Continental Overland: Seville to Marrakech

Published: June 19th 2011
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Ever since we arrived in Europe four years ago, we’ve marvelled at the ease with which you can move around from country to country by road, rail and air- sometimes without even the need for a passport check. So, when the current series of holidays presented itself, we couldn’t resist taking it one step further and travelling overland between continents. The bus from Seville will take us as far as Tarifa, from where we’re able to book on to a ferry. One final tortilla and calamari lunch (we are by the sea after all) and we’re on our way to Morocco. The journey is fast and with the time difference, we arrive in North Africa at the same time as our departure from Europe. As we disembark the Aussie made vessel (WA’s own!) we brace ourselves for the onslaught of touts and taxi drivers.

It’s intense but thankfully we have our wits about us and stay focussed on exchanging some Euros for Dirham (which is only possible in country) and march our way out of the port to find a petit taxi.

Our conversation with the driver goes like this:
Us: ‘Tanger Ville?’
Driver: ‘Where?’
Us: ‘Tanger Gare?’
Driver: ‘Where?’
Us: ‘Tanger Station?’
Driver: ‘Tanger Station! Why didn’t you just say so? What were you asking me before?’
Us: ‘Tanger Ville’
Driver: ‘I can take you to the station but you’re already IN Tanger Ville!’

The price he quotes us is half that of the drivers at the port and we happily chat with him on our way to the station. He proudly talks us through the various highlights of Tangier along the way and from the sparkling new station and incredible amount of construction going on all through the new town, it’s clear that it’s on the verge of a boom.

Our first mission is to secure two places in a sleeper carriage on the night train to Marrakech. We’ve read about how easily the tickets sell out and don’t fancy an 11 hour journey sitting up. Luckily there are still some left and with tickets in hand we contemplate how we’re going to spend the next seven hours in Tangier with nowhere to leave our luggage. Fortunately the weather is beautiful so we take the short stroll down to the water’s edge and, in a manner very unlike us, wile away the afternoon sitting on the grass under a shady tree doing nothing. Well not quite nothing - we people watch. There are guys selling cheap cigarettes and tissues, families with children enjoying being by the sea, roller bladers cruising past, a guy riding his bike backwards up and down the foreshore and a dozen men on horses galloping up to the far end in search of children wanting a ride. The fashions here have modernised considerably since our last visit to Morrocco and on our way back to the station we even sneak in to a McDonalds for a cheeky Big Mac. By the time we return, other foreigners like us have started to gather inside the station building and Lachlan enjoys a long awaited mint tea while we wait for our train to arrive.

After many hours wait, the time finally comes for us to move out on to the platform and board the train. It’s a rarity for us to join the first class carriages but at these prices we can’t resist getting a little extra comfort on this long journey. And to be frank the alternative is an uncomfortable night spent sitting up, surrounded by strangers with their head probably inevitably falling on your shoulder.

There are a few other young foreigners boarding at the same time and we’re pleasantly surprised when we discover that we have a four bed sleeper cabin to ourselves. It’s basic but sheets and pillows have been left out for us to make up our bunk beds and as we get settled, a conductor comes by to take our tickets (he assures us they’ll be returned in the morning) and gives us each a bottle of water. As the train pushes off, we close the curtains and settle down for the night allowing the gentle movement and rhythmic hum and clunk of the train lull us in to our best night’s sleep in days. It’s far from the luxury we’ve read about on most other overnight trains in other parts of the world but it’s our first experience and we’re really excited about it.

The sun peeking through the curtains wakes us up in the morning and we pull them back to discover vast open countryside in front of us. To Lachlan’s amusement at some stage during the night we’ve gone from being the last carriage of the train to being the middle carriage being pulled in the opposite direction! We’re given a 15 minute warning call of our destination by the conductor and our tickets are returned.

When we disembark at Marrakech, we feel surprisingly rested and refreshed. It’s early in the morning and we’re determined to carry our backpacks all the way to our riad without the need for a taxi. We set off, taking in some familiar streets and sights until we reach Djemaa el-Fna. Checking our map, we move further along in the direction of the palace and spice market. We’ve never been to this part of the city before and it doesn’t take us long to become completely disorientated and lost. Nothing on the map corresponds with what’s around us and with very few street signs to help we get very confused very quickly. But if you try enough options, you eventually find yourself in the vicinity of your destination and with the help (and another map) from some friendly Aussies we’re able to push on, past the local children insisting on showing us the way, and eventually arrive at the door of our riad, exhausted and relieved. Thankfully, the welcome is warm and we’re quickly offered some fresh juice and shown to our room.

Stepping in to a Moroccan riad is like stepping in to another world. The noise, dust and confusion of the streets and souks are gone and in their place lies a cool, calm oasis usually, like this one, complete with some fruit trees and a water feature in the tranquil courtyard.

Our room is on one side of the central courtyard and we freshen up, gather a few things and head back out in to the busy streets in search of lunch. Knowing we’re bound to find something good in Djemaa el-Fna we wind our way through the souks until we spot a terraced restaurant we visited on our last trip to Morocco. Knowing we can’t pass up good value mint tea, cous cous and a targine, we order just that and sit back to take in all the excitement of the square from the roof top terrace. The action is still here complete with snake charmers, monkey holders and men in colourful dress and huge hats. Nothing’s changed, apart from the tourists. There are so many more than we remember and even more stylish groups of young women than you would expect. Sex and the City has really made its mark. It comes as quite a shock as journeying here seemed like an off the tourist trail type experience two years ago.

After lunch we agree to check out the souks for a while. There is so much to see and the usual encouragement from the stall sellers to view their wares is alive and well. We decide we’re looking for a tea pot to take home as a souvenir and take a brief glance in each stall to see if there is one that catches our eye. Eventually we spot a small shop which is filled exclusively with silver teapots. An elderly gentleman is sitting at the front of the store cleaning and polishing one of them. He doesn’t need to shout down the customers like the other stall sellers which allows us to wander in and browse at our leisure without pressure to buy. We narrow our choices down to a couple of favourites and begin to talk prices. Going back and forth for a while we soon agree on an amount that both parties can feel happy about and he promptly wraps up our purchase and we’re on our way.

We’ve seen a bit of Marrakech before but we’ve never seen the palaces so we set off back in the direction of our riad and pay the nominal entry fee to enter the historic grounds of the ‘old palace’. A diagram of the area indicates what the various sections of the Badi Palace were thought to be used for in its time. What remains is sparse but we can imagine what it must have been like. As we wander around, what catches our eye most of all are the huge nests that have been built by local storks on every available wall top. It’s spring so they’re bound to their nests with many already rearing young chicks the size of your average pigeon.

Our map shows a mausoleum not far from the palace so we duck through the streets to find it before it closes. It doesn’t take long to get in but once inside we find large crowds lining up to see inside each of the tombs. We quickly join one before any more tourists arrive and patiently wait our turn to take a peek inside. What we see is well worth the wait. The walls, ceiling and floor are completely covered in the most beautifully decorated tiles we’ve ever seen. It looks and feels so typically Moroccan and we feel fortunate to have had the chance to view it first hand. While the Saadian Tombs were built in the 1500’s, since being bricked up by Moulay Ismail in the 1600’s it was left untouched until it was discovered again in 1917. It’s incredible that it could have stood forgotten in the middle of Marrakech for so long.

On our way back to our riad, we happen upon some more markets and can’t resist having a look - especially seeing as it’s a spice market! There are all kinds of weird and wonderful items for sale and pretty soon we again we lose our sense of direction and have to try to turn back. This is a very typical experience in Marrakech but for us, like most visitors here, it’s all part of the fun!

Having missed the opening times for the newer of the two Marrakech palaces, we decide it’s time to go in search of dinner. Where else would you want to spend your first evening meal in Marrakech but Djemaa el-Fna? We quickly settle on a stall with some friendly blokes offering a warm welcome. Some bread, dips and olives are quickly brought out to us and we enjoy watching the goings on around us while we wait for our food to be prepared. It doesn’t take long and we enjoy it thoroughly. It’s a lovely surprise when some mint tea is presented to us at the end of the meal- the perfect way to finish.

We had our sights set on mint tea from another stall as well and quickly head there for a second. These kinds of stalls are our favourite as they’re completely crowded in with locals on all side and only serve three items- tea, soup and sweets. Fabulous! The hot tea is poured over blocks of sugar and sprigs of fresh mint and it tastes absolutely delicious.

After a quick stop for more orange juice (did we mention the amazing freshly squeezed orange juice stalls?) and we’re weaving our way back through the souks to our riad for a good night’s sleep before our first day of trekking tomorrow.

Breakfast is laid out for us when we wake in the morning and before we know it, there’s a knock on the riad door and our taxi driver is waiting to take us to the starting point of our High Atlas adventure.

Not knowing what awaits us, we bid farewell to Marrakech as we perch excitedly in the back of the taxi on our way to Inmil.


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