Atay Maghrebi: On The Night Train
I was beginning to feel a little road-weary at the end of a long summer in Morocco. I felt as though I had been to almost every part of Morocco by this point, although of course I really hadn’t. I had covered a fair distance nonetheless, attending a wedding along the way, and needed to head back in the vague direction of Marrakech to get my flight home.
I'd left the house of a friend in Chefchaouen in the late morning to head back to Tangier. I'd then said my goodbyes to two fellow travellers, before heading to the grand taxi rank just off Avenue de la Resistance.
In Tangier, I would be staying with Ayoub at his hostel in the medina. One massively positive thing about the medina in Tangier is that it doesn't take long to find your way around. Although the passageways are much tighter than those in the relatively sanitised souks of Marrakech, the small size of it, hanging onto the side of a hill overlooking the entrance to the Mediterranean as it does, means that it doesn't take long to master the key thoroughfares in and out.
I considered taking the train back during daylight, as I had done in the past, but upon arriving at Tangier Ville station, I realised that this would be out of the question. Everywhere in front of me, there was a sea of people. Almost every single person there had at least three suitcases, two carrier bags and an elderly relative with them, all working their way through a course laid out in metal barriers snaking from side to side.
It soon dawned on me that the crowds were all heading back to the various parts of Morocco to celebrate Eid al-Adha. Having been in the country for nearly four weeks, I had lost track of the days of the week and the dates meaning Eid had crept up on me.
I asked a sales clerk about the prospect of getting on that evening’s Night Train. He made it pretty clear that I would have needed to arrive at the station a whole lot earlier in the day to reserve a space in one of the first-class berths.
Hearing this, I trudged back up Mohammed V Avenue towards the hostel and the company of the regular (and irregular) travellers that one finds on the backpackers’ circuit in Morocco.
Learning from my mistake, the next morning I was up before anybody else in the hostel. As I crept through the main lobby and breakfast area of the hostel, some of the younger members of staff were still hidden under a mass of blankets, awaiting enough sunshine and the movement of the guests to rouse them from their slumbers.
This time, the station was almost empty. A couple of men in uniforms played idly with their phones and a couple of cleaners were chatting. Not taking any chances, I moved quickly to the service counter, half expecting the next wave of Eid ticket-buying to commence at any moment.
The train was scheduled to leave at 11:45 pm, so I did have the small matter of an entire day to kill. I had not wanted to block one of the hostel beds from being used and was running low on money anyway, so I decided in favour of spending the day lurking in and around the hostel, walking perhaps as far as the new marina.
After having gone and bought shawarma and chips from Patisserie Bab al Medina, I returned to the hostel to find and a gentleman called Karl sitting on the roof terrace. He immediately struck me as quite an interesting character. He didn’t fit into any of the stereotypes of a guest, either in terms of age, profession or lifestyle that you would find staying at a hostel.
A year or so later, we would still have an ongoing disagreement about where we had actually met, with Karl insisting that we had met at another hostel I'd never heard of, when I was entirely sure that we had actually met at the Tangier hostel.
After a little while, he asked me a question, “Do you wanna go get a drink at the craziest bar in town?”
“Crazy how?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” Was his reply and we headed off towards a small side-street opposite the Grand Cafe de Paris.
The bar was tiny. After taking one step inside, I’d already run out of space. There was only enough standing room for about ten people (who were all seemingly well acquainted) with a handful of others scattered around sat on tall bar stools.
The clientele were in various stages of merriment and being the two people who were quite clearly from out of town, we immediately piqued the interest of the least sober guy in the room. He insisted on telling me how much he loved America, how he loved country music, and how I was from the best country in the world.
At this point, I surrendered the information that I was Irish. His response? “Oh! So you like to party?” As he made a drinking gesture with his hands. This was probably the 10th time I'd heard this line on this trip alone, and so, rather than trying to fight the slightly lazy stereotypes of the Irish drunkard, instead I played along with it telling him how crazy I was.
The man told me how much he loved U2, but that he would always prefer American country music. I had tried to tell him that there was more to Irish music than U2. We'd given the world Enya and Boyzone too, after all.
As a result of doing so many solo business trips around Morocco for his company, Karl seemed to be in his element. Laughing and joking along with anyone who chatted with us. Amazingly, this was the first time I’d been anywhere in Morocco where anyone was drinking and I was a bit shellshocked, probably coming across as a bit serious and straight-laced in the situation.
That said, unlike late night in a busy British pub in the run-up to a national holiday, this was a completely jovial atmosphere. Everyone was curious about who Karl and I were, but no one seemed overly fussed by our presence in this ‘locals’ bar.
Around 10 pm, I decided I should pick up my bags and make my way towards the station.
Sometimes, in Tangier, the taxis won’t leave you alone to walk along the street in peace. Every few metres someone will be calling to you asking if you need a lift. Not tonight. The traffic was solid and all of the taxis taken. I was beginning to wonder whether I would miss the train before I managed to get a seat in a petit taxi.
Arriving through the various barrier systems to the side of the soon to be opening upgraded station, I realised I shouldn’t have worried. All of the platforms were devoid of trains and the assembled crowds were being held back by a mixture of ONCF staff, police and men in military uniforms.
I got chatting to two fellow tourists: a Moroccan guy and his university mate from Birmingham. The Moroccan pointed out that the night train could often be late and that there was actually a train scheduled to leave before ours could anyway.
Sure enough, around 1 am two trains reversed in platforms on opposite sides of the station. The subdued travellers suddenly sprung into life and I followed suit, assuming that there was about to be a stampede.
Travellers to Fes swarmed towards the unreserved seating on their train, with the various guardians of the peace trying to control the surge and wheedle out any chancers without a ticket.
Things seemed a little calmer on the Marrakech side of the station. Thankfully, having a reserved compartment meant that I didn’t need to sharpen my elbows for a fight to the death over a bed.
Boarding the first-class sleeper carriage, I was greeted by an attendant in a uniform different from the other railway staff. All smiles and speaking to me in fluent French, he showed me into the first berth we came to.
As the main locomotive hadn't been attached to our train yet, the carriages were in relative darkness, but with the help of my phone light and the sodium glow from the platform lights, I was able to see a room that was genuinely impressive - bearing in mind that I’d spent a fair amount of the last four weeks in hostels.
The walls were finished in a wood-panel effect that went some way towards lending the room a hint of that long-forgotten Orient Express-era prestige. There was a single bed with fresh ONCF branded sheets, a chair by the window with a table for presumably writing your memoirs and a sink for what my dad calls a ‘wash and brush up’.
The attendant knocked on the door, offered me some bottled water and apologise for the lateness of the train.
It must have been around 1.30 that the 1% battery on my iPhone finally gave up on me. I locked the compartment door and went to sleep. This meant that the train must have already been nearly two hours late leaving Tangier by the time I’d slept. In reality, God knows what time it had left.
I had woken up only once in the night when I realised that the train had changed direction. I presumed that this may have meant that we’d been inland via Sidi Kacem and were now heading towards the coast again.
I felt like I'd had the best sleep of the entire trip when I woke up aware that there was some light coming in via the blinds and the compartment was noticeably warmer. The train was still rolling along at a good pace, and as I was travelling to the end of the line, I couldn't have missed my stop.
Drawing the blind, I was greeted by a landscape of sand that rolled away into the distance, punctuated only by small homesteads and agricultural activity. Occasionally we would pass over a dried oued or through small palmeries and plantations.
I had no phone for company as the plugs weren’t working for me to recharge it, so opted to look back through photos I’d taken, read a little more of Lawrence Osborne’sThe Forgiven and let the arid beauty of the landscape between Casablanca and Marrakech roll out in front of me, all whilst blissfully unaware of where I actually was.
A light tap sounded on my door not long after I had woken up. I was greeted once more by the attendant’s smiling face who, despite working all night, was still immaculately dressed, if a little tired looking. He was explaining to me that he’d tried to give me something before departure and presented me with some ONCF slippers and other bits to help ensure a had comfortable night’s sleep.
He returned a few minutes later with a breakfast of pastries and coffee and said we would be in Marrakech in just over thirty minutes.
I decided to get myself sorted and prepared myself for the early morning Marrakchi air, pausing intermittently for a bite of croissant or pain au chocolat.
As we pulled into Marrakech’s station I saw the time on one of the platform signs. We had maintained our two hours of lateness, but I didn't care. There would be no early morning air for me, just the inevitable slap in the forehead from the relentless sunshine.
My first ever encounter on a sleeper train had been a favourable one. The gentle rocking motion of the train, the comfort of the bed and not being in a shared dorm room meant that I had barely stirred all night. I also had the satisfaction of knowing that I had combined travel and accommodation costs in one fell swoop totalling costing 690dh (or £55). Granted, it was more expensive than a dorm room, plus a regular train ticket, but only marginally so.
I stepped out of the station, got into the usual argument with a taxi driver about his meter, even offering to fix it for him, and headed to Bab Laksour for my final night in Morocco at Equity Point in the medina.
Travelling in the run-up to Eid Al-Adha means you need to expect to queue for longer and the availability of many things may be lower.
It doesn’t matter if your sleeper train is two hours late because you still have the same amount of time for sleeping.
Don’t go to bed before the attendant brings you your slippers.
Note: with Covid-19 restrictions, I am unsure about whether this service is currently operating, but an invaluable source of information is The Man in Seat 61: https://www.seat61.com/train-travel-in-morocco.htm