IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 19 > Tangiers - Algeciras - Granada

Tangiers - Algeciras

Another night on board a train, but once again the Moroccan rail system came up trumps and ensured it was a restful one. The cabin was sparsely furnished with highly attractive, 1970s-style orange PVC mattresses but it was comfortable, and I noted that I was in the same bunk in the same cabin, on the same train as the night before. I had also been greeted by the same friendly guard when I boarded, and he looked a bit bemused by my decision to spend nine hours hurtling down through the country, just thirteen hours in Marrakech and a further nine hours bombing it straight back again to Tangiers. During my journey in first class, I had wanted to assume the persona of jet-setting businessman as I had done earlier in the year in my previous job, but my scruffy boots, stubble and t-shirt depicting a car often regarded as a dilapidated old wreck in any nation, rather gave the game away. I was just another polite but tight-fisted English tourist who couldn't be bothered to buy a decent pair of shoes.

I knew somebody who would definitely disapprove of my hasty schedule - the Minister Of Tourism Man at the port. He regarded my planned 800-mile round trip as folly, although I suspected his main reasons for this were the fact that I wouldn't be spending any money on hotel bills or other services in his home town of Tangiers, and he wouldn't therefore earn himself any commission. I was hoping that I wouldn't be bumping into him again before I set sail on the ferry. I had visions of him standing on the harbour arm with a pair of binoculars and a lasso, hauling me ashore by the neck for a firm dressing down.

The train had dropped me off at dawn back at the solitary shed in the south of the city, and although in need of a wash and brush up, I was sufficiently revived to face the day ahead. Myself and my two German cabin crew, who had virtually become travelling companions by now, decided to share the costs of the journey back to the docks. By contrast with the previous theme park experience inside a Moroccan cab, the taxi ride this time through Tangiers was relatively peaceful. The traffic was busier for six o'clock in the morning than many European cities might have been, but there were none of the lunatic elements on the streets now. They seemed to preserve themselves for the night-time.

The three of us were all intending to make a detour around to Gibraltar once we reached the European mainland. The general reasoning appeared to be that we were unlikely to be travelling in this part of the world again for a long time, and we may as well just drop by, if only fleetingly, in case we never had another chance. I wanted to find out what all the fuss was about, regarding this rocky outcrop which my own country held onto so dearly. It was clearly of immense chagrin to the Spanish that the final tiny frontier of their land was still, in the twenty-first century, being hijacked by another nation. But they had their own examples to answer for here on the African continent, in which the small enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla were strangely guarded from Moroccan ownership as if a sheet of pure gold crust lay underneath them.

Susanne, Eric and myself standing at the port of Tangiers Eric and Susanne were intending once more to outdo me by speeding past on board their superior fast ferry, so we prepared to split, knowing there was still a likelihood of meeting up later. Standing at the port on a second rare gloomy morning, we posed for a photo (left) and bid our farewells.

Having sorted my return ticket I was told to hurry if I wanted to catch the next departure, and port staff pointed me in the direction of the big ferry chugging its engines at the end of the harbour. There were at least a dozen sailings between here and Algeciras every day, but I was destined to set foot on the same ship as before, with its broken bits and dangerous decks. I strolled casually up the dock half wanting for it to leave. All the other visible boats around here were brightly painted modern vessels that represented the Formula 1 equivalent of the seas. I was lumbered with the haggard old matron that bore more resemblance to the cement mixer of the seas.

Once aboard, it soon became apparent that again, there was no rush after all, the giant ropes were tightly secured and the crew showed no intent of unfastening them. After half an hour we eventually set sail, just one hour overdue from the advertised departure time. There was the slightest tinge of sadness as I left Tangiers and looked back at an ever shrinking continent, but I had barely been in Morocco long enough to grow any form of attachment to the place.

It was only five minutes after setting off that we were overtaken by the first of a few other craft, including a zippy little fast ferry (right). I imagined that my friends would be aboard, sipping champagne and laughing at the large heap floating alongside them. A small fast ferry speeds past on a gloomy morning in the Strait of Gibraltar

Few other people had been foolish enough to fall for this fiddle. Up on the highest deck I was sat alone in the breeze with my hood over my head, trying to spot the dolphins which reportedly frequented these seas. Although I could see each side of the Strait of Gibraltar on opposite horizons, to large mammals underwater sending out natural sonar signals, this was a narrow channel which presented dangers, and often confused any creatures that breached its entrance. It was quite peculiar to think that the whole of the Mediterranean Sea and the vast numbers of towns, cities and millions of people that inhabited its shorelines, from Tripoli to Tel Aviv, the Black Sea coast of Russia to the holiday resorts of the French Riviera and the Spanish Costas, depended on the waters flowing through this comparitively tight gap at the westernmost end. If somebody built a dam here there'd be a major punch-up.

Fed up with chilling my face to a frozen pizza base, I moved down to the lounges and wandered about in search of breakfast or entertainment. Neither was in either supply or demand on board this boat. The whole cafeteria area was closed, and the one offer of hope from the bar's snack menu, in the form of a pie, also proved to be a false promise as the barman scanned my request in his head for a bit, and then recalled that the pie had not actually been on sale for some years.

I remembered one desperate, rain-sodden night from my student days in Manchester, in which I spotted a sign for a chip shop lit up at the end of a bleak terraced street. I'd had a miserable evening out and was returning hungry to a lonely, vacated and food-free home, as my house-mates were all away for the weekend. There was nowhere else open at this late hour unless I trudged a couple of miles to the all-night garage in Eccles. I walked the length of the street gazing at this illuminated sign which offered so much hope. When I entered the merciful establishment I soon realized that they were due to lock up, and the familiar glass cabinet atop the bain-marie, normally roasting hot and holder of an array of unhealthy but tasty fried foods, was stone cold and contained a solitary pie.
- 'Have you got any chips please?' was my first, not unreasonable enquiry in this shop for which Britain had a reputation for vending such things.
- 'No, no chips mate', came the response.

I gazed up at the menu on the wall whilst the fat, bald meathead of an assistant, a common enough sight in the scallie-strewn streets of Salford, stared visciously at a spot three inches above my head, seemingly intent on pulling out an axe if I either glanced away or stared straight back at him. I tried my luck with some more items from the menu.
- 'Any peas?'
- 'No, no peas.'
- 'Oh, er, have you got any curry sauce or beans or anything?' I asked, in remembering the possibility of some complementary stale bread still lying around at home.
- 'Nope.'
- 'Scallops?' came my last, faltering attempt. He shook his head.
- 'Hmm, well, what have you got left exactly?'
He clearly wasn't intent on providing any help and had known all along that he was clean out of stock. It was even too much for him to muster up the art of speech anymore to me, doubtless somebody he regarded as a southern ponse. So he simply pointed at the case in front of him, or more specifically, at the lone pie which occupied it.
- 'What's in the pie?' I asked.
- 'Dunno', he replied.

I had to take a chance and opt for this pathetic cold lump which sat like a sinister monument in the middle of a barren silver desert. I had to face the pie. But after much consideration I just couldn't, and I edged my way out of the shop equally speechless, overcome with a mixture of wanting to cry, to burst out loud with laughter, and with a sense of failure in having a dying need to stuff something in my mouth on a grim, wet northern night. I never returned to that chip shop. It seemed that the poisonous offerings of my local take-away, which had been closed down by the health inspectors, were more promising. Today on board the boat, however, I really needed that pie on the menu, and the barman's denial of its current existence left me feeling downtrodden, and hungry.

I found a Bureau de Change on deck, and with all the small change in dirhams that I had remaining, the assistant offered me the exact sum of 5 Euros. I was surprised it was even worth that, and I also hadn't expected the service to exist having been told that dirham dealing outside Morocco was an illegal sin. Satisfied with this minor money injection, I sought food from the Euro-only vending machines, but they were also depleted of stock. It was quite different from the sailing coming the opposite way days before, when I treated myself to a bargain hot meal from the packed buffet. This time it looked like my luck had run out on the food front. With two more hours to kill I went to have a shave, but the taps in the toilets only had cold water running from them, and I realized at this point that sinking might not be altogether a bad thing. Some other toilets at the end of the deck had at least tepid water, and I spent the next thirty minutes cursing a pattern of red dots which took hold of my face as I ran the razor over it.

Any bleeding was soon to be stemmed by pure shock, when an exceptionally large lady burst in and began ranting in Arabic. From the air traffic control maneouvres she was making with her arms I could ascertain that there was a problem in the ladies' loos, and that she had no alternative but to invade my abode instead. What was alarming, however, was her decision to enter the cubicle directly behind me which had no door.

She was so wide that any chance of retaining some privacy behind a door was an impossible feat to achieve in these pokey toilets, as once inside there was no space for her to close it. This was obviously what she was making the fuss about, and I realized why she had been making such poignant gestures towards me. I was standing in front a mirrored wall attempting to repair the damage to my cheeks, and I had a full view of her private squatting moment in the reflection. I shuffled along but neither of the three positions in front of the sinks offered a spot away from the line of fright. I certainly wasn't going to exit into the corridor with half a beard and a dangerous weapon in my hand; that would be sure to raise alarms when I reached Spanish customs. I closed my eyes and waited for her to finish her business, which she did with a medley of excruciatingly agonizing sound effects. Somehow, I knew that my experiences in Morocco would pale in my memory compared to these events which followed.

When we did arrive at Algeciras, I was in for another shock. Throughout my life I had fared badly at the hands of customs officials. Something about the way I looked, which was usually a good preventative tool for avoiding stabbings in the street in Salford, also caused me to appear suspicious when entering another country, or more often than not, when re-entering my own country with its stuffy officialdom. I'd just always had this expression that I couldn't help, which implied 'bit weird, leave well alone.' Manchester scallies generally spared me their swords and verbal curses, believing I could be a potential nutter, whilst most other people I knew from outside the city had suffered at their hands, and boots, at least once.

Unfortunately this effect spread to other aspects of my life, causing security officers in stores to trail me and keep appearing at the ends of aisles, and causing nice wholesome girls to eye me like an escaped care in the community case. Once, at the age of eighteen and with a pasty, spotty face and spikey haircut, I had passed through customs at Dover having returned from a school band trip to Germany. I was the only pupil out of a group of fifty who was pulled over for questioning. Then, I strolled back to speak to some friends who were the last to come off the boat. During the thirty seconds in which I was gone, the customs staff had changed over shift, and once again I was stopped by the fresh set of officers. I was adamant that I must be the first person to be stopped twice at the same customs post when entering Britain.

Here in Algeciras, however, things were different. As I approached with the usual self-consciousness which struck anybody walking through customs, I watched as ahead of me several 'nice' couples wearing matching mail order catalogue jackets, were halted whilst their bags were rummaged through. Meanwhile, I was waved through with a cheery smile. What was all that about? This crossing was notorious for drug runners making their way up into Europe and I had been preparing my underpants for an invasion. There was currently no known instrument on the market for storing facial expressions, but now I needed one. Surely never again would a shady looking Englishman returning from Morocco be treated with such civility.

Algeciras - Granada

I had accomplished part one of my Interrailing agenda. Morocco had been conquered, although such a summing-up was in want of a far more truthful and less arrogant expression. I had established my presence in the country with the same level of achievement of a UK-bound asylum seeker licking the cliffs of Dover before being dragged back across the English Channel by the tides. But at least I'd made it there, and the second half of my plans - the return journey, was now ready to swing into action.

I was faced with some long hauls each day if I stood any chance of making it back to Britain by the time my train ticket expired. Technically, it could be done in just two or three days if I had such an urge, but there were several locations I wanted to envelop in my round trip. Getting around the south-east of Spain and onwards to Valencia and Barcelona by rail was only possible by going all the way into Madrid and back out again, and I realized that wherever I wanted to go, it was inevitable I would pass through the Spanish capital once more. Had things been different, I might have been meeting my beautiful companion Violaine there, but the criteria required for this difference would probably involve me looking like Brad Pitt, having the physique of David Hasselhoff and the charisma of Gérard Depardieu all rolled into one. Either that or she would have appreciated less modesty on my part; I could never get it right.

My first intended stop was across the water in Gibraltar, a phrase which knocked about in my head and which I determined surely worthy of inclusion in some cockney knees-up. To get there by land from here, just a few miles away in Algeciras, required taking two buses. Travellers had to get off the first, cross the border on foot and then board the second; a ridiculous antiquated procedure which summed up the bitter, twisted and unresolved hostilities between the authorities on each side.

I took some lunch in the bus station, but in scanning the timetables for the next departure, I couldn't help worrying that the fiddly schedule of getting to Gibraltar, finding accommodation and getting back out again the following day would interfere with my need to make steady progress north. I would barely have time available to explore anything interesting in the British-owned territory, and with there being such limited rail departures from this southerly point of Spain, I thought I should visit the rail station and confirm the times of the trains.

There were just six or seven journeys out of the town each day, with one going to the much vaunted city of Granada around to the east. This was another of the places spoken highly of by other travellers I had met. It was still a little out of the way but did offer the possibility of a connection onwards direct to Madrid. Faced with the choice of going there or to Gibraltar, it was Granada that won the battle of nations and consigned British Gibraltar to my destination dustbin. I always had a desire to visit small, obscure countries and provinces, just to see if there was anything hiding there. Andorra, Monaco and Luxembourg were all items on my hit list at the beginning of my trip but Gibraltar, the first, had suddenly dropped off of it. Not least, this was because they used Gibraltan pounds there instead of Euros, and ones distinct from the normal British coins. Well sod that, I couldn't be done with changing my money again. I was off to Granada, ready to lap up all the clichéd Spanish cultural offerings it possessed.

The one service of the day left within a couple of hours, so I paced another station concourse, stocking up on espressos from the café to keep me awake during the long journey ahead. It was here that I bumped into some old friends, which wasn't all so remarkable as they were called Eric and Susanne. They were rather surprised to find that I had shunned Gibraltar, since they had just reached the same decision, and were now intent on the same revised destination as myself. It was at this point that we all seriously began to consider who was stalking who. They were a lovely couple but I did rather worry that I might cramp their style if I hung around them any longer, so I took in another coffee and found a seat at the front of the train shortly before departure. I knew my friends were on board somewhere, but I would leave them to it and put in another appearance at the other end of the line.

A scene from the train window between Algeciras and Ronda I had another chance to savour the magnificent scenery as the train twisted around the gorges and valleys alongside the River Guadiaro. We then emerged into open plains (left) where it laboured up shallow inclines on a single track, culminating in the severe zig-zag climb up to the town of Ronda.

The sun had resumed occupancy of its rightful position for this part of the world, and it was another long steamy journey. My attention to what was on display outside the carriage later turned to what was going on inside it. The other occupants of my carriage were a lady sat in the row in front of me, a couple level with her across the aisle, and visible through the gap in the airline-style seats ahead were two teenage girls facing me. They were only about fourteen, and had clearly become fidgety three hours into the ride as they began messing about. The lady in front took a visit to the toilet, and whilst she was gone they attempted to ransack her bag and belongings. It was noted by myself and the other couple, but they appeared to take nothing.

The lady alighted at the next stop, and my attention for the remaining couple of hours was diverted by the teenage antics of the terrible twins. The journey was only marred by their behaviour, which then saw them giggling uncontrollably in the belief that exposing private parts of their bodies to me was the funniest thing they could do. Marred maybe, but in light of this unexpected improvised entertainment, 'improved' was probably a better description of my sentiments.

Eventually, I also needed to pay a visit to the lavatory, and I was concerned for the security of my belongings. I put my faith in the other couple keeping watch, and decided to make it as brief a trip as possible. As I walked up the carriage, the girls sniggered at me with naughty expressions on their faces, and I stuffed myself into the cramped cubicle to go about my private business. Halfway through the act, I heard more smirking, and I looked around to see that the air vents at the bottom of the door had all been mangled and ripped out, and I was being eyed by a pair of hysterical young women crouching outside. It seemed as though this was some evil retribution for my unwillingly having to witness the weeing whale on the boat earlier in the day.

The scorched shallow valleys of Andalucia, en route to Granada near the Sierra Nevada

The girls' fun had worn them out, but despite their bad behaviour, they looked rather sweet as they slept exhausted on each other's shoulders. I turned my gaze back to the outside world, and the exhilarating backdrop of the Sierra Nevada as we neared Granada. I knew little about the city, aside from the word 'Alhambra' being banded about by the people who had recommended a visit there. It was a surprise to still be able to see slim streaks of snow on top of the surrounding mountains in late June, and even more bemusing to learn that this was a major ski resort in winter. I just could not imagine that this blisteringly hot landscape could contain an ounce of frozen material at any time of the year.

We arrived a little late, by which time the sun had closed for business and gone to entertain its friends in the west. There was still enough light around to grant me time to find the youth hostel. As I loitered around the station looking for information, I met Eric and Susanne who were doing the same. They were soon accosted outside by a lady offering them accommodation in a cheap pension. As they parted and set off up the road with a friend they had met on the train, I knew that was the last time I would see them, but we had agreed to keep in touch if we were ever passing by each other's home towns in future travels.

I indulged in a local supermarket, and tried to memorize some complicated directions given to me verbally at the station's travel enquiries desk. The man there had been helpful, but his Spanish was a little too advanced for my standards, and I could only ascertain that I was seeking two right turns and a main road beyond. Walking straight out onto a main street, I could see immediately that Granada was an attractive, bustling city with a vibrant nightlife. Bars and restaurants were packed, mainly with locals, for early entertainment on a pleasant summer evening. There was a hubbub in the air, coming from the various venues at ground level which sat beneath the grand buildings lining the streets. I noticed some good deals to be had in the restaurants, with full three-course meals and wine all inclusive for five or six Euros. I kicked myself for having just purchased some perishable foods for my dinner, but I really needed to find the hostel before it got dark anyway.

This was another of the many hostels in Spain which never answered the phone. I had tried several times earlier in the day to reserve a place, whilst at the stations in Algeciras and Granada, but had never received a reply on either of two lines. I didn't like arriving late in a city with no arrangements made. It wouldn't have been so bad if I had more money to spend, but I had planned this trip with only a slight margin for financial error, and being consigned to a dodgy hotel or pension late at night could be unrewarding for both my soul and my wallet.

I became a little lost upon reaching a crossroads, and I looked around for the first person nearby. I had walked past dozens of exceptionally attractive girls, possibly the most stunning parade of the opposite sex I had seen in one place. But the first focus of my attentions as I turned around was a stocky bloke with a skinhead. I approached him with my stock phrase,
- '¿Perdone, sabe usted dónde está Camino de Ronda por favor?' to which the reply came,
- 'I ain't got a bleedin' clue mate. I'm not from round 'ere see.'
I hardly felt that the last part needed affirmation. It seemed I had stumbled across the only builder's bum Brit this side of the Pyrenees. He did appear to have a genuine grasp of the Spanish language though, because he then pointed me in the direction of the street I sought, which was about seven yards away from where I was standing.

I eventually located the hostel, and was mightily relieved when the welcoming lady at reception found me a place for the night. It was another of the hospital-themed Spanish hostels, but it had a bit more character than the one in Seville. I felt happy here, and I took joy in my first shower for more than sixty hours, which was desperately needed in the sticky conditions.

I had French and Japanese room-mates, which was unusual because so often I had been automatically assigned sharing arrangements with English-speaking guests at other hostels. During my stay at the one in Poitiers I had been chatting with Lynsey, a beautiful girl from Scotland who was working there for the summer in order to improve her French skills. She had told me a few things about how guests were treated by hostel staff, and the reasoning for putting people into certain rooms. Placing people from the same country or with the same first language was common, and generally seen as a necessary way of avoiding conflicts between residents. It was often nice to meet other travellers who I could converse with easily, but occasionally it was equally welcome to mix with different people entirely. Both my fellow guests tonight, however, were having a look around the town, which suited me fine as I needed a good night's rest after a long day.

It always struck me as very peculiar when having woken early in one place, then spent the day either travelling long distances or having a very busy time involving different experiences, to go to sleep a long way from where I started, reflecting on the previous hours. Sometimes I'd struggle to convince myself it was still the same day, and that I hadn't been asleep inbetween. On extreme occasions, the events of early morning could seem like they occurred a week ago. Today hadn't been overly eventful, but it had begun in another continent, taken in two trains, a boat and a taxi, and had ejected me a couple of hundred miles away in a totally different land. Tomorrow, I would begin exploring it.

HOSTEL REPORT: Albergue Juvenil Granada, Camino de Ronda 171, Granada
This hostel was tricky to find, as the Camino de Ronda was a long main road and the number 171 didn't actually feature on it. In fact the building was tucked away a fair distance down a side street, and without having a map to hand or being given some accurate directions the place could be frustratingly elusive. Despite being a little hospital-like in the upper floors, this was a clean, modern hostel with many facilities. There was a TV lounge, laundry room, various vending machines and many amenities close by in the city centre, including the sports facilities adjoining the building. My three-bed dormitory had its own bathroom with a shower, and was spacious. The staff were generally helpful, and the biggest surprise was the great take-away breakfast they gave me when I had to leave early on the second morning. The place lacked some atmosphere and was located in a slightly dingy area on the opposite corner of the city to the Alhambra, but it could not be faulted in most other respects. Score: 8/10

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