2 – 4 feb 2014
Netherlands to Tanger
What am I getting myself into? That question pops into my head more and more often as my departure date comes closer. ‘West Africa’ is the easy answer, but what does that really mean? I honestly don’t know; there’s only so much you can learn about a place by reading about it. I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer, and I’ve been dreaming about making a trip like this (and many other adventures) for years, but so far, dreaming is all I’ve done. Now that I have both the money and the time, I intend to live that dream.
After moving out of my room (sniff) and saying goodbye to my friends (sob!), I spend two much-too-short days with my family, and then it’s time to really get moving. I feel my confidence growing again as I’m done packing. After a short night, I’m brought to the train station by my family. Lots of hugs and a few tears later I get on the train and I’m on my way. After a short ride to Antwerp (beautiful station by the way; the Belgians really do grandeur a lot better than us sober Dutch!), I change to the Thalys high-speed train that’ll take me to Paris. Seeing people have their Sunday morning run, just like I would normally be doing, has me reflecting on what I’m leaving behind, but such thoughts quickly disappear when the train passes Brussels and we get into the countryside. It’s a beautiful early spring day, even though it’s only early February. The sky is blue and cloudless, the grass is bright green, there’re some crops peeking out of the ground, and even a few fields of flowering rapeseeds. It’s definitely not what winter should look like, but it does make for a nice day to travel!
After two hours the train pulls into Gare du Nord, and I have nine hours to explore Paris. My first destination is Île Saint Louis, which is an island in the Seine. Despite being right next to Île de la Cité, with its famous Notre Dame church, the atmosphere here is quite relaxed and uncrowded. I spend some time eating homemade sandwiches and enjoying the sun along the banks of the Seine.
Afterwards, I go to see les Tuileries, the gardens next to the Louvre, but they’re mostly a disappointment. There’re way too many people to have any sense of calm, the gardens themselves are much too empty for my taste, and there are dozens of people hassling the tourists, trying to sell them impossibly trashy Eiffel tower statues. I quickly make my way across the river and on to the (real) Eiffel tower. By now my feet are beginning to blister; clearly what practising I’ve done at walking with boots and a backpack hasn’t been enough. The tower, to be honest, doesn’t appear as tall as I expected, but admittedly I didn’t go in it so I don’t know what it’s like from above. Walking to Gare d’Austerlitz I pass through the Quartier Latin, a lively neighbourhood full of little cafes, restaurants and independent shops. At Austerlitz, the main waiting area is fully occupied, so I have to wait outside. This is made much more pleasant by a piano which is available to anyone who feels like playing a tune; a guy, probably about 18, is really playing his heart out there, and it sounds great.
Just before 10 in the evening I board the night train to the Spanish border – except due to rain damage it can only go to Lourdes. My “roommates” include a former architect who now travels the world making a living selling watercolour paintings of the places he has visited, and Helène, who grew up in the French Pyrenees but now lives in Singapore, partially because there’re very few jobs in her part of France. At 6 in the morning, after a rough night in a tiny bed which I have to share with my backpack, we are kindly requested to leave the train at Lourdes. We then take a train to Pau, where we lose sight of the architect: Helène, her sister and her sister’s boyfriend then travel with me on another train to Puyoô, then on the bus to Bayonne, where their mother picks them up. I continue on yet another train to Hendaye, and from there on a train that finally takes me across the Spanish border and to Donostia, capital of Gipuzkoa.
Most people outside of Basque Country will know the place better as San Sebastian. After all the trainhopping, it’s a minor miracle that I only arrive there 2 hours later than planned. My blistered feet are still bothering me, so I don’t get to do as much as I had hoped. I do get to see the beach, which is beautifully located in a bay sheltering it from the very rough waves of the Atlantic ocean, and makes for a nice contrast to the snow-capped Pyrenees around the city. After visiting the beach I have some pinxtos (Basque-style tapas), which are very tasty and quite distinct from the tapas I know. Next up is the train to Madrid. The first hour or so we ride through the Pyrenees, which are pretty, but it’s obviously not a wealthy area. Later, the landscape becomes flatter, and soon it becomes dark. After five hours we arrive in Madrid, where I have some trouble finding my hostel (bless McDonald’s for being a reliable source of free wifi!).
Other than the short time I spend looking for the hostel, I get to see very little of the city. After another short night, I take care of my blisters as well as I can; this takes up more time than I have, though, and my footcare efforts are almost undone when I have to run across Madrid’s Puerta de Atocha station to catch my train. At first the Spanish landscape is quite boring; millions upon millions of olive trees, and some fields of gray, dried-out grass from last year pass by. This changes dramatically as the train enters the Baetic mountains in Southern Spain. All of a sudden, it’s summer time; mountains covered with completely green forests, cows with calves, storks nesting, and orange trees with seemingly ripe oranges instead of olives. There’re also golden eagles circling overhead, bringing to mind the excitement I felt when my father pointed them out on our holiday to Spain in 1993.
As the train comes to a halt in Algeciras, across the bay from Gibraltar, I pack away my windstopper jacket as it’s around 20 degrees C outside. The ferry leaves from a tiny place called Tarifa, which is the southernmost point of mainland Europe. On the bus ride there, I see the Mediterranean on the left, the Atlantic on the right, and clearly visible across the Gibraltar strait: the mountains on Morocco’s Northern coast. Exciting! I spend most of the ferry ride standing in line to get my passport stamped. The sea is quite rough and the ferry is skipping across the waves violently; by the time I get my stamp, I feel a bit sick so all I do is sit down and wait for the ferry to arrive in Tanger; thankfully the upside to the fast and bumpy boatride is that it takes only 50 minutes.
In the hustle an bustle of leaving the ferry, I have the presence of mind to take a blurry photo of my very first step on African soil. As soon as I leave the ferry terminal, a hustler joins me to point me to wherever I have to be, warn me of all kinds of danger, be there to help me, blablabla. It takes a few minutes of insisting I need no help, and walking on at as stern a pace as my blistered feet allow, to get rid of him… Only to be picked up by a new hustler a hundred meters down the street. This process repeats itself another 2 or 3 times before I’ve found my hotel, although there’s clearly a lot less hustle away from the main boulevard. The hotel is family-run and has been active since at least the 1950s, when several Beat generation writers stayed here and one (William Burroughs) even wrote an entire book while staying here. There’re photos and letters on the walls.
After settling down, it’s evening and time to have dinner. I walk along some streets in the surrounding Ville Nouvelle area, which was built when Tanger was an International Zone, when many colonial powers owned part of the city. This was also the era when Tanger drew many diplomats, spies, artists and criminals. I notice a couple of locals entering a tapas bar without any windows, and decide to check it out. The reason that there aren’t any windows is immediately obvious; here, the bar comes first and the tapas second. The place is filled with Moroccan men enjoying an alcoholic beverage with some privacy. This in stark contrast to the many tea houses that line the street, where seeing and being seen is at least as important as the very much non-alcoholic beverages being served. Since the food at the tapas bar smells good, I decide to eat there. Lisa: the first thing I ate in Morocco was spicy chicken with meatballs in tomato sauce! After chatting with a couple of Moroccan men living in Europe, and seeing Zlatan score against Nantes on TV, I decide it’s time for some well-earned sleep. In the next few days I’ll be exploring Tanger in more detail!