was still light and we still had time to get back on keel. Cordoba, like Sevilla and Almeria, seemed to have a severe traffic problem, and roads with narrow pavements didn’t help. It is true that Cordoba is an old city and it is not designed for cars, and it showed.
Cordoba’s Moorish influence, damn fine architecture!
While walking round we saw a couple of squares with music and people practising dancing. Upon enquiring we discovered it was some kind of neighbourhood festival that was just starting, and was due to last until 13 May.
By now it was getting dark; we headed back into the centre of the city and looked for a restaurant. We eventually found a larger cafe that looked interesting. We had some difficulty communicating our order (maybe we ought to learn Spanish?!), but everything was OK in the end. We started with noodle soup with a bit of meat and egg, then Ian had calamari in batter with mayonnaise, and bits of squid’s tentacles, while Laure had “carne con tomate”. Laure thought the meat in question might have been veal. She also found the wine horrible, and finished off with a yoghurt.
We slowly walked back to the station. When we got there we noticed some sort of fair was going on opposite it, so we went to have a little look. Turns out it was some sort of wine fair, but you needed a ticket to get in so that ruled that one out. We did buy some sweets from a stallholder just outside the entrance though. Nothing was open in the train station; we had to go to the bus station over the road to buy a bottle of water.
We saw the AVE high-speed train pass through the station, very flash TGV-esque white train. At around 2am our train arrived. There was a bit of a muddle with regard to seat numbers; ours were coach 51, seats 84c and 86v. There were compartment numbers from 8-11, so we assumed we were in compartment 8, but people were sleeping there and lying over all the seats. Compartment 11 was empty so we sat there instead. When the ticket controller arrived, Ian noticed that only one person had booked into this compartment, and they hadn’t turned up. We sat and lay down to try to grab some sleep.
Day 14: Thursday 4 May 2000. Madrid – Irun.
Around 8am a couple of guards/policemen came in and asked us for our passports; don’t know why, but the train had originated in Algeciras so maybe they were searching for illegal immigrants.
Anyway the train crawled slowly into Madrid Chamartin station, and the first thing we did when we got off was deposit our rucksacks at the left luggage office. It was raining heavily, which was not pleasant at all. The station was some way out of the town, so we got the local metro service into the city centre (Sol). We thought the system was well-indicated, efficient, swift, and comfortable. When we reached Sol it was still raining hard, so we looked out for a place to sit and have breakfast. We very quickly (fortunately) found a small cafe/bar place. Taking tips from the guidebook we both asked for a chocolate con churros. We got a bowl of very thick syrupy chocolate mixture and some long, thin, doughnut-like things. The chocolate was very good, Ian wondered how they made it so thick, and Laure thought she could taste semolina. Ian did find the churros a bit dull, though they improved with dunking them in the chocolate.
It was still raining when we left so we went shopping for books. We ended up in the FNAC department store at one point, and bought a few cheap CDs. We also found a shop near la Plaza Mayor that sold all football things, so we got a Real Madrid tie for our friend Phil! It was now lunchtime and we attempted to buy some food from “El Museo del Jammon”. However we got very confused in our attempts to buy 2 croissants with jamon and chips. It seemed to us as if you had to buy the croissant from one part of the shop and take it away, but the chips from the cafeteria part and eat them in, despite them both being advertised on the shop window. By the time everything was ready and we knew what was going on, the cafeteria was full so we had to eat out anyway!! The only place we found to sit was in the bus terminal on Plaza del Sol, a bit wet and smelt of bus fumes, but never mind.
We finished our lunch then decided to head for a museum, a bit of culture at last! The one that seemed the most interesting was the “Centro de Arte Reina Sofia”, Madrid’s modern art museum, so off we walked. It was on a square with a sculpture in the middle; two metal boxes; which announced what we’d find inside.
Granted an art gallery doesn’t normally make an interesting photo, but this is modern art and besides we were running out of film!
We thought it would be quite a relaxing visit but the museum was very big and we kept having to sit down as we became more tired! The paintings and sculptures contained within were both modern (the oldest was from 1894), and ‘modern’ in the sense of ‘modern art’; the most common exhibits were by Mino, Dali, and Picasso, although the first few rooms we went to were holding an exhibition of work by Tapies, very dark and moody but interesting – he tended to use lots of mosses, dirt, and other similar things. There were also a number of exhibits that were half-painting, half-sculpture. Mino’s work was more colourful, with obscure representations of women and birds in both paint and sculpture. There were quite a number of people in the gallery, but the only bottleneck was at the only painting in the gallery to be sectioned off and guarded, Picasso’s “Guernica”, which is just as odd in reality as it is shown in books etc. We didn’t go round the whole gallery, by the time we reached the 3rd floor we were completely exhausted, so we sat and had a drink in the cafeteria instead.
After leaving the gallery we had a little wander round the streets of Madrid, past some nice buildings including some government offices. We found somewhere to eat, a small cafe near the Puerto de Toledo, in the south-west of the city centre. We didn’t eat much, Laure just had a salad and Ian a bocadillo. Just after 8pm we took the metro back to Chamartin, and waited for our train. We were eating pipas (sunflower seeds) while waiting, and some Italian guy came up to Ian and asked him for *one* sunflower seed!
A series of fountains near Madrid’s parliament buildings. Don’t worry, it’s the last picture! (I decided not to upload one of Hendaye railway station!)
We boarded the train at 10pm, and were initially disappointed with the couchettes, Ian especially given that a) he’s 6’3″ tall, b) scared of heights, and c) likes to know where he’s going (there were no windows). It was also very hot in the couchette itself, especially so high up (we were in the top two beds). There were six beds in each section, in two rows of three, and the compartment was mixed sex. The conductor actually took our tickets off us. After chatting to a Belgian by the doors of the carriage, we both went to bed, expecting a strange night.
Day 15: Friday 5 May 2000. Irun – La Rochelle.
Well we didn’t have quite as bad a night as we thought. Would you believe the two of us even fitted in to the same couchette for two-thirds of the night! Ian did get a stiff neck afterwards, though not sure if that was the couchette or from the previous night. About 20 minutes before we were due to arrive, the conductor came back with our tickets. Ian was already awake, but Laure was still half-asleep and had no desire to get out of the bed!
We got off the train at Irun; we were actually intending to go to Hendaye, but we forgot this when we booked the ticket in Cordoba! In any case we didn’t think it was that far between the two towns, and the train (which was going quite slowly at that point) was only due to take 5 minutes to go between them anyway! It took us 5 minutes to find the exit to the station, it was not very well indicated and the station itself comprised of two buildings.
We stopped for breakfast in the centre of the town, mainly to use up the last of our pesetas, and so we could sample the thick chocolate stuff again, this time with croissants. Nearly all the road signs were bilingual; this is the Basque region after all; and we did notice the tendency for Basque words to have a ‘k’ in them …
Anyway we followed signposts to “Francia” which we assumed meant France. We walked along what at first was a nice residential road, which then slowly gave way to industry. Then the road forked slightly, we took a side-road to the left that first went past a small railway station that serves the independent Eusko train that runs along the whole length of the North Coast of Spain, to A Coruna, and then on a bridge over a river. There was a small disused brick hut with ‘France’ written on one side and ‘Frontera’ on the other, and it didn’t look as though it had been used for a long time. Very soon after we reached a building with “SNCF Hendaye” on it so we knew we were in France and that the journey was very nearly over, this thus becoming the second international border we’d ever walked over!
We had 2 hours to waste, we had a short wander but it didn’t seem like anything more than a sleepy border town. We bought Eurostar tickets to get home, and waited for the train to Bordeaux. Ian was not impressed with the sanitary facilities on the platforms at Hendaye railway station!
We were quite tired on the train so we didn’t do much except rest. In Bordeaux we had lunch (3 pain au chocolates each) and then realised we needed to reserve our train ticket from La Rochelle to Paris! There was quite a long queue; service was done over a issued numbered ticket, and Laure missed her turn because she’d nipped outside to see Ian and check on the time! Typical! But no matter we could do it in La Rochelle.
The train to La Rochelle was full, and it took a long time to find two seats next to each other. We played word-association games on the train, but really we couldn’t wait to get to Salles-sur-Mer, for known territory, free food and accommodation!
We arrived in La Rochelle around 4:15pm and stayed until 11am Sunday morning. Laure was pleasantly surprised that her brother and girlfriend came. We all had raclette Friday evening, got our travel photos developed Saturday, and played tarot that evening. Good time.