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Trip report: Morocco, Algeria, France, Switz., Italy, Spain


Mar 6th, 2009, 09:22 AM
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Trip report: Morocco, Algeria, France, Switz., Italy, Spain

Sorry about the length. This report is also cross-posted in the Europe forum. --rizzuto

C. and I were both out of work and filled with wanderlust. So it seemed to make sense to plan an adventure to Europe and North Africa. We had been friends for a year or so and had each been to Europe once before, but we were essentially novice travelers.

I don't recall either of us taking a camera or writing a diary. This report is from memory, except for checking dates from passport stamps, looking at a map or two, and running a few Googles.

The trip took place in May-July, 1973.

The Plan
The Plan was to fly to Europe, and cruise through Europe and North Africa as much as possible on a limited budget, focusing on French-speaking places. We thought about using Eurailpasses, but decided to travel mostly by car. It would cost a bit more (and therefore shorten the trip: we planned to travel until the money ran out), but the freedom of a car seemed wildly better than the limited access that train travel would provide.

We outlined an itinerary:

-- Fly to Brussels. This was an easy choice, as Sabena offered the most attractive Youth Fare – about $190 rt from Boston to Brussels, which included connecting flights between Boston and the Sabena gateway.

-- Rent a car, driving through France, stopping in Geneva, and eventually reaching the southern tip of Spain.

-- Take a ferry to Morocco, then explore North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia).

-- Ferry from Tunis to Italy, then travel up through Italy and continue to Paris before going back to Brussels for the return flight.

Our air tickets began with a Delta flight from Boston to Montreal, then a Sabena flight from Montreal (Dorval) to Brussels on May 29th. We had an open return.

We did not use the Web to plan any part of the trip, as it would not exist for another 20 years or so. We had no hotel reservation except for the first two nights in Brussels, which were included as part of the air package from Sabena. We did not collect frequent flier miles, because they hadn't been invented, either.

We reserved an Avis car to pick up in Brussels and drop off in Spain, we got some free road maps from the French and Spanish national tourist offices in the US, and we had a Michelin green guide for France.

Belgium, Luxembourg, and West Germany
I remember nothing of the Sabena flight except that it was a 707 that leaked lots of water from condensation as we approached Brussels.

The Brussels hotel was modern, comfortable, nondescript, and in a location well away from the city center. The trip started poorly, as the underwear that I'd washed and set out to dry on the first night fell from their window perch and were never seen by me again. After a bit of sightseeing in Brussels, disappointment at the sorry state of the Atomium (the central figure in the 1958 World's Fair), and a useless trip to the Algerian embassy to inquire about a visa (it would take 3 days in Brussels; Geneva, they said, would be much quicker), we headed off to Avis to pick up some wheels and hit the road.

Our reservation was for the lowest-class car (Yugo or similar), but they gave us a Seat 128 (the Spanish version of the Fiat 128), a perfectly decent mid-size sedan, and a major improvement from Yugo-or-similar. We got the Seat because it needed to be moved back to Spain – my first operational upgrade, 25 years before I even learned the expression. I'd never driven outside North America, and everything was a new experience: the roads, the driving style, the signs, the sizes of the cars and trucks – what a sensational feeling and incredible rush of freedom!

On the road in strange lands, exploring with no clue of what might come next, taking in as much as possible though every sensory organ – this is what traveling is all about. The Belgian countryside was lovely as we headed toward the Ardennes, moving from the flat green farmlands to the rolling hills of the Ardennes foothills. There was no time for conversation in the car: the occupants were far too busy looking and listening to all that was going on outside.

After a picnic lunch on a riverbank in Namur, we followed an English-language sign pointing to a WWII Allied cemetery. It was an emotionally-charged sight to see row after row after row of simple graves, each topped with a white cross or star of David, followed by the name of a doomed soldier.

It did not take long to reach Luxembourg, the border of which was marked by an unmanned shack. European countries had their own border stations then, though the Belgians, Dutch, and Luxembourgeois had their own little set of agreements that put most of their border guards in the unemployment line. Luxembourg’s scenery was just as delightful as Belgium’s: green hills, pleasant villages, and certainly nothing like anything either of us had ever seen before.

We stopped for the night in a place called Simmerschmelz, in the first of what would be many modest hotels. C. was washing her face and said maybe she saw a mouse, and I bravely responded by jumping on her bed. No mouse was found, but 2 of the bed's 4 legs collapsed, leaving the bed at a curious 20-degree angle. When we stopped laughing maybe an hour later, C. announced that her bed was now my bed, and vice-versa. Next morning, after we'd paid cash for the room and had the luggage in the car, we informed the management of the sorry state of their woefully cheap furnishings. The management threatened us with all sorts of stuff as we beat a hasty retreat from Simmerschmelz, alternating between gales of laughter and peeks in the rear-view mirror for the Luxembourg Gendarmerie.

The fastest way out of Luxembourg was toward Metz in France, and that's where we headed en route to Saarbrucken, West Germany. We'd been in West Germany no more than an hour when I had a totally unexpected bout of fear and loathing. I had no first-hand knowledge of the Holocaust: my parents' families had both emigrated in the 1900s, losing touch with any remaining family members generations before the 1930s and 40s. And certainly there was no threat to me personally, and was by no means an observant Jew. Yet, I felt unspeakably uncomfortable and wanted to leave West Germany, right that instant. C., who was not Jewish, was looking forward to seeing W. Germany but had the kindness neither to question or to challenge my reaction. The Seat made a U-turn, and we were back in France in the blink of an eye.

France (east), Switzerland, and un poco d'Italia
Nancy is not the loveliest city in France (in fact, it's downright ugly), but it's the gateway to the Vosges mountains. I had no warning of the beauty and splendor of the Vosges: gorgeous hillsides, resplendent in the wildflowers of spring. We stopped for the night in a small hilltop hotel near St Dié, in a place called Le Col au Haut du Bois. The plan was to stay only one night (we had to reach southern Spain by late June to drop off the car), but Le Col was one of the loveliest spots either of us had ever seen and we spent an extra night or two.

What a luxury to have a vague plan, then stay longer in the places you love, and run like the devil from the places for which you have no use!

We spent a day driving and hiking and meandering through the Vosges. A stark counterpoint to the splendid scenery and weather was the memorial in each town to the men of that town who fell in the Great War, the one we now call WWI. This part of eastern France must have been soaked in blood: no matter how small the town, the list of fallen soldiers was long. Towns that couldn’t possibly have more than a few hundred residents would list 30, 40, maybe 70 or 80 men who died during those years. The memory of these memorials, in each and every village and town, still sends a chill up my spine.

The Vosges led to the similarly breathtaking Juras and then the mind-numbing Alps. I'd been raised in New England and had never been west of St. Louis, so my idea of a mountain was Mt Cranmore, a 1700-foot (550m.) ski place in the White Mountains. We drove through mist and through sunshine, on narrow twisting roads with no guard rails between the pavement and what seemed like a bottomless fall. We’d take a road when it looked interesting, with no particular destination in mind. We wound up in Taninges, a lovely Alpine town by a lake, and were mesmerized by the splendor of the Alps.

None of the routes or places to stay were planned in advance. We never took a highway, always staying on small roads (the ones that William Least Heat Moon called "Blue Highways"). When we grew tired or hungry, it was time to find a place to stay and stop for the night. Occasionally things went awry – both the hotels in town might be full, or we'd have to choose between an over-budget place and an uncertain drive to the next town 10 miles away – but more often than not the scheme worked well. We were innocent and inexperienced travelers, with no particular expectations, so there would be no disappointment or sense of loss if the hotel lacked amenities, if the room was not an upgrade, if we were not accorded special privileges of a Frequent Guest program. Though experience is surely the greatest of teachers, there's something particularly special about any first-time experience, especially when traveling. Even for seasoned travelers who cherish returning to their favorite spots, what is more exciting than that first trip to a country or city, when your nose is pressed to the window on the ride from the airport into town, when you can't wait to explore the streets, the markets, the restaurants. And on this trip, everything was new to me.

From Taninges, we headed toward Geneva, where some structure in the trip was actually needed. C. had a friend, a Dr.___, whom she wanted to visit, and we also needed to get our visas for Algeria. The latter was relatively easy and was accomplished by a morning and afternoon trip to the consulate (I lied and answered "Christian" to the "Religion:" question on the Algerian visa application). The visit with Dr.___, was welcome: it was the first time in 2 weeks that we'd actually spoken English with anyone except each other. Dr.___ had moved to Switzerland from the US or Canada a few years before, and he explained how it was easy to get Swiss citizenship as long as you had lots of money and could pay the cantonal authorities a sufficiently hefty fee. The wonderful movie Bread and Chocolate came out about the same time, and Dr.____'s info put it all in context. Dr.____ also served us the world's best egg nog (which, it turns out, is very similar to the Belgian/Dutch Advokaat, though the latter is a bit more alcoholic). Here’s his recipe:
- 1 quart of milk
- ½-pound of sugar
- 4 eggs
- 6 oz. of grain alcohol
In a saucepan, heat the milk and sugar (without boiling the milk) until all the sugar melts. Beat the eggs lightly, let the milk/sugar cool, and incorporate the eggs and milk-sugar. Add the alcohol, and cover the saucepan. Let the mixture sit for at least a day (a week is better), and skim off any scum that rises to the top.

After getting the visa and the recipe, we stayed in Geneva only long enough to be chased off the grass in a few parks, and off went the Seat to the south side of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva), back in France, toward Chamonix and Mont Blanc. The gondola up Mont Blanc seemed like a good idea, but another mountain across the road from Mont Blanc offered its own gondola for half the price, and that suddenly seemed like a better idea. It was, I suppose, though we had our doubts as the gondola blew in the wind. This was not anything like the Mt Cranmore Skimobile.

The Mont Blanc tunnel took us to Italy, yet another new experience. It didn't take long to get in the spirit of things: at the border, the guard took one look at C.'s passport, and called over a few of his colleagues. Now the photo in C.'s passport had been taken a few years earlier, when her appearance was somewhat more sedate and conformist than it was during this trip. The Italian border guys had a great laugh over it all before giving back our passports and offering several leers in C.’s general direction – Benvenuto in Italia!.

We were in the Val d'Aosta, the part of the Italian Alps close to Mont Blanc, which was now Montebianco. The Seat stopped for the evening in the oddly-named town of Morgex, where of course we had spaghetti. I was raised in a Jewish family in Boston, C. was raised in an Scots-Irish family in southern Ontario, and our pasta experiences were mostly Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. My God, what a culinary awakening: spaghetti that had taste and feel, with sauce that made your whole body sit up and smile. And the wine! A jug of the local, for pennies, was so much better than anything either of us had ever known (not that the Wine Spectator played a role in one's life then).

An especially striking part was the obvious cultural difference between Italy and anything we'd seen to this point. The Italians loved to play, loved to have fun, loved to laugh, and it was easy to feel an affinity with them. We thought about extending the stay in Italy, but we'd return to Italy on our way back from Tunisia, so the Seat turned west and headed back around the other side of Lake Geneva, toward Montreux and Lausanne.

South-central France, Andorra, and Spain
Heading southwest from Lausanne, the topography eventually changes from the steep gray Alps to the brown hills of south-central France. We'd heard about a Medieval town called Carcassonne, and also thought it would be fun to see Andorra, so we pointed in that direction.

One night the Seat stopped in a town called St Rome de Tarn, a tiny town on the Tarn River, somewhere between where we had been and where we were going. We chose the Hotel de la Poste (as it was the only hotel in the town), and we chose to eat in the hotel restaurant (as it was the only restaurant in the town). Dinner was at 7.00, and there was no menu. The first course was a potage (vegetable soup), the ingredients coming from the garden of the hotel. It was the first homemade French soup for me, and no further description seems necessary. After the soup, they served us each a large trout, sitting beautifully in its plate, barely an hour or so after it had been swimming in the Tarn. The Maitre d'/waiter asked if I’d like him to cut the fish for me. I stupidly declined, and promptly made an amazing mess trying to deal with the unfortunate fish. C., meanwhile, showed good judgment and watched as Monsieur skillfully boned and presented the trout. The dinner was excellent, we'd finished the carafe of wine, and were ready to relax for the evening, when, to our very great surprise, the main course appeared. Some sort of meat in some sort of delicious sauce. Which of course required another carafe of wine. When the meal finally ended who knows how many courses later, we slurred our profuse thanks for an unforgettable dinner, and somehow managed the task of hauling ourselves up the flight of stairs to the (modest) accommodations of the hotel.

Next day we were off to Carcassonne where we'd planned to spend a few days checking out the historical stuff. We found only tourist trappings (probably didn't look terribly hard for the good stuff) and quickly decided to move on toward Andorra and Spain.

What was one to expect in Andorra? In a world with no Web, travelers' tales are pretty much limited to your friends and to 2nd-hand stories, and I knew of no one who had been to Utah, let alone Andorra. Turns out to be a cross between a beautiful mountaintop place and a kitschy-touristy mountaintop place, with one road leading through it connecting France and Spain. We bought postcards and stamps, sent lots of cards to people who probably could have cared less about Andorra, and followed long and slow lines of trucks to the Spanish border.

The trip had so far taken us across 10 border crossings, and this was the first where the process seemed to be taken seriously. This also was the point where C. and I switched language roles: she spoke some Spanish (I spoke none), where I'd had more French experience. C. handled the guards ably enough, and we were back following more slow trucks until we reached the city of Lerida.

We found a typically modest (= cheap) hotel, and decided that a cocktail would be welcome. We both enjoyed vodka Gimlets (that's vodka mixed with Rose's sweetened lime juice), and headed to the hotel bar to enjoy one. After a certain amount of discussion during which our unquenched thirsts were becoming increasingly impatient, the waiter brought us each a beer mixed with unsweetened lemon juice. It might not have been exactly what we'd envisioned, but it didn't taste bad and was worth several rounds of laughter. For neither the first nor last time, the unexpected worked out way better than anything we had planned.

The journey along the Spanish coast was not the highlight of the trip. Instead of bucolic French countrysides or spectacular Alpine settings, this was mostly a trip on crowded coastal roads that connected one tourist-oriented town to another, with gleaming new high-rise condos blocking out as much of the sea-view as possible. (One brand-new hotel in Alicante provided a literal shock: I touched a light switch after coming out of the shower and was sent flying across the room. The look of horror on C.'s face took its time in going away, as she realized that I had, in fact, not been electrocuted.) Alicante itself was a delightful and lovely city, with the artistry of its inlaid sidewalks lending a marvelous touch.

But we were anxious to visit Gibraltar and go to Morocco and the rest of North Africa. Somewhere south of Malaga we turned a corner and there it was, just like the old Prudential Insurance commercial: the Rock of Gibraltar. The crummy map (it was free, and barely worth it at that price) didn't show the road to get to the Rock, but we figured it would be easy to find. We did not, however, figure that we could get no closer than a chain link fence a few miles away, as Spain and the UK were each being sniffy about the whole affair and the border was closed. Jerks. (C. and I were both of similar political bent, seeing not much point in international borders.)

The whole issue of politics seemed worlds away. Back in the U.S., the Senate Watergate hearings were in full swing, and Nixon was starting to feel some heat. Alexander Butterfield had just spilled the beans about the tapes, the Vietnam War was becoming increasingly unpopular, and, in one of the great ironies, it seemed that Nixon's closest ally was Leonid Brezhnev. Nixon, one of the original anti-Commie fearmongerers, was being spurned by his former friends, and he found a companion in Brezhnev, who was on the outs with many of his own cronies. They kept visiting each other, each time bringing lavish gifts: Brezhnev wound up with a garage-full of Lincoln Continentals to drive around the Kremlin, and Nixon got lots of fur hats. (Nixon spent his spare time in Key Biscayne with Bebe Rebozo, so I have no idea what he did with all the hats.)

Back to the travels. The Seat, C., and I all reached the tip of Spain (Algeciras) at more or less the same moment, and it was time to say "Adios" to Europe and the trusty Seat, and head for Morocco.

Morocco & Algeria
When I look at a map of Europe and Africa, Spain and Morocco are just about touching. On a good day with favorable winds, it looks like you can groove a frisbee from one side to the other. So who would have thought that the ferry would be a 6- or 8-hour ordeal, complete with rolling seas, gray skies, and barfing children?

But at the end of that ordeal was Tangiers, and walking off the boat into the port of Tangiers was like walking through the looking-glass. It was a world I had never imagined, a world I couldn't possibly have begun to imagine. Men in robes and backless sandals speaking in clipped phrases, dozens of them coming up to us and every other European-looking ferry passenger, urging us to follow them to the best hotel in town, at the best bargain special-for-you price. Talking in French mostly, talking in broken English, in German. People and cars and animals in the streets, with no apparent distinction between where any of those groups belong. Alleyways, narrow and dark, that lead … who knows where?

We followed one of the men, not because of anything he said but probably because he was the most insistent and we were completely overwhelmed by the whole scene, and were ensconced in a modest, but nice-enough, hotel. This was one of those impossible moments when you are traveling: exhausted and spent from a long and arduous trip, but utterly impatient to get out and explore the amazing new world that you've just entered. It all somehow got resolved, and the streets of Tangiers were ours to explore.

It was not possible to take more than a few steps anywhere in Tangiers without being offered some sort of goods or service: a guide, a better hotel, some Kif (hashish), a camel ride. We were attracted by a young man, he was no more than 14 or 15, who was badgering us like everyone else, but he didn't seem to want any money: he just wanted to pal around with some Americans (and it seemed unimportant to make the distinction that C. was Canadian). For the life of me I cannot remember his name, but this boy led us through the back streets of Tangiers, through the markets crowded with hordes of people, all the while telling us about his beloved city and at the same time learning all he could about America: he wanted to go to North Carolina when he was older and be a scientist. The great treat was when he invited C. and me to his home, where he ushered us into the living room. The living room was small, no more than perhaps 8- or 10-feet square, and separated from other parts of the home by curtains. As soon as we arrived, he told his mother and sister to bring out the guests' furnishings – beautiful pillows and bolsters for sitting. We saw the mother and sister again when they served us mint tea and small cakes, but we never were introduced and they did not speak to us. We stayed for about an hour, and the young man told the women to put the guest furnishings away while he led us back to our hotel. I do not believe that the young man was being rude to his family or trying to show off for us; rather, this seemed to be part of the culture. Welcome to Morocco.

After a few days in Tangiers, for the most part with mouths agape, we rented another car and planned to drive to Rabat, Casablanca, and Marrakech, where we'd turn in the car and take the train to Algeria and eventually Tunisia. This time, we got no upgrade, and were supplied with a Renault 4, the Yugo-equivalent of its day.

Leaving Tangiers by car was an event. There were roads, sort of, but use of the roads was in no way limited to cars. Donkeys meandered from place to place, sometimes by themselves and sometimes led by one of the ubiquitous robed men. Streets that were paved became dirt, with surfaces resembling the moon. At one point traffic came to a complete halt for several minutes, and we waited while a funeral procession marched through the streets. No vehicles in the procession, just several dozen mourners (or at least participants) marching slowly down the street, any number of them alternating as pallbearers.

We eventually reached Casablanca, which turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, especially after Tangiers. Tangiers was mysterious and from some other century; Casablanca was a modern city where most women did not wear traditional dress and headgear.

Morocco is a monarchy, and King Hassan II seemed awfully popular. Every shop in Casablanca had at least one photo of the king prominently displayed in the window. Newspapers wrote in reverential tones about all of the king's activities: cutting the ribbon to open a new apartment building or section of road, meeting with important dignitaries such as the U.S. 3rd under-secretary of state for byzantine goings-on, and who knows what else. Always referred to as either "Son Majesté Le Roi" or the shorter SMLR, it was difficult to go anywhere without being aware of his presence. Later on, speaking with some men who quickly understood that the two itinerant travelers couldn't possibly be part of SMLR's inner circle, we learned that shops that did not display Hassan's photo would invariably run afoul of one or another arcane law and be shut down, and that all of the newspapers just so happened to be owned and controlled by political cronies of SMLR.

Hotels were getting boring, so we decided to do the Camping thing. We rented a pup tent and sleeping bags for 3 days, and off we went. Camp sites were asking $8/night, so we decided to camp for free on the beach. It seemed safe enough: during the day, the beach was jammed with people and tents. The only women at the beach seemed to be Europeans, and C. took the many, many comments from the Moroccan men with good humor. One group of men invited us over for lunch – it was a steaming pot of couscous, with everyone sharing from the same pot using fingers as utensils. God, it was delicious.

The beach at Casablanca was filled with music, a music that bore no resemblance to the Top 40 that North Americans would know. It had a strange and mystic sound, usually a single vocalist accompanied by a few instruments that sounded vaguely like a viola, maybe an oboe, and some type of percussion. The music was loud (and it admittedly took some time for my Western ears to get into the groove of it all), and lots and lots of the men were up and dancing to the sounds. No women dancing (the Moroccan women, we were told, stayed home and kept house while the men went to the beach), and the men having a grand time. The most popular singer by far was Om Kalsoum, an Egyptian woman whose hypnotic voice sent North Africans into a delirium. When Om died a few years later, four million people are said to have taken to the streets of Cairo to mourn.

We'd been told by the men that camping on the beach might not be a great idea, but we were unconcerned. Until, that is, the sun started to set, and the throng of tents on the beach became a solitary pup tent, with no other people around. Oh well, good for a laugh, and we tried to figure out how to get comfortable in sleeping bags on the sand. It was sometime after the sun had gone down when one of us woke the other about the voices and lights that seemed to be getting closer. And closer. Neither of us would peek out the tent-flap: maybe these people had no interest in us. But the voices got closer, until they were just outside the tent. Speaking in Arabic. Not sounding very friendly, not at all. The two people inside the tent, meanwhile, were not sure what to do. How many people were outside? What were they going to do? At just that instant, something came into the tent: was it a weapon? The voices then all ran off. C. and I wasted no time in leaving the pup tent and its contents behind, racing the 100 yards or so to the car. We made it safely to the car (we took our wallets, keys, and the clothes we were wearing, but left everything else), and started to drive off. I'd never driven this car at night and couldn't find the headlight switch, so I discreetly drove down the deserted beach road with the blinker turned on to illuminate the way. Found a place to park a safe distance from the beach, and spent the rest of the night, with not much sleep involved, in the Renault 4, checking several times that the doors were locked. Next morning, after the safety of daybreak, we headed back to see what was left of the tent and our stuff. It was, of course, all completely untouched. The voices no doubt came from a bunch of boys who felt a bit macho and then ran like hell when they overstepped their boundaries; whatever came through the tent must have either been a hand through the flap, or maybe just our imagination. C. and I felt like idiots for a while, then laughed for 2 days straight. But we spent the next 2 nights at a campground, the $8/night fee notwithstanding.

Cities in Morocco, especially Casablanca, have an unusual urban design. The center of the city was crowded, as you'd expect. But at the edge of the city, the development simply stopped: no suburbs, no commercial development or auto showrooms or Walmarts – just nothing but desert and miles and miles of road (in various condition) until the next city.

Marrakech is on the northern edge of the Sahara desert. In late June, when we were there, midday temperatures would be 115-120F. Nice and dry, though. It did seem a bit surprising to see fresh meats hanging outside butcher shops, with no benefit of refrigeration.

We were back to the regimen of staying in modest hotels, and, as with most hotels of that type, air conditioning was not included. Our hotel in Marrakech was clean enough and the owners pleasant enough, though.

Marrakech is a magical city. The center of the city, the Medina, is the embodiment of mystery and intrigue: dark and twisting alleys, markets and stalls chock-full of robed men and veiled women going about their businesses. Marrakech was far more civilized than Tangiers: not nearly as many hustlers, and the city itself has a beautiful style and appearance, without the tawdriness of Tangiers and so many other port cities. In the evening, the central square becomes a magical land with snake charmers, story tellers, and all sorts of goings on. We stood and listened/watched a story-teller for at least an hour, as he told some amazing tale while a crowd looked on in rapt attention. He spoke in Arabic and we understood not a word, yet we understood it all.

C. got to enjoy a few days in Marrakech on her own, as I had managed to eat or drink some very wrong thing. The hotel found a doctor who paid a house call for only $9, and the antibiotics did their job quickly enough, I suppose (though it did not seem so at the time).

We bought train tickets from Marrakech to Tunis, getting the cheapest tickets available (2nd class, no couchettes/sleepers). The train turned out to be less than luxurious, the trip long and slow, and most of our fellow passengers appeared to be lepers. The border crossing in Algeria was especially fun: at Oujda (the Moroccan border city), we got off the train, schlepped our luggage several hundred yards to the immigration building, stood a long time in line to get through passport and customs, and then finally got on a different train, this one operated by the Algerian railroads.

Now Algeria at this time was not the most welcoming place in the world for Western tourists. The country was run by M. Houari Boumedienne, they had severed diplomatic relations with the U.S., and most of the country's industries had been nationalized.

Money (currency) was an issue. There were no ATMs, of course, and credit cards were not generally accepted, especially in the types of modest accommodations that suited our budgets. Typically, we would stop at a bank before leaving one country to get some currency for the next country, but that didn't work for Algeria. Like most socialist countries, Algeria did not allow its currency to be bought or sold abroad, so everyone on the train had to buy their dinars at the train station, in the middle of the desert in the afternoon. Welcome to Algeria.

Algiers was a modern, industrial city, nothing like what we'd expected. The influence of the French was everywhere (Algeria had been under French rule until the early 1960s), and Algiers was certainly a more European-looking city than any we'd seen in Morocco. Tourism was not so important, though, and there was not a hotel room to be found when we arrived in town late one afternoon. But socialism came to the rescue: there was a law that if a hotel neither had any rooms available nor could find another room for you, you could stay (for free) in any public area of that hotel, presumably as long as you didn't make a nuisance of yourself. So, we camped out in a lounge of the fanciest hotel in town, the Hotel Aletti, enjoying the trappings (if not the mattresses) of the rich and famous.

By now it was July 13, and C. and I were starting to grow weary of cheap trains, modest hotels, and wearing the same 3 or 4 sets of clothes. We still had a train ticket valid to Tunis, but decided that if my Mastercard had enough juice left, we’d scrap the rest of No. Africa (and, alas, Italy) and fly to Paris for Bastille Day. We wasted a full afternoon trying to get a refund of our partially-used train tickets (essentially made impossible, according to the Algerians, because it would take several days to process the refund. They couldn’t send us a check, because Algerian money couldn’t be sent out of the country. And they couldn’t send the money to my consulate, because the US didn’t have relations with Algeria and therefore had no embassy or consulate. So, after several hours, they said that in a few months they’d send the check to the Swiss embassy, who represented US interests, and the Swiss could forward it along to me. I am still waiting for the check.) But we did get on an Air France flight to Orly the next morning and reached Paris on Bastille Day.

We found an especially modest hotel in Paris, the 1-star Hotel des Arts on 22, rue de Rochechouart, in the 9th arrondissement, a block from the Cadet métro stop. The bare floor in the room looked like a relief map of San Francisco, the bed sagged worse than a Bulgarian grandmother, the shared bathroom at the end of the hall had the foulest of aromas, and the shower (there was just one for the hotel, on the 3rd floor) cost 16F each time you wanted to use it. Still, it was summer in Paris, and much more fun to laugh at it all than to kvetch about it.

Naturally, after getting to Paris late in the afternoon, we were so wiped out from the traveling that we fell asleep early and missed most of the late-night festivities, but I can still claim to have enjoyed Paris on Bastille Day.

Paris was, well, Paris, and there was little chance of boredom or disappointment. We were both novices in Paris, enthralled by anything and everything, but especially the Jeu de Paume, the old impressionist museum. Now Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts is a nice little place, and it’s proud to have a nice collection of Monets. But oh, goodness, the Jeu de Paume. Wall after wall, room after room of Monet. Manet. Renoir. And the ones we didn’t know about: Henri Rousseau, called “The Douanier” (I think he had a job as a customs agent), who painted fantasmic jungle scenes with tigers, after having visited nothing more exotic than Paris’s Botanical Gardens. And Albert Sisley and Camille Pissarro, putting unspeakable beauty to their canvasses.

For a week we explored every inch of Paris, or it seemed that way, soaking up any part of the city that didn’t charge an admission fee. As well as checking the American Express office for mail sent to Poste Restante.

And the trip was over. We were out of money, out of energy, out of patience for the Hotel des Arts. There was a final train trip from Paris to Brussels, then a 747 flight to JFK (this time without any rain shower on approach), and a TWA connection to Boston.

12 countries, 7 weeks. Not bad.

-- The Hotel des Arts no longer exists on the rue de Rochechouart. The Jeu de Paume closed and most of its treasures went to the new Musée d’Orsay, in the old Gare d’Orsay. The Jeu de Paume was renovated and reopened several years ago, displaying contemporary art and special exhibitions.

-- The Atomium in Brussels was refurbished and is said to no longer be an embarrassment. Sabena went into bankruptcy and no longer operates, although another airline, SN Brussels Airlines, does use the Sabena logo.

-- The land border to Gibraltar was eventually opened, for a while at least, but Spain and the UK have not resolved their disagreements about Gibraltar.

-- A Google tells me that St Rome de Tarn has 676 inhabitants. I found no mention of the Hotel de la Poste.

-- C. went off to Baltimore to get her grad degree, I rented an apartment in Brookline, and we stayed in touch for another year or so.

-- I have been back to Paris 25 or 30 times, never tiring of it, but no longer staying in 1-star hotels. I’ve been back to Belgium very frequently and worked for a few short spells in Italy. I haven’t been back to Spain or North Africa.

-- I visited W. Germany about 10 years after this first, abortive trip. I was driving through eastern France, near Colmar, and crossed over to the town of Müllheim for the afternoon. I absolutely loved the place, especially enjoyed the beer and sausages, and have happily gone back to Germany many times since.
DonTopaz is offline  
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Mar 6th, 2009, 11:12 AM
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Sabena? No frequent flyer miles? No hotel room upgrades? No internet? NO INTERNET???!!

Well, the ferry from Algeciras to Morocco hasn't changed, nor has Tangiers.

Nice walk down memory lane. It would be fun to see more reports like this.
Femi is offline  
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Mar 6th, 2009, 11:23 AM
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What a great report - thanks for re-creating this for us!
Never had eggnog with grain alcohol...
maxwell is offline  
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Jul 28th, 2009, 06:05 AM
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great report .
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