Train for Tomorrow

Tuesday 28th September

It was just as well that our two day sojourn in Seville had been reasonably relaxing because the 24 hours of travelling that followed were anything but. A direct plane from Seville to Marrakech might have been our least torturous option but, mindful of our budget, we had instead settled upon a rather more circuitous route involving a possibly record-breaking number of different transport modes.

Our odyssey began at 7am with our easiest journey of the day - a short tram ride from outside Seville’s Cathedral to the Prado bus station. It was there that I experienced what I should, in retrospect, have taken as a portent of the day’s later stresses when my order of a bottle of water at the adjoining café was misunderstood and then presented to me as a nauseatingly milky coffee (FYI, I only ever drink black). In typically English style, I just smiled and mumbled “gracias”…

The three hour bus journey from Seville to the coastal town of Tarifa was trouble-free, though we were disappointed that the sun-bleached Andalucian countryside we had expected to see en route failed to materialise. Instead, rain-threatening grey skies conspired to produce a rather blander landscape, enlivened only by the occasional cluster of wind farms.

We arrived in Tarifa around midday and in typical fashion the threat of rain became a torrential reality the moment we stepped off the bus. Laden with baggage that had seemed to acquire an extra kilo in weight with every leg of our journey, we were forced to seek refuge in a café whose proprietor turned out to be a genial English lady. Apparently she had lived happily there for seven years but it felt to us like a rather shabby and forgotten town, with a distinct “end of the line” vibe and little to attract tourists beyond those using it as a stepping-stone to elsewhere like ourselves.

With four hours to kill before our ferry crossing to Tangier we were at a bit of a loose end and spent most of the afternoon hopping from café to café during the rare rain-free intervals. We eventually decided to amble down to the ferry terminal, which was so ugly and basic in its facilities that it made one pine for an airport departure lounge. We also found ourselves to be by far the youngest people there and were somewhat perturbed by the arrival of a ramshackle English tour party hosted by a guide who bore more than a passing resemblance to Roger Moore but whose patter was straight out of Hi-Di-Hi. Once on board the ferry, we were forced to spend the entire 45 minute crossing queuing to get our passports stamped by the Moroccan authorities, thus scuppering all our romantic notions of watching our arrival into Africa from the top deck. 

Though we’d been warned about the likelihood of being mobbed by the locals in Marrakech, we weren’t at all prepared for the greeting we received as we disembarked the ferry at Tangier. Firstly, we were ordered by a bunch of irate blokes in civvies to put our bags through the x-ray machines, even though none of the passengers in front of us had been asked to do so. We were then accosted by a man claiming to be from “the ministry of information”, who proceeded to grill us about where we’d come from and where we were going: in fact, he was nothing more than a taxi driver trying to intimidate us into taking a ride with him. Though we later learnt that such behaviour was not only commonplace in Morocco but more often than not completely harmless, at the time we were more than a little unnerved by our new surroundings.

As more taxi drivers flocked to us like wasps to jam we realised there was only one thing for it – ask Roger Moore what to do. Much as we had mocked him, his reassurance that we were fine to put our lives in the hands of one of those taxi drivers was invaluable.

We eventually took the plunge and opted to go with the driver who had pestered us the least, much to the chagrin of one of his rivals for our custom, who ended up gesticulating wildly and launching a cacophony of swear words towards us as we were sped away into the city. Our first (and, as it proved, last) port of call was the train station as we needed to buy our tickets for the overnight train to Marrakech. We suspected, perhaps unfairly this time, that the man at the ticket office was not being entirely honest when he appeared to quote us different prices for the same seats and we were further disheartened to learn that the only two sleeping “couchettes” still available for that evening’s train were in different carriages. Given how uncomfortable our subsequent night in upright “first class” seats proved to be, we probably should have accepted them…

With another five hours to kill before the departure of our overnight train to Marrakech and not particularly wishing to negotiate another journey back into the old town with our bags, we had no choice but to seek refuge in the only place that felt safe and familiar - the branch of McDonalds next door. Though possibly the episode of our trip that we are least proud of, it’s good to be able to confirm that a Moroccan Big Mac tastes exactly the same as they do everywhere else in the world.

And finally… with the day now seeming to have dragged on forever and our early start outside Seville’s Cathedral but a distant memory, we boarded the 21.35 train to Marrakech. Though certainly a step down from the sleek, modern carriages we’d become accustomed to in France and Spain, we were at least grateful to have a compartment car (with curtains!) rather than an open carriage. Our travelling companions in the six seat car were a friendly Mexican couple and a French-speaking local man who departed after only one stop. This left the two of us with a row of three seats from which to construct some kind of bed. On top of this the “air conditioning” was clearly suffering from some form of schizophrenia as it lurched violently from sweat-inducing heat to industrial freezer cold. Suffice to say, we had rarely experienced a less comfortable night’s sleep. After the lights were turned off we spent the next eight or so hours drifting in and out of consciousness while desperately trying to hold in our bladders after an earlier inspection of the toiletry situation had revealed facilities than even a dog might have balked at.

Around 6am local time, dawn began to break and we were finally able to study the landscape through which we were travelling. Though barren and rocky, its eerie stillness and the lemony early morning light lent it a strange beauty. Mountains roared up on both sides, while the occasional clutch of stone-built, windowless dwellings were a reminder that people actually lived on this desolate terrain. As we approached Marrakech, the buildings became larger and sturdier and we saw the first signs of native Moroccans going about their daily business, including a group of school children walking together across a dusty, rock-strewn field. Once within the border of the city, initial signs were off a dense and thriving urban metropolis but one very different from those we had encountered so far on our voyage…


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