London to Morocco Part 1. Ramon Fritz Fine Art Photography

I’m an huge fan of train travel and often use the online resource Seat61 for rail trip reference.

For this journey I travelled London to Morocco via Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Madrid, Algeciras, Tangier, Marrakech, Tangier, Algeciras, Bobadilla, Madrid, Paris and back to London.


I am on the Eurostar to Brussels and upon arrival, link to the DB Nachtzug called the Nightjet overnighting to Berlin Ostbahnhof arriving 8am. 


After arriving in Brussels for my connecting train last night, everything in the Brussels Midi was closed. There was not a conductor, security or police in sight to ask for directions. The station was filthy. Scattered here and there, the homeless; sleeping in dark corners trying to hide from the cold. I stepped outside the station to see if anyone was around and immediately a man approached me begging for money. I managed to get away without shelling out too much as I’m on a tight budget after all. I found the departure boards and sure enough, the International pops up with Berlin/Hamburg stops and so made my way to the platform. Again, this was deserted and I found this very strange and worried that I might be on the wrong platform. A train pulled into the platform with some strange markings on it I didn’t recognise but opted to wait for another. 10 mins later, more people arrived and I realised that they were probably sitting downstairs as it was freezing on the platform. Eventually a train arrived with huge DB letters displayed. 

I shared a cabin with Michael, a Polish/German who is a rep for a company that develops e-learning software. The conductor when making his rounds, popped in and said that there was another cabin free. Michael declined but I thought it would be great, particularly that it was first class with ensuite toilet and shower. Breakfast was brought to my cabin consisting of coffee, orange juice, bread bun, jam, cream cheese ‚chives and a croissant.


Slightly jaded this morning after a late night out on beer and wurst, I decided to take the bus tour of Berlin seeing as I hadn’t much time to see everything. City Circle Tours — I‚m not sure if they are the only hop on/off tour company but definitely would not recommend them. Half the time you are not in the position where the recorded commentary is and are either looking ahead of you or behind you and in fact, I didn’t learn much more than I already know. Giving up eventually, I hopped off deciding to go up the Fernsehturm on Alexander Platz. 625m high I think and takes 50 secs in the elevator with amazing views over the city. After the tower I continued my walkabout and saw 3 Christmas markets, surprisingly not that exciting. There were a few stands with indigenous designs but the rest were things from all over the world being more like a fleamarket. I had the obligatory Bratwurst and Glühwein and opted later for dinner on the top floor of the Ka De We shopping centre in the Wintergarten. In summer, they open sections of the glass roof thereby becoming a huge roof garden. 


No real time to write as I’m squeezing in a quick breakfast and heading back to Brussels to catch the Thalys to Paris. Coffee, juice, biscuit and a cornflake sandwich with powdered milk.


I am on the Thalys to Paris and of course, nothing runs as smoothly as you would like. My ticket booked online was not waiting for me in Brussels as arranged but in fact was waiting for me in Paris, my destination‚ go figure. So I had to get a new ticket and claim the cost back (turns out they would not refund me for whatever reason but claimed back on my travel insurance). Arrived in Paris on time and it’s raining which is not ideal as I have to keep myself busy for 9 hrs until my train to Madrid.


Having done a comprehensive walking tour of the Latin Quarter, I made my way to Gare du Austerlitz. Earlier I walked to Notre Damme and there was a huge Christmas ceremony that was fully attended with no more people being let in. As a result, a huge crowd gathered outside the church to celebrate. I then went toward Cemetiere Montparnasse through Jardin du Luxembourg and across again down to the Pantheon, then up through Rue Mouffetard where there is a fantastic street market with yummy food and then on to Jardin des Plantes. If I knew a little more French, life would be that much easier but don’t let that stop you. 


I am among the Spaniards on the overnight train to Madrid. People stand in the passage ways and cabin doorways, conversation drifts down the length of the train. It’s unlike other trains I have travelled where everyone is seated and conversation is kept to smaller parties at a lower sound level; this is like a vibrant community. My cabin is an off-white fibreglass moulded box, no frills with a green door, green seats, green carpet and a wash basin. In this case I may have hit rock bottom as far as value for money goes but could be worse. I count 8 hours sleep in 4 days so far and the train sounds like it is travelling on cobblestones but has rhythm, so perhaps I will sleep tonight. My cabin buddy is from Gabon and he has been visiting his father in Normandy. He currently resides in Madrid with his girlfriend who is pregnant. He is 23 and says he cannot understand why Africans want to go back to Africa after living in Europe when they have all the opportunities in the world available to them. I try to explain that sometimes in life you reach a point when you want things to be simpler and you again start to see joy in the smaller things. It’s good to have someone who can translate for me as he speaks Spanish, French and English. He tells me he is successful, happy and life is good. 


Our bunks have been dropped down and my cabin buddy is asleep already. It’s a squash with all the bunks down and not much room for luggage. It takes me back to my backpacking days. Our third tenant arrived at our first stop and has a suitcase the width of the cabin so we set it in the middle to aid those clambering to the top bunks. Thankfully, the train is air-conditioned but the windows don’t open and the cabin begins to hum of bad breath and body odour. The conductor tells us another passenger will join us later. 


Finally, I got some sleep but not until 3am. My cabin buddies decided to pass the time in the bar last night and woke me up with a beer every time they wanted to have a cigarette (smoking was allowed in the aisles outside the room but not in the bar). Christian is the Gabonese, Jeremy the Frenchman and a weird character called Luis from Mexico City. Luis had been sitting in the bar from Paris and decided he was not going to sleep and was off his head last night but did make us laugh. 13 hours have gone by really quickly with this lot so I can’t complain. Luis, when he couldn’t stay awake anymore, was the one snoring his head off so all of us were restless during the night. 


We are running two hours late which is not bad considering how many times we stopped during the night but finally arrive at Madrid Chamartin. All the guys go their respective ways without a word to one another, which I thought a bit strange after a night in the boozer. I later saw Christian roaming in the station and we exchanged a 'bon voyage'. Hailing a taxi, it takes a half hour to get to my hotel via the ring road. Madrid is quiet; siesta on Sunday I’m guessing but they also have this law about no unnecessary car horns in the city which is awesome. A crazy smile breaks across my face when I think of the much needed sleep that I will be getting tonight. My hotel is the 4 star Hotel Agumar which will be the only treat on this trip. It’s smart but currently going through a revamp. In the hotel restaurant I am faced with a menu in Spanish with some fancy names. No tapas, tortilla or paella as I was so hoping and decide to wing it and opt for a traditional dish, a Madrid Tripe at the head waiter’s suggestion. I believe it is called Callos Madrilenos, a bowl of fat, sinew and hairy pieces of beef intestine flavoured with chorizo. 3 mouthfuls is all I can handle and wants to come up faster than going down. Later I’m in the bar with a couple of beers trying to rinse the taste from my mouth. The headwaiter did offer another meal but I declined saying that I was tired. 


What a day!! 3 tours in one day is enough to finish anyone off including miles and miles of walking. I was up and at it 10am and into Retiro Park for a stroll; a huge park with great awesome autumn colours. Having seen the surrounding Madrid but not much of the main city centre, I didn’t get to experience any of the culture unfortunately. Despite my name, I don’t speak fluent Spanish but haven’t struggled to communicate as yet. I did however ask the security in the Metro for directions and they looked at me like I dropped in from another planet. To their credit I did use the wrong word for toilets but how could you not understand the word toilette; it’s almost international. The Spanish use bathroom or services, not toilet… so, Donde puedo encontrar el servicio? It cost me a sandwich and coffee in a coffee shop to use the 'services' by the Plaza del Torros where one would think there is a public toilet. This iconic building being the highlight of the day, was unfortunately all closed off being taking up by a touring circus. 


This is the Estrella del Estrecho (The Star Train) and is taking one of its last trips before being decommissioned and replaced by more modern lines. 


After the shock of the size of my cabin on the train last night, I was unable to write anything and will write again later. 


I am sitting down having lunch in the Tangier Medina after my guide Mustafa left me briefly to drop off food with his family. As I arrived in Tangier, Mustafa introduced himself as a representative of the tourist association in Morocco/Tangier and quickly flashes his badge that allegedly ensures that tourists are taken care of and to stop touts/thieves etc. I suspect his badge is more of a port authority and he freelances. Being wary, I take everything he says with a pinch of salt and reluctantly dump my baggage at a depot where I receive a ticket for a small fee. I have managed to remember all of his associates names as the day passes and aside from my wariness, it has been a very interesting time. Mustafa displays genuine qualities in being a guide and not just wanting to rip me off. I have been chauffeured around in a taxi from one end of Tangier to the other seeing palaces, the mayor’s residence and caves, camels etc. Grotto d’Ercules, an interesting story in itself that apparently the cave was dug out depicting various wars and feuds dating back to Greek mythology. Off season, guides sit around smoking weed waiting for the occasional tourist to pop their head in. I managed to get a view of a shop underground where there were caged monkeys and the monkeys were clearly ill-treated. There were crisp packets and soda bottles everywhere presumably being fed to them. After questioning the guide, he was indifferent. I met up with Mustafa again and we sat at a cafe overlooking the ocean. Ramila is the new road to Asilah which is fast becoming a tourist village with loads of new holiday housing developments. It is fast becoming a watersports destination.


The best rest I have had to date, even though the train is driven by a noisy diesel locomotive on either end. For some reason 1st class is located right next to the damn thing so it was a loud trip but the most comfortable and least stressful to date. Occasionally I can hear the horn blowing, not so much for cattle on the tracks but more for workers who are upgrading the track. The train travels quite fast for a locomotive and quite a distance over 12 hours. Having had a look at Premiere first class, I am glad I chose as I did. Actually, it was Mustafa who chose it, probably because he sensed that I needed the sleep. I awoke this morning to find that one of the gents who spoke a little English to me on the journey had disembarked during the night. My other cabin tenant is Moroccan and he only speaks French so we tried snippets of conversation every now and then with hand signals. Most people in the north of the country, speak a handful of languages being closer to the ports; Mustafa spoke English, French, German, Spanish and I think a little Italian — he deserves recognition for that alone. It is the gateway between Africa and Europe he tells me. He has a community of people all over who assist him in plying his trade, from storeholders to taxi drivers and earns his commission from them over and above his asking price which is very reasonable. “Ramon” he says, “I feel bad for you must pay me. You say how much you want to pay” — this is the art of negotiation, never be the first to make an offer. I asked what he would consider a fair price for a days work and he quoted the price for the taxi and a little extra, that was all. So I gave him that and a little extra on top; no argument and all were happy. He gave me his mobile number and I was off again. 

As I look out the window of my cabin, a mist hangs low over the desert. Earlier I managed to catch a glimpse of the red dunes when we were above the mist. Much of the land close to the rail has been cultivated whether these are remnants from laying the track or farming the land, I can’t be sure. I can’t imagine much growing out here but stand corrected; citrus. Oranges everywhere, a great idea to plant them next to the track, but detracts from the surroundings which I think is the aim. Personally I would prefer to stare out at the desert. I think Mustafa said that the national tree is the Eucalyptus and there are thousands of them in the distance. Strange that a tree that sucks up all the water in it’s immediate vicinity should thrive in the desert. I have also just seen a replanting program with men planting saplings. There must be a million and one holes in the ground and makeshift tents in the middle of nowhere. This would be part of the regeneration programme that the Prince, now King, has put in place to render the country more attractive to tourists. He is a big fan of tourism. I see the Atlas mountains on the horizon with snow-capped peaks!! I have so many ready-made photos in my mind. Sadly I won’t get to realise them on this trip: | 


Finally, I have arrived at my destination, although destination is not the right word as the entire journey is my destination. The hotel is within walking distance of the medina and very close to Jemma el F’na. Looking at the map, I can’t figure which way I might have walked to the hotel from the train station as most streets have no name. After consulting with a policeman, restaurant owner and shoe repairer, it turned out to be quite easy as the road is well known.

At dinner, I am the only guest in the hotel restaurant. It looks like a makeshift canteen or like one of those large family resorts that are white tiled floor to ceiling where anything can happen and you just hose it down and resume activity the next day. I ask the waiter if he speaks English, he says a little. He then cheekily asks if I speak Arabic and I say a little. 


… is a shrimp starter for 35DH that includes shrimp, banana, apple, tomato, lemon, lettuce, tomato sauce and mayonnaise — bizarre! A mouthful of flavours but actually quite tasty.

Main Course

… is fish fingers and chips with a tartare sauce for 55DH. 2 cans of coke dumped on the table 15DH each. Taking my starter dish away, the waiter lifted my knife and fork and put them to one side to use for my main course, actually he rearranged them again on the place mat covered in tomato sauce and mayonnaise. Maybe because it’s out of season but tomorrow I eat outside of the hotel. Perhaps the breakfast buffet will be better. After dinner, on my way down to the coffee lounge, I saw an altercation with a female customer and the front desk. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing when the guy practically told her where to get off and he couldn’t believe the insolence of the woman who should speak to a man like that. She ended up walking out to find another hotel.

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