Sidetrip to Spain: Marrakech and Melilla

February 20th 2008
Published: April 4th 2008
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Kate warms up a stray puppy, MarrakechKate warms up a stray puppy, MarrakechKate warms up a stray puppy, Marrakech

...or was it the other way around? In any case, the CTM bus station in Marrakech is a pretty chilly place to hang out at 3:30AM.
Our arrival in Marrakech, at the ungodly hour of 3:30AM, was the result of the vagaries of the CTM bus schedule and our haste to leave the city of Guelmime sooner rather than later. We decided that hanging out in the Marrakech CTM station until sunup, when destinations like hotels and restaurants were opening up, would be our best bet. But it's cold at that hour in Marrakech, so Kate had to augment her passive warming system, consisting of all available clothing layers, with some active warming courtesy of a tiny stray puppy she found wandering the bus station, whose intense shivering gradually subsided after he settled into her lap and snoozed off. The inauspiciousnous of our arrival was compounded by getting thoroughly lost in the early-morning rush hour traffic trying to find the downtown hotel district - navigation by dead reckoning works only if you know your starting point, which in our case was not the bus station identified on the Lonely Planet map. 10km later we were finally oriented, breakfasted, and then checked into our room at the cheap and comfortable Hotel Toulousaine in the Gueliz section of the ville nouvelle.

But the die was cast, with the
Hotel Toulousaine, MarrakechHotel Toulousaine, MarrakechHotel Toulousaine, Marrakech

The verdant courtyard of our cheap and comfortable home away from home.
balance of our 10-day sojourn in Marrakech followed similarly inauspicious lines. One of our main goals in Marrakech was the receipt of a package Kate was having sent from the States by UPS, an enterprise that, with help from the local AMEX office (the original receiver), we spent many days trying to achieve, dealing Moroccan Customs in Casablanca and the incompetent and possibly corrupt local agent used by UPS in Marrakech. But though we finally got UPS in the States to take an interest in the problem, and even called upon the good offices of our old acquaintance Ahmed (the Air Force General we met back in Mohammedia), we eventually had to write the whole effort off as a bad job. Another big chunk of time was chewed up negotiating the purchase of sufficient airline tickets - using Frequent Flyer miles, just to make it interesting - to get Kate back from Marrakech to North Carolina in time for a family gathering at the end of March.

Somewhere in there we managed an afternoon's walking tour around Marrakech's medina, ending up at dusk in its world-renowned plaza-cum-circus, the (in)famous Place Djemaa el-Fna. While we passed on the snail soup
Foodstall, Place Djmaa el-FnaFoodstall, Place Djmaa el-FnaFoodstall, Place Djmaa el-Fna

Hamming it up for the tourists
and the roasted sheep's head, we did have a decent meal of beans and kabobs from one of the many food stands that materialize to fill the plaza in the evening - after having been 86'd as cheapskate troublemaking tourists from one stall after declining to pay an additional 25dh for the bread and olives that are normally served gratis in every Moroccan restaurant. (With the Place's intense competition among food vendors we easily bargained their inclusion for free at the next stall.) The sour aftertaste from this incident was reinforced by an unsuccessful pickpocketing attempt while watching one of the Place's many steet performances, foiled when the perpetrator clumsily tried to tease apart the velcro flaps holding closed the front pocket of my cargo pants. After a verbal confrontation and an intense stare-down - liberally sprinkling my English tirade with the word "gendarmes" , just in case - Kate and I quit the plaza and, with a paranoid look or two over our shoulders, hoofed it back to our hotel in the ville nouvelle.

During our stay in Marrakech we realized that - uh oh! - implementing the rest of our planned itinerary in Morocco was likely to
Night action, Place Djmaa el-Fna, MarrakechNight action, Place Djmaa el-Fna, MarrakechNight action, Place Djmaa el-Fna, Marrakech

After dark the Place is filled with performers and storytellers - but watch your wallet!
extend beyond the expiration of our walk-in 3-month tourist visas. After investigating the visa extension process (possible, but we'd be constrained to staying in one place during the extension period) we decided to get entirely new entry visas by taking a quickie trip to Spain. This technique, crossing the frontier by land at one of Spain's North African enclaves, staying a day, and then coming back across the Moroccan border, was reported by other travellers to work - at least most of the time.

Having already entered Morocco at Ceuta, we decided for variety's sake to go to Melilla, an even smaller Spanish possesion further east on the Mediterranean coast. Part of its attracton was also that (with the addition of a short bus and taxi leg) Melilla was accessible from Marrakech by train, a transportation mode we hadn't tried yet. So we planned a 3-day itinerary - a lightning commando raid, as it were, into Melilla - packed up only what we absolutely needed in our daypacks, and caught the 9:30am Marrakech train scheduled to arrive around 10pm at the end of the line in Oujda, the city of nearly a million people just a dozen kilometers from
Speeding towards Oujda, MoroccoSpeeding towards Oujda, MoroccoSpeeding towards Oujda, Morocco

The view out our train window of the unknown territory east of Fes.
the Algerian border.

The train left, and continued to run, right on time, and we shared our 1st class compartment - the differences from 2nd appearing mostly cosmetic - with only one other passenger. Initially, the flat geography glimpsed from the window was not particularly compelling, the most notable aspect being the relatively rapid change from the dry landscape surrounding Marrakech to the verdant green of cultivated fields as we neared the coast at Casablanca. What was more interesting as we continued through Rabat, Meknes and Fes, was seeing landscapes and landmarks we'd passed on the bikes from the new perspective of a speeding train, and feeling a sense of familiarity - unjustifed, really - that we were re-encountering trusty, well-trod territory. After Fes, however, we were in a previously unseen region and until the sun finally set we payed much closer attention as the train continued east towards Oujda, past lakes and rivers and through a long valley increasingly wedged between the Rif Mountains to the north and the trailing end of the Middle Atlas to the south.

Oujda was yet another large Moroccan city we'd never heard of before planning this sidetrip, a 10th century Maghreb
In the Melilla ViejaIn the Melilla ViejaIn the Melilla Vieja

One of the labyrinthine passageways through Melilla's old Portuguese walled city.
caravansarai that grew and thrived for centuries on trade with nearby Algeria - that is, until the border was closed in 1995. Still, relying as it does today on an economic base of zinc mining, it seemed fairly propsperous and cosmopolitan, relative at least to our preconceptions of a North African frontier city. Though arriving in a strange city after dark can be problematic, with the help of a policeman we easily found our way on foot from the station to the cheap and cheerful Hotel Angad, Kate's choice picked from the Lonely Planet. After breakfast in the morning we hoofed it down to the bus station with one eye on the threatening weather, but with no delay we caught the 25dh bus to Nador, a 3 hour ride that put us in position for the final 15km taxi shuttle to the seaside town of Beni Enzar that actually shares the border crossing with Melilla.

The crossing at the frontier was typically chaotic, but by transiting on foot we were spared the worst of the mess, a smoky, honking traffic jam of Mercedes sedans, Japanese trucks and black SUVs all trying to funnel through the one lane spanning the
View of the town from Melilla ViejaView of the town from Melilla ViejaView of the town from Melilla Vieja

This small Spanish enclave is surrounded by the Mediteranean on one side and Morocco's Rif mountains on the others.
no-mans-land between Moroccan and Spanish checkpoints. Though we and the few other European tourists stood out from the larger majorty of Moroccans at the crossing, the exit procedures were relatively perfunctory, consisting of a form and a few questions concerning our next destination and culminating in the loud thwap of the exit stamp hitting our passports. And even though we'd been concerned that it's technically illegal to export dirhams, there was no currency check at the border and we walked through with the small amount of Moroccan cash that we were keeping for the sake of convenience on our return. Strangely, no one on the Spanish side even looked remotely in our direction as we pushed through the swinging gate - less scrutiny than we'd had crossing back into Spain from Gibraltar, though we probably would have been checked again boarding the Malaga ferry - and found ourselves deposited once again back on European soil.

The contast between Morocco and Spain emerged quickly as we walked from Melilla's gritty frontier zone towards downtown, and was definitely apparent as we turned onto the well-landscaped corniche that runs along Melilla's spotless beachfront. Even through the drizzly mist we could see the
Gaudi-esque apartment house, MelillaGaudi-esque apartment house, MelillaGaudi-esque apartment house, Melilla

Melilla has quite a number of 30's-era Deco buildings designed in the spirit of Barcelona's Antonio Gaudi.
modern highrise that houses the local government offices, the sleek new ferry terminal, some period architectural edifices like the Plaza de Toros as well as various 30's-era buildings in created in a fanciful, Gaudi-esque Deco style. Positioned above it all we saw the Melilla La Vieja, the original fortified town built on a high coastal promontory and occupied by one armed force or another since the times of the Phoenicians.

Melilla is a surprisingly compact territory, much smaller than Ceuta, and is apparently not much of a tourist destination in and of itself. So while we were able to cover the town on foot, the choices of budget accomodations were very thin, and it took us awhile to find the Hostal Cazaza, one of the few LP recommendations that weren't either out of business or closed for the season. Likewise, we had difficulty finding places to eat that weren't on the one hand just smoky coffee joints or on the other high-end hotel restaurants beyond our budget. The sticker-shock of being back in the Euro-zone hit us quickly, but was somewhat ameliorated by the ready availability of beer and the now-novel presence of pork on every menu - and
Plaza Carlos V in the Parque Hernandez, MelillaPlaza Carlos V in the Parque Hernandez, MelillaPlaza Carlos V in the Parque Hernandez, Melilla

The immaculately kept parks and gardens in Melilla Spain were a real change from Morocco.
at every meal. (It didn't take too long to recall how sick of ham sandwiches we eventually got in Spain!)

We might have stayed a couple of days in Melilla - there seemed to be interesting stuff to see and we thought the longer we stayed the more legit we'd appear going back into Morocco - but after waking up the first morning to a steady rain, we decided to cut our losses and head back to Oujda to catch the late overnight train back to Marrakech. That still left us with a morning's worth of sightseeing in Melilla, and after strolling with our umbrellas through the immaculate Parque Hernandez we spent a few hours following the Lonely Planet's suggested walking tour of the Melilla de Vieja. We clambered through the restored Portuguese ruins and saw the military museum and statue of Francisco Franco - still honored in conservative Melilla as the future Fascist dictator who initiated the Spanish Civil War in 1936 by launching an assault from here - but unfortunately missed the Cuevas del Conventico, a series of defensive tunnels dug Gibraltar-style into the hard-rock ocean cliffs beneath the old convent. Just about the time we were
All aboard the Marrakech Express!All aboard the Marrakech Express!All aboard the Marrakech Express!

The state ONCF agency operates the trains in Morocco to nearly European standards.
due to board the city bus back to the frontier, the rain squalls blew themselves out and we were treated to glorious panoramic vistas of the city and the sun-drenched Mediteranean.

Our return trip back to Oujda and Marrakech was an uneventful reversal of our original journey to Melilla, with our re-entry papers carefully but cheerfully scrutinized and approved by the English-speaking Moroccan border agent. An added wrinkle to the trip was that we had booked 1st-class "cc/lit" tickets on the late-departing train running overnight from Oujda to Marrakech, which to our pleasant surprise entitled us to a private sleeping compartment with two bunks, individual reading lamps and a fold-out washbasin - too fun! We figured this was about as close to the fabled "Marrakech Express" as we were going to get, even though we did have to make an early-morning train change in Casablanca.

Ensconced once again at the familiar Hotel Toulousaine in Marrakech, we prepared for the next leg of our journey, cycling southward over the mountains towards the Sahara, by doing laundry and performing some long-deferred bike maintenance. We also spent some hours combining our accumulated cyclist's info about the trans-Atlas N9 highway with a
Kate in our sleeperKate in our sleeperKate in our sleeper

We were pleasantly surprised to find we'd booked a private sleeping compartment for the trip back to Marrakech.
scouring of the Lonely Planet - as well as some liberal tea-leaf reading - to try and figure out what we were getting ourselves in for with our anticipated attempt on the Tizi n'Tichka, the highest paved pass over the High Atlas Mountains.


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