Review: The Marrakech Express
Specialist Holiday - Rail travel
The Marrakech Express
20 people found this review helpful
If you remember the1969 song the Marrakech Express by Crosby Stills Nash, this article might bring back a few old memories. I couldn’t help downloading a copy it to play on route as I set off from London to Marrakech – a train trip crossing France, Spain and much of Morocco.
The actual Marrakech Express that Graham Nash wrote about is a short four-hour train ride from Casablanca to Marrakech whereas my trip is an exotic overland route planned and organised in every detail by London based Railbookers.
King’s Cross station is always crowded but the Eurostar check-in is a speedy and straight-forward affair. I’m always surprised that France is no further from London than Birmingham and in less than an hour our Eurostar emerges from the channel tunnel into the Calais countryside and races on through the fields of Picardie.
Surely nobody flies to Paris any more, because the Eurostar whisks passengers to the centre of Paris in less time than it normally takes to reach the security queue at Heathrow.
There’s enough time for a coffee and crepe in Paris before boarding my onward duplex train from Gare de Lyon to Barcelona at 2pm. Sitting on the upper deck the views are excellent and get better the further south we go. Sadly, even on French trains refreshments from the food cart is poor fare and we drew envious glances as we unpacked our wine, cheese and French bread for a splendid onboard picnic
By the time we reach Nimes it’s 5.15 and red roofs, palm trees and olives become the norm, so the Mediterranean is close.
Hugging the coast near Montpellier its a marshy Camargue-like landscape where we spot the iconic white horses, Ibis, Flamingo and Pelican. Then the mountains of the Pyrenees begin to loom and after Perpignan (7pm) we dive through the new Perthus tunnel and suddenly we’re in Spain and arrive in Barcelona at 8.30pm.
The new high-speed line connecting France and Spain means it’s no longer necessary to change trains at the border so the straight through journey time has been shortened so we had breakfast in London, lunch in Paris and will have a late dinner in Barcelona.
Instead of going directly south I decided on a rambling route across Spain taking in some of its highlights – Madrid, Segovia, Grenada and Cordoba before arriving at the port of Tarifa for the ferry to Tangier.
Barcelona is so laid back compared to uptight Paris. The sun obviously helps, food and drink at nearly half the price helps but mainly it’s the people – so much smiling, laughter and sheer joie de vivre.
Naturally, all visitors have to stroll Barcelona’s most famous street, the tourist packed La Rambla, but watch your pockets, don’t believe any bogus sob stories and above all don’t eat or drink there. Locals prefer Rambla de Catalunya – a continuation of the street north from Placa de Catalunya. Here you’ll find food that the locals are prepared to eat, drinks at sensible prices and no one looking to pick your pockets.
The bustling capital of Madrid is just three hours by train from Barcelona. Traditional free tapas are hard to find in Madrid but they do exist. El Tigre in Calle de los Infantas, just behind Gran Via, has incredibly generous tapas – 3-4 items with each drink. I was so full after three beers that I had to go somewhere that didn’t give free food, and that was Cerveceria Montaditos, on calle Mayor. This is where tinto de verno became my Madrid drink of choice – a pint glass filled with ice, topped up with a draft red wine and lemonade mix – fabulously refreshing for one euro.
Madrid to Grenada took around four hours and the further south we got the denser the olives groves became until finally they stretched to the far horizon.
Locals really have life sussed in Grenada. Everyone is out and about – groups of boys, groups of girls, couples, parents with babies and toddlers, grandparents – well into the wee hours and not a drunk in sight. There are no youth booze bars just hundreds of small, crowded intergenerational tapas bars with plenty of outside seating. Buy a beer anywhere and you’ll get ham, olives, beef, chicken, miniburgers, even a bowl of stew or egg and chips. The fact that there’s no intergenerational divide seems to be the clue to a healthy and happy city party atmosphere.
Of course the Alhambra is stunningly majestic, the cathedral is spectacular and walking the narrow streets and alleyways of the Albaicin is a joy but frankly it’s the people of Grenada that are most memorable. Their laughing, smiling, happy-go-lucky spirit seems to shrug off Spain’s economic crisis; they just get on and enjoy life.
Cordoba is the last stop-off in Spain before crossing to Africa, but it’s no after thought. It’s been both Roman and Islamic capitals and 1100 years ago it was the largest city in Western Europe. Its unique highlight is a cathedral inside a mosque and I’ve wanted to see that strange sight for years.
Inside there’s a forest of pillars and arches with an all-pervading smell of incense. The spacious Islamic areas are full of restrained geometrical designs compared to the rather garish statues and icons dripping with golden in the Christian sections – to me it seemed like a marvellous jumble.
It’s an easy 25-minute, 9-mile ferry ride, across the Straights of Gibraltar, from Tarifa in Spain to Tangier in Morocco. Morocco is where you find the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, the intimidating sands of the Sahara, fabulous Mediterranean and Atlantic beaches, medieval medinas, snake charmers in Marrakech and discos in Tangier; it’s a strange and fascinating mix.
Tangier still has that whiff of old scandal but it’s not the dangerous place it’s often painted and its Europe meets North Africa mix is well worth the stopover.
First class carriages on Moroccan trains are surprisingly comfortable and the countryside on route to Fez is lush and fertile with the Middle Atlas Mountains providing a dramatic backdrop.
My hotel (riad Fez) was typically Moroccan – through a gate into the walled city, down a series of dingy alleyways and behind a small door there’s a fantastically beautiful courtyard with fountains, flowers and sofas, all surrounded by dazzling tiles and ornate stonework. From its rooftop the old city is crammed inside fortified walls and surrounded by the pristine Rif and Middle Atlas Mountains.
The most amazing thing about Fez is that it’s a living medieval city with a thriving life of its own that’s centuries old, no wonder it has UNESCO World Heritage Status. There’s a new part of Fez but the old walled city is an enthralling maze of bustling alleyways where the residents go about their traditional business rather than catering for tourists.
The medina is the oldest preserved medieval city in the world, utterly mesmerising – tiny shops selling everything, cobblers, tinsmiths, a camels head in a butchers, women carrying dough to the communal bakery. Children are running everywhere, there’s the wafting smell of coffee, fruit, spices with the occasional reek from the tannery and regularly the wailing call to prays.
Old and new constantly collide – a man riding a donkey was chatting on a mobile phone and the chaotically jumbled skyline is dotted with both satellite dishes and minarets.
Marrakech is a world away from Fez, it’s Morocco’s tourist hotspot and don’t all the locals know it. The roads within the walled medina are choked with traffic, a taxi costs whatever they can get away. The price of everything has to be clarified and negotiated before purchase – but that’s all part of the experience.
Moroccan’s are friendly and helpful people but the basic rule is don’t trust anyone who is over-friendly when approaching you – ordinary locals don’t do this.
As dusk falls Marrakech’s most famous square, Djemaa el-Fna, really livens up, dozens of chefs arrive with mobile grills, benches, trestle tables and lights. Each one has a tout to snare new diners but they often have an amusing patter, so it can be a bit of fun. An eating experience here is an absolute must but it’s mass tourist catering, and although it’s OK, it was the poorest quality food I’d had in Morocco. A little restaurant away from the square is likely to have better and cheaper food but maybe not such a memorable experience.
As tourists flock in to the square, so do the entertainers – musicians, storytellers, acrobats, snake charmers, men with monkeys and naturally pickpockets. People dressed in national costumes and the water-sellers in their fringed hats and brass cups are chasing tourist photo opportunities and can turn a bit nasty if you don’t tip them enough.
This was a fabulously exotic trip, made even more interesting by slowly rambling across Europe and around Morocco by train. Compared to flying, travelling by train is like the ‘Grand Tours’ of old, allowing you to gradually ease into increasingly exotic cultures.
This trip was organised by Railbookers and included a detailed bespoke itinerary, all the tickets, pre-booked accommodation and with a BA flight back from Marrakech airport. For more details ask me or telephone Railbookers on 020 3327 0812 or see their website at www.railbookers.com
20 people found this review helpful
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.