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Of all the gin joints in all the towns…..

Ah, Casablanca. Bogart and Bacall. Play it again. Well, in this episode I’ll be in Casablanca, then playing Ceuta again, and then crossing back over the Strait of Gibraltar into mainland Spain. There’s lots of stuff in Spain for me to see….

 

By Jon Newey (retired Architect, Blood Bike rider, Adventure traveller) with Tigger (Triumph Tiger 800 XRX)

 



I’m in Essouaria (Ess-ah-wah-ree-ah), west Morocco. I have a full day to explore the ancient medina. By chance I meet up with Hansjorg and Therese again, who are just leaving their hotel on their way to a small town further up the coast. We compare notes over a coffee. It’s nice to see them again.



Next I head for the fishing port where I’m meeting Ilya, a local walking guide. Well, actually he’s from Moscow, but he’s been living in Essouaria for several years. There are two other couples on the group, a German couple and an Italian couple, so although the tour is in English I’m the only native English speaker. We learn that in the small fishing port you can buy fish, oysters and lobsters direct from the fishermen and they will cook them on a bbq for you right there is you wish. We learn that Essouaria was built by the Portuguese. They called it Mogador. The name changed to Essouaria in the 1960s after Morocco became independent from France. We learn that the port was once a haven for slave-traders and pirates but these days it is a magnet for surfers, hippies, artists and musicians.


Berber treats, sellou, argan oil and amlou paste

We duck through a low doorway into a tiny apothecary run by a women’s cooperative. They offer us a taster of some Berber delicacies, sellou spice mix, honey, argan oil, and amlou paste - made from almonds, argan oil and honey mixed. I realise that these are the delicacies that I was offered for breakfast each day in my hotel in Ait Benhaddou but at the time I didn’t know what they were. The tasters are all washed down with ‘royal tea’ sweetened with honey. Delicious.

 

Walking tour over, I retrace the route and sit to sketch in a sunlit alleyway. A man pops out of a doorway and offers me a chair to sit in. Very kind, but the perspective is better when I sit on the floor. He finds this hard to comprehend but sits on the chair himself and watches me. Turns out that the alley I’m sketching used to be the red-light district back in the days of the pirates, apparently….

 


Essouaria

Back at my apartment I start packing up my stuff which has spread itself far and wide. Then I wander out to the nearest restaurant for a cheap chicken and lemon tagine. Up on the apartment’s roof terrace I watch the sun set over the Atlantic, and just like that my time in Essouaria is done. I could stay longer but tomorrow I’m heading up the coast to Casablanca.

 

Next morning I’m up in good time to go out and buy something for breakfast. I’ve got some jam and yoghurt left over from yesterday so a bottle of fresh orange juice and a fresh French loaf from the shop at the end of the street is perfect. Abdul the doorman is still watching over Tigger as I pack everything on. I tip him a couple of Dirhams for his trouble and then I’m off, heading north towards Casablanca. These north-western parts of Morocco are much more developed than the eastern and southern parts. It’s almost like two different countries. There are big toll roads here that I can use if I want, to get me quickly from one town to another. That feels like cheating, though, so I turn onto the N1 and follow it for a while. It takes me through the centre of a series of small towns where the horse and donkey are still the main mode of transport. After a couple of hours of the resultant chaos I give in and turn back onto the A5 toll.


There’s a strong headwind as Tigger picks up speed towards Casablanca. The head wind plays havoc with Tigger’s fuel consumption. Usually I fill up the tank once a day, if that, but today I have to stop three times for petrol.  At one fuel stop I park next to a group of Spanish-registered adventure bikes. I chat to the riders and we all swap stories. Like so many Spanish riders they see Morocco as the playground next door. It’s just a one-hour ferry hop for them… They’ve never ridden in Scotland, though, so I think I win that one on balance....

 

By mid-afternoon I’m in Casablanca trying to find the hotel. The traffic is insane. It comes at you from all sides and all directions and always at great speed. I hold my nerve, take a few wrong turns and a few deep breaths, go round the block twice and eventually park Tigger at the door of the Olympic Inn. It’s a beaut. A big comfortable room with a balcony and an ensuite, all spotless, and an underground garage for Tigger with includes a locked door and a security guard. It’s no more expensive than some of the less-salubrious establishments I’ve stayed in previously so I’m more than happy.

 

My phone buzzes. It’s a WhatsApp message from Hansjorg. He, Therese and the Rocket have just landed in Casablanca too. Do I want to go find a beer? Do I? Of course I do.



The Rocket III...

Their hotel is 500m away from mine so I wander over. There’s the Rocket parked outside. In a world where the 50cc step-thu scooter is the vehicle of choice the 2,300cc Rocket makes quite a statement. As I arrive Hansjorg is negotiating for a safe place to park it. The hotel owner opens up the shutter on a disused shop unit across the street and the Rocket is guided in. It’s good enough, but not to the same standard as the Olympic’s spotless underground garage! Ha!

 

By now it’s getting late so we plump for the first restaurant we see. The décor is oriental so we’re expecting oriental food, but the menu doesn’t have anything like that on it. There’s a language barrier (a communal mangling of German, English, French and Arabic) so we’re not quite sure what we've ordered and we’re not quite sure what we're eating. Oh well, we’ll try somewhere else tomorrow. At least they have beer available.

 

Next morning I spend a couple of hours catching up on admin (blog, video editing, managing money apps etc) and then set off to explore Casablanca. It’s a 30-minute walk to the Hassan II Mosque which sits on a dramatic promontory poking out into the Atlantic. The walk back from there brings me past Ricks Café, a modern re-imagining of Humphrey Bogart’s fictional gin joint in the famous film. From there I walk through a gate in the town wall and enter the old medina. Less crowded than the medina in Fes, not quite so laid-back as the medina in Essouaria, Casablanca’s ancient medina is a fascinating place to wander. I buy a sandwich and a can of juice but resist the various attempts being made to make me buy other stuff. Before long I’m at the other end of the medina. I pass through another gate in the wall and into the part of town called ‘old town’. In the ‘old town’ the buildings are all 1930’s architecture. In the UK we might call that the new town…. Ten minutes further on I’m back at The Olympic Inn.

 


Hassan II mosque, Casablanca

H&T are still in town so we get together for dinner again. Tonight we find a pavement café and eat what the locals eat (still not sure what it was, mind you) and then we go to find a beer. That’s not so easy in Casablanca. The only bars serving alcohol are windowless places with the doors closed, populated by heavy-smoking heavy-drinking wrinkled old men. You can’t drink beer in a pavement café here, not even out of a paper bag like we did in Midelt. Beer is expensive here too, relatively speaking. We have one glass and we call it a day. Tomorrow I will head back to Ceuta to look for a ferry back to Spain. H&T are heading to Chefchaouen. I’ve already been there, so this is a last goodbye. Unless our paths cross again in Spain or points further north, of course. Who knows?

 




Casablanca's medina

Breakfast at the Olympic Inn is huge and tasty and all included. Just how I like it. Sayid the security guard opens up the garage, I pack Tigger and before long we’re back into the mayhem of Casablanca’s traffic. Except today is Sunday and the streets are mercifully quiet. I take the toll road for the first hour to get some miles under my belt but then turn off onto a rural road for a few miles of fun. The road passes through a flat area of farmland, through small towns, and past the inevitable donkeys, horses, sheep and cows. I pass several donkey-drawn carts where the whole family is sitting up in their Sunday best. I wonder where they are going. I soon find out as the road compresses into the centre of the biggest Sunday market you will ever see. Tigger and I have ridden through some mayhem before but this takes the game to a whole new level. Vehicles (if I can call them that…) are moving at a snail’s pace in all directions. There’s been a collision and the police are ‘directing’ traffic (Aye, right). There are donkey carts going thither and hither laden with purchases. New windows for your house? No problem. Fruit? Veg? A new fridge-freezer? How about parts for your tractor? A sheep? A 4m x 1m bag full of polystyrene balls? No problem. Whatever you want you can get it here. The only problem is that you can’t get out of the place! It takes me an hour to creep from one end of the market to the other and then eventually back out into open countryside. Before long I am back on the toll road getting more miles under my belt. As detours go that was definitely an interesting one.

 

A few miles before we reach Ceuta Garmin takes us off the toll road and onto a narrow windy mountain pass. What a great road this turns out to be. The toll road was heading for Tanger, in the north west corner of Morocco.  Ceuta is over towards the east. At the top of the little mountain pass I can see Tanger and the Atlantic Ocean to my left, Ceuta and the Strait of Gibraltar to my right, and the Mediterranean Sea beyond that. On the horizon is the European mainland. That’s a panorama worth coming to see.

 

Twenty minutes later we’re in Fnideq, the final wee town in Morocco before crossing the border to Ceuta. Crossing the frontier will take us back into the EU. We’ll still be in Africa, of course, but Sapin/EU at the same time. I stop to fill up with petrol in an attempt to spend my final fistful of Moroccan Dirhams. The pump attendant knows this game well and gives me my change in Euros. In fact, all though Morocco Euros and Dirhams have been interchangeable. 1 Euro = 10 Dirhams, so it’s a simple conversion for people to make. It’s been possible to pay for things with a mix of coins (Euros and Dirhams) and to get a mix of coins back in your change. It pays to be vigilant, though. A Euro and a 5-Dirham coin look alike but one is half the value of the other….

 



The border formalities take just 45 minutes. That’s good in my experience. There’s a special lane for two-wheeled traffic but there’s no-one at the passport kiosk in that lane so all bikers have to park up and walk across to the queue at another kiosk, so it doesn’t really speed anything up. Tigger’s Temporary Import card is stamped, so is my passport, and hey presto we’re out of Morocco. On the Spanish side there’s just a quick glance at my passport and that’s all. It’s interesting. I have in my pocket two different international driving permits (different countries require different types) but I’ve never been asked to present them to anyone at any border, or any police check. Still, I suppose it’s good that I have them just in case. Anyway: Ta-dah. We’re through and back in the EU.

 

Tonight I am returning to the same Abnb in Ceuta that I stayed at on my way south. It feels a bit like home. My hosts have offered to feed me this time and a beautiful dinner is duly presented. They ask me lots of questions about where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to and they leaf through my sketch books making suitably appreciative noises. Such a lovely evening. Such a nice couple.

 

Next morning I’m booked on the Balearia ferry across to Algeciras. This ferry is a bit slower than the catamaran that I used coming south but I’m in no great hurry today and this ferry has the advantage of some outside decks where I can stand and watch Africa disappearing towards the horizon. The ticket says I should arrive at the ferry port one hour before departure. My host says that’s nonsense and there’s no need to be there more than ten minutes in advance.



However, I dutifully arrive at the ferry terminal with one hour to spare. And there’s nobody there. I wait, alone, at the front of the boarding lane. Ten minutes before the ferry is due to depart a few other cars arrive and a ferry employee saunters over, opens the gate and checks my ticket. Hmmm. I could have had an extra hour in bed which would have been very welcome because Spain’s clock is one hour ahead of Morocco’s.

 

It’s a smooth crossing. No more than a handful of other passengers. An hour and a half later and I’m riding down the ramp back onto European tarmac. Algeciras ferry port is a confusing place. Garmin tells me one thing, road signs tell me something else but eventually I find the ‘salida’ and we pop out into Algeciras itself. My first quest is to find an ATM and get myself some Euros. With that done I point Tigger northwards.

 


Think I took a wrong turn... Also went through Los Angeles and found my way to San Jose today!

Tonight we’re heading just 100km into the Andalucian hills to the small town of El Bosque. It is one of the white painted hill towns that form the Andalucian ‘white towns’ route. Immediately outside Algeciras the road becomes narrow and twisty and starts winding its way up and through the Andalucian countryside. We pass some of the white towns, Algar being a standout example. There are frequent signs warning that the road is in a poor state of repair. Compared to the roads in Morocco, or Romania (or in Scotland for that matter) I don’t see much to complain about. The scenery is wild and mountainous. The road continues to snake its way up and down through valleys and over ridges. Eventually we arrive at El Bosque. My room for the night is above a restaurant on the main street. It is hot here. The street is quiet. The room is neat, clean and comfortable. Unfortunately, the restaurant doesn’t do proper meals, just drinks and snacks, and today is Monday when most of the other restaurants are closed. Undeterred I take a wander through the sleepy town and soon find an eatery that is open. I order a wild boar stew and beer. I’ve enjoyed my time in Morocco but now it feels good to be back in Spain.

 

A good night’s sleep is followed by breakfast in the café. Then Tigger and I are packed and away. For the first couple of hours today we’re following the twists and turns of the ‘white towns’ route. We stop in Setinel de las Bodegas which is one of the prettiest towns on the route. Here there are several restaurants, houses and cafes that are built into the stone cliff faces, troglodyte style. It is very quaint. A few km later we turn onto a dual carriage way heading for Cordoba. I stop for petrol and for lunch at a service station. It seems odd to see beer on draught at the bar there. Can you imagine that in a UK motorway service station? A short while later I’m approaching Cordoba.

 



Before I go to find my Abnb I have another detour planned. Just outside Cordoba there’s the World Heritage site of Al Zahra, a ruined Moorish citadel from the 10th century. I park Tigger in the car park, lock my helmet and jacket to the rear wheel (its approaching 30 degrees today) and make my way to the visitor centre. To get to the archaeological site itself you have to take the bus which costs 3 Euros. After a bit of a wait, and a short bus ride, I’m at the site. Entry tickets are next. Then the rules. No selfie sticks. No sitting down anywhere. Don’t touch anything. I feel like a naughty schoolboy. The ruins are interesting but very manicured and strictly rule-bound. I can’t stop to sketch because I’m required to keep moving and then there’s the no sitting rule, of course.



I take a few photos, enjoy the interlude and make my way back to the bus. Here I find that there’s a getting-off stop, and 50m further along there’s a getting-on stop. If you stand at the wrong stop you can’t get on the bus even though it is the same bus and it is there with its doors open and there’s no-one else waiting. You must walk 50m and wait for the bus to drive the same 50m, then you can get on. Rules. Is it a Spanish thing or just Al Zahra? Tigger is where I left him. The temperature gauge reads 31 degrees. Time to head for my Abnb.

 

Twenty minutes later I’m outside the apartment. Jose comes to let me in. There’s a car park for Tigger with an electric gate. The room for me is spotless. I shower, nip out to a supermarket to buy some drinks and snacks, and then walk the 10 minutes to the centre of Cordoba to find a meal at a pavement café. There’s a flamenco guitarist busking. There’s tapas. It’s all very Spanish. I plan to spend two nights here so tomorrow I can explore Cordoba properly.

 

Next morning I have my monthly Zoom meeting with the office. They still seem to be coping without me which is reassuring. Work over, I head into Cordoba. The weather today is slightly overcast, so more comfortable for strolling through the narrow streets. I visit the Roman bridge which has been in use as a river crossing for more than 2,000 years. Then I make my way to the Cathedral/Mosque. This huge building is a major tourist draw. The courtyard outside is mobbed with walking tours, coach parties and school groups. I pay my entrance fee and book a time-slot and before long I’m allowed inside. At this point words fail. The space inside this building is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The mosque was built in 785. Its ‘hippostyle’ prayer hall has 850 columns with double-tier arches connecting them. But then, right in the middle a Christian Cathedral was built in the 16th century complete with transepts, aisles and dome, all seamlessly incorporated into the hippostyle hall. It is an astonishing architectural conjuring trick that has to be seen to be believed. 

 



I spend quite a while wandering around inside the mosque. I attempt a sketch but you can’t capture a proper sense of such an enormous space on a small piece of paper. The place really is huge, complex and fascinating. Eventually I stumble back out into the sunlight and go to find some refreshment.

 

As an added bonus to the day, I find that I am in Cordoba during the annual ‘patios’ festival. The patios are the internal courtyards of the private houses that visitors don’t normally get to see. But this week the owners open their doors and allow visitors in to take a look. I poke my head into a few. They are very beautiful spaces, filled with flowering plants and grape vines and people in smart hats standing around sipping champagne. All very stylish.

 



Back at my Abnb I relax for the rest of the afternoon and begin to prepare for the next day’s ride. We’ll be heading north again, deeper into Spain’s hinterland…..

 

 

Tigger miles in 2023 = 8,024

Tigger miles in 2024 so far = 4,025

 

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