Written by billmoy on 28 Jan, 2003
After riding the "Marrakesh Express" from Fez to Marrakesh (see "Bill in MARRAKESH"), my friend and I dared to ride the rails again! After all, one cannot expect another nine-hour ride to be stretched out to 18, right? This time, it would be a scheduled…Read More
After riding the "Marrakesh Express" from Fez to Marrakesh (see "Bill in MARRAKESH"), my friend and I dared to ride the rails again! After all, one cannot expect another nine-hour ride to be stretched out to 18, right? This time, it would be a scheduled nine-hour night journey from Marrakesh to Tangier. Flooding due to heavy rains had affected train service throughout Morocco for several days, but we were assured that service had returned to normal. Our first-class tickets with couchettes (four berths in a compartment) were cheaper than second-class seats with no couchette, go figure. The engineer said the two of us would have this room all to ourselves, so we occupied the more stable lower berths. The train started on time at 9pm. Soon I succumbed to sleep, with ambitions to hit several destinations the next day. Everything had to fall specifically into place for me to visit Ceuta and Gibraltar before arriving for my rest stop in Cadiz the following night, which would be Thanksgiving Day in the States.
After a good night's sleep (my friend had to shake me awake), we each had a light breakfast. It was raining outside when the train arrived into Tangier at 7am, an hour behind schedule. The train station in Tangier is actually a few kilometers south of the town center, so we took a petit taxi to the port area. My friend wanted to stick around and see more of Tangier, but I was heading to Ceuta right away. We planned to meet in Cadiz later that evening.
Instead of taking a bus to Ceuta, I splurged on a taxi. For longer distances, you need to share a ride in a grand taxi, a vehicle that can squeeze in about six passengers. The ride to Ceuta is supposed to be around 25 dirham a head (about US$2.50). Not many drivers wanted to head to Ceuta on this rainy morning though. I finally departed in a grand taxi after I "bargained" my driver's initial rate of 200 dirham down to 100. This is still four times the going rate, but I had Moroccan money to burn and I needed to get the ball rolling lest I remain standing in a Tangier downpour. The driver spoke Arabic and some French but no English. He was a good driver; fast but not reckless, perfect qualities for a taxi driver. I sat comfortably in the front passenger seat while at times the back seat was stuffed with up to four people. Despite the blanket of rain clouds, the vistas from Tangier to Ceuta were gorgeous, with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and alternately lush green and jagged mountains on the other side.
After about an hour, my taxi driver dropped me off in this muddy parking lot at the border crossing. This patch of Moroccan frontier is bleak, a place you wanted to leave as soon as you entered it. One fellow wanted to sell me a customs form, but I charged past him. The customs form is provided free of charge at the passport control counter. There were just a few non-Moroccans crossing the border here, and we were served promptly and courteously. The border crossing into Ceuta is seemingly stricter for Moroccans, some of whom are trying to cross the border illegally into a more hospitable economic situation. There was a frantic crush of Moroccans waiting and wailing to walk across the border. Stern border patrol guards carried small belts, and they did not hesitate to flog the more unruly Moroccans into submission. This was a shocking sight, but this bit of discipline seemed to cause more embarrassment than pain for the recipient.
Ceuta is considered to be an enclave under the jurisdiction of Spain, sort of like a city province, and not an autonomous region. Ceuta definitely feels like Spain and not Morocco. I lost an hour due to the time change from Morocco to Spain time, where does the time go? A bus picks up passengers near the border and heads into the center of Ceuta, ending at the Plaza de la Constitucion near the Centro Mercado. I wandered into the Melia hotel and spent precious minutes freshening up in the men's room. My pant legs and shoes were unbelievably muddy after the border crossing. I had only a few hours in Ceuta, which is an interesting town though not an essential place to visit. The locals here are laid back--a welcome relief after a week of intense traveling in Morocco. The constant drizzle made it difficult for the historic buildings and the maritime scenery to come to life. It was already early afternoon by the time I ate some lunchtime tapas and bought some snacks for the next leg of my journey.
There is at least one ferry every hour between Ceuta and Algeciras, so there is no need to buy a ticket ahead of time. Once I reached passport control at the Ceuta port terminal, I was directed into what appeared to be a detention room. The officer did not reappear with my passport for about ten minutes, an eternity to be without your passport. A Moroccan fellow was having a more difficult time, as the officer was really grilling him. I managed to board the "fast ferry," a good-sized ship with plenty of indoor seating, for the 1:45pm departure. I spent my entire time on board at the outside deck. I enjoyed staring at Africa receding from view and Europe gently approaching, with the sunshine winning the battle of elements against the rain clouds. Gibraltar is a small "rock" indeed as the ferry passed by. The listed time of the trip is 45 minutes, but the ferry spends countless minutes docking at Algeciras.
The Comes bus terminal is on a side street several blocks from the port terminal of Algeciras. I stared at the large bus schedule on the wall and I had to make a snap decision. Do I take a bus east to La Linea (the Spanish border town across from Gibraltar), or do I head west to my pit stop in Cadiz? Both buses were scheduled to leave Algeciras at 3:30pm. As much as I actually wanted to visit Gibraltar, I felt that I would not have enough quality time to spend there. I took the bus to Cadiz. As a consolation, the sun-kissed ride from Algeciras to Cadiz was even more scenic and colorful than the ride from Tangier to Ceuta across the Mediterranean. White modern three-finned windmills and lots of cows decorate the rolling landscape. I arrived at the Quo Qadis hostel as dusk settled in on old Cadiz. Another "Happy Thanksgiving" for me, as this journey continues my annual tradition (since 1994) of being outside the USA on Thanksgiving Day.
Incidentally, my friend took the ferry from Tangier to Tarifa, but he was denied entry because Tarifa is a smaller port that accepts only EU passports. The ferry then sailed to Algeciras, where he stayed overnight. We missed meeting each other in Cadiz and Sevilla, but we finally caught up with each other in Lisbon the day after Thanksgiving. Ah, the memories!