Friday, April 12, 2013
Sunday, November 09, 2008
Exactly 24 hours after leaving Marrakech we made it to Madrid.
It doesn't actually take so much travel time, but train connections and an hours time difference working against us and we had a few extra hours to kill taking a leisurely breakfast in Tarifa.
After spending an obligatory couple of hours each day on "cultural duties" we would commence lunch and wine sampling at around 2pm. Even so we only managed to visit a miniscule proportion of the bars in Madrid - reputedly the most in any city worldwide - a staggering 6 for every 100 people.
I don't know if the sherry bars (imagine a glass of Tio Pepe served straight from the barrel) will ever be my cup of tea, but in every other respect I found the Madrileno lifestyle most agreeable - it reminded me of our month in Buenos Aires.
With the trip almost complete we boarded the Trenhotel to Paris and spent the evening dining a la carte in the restaurant watching the world pass by. The bumpy line meant the primary entertainment was watching the waitress attempting to pour wine, beer, water and coffee with increasingly comical results.
When I ordered my fourth refill of coffee Mel spotted what was going on and put an end to what she described as a "cruel sport".
After two weeks off almost seamless transport connections we found ourselves in Paris at Gare du Nord to the news of major dispruption to Eurostar due to an accident and power failure just North of Paris. I guess it serves us right for being so cocky after dodging September's tunnel fire by a week.
Our trip was at serious risk of ending with a day (or longer) of total frustration, and we were on the verge of trying to book a flight home when the first trains started rolling into the station and things started looking up.
We managed to get reassigned to an earlier train leaving just 2 hours after our intended departure (work that out if you can), but it wasn't until we boarded that we realised we'd been upgraded to first class.
The delay and slower journey time sufficiently balanced by complimentary champagne, wine and food, we were even more delighted when everyone on the train was given a free return journey on Eurostar by way of compensation for the problems.
We spent the journey sat across from a middle-aged, stereotypically French couple who were chattering away, clearly excited at the prospect of their weekend in London.
"hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw, Kate Moss, hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw, Feesh and Chips, hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw, Welsh Rarebit"
No matter where you travel it can be just as interesting to hear what people from other cultures find fascinating about your own ...
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
As we stepped of the boat I remembered a long standing promise from 15 years ago.
"If you're ever in Tangier, let me know and I will get my family to kill a sheep for you"
Now I'm as partial to a bit of roast lamb as the next man, but I doubt I could eat a whole one in the 2 hours before our train was due to leave.
I hadn't kept in contact with my old work pal Ali, and however much I suspected the bright lights of Rotherham may not have kept him from making a return to his previous business giving camel rides to tourists on the beach here, there wasn't going to be time to engage in a full scale man-hunt.
Our first class sleeper berths were basic but (an abominable toilet aside) comfy and we soon dozed off to the gentle rocking motion of the train. I awoke an hour before arrival as we were still rolling through the rock strewn desert with nothing more than the occasional settlement breaking the monotony. Then, out of nowhere the bright green oasis that is the Palmerie of Marrakech came into view, set against the backdrop of the snow-capped Atlas mountains.
The city of Marrakech splits into two parts, the relatively modern "new town" complete with sparkling marble floored train station and high street brands. Then the terracotta walls of the old town, looking like something from a film (doubtless plenty have used it as a location).
It's only once inside the walled city you appreciate the enormity of its network of bustling souks and medinas - although boosted by a thriving tourist economy this is still very evidently a way of life for most of the local population.
Most of the thoroughfares are off limits to cars, so after a taxi ride to the nearest road we hired a local guide with a pushcart to help us find the Riad (traditional house set around a courtyard) that would be our base for the next four days. The vast network of derbs (alleyways) that fill the city walls was just like a gigantic maze for grown ups and had us constantly lost over the duration of our stay.
The epicenter of the old town is the huge main square where snake charmers and musicians gather to entertain the crowds. Around dusk the food vendors arrive to set up their stalls and begin selling traditional Moroccan delicacies like Tagines, Kebabs and Couscous and, in reference to their French colonial past, a whole row of stalls selling steaming bowls of fresh snails.
Competition from the stallholders was fairly brisk, and at times we would find our way blocked by several hawkers armed with laminated menus trying to win our business. Each stall had a number, so after managing to bypass their advances they would invariably call out something like "remember me, number 23!" as you disappeared into the night. As we deftly sidestepped one vendor his unique call stopped us in our tracks "remember me, Sainsbury's - taste the difference!".
Well, you can't blame him for trying.
The cold and rain we had outrun on our dash South had caught us up again, so we spent our final day visiting a traditional spa in a Villa out in the Palmerie. I had only made the trip to join Mel for lunch, however when I discovered that the traditional Hammam involved being "washed like a baby" by two young girls in swimsuits I could hardly refuse.
Now I should point out that any thoughts you may be having that this was some sort of vaguely erotic experience are severely misplaced. What they had failed to mention is that in between each bathing came exfoliation with what could be best be described as rough mittens of a texture like a Brillo pad.
It left me feeling less "washed like a baby" than "scrubbed like a saucepan", but at least my skin was glowing as we boarded the return sleeper to Marrakech ...
Saturday, November 01, 2008
It seems Spain is available in 2 temperatures.
Too hot or too cold.
Despite the outside temperature of 5-10 Celsius we spent the 5 hour journey to Madrid sweating in the 30 degree heat of the train carriage.
Other than a sentimental longing for summertime I can think of no explanation why this should be the case.
It was refreshing to emerge into the chilly night air wearing a t-shirt, much to the amusement of the taxi driver who took us to our hotel. He was wearing a winter jacket and scarf and kept saying "mucho frio?" as he shook his head at my attire.
Normally at this point with an English speaking person from a foreign land (say for instance London) I would launch into an explanation about this being normal attire for a winter night out in Leeds. A tale which invariably ends with the statement "...and you should see what they wear in Newcastle".
This being Spain the only thing I could think of saying by way of explanation was "Loco Ingles" while pointing at my own chest.
In the end I decided against reinforcing the stereotype.
Our initial delight at being upgraded to a suite in our hotel was short-lived, as was my enthusiasm for the cold. It was bloody freezing. I can honestly say I haven't had such a cold sleepless night since camping out in the snows of Mongolia.
Predictably the opportunity to thaw-out came early the next morning as we boarded our train to find the thermostat turned up to the max. I think Renfe should start running hotels.
2 hours into the second leg of our coast to coast journey we finally broke free of the rain cloud which had dominated our trip so far and emerged into clear blue skies and gorgeous rolling countryside of southern Spain.
Algeciras will not be remembered as a highpoint of the trip.
As the main haulage route from Europe to Africa it seems to cater primarily to migrant workers, lorry drivers and drug smugglers rather than tourists. Not so much a destination as a transit point with all the aesthetic charms of Grimsby.
In the end our quickest route out was a short bus journey down the coast to the far more visually pleasing fishing port of Tarifa, where we boarded a fast boat to Tangier hoping to arrive in time to make our connection with the overnight train to Marrakech ...
Friday, October 31, 2008
As we left London early on Sunday morning I had a spring in my step.
It was raining, which meant a strong possibility of an exciting ferry crossing from Plymouth to Santander. This particular route has something of a reputation for bumpy crossings - not everyone's cup of tea I know, but a trip I'd been hoping to take for some time.
In the end the storm in a teacup didn't materialise and we had quite a smooth journey, arriving in Santander the following lunchtime. Sadly with the rain still in tow, but I guess that's what you get for holidaying in Europe in late October.
From Santander we decided to pass on the shorter and cheaper bus journey to Bilbao in favour of the local FEVE train. The train was no speeding bullet, taking almost 3 hours to complete the 100km journey, but it did give us chance to admire the spectacular mountain pine clad mountain valleys of Northern Spain.
Not the most efficient means of transportation, but definitely to be recommended - if not for the scenery then for the spectalcularly bushy beards of the station masters in each village en-route.
In Bilbao the rain continued relentlessly for the duration of our two days, but even so we couldn't help liking the place. Not only was a glass of Rioja only EU1.50, but it was served up with the uniquely Basque version of Tapas - Pintxos - from such treats as deep fried Morcilla (black pudding) balls coated in chopped nuts, to the slightly healthier goats cheese, jamon iberico and apricot jam (and yes, that is all one dish).
Of course what really brings tourists to Bilbao is the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim museum - the titanium cladding made the fish-inspired structure shimmer in midst of that morning's thunderstorm. We left rather more impressed by the building than the art within it, but what a building it is.
I suppose we could complain about our luck with the weather, but then who wants to see a fish out of water anyway?