To the pages for Europe, Spain and Morocco of the Trento Bike Pages

From Madrid
to Marrakech

Summer 1996

By Joanne Kitson & Matthew King
Tue, 19 Nov 1996 06:00:17 +0000

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From the moment we started, we knew this was going to be a holiday with a difference. Maybe it was the envious looks we got from British cyclists on the way to Heathrow, or maybe it was the stares from shocked Spaniards as we did a sudden strip-tease beside the baggage reclaim in Madrid, revealing if not our true colours, then at least our lycra-clad limbs.

Spain was hot, hilly and extremely hard-going. The problem with the Spanish, we rapidly discovered, was that they eat too late. You arrive in a city starving in the early evening, only to find that none of the restaurants are prepared to serve you - or, for that matter, are even identifiable as restaurants in some cases - until nine, and then probably don't actually serve you until ten. While this is doubtless a fundamental part of the culture, it does tend to mean that, as an exhausted traveller, you then wake up both shattered and late in the morning. By the time you've found some breakfast (since the shops open late as well), packed up and finally hit the road, the sun is already up, baking the land, the best part of the day for cycling is already gone. If you want to make any real progress, therefore, you have to pedal all the way through the siesta in the afternoon - while the Spanish are slumbering soundly in between their cotton sheets, recuperating before the long evening - which inevitably results in your being fried alive.

Even the nights were hot. After a sleepless night in a hotel in the centre of Madrid, we concluded that camping would be a better option - not that that didn't have its own hazards, mind you: blundering out of a remote mountain village one night after another enforced late dinner we found a secluded spot in an unfenced field and erected our tent by torchlight. It wasn't until the next morning that we noticed our new neighbours. Whereas in Britain there only seems to be about one bull for every hundred or so cuddly-looking Friesian cows, in Spain every single bovine animal we saw - and, more worryingly, every member of the herd with which we shared the field - had horns long enough to cook a tasty kebab on.

Needless to say, we left promptly that morning. In fact, we made pretty good progress throughout Spain. Speeding across the valley floors before struggling up the mountains that divided them and coasting down the other side to begin the cycle (!) again, it wasn't long before we got to Córdoba, Sevilla and then the coast. Not that it was all easy, by any means. As if the exertion involved in pedalling up to 100 miles on the flat, combined with carrying ourselves, our luggage and the bicycles was not enough, on one day Matt's stomach decided the umpteenth breakfast of bread and salami was too much for it. He suffered acute discomfort all day, pedalled as slowly as traffic in central Cambridge and had a bout of diarrhoea. Breakfast itself, unfortunately, was forcibly ejected by the roadside, after which he felt somewhat better. Progress continued.

From the comforts of Cambridge, and given the fascination of Morocco, it had been easy to forget the thousand-odd kilometres separating Madrid from the coast. But when the time finally came for us to descend from the hills and catch our first glimpse of the sea, it already felt like a major achievement. We treated ourselves to a meal of fresh fish and Matt went paddling in the ocean.


If the Spanish scenery had been exhilarating, it was little more than an entrada compared with the feast for the senses that engulfed us the moment we set wheels in Morocco. From the minute we crossed the border, we were hailed from the roadside. Crowds in the towns stared. Small boys ran from the fields. Others proffered fruit: melons, dates, prickly pears. "Pssst! Monsieur! Madame! Un dirham!" If they weren't begging for money, it was a pen they were after. "Stylo!" Often the accents were almost incomprehensible, but then French was probably their second or third language. In the towns, a host of unfamiliar smells added to the impression. Spices, mint, incense, leather and hanging meat were all sold from holes in the wall along the sides of maze-like medina streets just six feet wide. Mules and motor scooters, stopping for nobody on the incredibly steep slopes, jostled with pedestrians.

There was contrast in terms of whom we met too. In our time in Spain we had spoken to almost nobody, other than to ask for accommodation, food or directions. People had looked at our curious garb and luggage, but had said nothing. In Morocco, we were overwhelmed. We had not even reached our first city, Tetouan, when we were picked up by two faux guides - the first of many, many more - on a motorbike.

The guides in Morocco are nothing if not persistent. But then, with unemployment at over 20 per cent, over half the population under 20 and with literacy less than 50 per cent, there's little else for them to do. "Where you from? American? Vous parlez français? Deutsch? Podremos hablar en español, señor". In Tetouan, we were 'assisted' in finding a hotel (campsites no longer being a bearable option!), and then escorted to a restaurant an hour or two later; our new-found friend had waited outside the hotel for us. We made good our escape by investigating the medina at 6.00am the following morning, only to be picked up by another and almost forcibly ushered into the local "art school". Mysteriously, both this and the many other art schools we visited in Morocco seemed to have little to do with education, or even the manufacture of their goods, but rather specialised in selling them at inflated prices to unsuspecting westerners. We were amazed by the ingenuity of the owners in suggesting ways in which you could carry a six-foot carpet on a bicycle. We remained unconvinced.

If Spain had been hilly, Morocco proved positively mountainous. The road to Chefchaouen took us to tortuous new heights in the Rif Mountains. In the Rif, 'business' is synonymous with the hashish trade. Every few hundred metres, it seemed, there would be another kid making offers in the local slang: "chocolate ?" Our hotel in Chaouen seemed to be occupied by English lads - friendly enough - but whose friendliness and happiness we suspected of being chemically, rather than naturally, inspired. We weren't particularly tempted.

Actually, our abstinence from all sorts of unusual chemicals was undoubtedly a good thing: our bodies seemed to be having quite enough difficulty just coping with the food. After Chaouen, we'd been drinking only bottled water - the discovery of something small and wriggling in a pool in a hotel basin was enough to ensure that - but we had no choice but to eat, and often little choice about where to. On the evening when we hoped we'd arrive in Fes, things came to a head. Simultaneously, it became dark, Joanne began feeling dizzy and ill - having narrowly escaped dismemberment followed by stoning by the umpteenth crowd of children - and Joanne's gear cable broke. We had no choice but to pull over, put up the tent in an adjacent field and go to bed.

It was less than an hour later that we were awoken and startled by footsteps and lamplight. We needn't have worried: the food and hot coffee the local Berber farmer brought us were better than anything we could have dreamed of. We simply couldn't thank them enough, especially when breakfast arrived, unsolicited, the following morning in similar fashion. The children the night before must have understood our sign language and Arabic mumblings after all.

If it hadn't been for our illness, the Imperial Cities would have been wonderful; as it was, we were forced to remain a little longer than we'd intended. In Fes, we both contracted chronic diarrhoea: not dysentery, but severe stomach pains and loo stops about once an hour, round the clock. We spent an uncomfortable few days holed up in a hotel while we recovered; after all, cycling would have been impossible.

At least, we thought we'd recovered. There was a short (80km) day's cycling between Fes and Meknes, via the Roman remains at Volubilis, which we thought would be an ideal test of our well-being. The ruins were spectacular - not just individual ruined buildings, but almost a complete city with stunning mosaics remaining in situ - but we failed the test.. Joanne started feeling ill again almost immediately and - given that the nearest non-ruined town was a pilgrimage point and closed to non-Muslims by night - we were forced to take refuge at the nearest campsite during another uncomfortable and sleepless night before another few days marooned in Meknes.

At this point, we realized we had no alternative but to change our plans. It wasn't the illness that got us in the end; it was time. We could still, potentially, have gone on to cross the High Atlas as we'd intended, but with no trains on the far side, we'd then have had to continue down the route of the kasbahs entirely by bicycle, with no fallback option in case of another relapse. That had been our original plan, but we had already discovered a tendency for each of us to alternate between feeling well and ill - making us go twice as slowly. We had already had to spend a week recovering, and we were worried we might never make it back to Cambridge before Full Term. With great reluctance, therefore, we finally
took a train to Marrakech.

It was just as well we arrived in Marrakech with time to spare, too. While it was a wonderful place, and we were happy to stay there, it proved a little harder to escape from than we had intended. For some reason known only to airline bureaucrats, fares out of Morocco and purchased in Morocco - we now discovered - cost four times as much as they did in London, something which no guidebook had mentioned. Neither could our London travel agent send us tickets, their export being illegal. The best we could do was to jump on another train - all the way back to Tangier - catch a bus up the Costa del Sol, and catch a cheap charter from Malaga.

Back to Spain

It was an unfitting end to a considerable adventure. Taking the train back may have required less physical exertion and been quicker than bicycling, but the psychological drain was certainly greater. Despite careful pre-planning, it finally took negotiations with seven different railway officials - most of whom spent most of their time contradicting, and arguing with, one another - before we were allowed to take our bikes on the train. The official line was that there would be no problem at all, and they could be any size we liked, so long as they didn't look like bicycles. After that, the four hours we spent undergoing exit formalities at Tangier were a complete doddle.

Back to England

As we emerged from the greyness of Luton airport, we were struck by the way in which time away makes you see home in a different light. England was clean, efficient and hygienic. But it was also cold, commercial and clogged with traffic. The sheer humanness, the vibrancy, the character, of all the people we'd seen in Morocco was lacking. In a few hours we had sped back over the ground it had taken us three weeks and 1500km to cycle, undone, as it were, all the energy we had expended. Yet the effort did not seem wasted; the memories - of the Berber farmers, the children in the fields, the pushy shopkeepers, the crowd of old ladies who boarded the train, filling the entire carriage, at three in the morning - would remain. And we knew there was another world - utterly alien, yet only a few hours away - where the competing juice sellers would shout for your attention, and where every price would depend upon our charm, our intelligence, and our level of desperation, rather than being typed on a sticky label.

We climbed into the saddles, put our bicycles on the left hand side of the road, and pedalled on.

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