Spain, Portugal & Morocco – The Research Trip Back to News List
We often get told “we are living the dream” and its times like these that we can only wholeheartedly agree that yes “we are living the dream”.
Words and images by Mick McDonald
Following is the ramblings of Veronica and Mick as we conduct a research trip for our new 20 day Spain / Portugal / Morocco & Gibraltar.
Many of our ride focus on the “out of the way” marvels of nature, however this ride we hope to capture some of Europe and Northern Africa’s finest architectural and historical, not to mention geographically stunning regions.
Wandering the steep chaotic alleyways of the historic Alfama District of Lisbon dodging the tiny trams that lumber up the hills, visiting the remarkable Castelo de Sao Jorge (castle), Torre Belem that juts out into the Rio Teja or enjoying pasties de nata (custard filled tarts) bought home some of the superb experiences that Europe has to offer.
A wet weather event, not seen in over 50 years, could dampen our spirits as we left Lisbon, south, and followed the coastline via a series of remote hamlets as we made our way to Europe’s most south westerly point at Sagres. The coastal scenery here was something to behold with towering cliffs being relentlessly pounded by the Atlantic, sitting atop some of these cliffs were historic fortresses where Portuguese explorers and navigators set sail to discover new worlds, Sagres had a certain “end of world” feel to it and we loved it.
The absolute highlight thus far was the traveling in the legendary Algarve region of southern Portugal. We spent the day exploring empty roads that crisscrossed this stunning region dotted with tiny white washed villages that clung to a traditional way of life. The recent record-breaking rains had the rivers bursting their banks and the hills populated with olive, cork & orange trees glowing a vivid green. The roads were a revelation, most in near new condition, barely a car wide, and linked tiny village after tiny village, all seemingly in a comatose state, it was wonderful.
Arriving into one of the Algarve’s most beautiful coastal villages, Tavira, it was a pleasure to be welcomed at our hotel by none other than Dakar legend Simon Pavey & the bigger legend, for putting up with him, Linley!!! The four of us had a great night formulating plans to work together more and bring more world-class training events in various locations around the world, “ you are living the dream” rang true as we sat in the Plaza de Armas having a strong coffee dreaming up plans with the Paveys!!
Crossing into Spain we entered Andalucía and the rains returned, in earnest! It didn’t stop us from exploring the back roads of Andalucía and its numerous mining towns with, Curiously, disused locomotives sitting on roundabouts. We visited the mining village of Rio Tinto and wondered if that’s where one of the words mining giants got its name?
Further south, past Seville, we entered a fairytale landscape of rolling farmed lands of orange and olive trees, on perfect roads we travelled through the epic landscapes of the Sierra Margarita and spent a night at the incredible Hacienda El Santiscal built before Christopher Columbus set sail to discover the Americas. Spending the night in the company of the vivacious owner eating cured hams and specialty cheeses washed down with local Sherries was a real Andalucían treat we won’t forget in a hurry.
Arcos de la Frontera is one of Andalucía’s famous Pueblo Blanco’s (white towns), spectacularly situated on the precipice of a large bluff threatening to tumble into the raging river below at any moment, it was a breathtaking sight
A short 2-hour trip saw us arrive at the port city of Tarifa on the Straits of Gibraltar. Crossing from Europe to Africa we had been expecting spectacular chaos and general African craziness, however it could not have been a more simple process. A one-hour ferry ride made surprisingly easy with Morocco Customs onboard, by the time the boat had arrived into Tangiers we were stamped into Morocco and entered Africa.
The craziness did indeed start the moment we cleared the port and drove into Tangiers, slightly manic, traffic but it was wonderful to be back in this alluring continent, a continent of utter diversity of peoples, landscapes and a virtual walk through the fabled pages of history.
We knew we were no longer in Europe as the roads deteriorated, markedly, the moment we left Tangiers, as did the driving skills, however the scenery was stunning. The road snaked its way into the Rif Mountains lined with strawberry, apricot & orange vendors before arriving at our overnight stop of Chefchaouen. The “Blue City” was absolutely stunning with narrow alleyways leading to tiny blue washed houses, old ladies hung their washing out over the narrow lanes and Jelaba wearing old men made their way through the labyrinth maze where virtually everything is painted blue.
We dragged ourselves away from Chefchaouen and traveled onto Fes, although only 200ks apart this ride took us all day such were the twisties, endless photo & tea stops, a particular favorite was the “café” decked out to resemble an Egyptian Pharaohs tomb but when asked if we could eat, “ we don’t sell food” came the reply?
Fes is home to, possibly, the greatest medina on earth, with over 9000 alleyways that contain over 80,000 shops, nowhere else on earth is it so easy to become utterly disorientated in seconds, hence the use of a guide we had organized before our arrival. Much has been written, much has been photographed but nothing can quite prepare you for the old Medina, think the Istanbul Bazaar on steroids and possibly 100 times the size. Decapitated camel-heads swung in the breeze of the meat alley when around the corner were wedding dresses, not to be outdone was the brass-manufacturing alley and of course the renown tanneries responsible for all those amazing shots that always make it into any Moroccan guidebook, of course it was impossible not to walk away a few kilos heavier with leather goods etc. and a few dirham lighter!
Due south we soon left the fertile breadbasket of Morocco and entered a semi arid zone as we ascended into the Middle Atlas Mountains, via a series of superb twisties. The winding route reached 2500mt before descending a little onto a plateau reminiscent to the Mongolian Steppe, it was superb with towering snowcapped peaks and barren canyon lands stuffed full of apple and olive orchards.
Further south we reached the sub Saharan region of the Berbers and oasis’s filled with date palms and Kasbahs. We stopped at the very edge of the Sahara Desert and climbed aboard our camels for a stunning 2 hour trek into the breathtaking Erg Chebbi, a sea of glowing red sand dunes, some up to 160mt high. We watched sunset surrounded by these sand dunes before our final trek onto our overnight campsite, wonderfully located in amongst the sand dunes.
The campsite was far from roughing it though with a double bed, hot shower and toilet inside the tent. A superb dinner was included then a fire pit was lit with a little Berber entertainment thrown in, it truly was a night to remember camping out in the Sahara under and under an impossible carpet of stars listening to the melodic drumming of the Berbers!!
Next stop was the mighty Todra Gorge, a fissure of rock no wider than a 2-lane road, with towering 300mt tall vertical canyon walls. It is a superbly rugged location. It could be said that I was a little shocked, when after a conversation with the hotel owner, He “claimed” to have remembered me from my Kumuka & Top Deck driving days when we regularly visited Todra Gorge and indeed I did remember some of the antics we used to get up to, all those years ago, he was definitely one of the protagonists from those “good ol days”.
Moving onto the “Ollywood” better known as Ouarzazate, this is home to Morocco’s film industry and the nearby UNESCO listed Ait Ben Haddou Kasbah has been the scene of many Hollywood blockbusters including Gladiators and Game of Thrones. The Kasbah itself is absolutely magnificent and is everything, and more, you would expect from a traditional Moroccan Kasbah. The setting could not have been more perfect and it wasn’t hard to imagine days long gone as we wandered the ancient mud alleyways within the Kasbah.
The ride over the amazing 2600mt Tizi –n-Tichka Pass in the High Atlas, literally left us breathless, but not for long as the descent was as abrupt as was the ascent. Immediately on crossing the pass vegetation returned and the landscape shone a brilliant green again, we went from a harsh stark desert landscape to fertile cultivated fields all within one hour!!
The road into Marrakesh wasn’t as “crazy” as expected and we were soon ensconced within the 5 –star Es Saadi Hotel, a 10-minute walk from the old medina.
An unmissable highlight of Marrakesh is, undoubtedly, the Djemaa el Fna, a central square that explodes into life at sundown. Snake charmers, acrobats, musicians, storytellers, henna sellers and an endless array of pop-up restaurants vie for your attention; the chaos, noise, smells & sights are a sensory overload and its truly difficult to leave lest you might miss something.
We had dinner at one of the 100+ pop-up restaurants that are erected and dismantled, in their entirety, every night. The restaurant was run by a fat guy, who proudly showed off his “roundness”, and wore a filthy apron that hadn’t been washed in years, or so it looked, anywhere else in the world you wouldn’t go near a place like this, but in the Djemaa el Fna, well its just the way it is, and the tourists were flocking to eat in any number of these basic restaurants, the atmosphere was amazing, hectic and alluring.
We continued on, stopping en-route at the wonderful Cascades d’Ouzoud, before experiencing 27ks of superb twisities as we descended off the Middle Atlas Mountains. We continued onto Khenifra before turning off the national road and ascended back into the Middle Atlas. What followed was some of the most superb, but hard, riding of the entire trip; the road became utterly empty and soon was no more than barely a single lane wide, the “hard” bit was what was left of the road was in terrible condition with numerous potholes and a few sections of dirt where roadwork is being undertaken. The landscape was otherworldly, incredibly rocky, some forested, remote and dotted with the stone cottages of the Berbers as they eke out a tough existence on these high plains. Small scruffy children ran excitedly from the cottages, simply to wave, we got the feeling they didn’t see too many vehicles up here.
Descending again we entered some cedar forests and soon ran into troupes of monkeys before travelling across a landscape of impossible green fields dotted with whitewashed hamlets, it was a world away from the high plains only a few hours ago and wondered why the Berbers simply didn’t move to more fertile grounds?
We overnighted in Meknes and visited the superb Roman ruins of Volubilis the following morning. These amazing ruins from 40AD were a real surprise and absolutely stunning set in a field of green surrounded by olive trees. A guide bought to life the decadent lifestyles those Roman led “back in the day”. Leaving Volubilis we reached the Atlantic Coast at Asilah mid afternoon and spent the remainder of the day wandering the stunning white and blue washed narrow laneways of the Medina that was surrounded by walls constructed by the Portuguese in 1471, walls that backed onto the Atlantic Ocean.
Breakfast in Morocco, lunch in Gibraltar and dinner in Spain!! 3 countries in one day, something we “Aussies” struggle to get our heads around. A quick 45-minute ferry across the straits of Gibraltar saw us return to Europe and move onto the anomaly that is the “Rock of Gibraltar”, still under British control. We crossed the border “into the UK” and had a traditional English lunch of fish and chips in Casemate Square. Returning again to Europe we traveled along the Costa del Sol with superb views of the Mediterranean before turning inland and enjoyed a wonderful 45ks of twisties into the Andalucían village of Ronda.
Nothing could prepare us for the staggering sight that is the cliff top “old town” of Ronda. The old part of Ronda sits on the very edge of a towering cliff with the Rio Tejo over 100mt below. A stunning historical bridge spans the old and new towns with historical buildings lining the cliff face; it truly is a sight to behold. Our superb hotel was formerly owned by the Pizzaro family, the very Pizzaro who conquered Peru!!
Its only 175ks from Ronda to Granada, our next stop, however the route took us the best part of the day as we found some absolutely stunning single lane roads that crossed various mountain ranges, some of these roads were virtually empty and most were in superb condition. The riding was magnificent as we crossed valley after valley with hillsides laden with olive & apple trees, dotted with Pueblo Blanco’s (white cities) and the distant snow capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada.
Arriving into Granada we were lucky to get a couple of tickets to the highlight of any visit to Granada, the remarkable Alhambra. Founded in by the ????????? this remarkable series of palaces surrounded by a mighty fortress that towers above the present Granada was a sight to behold.
We continued on what is known as Caliphates Way, through a series of “Pueblos Blanco’s all topped with hilltop fortresses, or Fortaleza’s, one of which we visited, complete with an audio guide that provided a fascinating history onto “ye olde” days of knights and chivalry!!
We thought we had seen our share of mosques & churches in our many years or traveling but nothing could prepare us for the assault on our visual senses as we entered the breathtaking “Mesquita”, or mosque complete with a Christian cathedral of epic proportions, in both size and grandeur, smack in the middle of the mosque.
After getting hopelessly lost in the countless narrow alleyways of Cordoba’s old town we eventually found our hotel literally across the laneway from the Mesquita!
Our penultimate day was also our biggest day, distance wise, but that certainly didn’t mean we went straight for the freeway, instead we headed straight for the hills of the Sierra de Hornachuellos and found some magnificent roads, barely a car width wide, endless corners through a magnificent forest, but virtually in new condition. In the 2 hours it took us to cross the Sierra’s we saw 2 other cars, clearly this was the “road less travelled”.
Crossing back into Portugal we visited the classic walled city, so prominent in this region, of Monseraz and explored the small village that sat high above the surrounding plains and of course went directly to the first, Pasties de Nata (custard pie,) shop that we found. We eventually reached the Portuguese medieval city of Evora late afternoon.
It had dawned on us that this was to be the last day on this journey and we didn’t want it to end so we dragged out our stay at the wonderful Evora by visiting the macabre Capela do Osso, (chapel of Bones), and as the names suggest it was a chapel with the walls lined with human skulls and bones, apparently the priests wanted to remind us all where we would eventually end up, I had a fair idea where that might be without being reminded, only reminded me why I do what I do before I do end up as bones!!!!!!!
Our final journey took us through small rural communities amongst wineries & cork forests before sadly reaching the freeway 80ks from Lisbon.
It is hard to summarize what we have experienced in this last three weeks; the utter diversity in peoples, landscapes, history, and foods is what struck us. We still can’t get beyond the fact that we ate in 3 countries in one day! What will stay with us? Perhaps it’s the labyrinth craziness of the Medina in Fes or the overwhelming silence of the Sahara, the beautiful seaside cliffs of Sagres or the mountaintop fortresses of Andalucía, perhaps it will be the palm filled oases or the astounding Kasbahs of Morocco and I haven’t even mentioned the riding!!
For further details and to book your place on this incredible journey, please visit our Tour webpage – Spain Portugal & Morocco by Compass Expeditions
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