This is a travel diary taken from a journey around Spain, Morocco and Gibraltar during the Sept/Oct 1999.
UK£1 = 245pesetas / 16 Moroccan Dirhams (approximate rate at time of travel)
We flew to Madrid from Luton with EasyJet. The ticket was about £70 each for a single. The flight left about twenty minutes late at around 10:50 a.m. It was a very smooth journey. I quite enjoy EasyJet with its cheap prices and no frills attitude - except for the fat that they never seem to have enough sandwiches to go around. Anyway, budget airlines are just what's required for short hop travel in Europe.
On arrival in Madrid we took the airport bus to Plaza Colon (385pts each). We then took the underground to Anton Martin station (200pts each) and walked the short distance to the hostel we had pre-booked. It’s called "Hostal Horizonte". The room we had reserved was en-suite and very nicely decorated. The building was an old traditional style place and the setup was a no-nonsense "here’s your room" type place. No restaurants or lounges. It cost us 7000 pts per night, which was good value for the centre of Madrid. The owner was quite pleasant and helpful.
After a quick siesta (when in Spain…!) we ventured out for a walkabout. Very interesting with lots of eye-catching architecture. We stopped at a place called the "Museo de Jamon" which was a huge cafe/bar type place with hundreds of hams/salamis hanging up. We tried a few kinds, along with a few "canas" (small glasses of beer). Later on we ate at a place called "Casa Toni", a tiny 3-table place, which served delicious tapas. Tapas is the way to eat in Madrid. Small portions of food, so you can try lots of different kinds of things. Most people seem to eat certain tapas in one place, then move on to somewhere else to eat something else. I quite liked the idea of spreading my eating experience between four or five places in one evening!
We finished off with some coffees at place called "Cafe Central", near the Plaza Santa Ana, then we headed back for a reasonably early night by Spanish standards – about 11:00.
26th Sept 1999
We made an early start, and after breakfast at a little local place, we headed to the Prado Art Gallery, arriving there just after 9:00 a.m. A queue had already formed, so it took a little while to get in. Luckily, Sundays are free entry, so it was well worth the wait. We ambled through the galleries for an hour or so – mainly contemporary art – and then we left just as it was getting really busy. The "Prado" is famous, but I found it pretty average. Then again, I’m not art buff, and as usual I appreciated watching the people walking around and the architecture more than the actual "art".
We then spent some time walking around the nearby Botanical Gardens, which were really beautiful and relaxing, and very quiet. We paid 200pts each entry fee. The gardens were well kept and had a very good selection of native and non-native plants alike. I could image this place would get packed in the searing heat of the summer.
At around lunchtime we walked down to Atocha station and booked tickets to Seville for the 10:00 train the following day. It cost us 8200 pts each in "tourist" class. We got the tickets OK but had to sit in "smoking class", as all the "non smoking" tickets were sold. The station is a huge place and is very pleasant.
Not many people in Madrid speak English, so our broken Spanish was coming in very handy, and we were enjoying having to use it. Makes a change from most countries, where English is well spoken and people want to speak it.
We took the underground (which is also pretty clean and reliable) back up to Plaza Mayor (the main square) and ate some "brocadillos" before starting a walking tour which we’d picked up in a guidebook. Lots of streets were closed off to traffic to allow a cycle race to take place, which drew big crowds onto the streets. There was quite a carnival atmosphere. We walked for around five miles and took in most of the major sites including the Royal Palace, various Cathedrals and loads of beautiful squares. We stopped quite often to sip drinks (it was quite a hot day) and to do plenty of "people watching" – one of the locals favourite pastimes.
Madrid is an interesting city with a very vibrant feel to it. Lots of places to keep the visitor interested and not so many tourists about. In fact it’s not very touristy at all, which is a real blessing. Huge Boulevards and Squares are the flavour, rather than narrow alleys and winding streets, although the "seedy" area around our hotel is very much like being in Soho in London.
In the evening we had a big night of tapas. We had King Prawns in one place, headed to another popular place called "Las Bravas" for Patatas Bravas. Following this a quick drink at a bar called "Los Cabriellos" and then finally a big plate of calamari at "La Cervercos".
We finished the night off at a nice bar on the square then hit the sack before midnight. Still early by Spanish standards - most people were just coming out, and even old ladies were walking their dogs or shopping.
We got up early again and walked to Atocha station for breakfast. It was another hot and sunny day. We boarded the high speed AVE train (very nice) at 9:55. We tried to get a non-smoking carriage but no luck – it was full. Unlike trains in most countries (where there is one smoking carriage and the rest are non-smoking), the Spanish trains are all smoking with one non-smoking carriage! Now, I don’t mind smoking, but the Spaniards really like to chain smoke very smelly cigarettes, so the atmosphere in the nice air-con carriage was horrible! After a 1.5 hours into the journey the train stopped at Cordoba and we managed to get into the non-smoking carriage for some respite! We stank.
The train was very fast, making its way through dry countryside dotted with olive trees, cotton plants, and very little else. We arrived at Seville at around 12:15 p.m.
The bus station was a bit mad, so we jumped on the number 32 bus (125 pts each), which luckily headed into the centre. We walked to a hostel we’d phoned from the station called "Hostel Lis 2". It is a nice place in a beautiful old building, and the room was good value at 4500 pts per night. Unfortunately some building work was going on next door, so it was a bit noisy and very dusty.
Seville is really nice. Lots of narrow streets and fantastic old buildings. The temperature was much higher than Madrid.
We walked down to the River Quadaiquir, crossed over it, and ate fried anchovies (Bocherion – or something like that) and sipped cold beer at an outdoor cafe looking over the river towards the city. What an excellent way to while away the afternoon. We followed this with a wander to orientate ourselves, then had a traditional siesta.
In the evening we walked quite a bit and ate a set-menu at a nice outdoor place in the old Jewish quarter, which was very nice. We walked more, late on into the evening before heading back to the hostel.
We were really enjoying Seville and we decided to stay a few nights to enjoy it. As we walked through the main shopping area we noticed many familiar signs including "Marks and Spencers", "C&A", "Barclays", "Halifax" and even "Mister Minute". Quite a few tourists around – mostly day trippers up from the resorts of the Costa del Sol.
28th September 1999
Slept in and headed off for breakfast near the cathedral, where we had ham and cheese baguettes and some gorgeous coffee. It was a scorching hot day.
The cathedral in Seville is fantastic, and we walked around it and into it for quite a while. Apparently it’s one of the largest in the world – it’s certainly a huge place, yet the design is very intricate. We easily spent a few hours there, reading about the history of the place.
Afterwards we headed into the "Reales Alcarez", a complex made up of a number of old buildings. Lots of beautiful Moorish architecture and some well kept gardens. We paid 700 pts each entry fee, but it was worth it and we ended up spending a couple of hours in there, walking and relaxing in the grounds. We tagged on to a tour group and got a free commentary about the place.
In the afternoon we wandered around the narrow cobbled streets of the Santa Cruz district, which was interesting with some fantastic little squares. By 4:00 we returned to the hostel, ready for a siesta.
We booked seats on the Seville – Ronda bus for a couple of days time, costing us 1285pts each.
In the evening we walked some more and were just about getting our bearings around town, which is quite a complex place to orientate yourself.
29th September 1999
Slept Ok despite the usual noise of dustbin men at something like 2:00 a.m.
We started off with a light breakfast in Plaza de San Sebasitian and then decided to do another walking tour. We headed to "La Macerena" district, which is pretty with lots of interesting churches and houses – and not too many tourists around. We stopped briefly for refreshments at a nice little cafe before continuing on to view what remains of the old city walls and the last remaining city gate, called "La Macerena". Quite a lot of walking on a very hot day.
We pressed on through some more interesting districts, past the "Columns of Hercules" and ended the walk in another pleasant square, early in the afternoon.
As we walked back to the hotel we passed through a huge street demonstration, which was something to do with Unions. We found a really nice park to relax for a while, which was very pleasant in the heat of the afternoon. I’d hate to imagine how hot this place got in the height of the summer.
Dibs took a siesta and I ventured out for a cerveza and a bit of people watching. I found a little pub near to the hotel which was in a perfect location for the casual voyeur!
In the evening we had another good walk, a nice meal and took in the last few hours of the day sitting in Plaza San Sebastian. The square is a magnet for the young and trendy of Seville (so yeah - we felt a bit out of place!).
We both really enjoyed our stay in Seville.
Got up at around 8:30 and walked to the bus station, which took about 15 min. It was a cloudy day and much cooler. We had breakfast at a nice place called "The Casablanca Bar" and got a bus at around 10:00. It was about half full, with a grumpy driver, and took around three hours to Ronda through some beautiful countryside, which was very rugged.
We got to Ronda, checked train timetables at the train station for the following day, and ended up walking into town and staying at a really nice place called "Hotel Morales", which was good value at 5000 pts per night. Ronda is a great little town.
We ate an uninteresting lunch at one of the many restaurants in the main square. The waiters were extremely rude. We walked across the bridge over the spectacular Toja Gorge and did a bit of a hike down into the gorge itself for some great views. There were quite a few tourists around, most of them on day trips from resorts on the nearby coast. The town is quite small and we spent the rest of the day walking around looking at old churches and the remains of the city walls whilst admiring the surrounding countryside.
In the evening we returned to the square for a meal and chose a much better place to eat. We sat for a while watching the kids play and life go by. They were playing in the square whilst their parents went to church, and it was quite entertaining. Footballs flying everywhere. When the parents came out to gather them up it got pretty amusing.
Most of the tourists had left for the day and the hotel was very quiet.
A monster day!
We rose early and took the 7:15 a.m. train through the mountains down to Algiceras. It’s a very scenic route but we didn’t get the full appreciation because it was still dark for most of it. We got to the ferry port at around 9:30 and just missed a ferry to Tangiers, so we waited in the terminal for the next one at 11:00.
The journey took around 2.5 hours and we set our watches back 2 hours to Moroccan time. The sea was calm and the boat OK. We saw quite a few dolphins. I’d say the boat was about half full, and was mainly occupied by Moroccan people with lots of baggage. I was told it was popular with day-trippers to Tangiers, but as it was a Friday (and the souq and most shops would be closed), it was much quieter.
On arrival at Tangiers we took a big Mercedes taxi to the train station. The main station at the Port and the "Gare" station (in town) were closed for renovation, so we had to go quite a way out of town to a temporary station. The ferry terminal and surrounds were low on touts – which was a surprise as we’d expected lots of them, and had been warned about the hassles involved in arriving in Tangiers. The people in the ferry terminal were very helpful and I got the feeling that the authorities of Tangiers were trying to get rid of the bad reputation which the town had.
We immediately went into barter-mode and the taxi driver dropped his price to what we thought reasonable (although it was still expensive – I could tell by his smile!). He was also pretty friendly and waited for us outside the station whilst we made a reservation. It cost us 129 Dirham each for a 1st class seat. The ferry had cost us 3700 pts each one-way. We left our backpacks at the station for a small fee.
We headed back to the port after buying our tickets as we had a few hours to kill before our train departed. Tangier looked a bit of a dump, but we found a reasonably nice cafe to sit and drink cold drinks and eat a spot of lunch. There were quite a few weird looking characters wandering around, but it wasn’t as hostile as people had made out, and was certainly not as run-down as we’d been told. Then again – I suppose it depends on what you’ve experienced before.
After our drinks and snack we headed up into the old town towards the Medina. It was very old and mediaeval feeling, and although it did feel a bit dodgy, it was quite interesting. As we were walking a "friendly" chap who spoke very good English (inevitably) approached us. We started to give us a tour and we just followed along. He insisted he looked like "Sammy Davis Junior", and I suppose he did in a weird sort of way.
We usually like to explore by ourselves but we just gave in, which was a combination of being tired and being "out of training" I suppose!
This bloke showed us around the Kasbah, which was really interesting and to be honest he gave us a decent tour, even though he was a bit annoying. As expected we ended up at a carpet shop (which was his brothers/uncles/whatever) for the usual rigmarole. We sat and used the opportunity to kill a bit of time and drink some nice sweet peppermint tea (Berber Whisky as everyone in Morocco calls it), whilst the owner showed us lots of carpets and rugs. The prices dropped dramatically as he tried to sell us something, but we weren’t interested. The thing that spoiled it a bit was that the owner got a bit nasty when we didn’t buy. Our first taste of Moroccan pressure sales!
We also visited a "herbs and spices" shop for yet more sales spiel, and by the time we left we had to move on to the station. At least the afternoon had passed along quickly!
We went to a busy square and got a taxi, and ended up paying our guide 50 Dirham for his services. He got a bit rude, but I paid, although Dibs got pretty angry with him!
We phoned a couple of hotels in Fès to reserve a room, but with little luck. Dibs had to do most of the speaking as they only understood French (and couldn’t understand mine!). We decided to see what happened on arrival.
The train journey seemed to go on forever, although it was pretty comfortable. We had a compartment with six seats, and we shared the journey with a young Moroccan girl and a Japanese lad. During the journey a few touts would appear in the compartment and try to persuade us to get off somewhere else or stay in their hostel. They didn’t bother too much with me, but concentrated on the Japanese lad more.
One pair of characters even tried the "good cop – bad cop" routine and got a bit touchy when we didn’t "bite". The first guy was hanging around in the compartment trying to get my attention, and then the other came in and "shooed" him off. He then proceeded to tell me how he was a wealthy businessman, in the leather trade. Before long he was advising me to stay in a particular hostel! We blew his cover with questions such as "How come you know so much about backpacking hostels if you’re a wealthy businessman". He got a bit upset and left the carriage. Later on we saw him shepherding some unsuspecting tourists to a grubby hotel in Fès. Such bullshit made me laugh.
Halfway through the journey we had to leave the train and wait next to the tracks for half an hour or so for another train. No station or anything, just a stop in the night in the middle of nowhere.
We arrived in Fès at around 11:00 pm (not 9:50 as we were expecting). The station was complete pandemonium with people rushing around all over the place. Within seconds all the taxis had disappeared and we were left at an almost empty station. The Japanese lad went his own way, and after a bit of deliberation we decided to walk into the Ville Nouvelle (new town) and see what we could find.
The first hotel – "The Royal" seemed to be acceptable so we took a room. As we walked in the "wealthy leather trade con-man" was there, trying to claim some baksheesh for taking us there. The owner looked at me and immediately knew he was lying and told him to clear off. To be honest "The Royal" was a bit grubby and pretty grim and not very Royal at all. However, it was late, we’d had a long day – and we didn’t care!
2nd October 1999
We slept well after the long day yesterday. It was Dibs birthday and she wasn’t very happy with the room, so I got up early and went on a "mission" to find some better accommodation.
I set off at around 7:00 and it was already hot. The Ville Nouvelle was pretty nice – lots of tree lined boulevards and modern buildings. I checked out a couple of places, but they were expensive and not very good, so I headed down towards the walled town of Fès el-Bali (Old Fès), which is where we’d intended to stay in the first place.
Fès is Morocco's oldest imperial city. Founded in 789 AD as the seat of Morocco's first native dynasty, the Idrissids.
As I walked off the main road, through the huge walls into the old town it was like stepping back in time. The labyrinth like streets were narrow and uneven, with high buildings shadowing them. It was still early, but there was lots going on and the narrow alleys were full of people, donkeys and the odd bike. So many different smells and sounds were in the air. It didn’t take long before I was completely lost, so I just ambled around admiring the place until I hit a more major street.
I ended up paying a young lad a couple of Dirham to show me the Hotel Batha – a place I’d read about in a guidebook. It was right on the edge of the old town but took a while to get there as I’d been going in the wrong direction. I also think the young lad was intent on taking me the long way so that I paid him more! I told him I was from Slovenia and that I couldn't speak much English which confused him a bit!
The place looked really posh, but I went in and did a bit of a deal with them. 266 Dirham per night for a very nice room. It’s quite a palatial with fountains, marble everywhere and even a swimming pool. It was a great find, and I was proud at my achievement!
I got a taxi back to the "Royal", but this time I took a "petit taxi" rather than a "grand taxi". It was very cheap and the driver was very friendly. It took a while to get back because he insisted on giving me an impromptu French lesson in return for an English lesson! We ate breakfast and then taxied to the hotel. Dibs really liked it and it cheered her up.
We sat in a nice little cafe near to the Bab-bou-Jelou, one of the main gates to the old city, and got chatting to an elderly couple called John and Pat who were very friendly. It was very hot and we enjoyed just sitting and watching life go by. They had been in Morocco for a while, so they gave us plenty of advice and we exchanged stories for quite a while.
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the old city. It’s a huge and amazing place. Quite unique, and with so much exploring to do, it would be easy to spend months there. It was almost impossible to navigate and we got lost easily. I was amazed at how many people lived and did their daily life in this old walled city. The different souqs, selling everything from live chickens to brass were very interesting, and we hardly got hassled at all. The souqs are some of the oldest in the Arab world, and although not as big as the ones I'd seen in Aleppo or Cairo, they were certainly more confusing.
We ate couscous at a little place and had a coffee at a museum we found near the Kairouine mosque.
In the evening we ate at the hotel and relaxed after a hectic day.
3rd October 1999
There was a wedding last night and the streets were full of revellers, playing loud music all night long. It started about 9:30 pm and ended at around 6:30 in the morning. It sounded like they just kept walking around the streets in circles.
We headed back into the old town, in particular the souq, for a good tour. The souq tended to be split into different areas depending on what was being made there, such as "The Brass souq" and "The Carpenters Souq".
We were a bit more orientated this time and although we still got very lost, we were starting to recognise some landmarks. We visited the tanneries, where they prepare the leather which Morocco is famous for. We went into a shop and climbed up quite a few flights of stairs to get a great view. It was, as warned, pretty smelly (they use ingredients such as pigeon shit to soften the leather!), but not as bad as I had expected. It was like the whole place hadn’t changed in centuries. Lots of pots of different coloured mixes and dyes, with men working in them. We watched for quite a while and then left. The shop owner didn’t even try too hard to sell us anything.
Afterwards we headed into the Northern Medina, which was much quieter and friendlier than the main souq. People were very helpful and genuinely happy to chat and show us the way. We ended up walking uphill through a myriad of narrow streets until we reached the "Hotel Palais Jamai", which is a flashy five-star hotel. The area offered really good views over the town of Fes and it was worth the hard walk. We briefly looked around a cemetery and then took a petit-taxi to the Ville Nouvelle.
The Ville Nouvelle is a good place to relax and get away from the old town after a busy, dirty day. I think most Moroccan towns are split into an "old" and "new" town, which gives a good contrast. The French, who ruled Morocco for a while, setup these new towns as their administrative centres.A mix of the old traditional ways and the more modern French influence. We spent a while relaxing, sitting outside a cafe on a nice tree lined boulevard. We could have been in France.
Later on in the day we returned to the little eating-place in the Old city, which we’d found the other day, and enjoyed some nice local food. We ate Tagine (A Moroccan stew – named after the funnel like pot it’s cooked in) and couscous, whilst chatting to the owner and watching the world go by.
4th October 1999
We made an early start and ventured up to the Ville Nouvelle to check-out the car hire agents for the best deals. There were plenty of them about, including all the usual names like Budget and Hertz. In the end, Europcar offered us the best deal and we made a booking with them. We took a Pugeot 206 for around 500 Dirhams a day. Not as cheap as we thought, but the best deal we could get. It was worth spending time to shop around, as the prices and deals offered varied a lot.
We ate breakfast and then walked around the area known as "Fès el Jdid". It’s a much quieter area than the old town but still quite interesting, with some wonderful architecture and some great bits of the old city walls left intact. It’s right next to "Fès el Bali" and was once home to the large Jewish community. The houses were different, with windows facing out onto the streets rather than into a courtyard, like they were in Old Fès.
We found a nice park in the middle of the area and sat down in a cafe for a while before wandering back to the "usual" place for lunch.
By the early afternoon it was pretty hot and we decided to head back to the Hotel to relax and read.
In the evening, our last in Fes, we decided to head up to the Ville Nouvelle for dinner. It was really busy trying to get a taxi, and although there was a rank and a "queuing point" it was ignored. In the end I had to use strong-arm tactics to get a petit taxi.
We ate at a place called "La Medalle", which someone had recommended. It was very quiet and the food was pretty good, although a little expensive. 150 Dirhams for a three course meal and drinks. In hindsight I’d have given it a miss and ate in one of the "posh" places in the old city.
We got up early and had a final venture into the old city for breakfast before checking out of the Hotel Batha and getting a petit taxi up to the Europcar office. We collected our car without too much hassle, and it was in pretty good condition and drove well. We left around 10:00. After initially getting lost and driving around the outer districts of Fès for a while, we eventually got onto the open road and drove up into the Middle Atlas Mountains.
The route was very scenic, through heavily wooden forests. We passed through Ifrane, which is quite a posh looking place with big alpine style buildings. We carried on up through the forests, on quiet winding roads, until we reached the small town of Azrou, where we stopped for a break.
It’s a nice little place with a good atmosphere. It was market day, so we wandered around for a while, and even bought a few gifts. The air was very clear and the temperature quite pleasant.
As we drove higher, into Cedar forests, we stopped to photograph the views and some monkeys (Barbary Apes) by the roadside. There were some friendly blokes, selling all kinds of fossils and crystals, so we chatted and bargained, and after a while we decided on a price for a few more trinkets to take away with us. The Moroccans really know how to drive a hard bargain, but it was all done in good humour, and to be honest I think the blokes were just happy to speak to someone new.
The road climbed to over 2000M where we passed through a high plateaux of rocky desert and a terrific thunderstorm. It seemed to come in from nowhere. It rained really hard and the wind whipped up, with lightning flashing all around us. Quite spooky.
The road was quiet, although we passed quite a few small villages with people going about their everyday life – herding sheep and stuff like that.
We passed through Midelt, which was a scruffy looking "functional" town and then climbed back up to around 2000M before dropping into the "Ziz Gorge". A very spectacular deep valley, much like the "Grand Canyon" (not so big of course), with a fertile oasis of palm trees running along the banks of the small river below. Quite stunning. There were lots of kids at every scenic point trying to sell figs and other things. The little blighters were quite a pain at times.
The road continued down through the gorge winding around pas old Kasbahs and derelict old villages in quite a stark desert landscape.
We arrived in ErRachidia at around 4:30 p.m. It’s a big flat sprawling place and it was very dusty due to the winds which were blowing quite strongly. We decided to stay at the "M’Daghra Hotel", which seemed to be one the best options. The road it’s on looked like something out of war torn Beirut, but the place itself was fine. Quite pricey at 160 Dirhams per night, but clean and friendly with piping hot showers.
We checked in after paying some young kids some pens and some sweets (to "guard" the car!), then wandered out to look for food. The best place we could find was called the "Imichill" and it was OK. We had "Omelette aux. Fromage", pomme frites and coke for 38 Dirham .
Later on we had a wander around town, but the wind and dust were getting pretty bad, so we returned to the hotel for a coffee before an early night. ErRachidia is not really a place of interest for tourists, it's an administrative centre, but this made it quite a friendly hassle-free place to stay.. I doubted that anyone stayed there for more than one night.
I soon learned that whenever you parked a car in Morocco (no matter where you parked it), a "Guardian" would appear. His job was apparently to guard your car against thieves and the likes. Sometimes the "Guardian" looked official, with a ticket book (as in Arzou), yet other times I was convinced they were just blagging some extra cash out of the tourists. The French have definitely left their mark on Morocco, and tips are expected all the time – even for just a little bit of information like directions.
I remember a really old guy in Fès. I asked him the way and he wanted "money or cigarettes" for the answer. Cheeky old git. In my country if someone asks the way, I tell them (If I know!). it’s one thing asking for a tip for some kind of "service", but to simply give directions is just taking the piss. It made me think about when we were in India. People there would always give you directions, even if they didn't know the way - just to try and impress you with their knowledge!
We were up and out of the hotel early, arriving at Erfoud at around 9:00 (after getting a bit lost). On the way a group of men in a car, working for the Electricity Company, escorted us into town and gave us some good information. We stopped at one place and a young man dressed in blue robes and headdress appeared wanting a lift. I told him "No". This was for safety reasons (the old stories about kidnappings and knife-wielding hitchers popped into my head), but I felt really guilty about having to be so abrupt. We were advised by the car hire company not to give any hitchhikers a lift, so we felt we should abide by the rules. Better safe than sorry I suppose.
We had breakfast and met a Spanish couple on a motorbike who were also travelling to the dunes. With the help of the electricity workers, we’d organize a "guide", who was heading to Merzouga, to lead us to the village. He seemed genuine enough – little did we know!
The road ends in Erfoud, and based on what people told me, I didn’t want to try to drive across the desert without someone who had a bit more knowledge. The Spaniards agreed.
The drive was pretty rough, and we were glad we’d took the guide. We got stuck in sand once, but other than that we did OK. Most of the journey was over rough stony desert, and it took about one hour to get to the first village.
This is where things got a bit confusing. We stopped at the village and the "guide" took us to his little "Auberge", It seemed OK, and he seemed pleasant enough, and we sat and drunk tea. This is when the Spanish couple decided that this town wasn’t Merzouga and they were leaving. The "guide" insisted it was. I didn’t know what to think! I remember the electricity company men saying "This man lives in another village – make sure he takes you all the way to Merzouga. You will know where you are by the city gate"! By the time I’d thought about it, the Spaniards had left and I was confused. Dibs didn’t like the bloke at all, and I was beginning to doubt his honesty, but I didn’t want to leave and try to find Merzouga on my own. There were no other guests, it was hot, and we were in the middle of the desert.
To be honest, the village was fine. Very basic, and right next to the huge sand dunes. On the other hand we had wanted to go to Merzouga, and this, as we were sure by now, wasn’t Merzouga. The disappointing thing was that the guy had promised us it was – yet he must have been lying through his teeth. We couldn’t decide whether to get in the car and try to get to where we though we wanted to go, or just accept that we were in the desert, and the main reason we’d come to the desert was to head out into the dunes and spend the night. In the end I went out to see if I could organize camels into the desert and would take it from there. We were both a bit upset I suppose, but were determined not to let it get to us.
I went to speak to the local Berber "camel bloke" and after much bargaining organized an overnight trip. The problem was that the Berber "camel bloke" didn’t speak English – only Arabic, so the "guide" acted as translator. I smelled a rip-off and bargained hard, walked out a few times, but eventually they dropped to what I’d been told would be an "acceptable" price. 700 Dirhams for a guide, camels, food, etc.
We spent a few hours in the village while the camels were "prepared". It wasn’t a bad little place, and the views of the huge rolling sand-dunes, which typify the Sahara desert were spectacular. It really was in the middle of nowhere. The fact that I couldn’t see Merzouga was enough to convince me not to bother going there.
Just after 4:00 we left. Just me, Dibs, 2 camels (one was called Couscous) and Yousef our Berber guide. We trekked through the huge dunes for around two hours until we arrived at a beautiful little oasis. Just a group of palm trees in an otherwise dry, sandy desert. At the top of some of the dunes the view across the vast desert, deep into the Algerian Sahara was awesome.
We unpacked the camels and Yousef made a fire. We had teas and then ate a really tasty meal. It was a mixture of meat and vegetables (Berber Tagine), with unleven bread, and it was very tasty. I was quite surprised. We even had some fresh melon and more mega-sweet peppermint tea. Yousef literally put a fist-sized block of sugar in his small teapot.
It was a beautiful clear night, and later on the other older Berber (who I dealt with earlier) turned up with four Spaniards. We watched a magnificent sunset and then listened to the Berbers singing, before we settled down on the sand for a night under the stars.
We slept well last night, as it was pretty mild, apart from an hour or so of gusting wind. We got up early to watch the sunrise and did a bit of a walk. Later on we packed up the camels and headed back, in convoy with the Spaniards. It was another beautiful day, and I decided to walk, rather than ride, so that I could take some photographs a bit easier. It took another two hours to get back to the village through the magnificent dunes, which seem to go on forever. It clouded up briefly and even rained for about one minute – which was weird. The Berber explained to me that he hadn’t seen it rain for over a year!
The Spaniards were nice, and staying on another "Auberge" near to us. They though they were in Merzouga too, although by now it clearly wasn’t. I remember wondering if Merzouga would have been any better, and maybe it would have been more crowded. The Berber kept telling me that "Merzouga is very busy and not good dunes". He would though wouldn’t he!
When we got back we decided we’d head on and told "Mohammed" - the owner/guide - that we wanted to leave. He was a bit cheesed off, but agreed to guide us across the dunes to Rissani. It was another trip across the stony desert and was really hard going in places. It took about an hour and I couldn’t believe the car survived!
Rissani is a sprawling, dusty place. We stayed for about an hour and changed some money at a bank before pressing on north back to Erfoud and then cutting across on a smallish road to Tinejdad. The road was quiet, with lots of small villages, and some pretty big sand drifts. At Tinejdad we stopped at a nice little place for a quick lunch before heading on west to "Boumaine du Dades" where we forked off onto the road up the Dades Gorge. We drove about 27km up this winding road to a nice spot with a few hotels. We ended up staying at the "Hotel de Kasbah de le Vallee" which was OK. 150 Dirham per night each, including breakfast and dinner.
The Dades Gorge is beautiful. And the hotel, at around 1500M was cool and quiet. Dibs got off to a bad start. She was promised a hot shower, which turned out to be cold, and the shower flooded. She wasn’t too happy. The management were apologetic and mopped up the flood, then I myself enjoyed a piping hot shower, just to infuriate her even more! I needed it as I was minging!
We sat out under the stars, talking about our great trip into the desert. It was a wonderful experience, if not a little marred by the bullshit and hassle and ripping off. A vanload of backpackers arrived and we sat chatting to some Americans and Australians for a while before enjoying a really good dinner. We sat chatting until late.
The driving was going OK and the car was doing well, although I felt sorry for the poor little Pugeot. It was taking a real battering, but the only problem so far was a broken headlamp. The roads aren’t too bad, but are less than two cars wide at parts, which means you have to go off-road onto the gravel at times. It seemed like the locals were very reluctant to do this, so we spent a lot of time there, and of course the usual "Asian/African road rule of thumb applied" – size wins. So, driving a little car gave us little power, although I was slowly turning into a more aggressive driver!
8th October 1999
We slept well last night as it was very quiet and cool. Breakfast was the usual bread, butter and apricot jam (it’s always apricot!). We did a great walk for about three hours up into the gorge and into the Atlas Mountains. We walked along dry riverbeds and through steep chasms and passed some shepherds with their goats. It was beautiful and pretty quiet. We could have gone further, but by mid afternoon it was very hot. Stunning scenery all around.
We returned to "base" and relaxed, spending the evening chatting to more travellers. It seemed that lots of people from Marrakesh were going on bus tours from "Ali’s hotel" and all of them were stopping at the hotel. None of them seemed too happy with the trip.
It was good to talk to other travellers and get information on places were we had yet to visit, and to give them tips on what we’d done. We ate more good food at the hotel for dinner.
We left at around 08:00 after the "usual" breakfast and had a very pleasant drive down the gorge with hardly any traffic. We stopped to take the occasional photograph or simply admire the views.
The drive onwards toward Ouarzazate was through a dry rocky landscape with the odd "Palmerie" and some interesting Kasbahs, both intact and ruined. Quite a lot to see and it would have been easy to stop at sites all day long.
We reached Ouarzazate at around noon. We stocked up on supplies at a supermarket and had a break from the driving. Petrol was pretty cheap so we filled up before moving on. The town seemed quite "posh" compared to what we’d seen in the region, and even had golf courses – right in the middle of the desert.
From Oarzazate we headed east over a high mountain pass with very small twisting roads, to a town called Agdz. The road was pretty quiet and the scenery was spectacular. As we passed through one village, the kids, as usual, ran around in the road playing "chicken" and getting quite near to the car. This time I actually clipped one (the little fella actually ran into the wing of the car). He went down but seemed Ok, so we drove on! It always seems that the boys run around in the roads being silly and doing little else, while the girls are always carrying pots or buckets of water, and generally doing all the hard work.
We stopped quite a bit more on the way to Zagora and arrived in the town at around 2:00 ish. The weather had kicked up a bit and it started to rain, which in itself was quite interesting. We decided to spend the day around Zagora and relax.
We checked into "La Palmerie" which is a nice hotel with a pool, bar, etc. The room was nice and cost 165 Dirham plus an optional 80 Dirham for breakfast and dinner. We had a quick beer by the pool and then headed to our room to relax. The "Guardian" collared me for "watching my car" but I never saw him go anywhere near it!
In the evening we ate at the hotel and enjoyed some delicious food whilst watching a local Berber group sing and dance. The bloke on the drum looked just like the Man Utd striker Andy Cole, and he played with a man on the fiddle and two dancing/singing ladies – fatty and skinny. Lots of singing, dancing, high-pitched whaling and some belly dancing to top it off. Top entertainment. They seemed to gather great pleasure from embarrassing the guests! The food was very nice and I quite liked the place.
It chucked it down with rain all night.
We woke early and after a quick look around Zagora we headed back up towards Agdz. The rain had created some floods and we passed through some pretty high water. I was doubtful the car would make some of the floods, which reached over two feet, but it made it OK, and we reached Agdz eventually. It was all quite an adventure. Nearly all the rivers we crossed had burst their banks.
We stopped for refreshments and looked at some carpets. After much viewing, haggling and tea drinking we agreed to buy a large rug, which was really nice, for 3600 Dirham – around 230 quid. The shop was run by a couple of young lads, who were really nice, and we spent quite a while chatting to them. At the end of the deal, everyone was smiling, and they managed to pack the rug up tightly for me to transport back.
We continued on to Ouarzazate and drove around before checking into the "Hotel Bab Sahara" for 120 Dirhams per night. Pretty cheap and nasty, but we couldn’t find anything else that was suitable.
After we dropped our stuff off we decided to drive up to Ait Benhadduo, which was rough going in all the rain and mud, but worthwhile. I’d wanted to wait until the sun came out, but they way the weather was going, we could be waiting for ages.
The place is quite a spectacular old Kasbah, and one of the best knows sights in Morocco. The whole place was boggy and wet and to make things worse some 4x4 off-road contest was going on. We got caked in mud.
On the way back we gave a Minibus driver a lift as he’d ran out of petrol, and had a quick bite to eat in town before heading back to our grim room! Not the best of afternoons.
We phoned a few hotels in Marrakesh, but they were full, and we ended up going slightly higher than our budget planned and booked into the "Grand Hotel du Tazi". We ate at the "Renaissance Café" which was cheap and tasty, then had a roam around the souq and streets before heading to bed.
An early start again at 7:45 and we drove all the way to Marrakesh. It took us 5 hours to do 200 KM. The road was twisting and wet and quite steep in parts as we made our way up into the High Atlas Mountains and over passes higher than 2000M. It was very spectacular and quite a scary drive, but the rain was coming down and the cloud low, which was a shame. Still – we were glad to leave Ouarzazate because the river was flooding and we only just managed to drive through it. We could have ended up stranded there. One of the problems of being on a tight schedule is the fact that you cannot simply hang around waiting for the weather to improve.
We stopped just outside the city and had a coffee before taking on the traffic. It was complete mayhem as predicted. The streets were full to the brim. We didn’t go too wrong and got to the hotel without too many hassles. In fact, the driving was entertaining with lots of traffic (four and two wheeled) and not many road rules. I had a minor collision with a fat woman on a scooter, but she reacted like it was an everyday thing.
The hotel was Ok and our room was good, although the first room they showed us wasn’t. We even had a TV. It cost 340 Dirhams per night including breakfast and dinner + 20% off lunch if we wanted it. The location was good – very near to all the "action". It seemed that the hotel was probably once quite grand, but was now getting a little rough at the edges. We ate lunch in the restaurant, which was superb. The only thing that bothered me, was that the hotel had lots of people working for it just hanging around, all looking to give "help" or "advice" to the unsuspecting guest. All this was in the search of a tip of course, and they were quite blatant about it.
One fat moustachioed fella particularly bugged me. I took some laundry down, which he counted out and inspected, before telling me "Don’t forget my tip… and the cleaners tip too". When I tried to explain to him that he was rude, he just pretended to ignore me. He didn’t get a tip.
We drove to the Europcar office to return the car, and managed OK with not too many wrong turns. We handed the car back (after paying another "Guardian"). It had done us proud, and after checking it out the only damage was the headlamp, which cost us 80 Dirham. The funny thing was that the woman who checked the car told us we’d have to pay for the damage. She then phoned her "uncle" who would give us a "very good price of 80 Dirham – much cheaper!". Funny how things work. We agreed and paid her the money. Europcar even gave us a lift back to the hotel – which was nice.
We spent the rest of the day relaxing and sleeping. We ate at the hotel – which was again excellent and slept well.
Total KM for 7 days = 1536.
12th October 1999
Woke up to bright sunshine. We ate the "usual" fare for breakfast in the hotel and then walked to the train station. It took about twenty minutes and we were glad we got there early to sort out our train travel for a few days time. We reserved a 1st class "couchette" on the night train to Tangier on Thursday. It cost 580 Dirham for the two of us. Very good value.
We had a wander around the Ville Nouvelle and visited the extremely useless tourist office before wandering back to the old town. The hub of activity – the "Place Djemaa El Fna" is a huge square full of life. It’s like the whole of Marrakesh revolves around it. We found a place to have lunch, which had a great view over the square. Although it was a little overpriced, it was worth it to sit and watch the action down below.
It got pretty hot in the afternoon, so we took a siesta and then ventured back into the old town at around 4:00, when it was cooling down a bit. We took a long leisurely stroll around the souqs and bought a few presents for people back home. Bargaining was hard, but we were getting tough again! It was quite a pleasure to stop in the shops, sit and look at carpets and the likes. Most shopkeepers were pretty pleasant and we had some good fun. We bought a small carpet, which cost us 880 Dirham. The price started at 4100 Dirham. Just goes to show how some people get ripped off.
The square really came to life in the evening and was absolutely packed by sunset. It was full of snake charmers, storytellers, fire-eaters, water-sellers and various other entertainers and merchants. We took some photos (at a small cost of course) and walked around watching the activity. There were at least fifty carts selling fresh orange juice, which was very cheap and delicious – around 2 Dirham for a big glass.
We got to the hotel later on and had a couple of drinks before enjoying another really good feed. I noticed that the bar was full of gay men. It was pretty obvious that this was one of Marrakesh's gay bars. The waiter (who was also openly gay) was quite friendly and talked at length to us about Princess Diana. He was almost in tears!
At night the rain came in again and a storm broke out. The air conditioning unit in our room (half inside half outside as they are) had some exposed wires which would every so often spark and crackle, with the occasional small explosion! Very dodgy!
Marrakesh is a fantastic city. Probably not as mystical and mediaeval feeling as Fès though. It’s more cosmopolitan, less "Arab" in feeling, and definitely attracts more tourists.
13th October 1999
We had the usual breakfast (again!) and then wandered out early. Another sunny start. We visited the museum, which took some finding. It was very interesting, and set in a beautiful old house. We spent quite some time there and then wandered the old town until noon.
In the afternoon we sat by the hotel pool and had a swim before it got too hot and it was siesta time again.
Later on in the day we returned to the souq to do a bit more shopping and browsing another storm blew in, and blew out. Spent the evening in the square and back at the hotel.
14th October 1999
Spent the day visiting a few more sites in Marrakesh, such as the wonderful Mosques, and then checked out in the early evening. Later inspection of our receipt showed that the hotel had failed to charge us for laundry or some meals – which was a bonus!
We got to the station, which was quiet, and boarded the train just before departure time of 9:00. The 1st class couchettes were very pleasant and had four roomy bunks. We shared with two English lads – Tim and Jason, who were good fun. The cabin was locked up and a porter provided us with blankets and pillows – which was nice!
The journey was Ok, although a little noisy, and we arrived at Tangiers at around 6:00 a.m. bang on time. We shared a taxi with some African blokes to the ferry port and bought a ticket from a dodgy looking man who was scampering around outside. The ticket was valid, but he seemed very shifty and we did the "deal" around the back of a shed!
We got the 7:00 sailing to Algericas, and the journey was pretty quick, taking around two hours. Once there we said goodbye to Tim and Jason and walked to the bus station. We just missed the 12:00 bus to La Linea (next to Gibraltar), so waited about 30 minutes for the next one. The driver of the 12:00 bus saw us running but ignored us. Twat.
The bus took 35 minutes to get to La Linea, and we just walked across the border into Gibraltar and got a cab to the Queens Hotel. It’s a nice place and cost us £40 per night, which is not bad.
Gibraltar is a weird place. A mixture of England and Spain with a real mix of people – Spanish, English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, Jewish, Indian and Moroccan (all counted in one afternoon!). There are plenty of British soldiers milling around and a definite bias towards "all things British", such as teashops and pubs.
We dropped off our bags and headed straight to a little pub for a full breakfast (me) and Steak ‘n’ Ale Pie (Dibs) washed down with a pint. We then wandered to another pub to watch the rugby, which I watched whilst Dibs had a leg wax. It was a good atmosphere and full of "squaddies".
16th October 1999
Gibraltar is tax-free so some streets are lined with shops selling watches, booze, cigarettes, etc at very cheap prices. The High Street could have in any town in England. Other than this, Gibraltar is a good place to spend a day or two. The rock itself is awesome and the history of the town is enough to keep you going for a while.
I had a bad stomach, which was quite ironic. Weeks of "exotic" foods then I get ill on a fry-up and English beer!
We did a bit of shopping before heading to the cable car, which took us up to the top of "The Rock". It was £4.90 each. The views from the huge rock were fantastic and we had a good walk back down along the pathways. There were lots of the famous Apes along the way, and some of them were very bold.
We walked quite a way around Gibraltar to the Nelson Exhibition and the "100 ton gun". Not many people there and the bloke even let us in for free. It was well worth the visit and showed some good history about the place.
After a wander around town and a bite to eat, we got a cab up to the airport to get our flight back in the evening.