Only an evening in Córdoba

The ferry from Tangier to Tarifa was supposed to leave at ten o'clock. We were not looking to have the mad dash we had last time, so packed our bags the night before and had breakfast as soon as the restaurant opened. We had the room and all the staff to ourselves. Aside from having three room keys that refused to allow reentry to our room, (though we revisited the front desk to get them all rebooted) we had no cause to worry. The taxi took us down through the market, under the walls of the Medina, a last look at Old Tangier and dropped us at the sea front.

The meeters and greeters at the ferry terminal did their best, but there is very little to offer the traveller with small cases on wheels. We could not complain, could we, when the ferry left half an hour late, but realise that it is probably an everyday event. The ferry staff must have anticipated a rough crossing, as they strolled through the seats insisting that we all take the bright blue plastic bags offered us. In the end the swell was only moderate and it was a surprise to discover people in the toilets suffering from acute seasickness. It reminded me of some pieces of artwork in Tangier we had appreciated, the pictures of refugees in flimsy boats painted on recycled paper and lolly-ice sticks. Just thinking about the people themselves in the darkness, exposed to the risks at sea with a war at their backs and who knows what ahead. How can we begrudge them even temporary respite?

At Tarifa we made the bus to Algeciras. It made a pleasant change from hurtling around the cliff tops at high speed. We enjoyed the views of Gibraltar a hop, skip and a jump away from the costa del sol. It's not the only outpost of Britain here. The expats and the remains of empire. Some of the rows of red brick terraces with chimneys look more like Salford than Algeciras.

It is only four hours by train to Córdoba but the contrast with Morocco is acute. The memories are heightened by seeing white storks, lots of them, on the ground and roosting in the pylons beside the railway. Their nests are like Russian fur hats placed on top. The countryside is verdant and the soil a rich dark brown. The fields are empty and the valleys are clad in green. In the hills, huge forests cover the slopes, or lower down terraces of olives and vineyards do the same.

Our arrival in Córdoba coincides with the early evening, where the sun turns the light yellow stone of the old Jewish quarter a gorgeous shade of cream then orange. Our hotel, the Casa de Juifs is a maze of courtyards and balconies. Having dropped off our bags we got lost finding our way out, found some Roman remains, a series of gardens with chairs and pools and eventually discovered the exit only by asking a member of staff. Several minutes walk had led us back to within a few metres from the point we had started. If only we had taken the lift on our floor.

Following directions from the hotel staff proved more accurate than our guesses and we made it all the way down to the river and along to the Roman bridge. As it was time for all good Córdobans to get out and walk around in the last of the sunlight, the bridge was positively heaving. All the more so since a flamenco guitarist had set himself up in the middle. We walked across, then decided we'd rather be in the old town so crossed back and spent the next couple of hours wandering streets, enjoying the traditional styles of architecture, the rows of terracotta pots, hanging from the walls and balconies, bursting with plants already beginning to flower.

Christina had stayed for some time in Córdoba many years before. The city centre looks like it has been rebuilt in that time, but the old Jewish quarter is pretty much as it was then. The main difference being the extent to which it is now a tourism destination. In the darkness , with shops still open and cafes and bars filling up, we wandered up side alleys, watching the nighttime economy come to life, yet we could still see parents and grandparents accompanied by small children and babies in prams. How lovely it must be to live such an outdoor life.

We visited a grocery shop in the streets around a large church, bought food there and then found a wholefood shop, where the owner was smoking himself to an early grave and tainting the food to boot. For a bit more exercise, since we had been sitting down all day, I left my camera lens on a pillar beside the river, where I had been doing slow shutter release pictures of the cafes in the dark. This enabled me to run a quarter of a mile back from where I had got to, to retrieve it.

Despite taking many turns and choosing some directions to walk at random, we found it hard to get lost. Downhill was always going to be towards the river and once you know this you cannot convince yourself otherwise. We forced ourselves to go back to the hotel and eat our food. Time was getting on and we have an early start tomorrow. Yes, foolishly I had only allowed us an overnight stop in Córdoba. How stupid is that.

 

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Return to Tangier

An early start, but we didn't need the alarm, for the call to prayer at 5.30 found us both awake.

Breakfast was alone and although we were early, it started to feel like we were the only ones left at the hotel. The journey to the station was through some of the large squares to the west of the Medina. These were completely empty, except for the traffic passing through the narrow gates. At one there was a policeman, directing traffic, but at most entries and exits there is nothing to do but sit and wait for a gap in the oncoming vehicles. Marrakech drivers do not like delay. The small 50cc-90cc bikes and bicycles buzzed around us like a set of black helmeted insects. They squeeze through the smallest gap, with or against the flow. We travelled down some very expensive looking avenues past big villas set back in walled and gated gardens. I kept thinking, that despite its hippy trail aesthetics and the spirituality and charm of its Kasbah and markets, there is a lot of money in Marrakech. Not hidden but just tucked away from the tourists of the Medina.

The station is a grand one, so grand that I went back outside just to have another look at it. All railway terminals are self important, grandiose. Many European ones hark back to neo classical styles of temples and cathedrals. Moroccan ones have a bit of the colonial past and a few bits of Arabic classicism for good measure. That sounds like I don't care for them, but I do. The railway is one of the best contributions to the improvement of our lives and it should tell it like it is.

We had a compartment in first class. This means more elbow room, but not much else. I was looking forward to seeing the countryside we missed on the overnight journey, in the other direction. I hoped to be able to work out the sets of points where I woke up, or the station through which we rattled in the dark. Not really, but I had intended to start taking decent pictures through the carriage windows, something which has eluded me to date. I was disappointed to find the windows on our side were mucky. There was only one way to change this and I made my way outside, armed with a tissue to do the job. It's not as easy as it looks cleaning carriage windows. For a start they are a long way above you, especially on stations where you climb up to get into the carriage. What's more, it isn't that nobody tried to clean the train, it's not filthy, but the dirt on the window is apparently part of the glass. Or that's how it seemed to me. Rubbing away and pretending that you are really just waving to the person inside is going to get you noticed by the conductors and station staff. I knew I didn't have much time, so I wiped across as far as I could reach. It did nothing. I tried again, with more force behind the stroke. Nothing changed, the lines were all still there in every detail. People trying to get on the train began to stare at me. I moistened the tissue and tried again. It didn't help that Christina was laughing at me through the grime. Now it looked like there were two trouble makers in the one compartment. I gave up and left when I saw the conductors moving along the train in my direction.

 

Later in the day, one of our fellow passengers said that one thing Morocco lacks is landscape. Not so. As we left Marrakech with the Atlas Mountains curving around it and snaked through passes between large hills on the other side, we emerged onto the flatter dry countryside I had seen as we arrived, four days earlier. Within a short space of time we came onto a flat plain where there were more trees and what we could not agree about, which was either a dust cloud or a mist rolling across it. Later on we came across gentle hills that could have been in England, but for the occasional palm trees; areas of terraced olive groves like Southern Europe, marshland and places where the meandering rivers had eroded the sandstone to create wide valleys. At one stage we climbed over some low red hills that looked like they had laid themselves down to let the track get across them.

As we moved north, either the season became more advanced or the conditions for agriculture changed, for we began to see growth from the bare earth. It gradually turned green and the soil, from red ochre to brown. A few plantations large enough to be called forests appeared and went. Whenever we climbed above the valley floor, the vegetation became more sparse and the cacti along the trackside less varied. At lower levels we saw large Aloe Vera and other succulents. Cacti lined the field boundaries and were growing as a crop. Flowers became more abundant from the marigolds at Berrechid to large purple, red and orange shrubs before Casablanca.

We saw diverse types of agriculture, but most of it fairly unmechanised. In the south there were many people in the fields including shepherds. In fact, I noticed only one flock of any size, not closely attended by someone, usually male, but sometimes female. On at least three occasions further on, we saw people hand scything a crop. The first was not a cereal but what looked like large spinach leaves, the other times were cereal-like, but still green. In all cases it cannot have been easy to cut. Even this was surpassed by the sight of a man tilling a field with a donkey, pulling a plough that would have been recognisable to a medieval ploughman. True we did see a tractor ploughing a field further on, but it was not modern by any means. In this part of the journey we saw lots of carts and donkeys, although around Rabat these disappeared and were not common again until we had passed beyond it.

A man sat in our carriage with us and we talked a little. He lived in Paris but was visiting relatives in Morocco. When we stopped at the station before Khemisett a group of men and boys came up to the train, selling trinkets and herbs. Some passengers including our neighbour, bought things through the door at the end of the carriage. The herb smelled like curry plant, which I have grown, but it is an ingredient of Moroccan tea.

 

We changed trains at Casablanca (or Casa Voyageurs as the tickets called it), as the one we started out on goes on to Fes. There is very little warning of impending stops and the announcements don't give much time to get prepared when you have loads of bags to grab. We were carefully packing things, preparing early to get off at the next stop, when our compartment suddenly filled with a mother and family. As the train slowed, and we pulled bags down off the rack above our heads and picked up camera and food off the table, our suitcases rolled away towards the door. Someone grabbed them and wheeled them both to the end of the carriage and we clambered over legs and bags in the compartment and the corridor. Somehow, we found ourselves in a small heap on the platform surrounded by our belongings. Not how we planned it.

We were expecting a short wait for the Tangier train. An empty train came onto the platform, but another passenger told us it was delayed due to a fault. We went and checked, were given different times by station staff, so went outside to consult the departures board. This gave us an hour and a half until departure, so we took a stroll around Casablanca. It looked prosperous and well kept. Very smart trams delivered and collected people in the city centre. The pavements were level and smooth, perfect for wheeled suitcases, should you be encouraged to visit by our positive review. The station building itself was attractive and painted white. The sign above the entrance read Gare de Casablanca Voyageurs. A man tried to sell us a tour of the city. We told him we had about an hour. He rattled off a list of places we could do in an hour. We turned down the chance to see his fine city. Not that we didn't believe him, but we didn't trust the train not to be fixed early and leave without us.

The destination board gave another platform for our train. We got back through the barrier onto the platform we had been on. The woman who advised us about the delay said no the train was definitely going from there. Who to believe, a stranger, or the official station information. Of course we chose her. She was right and the platform board changed its mind to concur with her opinion, a few minutes later.

One thing that did not work on the train was the air conditioning. A woman got on at Rabat Agdal and sat down. Within a few seconds, the smell from the toilets began to waft in, though the train was moving. She got up to close the window. It refused to budge. I got up to help and found a tissue stuffed down one side to prevent closure. I removed it, shut the window and she sat down. A couple of minutes later and the compartment began to get hot. She got up to open the door. A man sidled in and sat down opposite her. Whether he began to attract her attention in some way, or she disliked the smell of smoke he arrived with, I don't know, but she got up and moved seats away from him. She then got up and tried but failed, to shut the window in the corridor. She shut the compartment door and sat down. He took out a phone and began to play a loud game with hideous sound effects. She got up and left the compartment.

It became very hot, so we reopened the window. The smell of toilet was a minor consideration. He then got up and forced the window in the corridor closed, but opened the door. All this was done without a word being exchanged and would probably have continued to occupy us all, had a second woman not come into the compartment and got into conversation with him. Sometimes you really do have to make your own entertainment.

Just before Rabat, Christina got up and went to the toilet. On coming out, the train was in a tunnel and she was, for a moment unsure which way to turn in the darkness. A cleaner grabbed her arm and led her away from the open carriage door. We had seen the doors of trains being opened before arrival at a station. After this, we noticed a number of trains with doors left open when travelling at speed. In some countries this is the norm. In Europe you're locked in before the train starts and doors cannot be opened by hand on most lines. We've probably got locks to prevent you walking out through the door at the end of the train too. Typical health and safety gone mad.

Along the vast section from Casablanca to Tangier they are trying to construct a wall to stop people crossing the line, which they do, everywhere. At every station people wander over the tracks, between platforms and often from the road into and across the platforms to exit the other end. There are signs forbidding people crossing, but they do, in front of officials. At Souk El Arbaa there is a bridge over the track, but nobody uses it. They were walking around the wall, which is not properly in place anyway, to cross all the tracks. Even in Rabat people crossed the railway from the road.

The wall is incomplete. In some places where the concrete sections have been fixed in place, there are openings where the wall has either been broken, or not fixed in the first place at a popular crossing point. There are lots of places where the sections are just standing as if waiting for a crew to arrive and join them up. Another problem with the wall is that it will divide communities, cut people off from their fields, their school, the local town. There were lots of people in the countryside walking beside the tracks or walking from distant settlements on paths that cut across the railway. They don't have motor transport, so what would they do if the wall was in place? Quite possibly break through it, destroying its purpose in one go.

On the first part of the journey, between Marrakech and Casablanca, there is a lot of trackside work going on. In some places there are complete bridges over the tracks with no road connecting them. Elsewhere a couple of concrete pillars and a crossbeam beside the way, or even a group of men and machines digging a pair of holes. The ground alongside is being levelled and banks erected. There is no indication of what is being built, more tracks, or a road to run alongside. At Kenitra they are building platforms for a high speed train to Casablanca, but this doesn't explain the work further south. All of which seems to be going on separately and simultaneously. At Ben Guerir station, men were pouring concrete into a deep pit between the tracks one wheelbarrow at a time.

From Casablanca to beyond Rabat, the country is more industrialised and the towns and cities larger. We passed along the coast for a while with a view of the sea and some resorts. At the edge of larger towns were shanty towns with roofs made of corrugated iron and satellite dishes, it appears.

Between Rabat and Tangier, away from the coast, the rural nature of much of Morocco reasserts itself once more. Donkeys and walkers in vivid clothes stood out against the yellow ochre paths. At Gueddari-Rmila, people getting off the train were met by what was a taxi rank of carts. Each horse drawn vehicle took away a few people towards the distant town. Lots of polytunnels and cloches indicate a quite intensive form of horticulture and the open fields have drip irrigation systems. Personally, I was interested to see apiaries in the forests near Llala Yto. I'm not sure if the bees were there to pollinate a crop, if so, which one. The trees might have been some kind of fruit, nut maybe, but I could not tell.

The smoker man got louder and the conversation with the other passenger became more one sided, until she gave up and lay across the seats with her eyes closed. Eventually, he turned to us and in English and French began a conversation about Morocco, its history, development and relationships with Europe and North Africa. He, it turns out is an academic and very knowledgeable. We talked about Tangier and how its status as an independent, 'international city' was changed in the 1960s and how it was until recently treated as a pariah by the rest of Morocco. Our discussion encompassed fashion and design Louis Quatorze and the exile of English kings offered support by Moroccan royals in the XVII century. The conversation was not wholly one sided, but we learned a lot from his knowledge and expertise. He turned out to be sensitive and engaging, so first impressions are not always to be trusted.

So engrossed were we in our talk, that we barely noticed the salt pans and the marshes along the coast. We arrived at Tangier station still talking. Suddenly, the train was empty and all the lights in the compartment and corridor went out. We hadn't got our bags properly packed and down from the racks above. My phone torch was all the light we had and the four of us struggled down the corridor until we met the train staff, who were horrified to find passengers still aboard.

The lone taxi driver, who had probably given up on a fare on that train, was pleased to see us. At the El Minzah, our old friend Said was exactly where we left him four days ago. We greeted like long lost relatives. Having checked in, we went outside again to find him, to say goodbye and to pass on the last of our Moroccan currency. Later, we regretted not holding some back to tip the porter and room service.

Our last day in Morocco and we had seen a lot and learned more about the country. We are both enriched by the experiences of the last week and have a lot to think about. For example, how do you reconcile high speed train travel across a country where the road crossings on the intercity lines are manned and operated by hand? As our fellow passenger asked, how does an economy based on small scale hand crafts, switch to industrial production without harming the very things people come there to see, unless places like Marrakech stay frozen in time?

 

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Marrakech last day

The plan was to go and see a couple of the major gardens, but seeing us sitting in the courtyard googling Marrakech gardens, one of the hotel staff offered to take us onto the roof of the hotel. Up high he introduced us to a different world. The roof is a series of interconnected spaces all with a particular aspect of the city.

On one side the nearby and the grand mosques, surveying the city they serve. On another the old Jewish cemetery stretching away towards a line of the Atlas Mountains, which form the backdrop to a third side looking over rooftops, some of which are derelict and fallen in. There are purple hills visible through the trees beside the Bahia Palace. It is however, not the skyline, but the pageant below that catches our attention and keeps us there for hours, just watching the activity.

All the things we've seen at street level were present; the donkeys with carts; the tourist carriages pulled by pairs of horses; tuc tucs; people carrying large loads on their heads, but we saw much more besides. Opposite a couple of workshops with men pulling and twisting threads that were to be used to make up cloth; a laundry, where motor bike trailers arrived in the morning with duvets, sheets, huge piles of washing impossibly loaded onto such a small vehicle and driven to here through these narrow streets. There's a pot with something bubbling away on the pavement outside and two gas canisters providing fuel. Later we saw the front of the shop pulled open and washing being piled on and driven away, or people arriving to collect. In the little park beside the old walls, a pair of veiled women sat and chatted, a man called out to a woman carrying a tray of something covered up, on her head.

 

There was a stream of vehicles heading for the market places from early morning onwards. How the two men managed to get a huge coil of strip steel onto their cart, let alone hold it still on their journey to work, avoiding the almost certain encounter with a truck or hapless pedestrian is a mystery we'll never solve.

 

Our local erstwhile guide, who has pounced on us a few times before, sits on a bench in the shade of a tree. He has already spotted and carried away a couple of tourists who made the decision to stop to consult a map. He swept them off and away down the street past the cemetery and reappeared without them an hour or so later. Sometimes, just when you see fresh prey appear beside the dusty walls along which he prowled, you find yourself waiting for him to accost them as they hesitated, or looked up for directions. But he doesn't always leap out and occasionally, watches them from his lair with complete indifference. Somehow he knows which is a succulent morsel and which is not. Usually his sense is acute and accurate, but later in the day, he failed with a couple who, not only looked around with a hesitant manner and stopped to consult a map, but appeared to engage with him in conversation as he appeared at their side. We were very surprised when he returned to his seat in the shade. Perhaps they too spoke Welsh, but more likely Chinese. In Tangier, a guide said that the Chinese were becoming more regular travellers in and around Morocco.

It was when watching a man on a rooftop watering plants that we first became aware of the White stork flying overhead. We tracked its flight and watched closely as it circled away over a distant piece of green space, coming closer, until it took off across the Jewish cemetery and the roofs behind us and disappeared.

Our vigil of the world beneath continued as the day progressed. An old man, pulled a cart laden with wood; two women stopped to exchange greetings, or gossip, we couldn't tell from where we were, even if we had understood their language. People passed by, then returned, with or without the bags they had been carrying. Then we saw, not one, but two storks circling gracefully in the clear blue skies above. This time we watched as one of them landed on the roof of the nearest mosque. As the other flew further away, it became obvious that they had a huge pile of twigs stacked on the roof and that they either had young, or more likely were rebuilding the nest in preparation for a future brood. At this point we had not identified the species, but they looked like some kind of stork or ibis. We noticed that they were adding to the nest with some large pieces of what looked like cloth. Hanging from its beak the female, as we assumed, was trying to find the right place for the sleeve of a coat or jacket. I don't know much of the habits of the White stork, but I sincerely hope the previous occupant of that sleeve was absent when it was detached from the rest of the garment.

Many times that day, I regretted not having brought a telephoto lens with me. The birds flying away, or sitting on the roof were difficult to capture at the distance they were. It took a long time to finally get some photos, when they practically flew over our heads.

About this time, we realised that most of our last day in Marrakech had slipped away. Don't misunderstand me, the experience of watching the city get up and go about its business was immensely rewarding, but we had some buying of essentials for the next day. We tore ourselves away from our elevated panorama and went down into the street.

A couple of turnings away, still within the Jewish quarter, we came across one of the hundreds of spice shops. This one was alone in its street, a few steps away from the synagogue. As we approached, the old man standing just inside greeted us, then turned and left. We were alone to make sense of the bottles and boxes in front of us. A minute or so later, a younger man appeared, primed by the older man no doubt, that he had some Europeans as customers. The experience of buying spices in Marrakech is not at all the same as shopping in a supermarket or pharmacy. For a start, you are offered tea. Then you are positively encouraged to try the goods, to smell, to have them rubbed on your arm, your wrist; to be invited to close one nostril while you inhale; to add something to your tea, that makes your eyes water and your lips tingle when you drink it. This is surely the proper way to buy spices and perfume. Sitting down and being given an explanation of the uses of the item as you try to decide how much you like it, or not.

For about half an hour, or maybe more we sat, sampling, asking questions, deciding how much we could afford to not take and how much precious luggage space would it all need. Feeling better informed, certainly more fragrant and loaded down with a shopping bag full of aromas, we left to go and find food for the next day's travel.

After serving us spices and perfumes, the shopkeeper explained that he was proud of living in the Jewish quarter and impressed upon us the importance of seeing the cemetery and the synagogue for ourselves. Then he insisted that he took us to the old synagogue where there was an exhibition of carpet making crafts. There was indeed a woman sitting at a loom on which the beginnings of a two sided, summer and winter carpet was being woven. But the purpose of the visit was to try and sell us a carpet, or a rug, or a lamp, even a small one, or a charming box, no? They can send things by FedEx if you want.

The mid afternoon sun was hot on our backs, the first time this year, as we located a bread shop. We passed our nemesis in the fabric shop without a glance inside. Nor were we seriously attracted by the orthodontist displaying bejewelled replacements for lost molars, or even the tissues thrust up at us by the woman half prostate on the pavement. Returning to the hotel by the backstreets, we were not accosted by people who guessed we were lost on more than a couple of occasions. Perhaps the lack of camera and map reduced their concerns. The old men were occupying the shade, away from the heat, but a group of young and old women sat in the middle of the small square sharing a meal, the sun lighting up their faces and bright cloaks.

The rooftop beckoned and we ascended once more. This time we witnessed the homeward march of countless people, bikes and other vehicles, streaming away from the city with a rose light pursuing them. The stork obliged us by taking off and holding a large bundle of something, flew off right across the setting sun. It was Disney, it was theatre, like watching the fabled stork that delivers babies.

The street began its slow fade into darkness. The mountains, on all sides were now much larger in our view, than they had been in the heat haze of the day. The purple mountains were sharp as pyramids, the Atlas to the south lost their cloud like appearance and loomed ragged and cold behind the edge of the city. The call to prayer overwhelmed the buzz of small two-stroke engines.

For our last night at the hotel, we requested a meal, which was prepared in our honour, as we were the only ones eating there. A table, candlelit and strewn with rose petals greeted our entry. A fire in the hearth was welcoming, as was the tagine of vegetables and a sauce that was placed before us. A good meal and a stroll across the courtyard and we fell into our room to pack, if not into our bed to sleep.

 

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Marrakech day two

Yesterday, our route took us along the road where the sudden blind turns could get you reduced to a coating on a wall. Today Google chose a different, safer and more interesting route for us. It took us through areas where the term road, pavement or surface would be a misnomer. This was not the bazaar but a place where people live and is empty of tourists. Many people along the way thought we were lost, or headed in the wrong direction and tried to put us on the right track. That we didn't want to be put there, was a source of concern to them. Eventually we found it easier to show them the phone and say the magical word 'GPS' .

The route was very convoluted and it took us down narrow alleys and across small squares, but we emerged on to the main road out of the old town via the indoor spice market. This has dozens of stalls all piled high with sacks and barrels of spices and potpourris, joss sticks even. At this time of day it was fairly empty and we made rapid progress through it. Out in the street again, we came to a shop selling lengths of cloth.

I have to say at this point that we have become lazy with our language learning in Marrakech, finding that we can get by in French in almost all places and even in Spanish when necessary, our vocabulary is not advancing.

To get back to the shop. Christina took a fancy to a beautiful piece of turquoise cloth with a stripe of various colours in it. The owner appeared and we asked how much. He said 200dhs. Right we thought, let's start the haggling. We looked at each other as if trying to piece together an opening bid for him to reject. “100dhs?” “Non, 200”. This wasn't supposed to happen. “150?”. “Non, 200”. He offered to show something for 150dhs. That's not what we wanted. Christina found another piece of fabric, equally desirable. “Combien?” ” 200dhs”. What did he want for the two? Something we had been told would always produce a reduction in price. It's almost a law of barter. “400dhs”. That can't be right. He must be from John Lewis' haberdashery department.

Some Moroccan women come in and examined the same fabric. Christina asked how much they would pay for the cloth. Not more than 150dhs each as they were not the best quality. “Why are you listening to these women, they are only customers” the shopkeeper fumed. The women were furious with him. “How can you charge that much for this cloth?”, they asked. Turning to Christina “Do not pay more than 300dhs for both pieces. They are not worth more and he is trying to ask too much for them,”. “300dhs?” She offered. The man waved his hand dismissively. We walked to the exit. Surely this is when he comes back with an offer, but no. We emerged into the sunshine, not sure what to do. We needed to to consider our next move.

Heading for the modern part of Marrakech we thought to take in a garden or two. The city is famed for its gardens and we wanted to see some of those marked on our map. Walking up one of the main avenues, we saw a sign for a crafts centre. In some cities we visited, these can be repositories of less than inspiring, overpriced, imported junk. Or worse; overindulgent, badly conceived, poorly executed, sentimental rubbish. You takes your choice. This one was neither. From the ornate tiles at the entrance, we got an inkling that something inside was worth seeing at least. It didn't deceive. From clothes and hats, to metalwork and pots, we found items that we had seen versions of in the Medina markets, but these were of higher quality. We bought crafts and ate lunch there, before ambling away, many kilos heavier.

 

The part of Marrakech we were in became more upmarket and middle class, although the pavements put a restraint on the area's upwards mobility. It would be easy to put your Guccis into some quite large holes in Marrakech sidewalks. The avenue we were on was lined with orange trees full of ripe oranges. I wondered why nobody picked them. Were they ornamental and tasteless, or was it not the done thing? My fingers itched to reach up and pluck one, or pick up a fallen specimen from the pit beneath each tree hole in the paving stones. The possibility of being shouted at was more of a deterrent however, than the thought of being marched to the nearest set of three policemen that are a ubiquitous sight in Moroccan cities. They always come in threes. One in the middle marked police dressed in black and the two flanking him in combat fatigues and rifles pointed down, is how you see them. This arrangement is never varied. I'm not sure if the bread around this law enforcement sandwich is civilian or military and I'm not about to satisfy my curiosity by asking them to explain. I can certainly live without this knowledge.

By now the shops around took on a different nature. Huge H&M signs, Starbucks and other western retail giants are here in force. We hadn't come to find them, but it's all part of the experience and I wouldn't pretend that all of Marrakech was like the Medina.

There are indigenous shops, locals earning a buck from tourists. But here it was rows of men doing shoeshine, selling sunglasses or offering money transfers. We sought out the advertised tourism office, just to see if there was anything nearby we shouldn't miss. First we looked in vain for a modern shopfront with the Moroccan tourism sign on display outside, but no luck. As we retraced our steps we found it. Not in a shop, nor in a rundown building. In fact it was quite imposing from the outside. Inside, it looked like they were not ready to open for the season. A solitary desk in the corner of a large room, buzzing with flies. Monitor leads hung down from what might have been intended as video demonstrations along two walls, but they were disconnected. A table strewn with a confusion of leaflets and one man behind a desk, who got up to greet us politely and courteously.

We asked him about local things of interest and the possibility of taking a bus to the Atlas Mountains for a day trip. He was sure no buses could go there and offered three alternatives; an organised tour, a hire car or a taxi. We said we liked bus travel, in case he mistook us for sensible people. No buses go there, but he pointed to a painted panorama of the areas around Marrakech with plenty of places highlighted that were within the radius of a day's taxi journey. It could be that this office is staffed at a minimal level during the winter. We know lots of places where the office might have been closed out of season. But it looked forlorn and not cared for. Perhaps the victim of cuts. After all, there were plenty of banners along the road advertising the Marrakech Biennial, already underway. Taking his map and advice away to consider at length, we walked off in the direction he'd given us towards the post office.

We struggled to find it, not being given any indication of how far away it was and which side of the avenue. Our tourism advisor had been interrupted in his instructions by a phone call and we hadn't cared to wait any longer. When we did make it, there was a plethora of options and a lot of people sitting in chairs not queues, waiting their turn. We were directed to an enquiry desk. As we stood in line, an official approached and asked what we wanted. “Timbres de poste?” We asked. He pointed to the far end of the hangar sized building and said what sounded like “Bureau de change”. We pointed to our postcards at the spot where we would very much like stamps to be, if they were to arrive in England. He got very annoyed. “Bureau de poste, c'est la bureau de change!” He didn't add “Imbeciles!”, but he meant it.

 

Down the road, we came to one of the famed parks, now named Cyber Parc in honour of its Telecom Maroc sponsors. Apart from that there is nothing very cyber about it and its green lanes and fountains provided a meeting point for many young people, including courting couples. There, a crowd around a guitarist, one foot up on a bench as he played, listened to him and a singer of some kind of folk song. It is a sign of how much these green spaces mean to the people of Marrakech. It made me realise that the presence of cats in the streets was matched by the absence of dogs being walked.

 

On our long walk back from the park we saw people heading home from work. One sight not to be forgotten was a man riding pillion on a small motorbike, clutching a painting on a stretched canvas frame. The canvas was at least as big as him. It must have acted like a sail on the bike and of course we can only speculate as to whether he was taking it home, delivering it, or making the paint dry quickly in order to sell it the next day.

 

We deliberately chose to walk past the fabric seller's shop. He was there with a group of local women deliberating over a purchase and therefore not in a position to rush out and accept the need to bargain with us. Quite by chance they were looking at the same bolt of cloth. As we watched, they began to walk away leaving him to fold it back up as they left the store. He no doubt saw us, but did not relent. How is this standoff going to end?

 

The spice market was crowded, the sellers more persistent and the would be guides and advisors more determined to get our attention on the way back. One well used trick is to ask “What do you call this in England?” As they point to something on their stall. It doesn't matter if you know or not, as you are reeled in to a sales pitch. This clever ploy only works with those non Welsh speakers in the audience.

 

In the back lanes, tiny shops had opened up and were selling food and drinks to local men and women. Old men sat in the street against the base of the walls, catching the last rays of evening sunshine. A man on a motorbike, swinging an unplucked and possibly live chicken, swerved around us. At a kiosk selling groceries we stopped to ask the shopkeeper for some glue. The stamps we bought for the postcards and letters, refused to stick to the paper. We needed some adhesive if we are to avoid being cursed by people having to cough up good money to read our highly amusing if somewhat inane messages to them. Even wishing they were here isn't going to appease them. The man isn't sure what we want and neither an elaborate mime of sticking paper together, nor attempts in French, work. Then, as we move away, he cries aloud in celebration of our acting talents and reaches up behind him for a tube of UHU glue. If only we'd known he was waiting for the curtain to fall at the end of the performance, we'd have cut the script to the bone.

If you've been following our travels hoping to learn something of the nightlife in these parts, I'm afraid that we disappoint you. After long days travelling or pounding the streets we are invariably exhausted, rempu, knackered and fall asleep at the first point we sit down. We try and eat out at a restaurant in each city, but often we choose to buy local produce to take back to our room and make ourselves up a meal. Tonight we did this with olives, cucumber, cheese, bread and tomatoes and a punnet of local strawberries. We do try cooking and are sure there is a cook book to be written on how to make use of an electric kettle and a trouser press in putting together an impromptu feast. But please be aware that this can get you banned from Travelodge.

The hotel staff are very attentive here and as soon as we got out our bottles of water and wine to set up in our courtyard, we were provided with extra glasses and a tray of olives as an aperitif. Not sure of protocol I offered our waiter a drink of either wine or water. This could be received as highly inappropriate or insulting, but he declined without making me feel like an 'Imbecile!'

 

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Salamu Aleikum Marrakech

We love Morocco, but then it would be hard not to. It loves you back. Several people have said to us, “Thank you for choosing to come to Morocco”. Marrakech is just as friendly as Tangier in that respect.

I had my first glimpse of the countryside around Marrakech before Christina woke up in our couchette. It was devoid of trees in most places. Around some settlements there might be a row of trees and around one or two fields a barrier of small cacti, but not much else. The previous day's rain still held in puddles, but otherwise the soil looked dry. A couple of donkeys leaned against the walls of a house and a couple strolled at dawn along a dusty path towards a settlement that might have been a single house, but it was impossible to tell with a high wall around it.

At Marrakech station, a taxi driver approached us, shouting and rushing to make sure nobody else got there first. He grabbed our bags and stowed them in the trunk of his cab, which I noticed did not close properly. I showed him the hotel address and asked the price, which he said was 100dhs. We got in, but it was clear he had no idea where our hotel was and made a phone call to find out. He took us across town through what were wide modern streets, lined with large office buildings and apartments. Before long we approached the old town and came across a square that looked like an earthquake had struck the centre, but saved the buildings. There was a double fence across the middle, directing traffic through a series of increasingly larger and deeper potholes. Our luggage rattled around in the trunk and threatened to bounce out onto the road. I will think of this Main Street through a city centre when I feel like complaining about potholes in Northumberland.

The road began to wind through streets surrounded by high terracotta walls. Ahead looked like a dead end, but at the very last moment we swung right through a hole cut in the red stone and took a sharp turn left on the other side. The next road looked the same and at the end we turned once more. At this point, just as I was thinking how difficult it would be for someone coming the other way, a man tried to embed himself and his bike into the metres thick wall to avoid certain death at our hands. Perhaps that's why the walls are this colour I thought. After a few more hair raising turns, negotiated without maiming or killing anyone, we arrived at a door buried in a high wall with the name of our hotel Ksar Anika as the only sign there was anything behind it.

 

The door opened and we were ushered into a cool and lamp lit reception area. It was clear our arrival so early was unexpected. However, unpeturbed, they led us through to a double courtyard with a small pool on one side and huge pots of plants on the other. They took away our order of drinks, leaving us to relax with the scent of orange blossom and the sounds of small birds. After breakfast we were shown our room, where a large double bed sprinkled with rose petals awaited us.

 

No time for that we thought and after a change of clothes we chose the Jardin Majoralle as our destination. The people at reception thought we should take a taxi, but we were determined to walk and so they accepted our decision, but not before equipping us with a card in English and Darija (the local Moroccan Arabic) to show to strangers and taxi drivers should we get lost and an umbrella to ward off the threat of rain. The latter worked as a talisman in that the sun shone the rest of the day.

 

Google maps did get us there and back without mishap, but its simple street plan did not do justice to the patchwork of narrow alleys and backstreets full of market stalls and the Souk with its smells sights and sounds. The journey was around 4 kilometres, but of this only the last half a kilometre was not lined with stalls and stores selling Berber handcrafts, clothing, fruits, olives, shoes, barbers and a host of cafes offering 'cuisine morocaine ou vegetarienne'. The latter were advertised with flyers carrying the same pictures and details with only the names of the cafe changed.

 

When we got to the Jardin Majoralle there was a queue to get in. Something we didn't expect on a late February afternoon. We paid for the garden and museum and really enjoyed both so much I cannot say which I would recommend more. The garden was the work of Yves St Laurent and is a spectacular, yet very intimate space, an homage to Henri Matisse. That Matisse was a great influence is shown not only in the the use of colour throughout the garden, but in the exhibition of 'love posters' near the museum which St Laurent sent as new year greetings to friends and customers. The garden is an oasis in the city, a mix of tropical, desert and mountainside planting, with cacti, tree ferns and jasmine alongside bougainvillea and bamboo groves, interspersed with pools full of golden carp, or rills in the Islamic style, dividing different areas. The pots that line the walks are a mix of terracotta, powder blue and lemon yellow. The pools and the museum building are a deep Majorelle blue that belies any notion that this colour is cold and unfeeling. It sings.

 

The museum contained within a painters studio, built by Jaques Majorelle, is a story of the Berber people told through its culture and crafts. These are not viewed as dead artifacts from a different era, but manifestations of Berber tradition that still resonate in the life and politics of modern day Morocco or the Mahgreb. Many of the things on display can be bought in the stalls in the market place and not just for tourists. If the Berbers as a people have been marginalised in many of the places they live, it is apparent that they have not only pushed back, but their influence is everywhere in local culture and architecture.

One thing we still have to find out is how and where they make their things. From the cottons and wool used in carpets and clothing, the dyes, the intricate metalwork and jewellery, the wood used in combs and other furniture, there is no sign of that locally. We will have to find that out.

Traders in the markets in the old Marrakech are not as persistent as in Tangier, perhaps the result of more exposure to resistant European tourists, but there are still lots of young men waiting to point you into their restaurant or guide you to the major tourism spots. In Marrakech they assume we are French. Their opening gambit is to ask, “Vous ettes Francais?” As a respite from this, I started using the few random words of Welsh my dad used to adorn his English. As most of them I only know orally and could not therefore write down and one or two are not to be written in a blog that might be read by sensitive souls, I should just allude to the fact that I got a few people to say 'Wales is great' as they tried to pick up what I was saying to them. I might try the other idiom my dad used, Cockney rhyming slang and see what the linguists make of it.

In the marketplace, much of the produce is made by women. However, most of the sellers are men and the customers women. Christina finds it easier than me to dive into the scrum of women searching for a bargain in the clothes stalls. She's used to jumble sales in England and this is tame by comparison. Some of the cafes here by contrast are strictly male affairs where you don't see any women. They are places full of smoke too, so we are not missing out on something we'd like to join in. Other places are less gendered to use the current parlance and not just the tourist venues.

 

Women are not absent from any where we could see and styles of dress are as varied as in any Global city. It is not uncommon to see pairs of women riding a motorbike through the streets of the Medina. These bikes and bicycles are a serious hazard in places and riders get up very close to pedestrians, making a real fuss if people don't get out of their way. If I was whatever the equivalent of mayor is here, I'd ban them, certainly between normal market hours. There are other vehicles moving around, from carts pulled by donkeys, or specially designed ones with motorbikes welded to them and even handcarts. Most of the streets are too narrow for ordinary vehicles even without people in the way, but there are some where taxis can get to.

 

We took our food back to the hotel having failed to find a bottle of wine. I did buy one from the hotel and it was both Moroccan and very tasty. It went well with the olives and bread. Went to bed exhausted but happy, not having heard the result of the Man City-Liverpool match, otherwise these Liverpool fans might not have slept so peacefully.

 

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Farewell Tangier

Our last day here and our train awaits, but not until 10 pm. We spent most of the morning in our hotel room reading and writing because checkout day has the effect of making you think that the holiday stay has already finished the moment you get up. I think I'd rather wake up and be on my way. Once we checked out, we started wandering the streets looking for a couple of restaurants that appear on the Happy Cow website. Yes, who knew. Anyway despite getting lost, asking people in the street where one of them should have been we failed to find it. The other turned out to be closed, but perhaps only until the evening. Completely stumped, we found ourselves in an unfamiliar part of town where there happened to be a boulangerie. We went in and would you know it, they were French. There followed the usual conversation about vegetarian food, in which the person behind the counter first of all finds it funny to think that such a thing exists, then takes pleasure in describing the meat content of everything. Then offers a tuna sandwich or salad as a solution and finally accepts that the bread and cheese pasty/sandwich/panini they haven't mentioned until now, might well fit the bill. So we emerged from the shop with two large crepes filled with cheese spread, made up for us by the nice young woman who thought we were frankly barmy, but anyway she'd take our money. And if she found out later we'd escaped from somewhere, she'd have a good story to tell her friends.

We killed the hours half looking for places we'd heard of, but didn't know how far away from us they were. Counting cats was one time waster we tried, but pretty soon gave up, as there are thousands. We watched men cutting old leaves off the palm tree trunks, and walked through a whole street dedicated to ironwork with men welding, cutting, melting and twisting lengths of steel into shapes to make garden furniture or ornamental penny-farthing shaped plant pot holders, pierced lamps and bird sculptures to name but four of the wonderful things they could do with bits of metal. We stopped often for drinks and passed by many more places where we were beckoned in.

At one rather careworn cafe we halted for no good reason, sat down, ordered and while the owner was making up our drinks, it started to rain. We got up to look for shelter further back from the roadside and immediately a chorus of other cafe owning neighbours began to call us over to their business, where they had lots of umbrellas and awnings simply waiting for us to take shelter. The owner of our cafe then ran out urging us to stay with him and take shelter at the rear of his pitch. He even turfed someone out of his seat to make room for us.

This couldn't go on forever, but it did feel like it would and we began to wish we'd taken a trip somewhere to make proper use of our time. Based on advice about local art galleries we visited a couple and didn't enjoy the experience at all. One patisserie offered the temptation of a football match on television. We accepted, but at half time the match coverage switched to the second half of a match between teams in a different league in another country. By this time we had written all our postcards home and were swimming in an ocean of mint tea and cake. There were still three hours to go until our train.

Outside the day was getting cold for Tangier and everyone was wrapped up against it. Except us who had left coats with our bags as being unnecessary weight to carry. Finally we returned to the hotel, did a bit of blogging and read all of the notices about its history and were so pleased when the taxi driver came half an hour early to pick us up, that we overtipped him by a mile as he dropped us at the station. The overnight train to Marrakech was the last train out at night and it was full. Most people who got on were sitting up in second class and there was only one carriage of first class couchettes at the very front of the train. We set off only minutes after we were both tucked up in bed, determined to enjoy a better nights sleep than our last overnight trip.

 

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Tangier Day 2

Said, our guide from yesterday, told us that a lot of the market in Tangier would be closed for the day and that he hoped to be busy with the arrival of the cruise ship full of tourists, mostly American. He was right about the ship; it was huge, seventeen stories high and it dwarfed everything around it. The car ferries looked like toy boats beside it. I wonder if it feels like living onboard a floating town and what the impact locally is of the equivalent of the simultaneous arrival of half a dozen of the largest airplanes full of tourists. Certainly there were plenty of American and other accents around all day. A group of them arrived. on the terrace of our hotel just after breakfast. We couldn't help overhearing their conversation, especially as some of them projected their voices well beyond the confines of the table. They let us know that they like a drink in the morning and don't understand their guide when he declines one, due to the religious strictures of a Friday. They are concerned about the risk of being in a region they associate with civil war and extremism and need the reassurance of their guide that Morocco is not a dangerous place for them. They can explain Donald Trump's appeal as that of a self made man who lost it all and made it again. But why do they think half of Tangier wants to know all this? Now I have lots of American friends, so I would never generalise from such a small sample and I know perfectly fine people who travel regularly on cruise ships. So, I know that it is not having enough money to live a life that most people in Tangier can only dream of, that makes these people so crass and loud. Perhaps it is a group dynamic that permits them to start telling their Moroccan hosts about the cooking of cous cous and a list of the ingredients of a cocktail that they assured themselves the waiter would not have heard of and would not know how to mix without their instructions. This in a hotel that boasted previous guests like Royalty, Presidents, Prime ministers, Tennessee Williams, Brigitte Bardot, the Rolling Stones and many others.

I probably would have forgotten all this had we not encountered a man from Tangier who regaled us at length about the miserable life he faced having tried to get into the UK via a truck from Calais to Dover where he had been discovered and deported. All he wanted was a better life; the one he saw on television and from visitors like us and those on the cruise ships.

It rained a lot on our second day here. By a lot, I mean rain so intense it acts like fog in obscuring the view beyond a few hundred metres. We could see it coming across the Mediterranean from Spain. At one point there were two spears of rain making twin tracks across the sea like arrows rushing at the shore. Between these heavy downpours, the sky peeled back to let rays of light fan out across the bay, picking out clusters of houses, fields along the ridge opposite, or boats swaying in unison in the marina. For a time it was the best entertainment in town, particularly outdoors.

Before the rain set in, we watched from the ground floor terrace as the men who were painting the hotel abseiled down from the roof to the balconies below to do their work. There were ropes and harnesses involved but no hard hats and other safety gear that one might have expected.

When the rain stopped for a while, we like many others trapped indoors, or perhaps finished with prayers, took to the streets for some fresh air and exercise. Turning away from the walled Medina, we took the road into the New Town part of Tangier. There is a lot of work going on here and some of it is impressive in scale and ambition. The beaches are being sacrificed to some degree and the fishing port is relocating to a new spot, but it is a sign of the increasing confidence that Morocco can benefit from its liberal cultural mix and freedom from the crises befalling other North African countries. Tangier should be in a good position to expand its economy through investment and in the income from tourism. For the moment a large part of the seafront is a building site, but it should soon look like the plans that adorn huge billboards along the coast. I hope our would be emigrant comes to benefit from this growth in opportunity and no longer sees staying in Morocco as a miserable second best.

We did circle around to the Medina and ended up at a clothing shop where Christina hoped to buy a Jelaba, a form of dress which in its male, winter form features a thick one piece cloak with a hood that can be pulled over the head to almost obscure it. Its female, summer form is quite different and is hoodless and made of silk or cotton and is likely to feature embroidery or applied gold threaded edging. Most female ones are dyed vivid colours, or patterned. The men's are more muted although not all dull. More than stylistic differences is that whereas young women wear their fashionable versions as much as their mothers might, young men are very unlikely to be seen in one. It is the dress of choice of a minority of middle aged and older men.

The young woman running her dress stall did not have any of the female winter versions with hoods. We had seen them on another stall when the market was open, but not this day. After pointing out various items, all rejected by Christina for being too flimsy for wear in Northumberland this side of a massive rise in global temperatures, the woman enlisted the help of others to guide us to what we wanted. At first this meant encouraging us to see that her products were perfectly matched to our needs. When assured that they were not depriving her of a sale, they felt free to offer their own, or someone they knew not far away as a solution. So we were offered tracksuit bottoms, tee shirts and college football tops as an alternative to match our criteria. Then one young man had the bright idea that the Berbers made a Jelaba that was guaranteed to be what we meant by thick and warm. Now we had seen the Berber market and could easily have found it again. In other circumstances, we would have followed instructions and asked again when we got closer. That's not how it works in Morocco. The owner of the idea took it upon himself to show us the way. So kind and helpful you're thinking. It was, but in order to increase his helpfulness required our guide to take more trouble than was necessary. So, he dove off down a side alley, taking us in a great circle that added considerably to the journey time and distance.

The man who greeted us at the Berber market discussed Christina's requirements and then started pulling out garments from the piles around, all the time keeping up the patter about the colours, styles and the way they were made. He only missed a beat when Christina showed a preference for the male winter Jelaba over the more feminine. She tried on several, trying to get him to name the price. Only when he was as satisfied as she by the colour and fit of the garment, did he begin the bargaining process. Neither of us has done much of this before, with the exception of renewing a wifi contract. Also, I'm not happy to beat someone down in price to a level where I can tell people how much I screwed out of the store keeper. Anyway, he did the first bit by bringing his price down from 900dhm to 600 (€90-60) as a special favour because he liked us. I pitched one back, 400dhm. He looked hurt. I almost gave in and offered the full amount. Though it was clearly going to cost him, he generously countered with 550. Christina asked how much that was and he said €55 “£55?!” Christina was shocked. “No €55″ is less than £50”, he explained. He could sense a sale slipping away “Ok, what is the limit of your budget?” Christina said something about liking 400dhm. “How about 500?” He asked. We shook hands on the spot, happy to end the ordeal. He handed the garment to another man who began to wrap it up.

“Excuse me, but would you give a little something for the man who has wrapped your parcel so beautifully?” Truth was we had no small change, only 200dhm notes. It felt mean to say this, but he didn't ask again. Later, thinking about our experiences, I thought that the system is designed, not to get the most out of you, but to spread the rewards around.

Outside, our erstwhile guide was waiting. He started leading us back by the much shorter route that now made more sense to him. We however, were in no hurry to get anywhere and were happy to free him from any obligation. We had seen his conversation with the stallholder and figured he would have his reward there. He didn't appreciate the loss of an additional revenue stream and tried to entreat us to hurry away. I don't think we were best friends at departure, so I'll mark that one down as a failure.

Back at the hotel we met Said standing on the very spot he'd promised we should. We hadn't expected to, because we figured he'd have his day mapped out showing the cruise ship visitors around, but he explained that although he'd had a couple of tours, there were nowhere near as many on the ship as there normally were. We told him of our adventure in the market. “How much would you guess we paid for this?” Christina peeled back the paper wrapping. “250 maybe 300dhm.” He could see our crestfallen faces. “How much did you pay?” “500dhm and he started at 900. It's very good quality, nice and warm.” He could have twisted the knife, but instead he reached in and squeezed the cloth between his thumb and forefinger. “Yes, very good quality.” We all breathed a sigh at this concession. He's a tough one that Said, but sparing of our fragile bartering reputation.

Then the rain returned, just as the cruise ship prepared to leave. We watced the process from our room. It took well over an hour from the arrival of the tugs to the clearing of the harbour wall, as they directed it out into the sea channel. Several times the ship was entirely obscured by rain clouds and as they set off for the Canary Isles, they took the bad weather with them, for even with all lights on deck blazing away, we could not follow their progress along the coast past the old town.

 

We were happy to have our meal that night in the hotel surrounded by pictures of the stars. It almost felt like we are stalking Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt, as they have stayed at all these hotels before us. I'm wondering if Rock Hudson isn't one of our family as I've seen more pictures of him lately than our own children

 

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Tangier

The fast ferry to Tangier only takes an hour, but in that time moves you to another world. Everything is different and to us, new. I'm not sure if I should say this but, the first thing that happens on the ferry is that everybody rushes to one side to get their passports stamped, having filled in the entry questionnaire whilst waiting to board. The thing is, that if you ignore the rush and go to the cafe instead, you miss queuing for both and you get a seat. Now, having told you, I expect on our return everyone will be rushing for the cafe and we will have to queue twice.

 

At the port we had arranged through the booking agency to be met by someone with our tickets on the Moroccan trains, which are easier to obtain from there. He was also to take us to our hotel. Almost immediately, another man, claiming to be an old friend of his, approached with a counter offer to take us on a tour of Tangier, or the rest of the country, whichever we were up for. So insistent was he that he began to take my suitcase off in a different direction to his friend, towards another car. It wasn't a difficult choice to make between friend one with the train tickets and the directions to our hotel and friend two with the promise of an experience we would never forget and my suitcase. Here is where I realised how poorly equipped I am to deal with this kind of situation. We had been told, warned would be too strong a term, about this difference in culture and that the thing to do was to politely, yet firmly resist without causing offence and to ensure that you part with all sides happy. I did not see how I was going to get my suitcase back without force, probably very undignified and it might hurt.

Christina was more than capable in this situation. She explained calmly and forcefully that we were headed to our hotel to get a few hours shuteye and that she needed her bag back to go with the man who had our tickets. He handed over the case, but still followed us across the car park. What about if he came to our hotel in two hours? “No thank you, we will still be asleep.” “How about four o'clock? This is a good time to start a tour of the Medina”. “No thank you”. What were we doing the rest of our stay? “We are leaving tomorrow”. By this time our bags were stowed away in the car and we were trying to get around him to get inside. “So, no time to see Hercules Cave”? He was almost plaintive now. “When you get back I take you to graves of the Phoenicians”? The rest was drowned out by the car engine. Our driver, who had not uttered a word all this time and never once even glanced at his rival for our affections, merely reached back and stuffed some small pieces of paper stapled together into my hand. Our train tickets. We headed to the hotel through afternoon traffic.

 

Hotel El Minzah is a palace inside. You can get lost in its corridors, but not worry a bit, because there are so many varied pieces of artwork, paintings, photos, indoor fountains and public terraces to sit at, that a journey around it makes a fine tour in its own right. At its centre is a courtyard that has a small fountain that always has red flower petals floating in it. The corridors on each floor do not seem to follow this square and take off at angles, or get wider at one end, or break off at the wrong point. There is everything you want from a modern hotel, but with the individuality of a private house.

On arriving we were asked the usual questions about our stay, but within seconds were being put in touch with a guide to take us around the old town and offered even more ideas for filling in any time we might have left. By the time we were shown to our room, we were booked onto a tour starting in a couple of hours with a friend of one of the hotel staff. When we went down to the desk half an hour before the due departure time, we found our guide Said was already there awaiting us.

 

Said was our perfect guide. He suggested different tours and when we told him it was the history and art we wanted, he led us off on a tour of the areas inside and out of the Medina where artists had stayed. On hearing that Christina loved Matisse, he'd led us, not just to the outside of the Ville de France hotel where the man painted for a whole year, but through reception, past all the reproductions of Matisse's work that hang there, up in a lift to the top floor and with the assistance of the concierge, to allow Christina to open the door to his room and step inside. Everything except the bathroom was exactly as in Matisse's time. The view through the two windows on each side was pretty much as it appears in his paintings. As we left I glanced down to see that the bell and telephone to connect with the front desk had been kept. They let me sit in his chair. The National Trust would be horrified.

Our tour with Said was about three hours and took in just about all we could get to in the Medina, including the Kasbah and the tomb of Ibn Battuta, a traveller of the fourteenth century, who took off on a pilgrimage to Mecca and did not return for 29 years having clocked up 44 countries. He returned to Tangier but got restless again and once more took off. He wrote an account of his journey to help others to understand the world and their fellow man. Oh, so that's what I should be doing here.

Said not only pointed out all the things we should see in Tangier, he also took us to visit a carpet store owned by another Said, whose perfect Yorkshire brogue hid the fact that he is a native of Morocco who once plied his trade of selling, well anything really, on the streets of Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle and elsewhere. A man who you'd think would be welcome anywhere to provide a service and employment to people and to work hard at it. However, the mood following 9/11 changed his feelings towards his adopted country and he was forced to leave at the hands of petty racist ideologues, who cannot tell the good in most men from the bad acts of a few.

 

The narrow alleys of the old town are a feast for the eye, even on a winters day. The colours are chosen by the occupants of each area and maintained by them. The almost total absence of traffic inside the Babs or doors to the Medina makes it perfect for endless wandering. You can't really get lost, but it holds that illusion for the first time visitor. Said helped us buy oranges, olives in abundant colours and tastes, large flat breads and a cheese made by the Berber women that are wrapped in palm leaves.

 

We visited a spice salesman to buy saffron and were almost knocked out by the aromatic spices on sale there. We didn't really have to barter for these things as they are what are called fixed prices. We left that for another time. We saw streets of shoe shops with brightly coloured pointy flat shoes, Berber shops selling Jelabas and carpets. We went to the Bab El Bahr where there is or was a platform to view the ocean. What he showed us was the tremendous amount of work is go”ing on to restore the Medina and remove some of the accretions of modern times against its walls. It all looked promising as a future for this historical, but more importantly, thriving, cultural, economic and residential heart of Tangier.

 

Back to our hotel through crowded streets it was getting dark and still the selling went on. Tomorrow Said said is a day of rest and people must do what they can today. Outside our hotel, he pointed to the spot and said” You can always find me here”. And we left him to go and taste our purchases from the markets of Tangier.

 

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Algeciras to Tarifa

We saw nothing of Algeciras in daylight and should probably, as you'll see, have seen even less. The hotel is seriously grand and leaves you in no doubt it has seen a better class of clientele. Even though it admits some of them were German spies keeping watch over the straits of Gibraltar in WWII. Morocco was divided and given to France and Spain to 'protect' by a group of visitors from France, Germany, USA, Great Britain, Italy, Russia and Spain. At least they allowed someone from Morocco to be there. Previous celebs and aristocracy are memorialised in a 'golden book' or brass plaques in the foyer. It is a lovely hotel and a treat to be able to stay in somewhere with such grandeur and sense of history. It is though, quite noisy and we did hear loud music and someone with a terrible cough that would have given cheer to an undertaker for large parts of the night.

 

Next morning we found that most of the people at breakfast were a group of elderly Brits and that the cries we heard of “You're not getting it in right” were because someone genuinely could not put their plastic key into the door to open it. Honestly, if we'd have been told this was an Agatha Christie tour it would not have surprised in the least. We tried to identify our neighbour with the terminal cough and since he was not there, half expected to have to identify which of the party had killed him in the night for a couple of hours sleep.

Our ferry to Tangier was due to depart at 1 pm. We could see the port from our hotel balcony. I settled down to write and Christina to discuss the state of the world with our neighbour on the next balcony. He did not say his name was Jesus, but definitely that he was the reincarnation of said. He turned out to be the owner of the cough as previously mentioned, which he seemed to blame on the pollution of the air when he worked on ships. We would, he told us, not have heard of him, but like the rest of the world, would know his work before his time on earth came to an end. I was lothe to put my head outside to tell him in that case to get that cough checked out, as he had expressed his dislike of my carrying a camera onto the balcony in case I took his photo. Christina is much more sympathetic to middle aged prophets than I.

It was getting close to midday before she dragged herself away and we needed to checkout. We packed and got out of the room in ten minutes, as is our established pattern. At the desk, the woman there when asked about getting to the ferry terminal, suggested it was an easy ten minute walk. Unfortunately for us, she meant the ferry terminal at Algeciras and not that of Tarifa. Being strangers there, we did not spot the error. In fact it took us twenty five minutes to walk into the terminal. At first we joined the wrong queue, then when we spoke to the woman at the check in desk, at what would be the right queue if we were going from Algeciras, she swiftly diagnosed our problem. She described it in almost perfect symmetry in that we were more than twenty kilometres from standing in the right queue; we were already more than twenty minutes late in checking in; we had twenty minutes left until the ferry left Tarifa, but that unfortunately it was a twenty five minute taxi ride away. For good measure, she added that the next ferry was in five hours.

We didn't stay around for any more chat and picking up bags and papers ran for the exit. Outside we found the line of taxis. The driver of the first took his time opening the trunk to get our bags stowed and even at the news that our ferry was going from the next port in twenty minutes and it was twenty…….no we didn't want to get into all that again, he merely shrugged one shoulder said “No problem” and drove equally casually away. To describe him as laidback and us as panicked, does justice to neither. For the first few kilometres we drove at frustratingly slow speeds behind infuriatingly long queues of cars around maddeningly twisting, single lane roads. Then we found ourselves clinging to each other and the car doors as we accelerated round hairpin bends at up to 120kph overtaking trucks and buses as we wound down the miles and minutes towards one o'clock. Our hopes rose and fell as we first made up time, then lost it as the road once more narrowed to a single lane. We swung off the highway into Tarifa with two minutes to go and a road hogging, crawling, bicycle toting, winibago in front of us, killing off the last slivers before it turned off to hold up some other unfortunate vehicles, probably behind a tractor.

“What time your ship go?” Asked our driver, now waiting for a coach to inch forward through the terminal gates. “One o'clock “, we both said. “No problem”. “One o'clock, sometimes fifteen minutes past is possible” he added. Really? We looked at each other with some disbelief.

Christina jumped out as we pulled to the terminal doors and rushed inside with our reservations. The driver helped me to retrieve all our bags and refused my offer of a thirteen Euro tip, which I wanted him to have, partly as a thank you and because I didn't have time for change to be given. I insisted, he resisted. Right there we had a standoff, very brief but definitely an impasse. He accepted three Euros and insisted on carrying half my bags to the door. As we entered, I could hear Christina saying, “but he's coming” to the guy at the check in. “The gate closes in one minute” she told us, looking concerned as our paperwork was processed and boarding passes printed. Collecting papers, coats, cameras, bags, everything we set off down the corridor. The driver was still with us. We went back for Christina's suitcase by the check in desk. At the far end, as if in a nightmare a figure was waving at us, beckoning us on with one hand and shouting into a radio handset with the other. Three of us dashed the fifty or sixty yards towards him. He pointed right and we rounded a corner into the security hall at a run. Baggage X-ray to do. We threw our heap of belongings on to the conveyor belt, Christina dragged the driver into a massive hug and we were throwing bags over shoulders, stuffing coats under arms and pushing suitcases away towards the passport control. The man at the desk was laughing, having witnessed this whirlwind approaching. “Just made it, huh?” We burst into the quiet departure lounge, sweating and panting, clattering bags to the floor, still high on adrenaline and waited there for twenty five minutes while they loaded all the trucks and cars onto the ferry. Welcome to cardiac stress.

 

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To The Edge Of Europe

The hotel in Madrid was comfortable. Sadly, it suffered that scourge of modern life; corporate branding. Everything that could be covered, either with a logo, or corporate speak was joined to the cause. From the paper placemats in the bathroom to the menu cards, everything bore the burden of the company messages to clients and staff. Most was in Spanish, but “Own The City” “This Is My Tryp” and “Share The City” were just some of those aimed at foreign visitors. The last being a campaign to get guests to tell Facebook what they enjoyed. We had a handwritten welcome with added emoticons in marker pen on the mirrored wardrobe door. I couldn't help wondering whether they employed someone to write these on every mirror in the whole hotel chain, or was it something more added to the list to be completed and ticked off by the chambermaid as she cleaned our room.

 

There were no maps of the city centre at reception, so we chose to just walk the streets with our bags until our mid afternoon train. Our only aim was to head off away from the station and make our way back somehow. Along the Calle de Attocha and we came to a church with the name Barroquia de Santa Cruz over the door. It being Wednesday there was a queue the length of the block to get in and an array of people selling from makeshift displays outside. Every week the followers of Saint Jude, or San Judas Tadeo, the patron saint of lost causes pay their respects and offer up a prayer for some of the more impossible desires they want to have fulfilled. From a good university place to a home of their own, they may be thinking that the Saint marks their last throw of the dice. There must be enough stories of miraculous cures or lottery winnings to ensure the faithful keep returning, but apparently they do. Part of the ritual is to go down the road after their devotions to drink a hot chocolate and eat churros at a nearby cafe, so their supplication does bring some immediate reward.

 

We made it as far as the Plaza Mayor, very pretty, but with cobblestones that make your teeth rattle and ears hurt as you drag a suitcase on wheels. There we found a tourist information office, which I must say was a lesson in how to make visitors welcome. Inside the doors it felt like someone responsible for tourism knew that spending money on their services was worth it to show tourists that their presence is valued. From a group of staff someone came forward to greet us and having ascertained our needs took us to the person deemed most likely to be able to answer our enquiry. He told us about the old town and the area of museums and in passing mentioned the Museo Nacional Centro De Arte Reine Sofia which houses Picasso's painting Guernica. That made up our minds for us. We could not leave Madrid without seeing it. Not that we rushed away, but made tracks towards the gallery via many of the small side streets, full of brightly coloured shop fronts, individually owned stores, a world away from the global brands that line the high streets of every city.

 

Occasionally, the displays in the shop windows caught our attention. None more so than a salon offering a wig fitting service. It struck us immediately, that the current hipster fashions for men in London would be best complemented if women would consider Marie Antoinette as a style icon whose return to fashion is surely long overdue.

 

At the Reine Sofia it was not easy to locate Guernica. Finding no directions to it, we asked at the front desk and at the information booth on the ground floor. We were sent to the second floor, where we found a map showing the room it was in. Around the other side of the building we asked a gallery attendant for help. He showed us through a side doorway off the main gallery through which we eventually found the room displaying Guernica. There was a line of people in front of it, including a party of schoolchildren.

Both of us had seen many reproductions of this iconic painting and dozens of commentaries on its creation and significance. None of this prepared us for the impact it made hanging a few metres away. I don't think that I have come as close to tears in front of a painting. It is such a powerful image, one that conveys the general horror of war as much as it shows the brutality of a fascist military, allowing weapons of mass destruction to be used against the unarmed and innocent people of a defenceless and harmless town to make a statement of intent. The painting is full of symbolism, but it is absolutely direct and unambiguous in showing agony and despair. Alongside the painting itself are some of the preparatory drawings and even film showing the history of the republic and the civil war. They may all add to the context, but nothing more is necessary to add to the impact of Picasso's painting itself.

Crossing the plazas you see people, young and old. Some of the elderly men are immaculately dressed with long coats, brogues and a hat perfectly placed above neatly combed grey hair. They walk with a pace that disregards the modern urge to rush everywhere, which gives them an air of such dignity. It was something of a surprise therefore, to see one man much past retirement age, wrestling with a female mannequin in a sex shop window. The mannequin clearly had the upper hand. I suppose without Oxfam or Save The Children shops perhaps there is a lesser opportunity here to fill ones time in a socially useful manner.

We left Madrid with another bocadillo with tortilla de patatas on our persons and watched the world unfold. West of Madrid the countryside is flat with barely a ripple in it, but before long a line of hills standing tall above the plain appeared in the distance. Once past, the level plain returned, but with another line of hills stretching away in the same direction. This pattern repeated itself as we headed for Córdoba. It was as if someone had casually thrown a large tablecloth over the land and the hills were the unflattened creases in its otherwise smooth surface.

 

We passed through Córdoba without seeing much of it. On either side we stopped at stations that seemed much larger than the size of nearby settlements warranted. At Antequera-Santa Ana a crowd of people left for a destination that was all but invisible from the train. Just after Ronda, the train stopped in what looked like a maintenance shed. I looked around to check we were not alone in the carriage, fearing for a moment that we should have changed at the station and had been shunted off to a siding for the night. It was reassuring to see we were not alone and that we would be able to form an effective negotiating committee if it turned out to be a hostage situation. A couple of minutes lapsed, before we were notified in our respective languages that all was okay and they were merely changing the wheels to fit the Spanish railway tracks ahead of us. You have to admire a country that, like Isambard Kingdom Brunel, refused to apply the generally accepted width of railway tracks. Like Brunel, Spanish railway engineers knew that the standard gauge railway was the result of historical accident based on the axle length of a medieval cart and not an iron law. At least the Spanish railway unlike the Great Western held onto its principles for more than a hundred and fifty years. Once adjusted to local track dimensions, we also slowed down and began to meander in keeping with our new status.

The last hour or so of this five and a half hour journey was in darkness. We pulled into Algeciras station too late to start wandering around town with our baggage in tow. We had been advised to take a taxi up to our hotel, but both of us wanted to use our legs again. So, we followed directions from a man who seemed to have taken it upon himself to greet visitors at the station, probably to the annoyance of the cluster of cab drivers waiting for a fare on a quiet night.

The walk up to the hotel was not long. In fact, it seemed to take longer to walk around the grounds of the Reine Cristina to the reception than from the station. Once again the locals showed their contempt for convention by altering Queen Christina's name in an arbitrary manner. Later, we found that the hotel had been founded by the man whose company built the railway.

 

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