Ready, steady… go!!

Day 12 – 6th January – Algeciras to Barcelona (1151km)

That’s what Esteve more or less intended to do the moment the ferry ramp was down – twist the throttle and not let it go until he got to Barcelona. That was a very long way, quite a lot more in fact than the journey to Almeria at the beginning of the trip, which had been a bit over 800km and had taken us quite a lot longer than we had anticipated. We were talking about close to 1,200km here, a distance that we had planned to split in two riding days – the first one from Algeciras to Ademuz, where my family has a house, saving us the cost of accommodation.

Esteve, however, was tired of so many days on the bike and insisted that he wanted to get home as soon as possible, and if that meant doing it on one go, so be it, he would have the whole weekend to unpack, rest, relax, and get ready to go back to work on Monday, a return that he feared would be stressful. I had tried to dissuade him, but there were other factors in play – remember the issue with Gerard’s bike’s forks? He and Raluca were not particularly looking forward to the long ride back either, even if it was in two days, so they were toying with the idea of calling the insurance regarding the botched repair, have the bike sent home, and get a lift back to Barcelona at the insurance company’s expense, maybe even spending a day visiting Granada. I must confess at this point that I was in part to blame for both Gerard’s and Esteve’s plans, as I had discovered some days before that I had forgotten the keys to the house, meaning that if we split the return in two we would have to pay for a hotel anyway.

The night before Esteve had already made up his mind that he was going to ride back in one day, and I was thinking about doing the same. Gerard and Raluca said that they would decide once they got off the ferry, so we agreed that the best thing to do was to say our goodbyes on the ferry and start the journey immediately out of the harbour.

We had got the boarding passes the day before, so this time we did not need to get up ridiculously early – departure was at 9am and we got to the harbour half an hour before. The 6th of January is an important holiday in Spain, when most people exchange their Christmas gifts, so everybody would be spending the day at home with their families and we were not expecting a long queue to board nor problems with traffic across Spain.

When we rode past the booths where they checked our boarding passes I was expecting to go straight to the queue to board, but instead found that we had to go through a customs checkpoint. I thought that we were done with that after crossing the border into Ceuta, we were already in Spanish and EU territory after all, but it seems the authorities were not happy with that.

The boom was down at the checkpoint and there seemed to be nobody at the booth, so we had to wait until a sleepy looking police officer arrived, clearly unhappy to have to work instead of spend the day with this kids. The only car in front of us was a big van with Belgian plates driven by a lone arab guy, and I thought that the police were not going to do a thorough check, it was only 10 minutes before departure time, there were very few cars on the line and, as I said, we were already in Spain. To my surprise, another officer came out of the booth with a dog, they made the van guy open the back doors and got the car inside, sniffing around. At that moment I remembered that I had put the ingredients for the sandwich in my jacket, which was folded inside my left pannier. ‘OK’, I thought. ‘No need to panic, it is a very small amount, for my own use, I can say in case the dog finds it… such small quantities are usually tolerated in Spain.’

The dog finished with the van, the driver got back in, started and rolled away. The police officer with the dog looked at our three bikes, the dog was looking away in the opposite direction, the officer looked at the rest of cars in the line, looked back at us and waved us past with a quick movement. The dog did not even turn to look at me.

With a sigh of relief, we rode on, only to find that there was yet another checkpoint to cross before the ferry, this time with an employee of the ship company and another customs police officer, checking passports. I had already put mine away, and when I stopped by him and started rummaging in my pockets to get it out he just looked at me, still with my helmet and sunglasses on, and asked ‘are you Spanish?’ in a thick southern accent. ‘Yes’, I replied, and he  said ‘OK, go on’. Top notch security here, I got on the ferry without having had my passports checked once.

The boat was a fast seacat and after only an hour of very bumpy sailing across the Gibraltar strait we moored in Algeciras. We had already said goodbye and were ready to go, I was going to ride back with Esteve in one go.

They lowered the ramp, we revved the engines and rolled out onto the pier, ready to hit the road and get kilometres under our belts as fast as possible, it was already 10am and we had at least 12 hours of riding ahead of us. We turned towards the harbour exit and found… another customs checkpoint! Again! This time I had about five or six cars in front of me, and the police officer with the dog (yes, there was another dog) was making it sniff around each and every car on the line. Once he was done with the car in front of me, he looked at the bike and he waved me past. The dog was not bothered with my left pannier at all. Crossing borders with a motorbike is great.

We were finally out of the harbour and the long way back home began. We used a combination of motorways with and without tolls, looking for the fastest and at the same time cheapest way to get back to Barcelona, and we decided we would only stop for fuel and once to eat, for lunch. There were clouds and maybe rain forecast in the south of Spain, but once we were away from the coast the sky cleared and we had perfect weather for riding, even though the temperature never went above 12ºC. On the second refuelling stop I had to put on all the clothes I had for the first time in the trip, we had been riding over 1,000km above sea level for hours and I was freezing. Things got a bit better when we got near the coast again past Murcia, but only for a short while. Night caught us still south of Valencia, and I finally made it to my front door at about 10:20pm, after leaving Esteve in Vilafranca. We managed 1151km in 10 hours and 26 minutes, according to the GPS, the fastest we had ridden in two weeks.

As I looked up from the GPS, I saw Nat, who was coming back home with a pizza and some beer as a welcome present. Now, THAT is love.

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Mirror, mirror

Day 11 – 5th January – Chefchaouen to Ceuta (104km)

We visited the medina again in the morning to take some picture in daylight – it was an interesting contrast from the previous afternoon. It was early and most shops were still closed or just opening, and the streets were very quiet.

This time we made it all the way across and out the eastern side of the city, where there are some small waterfalls with an ancient system to provide water for the city, a good example of Arabic hydraulic engineering, as well as two public washing places. These facilities are still easy to see in most small villages in Spain, virtually none of them used for their original purpose. They have either fallen into disrepair or been restored as part of the village heritage, but here they were still in use – some women were hand washing blankets, sheets and carpets in the freezing water.

Soon after joining the main road to the border with Ceuta we came across some people by the side of the road gesticulating and making open and loud offers to sell ingredients for sandwiches. The day before I had read on some blogs a warning against a common scam – these people offered big quantities of ingredients at a very low price, so a lot of tourists were tempted to buy some, particularly if they were coming into the country and not heading for the border as we were. Shortly after stashing the ingredients in the car and driving off, the seller calls or radioes ahead to a police patrol who are part of the scam and stop the unsuspecting tourist to search their vehicle. They immediately find the ingredients, which are enough to be in serious trouble, even jail time, and demand a bribe in exchange for the victim’s freedom. The tourists usually have to cough up between 300 and 400 euros and then are free to go on about their journey, and the police take the ingredients back to the seller to repeat the scam with the next group of kids looking for the Moroccan experience.

At this point, I had completely forgotten about my own ingredients – we wanted to buy very little, only for the previous evening, because we were going to cross the border today and obviously did not want to take the risk, but we had been given enough for several sandwiches, and after the first one we had all gone to bed and not thought about it anymore.

Shortly before joining the main road in Tetouan my bike finally fell victim to the roads in Morocco. So far, we had experienced problems with Gerard’s bike – the headlamp and the mudguard issues, and with Esteve’s – his rev counter had decided to recalibrate itself and had been 2,000rpm above where it should be for most of the journey. The country decided that I was not going to leave unscathed, and with only a few kilometres to the border, while riding last in the group, my left mirror came loose. It was waving like a flag in the wind and I could not see the traffic behind me, which is very dangerous in such roads, so I over took the group and we stopped to tighten it.

Tetouan took forever to cross, and that was on an avenue that went around the city, we did not even get close to the centre, but heavy traffic and police controls every few hundred metres made for slow progress. We decide to avoid the motorway from there to the border to save some money, as the route along the national road was only a few minutes longer, and the decision gave us some interesting insight into a stark contrast. For most of the last 40km we rode along the coast, going past some of the most expensive looking buildings we had seen in the entire journey. There were beach resort after beach resort on both sides of the road, nothing to do with the run-down buildings just past the border in Melilla, but the strongest contrast was in the hills to our left, beyond the resorts. Somewhere in there, in appalling conditions in makeshift camps, were thousands of people who had made their way north through the continent in hopes of crossing the border into Ceuta and set foot in EU territory in search of a better life. Just a few days before we got here we had read on Spanish newspapers online that a group of over 1,000 of them had attempted to storm the wall that separates Ceuta from Morocco, requiring the intervention of police forces from both sides. Their technique is to make a run for the wall in big numbers, so at least some of them have a chance to make it. It ended with several people wounded on both sides, and only two immigrants made it across the fence, only to end up in hospital from their injuries.

In this time of year, at least in Spain, everybody plays the lottery – there is a widespread craze about the Christmas lottery, and people obsess about getting tickets everywhere, victims of a kind of psychological bribery – the ‘what if the prize falls here, or there, or there…’ People buy tickets at work, at their local pub, at their kid’s school, wherever they travel in the days before the holiday, to all kinds of associations and charities… I have long stopped wasting my money on that because I realised that I have already won the biggest price in the lottery of life. As I was riding to the border in Ceuta I thought that I was no different from all the people I had encountered while travelling across less fortunate countries than mine. I could have been born anywhere in the world, but I was incredibly lucky to land in a 1st world country, in a good city and in a great family. We are often unaware of what a huge privilege that is, the reality we live in is not Earth’s reality. We are a very fortunate minority and we forget it too easily. We should all take some time to appreciate what we have.

This time the border was a much more organised affair than in Melilla. We still found a lot of guys trying to sell us immigration forms and get some money to help fill them in, but we had all the paperwork we needed and rode straight past the border fence, where, unlike Melilla, they were not allowed, so we enjoyed some peace and quiet while we queued to get our passports stamped and the bikes checked out of the country.

We were through in about half an hour, and entering the Spanish side only required showing the passport. It was only at this point that, in a moment of panic, I remembered the ingredients and wondered whether Gerard had taken them with him or left them at the hotel to avoid risking it at the border. Fortunately, nobody seemed to care about a few tired looking guys on motorbikes and we were let through without incident. Tired and looking forward to a shower in the hotel, I forgot to ask him about it again.

The following day was the 6th of January, which meant that in the evening there was going to be a big parade on the streets to welcome the Three Wise Men who come from faraway lands to bring presents to the new born baby Jesus or something like that. It turned out that their Majesties had already arrived in Ceuta by mid-afternoon and were staying at our hotel, so when we got there we found a horde of kids and parents taking pictures with them. We left the hotel and went to get some dinner, a few beers (oh, how we had missed them) and a sandwich.

It was then, celebrating the end of our journey with a long-awaited beer and sitting at a bar’s terrace overlooking the sea from where we could see the hills around Chefchaouen in the distance, that I asked Gerard about the ingredients. He told me that he had put it inside the little finger of his glove.

Volubilis and Chefchaouen

Day 10 – 4th January – Moulay Idriss to Chefchaouen (181km)

The short days of winter meant that we were spending most hours of daylight riding with little or no time to visit things once we had reached our next destination, so since Marrakech we had started to make shorter journeys and do some sightseeing along the way.

Today we had a particularly short day, and planned to visit two things. The first were the ruins of Volubilis, an important Roman settlement two kilometres out of Moulay Idris, capital of the Kingdom of Mauretaina and the actual place where Moulay Idriss I arrived in the 8th century and started Islam in Morocco, the present-day city of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun not being built until two centuries later.

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A lot of materials to build the new city were taken from Volubilis, and today the biggest remains are those of the basilica and the Capitoline temple, as well as the Triumphal arch.

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The city was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 and at this time in the morning was deserted, which meant no other tourists and no locals trying to make some money as guides. We spend over an hour walking among the ruins, taking in the size of the city, appreciating the perfect location at the foot of the hills, between two small rivers or wadis, with a vast expanse of fertile land beyond its walls.

The sun was rising and with all our riding clothes on we soon decided that it was getting too hot to be sightseeing, so it was time to hit the road to get to our next destination with plenty of daylight left – Chefchaouen, the blue city.

For the next hour or so the road was rather monotonous, but past Ouazzane we entered the Riff and it became much better – green valleys, winding roads, great landscape… it all made for a more entertaining journey to Chefchaouen.

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Once we got there, realising that it was only one o’clock and that Ceuta, where we were supposed to go the following day to spend the night before taking the ferry back home, was only a further 100km away, there was a short debate whether to stick to the plan and stay overnight in Chefchaouen or visit it fast and go on to Ceuta. Gerard and Esteve were tired of so many days on the bike and the prospect of getting home a day earlier was tempting for them, but I wanted to visit Chefchaouen without hurry and rest a bit. And in any case, moving things up a day meant cancelling a night’s booking in Chefchaouen, advancing the booking in Ceuta and modifying the date of the ferry’s tickets, with no guarantee that we would get our money back in any of the cases. That argument seemed to be enough to convince them to go on with the planned schedule, and we rode into the city to find our house.

This time we had booked space in a place called Villa Rita, a guesthouse 15 minutes on foot away from the medina. It took us a while to find it, as there was no clear address and the GPS location was approximate, and when we knocked on the door, there seemed to be nobody there. Fortunately, after a phone call, the manager appeared and things changed for the better very fast – we had space to park the bikes inside the house, instead of just rooms we had a whole floor, a complete apartment for us, there was heating in the rooms, a fireplace in the living room, working wifi signal in all the rooms and hot water in the bath. This was by far the best place where we had stayed.

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With some hours of daylight left, we went to visit the famous blue city – called so because most of its houses are painted in blue and some white, making for a spectacularly colourful medina. Locals told us that the reason is that the blue colour is supposed to keep the mosquitoes away, and the white colour has the better-known function of keeping the houses cool in the summer heat.

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The medina was a lot bigger than we expected and, despite being one of the biggest tourist attractions in this part of the country there were not too many people in the streets, so strolled around taking pictures until it got dark.

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Chefchaouen is also known for being at the heart of the one of the main cannabis production regions in Morocco, and the tourists are openly offered to buy the product everywhere in the medina, as well as visits to the plantations.

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Contrary to popular belief, cannabis is not easy to find outside this region, and it is not legal to grow it or sell it in the country. However, centuries ago, a few families in the Rif valley were granted special permission by the King, and it still stands today.

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As part of our Moroccan experience, we decided to buy… Oooops, wait. This is a family friendly blog. OK, as a little homage to How I Met Your Mother, let’s say that we decided to buy sandwiches from one of the guys in the main square.

He went to fetch his friend, who told us to follow him to a less crowded place and immediately started talking. He told us that he was somewhat of a local celebrity, as he had appeared in a famous Spanish film in the 80s. In the film, called ‘Bajarse al moro’, two girls from a group of friends from Madrid who make some extra money selling sandwiches travel to Morocco to get some ingredients. The guy played a kid who offers to take one of the girls into the mountains to see the plantations and buy ingredients. Because he spoke Spanish, the film director also tasked him with finding all the extras for the crowd scene, and ever since, to Spanish tourists he has become a face associated with sandwiches so, according to him ‘life gave him no alternative but to go into the sandwich industry’.

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We didn’t want to buy stuff to make too many sandwiches, as we were on the way back and crossing the border the following day, so in the end we convinced him to sell us only a little and back in the apartment we found that the ingredients were so good that after just one sandwich we had had enough and went to bed.