Category Archives: Cycle Touring

Update captains log star date 80315

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Apologies for the lack of blog entries.

In many respects the conditions encountered have been taxing. Far more so than previous trips. The temperature has been one factor. Connectivity is not great and my li ion battery storage pack, which was supposed to keep my smart phone going, is defective (again). This renders my solar panel ineffective too.

The story so far:

Steve encountered some difficulties. A little disorientated by a very different culture and lack of confidence in his itinerary meant that he abandoned the long ride. Instead he sold his bike to the daughter of a hostel owner, took a bus and headed down the coast towards Hoi An. However he did cycle the last few legs having bought a new bike and taken a coach to De Lat in the highlands. It all worked out well for him and enjoyed good hospitality along the way.

From Hai Phong I continued alone. Following the Ho Chi Minh Highway I slipped over the border into Laos. I cycled over the Central Viet Nam hills through lush jungle down to desert valleys.  I finally arrived at Thakhek on the Mekong close to the Thai border.

My initial plan was to head North through Laos towards the capital Ventienne and then on to Luang Prabang. But given the soaring temperatures, poor road choice and less than complimentary reports from travellers I opted to go South. This proved a good idea. Dust tracks and traditional villages with greener scenery provided a much better experience.

Currently I am exploring the Saravan region which contains the Bolavan plateau. The temperature and humidity remains a challenge especially in the tent at night. The environment as a whole is quite hostile. Laos remains a poor country with very poor dietary choices especially during the dry season. Rice provides the main food for many Laos people.

Given the situation I may leave the blog until I return home and am better able to provide a good account and photographs. Meanwhile I will provide some updates via Facebook (facebike link to the right of this page)

Hanoi (2)

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Steve had pitched up at the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel in the old quarter and close to the famous Hoan Kiem lake.
Legend has it that a golden turtle disappeared into its depths together with the sword which Emperor Le Thai To had used to rid Viet Nam of the Chinese.
Steve kept his bike locked in an outside area close to the bar.
Some happy ‘backpacker’ decided to steal his front light.

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We met at ‘Le Pub’, another popular bar for tourists and had a fun evening cycling around Hanoi including crossing the Cau Long Bien railway bridge.

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The expansive Tay Ho (West Lake) provides some relief from the noise of the city. I had hoped to circle it on my bike but only had time to visit the Tay Ho pagoda which stands on a small island close to the eastern shore.

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Before heading out of Hanoi we took the walking tour of the old quarter detailed in the Lonely Planet guide book. It took us past temples and streets of artisans. The highlight, in my opinion, was the Dong Xuan fresh food market. The seafood, fruits and vegetables look amazing.

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Two days is far too short to explore Hanoi. The food alone would take weeks if not months to fully appreciate in its diversity. But what is easily observed is the frenetic pace at which the city moves.

Hanoi

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I took a direct flight from London, Gatwick to Hanoi, Noi Bai with Vietnam Airlines. Although slightly delayed the plane arrived on time. For economy class they allow 30kgs checked luggage and up to 7kg hand luggage. However ‘sports equipment’ such as a bicycle is carried at an excess charge. With a little effort I was able to bring the weight of the bike down to just below the 15kg charge band and paid $175 at the airport. On the up side I did not have to worry about excess baggage charges for the rest of my gear and which, on this occasion, included pedals, saddle and seat post plus bottle cages. Once again I used a (new this time) CTC plastic bag for the bike.
I waited patiently at immigration to present my letter of notification and obtained a multi entry visa for $95. Once out of the airport, and with my bike still bagged, I wandered along the taxi ranks until I found a minibus and driver looking for passengers.
For a change, and rather guiltily, I would not be cycling direct from the airport. The major roads into Hanoi from the airport did not appear terribly cycle friendly and allowed myself the luxury of a ride. However it is possible to cycle if you don’t mind the heavy traffic on a six lane highway.

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I was dropped off on the Southern fringe of West Lake. Despite good directions I had problems finding the homestay. Everyone I asked sent me in different directions. After a telephone call the owner found me and I followed his scooter on foot. The Chezlinhlinh house ‘homestay’, situated close to the Ha Noi brewer, provides excellent facilities for travellers. I had two huge rooms, en suite shower room and a good sized balcony that had its own sink and clothes washing facilities. I felt spoilt.
I used my bike to cycle around Hanoi and meet up with Steve; an Australian friend that was joining me on this cycling tour of Viet Nam.
My first real outing into the city took me past local shops, street traders and the wreckage of a downed B52 bomber. I found Hanoi’s botanical gardens seriously lacking in interest and Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum simply provides a constant flow of respectful visitors in a grand setting much the same as, for example, Lenin’s tomb. I did not look in on Ho Chi Minh who had been denied the cremation that he had requested. But I did buy a soviet style enamel badge at the gate.

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Hanoi and it’s old quarter in particular is hectic. The main cause of this is the high number of mopeds and which are the most popular way of getting about. Everyone and their uncle is driving one. In a densely populated city the total effect is suffocating. The air is a killer. The botanical gardens hardly provide a green lung in the city. They do, however, provide banqueting facilities at which guests can arrive on their scooters. Several cages of pathetic looking monkeys look across at their tables from their small cages.

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Once in the traffic it is relatively easy to cycle and, like most congested cities with few observed rules, it is safe and easy to negotiate your way. However it is not for the timid or hesitant cyclist that may be easily overwhelmed by the volume and apparent ‘anarchy’ of movement. It is, I feel, much easier and safer to be in Hanoi’s traffic than to be a pedestrian.

Moving on..

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I felt so lucky to have had the opportunity to cycle Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Nepal and Ladakh in 2013. My initial planning was to extend that journey East towards Laos and Vietnam. It was quite a tall order and unless able to commit to more than a year on the road, is not something undertaken so easily.  This year I have at least still managed to stretch my legs and circle Morocco. That was pretty amazing and loved the journey through the High Atlas. The intention was to visit Norway in the Autumn too. But built a cycle workshop and office studio instead.

With the new year looming and a return to political stability in SE Asia I hope, all going well, to resume my journey. My attention is drawn to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. An old friend from Oz will be joining me In North Vietnam and has, for his first cycle tour overseas, been planning the route well in advance. With a little luck another friend in the UK will join us. Rich, Steve and Paul: ‘The Three Amigos’ will cycle from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in the South.

Good stuff.

Cycling in Morocco

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As an inquisitive traveller and maybe less of a dedicated cyclist I had mixed feelings about my trip to Morocco.  It is a relatively inexpensive and attractive option for anyone wanting to visit an exotic location fairly close to Europe. From a cycling point of view the Atlas mountain ranges have a lot to offer for both the on and off road cyclist.
The cities of Agadir or Marrakech make good starting points from which to explore and enjoy some of the most amazing sights and experiences that Morocco has to offer.
Morocco boasts an excellent road network , much of which has been modernised since the 90s and now includes toll expressways providing fast links across the entire country.
My initial plan was to cycle from Rabat to Fes and then South to Errachadia. This would have then taken me to the city of Ouarzazate before crossing the Tizi n’Tichka pass leading to Marrakech. It is a classic and popular route taken by touring cyclists. However, I thank my lucky stars that I chose a different route. These roads are pretty busy and heavily used by trucks, coaches, taxis and buses.  The more candid reports from cyclists that have followed that route, including visits to the tourist ‘must see’ gorges, do not always paint a positive picture. Cycling journals posted at the crazyguyonabike website reveal a wide selection of experiences. Chris Scott’s book : Morocco Overland – Route Guide: From the Atlas to the Sahara provides excellent info on routes although written more for adventure motorcyclists than cycle tourists.

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Morocco is, in some respects a ‘hard’ place and tourism has created a dependence which can reflect in a poor experience for travellers who may be scammed, harassed and bled dry. Follow the pack along those roads and, unless ‘credit card’ touring or being looked after as part of a ‘package’, you are likely to be be disappointed and, for some, angry and frustrated. The odd great view and occasional unique experience is a poor substitute for the potential beauty and wonderful local people that will be encountered by opting for a road ‘less travelled’. Such routes may not figure so highly in the guidebooks but will provide a greater insight into the daily lives of Moroccan people and will still, with good planning, lead to the extraordinary places and wonderful views that typify Morocco.

Instead of heading East from my starting point in the capital of Rabat,  I chose to follow the coast road South as far as Safi. Once past Casablanca (and a large port oil terminal) the road becomes quiet and relaxing with excellent coastal views.  I headed inland at Safi to Marrakesh and traversed the High Atlas before finally heading North to Fez. Undoubtedly the most enjoyable part of my trip was the section of the High Atlas from La Vallée Heureuse to La Cathedrale.

 

Arriving at Rabat-Sale airport I was a little concerned that I may have a problem cycling into the capital on the busy N6 (Route Nationale). The road is open for use by cyclists and, in common with other major roads in Morocco, it has a wide hard shoulder. Rabat itself is fairly cycle friendly and provides cycle lanes, some separated from traffic, along main routes within the city. Sadly there are few cyclists actually using them. Morocco, in a similar fashion to France, is a country where the petrol/diesel motor reigns supreme. The roads are built and geared up to the motorist. There are a large number of mopeds. But rather than walk or cycle any distance many people prefer to make use of shared taxis. The Grand Taxi drivers do good business and their Mercedes saloons are often stuffed to the gills. Alternatively there are minibuses (‘transport mixte’) which carry anyone and anything, often in large quantities, both inside and outside. Sometimes roof racks are used for transporting goats. In rural areas it is the minibuses that are the popular way to cover distances. Alternatively there remains a large number of people who rely on the traditional donkey or horse and cart.  I saw many examples of roadkill in Morocco especially snakes. But the most unusual victim I saw was a dead donkey.

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Given the variations in driving ability and a European attitude towards speed on the roads  I did not feel that safe cycling amongst Moroccan traffic. I felt, at times, like I was taking my life in my hands. I had a large yellow rain cover which I placed over the bag on my rear carrier. This had quite a good effect on some drivers who slowed down and gave  me a lot more space when they passed.   Don’t kill me.. please!

I cycled through dozens of police traffic checkpoints; many on the edges of towns or cities. The police check drivers documents. Every time I was waved through without question. The police also operate mobile and hand held speed cameras. The speeding issue is reinforced along roads with a widespread poster campaign including pictures of children telling parents to step off the gas and get home safely to their family. I would guess the driver of the Grand Taxi that I took  from Ouaouizarht to Beni Mellal did not have children. He drove like a maniac and, without hesitation, overtook cars on blind bends as he threw his overloaded car down the mountain road.  That was.. interesting. I was glad I wasn’t cycling on that road.

Of note in Moroccan cities and urban areas is that the roadside kerbs are up to a foot high. This certainly affords some degree of protection to pedestrians against cars mounting the pavement. But the height creates a problem for cyclists especially on busy stretches of road where space is limited. Occasionally I found my cycle panniers rubbing against the raised kerb and had to prevent my front wheel being pulled in towards the pavement. It is made worse by the fact that drivers do not always provide enough space when overtaking. The roads are fairly narrow and only just squeeze in two way traffic. This combination of factors makes cycling a little more stressful. But not all drivers are so inconsiderate and some will wait to pass and are careful to give cyclists plenty of room. The issue of too narrow roads also occurs outside of urban areas. The layers of bitumen used for a road can be so thick that it creates a drop at the edge. Frequently there are dirt tracks running alongside roads for the use of donkeys and carts. It is possible to laboriously cycle along the track or move fairy briskly on the tarmac road. But, and this is the problem, it is not easy to move between the two. With a juggernaut flying past too closely, especially with traffic moving in the opposite direction, it becomes difficult to stay on the road. Forced into the dirt track it is then not so easy to get back onto that tarmac without stopping or finding a good edge to ride up. There were, I hate to say, far too many occasions when lorries or buses passed far too closely for comfort. Occasionally coach drivers would overtake and then steer back to their normal position on the road before the rest of their vehicle had time to get past me. Arrrrrrrgh!

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Of course the remote mountain roads and tracks in Morocco were perfect. Sometimes damn difficult, but not really any different from anywhere else in the world and part of the course.  Decent expeditions tyres that can handle any surface are essential. My (long discontinued) Schwalbe Marathon XR tyres performed without complaint. The Schwalbe Mondial tyres are now the business. Expedition tyres are tediously slow on well sealed roads but personally prefer the one size fits all approach.

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One of the biggest factors concerning a cycle touring trip in Morocco is the weather and climate. The country experiences quite different temperatures between the North and South. Climbing into the mountains brings the potential for extreme conditions with major downpours and deep snow. It is, in practical terms, best to avoid the heat of the Summer when temperatures run too high for any kind of outdoors activity during the day. But the weather in Morocco, like elsewhere in the world, has become unpredictable. I had planned to travel the length of the country during March but was delayed by personal commitments. However April proved to be a good month with relatively good temperatures and moderate rainfall. March had seen relentless rainfall in the South much to the chagrin of other touring cyclists. I found that, having reached Marrakech, the temperature had edged up into the mid 30s. This was totally at odds with the climate graphs in the guidebooks. By the end of the month it had crept into the 40s and far too hot for daytime cycling. However the High Atlas provided perfect cycling conditions during April. I shied away from the prospect of dropping South out of the mountains and into the desert. I did not want to cook however attractive the desert and its camels might be. It turned out to be a good decision given the beauty of the central valleys between the snow peaked ranges. Cycling across Morroco’s Northern provinces  in late April past fields of spring flowers felt like the hottest days of a balmy British summertime.

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In Morocco bicycle maintenance including parts and repairs is generally provided by motor mechanics. There are few dedicated cycle workshops and are lumped in with mopeds and motorcycles. I was fascinated in France how bicycles were repaired and sold in garden centres alongside lawnmowers. I only saw bicycles for sale in Morocco outside toy shops. Thankfully I had no problems with the bike that I could not sort out myself.  Pictured below is a rare dedicated cycle repair workshop situated in Rabat’s medina.

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I had little problem finding drinking water in Morocco. Many towns and villages had a well or communal tap with fresh potable water. Despite taking a water filtration device I did not use it at all and ensured that I carried enough for a few days supply. Water is, as a rule, usually safe to drink in Morocco. Likewise food is generally of good quality. In this respect Morocco reminded me of Kashmir and where there is a tradition, almost personal obligation, of selling and providing fresh healthy food. However I would still recommend caution in cities especially tourist areas. I certainly suffered (and lost a day) from a nasty bout of ‘Fezzy belly’ in Fes from eating uncooked local food.

On arrival in Rabat I tried, unsuccessfully, to buy paraffin for my stove. As an alternative white spirit is available from DIY shops selling paint. Instead of paraffin I used diesel or ‘gasoil’ for the duration of my trip. It works remarkably well with the multi-fuel  MSR dragonfly stove although I had to dismantle it at one point to clean out a lot of black greasy looking gunk from below the fuel jet. I cannot recall seeing a single shop anywhere I visited in Morocco selling camping gear of any kind.

The Rough Guide and Lonely Planet guides were useful for finding ‘budget’ (@100Rs) places to stay in cities. Although it isn’t that easy to find places suitable to take a bike especially in older traditional Medina buildings with very narrow stairs and rooms on higher levels.  Great places to stay: Safi –  Hotel de l’Avenir; Marrakech – Hotel Aday;  Zaouia Ahansal – Amzrai Guesthouse (Youssef Jini); Fes – Pension El-Kasbah;  Meknes – Maroc Hotel.

Beyond urban areas and into the Atlas mountains I had little problem finding places to camp. However Morocco is quite densely populated and it is difficult to find anywhere, even remote places, without attracting the attention of local people. Wherever you find yourself in Morocco there will be a goat herder keeping watch.

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Sunshine in Rabat (3)

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My last day in Rabat and Morocco involved a little last minute shopping. Once again, and without my bike, I trudged around the Medina. There was plenty of amazing looking seafood on display. Much of it still alive including freshly skinned fish which gasped and looked a bit unpleasant to me. One stall had a huge slab of shark meat (pictured) and the stall owner showed me a photograph of himself by the quay having caught one on a fishing trip.

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I revisited the flea market in the old Jewish ‘mellah’ close to the quayside. A traditional ‘waterman’ was walking slightly ahead of me. A little like a boot sale or yardsale the open market consisted of a fair amount of ‘old tut’ and domestic detritus including broken electrical goods and unused pharmaceuticals. Items for sale were liberally scattered on the ground by people that looked a bit down on their luck. Established shops nearby display their own items  which they appear to put out every day with the hope that they will fetch their over inflated asking prices. But, and like any second hand market, there is the possibility of finding a bargain or interesting items amongst it all.

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Below is a random selection of snaps of Rabat. The modern trams look pretty cool. The ‘Parc du Traingle de Vue’  in central Rabat is filled with exotic trees and plants and an oasis amongst the hustle and bustle of the city. Rabat is  full of wonderful buildings and architectural detail. It compares well to the more popular cities in Morocco visited by tourists. Thankfully the French had not levelled the old city Medina during their occupation as they had done elsewhere . General Hubert Lyautey insisted that the ‘Ville Nouvelle’ be built outside of the old city boundary created by the Andalucian wall. The biggest attraction for visitors as in other places in Morocco is the old city Medina with its fairytale passageways of arches and old doorways. And, of course, cats everywhere. It is a wonderful place for photography and my hurried snapshots do not, as usual, do it justice.

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As in Fes tortoises are offered very cheaply for sale. They are sometimes sold to tourists and supposedly pre packed or boxed in a way that they would escape detection by border authorities in countries that have restrictions on their import.

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Time to leave: With my gear all packed and my ‘splurge’ hotel bill paid I was back in the saddle… thank goodness. I felt in many respects that my early return to Rabat was a a little too premature. I don’t ‘do’ tourism or cities too well and with the blessing of hindsight I should really have spent a little more time cycling and camping in the countryside. That said seeing the Chellah and the remains of the Roman city of Sala Colonia was a good experience.

I spent a few hours to cross the Bou Regreg river into Salé, buy food in its medina for my flight, and cycled inland from the coastal Kenitra road to the airport North East of Rabat. I sat in a park close to the Aeroport Rabat Salé and ate far too many bananas and strawberries. I wanted to make sure I had plenty of food on board before delivering myself into the hands of RyanAir for an unknown period of time..

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My flight back to the UK was fairly straightforward although a bit delayed. As I was preparing my bike for the baggage handlers I was surprised to meet, once again, a Kiwi ‘physioterrorist’ whom I had met on my first arrival in Rabat.’ By coincidence she was on the same return flight as me. I gratefully accepted her offer to drive me to Cambridge from Stansted. That was providing her car would start having been parked for a month… and might involve the AA if not. Well yes.. thanks.. cool! We flew in to Stansted around 1am.People missed their connecting trains and buses as a result of the delayed flight. The car started no problem.  I was soon back as planned, safe and sound, in Cambridge again.  Bike too. I am not sure why, but this always amazes me.

In Morocco I managed to combine a great ride down the Atlantic coast to Safi, visited all the ‘must see’ cities and places I had on my itinerary and survived pretty okay on a shoestring budget. The High Atlas range provided the best part of my trip and exactly the kind of touring experience I enjoy most. It was a difficult choice to forego heading South towards the Sahara and  miss the ride through certain celebrated gorges but the joys of the central Nepal-like green valleys provided an extraordinary cycling adventure. I would imagine few people have cycled the length of the R302 to traverse the High Atlas but, given its breathtaking beauty, it may in time become a popular choice for touring cyclists.

 

http://www.bikemap.net/en/route/2435132-morocco-april-2014/

Rabat (2)

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Although I did not visit Volubilis many artefacts from the Roman town are displayed in Rabat’s museum of Archeology. I walked South following the Almohad city wall and towards the Grand Mosque via the impressive Bab er Rouah (gate of the wind).

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The Archeological Museum is tucked away in a road close to the Grand Mosque and is cited as the most important in Morocco. It is really quite small and surprised me by its limited collection of artefacts. Maybe much of Morocco’s archeological heritage has been squirrelled away into private collections all over the world.

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IMG_1115IMG_1111Continuing my historical tour I continued South to Chellah. This consists of the remains of the Roman city and port of Sala Colonia dating from around 200BC which are enclosed within a 14th Century fortress. This was, for me, one of the cultural highlights of my trip. The main gateway and walls are impressive and look quite gothic in appearance. Its builder; Abou al-Hussain ‘The Black Sultan’ also created a necropolis on top of the Roman site. The abandoned buildings and features are fairly extensive and include a number of tombs including those of Abou al-Hussain and his wife. The Roman remains include a ‘Temple of Jupiter’, ‘Arc de Triomphe’ and ‘Pool of the Nymph’. It has, quite surprisingly, all been abandoned for many centuries and inhabited instead by nesting storks.

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Salé and Rabat

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IMG_1228   Finally, and after failing to find a spot to camp on the coast, I cycled into the city of Salé. The city is situated on the Northern bank of the Bou Regreg river opposite Rabat. Although overshadowed now by the capital, Salé is the oldest city on the Atlantic coast. Its Phoenician origins date back to the 7th Century and was a prized city under the great Moroccan Sultans. It shares many of the same characteristics as Fes or Meknes including a finely decorated Medersa. The city enjoyed further wealth and success during the 16th Century as a home for the successful Sallee Rovers pirates. The  occupying French force made Rabat the administrative capital of Morocco in 1913 and Salé became a residential suburb. Despite its proximity to Rabat, Salé has retained its timeless atmosphere and traditional way of life. I was keen to find a place to stay and spend a day or so getting to know this historically important city. The Medina is tightly packed with tiny passageways. With some difficulty I steered my bike through the busy markets and searched for a hostel or Riad. Salé does not figure in too many travellers itineraries over and above a day visit. I searched for the only Riad listed in my guidebooks. I spent a lot of time looking for it in the maze of passageways as the light began to fail. Eventually I found ‘La Repose’, knocked on the door, and was led to a comfortable lounge by a maid.  I was presented with a glass of water and told to wait for ‘madam’. The hotel, which consists of a converted Medina house, looked quite spectacular with an exotic interior. A French family sat eating a dinner nearby. I quickly realised that this place was a boutique ‘Moroccan experience’ hotel of some luxury. Having just cycled around 80 miles I felt and must have looked pretty rough. My dusty bike stood, totally out of place, inside the grand front door. I  knew instinctively this wasn’t going to work out. I felt like a large turd on someones favourite lace tablecloth. ‘Madame’ appeared in traditional Moroccan attire including hijab and sat down.. It turned out that she was, in fact English and very well spoken. She told me that there was no rooms available and could not suggest anything. And that was that. I complemented her on the hotel and pushed my bike back out into Salé’s Medina.. IMG_0969 It seems I had exhausted all possibilities of finding somewhere to stay in Salé. The next port of call would be Rabat. There are oodles of places detailed in the guidebooks for Rabat. I found my way over along the cycleway over Pont Hassan II bridge and found Avenue Hassan II which runs next to the Almohad wall of the Medina. Many hotels are grouped close to the Bab Bouba gate. I began my search for somewhere to sleep all over again. It was turning into one helluvah day. In fact it was a Saturday. The weekends are busy in Rabat.  I began working my way down the list of recommended hotels in both the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet. They were full. I was sent to other hotels by these hotels. They were full. I did find one at the lowest end of the scale but looked only marginally better than sleeping on the streets. My last option was to find the Riad Dar Aida where I had stayed on arrival at the beginning of my trip. I had already pre-booked a room there for my final night in Rabat. At around 11pm I was welcomed into the Riad by Majid who manages the place. He had a room for me! Brilliant. I stayed there for the rest of my stay in Rabat and although a little pricey it was a very welcome ‘splurge’ that provided both comfort and good amenities. And good wifi too. Time to recover, refresh and relax. Arriving back two days earlier than anticipated meant that I was able to enjoy a ‘mini’ holiday before returning back to the UK. IMG_1215 I would guess that my arrival in Rabat truly represented the end of my cycling tour of Morocco. All that was left was to dispose of unwanted gear, buy an oversize ‘chinese’ laundry bag for the flight and cycle to Rabat-Salé airport. The hotel manager told me that the ‘patron’ or owner does not welcome guests with bicycles or pets. However he would store my bike for the duration of my stay. This had the unfortunate consequence of leaving me on foot for my stay in Rabat and limited my usual range of exploration. I walked and walked and became a regular tourist. IMG_0992   I returned to the Kasbah des Ouidaias and the Baba Ouidaia gate, where I had originally taken shelter from the rain on arrival in Morocco.  The fortified citadel contains a monastery and its 11th Century mosque is the oldest in the city. There is a viewing platform and beach access from the walls closest to the sea but several young men blocked the road and said that it was for residents only. I gathered later that it is public access and should have ignored these mischievous people but at the time I turned back. IMG_0995  I made my way along the quay by the Bou Regreg. Rowing boats ferry passengers to Salé on the opposite shore.  Once past a sailing ship converted for use as a restaurant I walked up hill towards the Hassan mosque and Mohammed V mausoleum.  IMG_1002 IMG_0997 IMG_1005 The Hassan mosque was an  overambitious project that was begun in the late 12th Century by the Almohad Sultan Yacoub el Mansour. Its construction slowed even further after his death but then was partially destroyed by the Great Earthquake of 1755. Its minaret still dominates Rabat’s skyline. Behind lies the Mausoleum of King Mohammed V whose body was interred there following his death in 1961.The park next to the Minaret is a popular place for skateboarding. IMG_1009 IMG_1013 IMG_1035 IMG_1038 After dinner I took a walk through the Sidi Al Khattab (Martyrs’ cemetery) that extends from the Medina down towards Rabat’s 1920s built lighthouse. The headstones all face Mecca. I sat on the rocks by the sea watching the sunset.  On the road back I saw a lad throwing quite a large rock which hit a parked bus. A man jumped off the bus and ran towards him. People scattered as he too threw a large rock and which narrowly missed the first mans head. There then followed a chase as this second man turned and ran uphill.  A large gang of men ran after him. It seems they had been playing football and had some issue with the man on the bus. I did not fancy his chances against the mob after his blood. It seemed like a serious business given that if any of the rocks thrown had struck home they would have caused injury or death.. IMG_1053IMG_1057IMG_1064 IMG_1054 IMG_1074

Sidi Slimane to Kenitra

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It was tempting to visit the Roman ruins of Volubilis North of Meknes. It figures highly as a ‘must see’ on the tourist trail. However, and having already researched the site on line earlier, I decided to give it a miss. Furthermore rather than follow the main roads back towards Rabat I pushed towards the Atlantic coast a little further North via the R705 and the Foret (Forest) du Garb.

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Despite the missed opportunity to see the remains of Ancient Rome’s most Southern outpost I quickly realised the importance of Volubilis and the surrounding area to the Roman Empire. In every direction as far as the eye could see wheat and barley gently swayed in the breeze. I cycled past extensive vineyards and fields with countless lines of olive trees. It is one huge bread basket.

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The R705 gradually climbs into the most Western hills of the Middle Atlas before dropping down towards the Atlantic  coast. I stopped in the city of Sidi Slimane at a cafe for yet another tajine cooked casserole.  Sidi Slimane is a busy modern city and administrative centre for the region. As I sat eating I noticed that cycling there was a popular form of transport.. more so than anywhere else I had seen in Morocco. People had pretty good bikes!

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After dinner I set out towards the Foret du Garb which lies approximately 10 kilometres to the West of the city. I had noted this forest on a map when initially planning my trip to Morocco as a potential place to camp. The forest extends over quite a wide area and is home to a Moroccan airforce base.

I had hoped for a dense wooded forest to make camp for the night. I was wrong. The ground was mostly sand and the pine trees provided little cover.  After a bit of a trek pushing my bike deeper and deeper into the forest I found a half decent spot with some ground cover and a good view. But no sooner than I had settled in to my sleeping bag for the night than the tent became surrounded by noisy goats. Two herdsmen appeared and were curious as to my identity. After a brief exchange we shook hands and they continued moving their goats through the forest.  Its odd.. but it seems that wherever you are in Morocco, however remote,  you are never far from someone that will notice you. This certainly makes  solo ‘stealth’ camping difficult. I was a little worried that I may have had a visit from people attached to the nearby airforce base should they have been told of the strange foreigner camped in the woods. But the night was blissfully uneventful.

 

The next mornings ride took me quickly out of the forest and into Kenitra closer to the Atlantic. My plan was to camp next to the sea before  making my way further down the coast to Sale and Rabat. Once past Kenitra the road dropped down as it ran South following the line of the coast. It was a superb ride despite an increase in traffic. But my enthusiasm for finding a good place to camp on or near a beach led me back towards Kenitra via the seafront at the local resort of Mehdya. It was a pretty nasty little seaside town which had as much appeal as the worst kind of English equivalent. Escaping the horrors of Mehdya or Merde-ia as I renamed it took me past a large multi-hotel building site.   I backtracked to where I had left the main coast road. Giving up thoughts of an ideal spot to camp by the sea I decided to try and find somewhere to stay in Sale instead.

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I cycled along the N1 South to Rabat through Sidi Bouknadel. The ride along the coast road reminded me a little of a similar road running South to Negombo in Sri Lanka. It had quite an exotic, yet local flavour with roadside markets and smiling people.    Once again I was making a return run having ‘done’ the distance and encircled much of a country riding my bike.

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Meknes

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The N6 or ‘Route Principle Fes Meknes’ from Fes to Meknes was a fairly pleasant morning run. Once out of Fes’s suburbs and into countryside the road gradually dropped down through a series of undulating hills. The fields of crops contrasted greatly with the Southern plains that I had seen.  There is little to distinguish it from similar farmland in Spain or France. Closer to Meknes the cereal crops gave way to fields of olives tree and grape vines. I stopped at one ‘Domaine’ hoping to pick up some wine but to no avail. Farmworkers were very friendly though.

Meknes is a modern metropolis with its ‘Ville Nouveau’ extending East towards Fes along the main road and railway line. The old city and Medina stands proudly on hills to the West.  Several short climbs brought me up to the sultan Moulay Ismail’s  city walls and to the Bab Mansour; one of the most beautiful gateways I had seen during my visit to Morocco. The sultan made Meknes his capital city during his reign of Morocco (1672 -1727) and this gateway was one of his crowning achievements.

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The fearsome sultan Moulay Ismail transformed Morocco during his 50 odd years rule. His enthusiasm for building and creating formidable architectural works entailed being fairly ‘hands on’  and included doing a little labouring himself. He used some materials including marble columns for his gates and buildings from the nearby Roman town of Volubilis. He also fathered over 1000 children. He must have been a busy man. However his main reputation came from his capacity for killing people sometimes in quite an arbitrary fashion. Looking at one of his wives would have resulted in a quick dismissal and death. It has been estimated that he killed over 30,000 people and made public displays of severed heads as a way of instilling fear and maintaining order.

The Bab Mansour and nearby smaller Bab Djemma en Nouar now provide the entrance to indoor displays. Opposite them is the Place De Hedim; a grand square or courtyard that leads to the Medina and food halls.

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Place el Hedim is similar in some respects to the Djemma el Fna in Marrakech. The square takes on a different life in the evening as street entertainers including snake charmers draw crowds around them. One side is lined with open air restaurants with an indoor food market behind. At the far end of the square is a green roofed palace and large tiled wall with, now redundant, water pipes.

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The indoor food market was a dazzling display. Many of the stalls were enhanced by beautifully hand painted alcoves and intricately patterned boards. The food displays themselves were a sight to behold. Stopping at a butchers stall a young lad demonstrated to me how he could, with some force and a big smile, remove a tongue from a cows head.

 

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Beyond the food hall and back across the main square past the mosaic tiled wall I entered the narrow passageways of the Medina to try and lose myself. Quickly I happened across the entrance to another ‘Bou Inania Medersa’ which was open to non- moslems on the payment of 10 dirhams. It was quite similar to the one I had seen at Fes and had been built around the same time  (1340-1350). Despite being built by his predecessor Abou el Hassan it also, like the Fes Medersa, took its name from the Sultan Abou Inan.

Apologies for the large number of photographs shared below but it was a very interesting place to visit and the detail is quite amazing. It was possible to walk up stairs to the first floor and look inside small cells  which provided simple prayer rooms with windows onto the courtyard below. Another flight of stairs allowed visitors on to the roof. The  ribbed domed roof in the panoramic photographs below is quite unusual and unique as an architectural feature in Morocco.

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The open area behind the main wall and gate of Bab Mansour provides an inner courtyard area (Place Lalla Aouda) with plenty of trees and seating. I took a gate through the next main wall and made my way beyond the Eastern wall into a more modern Meknes.  Trying to get back I became quite lost in the maze of passageways and dead ends but was quickly pointed back in the right direction.

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On arrival in Meknes I had found one of the cheapie hotels listed in a guidebook. The Hotel Regina is on the heavily congested main road leading up to the Bab Mansour. A very helpful young chap provided me with a ground floor room. I looked at it quickly and although spartan to the extreme thought little about it before setting off for my afternoon walk around the old city. On the way back I had a delightful meal in a cheap local cafe.

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Once back at the Regina hotel I realised that conditions there were much worse than I had initially thought. There was no real security. There was no electricity or light. Both the window and door were unlockable from the inside. It was, in effect, a  prison cell type room with little to recommend it. I have become a little less keen on such arrangements since I was a victim of an attempted robbery (and stabbed) in what I thought was safe accommodation visiting Bir in India last year. I asked for another room. Nothing was available so I trudged off to find another place despite it getting quite late. The Maroc Hotel nearby was the answer to my prayers. I was able to leave my bike in a central courtyard (with mature orange tree) and was provided with a wonderful room at the same price (100 dirham) as the ‘hole of Calcutta’ Regina Hotel.  I was in heaven and slept like a log. After a hot morning shower and a good breakfast in the ground floor lounge I packed up my kit.. The R705 West led uphill past the old walls and  ‘grand taxi’ rank of Mercedes saloon cars.  It was a brief visit but I liked Meknes; its relaxed convivial atmosphere and genial people.

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