Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Dash to Marrakech

This just in - from a first time No Crowds reporter with a tale of travel defiance and derring do - plus hot tips on how to show a determined volcano who's boss.
Dear Kate –
My advice is that if you really want to see Morocco with no crowds, go while a volcano has closed all the European airports. Some of the places we went to wouldn’t have had crowds in any event – but for mostly empty, try it during a volcano.
You asked for our “getting out of the UK while volcanoes erupt” story and here it is:
We awoke on Thursday morning, 15 April, to the news that all UK airports had been closed. This was not good news because we had Easyjet tickets leaving the next day for Marrakech. Our plans were to spend the next week visiting the desert and the mountains of Morocco, ending up back in Marrakech the following weekend for a friend’s 60th birthday party. By Thursday afternoon, it was becoming clear that European airspace would be more closed, not more open, the following day. And we would not be able to get to that tent at the edge of the Sahara on Sunday night if we weren’t in Morocco by Saturday morning.
I might have accepted our fate, but Dan is made of sterner stuff. We were going to be in Morocco, somewhere, on Saturday morning. That was that. The Eurostar website crashed repeatedly as he tried to get tickets to Paris, and then even to Brussels. We thought about heading for the ferries, but word was that it was chaos in Dover and Southampton. Dan conscripted his co-workers into service, and the redoubtable Claire called her mother in France – ‘”Lille”, came the response (with, as Claire relates, much Gallic shrugging of shoulders) try Lille.
Sure enough – should I share this? I hear that Iceland has a bigger volcano than Eyjafjallajokull so we may need to keep this secret – when we went in to book Eurostar tickets to Lille only, we got through. We were able to book the 5:40 am Brussels Eurostar to Lille! From there, we booked TGV Lille to Paris and Paris to Marseilles. The Marseilles airport was still open. The Air Maroc website showed seats available on the 9:30 pm to Casablanca, with a connection to Marrakech, so we bought them. Now all we had to do is actually make our connections and outrace the ash cloud to the south of France. (Contingency plan – night trains through Spain, ferry from there.)
St Pancras at 5 am Friday 16th April was unusually crowded for the time of day, but not as bad as it was to become throughout the weekend. Little known Eurostar fact: they apparently allow more people on than technically have seats. There were people sitting in the luggage compartments and in the jump-seats by the lavatories. They did not look unhappy – It beats swimming the channel.
Things were also pretty calm in Lille when we arrived at 9:30 (having lost an hour of time), and in fact we were able to change our 11 am connection to a 10 am train into Paris.
Gare du Nord at 11:10 am was a bit of a scene, but could have been worse -- we made it out to the taxi ranks outside, across the street and to the southeast (not the infamous rank to the right coming out of the Eurostar that you have to wait at forever) and headed for Gare de Lyon.
The situation there was not for a “no crowds” blog – complicated no doubt by the fact that the eruption was being celebrated by a train strike. The Paris airport had by this time closed. I’ll hand it to Gare de Lyon – they had staff stationed at the edge of the ticket queues discouraging people, especially order-loving Brits and Americans, from getting in them. We explained that we wanted to exchange our tickets for the 3:15 train for the 1:15 to Marseilles. “Just get on,” they advised.
So, when the track number was identified, we joined the surging herds climbing into the cars. Dan found a ticketmaster, who assured us that the train was ‘complet’, and that we should get off – but we observed that we were far from alone in skulking about, obviously without proper tickets. Following the advice of a well-dressed fellow skulker, we settled ourselves into two very comfortable and roomy seats in first class as the train started moving. What were they going to do? Throw us into the Provencal countryside at 300 km per hour?
Little known fact about the TGV – they did nothing. They didn’t even ask for a ticket. So we went first class from Paris to Marseilles holding a second class ticket for a different train. As Dan says, “Hey, this is the best train ever!”
Another taxi ride at 5 pm to the Marseilles airport – which might actually be closer to the Aix stop, but in any case, we were there in time to beg for a place on the 7:30 flight, direct to Marrakech. Seats were available, they said, but our ticket could not be exchanged because that facility is available only by phone. We pointed out that their phone line at that point simply said to call back. They said maybe Air France could do the ticketing for them, but in the event Air France could not exchange tickets – only sell new ones. We did not want to buy a third set of tickets to Marrakech. This posed a dilemma because there were web reports that the Spanish airports were about to close, which meant that Marseilles, too, might close before we got on our scheduled 9:30 flight to Casablanca. (The Marseilles airport, by the way, given that it was the only airport in France that remained open, was remarkably calm).
To make an already too-long story a bit shorter, 15 minutes before flight time, the Air Maroc stationmaster dropped by the ticket desk, and agreeably changed our ticket to the 7:30 flight, which proceeded to take off – and land -- in Marrakech as scheduled. Hoorah! We made it to our Riad just a couple of hours later than we would have on Easyjet (had it flown!) – and we had made a journey, not simply stepped off the airplane into another world. We also got a chance to practice our French, and reflect on the history of France and North Africa, St Exupery, etc.
That said, we were just as happy, ten days later, to take that non-stop Easyjet flight back to Gatwick.
Yours in travels and travails,

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