Farewell Morocco: Marrakech to Istanbul

Published: June 3rd 2008
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Dusk sets on the Place Djmaa El FnaDusk sets on the Place Djmaa El FnaDusk sets on the Place Djmaa El Fna

No trip to Marrakech is complete without watching the Place come alive at sundown.
After we returned from south of the High Atlas to Marrakech so Kate could travel back to North Carolina for a family gathering, she spent a furious last day of shopping around our neighborhood in the Ville Nouvelle looking for gifts for the folks back home and then trying to pack up all her spoils. Hassan, our innkeeper at the Hotel Toulousaine, was kind enough to take her to the airport for her 24-hour, 4-flight, 3-airline marathon, which she survived without a hitch.

On the other hand, my incipient Marrakech Hack developed into a full-blown upper respiratory case complete with ear infecton, and I spent the two weeks she was gone trying to shake it while moping around the neighborhood from cafe to cafe, too enervated even to wander the medina, much less make good on my fantasy itineraries of riding over the Tizi'n'Test or taking the Tarfaya ferry to the Canary Islands. I was able to rouse myself for another visit to the Jardin Majorelle, where hundreds of orange clivia were now in full bloom in contrast with the perennial multi-colored bouganvillea, the canary-yellow planters and Majorelle's Klein-blue villa.

Although we knew we were leaving Marrakech when she
Clivias in bloom at the Jardin MajorelleClivias in bloom at the Jardin MajorelleClivias in bloom at the Jardin Majorelle

Alot of Marrakech came into bloom during our month's sojourn in the South.
got back, Kate and I didn't actually know where we were going next! But she and I managed to get in a Skype call almost every night, and by the time she got back to Marrakech we'd ruled out South Africa (too late in the season), Egypt (too hot already) and had settled on Turkey as our next destination. The idea was to start in Istanbul and, following the prevailing northwest winds, work our way down the Agean coast and through the Mediterranean, before perhaps heading up through the Anatolian plain to the Black Sea.

So when she returned to Marrakech, we started the whole time-consuming process of sitting around internet cafes, comparing multiple itineraries on different airline websites and trying to divine the optimum airline route from Marrakech to Istanbul (taking into account the various baggage rules that airlines would apply to our bikes.) We eventually settled on an Easyjet itinerary that, at about $350 each, had us leaving Marrakech at a decent hour, transiting through Basel, Switzerland, and arriving at Sabiha Gokcen - Istanbul's "budget airport", on the Asian shore 50km east of the Bosphorus - at 3:30am. Oh well. (Actually, SleepingInAirports.com gave this place a decent
Kate and musician, Marrakech MedinaKate and musician, Marrakech MedinaKate and musician, Marrakech Medina

This fellow ran a music shop and was happy to demonstrate his products for us.

After purchasing our Easyjet tickets online we had another week or so to kill in Marrakech, so we raced around doing our final sightseeing, running errands, cleaning and updating the bikes with all the spare parts Kate had schlepped back from N.Carolina (new XT shifter for me, new chains and tires all around - replacing my delaminated Specialized Nimbus rear tire in the process.) I also found a bike repair stall in the medina that for 10dh was capable of putting new aluminum welds on the points that had broken on my Topeak rear rack. Along the way were treated to a special dinner invitation at the home of Hassan and his wife Malin, an ex-Peace Corp volunteer from Michigan, and their 3 adorable kids. Their cook created a succulent rendition of makfoul, a tagine of lamb, cinnamon and caramelized onions that she simmered all afternoon over a charcoal brazier on their front porch.

We took a couple of last swings through the Marrakech medina, visiting the impressive 19th century Bahia Palace, the ruins of the 16th century Badi Palace, and having a classic "sunset hang" at one of the roof-terrace cafes ringing the Place Djmaa el
Watersellers, Place Djmaa El Fna, MarrakechWatersellers, Place Djmaa El Fna, MarrakechWatersellers, Place Djmaa El Fna, Marrakech

I don't think these guys actually make money selling water anymore - it all comes from charging tourists for photos of them in their traditional garb.
Fna. Wandering through the Place at dusk, I couldn't help glancing around looking for the young lout in the baseball cap who'd almost succeeded in picking my pocket the month before. I did succumb to paying a few dirham to the colorful watersellers for a photo of them in their traditional garb, but managed to escape the clutches of the python handlers, who'd tossed a snake over my neck, grabbed my camera to take a commerative photo, and then tried to extort 200dh - more than 20 bucks! - for the "service". (Apparently, some newly-arrived tourists are successfully intimidated into this rip-off.)

While we were in the medina, I stepped into a barber shop and got a nice haircut and, due to my influent French, perhaps the most artistically agressive shave of my life (Kate repeatedly expressed her delight at finally being able to see the full expressivity of my lower lip.) And once again, we were impressed by the profoundly pedestrian-unfriendly nature of the souks in the neighborhood of the Place, where one is in constant danger of being hit by a speeding motorscooter in even the narrowest of back alleys - no such hazards had marred our
Hey mister, wanna hold my snake?Hey mister, wanna hold my snake?Hey mister, wanna hold my snake?

No worries, this one isn't poisonous - but the scam is!
exploratory perambulations in the Fes medina.

On the day of departure for Istanbul, our Easyjet flight was scheduled to take off at 9am, so at 6:30 that morning we loaded up the bikes with our prepacked gear, and headed out of the Hotel Toulousaine for an easy 5km cruise to the airport through the blissfully quiet steets of Marrakech. All was well until 200m short of the airport entrance, when I heard a sharp crack, felt the bike begin to wobble violently, and looked down to find that the right vertical stay on my rear rack had broken clean through, just above the dropout and below the section that had been recently welded. (Most likely the aluminum had been weakened by overheating.) Fortunately, I was able to limp through the airport entry and into the departure area with the rack's remaining stay barely supporting both my heavy panniers, but it was clear that I wasn't going to be able to ride into Istanbul from the airport that way. We got our bags checked separately from the bikes, which were cheerfully accepted (for 25 euros each!) at the Easyjet check-in counter after having gotten the 50 dirham "saran-wrap" treatment at
Motorbike hell, Marrakech medinaMotorbike hell, Marrakech medinaMotorbike hell, Marrakech medina

Actually, this is just the nomal suicidal traffic.
a stand in the departure hall.

During the late-departing flight from Marrakech to our stopover in Basel, Switzerland, I had plenty of time to try and brainstorm a fix for the broken rack. The solution presented itself on our arrival in Basel, where we just happened to run across Franz, a young airport worker and obvious "bike geek" from the look of his elaborately outfitted touring/commuting bicycle, who - in French and German, but no English - offered to personally direct us to the best bike shop in Basel during our 8-hour afternoon layover. After re-packing and checking-in the gear for our next flight (not surprisingly, Easyjet's Swiss staff had much higher standards for packaging the bikes than their Moroccan counterparts!) we hopped on the downtown bus while our new friend rode on the bike path paralleling the airport road, meeting us as we got off at a pre-arranged bus stop.

Together we walked a few blocks to the bike shop, and even in Basel's gray drizzle we passed dozens of cycle commuters dressed in street clothes but protected from the weather by all manner of creative tarps, ponchos, and rain gear - Basel is clearly a bicycling
The best bike shop in Basel, SwitzerlandThe best bike shop in Basel, SwitzerlandThe best bike shop in Basel, Switzerland

Our new Swiss friend led us in the rain from the airport to VeloPlus, his favorite bike store, where I replaced my broken rear rack.
city. Arriving at VeloPlus, an immaculate bicycle shop where he was clearly a favorite customer, Franz explained our plight to the sales staff, who showed me their stock of high-end bike racks. When I expressed some dismay at spending 179 Swiss francs (about US$160) for the tubular steel rack that really met my needs, the sales guy said I could have it for 149 - who'd have thought you could bargain on price in a Swiss bike shop?

One Visa receipt later, we were strolling towards Basel's downtown with rack in hand, our white bike knight now assuming the role of tour guide as we tried our best to interpret his running commentary in French on the layout of Basel and the city's manifold charms. We found the tourist office, still open at 6PM, where the extremely efficient clerk got us oriented on the free tourist map and pointed out the tram and bus lines we could take to get back to the airport. Franz bid goodbye to us and we spent the next couple of hours wandering through the city center. We passed the medieval Rathaus (town hall), built on the main square in striking red sandstone, and
Rathaus City Hall, Basel SwitzerlandRathaus City Hall, Basel SwitzerlandRathaus City Hall, Basel Switzerland

Our perambulations took us past the main square in Basel's medieval city center.
meandered through a network of pedestrian shopping streets criss-crossed by multi-colored electric trolleys and chockablock with boutiques selling designer clothes, jewelry and - naturally - Swiss watches. We crossed over the Rhine River to walk along the immaculate landscaping of its elegant riverside parkway (punctuated by iconographic signage portraying many prohibited activities, including "no peeing in the river") and at intervals we passed by the old wooden ferryboats that are guided across the river on suspended cableways. We also walked by the striking Basel Kunstmuseum and, though closed, we could see enough of its sculpture court to glimpse the odd though complementary juxtaposition of a group of Rodin bronze figures with an installation of Dan Flavin's colored flourescent fixtures.

Hungry but shocked at the prices in Basel's downtown eateries (eg, about US$20 p/p at a generic Chinese steam-table restaurant) we caught the bus back to the airport and had enough time for a quick meal at the last restaurant still open before boarding our 11pm flight. We napped only intermittently before the rude shock of our 3:30am arrival at Sabiha Gokcen, where my somnolent approach to deplaning was responsible for the delay of the shuttle bus transporting passengers from
The Münster Cathedral, BaselThe Münster Cathedral, BaselThe Münster Cathedral, Basel

We saw the cathedral of Basel, built in 1019 under Emperor Heinrich II as we walked along the Rhine River parkway.
the plane to the terminal doors - all of 50 meters across the tarmac. My embarrassment was compounded at the immigration window when we were caught at the head of the line with insufficient cash to pay the 15-euro Turkish instant-visa fee (not appreciating at the time the ironic logic that precludes using Visa to buy a visa.) Luckily, an anonymous fellow traveller passed a couple of euro coins up the line to us to break the log jam. And despite having given our bank several days notice, we couldn't get any Turkish lira until a Skype call to customer service over the airport's WiFi network got our credit cards unblocked from Turkish ATM transactions. After THAT, we donned our earplugs and sleep masks and settled down for a fitful 3 hour snooze in the lounge area recommended by SleepingInAirports.com.

After a disappointing Turkish airport breakfast (3 dollars for instant Nescafe?) our first order of business was to assemble the bikes, including installation of my new Swiss rear rack. This turned out to be more problematic than I anticipated, and it was three more hours before we were saddled up and riding out of the airport. Without a detailed
Rodin and Flavin, Basel KunstmuseumRodin and Flavin, Basel KunstmuseumRodin and Flavin, Basel Kunstmuseum

The Flavin installation is leftover from a 1974 retrospective exhibit here; it made an interesting complement to the Rodin bronze.
area map it was unclear what route would best take us the 50km over to the European side of Istanbul, though we had a vague idea that by heading directly south we could catch a Seabus from the ferry port near Pendik that would save us alot of urban cycling by leapfrogging westward along the Sea of Marmara coastline towards the Bosphorous Straits. But as soon as we exited the airport we were faced with what looked like a controlled-access toll road, verboten to bikes, and a 30mph headwind that nearly knocked us flat. In our jet-lagged, sleep-deprived state, it didn't look like an adventure we wanted to take on.

So we circled back into the airport and put our bikes on a local bus that, for a couple of lira, eventually dropped us off at the Kadiköy ferry terminal within sight of the European shore of the Bosphorous. Although we'd had a bumpy start to the Turkish leg of our trip, we had a real thrill of accomplishment and positive anticipation as the ferry carrying us and our bikes approached the docks along the Golden Horn and the ancient Istanbul landmarks of Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque
Bikes over the Bosphorous!Bikes over the Bosphorous!Bikes over the Bosphorous!

Crossing on the ferry from Asia to Europe as the landmarks of old Istanbul come into view.
came into view.

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