Guided by the invaluable Man in Seat Sixty One, I booked my tickets for the journey to Marrakesh a couple of months in advance, which kept the costs down.
The trip started with a simple Eurostar hop to Paris, then I left Paris Gare de Lyon in the early afternoon for the long but comfortable and relaxed run to Barcelona.I’m working on a book, so the power point by the seat (European plug of course) came in very handy, and glancing up from my work to see the countryside rolling by was very pleasant, as was the chance to get up and stretch my legs whenever I wanted.
I was pleased to find a number of other Britons travelling to Barcelona by train, and I swapped coffee runs with a lovely couple travelling for their daughter’s wedding in the Spanish city. They’d chosen train for its reliability – they’d had some bad times with flights being hopelessly delayed and cancelled, and this was one journey they wanted certainty on.
I overnighted in Barcelona at the one star but surprisingly good Hotel Transit (budget accommodation has improved a great deal since my backpacker days), and the next morning had only a short stroll from the hotel for the 8.30am train.
That whizzed me in high comfort on to Antequera-Santa Ana, where there was time for a quick lunch in the station cafe before boarding the local train to Algeciras. The views along the way were spectacular – the snow-capped Pyrennes, great stretches of olive trees standing strong in apparent desert, and as long as I didn’t glance at the speed indicator I wouldn’t have had any idea I was travelling at 300kh/h. Announcements were in a range of languages, but there was no difficulty in understanding the necessary details. If I got an orange juice when I was trying to order pineapple, that was undoubtedly my own fault in trying to speak Spanish – English would have worked fine.
This was a local, slow train – and one with a great many British accents (this is just inland from Malaga) – but there was still a power point at every seat and plenty of room between the comfortable seats.
Arriving at Algeciras, it was a five-minute stroll to the port. You could see the sea from the train station, and from there I walked straight on to the bus transfer to Tarifa, the port for the fast catamaran across the Med, which took only an hour. It was a sober thought as I stood looking at the sea I was about to cross in air-conditioned comfort, the same sea where so many thousands have lost their lives in a desperate bid for safe European refuge.
But I was soon in Tangier, and settling into the wonderful, economical, comfortably aged grandeur of the Continental Hotel. I’d arrived at 9pm and could theoretically have caught the 9.55pm sleeper to Morocco that night, but I chose to take 24 hours of holiday in the comfortable, relatively untouristy streets of Tangier.
I was able to buy my ticket at the train station next day, left my bags at a hotel nearby, and took the day to explore, before settling into my comfortable £28 couchette – sharing with three Moroccan women – a bargain.
All up, the trip cost about £200 – the most ridiculous bargain being Paris-Barcelona for 33 euros. It was a great way to travel, and provided excellent work time.
By contrast, my journey home on BA (forced by a long-booked appointment) was a tale of cramped misery. I was probably cutting it fine in arriving at the airport 90 minutes before the flight, then on a fully booked plane I spent four hours packed into sardine conditions. The gentleman beside me had his elbow in my ribs the whole way, he had nowhere else to put it, ditto his knees in my space. I’m seldom glad of being only 1.6 metres – this time I was, for the man on the other side also was in “my” space, for want of any alternative. I didn’t move for four hours – I couldn’t without causing widespread disruption. I couldn’t even reach the bag under the seat in front of me, while my other carry-on bag was travelling in business, for want of any space in the cattle cabin. I didn’t get any work done, and when I arrived at Gatwick, train delays meant it took 2.5 hours to get to King’s Cross station – as long as from there to Paris. It “only” cost £80 – some of the worst £80 I’d ever spent.
Of course there’s no justification for this travel mode costing less – and it doesn’t, if you count the externalised costs of greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, noise pollution and taxes avoided. (For aviation is avoiding taxes under worldwide regulations brought in when it was fledgling industry governments wanted to encourage).
And there’s no single rail ticket to Marrakesh – why not? Without the invaluable contribution of an individual’s website, it would be hard to organise. Governments could do so much more to encourage this mode of travel – if only they had the will.