Morocco – Nov 2019

Just spent a week in Morocco with Susan…

We flew with EasyJet from TLS to Marrakech and picked up a hire car from a local rental company called surprise cars – it turns out they were full of surprises…

The Surprise Cars Office

According to the instructions which we had carefully printed out we were to be met at the exit from the terminal, but there was no-one there. We asked around and were pointed in the direction of the various car rental offices at the far side of the main airport car park. We walked along the various offices (Avis, Europcar, Sixt, etc) but no sign of an office labelled “Surprise Cars”. We stopped at the Hertz desk and asked if they had heard of them, beginning to suspect we may have been “scammed”, but they pointed us to the far corner of the car park where we could see a small group of people standing around a couple of cars. We wandered over and discovered that they operate out of the back of a car!

There was another couple in front just collecting their car which looked like it had taken part in a demolition derby – every panel on the car was dented! It took forever for the agent to record all the existing damage and for the clients to photograph all the evidence. How many rental miles in Marrakech would it take to produce that much damage?

As it turned out our car was brand new and carried a 1000 Euro excess so it was with some considerable trepidation that we ventured out into the random chaos that is Marrakech.

Our apartment was in the Gueliz quarter, not far from the Red Hotel where I stayed with Alexander and Georgina in February. Right next door was the Bagatelle restaurant which does excellent food at very reasonable prices. The weather was balmy and we were able to eat outside – a far cry from the cold and stormy weather lashing most of Europe.

Bagatelle Restuarant

The one downside of the apartment turned out to be the night club/disco next door which seemed to play loud music for most of the night.

Dessert

Breakfast the next day was at the Pain Quotidienne and I chose the Moroccan option, which turned out to be bread and pancakes in many forms.

Moroccan Breakfast

We then walked to the Medina to experience the full-on buzz of Marrakech.

In the Medina

Wide load

Mint tea in the Cafe des Epices.

Cafe Des Epices

Fresh juices in the Earth Cafe and then on to visit the Bahia Palace.

Bahia Palace Shadows

In the evening we went to the rather posh Cafe de la Grand Poste which was expensive but the food was amazing.

Grand Marnier Souffle

For our second full day we decided to head out of Marrakech to explore the Atlas Mountains which are about 1.5 hours away.

We went up the Ourika valley intending to visit the waterfalls (cascades). They are clearly a big tourist draw and there were lots of coaches and tourism taxis. The parking areas were swarming with official guides all touting for business. We were hoping to make our own way to the cascades – expecting to find a well worn trail that we could easily follow – but this proved elusive and we headed out of the village away from the crowds with “our guide” in tow. Having reached the edge of the village we surveyed the scene and considered what to do next.

Our guide offered to give us tea as we had inadvertently stopped outside his house. We declined as we had just taken tea and there is only so much mint tea you can take.. He explained there was another route to the cascades that started next to where we were which avoided all the tourists and had much better views so we gave in and hired him as our guide. He neglected to mention that route he had in mind was only really suitable for mountain goats…

After a lot of walking, some scrambling and some real rock climbing we eventually got to the cascades which were not particularly impressive in themselves but the surroundings and views were amazing.

Our guide was very helpful and actually proved to be essential as the route was not marked and dangerous in places – accidents are very common apparently.

Steep, slippery and a long way down…

Saturday was the Rugby World Cup Final, which we managed to locate on the television in the apartment…

We then went to visit the Yves Saint Laurent museum and Majorelle gardens.

No photos allowed in the museum
Majorelle Gardens

In the evening we met Susan’s friend Karine who also happened to be staying in Marrakech and had rooftop aperitifs at the Hivernage Hotel followed by a delightful dinner in the restaurant.

rooftop aperitifs

That was our last evening in Marrakech and the next day we set off on the 2.5 hour drive to Essaouira on the coast (pronounced Essa-wee-ra). This is an old fishing port that has hugely expanded and is a popular tourist destination. It does have a fortified old town (Medina) attached to the port which is similar to the Medina in Marrakech but smaller and less chaotic.

On the beach

Our loft apartment in Essaouira was small but very cosy and with the benefit of a roof terrace with views of the sea and Mogador island.

Sunset from the roof terrace

We spent time exploring the fishing port which was buzzing with all the fishermen selling their freshly caught fish and wandering through the Medina, taking impromptu snapshots of the locals and their wares.

Fish for sale

On our last day we drove out of the town to the next village which turned out to be a prime surfing spot and actually held a round of the windsurfing world cup last year. There were very few people there and we were immediately accosted by young boys trying to sell us woolly hats that their mothers had knitted. The weather was more unsettled today and the waves were big – presumably ideal for surfing but there was no-one taking advantage. The beach here is twenty miles long and we had it all to ourselves!

On our last evening we walked in to the Medina in search of a small local restaurant – there are plenty to choose from but most don’t serve alcohol. After dinner we went for a drink at the Cosy Cocktail Bar, where the bar tender from Toulouse mixed up a unique and delicious Pink Kitty Cocktail for Susan – I just had a bottle of local Casablanca beer.

Deliciously decadent cocktail – Pink Kitty Gin
Moon parasols – walking back from the Medina

The next day we drove back to Marrakech to catch the plane home. We had noticed on the way here that there were lots of speed cameras, both fixed and mobile and lots of police check points – we had already been stopped once. It was no surprise that we got stopped again and they asked to check papers etc, but they also told me that I had been speeding 89Km/h in an 80 limit and the fine was 150 Dirham. I protested as I had been watching the speed limits quite carefully (although they change every few Km) and explained that we were not in a hurry. This reduced the on the spot fine to 100 Dirham (10 Euros) and a warning… I think this was probably just a scam that the police use to get some extra pocket money out of tourists but as they were both armed I wasn’t going to argue further.

Along the Essaouira to Marrakech road we passed a few Argan trees with goats in them which is such an amazing and unusual sight…

At the airport we returned the rental car to Surprise Cars in the corner of the car park. And the final surprise was that they discovered a tiny dent in the bonnet and charged us 400 Euros!

Other than that unpleasant surprise it was a fantastic break. Morocco is an amazing place – wonderful weather, exotic surroundings, friendly people, not too far away (2.5 hour flight) and they speak French!

Massif De Morvan 2019

Towards the end of October I completed a 3 day navigation enduro in the Massif de Morvan organised by Sport Adventure. This was the third of these events I have entered – the first was in the Normandie mud last November, followed by the Dordogne in May. This time I was teamed up with my mate Dougie who had driven down from Yorkshire in his big van.

En route – 4.5 hours from Cahors

There were about 15 of us in total and the event follows a consistent format. Three days of riding nearly all off road covering about 150Km per day. Riding along unknown trails at a reasonable speed is challenging enough but the navigation element is what makes these events unique. The route is marked out using a road book system – as used on the Paris Dakar rally. This is a scroll of paper mounted to a reader on the handlebars of the bike. The navigation instructions are presented as small pictograms with distance markers – for example “turn sharp right in 1Km opposite a church” or “take the left fork in the trail in 800m”. This seems simple enough but at speed the changes in direction come thick and fast and are quite difficult to read when you are bouncing along a rough trail at speed.

Morning route briefing

Following a spell of bad weather last year there were a lot of fallen trees across the trails – some were small and could be ridden over, some were large and presented a large enough gap underneath to just about squeeze the bike through, others completely blocked the trail and it was then necessary to head off into the woods to try to find a way round. The logs were wet and slippery which meant that even crossing a small one was quite treacherous and resulted in a few offs.

Lunch stop

Accurate distance measurement is vital as a check that you are in the right place – each box on the road book shows the distance from the previous junction and the total distance travelled. Paying close attention to this ensures that even if you go wrong, which we did many times, you can quickly recognise the error and backtrack.

The conditions were quite muddy in places but nothing like the gloop we experienced in Normandie. On the first day it started to rain in the afternoon and got dark early which made the trails through the woods much more difficult to follow safely so we finished early and missed out the last 20Km. We did manage to complete the route on the next two days.

Muddy !

I tried to describe the feeling of riding in this event to my family and came up with this…

Riding along unknown often slippery trails with random fallen trees at the speed I like to ride (as fast as possible with a small safety margin) is a huge buzz – much like skiing on the edge of control I would imagine – requires 100% concentration and good fitness/endurance to be able to do more than 10mins. Add to that the need to navigate using the road book and odometer with changes of direction every few hundred yards. Then do it for hours at a time…

Quatrelle Farewell

For those new to the blog and the whole Morocco or Bust adventure, here is the previous post on this :
http://v2xs.com/morocco-or-bust-2/

What happened, what went wrong, have we missed the epic adventure of men and machine battling against all the odds to get to Morocco or Bust ?

The short answer is …
there was too much work to do.

For the long answer read on …

Having bought the 4L and being full of enthusiasm for a new project Alexander and I embarked upon the long list of jobs I had created to make the car suitable for the adventure we had in mind. The first and probably the worst job was crawling about underneath the car to rustproof and paint the chassis and underbody. We managed to achieve this in one weekend but it was horrible messy work and I had hammerite tattoos on my back and arm that lasted two weeks.

Close examination of the car revealed that it was surprisingly sound – some corrosion at the front end of the chassis rails but these are not a key structural element and not a CT failure point. This is just as well as repairs to the chassis require the body to be removed which I was not planning on doing.

There is no doubt the 4L has bags of character and as a local runabout it oozes charm and gets lots of thumbs up from the locals and is perfectly suited to this kind of use. The brakes are unassisted drums all round and are terrible – but if you remember to give them a mighty shove they do actually stop the car. The trombone gearchange is totally bizarre but actually works very well, the steering is light and reasonably accurate. Plenty of room in the back for trips to the dump or collecting a new washing machine. Yes it is noisy and the suspension is harsh with no load and the doors don’t fit properly but these things only add to the charm.

The real issue for me came down to this :
“Will the 4L manage the 5000Km trip to Morocco and back?”

The answer to this was “possibly” and to change that response into a “probably” or even a “yes” would require a strip down and rebuild of many of the mechanical systems on the car. Having been through the car and made a list of all of the work I would like to do in order to feel comfortable doing that journey, I began to question the whole idea. As a local runabout none of these potential issues would be a problem as you would most likely be able to make it home, order the parts and fix it – the parts are readily available and the car is mechanically and electrically very simple. On some deserted mountain road miles from anywhere it would be a different story…

Bear in mind that although the Quatrelle I bought is a 1986 model from near the end of the production run (a 33 year old car), the actual design and manufacturing setup for the car was from the 1950s with the first car produced in 1961 – which makes it about a 60 year old car in terms of technology. If we were entering the 4L trophy then we would have to put the work in to make the car reliable enough to complete the event – but as we are just planning to follow some of the route and get to Morocco at our leisure the 4L may not have been the best choice of vehicle. On the positive side I did sell it for more than I paid for it….

So now begins the search for a suitable alternative to allow the Morocco or Bust challenge to become reality…

Lots of pictures here :
https://photos.app.goo.gl/bb1zHNWhmjzpE2tD8

Charity Run

Prompted by Cristelle, I signed up to do a charity run in Cahors in aid of “La Lutte Contre Le Cancer” – raising money for Breast Cancer Research. This event takes place every October and is run over 6Km around the city with classes for running and walking.
However, it is only open to ladies…

I had to get a medical certificate from my Doctor to be able to participate and asked him if he could also give me an attestation that I’m a woman.
He said “OK no problem, just take your clothes off !”

I declined, so was in need of a disguise…
Fortunately my friend Gaynor came up trumps with a small black Tutu! This was ideal as it looked suitably lady-like and didn’t hamper my ability to run.

Ladies Only


I was a little concerned when filling out the application form that it clearly states “ladies only”, but I ticked the M box for gender anyway. However, the application was accepted and I duly collected my race number and rather tight fitting ladies pink T-shirt the day before the event.

On the morning of the race (Sunday 13 October) we parked to the South and walked up to the centre of Cahors along with a throng of other people all wearing their pink T-shirts. Couldn’t help noticing that there was a distinct absence of men!

At the assembly area (Place F. MITTERAND) we did come across a couple of other blokes, one of whom was our old friend Remi from Rouffiac – but we were clearly in a small minority. Cristelle had assured me that “loads of men take part”.
There was a brief “warm-up” before the start to get everyone jumping and the blood circulating.

At 10.00 a short countdown and hooter signalled the mass start – runners first, followed by the walkers. There were apparently 350 runners and nearly 3,000 walkers. I was in the first group away with about 50 others but was tripping over people so made an effort to get clear and nearer the front to try to run at my own pace.

Lots of spectators along the route who seemed amused to see a bloke doing the run – plenty of photos and thumbs up as well as the odd “Well hello mademoiselle” greeting!

I managed to complete the 6Km course in under 29 minutes and ended up finishing 5th on the road but I’m sure nowhere near that on the timesheets. I may never know as the organisers at the finish line were not quite so welcoming and I was told I would be disqualified – as was a girl that finished slightly behind me as she was under 18.

A beautiful Autumn day and a very enjoyable and worthwhile event to take part in which by my estimate must have raised over 25,000 Euros for breast cancer research.

San Sebastien

Just back from a wonderful 5 day break in San Sebastien, Spain. Only a 4.5 hour drive from here so easily accessible for a long weekend. We booked an AirBnB apartment but the choice was a little restricted as we needed parking for the car – this meant being on the outskirts with a fair walk into the centre. Managed to fit the bikes into the Land Rover which made things easier – great for exploring and getting our bearings on the first day but we subsequently used the car to get into the city having worked out some good parking spots.

The apartment was just on the edge of the city in the University district on the western side and completely surrounded by trees and greenery – incredible to be so close to the city and the sea and yet out in the countryside.

Living near Cahors and hours away from the sea it was lovely to spend some time on the coast – just watching the waves and the light…

Sun, sea and sand in San Sebastien

We were near the Western side of the large bay of San Sebastien with an elegant promenade running all the way round to the old town on the Eastern side.

My usual habit is to head out in the morning for breakfast and we managed to keep to that routine, although typically some hours later than I am used to! The freshly squeezed orange juice was amazing, the Spanish coffee less so. We avoided the pastries for breakfast (wasted calories apparently), but mainly because they were likely to disappoint compared to the French offerings and we wanted to sample the local fare as much as possible. This came down to a choice between different types of spanish tortilla or tostada (toast). The tostada can be served with jam, but the locals prefer it with olive oil and tomato and it was delicious – as was the tortilla (strangely served with bread).

Breakfast Tortilla

Having worked out a parking strategy we went out each evening and enjoyed a lovely walk along the promenade towards the old town to find something to eat.

Walking to the old town

This area is packed with what you would like to call tapas bars, but in this region they serve pintxos rather than tapas – a similar concept but nearly all the pintxos are served on a piece of bread.

Pintxos

I get complaints if I post too many food pictures, but the fresh fish was wonderful – we tried monk fish, turbot and sea bass and they were all amazing. We had to ask for a serving for one person as it was invariably enough for two!

Pintxos

On the second day we walked up to the castle which is above the old town at the eastern end of the bay. There are lots of old defensive batteries and cannons with complete command of the harbour down below. Plenty of people swimming and surfing and the water was still warm (apparently)

Susan going for a paddle

Heavy rain was forecast for the next day so we drove along the coast to Bilbao to visit the incredible Guggenheim museum and it didn’t disappoint.

Guggenheim, Bilbao

Designed by Frank Gehry, the intention was to create a building that would be as interesting as the art works and exhibits that were contained within. In many cases the building actually surpassed the contents with it’s incredibly complex shapes and titanium panels that change colour with the light.

Of the exhibits “The Matter of Time” installation by Richard Serra was the most impressive – huge elliptical/toroidal structures made of rusted steel plate. Walking through the structures was a memorable experience – changing your perception of the space around you and confusing your mind so that it became difficult to pass through without touching the sides.

The Matter of Time

On the last day we ventured along the coast road to the West to a small but very active fishing village called Getaria, with a beautiful sandy and deserted beach.

Getaria Beach

Lovely boats in the harbour and about a dozen seriously big fishing boats.

Getaria Harbour

We found a small shop on the quayside to stock up with local wine and olive oil and get a recommendation for lunch – barbequed fresh fish..

Proper BBQ

We had a sea bass (for one!) – so simple but absolutely delicious.

Sea Bass

Back in San Sebastein for the evening there was a beautiful sunset over the bay as we walked along the promenade into the old town.

San Sebastien Sunset

Deboned rack of Basque lamb with chargrilled leeks for dinner (well we had fish at lunchtime)..

Amazing food

Breakfast on the last morning before the drive home was the traditional tostada with olive oil and tomato…

Tostada

What a wonderful week…

San Sebastien Video