We have a travel adage — if a trip is hard to plan, it will be uneventful. If it’s easy to plan, fate will create obstacles during the trip. This trip was easy to plan.
In late September Carole discovered round-trip tickets from Los Angeles to Madrid for $346 each! Then a grad student friend agreed to house-sit and care for the animals for two weeks. It was too much to resist, so we left in mid-November for southern Spain and Morocco.
The way we travel is old-school: occasional internet but no cell phone or GPS. We do it partly because we’re cheap, partly because we like the challenge of getting into a dilemma and figuring our way out. We also pack minimal: one carry-on and one day pack each.
Our first hint that it was going to be an eventful trip was when George lost his wallet the morning we were leaving. It had both of our travel credit cards so we spent a couple of hours madly searching for it with no luck. Fortunately he still had his passport, so we put together an alternate financial plan and kept going.
We arrived in Madrid in the rain and planned to take the train the next day to Granada. The Sleep’n Atocha was a place with tiny rooms geared for young travelers, but a great sound system and chic decor. Unfortunately their breakfast was similar to what you would get at Wendy’s.
That night we discovered that all the Spanish south-bound trains were canceled due to washed out bridges. So we shifted gears, headed to the southern bus station and finally made it to Granada.
We found our hotel (Hotel Casa 1800) by taking a taxi as far as it could go into the old city, then wandering up and down narrow, unmarked passageways until we finally located it. It was an old home from the 1800s, rebuilt with antiques and and a beautiful courtyard.
We spent one day exploring the old city’s plazas and alleys in the rain.
On last day we woke early for a scheduled tour inside the Alhambra, an old Moorish palace and gardens that dominate the skyline. We thought we’d be early, see the gardens then visit the palace, so we headed to the main plaza looking for a taxi or bus. No taxis or buses, but lots of police roadblocks on every nearby street! Turns out it was the annual Granada marathon, so we spent hours watching the runners go by and trying to find an alternate route. Finally made it, but not until the marathon was long over.
The next stop on the bus trip was Ronda, a small Andalusian city dating from the 1st century AD., although the area has been inhabited from prehistoric times.
It sits on top of a high plateau that is bisected by a deep gorge, which we could see from our room in the Hotel Montelirio. The nearby “new bridge” in the picture below dates from 1793.
One of the reasons we stopped in Ronda was to see the nearby La Pileta Cave (La Pileta = the Pool, for a large pool inside the cave). The cave was about 1/2 hour away, and a 20 minute climb via 100 steep steps from the parking lot, which we climbed in the rain. When we arrived at the entrance we learned that the cave required another 500 wet, rough steps that had to be traversed with only a dim lantern. Carole decided to opt out, concerned about falling and ruining the rest of the trip.
We were the only people there so George got a personal tour and saw 4,000 year old cave paintings, and a few 40,000 year old paintings, plus a lot of stalactites, stalagmites and bats. It’s a private cave, one of the few places where you can get right next to some of the paintings! Unfortunately they don’t allow cameras, so we only have the pictures below for you to get an idea of what they looked like.
From Ronda, we took several buses to Tarifa on the southern coast to catch the ferry to Tangier the next morning. The rain followed us there and added a major wind component. Tarifa was filled with kite boarders and sport shops that catered to that sport.
Changing money was easy until we hit Morocco. Finding ATMs in Morocco that worked for us was a very hit-and-miss situation, but we think it was a problem with our bank, not the Moroccan ATMs. This made the trip a bit more interesting, not always knowing how we were going to pay for things! Luckily we had paid in advance for some of our accommodations.
We were only passing through Tangier on our way to Fez. Carole had been here in the mid 1970s and was surprised to see all the new, tall buildings and impressive ferry terminal.
We made our way to the new train station and bought tickets to Fez. As we were about to exit to the train tracks, a big floor-to-ceiling glass door exploded directly in front of us!! Luckily it was tempered glass, so it all fell in pebbles instead of shards. People began shouting and guards were running toward us with automatic weapons!! What did we do? Looked around, picked up our bags and quietly walked through the glass to the train, not looking back or walking too fast or too slow. Glad we didn’t get stopped or questioned!
After arriving in Fes we went to our hotel, Riad Damia, which was deep in the ancient Medina, the original walled city. A Riad is an old Moroccan home turned into a small hotel.
The next day we went on a five-hour guided tour of the Fes Medina. Using a guide wasn’t our first choice, but since the Medina is a maze of narrow streets and passageways; it’s really easy to get lost. Also, if you don’t have a guide, you are constantly harassed by would-be guides, so the idea was that our guide would run interference for us.
Even though it was just the two of us it unfortunately became a standard tour where the guide would point out some things, then take us to stores that gave him commissions. We were mostly immune from buying stuff until Carole saw an open alley and quickly ditched the guide and George. It was the best part of the tour, with guys selling aromatics, amulets and other stuff beyond the usual tourist displays.. George found a second-hand store there and bought an African mask. He’s pretty sure it’s authentic; it didn’t look like any of the other “tourist-style” masks and appears to be from the Dogon Tribe of East Africa.
After our guide found us in the second-hand store, we saw him earnestly trying to convince the owner to give him a “commission” on what we might buy. At one point he forgot whose side he was supposed to be on and tried to get George to stop bargaining!
Carole was in Fez in the mid-1970s and her memories of the place are very different than the way it is now. The Fez medina has been cleaned up a lot, and the narrow passageways have much more overhead light. Also there are very few beggars in sight, and more police. There were hardly any donkeys transporting goods; they now use mostly pushcarts. Even the famous leather tanneries have balconies built high around three sides, probably to keep the worst smells away from the tourists.
We arranged ahead of time to be met at the airport and taken to Riad Swaka, deep in Marrakesh Medina. Good thing we did because we wouldn’t have found it otherwise. Directions were: Left turn after a specific gate into the Medina, first right, two doglegs to the left, then a right turn down a narrow walkway with tall walls on both sides. Our place was the one with two potted plants on one side of the door and one plant on the other. All the streets that we saw in this Medina were just walls with doors or shops, or shops the size of doorways. Cool!
Photocredits from Upsplash:
Amy Elting, Pommelien da Silva Cosme, and Zayane Zakaria
On and Off-Road Trip
The highlight of our trip was a private 3-day, 2-night trip over the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara in an old 4-wheel drive with a driver/guide (Ibrahim, a Berber who spoke some English). “Erg” means dune, and Erg Chegaga was a two-hour drive from M’Hamid, the nearest one-street town (see map above).
Ibrahim picked us up in his beat-up Mitsubishi 4X4 outside the nearest Medina gate. We took only a day pack each for 3 days of travel to an isolated camp in the dunes in Eastern Morocco. Nearby was a new, 18-seat tourist bus being loaded with people and a lot of luggage (probably a tour group going to Erg Chebbi, a popular tourist destination in a different part of the desert). One guy in particular, half our age or less, looked at us with that “can’t I go with them instead” look.
On our way out we were finally able to get some Dinars from an ATM for the last part of our trip. None of the others we tried after that worked. It made for some serious concerns about what we might have to pay for and how we were going to do it.
We drove over the Atlas Mountains–water on the road, rock slides, lots of snow, and active construction on the only road from Marrakesh to Eastern Morocco.
Our driver was adept at passing within the long line of cars, buses and trucks, even with big trucks approaching. A few braked for us to avoid a head-on! Back in the lane there would be maybe one foot of clearance between both lanes moving at a good speed. We figured that the driver was still alive, so he was probably good at this. At this point we started using one of our first Arabic words: “Inshallah”, which means “If God wills it”. (Will we make it? Inshallah) There were a few “toe curler” passes that had both of us smashing imaginary brakes!
On the other side of the mountains we took a dirt road detour into the less-traveled countryside.
After lunch we toured Ait Ben Haddou, an ancient red-mud fortress that has been used as a movie background since Lawrence of Arabia.
We drove on from there for hours past wide open spaces, red-mud ancient cities; small villages in the distance and date palm groves, and through steep canyons on some really rough roads. (see slide show below)
It was common to see people walking along the road in what looked like the middle of nowhere. Ibrahim said there are collective taxis that go up and down the main road so people are often walking while waiting for one of these. But we both had the feeling that many of them were walking because that was their only transportation.
In the town of Zagora, our guide asked us if we wanted to stay at a hotel or a “place with a garden”. The latter sounded traditional so we went for it. Truly traditional: a small adobe room with no windows, heat or hot water. Since the desert night temperature was somewhat above freezing, we literally cuddled together for warmth and skipped the shower the next morning –oh well. Not a big problem for us.
Next, we spent several hours at the weekly souk (market) in Zagora. It wasn’t part of a normal tour-we just asked the driver to stop there. The souk covered acres! Starting at the entrance and going back were: vegetable hawkers, food stalls, house wares, commercial stuff, then swap-meet stuff, then junk, then building materials (poles and tools). Probably camels for sale in the back, but we didn’t get that far. (see slide show below)
Organized chaos! People shouting in different tribal dialects on bullhorns, mopeds and donkey carts weaving through the mostly traditionally dressed crowd. Cool stuff! At one point George got separated from Carole and the guide. The guide freaked out but Carole didn’t. She knew George would eventually return to the entrance somehow. Meanwhile George was having fun being separated (we’ve had this happen often in foreign countries). He was taking pictures and looking at all the cool things for sale. Carole bought some jewelry including some old African trading beads (maybe old; you never really know).
After several hours of driving on paved and unpaved roads, we stopped at the last village, M’Hamid, to buy water.
Then we went off-road for two more hours before arriving at our camp for the night. Some wild driving in soft sand, rocks, and berms to crest over. At times it was so rough we were gripping the seat-belt and the seat in front to avoid bashing the roof or the sides of the interior. Sometimes during this part of the trip we could imagine being in the Dakar Rally when it came through Morocco years ago.
The camp consisted of six large Berber tents for sleeping, a dining tent, and two mud huts for cooking and bathrooms. The sand dunes surrounded us and stretched as far as you could see. (picture and slide show below)
Absolutely awesome. George did some sand boarding on an old snowboard stripped of bindings and the requisite camel ride with a guide (there wasn’t anything Carole could stand on to reach her camel’s back, darn it).
The only other guests at the camp was a small group of French university students on holiday. They asked George where he came from; He said “California”. They said “Ah, California surfer”. He said “Actually I am a California surfer!” and launched himself down the dune. Turned out one of the students was another surfer from Biarritz France.
That evening we looked at the amazing night sky and sat around a fire with Berber musicians. We’ll remember the sunset, night stars and sunrise forever. The next morning no hot water, so we didn’t shower again–really scruffy now!
In our “road less traveled” way, in the morning we headed West across varied desert terrain instead of returning East back the “normal” way. We were pretty close to Algeria at this point. This area was opened to foreigners only a few years ago as border tensions lessened between Morocco and Algeria (our kind of place).
We saw buttes, huge walls of cliffs, skirted some dunes and drove through areas with miles of small round rocks carpeting the desert floor, then drove 30 miles or more across a dry lake. More than four hours of 4X4 driving, some of it pretty rough. (see slide slow below)
In the middle of a huge flat expanse, we came to a little adobe guard hut with a striped pole gate that you could easily drive around. This was the border checkpoint to make sure we were legit before we entered a small town a few miles away. We never take pictures of police or officials in foreign countries, but this guy was too much to resist. So we waited till he wasn’t looking and got a picture.
After a brief rest stop in Foum Zguid we drove another hour or two towards the mountains and then headed to Marrakesh via the main road over the Atlas Mountains.
Back in Marrakesh
Our last adventure in Morocco was finding our Riad after being dropped off in a different part of the old city’s maze of no-name, narrow streets too small for cars but big enough for motorbikes to mow you down.
Being George and Carole, we didn’t want to hire a “guide” (a local guy who might rip you off by taking the long way), but instead spent 1-1/2 hours searching around the tiny twisty lanes with all kinds of intersections and tunnels, NO street signs and mostly blank walls with doors and tiny shops that often look alike. No success, but in a jacket pocket we discovered a tiny map that showed four streets (out of hundreds) we could use to get back to the Riad.
The map had a restaurant circled on it, so George went to a nearby restaurant doorman and asked him where the circled restaurant was because we were “meeting some people there”. If George had just asked him where it was, the doorman might have said he didn’t know, but how about eating at his fine restaurant? Our travel experience showing here. After he very kindly gave us directions. we found that restaurant and were able to navigate from there to “home” AND SHOWERS!
The next day we flew back to Madrid and on to the U.S.
But the adventure wasn’t over yet!
In Los Angeles we managed to catch the 6:00 p.m. bus to Santa Maria at 6:10 when we arrived–got lucky there. Then in Santa Maria, where the airport was locked and closed (no flights in the evening), we got unlucky.
Our car battery was dead and it was raining. We called our house-sitter, Journey McDowell, to tell him we’d be late. He could tell that we weren’t too functional after 36 hours of travel so he called Triple-A for us. After the AAA guy came and jump-started the car, George drove it a few hundred feet to the terminal to pick up our luggage, and then out of habit TURNED THE ENGINE OFF! (told you we were punchy) . He looked around and the driver was still in the parking lot filling out paperwork, so George ran through the rain and asked PLEEZE another jump start? The driver smiled and did it for us and we drove an hour home and collapsed in bed at midnight.
Endnote: The next morning we discovered George’s missing wallet in an old jacket that he had worn to breakfast because his usual jacket was already packed.
All in all a great trip to an area we hadn’t seen before!