London to Morocco by the scenic route

17 January 2007

The Man in Seat 61, aka Mark Smith, would never dream of flying, when there’s so much of the world to discover by boat or train. He sets his sights on Morocco in 48 hours

Cultural feast: religious institution Ali ben Youssef Medersa, built in the 16th century by the Saadians, is one of Marrakech’s most popular tourist sites Moroccan National Tourist Office

Cultural feast: religious institution Ali ben Youssef Medersa, built in the 16th century by the Saadians, is one of Marrakech’s most popular tourist s...

IT’S beginning to dawn on us that if our ten-year love affair with budget airlines continues, the consequences for global warming and for the planet could be huge.

We’re being urged to think about the number of flights we take, especially short-haul flights within the UK and Europe. Does this mean giving up our trips abroad, or enduring dire hardship to get anywhere beyond Calais?

Relax! The pleasures of travel by train and ship, glass of wine in hand, through mountains and countryside, past lakes and over seas, presents a far more practical, affordable, swift, and, above all, rewarding means of travel than you might ever have suspected.

I have never flown to Europe, and it wouldn’t occur to me that I needed to. Simply hop on a Eurostar to Paris or Brussels, and change there to a high-speed train to Geneva or Nice, or an overnight sleeper to Rome, Venice, Barcelona, or Berlin. Athens or Corfu are just two nights away from the UK, via a cruise ferry from Italy, and the journey is part of your holiday. But for somewhere even more exotic, I opt for a plane-free trip to Morocco — only 48 hours from London.

My journey to Morocco starts at Waterloo station, just across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament. A lunchtime Eurostar to Paris (from £59 return) gives me time for a glass or two in a Parisian café before taking the overnight “trainhotel” to Madrid. A £50 ticket each way buys a trainhotel complete with a bed for the night in a four-bed sleeper. There are also one- and two-bed sleepers, some with private shower and lavatory.

I dine in the elegant restaurant car that night, as French villages swish past in the moonlight, take a nightcap in the bar, and retire to fresh clean sheets in my berth. I wake up in Spain, with snow-capped mountains in the distance, and a glimpse of the royal palace at El Escorial over breakfast.


Arriving at Madrid by 9.30 a.m., take a day to explore the Spanish capital and its famous art museum, the Prado, before the 5 p.m. air-conditioned express whisks you south to Algeciras on the Straits of Gibraltar, just across the bay from the Rock. Grab a vino tinto in the bar as you head through arid mountain scenery on your way to the Mediterranean. Fares start at £41 each way in Tourist class, or £64 each way in Preferente, complete with at-seat meal and a selection of wines.

Ferries sail from Algeciras to Tangier every couple of hours, with a two-and-a-half-hour crossing between the Pillars of Hercules that guard the sea lanes into the Med. After staying the night in Algeciras, it’s easy to wander down to the ferry terminal and buy a ticket for a morning ferry on the day — about £17 each way. With expectation building, a breeze in my hair, calm blue waters all around me, the Rock of Gibraltar to port, the mountains of Spain astern, and the coast of Africa ahead, I wonder why people throw all this away by flying.

Tangier gets a bad press from a few travellers — perhaps those flustered by a few touts at the port — who hurry through without seeing it, and advise others to do the same. But I have a soft spot for the place.

Tangier is where Europe meets Africa, and there’s so much to see. It was an international zone from 1923 to 1956, and was awash with real-life spies during the Second World War. I’ve always thought it a much more plausible setting for Rick and Elsa in Casablanca than that big and soulless city further south.

For a place to stay, look no further than the Continental Hotel. You’ll see it high up on the edge of the medina as you walk from the ferry terminal to the main square. Winston Churchill, one of Queen Victoria’s sons, and various other notables stayed here. It has an atmosphere straight out of Agatha Christie (not to mention a manager who, on my last visit, looked and sounded like a Moroccan Peter Ustinov) — and yet it costs only £25 a night. Ask for a room with a balcony overlooking the port.

After checking in, it’s worth checking out Tangier’s “English Church” a few minutes’ walk from the hotel through the old medina —passing through both the Petit Socco and Grand Socco (small and large squares) on the way. There’s also the American Legation museum, the first piece of overseas territory ever acquired by the United States, the kasbah (fort), and the Forbes Museum, which has a remarkable collection of model soldiers.


It isn’t long before the prospect of Marrakech lures me south. Modern air-conditioned trains link Tangier with Rabat, Casablanca, and Marrakech several times daily. The train journey takes almost a day, so it’s advisable to bring your own provisions, put your feet up, and let the scenery come to you. Even in first class, it costs only £18. Or there’s a direct overnight train with four-berth couchettes, that will save time and a hotel bill.

In Marrakech, it’s a fair walk from the station to the main square or Djemaa el Fna, so I hop in a taxi and find a hotel near the action. As evening falls, the Djemaa el Fna comes alive — a market, theatre, and restaurant all rolled into one. From the Djemaa el Fna, a dozen alleyways lead into the labyrinthine souks.

When you’ve had your fill of Marrakech, you can hire a car and drive south on roads refreshingly free of traffic, across the spectacular Tizi n Tichka Pass in the High Atlas Mountains, to the mud-built town of Ait ben Haddou, the fort at Ouarzazate, and the scenic Todra Gorge.

Morocco is an eye-opener, and there is no need at all for visitors to set foot on a plane.

Travel details

For advice and itineraries for worldwide travel by train and ship, visit Mark Smith’s award-winning website at

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