Published: December 22nd 2007December 12th 2007
Crossing the Straits
Our last view of Gibraltar and Europe as we crossed over to Ceuta in North Africa on the fast ferry.
Our next stop after Gibraltar was technically North Africa, but still not exactly Morocco: the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. Ceuta is a vestigial holdover from the time that Spain claimed all of northern Morocco as a colonial possession (dividing the imperial spoils with the French) but only Ceuta, Melilla and a few insignificant Mediterranean rock outcrops are left. Ceuta and Melilla are close analogues of Gibraltar, foreign enclaves isolated on strategic peninsulas, and their retention by Spain make its perennial demands for the return of Gibraltar ring ironically hollow.
Nominally, we chose Ceuta as our next destination because it allowed us to bypass Tangier, whose notorious reputation as a European day-tripper's hellhole put us off (think: African Tijuana), and because we could then start our tour of Morocco by cycling along the Mediterranean coast, eventually turning west and climbing up into the Rif to get a taste of Berber mountain experience. An unspoken reason for choosing Ceuta was to hang onto what little bit of European familiarity and creature comforts we could before plunging into a completely new culture with unknown customs and language.
To cross the Straits of Gibraltar, we rode a 20km GPS-navigated route around the bay
Medieval walls of Ceuta
These walls in their turn protected Spanish, Portuguese and Berber conquerers.
to Algeciras, and managed to catch one of the fast (but not cheap, at E35) ferries to Ceuta with only a 15 minute wait. After boarding we barely had time to scarf our lunch and catch a last glimpse of Gibraltar before the ferry pulled in and disgorged us rather perfunctorily (without border controls, of course, since we're still "in Spain") onto the streets of Ceuta. The North African influence was immediately obvious as we rolled through the medieval city gates: the normally reserved Spanish, from whom we typically get the barest of acknowledgements when we arrive in town, were here supplemented by grinnng Moroccans leaning out of car windows and giving us the universal "thumbs up" sign of approval when they saw us negotiating the narrow streets on our loaded bikes. We ended up spending several days in Ceuta, giving us time to see the ancient fortress walls and Ceuta's fabulous waterfront "maritime park" with its artificial swimming lagoons, waterfalls, casino and immaculate landscaping. We also had time to do some route planning, laundry and even hang out a bit at the beach - great sunny weather for working up a little tan, but still too frigid in the
Sunset over Morocco
Az seen from across the bay in Ceuta, Spain
Mediterranean bay water (and, frankly, too trashy) for more than a toe-dip.
Not brave enough to cycle through Tangier but not wanting to miss it completely, we signed up for a day-long guided minibus tour (?30, including lunch) that took us on a 200km loop from Ceuta through Tetuan and Tangier. Pretty touristy, it featured the requisite kickback-fueled visits to the roadside camel jockeys (photos ?1), the Tetuan carpet-sellers (strenuously and successfully resisted) the Berber botanicals shop and the cavernous Moroccan restaurant where our little group, serenaded by excellent Moroccan musicians, comprised the only customers. The sprawling, labrynthine Tetuan souk (market) was the sensory assault we expected, and the sights and smells flashed me back to my first real experience of 3rd-world marketplaces in Oaxaca some 35 years ago. While touristy, we both admitted that being led by the hand through the Tetuan souk and being ignored by the locals on the streets of Tangier did alot to dispel the notion that we were about to land on some hostile, alien planet where the entire gibberish-spouting, pocket-picking populace was lying in wait for us (though riding in the minibus we did get a couple of sobering previews of what
Lunch with the tourists in Tangier
We wimped out on riding through Tangier and took a guided minibus tour with all the trimmings instead
might be in store for us in our encounters with Moroccan drivers.)
Back in Ceuta, we finally loaded up the bikes early one morning and headed 5km south of town to the frontier. It's a busy, chaotic crossing point for auto traffic, but, the anti-smuggling razor-wire and guard towers notwithstanding, getting across the border with the bikes was only moderately time-consuming with no complicated declarations nor pointed questions about our possessions or destinations. The real hassle occurred just 100m south of the border control point when a bracket attaching the rear rack to Kate's bike - one of the few parts that hadn't recieved an upgrade back in Boulder - spontaneously disintegrated, leaving her panniers dragging on the ground. We hauled the bikes up onto an island in the center of a traffic circle and the next hour was spent sawing rusted bolts off of what was left of the broken bracket and reattaching the rack to the seatpost clamp.
The rest of our afternoon's flat ride to the beach town of Martil was uneventful, though finding a hotel for the night was tricky due to the dearth of possibilities and the guidebook's misnaming of the only decent
Roadside repairs in Morocco
We'd barely crossed the border when Kate's rack gave up the ghost; an hour with the nut driver and mini-hacksaw and we were on our way.
option. Since Ceuta, the TomTom GPS has gone dark since its "European" map database ends at the Spanish frontier, and since there don't seem to be any other commercial digital mapping products that cover Morocco we're back to navigating by our wits.
Martil was a wierd ghostly place, chock full of unoccupied and/or unfinished beachside apartment complexes, and we were happy to get out of town and start cycling south along the coast, bypassing Tetuan, to our next destination of Oued Laou. The ride started flat with a tailwind but after 20km turned into what seemed an infinitely repeating set of 150m climbs and decents over steep coastal bluffs. We arrived exhausted in Oued Laou, and this time the guidebook accurately led us to the only hotel in town, very basic but enlivened by the kif-inspired hospitality and culinary skills of the two young men running it. The next day's ride, turning away from the coast and ascending west into the Rif mountains to the city of Chefchaouen at 600m, started badly with a 30km/hr headwind and got worse, with every hard-won granny-geared gain in altitude seemingly nullified by a heart-rending descent. There must have been some net gain,
Mediterranean coastal road
Between Martil and Oued Laou. Started out flat with a tailwind...
though, because we finally arrived at the main Tetuan highway for our final 150m push straight up to Chefchaouen, where we treated ourselves to a nice room with attached bath at the Hotel Madrid, just steps from the kasbah (ancient Islamic palace). After a few days chilling out in Chefchaouen we'll be heading further west - hopefully down hill again, towards the Atlantic coast.
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