To Morocco without flying

by cbaird

You can travel to Morocco from the UK or anywhere in Europe without the need to fly. This guide shows you how to do it from London in about two days

You may take this trip because you do not like flying or are trying to lessen your carbon footprint. My reason was to seek out the romance and adventure of a great overland journey. I wanted to be as excited about the journey as I was about the destination. I did not want to endure a budget airline flight; I wanted to enjoy some of the most renowned trains in Europe and stopovers in great cities.

Stage one: London to Paris by Eurostar

“Redefining the railway for the 21st century” is the motto of St Pancras International station and I have to agree that it has brought glamour to London departures. You won't find any UK airports with a Gothic revival façade and Europe's longest Champagne Bar (www.stpancras.com/stpancras/champagnebar).

This bar is where I toasted my adventure with a champagne breakfast. I tucked into smoked salmon and scrambled eggs whilst admiring gleaming Eurostar trains standing proudly. I could feel the excitement; I would be on one of those soon.

What surprised me the most about Eurostar is how little time is spent inside the Channel Tunnel; I expected to be in there for ages, but it is a small part of the journey and I was mostly looking out on French countryside with the occasional rustic barn or village with church spire.

Journey time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Departure from London St Pancras, arrives Paris Gare de Nord
Cost: One-way from £39, return from £69
Tickets: www.eurostar.com

Stage two: Paris to Madrid by Elipsos “trenhotel”

The great thing about taking a sleeper train is that this gives you a full day in your departure city. What to do with a full day in Paris? There is plenty of inspiration on Simonseeks here.

Continuing the theme of glamour in my journey I set aside time for Angelina's (226 Rue de Rivoli www.groupe-bertrand.com/angelina.php), my favourite café in Paris. It is renowned for its pleasing pastries and huggable hot chocolates. No powdered nonsense here, but liquid lusciousness that will make you feel that it is no longer blood, but chocolate, flowing through your veins. Aproned waiters accustomed to constant streams of tourists may not smile when they deliver goodies to your marble table, but they are efficient and the elegance and tradition creates a refined atmosphere.

You can board a sleeper train literally minutes before departure because there is no queuing, no baggage check-in, no hanging about in dull departure lounges and no security searches.

“Trenhotel” is one of the best sleeper trains in Europe. The “Gran Clase” compartments, although very small, have an en suite toilet and shower and include breakfast and dinner in the fare (from 172 euros per person one-way). The restaurant is elegant; no pasta or chicken in a plastic tray, but steak cooked to order served on a proper plate with crisp white table linen. Passengers travelling in other classes are welcome to eat in the restaurant; main courses from 15 euros.

I travelled by “Tourist Class” in a shared 4-berth compartment (from 77 euros per person one-way, no en suite facilities). Sharing meant I made friends easily and found myself in the bar car with Marco from Málaga discussing tourism marketing over beers and olives stuffed with anchovies.

Departure: 19:45 from Paris Gare d'Austerlitz
Arrival: 09:10 Madrid Chamartin
Cost: One-way from 77 euros
Tickets: www.raileurope.com  

Stage three: Madrid to Algeciras by Altaria

It was my first time in Madrid and I had done no planning, so asked a metro employee for advice on what to do with my half day stopover. Despite us not having a language in common this helpful man took the trouble to draw me a little map. My metro ride was accompanied by a lad with a Spanish guitar and the sweetest voice that must surely qualify him for one of those reality music shows. I found myself in Plaza de Mayor listening to more live music- a Mexican band with happy tunes.

Altaria is a 125mph train that shoots through a landscape of olive plantations and the Andalusian plateau. I treated myself to first class because booked in advance it is affordable (57 euros) and includes a light meal with wine served at your seat. Complimentary headphones allowed me to plug-in to the armrest and either listen to a choice of music or watch a hip hop musical dubbed into Spanish.

It is necessary to spend the night in Algeciras. The best thing about this city is the 1902 Hotel Reina Christina with its impressive guest book- Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Orson Welles notched up stays. I had a room with a bed big enough to fit half a dozen people plus me (slight exaggeration) and a towering wardrobe more suited to a lifetime stay than a night or two. There is a swimming pool and a beautiful enclosed courtyard with lounging sofas perfect for an after-dinner liqueur. This is a four-star hotel, but amazing value for money. I managed to pick up a standard room with huge dinner and breakfast buffet included for 60 euros.

Algeciras does not have much to detain visitors, so no need to feel that you are missing out by arriving late and departing early.

Departure: 15:05 Madrid Atocha
Arrival: 20:39 Algeciras
Cost: One-way from 24 euros
Tickets from: www.renfe.com

Stage four: Algeciras to Tangier by ferry

From Europe to Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar is a thrill impossible to replicate if you fly over it. Going from one continent to the other is an experience that you can feel and add to your best travel memories when doing it by sea; you won't even notice it in an aircraft. The Rock of Gibraltar is beautiful, rustic and natural when viewing it from the deck of a boat.

It was the journey’s end and I felt like I had experienced a true adventure. I heard different languages spoken, felt the temperature gradually get hotter, spent time in three European capitals, sat on some of the most renowned trains in Europe, tasted different foods and actually felt that I had covered a great distance. Jumping on a plane gives you none of this.

I have written a guide to Tangier, Tangier for first timers, that includes a wonderful riad to stay in.

Boats leave frequently and it is easy to buy the tickets on the day (20 euros one-way). The crossing takes one to one and a half hours and remember that Moroccan time is one or two hours ahead, depending on the time of year.

Tips

  • To help plan this journey The Man in Seat 61 website is excellent: www.seat61.com
  • Use the left luggage facilities in train stations to leave your bags whilst you explore the cities between trains.
  • Buying train tickets on the day will cost you much more. It is cheaper to buy in advance using the websites noted under each section.
  • Return fares are double the one-way fares that I have quoted. Eurostar is the only route that offers a discounted return.
  • The “Trenhotel” is not the Orient Express. It is a functional sleeper train; comfortable, but not luxurious.