Diary of a Traincation: Overland from Marrakesh to London

Friday, November 12th, 2010 | Global Cool

A hundred little adventures as Global Cool CEO Caroline Fiennes crossed an entire continent by rail and ferry – on the way dropping in a conference, about international rail travel!

Sunday, 8.55pm, Marrakesh

Made it. Just. Alhamdulillah, as they say here when something marvellous has happened.

I love great long trips: so many quirky experiences, and the unknown, and the unexpected. This rather epic trip starts, despite my being ready in my hotel 2½ hours before the train left, with the customary last-minute public-transport adrenaline rush – courtesy of the combined efforts of a lamentably slow waiter at dinner, the Moroccan companion who walked me after dinner to the station being more interested in discussing philosophy than punctuality, and a bike-crash which blocked off our route.

I hope this isn’t a portent for this whole trip, because it’s long. Overland from Marrakech in mid-Morocco to London, it will take longer than any I’ve ever done before. I leave tonight (Sunday) and arrive in London on Thursday lunchtime. A great adventure! – a route that hardly anybody does, but those who do, rave about, so I’m excited to see what it’s like. Actually I’m being unfair to rail speeds – the trip includes 48 hours in Madrid where I’m speaking at a conference – about international rail travel, so turning up by train seemed the least I could do. Global Cool talks a lot about traincations, so I’m glad to be back on the rails myself.

The trip has so many legs that the logistics are a feat – so I’m happy that wonderful Rail Europe has arranged it all for me. From Marrakech, get the overnight train to Tangiers; get across Tangiers (pretty big, and whose proximity to Europe has trained many tourist hasslers); ferry across the Strait to southern Spain; train to Madrid arriving Monday night; conference for two days; leave Madrid on Wednesday on the overnighter to Paris; quick petit dejeuner a la Parisienne; and Eurostar back to Crown Territory. Four days: four languages. Hmmm: I speak three decently and none of them is Arabic or Spanish. Never mind: smiles and ‘tea please’ are pretty widely understood.


Marrakech station is a sight to behold. It looks like it’s been hewn out of a single block of marble. The contrast with Djemaa el-Fna – Marrakech’s main ‘square’ where we’d had dinner –could hardly be greater. A thousand years of trade and story-telling here has earned Djemaa el-Fna UNESCO status, and every single day it’s crammed with snake-charmers, men serving tea from giant teapots strapped to their backs, a couple of hundred food vendors, the clatter of umpteen banjos / violins/ drums / dancers/ zithers, and bikes and scooters beeping and hooking as they weave their wave through the thousands of people who come to watch it all. Here, in the station, nothing: just silent empty shininess.

And despite a double-height hall the size of Soho Square, only six platforms. But on one of them –– a train with my name on one of its couchettes. Alhamdulillah.


I must have grown up. When I first starting travelling solo on overnight trains in rather unlikely places – nearly twenty years ago in southern India – I was so fresh-faced and dishevelled that people assumed I’d be in the upright-seat compartment. Now “madam” is shown straight to the couchettes. Well, that’s no bad thing either.

I’m loving the adventure of travel by rail. Adventures on trains are exciting: rather better than adventures on aeroplanes, where they’re just terrifying. And – given the scarfs, bags, shows, homeware and carpets served up by Marrakesh’s wonderful souks, I’m also loving that there’s no baggage restriction.

Some of the few delights of Marrakeshi markets which don’t seem to be in my bags

Of course the golden rule of travel is that, unless you fancy a trip to the embassy, hang on to your passport! And travelling solo on a train means it comes with me to the loo every time. But keep a tight grip on it because, yes, that is the outside world you can see down the loo. No wonder railway stations here aren’t so fragrant.


So, feeling rather smug about having remembered those traveller essentials – sheet sleeping bag, (matching!) travel towel and earplugs – I lay out my bed.



To my astonishment the guard woke me up at Tangiers. That is, I’d been asleep, and evidently quite well.

Good man, he produces some tea. And what a view! Pinkish light cracking over the mountains of northern Morocco. Farms; small-holdings; donkeys; empty steppe. If where I stayed in the mountains was Morocco’s answer to Chamonix, this is its North York Moors: big, wide, open valleys, speckled with a few dwellings. And that big big sky. Now turning gradually blue, hiding the astonishing array of stars which you can only see this far south: zillions of them with a big dense streak across the middle – Morocco lets you peer right into the Milky Way. This is the classic type of countryside you hurtle through – or over – but exploring it properly, and meeting its people is invariably fascinating.

It’s official: we’ve arrived in Tangiers

The ferry terminal is, as they are, totally unceremonial, but on the quayside, just after the bloke checks my ticket, it’s all rather significant. For where the concrete stops and the metal of the boat’s ramp starts, there stops Africa. Behind me, one block of land all the way from my cousin’s house on the beach in Cape Town: in front of me, one step – and I’m Out of Africa, onto a Spanish boat.

The Strait of Gibraltar. Almost certainly not called that by the countries either side of it. This natty catarmaran does it in 35minutes: escaping Moroccans who swim – of whom there are apparently lots – presumably take rather longer. A decent wind makes it jolly choppy, so the swim must be awful. But the trip is long enough for me to meet some lovely Americans, and hear their amazing story about discovering they have a family castle in Ireland and their adventures with the locals as they reclaimed it. That’s what I love about this kind of travel: if it were a film, the massive cast would include loads of cameo appearances by amazing people.

We arrive in Algeciras, which, but for the final ‘s’ is pronounced precisely like Al-Jazeera: I profoundly hope nobody expects me to appear on there.

Anyway, back in the EU. Back to the short passport queueJ I’m greeted by a set of hills impressively densely populated with wind-turbines (the windiness noticed by the Spanish evidently!) – apparently on a good day, Spain gets fully half its power from the wind – and a big billboard ad featuring Rafa Nadal. Vamos!


At the Spanish port, another of those lovely encounters you only get on long-distance travel.  A lady next to me, about my age, scarf covering her auburn hair suggests that she too has been solo in an Islamic country, and her big rucksack suggests she’s been on the road a while. She has: she’s from Vancouver, where, bizarrely, she works at the university in the same department as a great friend of mine – the friend I was with last time I travelled to Madrid, my destination today, rather appropriately. We’re both looking for the railway station, so walk there together, comparing the Arabic we’ve accumulated. Unexpectedly, I feel rather measly that I’m “only” going overland to London: she’s going from Morocco to Tunisia, which (oddly) involves going across to Spain, up to Barcelona, and then a boat back South. She deserves a medal for that dedication!


There’s a while before the train to Madrid, so I camp out in a café: Café Opera to be specific, complete with big picture of Mozart on the wall – and playing lots of Kylie and Kings of Leon. Naturally. I order coffee in what I’m pretty sure is Italian – oh well. Picked up lunch for the train in the supermercado, using my precisely-zero knowledge of Spanish.

Natty street furniture in Algecerias


This train looks like it was built to blend in on a glacier! I’d bet it’s never seen any at all.

Policeman with truncheon saunters through the train. Followed by man distributing earphones. No Virgin-trains-radio-at-your-seat this! –turns out the Spanish get on-board TV in their trains!


So after an hour, and with the glorious discovery that my seat is not only by the window and on the sunny side but also reclines(!), I’ve looked out of the window a lot and surmised two things:

First, the Spanish are really on the case about wind-turbines. There are zillions on the mountains in Southern Spain. And we go right through the mountains. Evidently the trains in Spain are not mainly on the plain.

And second, I see no tennis courts or football pitches anywhere. As the world (men’s) champion in both sports, Spain should be awash with both, no? Possibly this is related all the mountains.

Somebody walks through the carriage bearing food: there must be a restaurant car! – what a fine invention. I investigate, find the restaurant and look at a newspaper (this is beginning to sound like a Suzanne Vega song…) Even my zero-vocabulary Spanish can understand this caption to a front-page picture of Eva Longoria at an event: “Eva Longoria de Victoria Beckham”! And it gets me some tea. So I’ve now successfully scored tea in both the languages of this trip which I don’t speak. All shall be well.

In fact, it’s not true that I have no Spanish. I can say – with honesty but not grammatical precision – that I don’t speak Spanish.


Crickey. Madrid station is like Kew Gardens. No joke – there’s a full-on tropical garden here, complete with turtles and 20meter-high trees. Very cool.

However, Madrid is also full of massive boulevards, high buildings, lights, adverts…. One week in Morocco and it’s as though I’m an alien in the West. Plus everybody has beautiful shoes – I still have the red dirt of the Atlas Mountains on mine! Still, at least my hotel is expecting me – and puts me in room 911! Ha ha – rather ominous. Actually it’s somewhat surprising that they still use that number.

Tuesday & Wednesday

So the purpose of all this was to come to this conference about high-speed rail travel. I’ll not talk a lot about that, except a few snippets that I learn. For one, the Russian railways employs a million people – more even than the Russian Army. As the CEO of an eight-person organisation, I’m impressed. For two, high-speed in Spain is reliably punctual that if the trip from Seville to Madrid has just a five minute delay, they give everybody a full refund. Crickey. And third, a clever chap from SNCF is working on a new high-speed line in…guess where?….Morocco. I hope it’s as good as the one I just went on.

There’s a bit of time for seeing things and people in Madrid. Lunchtime on the first day and I make a dash for some ‘sights’, bagging (through a rather random choice of direction) the Royal Palace. And who should be lurking outside but a fine British export.

A British invention, outside the Spanish monarchy’s palace

And for dinner in between I catch up with an old colleague who lives here now whom I’ve not seen for ages. He’s done well – amongst other things, he’s seen a company in which he invested years ago return 132 times his investment.

“Well I hope you were in for a lot”

“About ten grand”

“Cool. Er, wait. 132 times? Times 10k?”

“Yeah. £1.3 million.”

“Nice work! So looks like you’re paying for dinner then…”


Every time I mentioned to any of the Spaniards at the conference that I’m taking the overnight train to Paris, they go on about dinner on the train and how great it is. Apparently cheap, wonderful, full-service, proper cutlery, cooked fresh… Great eulogising: terrible expectation-management. But they also go on about how the track gauge is different in France and Spain. Last time I had a discussion about train gauges was years ago on my brother’s train-set.  This is evidently one of the major problems in international rail travel, and for high-speed travel in particular. Some carriages have clever wheels which can operate on two systems, but generally engines don’t –and also some super-long-distance trains can get through three gauges. So “you will experience changing the locomotive at the border”: well actually since it’ll be the middle of the night, I’d rather hope that I don’t experience anything much.

They weren’t lying. Once I’ve navigated the Madrid metro and made it to the mainline station (foreign metro systems always remind me of the Krypton Factor: they’re like a 3D, no-instruction, time-pressured initiative test encoded in an unfamiliar-language. I always feel a lovely sense of achievement when emerging in the right place – like I’ve outwitted them!), found my couchette (berth number 42 –Douglas Adams, you rock), it turns out that I’m right next to the restaurant car! Which has sittings at 8pm and 10pm (how very Spanish). To the point about the food being fresh, I’m pretty sure I saw the chef in the kitchen starting with some raw carrots.

This train – which so full of white ridged plastic that it’s rather like being inside the Michelin Man – is called the TrenHotel (train hotel: genius – I have now worked out the Spanish for not only train (tren) but also station (estación)), and rightly so since they’ve thought of everything. Towels, toothbrushes, power sockets, earplugs, even coathangers – and complicated-looking beds which the staff assemble while we’re all off at dinner. Even women-only cabins. The perky little taps on the sink marked ‘presto’ – how cute! It’s all just like in TS Eliot’s lovely poem Skimbleshanks from Cats:

“Oh it’s very pleasant when you have found your little den
With your name written up on the door.
And the berth is very neat with a newly folded sheet
And there’s not a speck of dust on the floor.
There is every sort of light—you can make it dark or bright;
There’s a button that you turn to make a breeze.
There’s a funny little basin you’re supposed to wash your face in
And a crank to shut the window if you sneeze”

And like a hotel, they want to see your passport: but in a blaze of incomprehensible Spanish, the train manager makes off with it! “Mañana something-or-other”: presumably meaning that it’s because we cross a border in the middle of the night, and he’ll bring it back tomorrow. To allay my obvious alarm, he shows me a whole bag full of other people’s passports. Well, hasta mañana, little passport, I hope.

As I got on, I played ‘fantasy cabin companions’. My top pick is a German-speaker, travelling on their own, since I always love to chat in German, and preferably a Swiss-German or non-native speaker since they talk a bit more slowly. It’s a good game this: in Borneo once, on a two week mountain/jungle trip, that was my top pick and I got precisely that. And lo! When I get back from dinner, in my cabin is a girl travelling solo who turns out to be Austrian and lives in Vienna right near where I used to live. So a nice natter in our mutual weird Viennese German about what’s happening in Vienna (nothing much: that’s precisely its appeal!) This is her first ever overnight train, so has idea what to expect: I am the old hand and show her around – and stress how massively luxurious this train is.



Knock knock. Who’s there? Train manager with our passports. Phew.

8.31am – after its 13 ½ hour trip, this train arrives on the dot. Pretty impressive.

Evidently I took precisely five minutes from train landing to getting to the concourse

So, bonjour, la belle Paris! Ҫa va? Well, ҫa va very well for me, thank you – I just love Paris and am anyway happy to finally be in a country whose language I speak! We arrive into Gare du Austerlitz – just over the river from where I used to live, and since Monsieur SNCF thinks his friend owns the lovely old house where I used to live but neither of us could remember its precise address, I trot over there to have a look. Would take a Velib (the pay-as-you-go ‘Boris bikes’, which I think Paris invented), but a bit hard with my bags, and anyway, they’re evidently popular this morning.

It’s a public holiday here today. Funny – it’s was a public holiday in Madrid when I was there on Tuesday. If the Roman god Mars was the Bringer of War, perhaps I am the Bringer of Bank Holidays.

The unexplained grotto of Bastille Metro station

To get to the Eurostar terminal, I hop on the Metro at Bastille. It’s obviously being renovated or re-built because the platform’s carved straight out of bare rock – like some troglodyte dwelling in the Loire. Half expect some old guy to appear and tell me about the wine they store down there. Instead there are a few commuters (who work for foreign companies so don’t get the public holiday?)  Funny: they’re going a few stops to the office; I’m crossing an entire continent to get to mine.


In a final flourish of brilliance, the wonderful Rail Europe has produced for the final leg of this tour… a first class seat! Hoorah. And with it, lounge access – peace and quiet, and lots of free tea J (You can take the girl out of England, etc. etc.)

So courtesy of Rail Europe’s munificence  and a random Metro ticket I found at home before setting off, I have managed to get right across France – in at the bottom & out at the top – without spending a single centime here. I’m sure Sarkozy would be just delighted.


“Beep beep beep” say everybody’s phones, indicating that we’re out of the tunnel and on home turf. Hurtling along on HS1 – High Speed 1 (which sounds a bit like AirForceOne but probably isn’t!) – the UK’s first high-speed railway, from the channel tunnel to St Pancras. And having met at the conference the guy responsible for building this line and the new station, I appreciate better just how impressive it is. A great introduction into Britain, with that massive wrought-iron vaulting. A touch of Brunel – appropriately, who built the first tunnel underwater.

Out, into the glory of London’s zone one. With the lovely euphoria of a surprisingly populous adventure – in which all the logistics worked like clockwork. What I could really do with finding now, is a guy serving tea, from a big teapot strapped to his back…


Caroline’s trip was arranged by Rail Europe.

For inspiration for your traincation, go to www.globalcool.org/traincation and to book go to www.eurostar.com or www.raileurope.co.uk

For tips on having conversations with strangers on trains, or buses, look at http://www.globalcool.org/lifestyle/the-art-of-conversation-tips-how-to-talk-on-public-transport

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