Marrakesh Express – London to Marrakech by Train – Part 2May 16th, 2010
The next morning, I took the train from Cordoba down to Algeciras, the port for entry into Morocco. The line cuts spectacularly through the Andalucian mountains and the unmistakeable shape of the Rock of Gibraltar looms on the landscape, before you arrive into Algeciras station.
A multitude of taxis await at the station, but I walked straight past those, and 15 minutes later I was in the ferry terminal. Having sensibly erred on the side of caution, I had around 3 hours before I was due to be checking in for my ferry. A glance over my right shoulder brought that looming rock into view, and i could resist no longer. Paying a very reasonable €3 to store my bags in a locker at the ferry terminal, I took a taxi to La Linea, the Spanish “border town” from where I walked into Gibraltar across the airport runway. Gibraltar is a fascinating oddity. Cars with British numberplates, red phone boxes, bobbies on the beat and a Marks and Spencer’s on the high street are wonderful symbols of the UK in such a far-off land. The return to Algeciras was all too imminent, and this is easily achieved on the boat across the bay, a much more pleasant alternative to the taxi. Upon collecting my bags once again, I was greeted with the news that my sailing was to be 90 minutes late. Well, this is Africa, or almost…
The high-speed twin-hulled vessel that plies the Strait of Gibraltar is modern, and designed for high volumes of passengers. I took a seat at the front on the starboard side, and enjoyed fantastic views as the Moroccan coastline became clearer and clearer. Having completed customs formalities on board, passengers are free to simply walk out at Tangiers, into a multitude of taxi drivers competing for business. Fortunately, I had a pre-arranged transfer, for which I was immensely grateful. The gentleman in question helped me with my bags, down to his modern Mercedes car, and drove me through to the El Minzah hotel.
The El Minzah is a beautiful illustration of Tangiers’ hedonistic past, when the great and the good (and the not-so-good) mingled at this gateway to Africa. The faded grandeur is simply a pleasure in this location, and my room overlooking the sea was unforgettable. I sat on my private balcony and thought about the history of this crossroads of cultures. The next morning, I wandered through the Medina early, to take in the atmosphere just as shopkeepers and traders were setting up for the day. I then checked out of the hotel, where a driver met me and drove me to the gleaming new Tanger Ville station. Main stations in Morocco have benefitted from government investment over the past few years, and contain everything you would expect from a European railway station, in say, Germany or Spain.
The trains, unfortunately, have some catching up to do. But things are improving slowly and this image shows there is some modern trains now being introduced The 1970s French rolling stock that plies the route between Tangiers and Oujda, close to the Algerian border, has clearly seen better days. First Class is absolutely essential within Morocco, as it is guarantees a reserved seat (Standard is a free-for-all!!) and is only a very small supplement by Western standards. Seating on these trains is arranged in compartments of 6, which is good for starting conversations, but can become a bit tiresome after a while. Refreshments come in the form of a trolley, selling rather unappetising cheese and chicken sandwiches, Pringles and soft drinks. The train passes through the Moroccan countryside at what can best be described as a leisurely pace (certainly compared to those Spanish speedsters!) and stopped regularly, Signage and announcements are in Arabic and French, so I was grateful for my French in deciphering what was going on and to our whereabouts. I was met in Fez by my car transfer, and whisked away to the Riad Dar Dmana hotel, on the edge of the Medina.
Fez is proud to the oldest city in Morocco, and its Medina is a world away from anything I had ever experienced before. I wandered through the main alleyways, dodging mules and donkeys overburdened with goods, stopping for occasional mint tea pitstops and absorbing the hustle and bustle of these age-old streets. All the senses are evoked while wandering these streets. Quite obviously, the multitude of kaftan and fez-wearing locals is a sight in itself, as are the souks, with people doing business to the frantic sound of Moroccan Arabic, punctuated 5 times per day with the local mosque’s call to prayer. To complement this, you have an array of aromas emanating from various sources, namely the local tanneries producing a smell of freshly-made leather products, and the herbs and spices shops that hit you with a waft of all they have within.
After my time in Fez, it was time to move on to Marrakech. This train journey looks a long one on paper, but it proved even longer in reality. I made my way through to my First Class compartment and the train was there on time. Frustratingly, the train stopped at regular intervals in imaginary stations in the Moroccan scrublands, and in Casablanca for around an hour, resulting in the arrival in Marrakech being 2 hours behind schedule. Mercifully, my transfer company was still there, and I was driven away in a large Mitsubishi cruiser through the Ville Nouvelle and into the Medina to my hotel. I was absolutely exhausted after what turned out to be a 9-hour train journey, and would never consider recommending that to anyone. Having stopped at the capital, Rabat, and in the large commercial centre of Casablanca, I thought about how I should really have broken my journey in one of these destinations, and continued the following day. This would have given me the opportunity to see somewhere new, as well as reducing the journey down to manageable chunks.
Marrakech was my final destination on this trip, and there was a sense of personal achievement to have come all this way by train. It had been a wonderful adventure, completed in the most comfortable and stress-free fashion. I had seen cultures and landscapes change as I trundled further south through France, Spain and then across to Morocco. I would recommend this trip to anyone with a sense of adventure, but who would like to make the journey in comfort and a degree of luxury. Morocco is not a place to compromise on quality, and guides in all cities would be highly recommended as well as private car transfers from railway stations in Morocco. They are not expensive and cut out a great deal of hassle as well as ensuring you make the most of your stay. All in all, Morocco is a wonderful country at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and the Muslim and Christian worlds. It is best explored by train and the distances involved are best understood by travelling from the UK by train as well. If I’d had time, I would love to have returned to the UK by train as well, which could be easily done via Tangiers, Madrid and Paris, but I had to get home, so a flight was the only option. It was a poignant trip for me, and one that will last long in the memory.
Read part 1 of Simon’s trip here Marrakesh Express – London to Marrakech by Train – Part 1