A Two-Town Kind of Day

Monday, March 16.

I sleep somewhat soundly until about 4:30 in the morning, when I’m awakened by noisy water and toilet pipes, and other things that go bump early in the morning.

For about the next hour, I’m irrationally convinced someone’s trying to break into our room, and I’m constantly checking my belongings in the dark. 

Morning brings a return to reason and a light continental breakfast – which includes yogurt. (I’m secretly happy for this – before leaving, a friend advised me to eat yogurt every day to help my stomach adjust to the food.)

I also get a chance to talk with some of my tour-mates, including Alex, our late arrival from London. As it turns out, she’s also a big adherent of breakfast, and we bond over this.

After breakfast, we pack up our bags and store them behind the reception desk. We have just enough time to pay a visit to the Hassan II Mosque – one of only two mosques non-Muslims are allowed to visit, in the entire country.

morocco-march-2009-004It’s a good thing I got such a spectactular view of the minaret as the plane approached the airport the day before. The “mist” that rolled in the previous evening has completely obscured the top of it.

As we make our way around towards the entrance, one of the boys sitting around nearby makes eye contact with Nikki, the lone New Zealander on our trip, and smiles, trying to chat her up in Moroccan Arabic. It’s already begun, I think to myself.

I think one of us notes this to her, and she rolls her eyes in recognition of what we mean. It’s all forgotten when we get to the front entrance, though.

The night before, our tour leader had instructed us to find the pregnant female tour guide, because she was apparently very good. No such luck – we get a man instead, and are hurriedly pushed towards the ticket office to purchase our tickets for the tour.

Inside, we’re told to take off our shoes and place them in plastic bags, which we carry with us through the huge worship hall.

The craftmanship is ridiculous. Every corner, wall, and ceiling panel is intricately designed. While the guide rattles off facts, numbers and measurements, I’m just trying to capture as much of the architectural beauty with my camera – if not to truly do it justice, then just to prove I was a witness to its greatness.

We move from one end of it to the other, and then out and downstairs into the area where worshippers perform their ablutions beforehand, and then a brief peek into the hammams. (I can’t remember off-hand whether or not they’re actually still used.) I love the shapes, the colour and design of the tiles – everything.

We return to the hotel, reconvene with our group and then head to the train station, where we take a (relatively) short trip to our next destination – the nation’s capital, Rabat.

Rabat’s sun and cloudless blue skies are a stark contrast tomorocco-march-2009-045 the gloominess we’ve just left. We store our bags at a local hotel just off the main strip. Our trip leader – named Will – starts to direct us towards the neatly maincured promenade in the middle of the street, but is told not to go there – the king’s in town.

So we’re forced to cross the street and stick to the sidewalk – and get our introduction to Moroccan traffic.

We hit a nearby pastry shop to pick up some things for the lunch we’re going to have later on. The shop – whose name I think is actually called Le Comedie – has some of the prettiest pastries, desserts and breads I think I’ve ever seen or smelled. I settle some sort of flaky pastry with meat, a piece of fresh bread and an irrestible chocolate sweet called a Montecristo.

One of my tour-mates – an American named Sally – buys a pastilla – a lovely pastry filled with chicken (or sometimes pigeon), almonds, and cinnamon, along with other things I can’t remember – and dusted with what I’m pretty sure is icing sugar. She lets me have a bite – and I’m in heaven.

We also stop at a small market nearby. While some people purchase some fruit, Alex and I agree to buy some olives – red and two types of green ones.

Will then takes the group down a series of quaint little sidestreets; I’m vaguely reminded of  Granada.

We arrive at this place that kind of looks like an old fort … we enter and walk until we arrive at this patio-styled, restaurant-y sort of place where we sit down to eat our purchases. A waiter arrives and offers us drinks and sweets. Some people opt not to because they don’t want to spend the money. I, however, cannot resist.

Poor Nikki is again targeted, this time by a very persistent young woman offering her a henna tattoo. Even when she says no, the henna girl continues badgering her, until our trip leader shoos her away in Arabic.

Following lunch, we’re free to look around the old fortress grounds  – part of which has a really pretty view overlooking the water. Following this, we split up to explore the city until it’s time to meet back at the hotel at 4:45 that afternoon.

morocco-march-2009-061A group of us – Liz, myself, Colin (the lone man on the tour), Nikki, two Aussies, Grace and Amelia and Alex – head over to the souks. The group eventually breaks down further when the younger members of the group stop to look at camel leather bracelets and the slightly older members wander along further.

Liz, Colin and I eventually keep walking, turning corner after corner and momentarily stalling at the odd stand, until we wander out of the souk and around what appears to be the newer part of the town.

We end up going to a nearby park and chilling out on a park bench for a while. We just sit in the shade and talk. Colin occasionally consults his guide book for information about things.

At about four o’clock, I hear the call to prayer for the first time on my trip. A friend of mine who went to Morocco about 10 years ago described the sound as “sexy”. I think it’s both beautiful and haunting.

But I don’t hear just one. Two more calls to prayer start up within about 30 seconds of one another – so for about two or three minutes, it sounds like the muezzins are either on an audio delay – or competing with each other.

After about 40 minutes, the three of us decide to start making our way back. But we get lost, walking street after street, trying to find the main drag and not finding anything remotely resembling it.

Colin consults the map in his guidebook a couple of times. The street we’re on isn’t even on the map. We ask someone for directions and get a not-so-distinct answer. Time is ticking away, and Colin suggests – in a slightly panicked voice – that we should maybe try getting a taxi.

We don’t, and keep walking. We come across a policeman and ask for directions. I try and translate what he says (thank goodness I know my numbers!), and then keep onward. I don’t know how or when, but about two minutes before we’re supposed to be at the hotel, we finally hit Mohammed V – and eventually the hotel.

We board the train to Meknes at about 5:30 p.m. It is PACKED. Some people find seats in cars almost right away; a bunch of us have to stand in the small open area – practically on top of our luggage (or maybe that’s just me) for a couple of stops.

I’m nervous. Besides the dude I saw in one car giving people the finger as we we were boarding, the thought of trying to talk to Moroccans – given my nonexistent Arabic and mediocre French skills – worries me. I’m bracing for hostility.

Nonnie, one of my older tour-mates from Australia, and I get couple spaces in a nearby car, about two stops into our trip. For a few moments, no one in our says anything – we’re looking at each other, at the other people and then briefly away.

But then this one young guy sporting a suit starts talking to us in English, asking where we’re from, etc. It turns out he’s from Malaysia. He’s really nice.

Then this really pretty Moroccan girl (wearing a headscarf) sitting next to him chimes in, albeit in a combination of broken English (and my poor French). I also try acting as translator for Nonnie, who owns a French phrasebook but doesn’t know a lick of French, so that she’s included in the “conversation”.

We find out the pretty girl lives near Meknes, but she – and another woman sitting next to me – are originally from Agadir, a coastal town just south of Essaouira (where we’ll go later on in our trip). She speaks of how it’s the same size as Essaouira, but very pretty and known for argan oil and (thuya) wood sculptures. She add that we should that we should try and stop there on our travels.

My fear of conversation dissolves just in time for her to leave the train at a town called Kenitra. There are two other girls sitting in our train car, but my French isn’t good enough to carry on a full conversation with them. So other than the odd question from one of the girls, they keep to themselves, talking about shopping and whatnot (from what little I could decipher).

When the train pulls into Meknes, it’s twilight. The light in our car is broken, so we sit in darkness.

Our hotel is, thankfully, less than five minutes by foot. After checking in and dropping off our things, we head to dinner at this place our tour leader Will found accidentally on a previous occasion (he’d been looking for a restaurant he’d been to before, but it had closed down).

We sit outside on the patio in our jackets, sweaters and fleeces, shivering. At one point during dinner, Will is sitting at one end of the table while he’s left his cigarettes at the other. I absently turn to look in time to see this kid (probably no older than 11), make his way up to the table, snatch the pack of smokes and take off down the street with his buddies. (The staff find out and buy Will a new pack of Marlboros.)

Following dinner (and the theft), a few of us stop in at a local bar for some drinks. The clientele are all men, except for the female bartender smoking behind the bar. Nikki goes upstairs to save some seats for us while we order our beers.

When we make our way upstairs with our drinks, poor Nikki’s been cornered by a lone Moroccan dude who won’t leave her alone and – despite her vocal protests – insists on buying her a drink, pulling out a huge wad of dirhams as if to prove he can afford it.

Even when the rest of us form a circle with our chairs and effectively block him out, he refuses to leave –  pretending to talk on his cell phone and surrepitiously taking pictures and then pretending he isn’t when we call him on it. I’m really annoyed and am ready to bust some heads. (Okay, maybe not, but I’m ready to take my own camera and start snapping unwanted pictures of him to get him to piss off.)

He eventually leaves, but only because closing time is called only a couple of minutes later.

Ah, Meknes. What an introduction.

The Train to Füssen

August 7th …

I don’t have to get up early, but I do anyway, to see Lauren off. It’ll be quite strange having a whole room to myself, albeit for only a few more hours. I’m most nervous about finding my way over to my next hostel – my brain’s been on auto-pilot for the last 10 days.

As my acquaintances assemble by the front door, a young couple apparently tries taking a taxi van meant for my mates.  From what I can tell, the taxi driver basically yells at them to get out of the van; they do so quite reluctantly. The driver proceeds to get out of the van, has some choice words with the guy, and gives him a shove (I suspect the dude said something not-so-nice to him). The woman – wearing something more appropriate for a club than for outside a hotel at 7:20 a.m. – tries defusing the situation. But Taxi Guy’s clearly incensed. Somehow the situation dissipates.

After saying goodbye to Lauren and my other tour-mates, I rub my eyes and figure out what to do with myself.  

I change, shower, check the internet terminal to see if it’s free – tour-mate Kelly from New Zealand (one of the few remaining) is checking work e-mails and trying to find accommodation for the next night. I wait a little while longer, then check out what’s for breakfast in the “dining room.” I opt instead to return to my room and scrounge around in my backpack for a strategically-packed granola bar (one of many).

I return back downstairs to see if the terminal’s free, and run into Randy coming downstairs with his belongings. He’s going to his next hotel – a Hilton, no less – and then plans to take the train to the south of Bavaria. Apparently there are two castles, one of which belonged to King Ludwig II and was featured in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – and he bought a tour ticket to see both.

I voice an interest in also wanting to go; he says if Kelly (who’s still on the Internet) and I want to go with him, he’s going to catch a train at 9:51 a.m. from the central train station to Füssen, Germany, which is the nearest stop to the castles.

We hurriedly agree to meet and he takes off.

Upon discussing further, Kelly and I decide not to rush, since both of us still have to figure out where our respective accommodations are. And besides, haven’t we already spent 10 days rushing from place to place?

We leave together sometime after 9 a.m., the sun already beating down on us. We find the metro, and take some time figuring out our respective routes, as well as what time later trains leave for Füssen, then split up, promising to e-mail each other about when to meet up.

I reach my hostel surprisingly quickly, only to find out the room won’t be ready until 3 p.m. I store my bag in the luggage room in the basement, then wait for a free internet terminal and e-mail Kelly. We were going to try and board the 10:51 train; we agree instead to meet by the train ticket booths by 11:15 so we can catch the 11:51 train.

I kill some time in the main lobby before walking over to the metro, and taking it to the main station (I get there early). I pick a spot and I wait. And wait. And wait.

At 11:46, when I debate whether to go by myself or go back to the hostel, Kelly shows up. We bolt for the train station.

Trying to figure out what tickets to buy from the automated machines is stressful, as we don’t understand the system, and we have about four minutes to buy our tickets, and board the train. But how Kelly figures it out for us to board with about two minutes to spare, is still beyond me.

Once we stop panting from all the running, we settle in for the trip. Kelly was nice enough to get lunch for both of us – something resembling pizza or pizza-bread; whatever – at this point, I don’t care – and some lovely pastries.

We take in the scenery and try and get whatever breeze we can, as the train car is boiling hot.

Here’s where a seemingly simple trip gets complicated. We both fall asleep because we’re so tired. We’re awoken by the man checking tickets, who says first in German, then in English, “Last stop.”

Bleary-eyed, we get off the train and wander around … only to discover we didn’t go to Füssen. We have, in fact, have ended up in the town of Memmingen, the western-most town in the state of Bavaria, which sits near the border with the state of Baden-Württemberg

Of course, we don’t know any of this until we go to the station’s ticket office, where the man at the desk shows us Memmingen on a small map. He also informs us we should have transferred roughly an hour east of where we are, in the town of Buchloe. I’m slightly annoyed, but soon smiling and shaking my head with Kelly at our misadventure. We grab some pop and pastry, and then walk back to Memmingen station to wait another 40 minutes for the train going in the opposite direction.

We reach Füssen three and half hours later, taking in the scenery – and finally getting a fantastic view of the mountains as we pull into the station. We wait for the bus, then decide to cab it to the ticket information centre for Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein castles. We can still see the former, but the latter will be closed by the time we get there. So we get tickets for Hohenschwangau Castle and then decide to go the whole hog and take a horse-drawn carriage to the base of the castle.

The tour itself was only okay, but the inside – all the ornate fixtures and decorations – was ridiculous. It’s too bad I couldn’t take any pictures. Even if I did, they probably wouldn’t have done it justice.

By the end of the tour, it’s started raining a bit. We take a chance and walk over to the other castle to get a look. It takes about 40 minutes, and I’m not kidding when I say it’s a bit of a climb – the way up is steeper than what we’ve been used to during the trip. But just being out in the fresh air, taking in where we are, makes the walk well-worth it.

We then decide to cap off our visit by walking up and around to Marienbrücke (Mary’s Bridge), from which you get the best views of Neuschwanstein Castle.

The upward hike takes another half-hour or so. The bridge itself when we get to it, is ridiculously high. And for two women of the Commonwealth who are skittish about heights, that’s a big friggin’ deal.

We inch arross the bridge, snap some pictures of the castle (which really is something in its own right), and go back across, trying NOT to look down. We go back on it a second time, since Kelly figures we can’t come ALL this way not to take pictures of ourselves on the bridge. (If I had a full bladder, I would’ve peed myself right there from sheer nervousness.)

We make the steep ascent back down, take a cab back to Füssen, where again, we cut it even closer trying to catch the train back to Munich. But make it we did, about three or so hours later.

Wow. What an adventure. But it’s almost over – one more day in Munich.

Stoke-on-Trent, Concluded.

When you last read this blog, I (your twit of a heroine) was waiting for my friend and her parents to come collect me from Macclesfield train station, after missing my actual stop.

I just realized I didn’t have my wallet. A frantic search of my hand bag and person a few moments later confirmed it. Nice.

The last place I remembered having it was the phone booth, so I went back out there and checked. Not in sight. I suddenly knew what it felt like to be one of those people in those credit card commercials who go on vacation and lose everything.

I thought I was going to start shitting bricks (pardon the expression). I was looking around, in front of me and behind me, trying to find anyone who looked suspicious enough to swipe a wallet with money and credit cards. I saw this young guy in a gray hooded sweatshirt with a load of grocery bags and immediately my mind started jumping to conclusions. I was like, Oh my God, some yob probably swiped my wallet to buy food and will probably run up my credit card. I’m screwed!

I did snap out of it, went to the ticket wicket and asked them if they had gotten a wallet and daybook turned in. They said to go to the customer service office. I got there, to find an older man just chatting away with the men inside the office. When he finally moved enough for me to pop my head around his shoulder, there they were. My daybook and wallet. Thank. God.

I thanked the man at the office desk profusely for his help, and apologized for being such a twit. I also found out that he thought I’d gotten on the train back to Stoke-on-Trent and put out an announcement for me back there. Hoo, boy.

Things were sorted out in the end. My friend’s parents — bless them, they’re the best! — elected to come and pick me up from the station, since it would take an hour for my friend to drive from Stoke all the way to where I was, and they took me back to their place, where I did eventually see my friend.

The mini-nightmare was finally over. It also made me kind of paranoid, as I vowed I wouldn’t let the same thing happen to me when I finally headed up to Edinburgh on Sunday.

Aimed for Stoke-on-Trent. Kinda missed.

So my trek northwards began Friday afternoon … managed to lug my suitcase onto the tube and up to Euston train station, one of a number of railway hubs in the city.

Got my ticket printed, chilled for a few minutes, and then boarded the right train at the right time. So far, success.

It was at my stop that the trouble began. I noticed the train start to slow down and seeing the signs for Stoke-on-Trent, so I jumped up and began the slightly arduous task of trying to wrestle my suitcase from its hold behind my seat. By the time I got it upright and was making my way to my seat to get my backpack, the train had stopped and passengers were getting on.

It was a nightmare. I couldn’t budge, so I had to stand at my seat, blocked in by my suitcase, while other people passed. Finally, the coast was clear, and as I started lugging my stuff down the tiny, tiny aisle, I got my first lesson about Virgin Trains.

Seasoned travellers, please skip this part, because you all know far better than me. But for anyone ever planning on coming to the U.K. and making part of your trip overland: Virgin Trains is NOT like VIA Rail. The train doesn’t stop and wait to make sure everyone has boarded or gotten off, that has to. Virgin’s Pendolino trains run on a tight schedule, so tight that sometimes, some of its scheduled trains may actually stop longer than expected because they’re ahead of schedule.

I found this out the hard way. The train probably stopped for a total of maybe three or four minutes, tops. As soon as I finally made my way towards the doors to exit, the train slowly started pulling out of the station.

“No!” I said to myself as I saw the train moving out. “No! No! Shit! No! Shit! SHIT!”

It was too late though. My friend Sabrina, who was waiting for me on the other side, would have seen people get off, and then would watch as yet another train pulled in a short time later, with no me in sight.

In the meantime, panicked and upset, I first went to find the station manager to explain what had happened to me and which stop I could get off at next to get back on track (so to speak). Went up and down the entire train (I had stashed my stuff on a non-reserved seat in my car). No manager in site. I returned to my “new” seat near the door, very frustrated.

I asked a nearby passenger if she’d seen the manager, and if she knew which station was coming up next. She said no to neither. But bless her heart, she lent me her mobile to try and call and text my friend. No luck, but it was the gesture that counted.

Turns out the next station was Macclesfield, which was about 15 minutes away from Stoke-on-Trent. I stood in the little area between cars with all my gear, and as soon as the train stopped, I was off there like a hobo off a freight car. I went up to the first train staff member I found and explained my predicament. He told me that there was another train going back to Stoke-on-Trent in about 20 minutes and that I had to go to the opposite platform across from us, via elevator.

Great. So I went up and over. On the other side, I looked for a payphone. No phones. Because they were on the way out. On the other side of the platform from which I came. Twit.

So back up and over I went, through the ticket/waiting area, outside where cars waited to pick up people. The phones were on the other side. I made a call to Sabrina, but I got a message saying her phone was off. I called her house and talked to her mom, who told me to stay put.

THEN my that’s when my second scatter-brained nightmare of the day took place. After making my calls, I went back into the waiting area and sat down, trying to chill out for a few minutes. After what seemed like 10 or 15 minutes later, I jumped up with a start.

My wallet!