April 30th. As our train to Ronda left at 6:45am, it was an early departure from the apartment. Kelly considerately carried his wheelie bag on the 10 minute walk down to Plaza Nueva as it would have been so noisy on the cobblestones otherwise - and the rest of the neighbourhood was still sleeping. Taxis are at the Plaza 24/7 and the short ride to the train station was a lot cheaper than expected - according to the internet, a premium is charged before 7am. Once at the station, it turned out there actually is NO train service from Granada, so instead we travelled by “rail bus”. An hour after departure we reached the isolated train station of Antequera where anyone heading to Madrid did get a train while the rest of us transferred to another bus which dropped us off at the train station (also trainless) in Ronda. The Hotel Andalusia was right across the street so after getting rid of our bags we went exploring.
Ronda is a “pueblo blanco” or white town built on the edge of the El Tajo gorge and is famously known for the Puente Nuevo (new bridge) that was built in the 18th
century over the gorge. The old moorish town is described as a “labyrinthe of picturesque little streets” but after Granada’s narrow twisting streets of the Albayzin that were designed to keep out the heat, Ronda is downright spacious. A number of viewpoints (or miradors) along the edge of the town walls give great views into the gorge and river 200 m below and of the bridge itself. The most spectacular view of the bridge is from below and the normal pathway down into the gorge was closed for renovations so the alternative was a 4km return hike down a cobbled road - the only redeeming feature of the hike (other than the view at the end) was the wild flowers and groves of olive trees. Many people were really struggling on the uphill return hike - it was very hot and no one was carrying water - crazy the things you do on holiday.
The dining options in town were not that great - even my favourite beverage of Tinto de Verano (Spanish summer wine which is equal parts red wine and carbonated lemon) was mediocre. Our best meal was a picnic of baguette, chorizo and olive oil eaten
at the Alameda Del Tajo viewpoint late in the afternoon.
We continued our journey on the “train bus” the next morning to the town of Algeciras. Interestingly enough, our tickets have not been checked once! The buses have not been very full so we could have just gotten on - I think. Although Ronda is at an elevation of only 739m, most of the 2 hour bus trip seemed to be down a really windy mountain highway and it was relief when the trip was over. Once again we were dropped at the train station and had a short walk to the bus station. Again, some “misinformation online” had led me to believe we could get bus and ferry tickets to Morocco from here, but this proved incorrect. So.... we caught the next bus to Tarifa and arrived at the port just in time for the 1pm fast ferry. Boarding was a bit of a gong show - humans and cars at the same time via the vehicle deck. Many of the passengers had massive amounts of luggage and it was interesting watching them trying to get across the narrow gang way onto the boat. At least there was
a luggage storage area on the car deck as getting their bags upstairs would have been impossible. We grabbed a couple of seats near the back, wondering why most people were choosing to sit further forward - it may have been because we were pretty close to the smoking area. Yuk. There was a huge lineup on one side of the main cabin which we assumed was for the cafeteria (as that is what it is like on BC Ferries) - turned out it was passport control, so when we disembarked in Tangier, we had to turn around and get back on board (not an easy feat against the flow of humans) to get our passports stamped. We will be smarter on the return trip.
Our hotel for the night was Dar Omar Khayam - a pretty hotel situated in the new town, halfway between the port and the train station. First order of business was getting some dirham - it took 5 tries at 3 different banks before my card was accepted and I was getting pretty nervous that RBC would do something silly like freeze my account (they have done that before when travelling and caused all
sorts of headaches). Next order of business was food so we headed off to a recommended restaurant in the Médina (old town) only to find it was closed. So we ate at some local street side restaurant - chicken kebabs, fries and cooked vegetables. We are finding that we are automatically conversing in our pathetic Spanish - and of course we are now in a French speaking country - we had better learn some basic terms pretty quick.
May 2 and it was off to Marrakech after a delicious breakfast of coffee, orange juice, chocolate croissant, plain croissant, fresh bread and jam (included with the room). We had attempted to buy train tickets both online and via an business acquaintance of an friend in Tangier, all to no avail - in actual fact it so easy when we got to the train station to buy them in person although all we could get was second class. It was very comfortable on the high speed train (up to 320kmh) from Tangier to Casablanca - forward facing, reclining seats with decent leg room. But then we had the leg from Casablanca to Marrakech - 8 people crammed into each compartment. Although
we all had assigned seats, the first 4 people in the compartment claimed the corner seats and they were NOT moving. We will see about that on the return trip as we have a corner seat assigned to us.
We chatted to a fellow in the Casablanca train station (Casa voyageurs) who turned out to be a travel agent on his way to pick up a group at the airport. He said he would have one of his people meet us in Marrakech to provide a shuttle to our hotel AND take us on a tour the next day. Maybe we didn’t sound convinced cos there was no one to meet us. But it was easy enough to get a cab for 40 dirham to the Bab Doukala, the gate in the wall surrounding the Médina, that provided the closest access to our home for the next three nights - the fabulous Ryad Boustane. This is the first time I have ever been excited about a hotel! A magnificent 300 year old traditional Moroccan home that has been restored to a 9 room hotel. Breakfast each morning is coffee, fresh orange juice, fresh fruit salad, eggs of some kind
and great breads with jams. Then throughout the day is mint tea (with little sugar) and cookies. And I can’t forget the hotel cat and 4 kittens that were adopted by Osama and have the run of the public areas.
The Ryad is just a short distance through narrow alleys from the Médina wall so we have easy access to transport arriving and leaving via regular city streets, but this also means we have a 20 minute walk into the closest souks (markets). In the 2.5 days we were in Marrakech we walked (wandered) close to 40 km. We had a paper map as well as Kelly’s iPhone map.me
app but still managed to get turned around and lost numerous times. If we accepted any assistance to get back on the right rack, it cost us! An unplanned visit to the stinky tanneries resulted in us buying a carpet (which we had planned on doing at some point). It has been about 18 years since we visited Marrakech and I think the most negative impact of time is the number of motor bikes that scream through the narrowest of alleyways. They say that if you do not heed the
first horn and get out of the way, the second horn will be too late. We probably walked through every souk from spices to carpets to shoes to brass to blacksmiths, fighting our way through crowds (mostly tourists like ourselves) but also avoiding donkey carts and motorbikes. With the crowds, noise, colour and smells it is quite overwhelming. Casually looking at items for sale is hassle free, touching an item means the sales pressure starts, and asking a price (even casually) is downright foolish if you aren’t thinking of actually buying. You can just walk away of course, but chances are you will be yelled out. And even when you DO agree on a price, the merchant acts all insulted, even though you know they just made money off you! Of course, the souks are not ALL touristic - there are many vegetable, dried fruit, pastry and meat shops. Wandering through the souks in Tangier I had been impressed that the meat was refrigerated - not so much here in Marrakech but it did appear to be fresh... and no flies.
At the south end of the souks is Jemaa el Fna or “big square” that is surrounded by
cafes and restaurants on terraces that give a panoramic view over the action below. By day there are numerous stands selling fresh juices and of course the requisite snake charmers and ladies offering henna. But come evening it gets even more lively when food stands get set up and the cooking and aggressive hustling begins. Everyone had warned us not to eat here as the hygiene is not that great supposedly - but we ate there twice, following our own guidelines of eating only where there are locals eating - delicious food and relatively cheap. Touch wood, we still have healthy bellies.
And so an intense 4 days comes to an end - - it is just sheer luck that our visit to Marrakech was over just as Ramadan started.
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