Iberia and Morocco, 2000

A circuit through the al-Gharb (Algarve, Portugal), across the Strait of Gibraltar to al-Magrib (Morocco), then back to the Iberian Peninsula through al-Andalus (Andalucia, Spain) — a journey through Arabic lands!  We met in Madrid having traveled from London via different means:  I arrived fresh via 1.5 hr British Midlands flight, and Paul weary and worn from a 36 hr slow train odyssey through France and half of Spain.

The next night we took the sleek and shiny Ferrol “Rias Gallegas” train to Galicia where at dawn we crossed into Portugal and arrived in Porto for a seaside lunch, then onto Lisbon.  We made a side trip to visit the Castelo dos Mouros, an Arabic hilltop castle dating from the 8th century, and to taste the queijadas, or delectable cheese and spice pastries I has “discovered” on my first trip to the area in 1990 and had since enjoyed at Chave d’Ouro (“Golden Key”) Portuguese bakery across the street from my East Cambridge apartment where I lived after university.

From the seaward capital we headed to southern Portugal, the Algarve to enjoy a couple days of beachy R&R then to hip Tarifa, Spain. The hills around this town were dotted with wind turbines, symbol of Spain’s emergence as a green energy superpower.  We then departed Europe from Algeciras en route to Tangiers, gateway to the great African continent.

After an uneventful crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar, we landed on African soil and braced for the onslaught of touts at the arrival port.  Much to our surprise the few Moroccans there showed little interest in we mere pedestrians with backpacks.

We caught a train to Casablanca and within minutes we were deep into a potential scam but fortunately escaped at the last minute.  At the time it seemed plausible, but in retrospect it was classic harried attempt to get us off the train at a stop (in the middle of nowhere) only to be captive at a single hotel and restaurant until the next train passed through, usually a day or two later.  Actually, a similar and funny scam happened to us later in the trip, one would think we would learn!  But scams are part of the travel landscape and we needed to develop a bit more savvy so it was all good (provided we weren’t hurt and not too seriously inconvenienced)…

In Casablanca we stayed at a cheap, local hotel near the station since the train to Marrakesh didn’t leave until the next day.  The local hotel was perhaps the worst I’d seen in my travels, but we made it through the night but just barely — the muezzin‘ s pre-dawn call to prayer awoke us sublimely from our slumber.  Paul paid the equivalent of US 25¢ for the communal “shower” which the proprietor made available after unlocking a series of sturdy iron padlocks.  Because of the ostentatious security measures, Paul was expecting a shower room fit for the Taj Mahal but was rewarded merely with a bucket of tepid water in a dirty closet with a drain.

Unwashed but liberated from the disagreeable hotel, we grabbed hot coffee and some Moroccan sweets and boarded the train to Marrakesh which casually dropped off and picked up passengers at places seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  We passed olive groves and flat adobe villages with soaring mosque minarets.  We snacked on treats from the station vendors,  Paul bought some candy buttons which surprised me for still having marketable value despite its lackluster hard-sugar-stuck-to-paper appeal.  The morning ride through the pastoral countryside was pleasant and uneventful, and anon we arrived in the famed Marrakesh.

We quickly found a perfect family-run inn located squarely in the central medina, after a tasty lunch we proceeded to wander through the winding adobe pedestrian alleys of the ancient city center.  Literally within minutes we were lost amidst the myriad Arabic commerce: precious metal artisans, wood workers, clothing stores with rich gowns, mendicant hands outspread for alms, delivery men with jangling carts, bulk markets teeming with the exotic smells and hues of unknown foods, children playing and laughing, the faithful headed to mosques.

Public Morocco is a masculine space; we encountered few women in the streets.  Fully clad, their camouflaged bodies draped with long flowing robes and their faces hidden beneath the hijab. The men, by contrast, are omnipresent and strikingly expressive.  Young males commonly walk arm in arm, elders are frequently hugged and kissed.  This male affection underscored a significant and impressive cultural difference to my Western eye.

Happily lost, we engaged the directional services of a young local (for a small fee) and we were lead from the dark depths of the inner medina back to our inn where we drank tea and rested in our fine rooftop room.  Shortly after sunset, we strolled to the evening market where we were enchanted by storytellers, snake charmers, barrel organs and pet monkeys, musicians, fire walkers, and stall after stall of grilled meats and fish, hearty Berber tagines, sumptuous sweets and fresh squeezed orange juice.  It was a delightful feast for every sense.  Marrakesh proved to bewitch, bother beguile and bewilder we two blithe travelers during our stay in this mesmerizing city. A++!

From Marrakesh we cut through the Atlas mountains to totally untouristed Ouarzazate en route to the Sahara for some desert sands and camel rides… we were in Africa after all.  Our destination was the outpost village of Merzouga and we boarded a Mercedes Benz “taxi” packed with 6 others believing we were headed to this desert enthusiast’s mecca.

After several hot hours of roadless travel through the desert sands following nothing but the power lines, we alighted in a dusty nowheresville.  The “taxi” driver assured us it was indeed Merzouga, as did everyone we met in town, despite the fact that nothing matched the description in Lonely Planet.  Feeling this was a scam, we promptly found ourselves rooming in the only hotel in town.

Famished, we ordered a veggie meal a the only restaurant in town (which just so happened to be the only hotel in town).  The meal was unexpectedly delicious, a heaping feast of fresh salad greens and grilled legumes.  We strolled around town before nightfall, greeted by smiling, assertive children and friendly adults — everyone we asked seemed to affirm that this was indeed Merzouga.  Yet oddly the entire town was devoid of the usual tourist trade: no desert tours, no camels to rent, no “restaurant row” featuring pizza and English breakfasts, no trinkets for sale.  Perplexed, we returned to our hotel from the rooftop patio enjoyed the magnificent stars above us.  Despite our continuing confusion as to our specific whereabouts, we rested peacefully and with full bellies.

We struck out early the next morning before the hot sun reached high in the sky, determined to definitively ascertain our position.  We entered the erg before us, the expansive sand sea, crossing dune after dune.  After a couple kilometers we finally spied our destination in the distance: Merzouga.

Now aware of our bearings, we trotted back to impostor Merzouga (aka Hassi Labied), grabbed our backpacks and before noon we were in the veritable Merzouga and had booked an overnight camel trip into the Erg Chebbi, the Saharan erg bordering hostile Algeria.

Riding a camel is no easy task.  First, the hump on a camel is as wide as it is tall, so hours of legs spread wide is not entirely comfortable.  Second, camels wobble wildly with each stride.  The considerable rocking motion as they climb and descend the high dunes requires a firm grip and some steady balance.  But camel riding is fun and these docile creatures prove to be generally reliable transport.

We rode deep into the erg, leaving Merzouga hidden far behind layer upon layer of amber waves of sand.  Just before dusk we arrived at a fairytale oasis with palm trees and lush vegetation, it was our overnight camp.  We dined on basic but filling tagine, fresh fruit and mint tea, and after dinner played on the dunes as the moon rose overhead and the stars lit up the desert.

The night chilly but not uncomfortable, we opted to sleep beneath warm camel wool blankets in the open air, the moonlight our ceiling.  The guttural braying of the camels woke us periodically throughout the night and the clear, crystal stars shone magically bright through the dry desert air.  Before dawn, we mounted our camels in the pre-dawn blackness (the moon was far below the horizon by then) and rocked in all directions as the camels carried us back to Merzouga in the twilight hours.  A surreal and superb journey into the Sahara.

Our Moroccan journey nearing its end, we bussed north through the impressive Atlas mountains and stopped in the pleasant town of Moulay Idriss nearby the impressive and ancient Roman town of Volubilis.  They were the best Roman ruins I’d seen outside of Italy, and we practically had the site to ourselves.  We lingered all afternoon among the crumbling columns, roads and villas, many with exceptionally well preserved in situ mosaics.  With many of the roads and major monuments still intact and the footprints of the shops and residences clearly defined, I could well imagine the strategically important and commercially thriving town in full glory nearly 2,000 years earlier.  We watched the sun set through the triumphal arch, the final golden rays falling on the stony, silent remnants of this  outpost at the western edge of the ancient Roman Empire.

On our final day we caught a taxi back to Tangiers driven by an octogenarian who was clearly not up to the task.  Every short while he would nod off so we had to keep tapping his shoulder for fear of careening off the road (not a good way to end our adventure!).  We could barely communicate for he spoke not a word of English, Spanish or French.  That was what I call a trip and it did inspire a new zest for life and thirst for a stiff drink.

So the English pubs of Gibraltar were on our minds as we crossed the Mediterranean Sea from Africa back to Europe.  We met a gregarious young Aussie couple with the same goal for it had been weeks without alcohol.  Straight off the ferry, we crossed from Spain to the United Kingdom on foot over the narrow Gibraltar airport runway and we proceeded down High Street where we promptly knocked down a few pints with our new friends.

The final week was a tour through Andalucia to see the highlights of Muslim Spain: the distinctive mesquita in Cordoba, the seat of the Al-Andalus caliphate from which the Arabs governed the Iberian peninsula and western North Africa for centuries.  We enjoyed Granada with its winding medieval medina with cafes and tapas bars, views of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada and of course the majestic Alhambra, the 14th century Moorish palace and fortress still marvelously preserved.  The splendid flower gardens, ornate patios with trickling fountains, and chamber walls and ceilings adorned with masterful arabesques and fine Moorish architectural details continue to inspire me years after my first visit.

Our final destination was Sevilla for a quick overnight before catching the Ave express train to Madrid which clocked speeds at over 300 km/h, or nearly 190 mph — a vast improvement over the somewhat rambling RENFE trains of my college days a decade earlier.

We had reached the end of our journey which had lasted nearly six weeks and carried us from Scotland to England to Ireland, then south to Portugal, Morocco and Spain.  We were travel weary but our wanderlust satiated for the moment.  On the long trip home over the Atlantic, I was already dreaming of my next adventure with Paul.

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