Author Archives: Todd

Fez - Ceuta

An early start to catch the bus to… Chefchaouen Tetouan. I did the maths last night and realized that I won’t have time to see more of Morocco. So instead of staying in either Chefchaouen or Tetouan, in Tetouan I hopped on a Grand Taxi to the border with Ceuta.

Grand Taxis do inter-city trips and only leave when there are enough passengers. Which means that four people share the rear bench seat of the car (usually an old Mercedes) and two share the passenger front seat. This is far from comfortable.

The taxi dropped me off right in front of the border. I crossed on foot and Ceuta slash the EU greeted me with rain.

It was interesting to have a glimpse at Morocco. This short visit once more confirmed that my ‘usual’ way of travelling – by bike and far away from the touristy areas – is the best way to see a country. Immediately after arriving in Fez I was the target of the so-called faux guides. At every corner in the medina I was approached by (mostly) young men who, even if seemingly friendly at first, only wanted to sell hash. It quickly became difficult to distinguish between genuinely ‘altruistic’ approaches and ones that were pre-sale banter. Almost as quickly it became my rule to decline any approaches (in a friendly way, of course) even if I was interested in the matter. Which is a shame.

Trip: (Less than) A Week off in Morocco | Country: , | Comments Off on Fez - Ceuta

Fez

I woke up to the sound of heavy rain.

The hotel turned out to be a little nicer than I had thought last night, at least in some areas – the central patio and the stairways were beautifully tiled. However, the shared bathrooms were still extremely smelly and dirty, and my decision to leave the place asap was not shattered.

Had breakfast at a… bakery next to last night’s sandwich stand (both just holes in the wall) and was pleasantly surprised by the offer of another customer, a Moroccan lady in a group of three, to translate my order from my rusty French to Arabic for the baker.

A little later, when walking through the medina (or what I thought was the medina), another elderly guy, acting as if it was a casual encounter, recommended going this and that way to a ‘synagogue and beautiful blue houses’, then walked off. I happened to go in the same direction anyway aaand… behind the next corner he was waiting again, giving further directions. I didn’t fall for it, though, and went a different way. But while he was still talking to me another lady in his back looked at me and shook her head – no synagogue and no blue houses there, only another scam attempt ahead…

After finding the bus terminal and the real medina, and after the last drizzles finally stopped completely around noon, I decided to stay another night in Fez.

Trip: (Less than) A Week off in Morocco | Country: | Comments Off on Fez

Melilla - Fez

This morning I hopped on a bus to have a look at the Frontera de Farhana, the border between Melilla and the Moroccan village of Farhana. I went to that particular place because it is easily reachable by bus from the city center… For some reason I didn’t expect there to be an open border crossing, and I also didn’t expect the border’s neighborhood to be densely populated.

On the road leading to the border there was a long queue of Moroccan men, each with a bicycle or some kind of moped, packed to the brim with all kinds of wares for export. Every now and then ten or so of them were allowed to enter the border post. That made for a bit of a funny sight, as many of the vehicles had been modified to allow for more luggage. The drivers either had no seat anymore or sat on top of their cargo and had to be pushed by others.

I crossed into Morocco at Melilla’s southern end, at the Frontera Benienzar – into the village of Beni Ensar. With the help of a police officer I quickly found a bank and got a wad of cash out of the ATM, then hopped on a local bus to the city of Nador for a fee that was disproportionate to said wad of cash.

Nador didn’t look particularly interesting and I wasn’t unhappy about having not much more than an hour (which was spent in the company of a mint tea) before the train for Taourirt left. I sat in a compartment with two guys, one quite quiet, the other quite chatty. The latter’s chattiness was directed at me but he didn’t speak a single word of Spanish, French or English, and my Arabic is still very non-existent either, so the conversation was very one-sided.

The train terminated in Taourirt and I still hadn’t made up my mind whether to continue east to Oujda or west to Taza or Fez. Taourirt, for some reason, didn’t look very inviting itself (though it also didn’t look particularly unpleasant or uninviting, if that makes any sense…) so I decided to take the next train, which happened to go to Fez (and onwards to Casablanca).

Of course I had read all the travel guide warnings about being approached by people who know a good hotel, or the best shop, or who can offer a good smoke. But surely the old man who walked just ahead of me when I stepped out of the Fez railway station wasn’t one of them! And he spoke English! And knew a good hotel, and cheap it was! And worked at a (different) hotel himself! And close by! And in the medina (any city’s old city)! He must be genuinely generous to show me the way! Can’t be fake!?

He was fake. Not only was the place a shithole and too expensive, it was not even in the medina!!! However, by the time we got there it was dark and raining heavily and so I didn’t feel like looking for an alternative. And that it wasn’t in the medina… I will only find out tomorrow.

Trip: (Less than) A Week off in Morocco | Country: , | Comments Off on Melilla - Fez

Almería - Melilla

I happened to be in Spain, near Valencia. I have a week or so off of the job there and decided to travel south, to see the Spanish exclaves of Melilla and Ceuta, and also to take a short look at Morocco and Gibraltar. Once again this is going to be a comparatively ‘normal’ trip, as I don’t have a bicycle with me and am limited to public transport. Also, I don’t have as much time (a week, probably, or ten days tops) as I would like. Then why public transport, why is the guy not flying, you may ask? Because. Me no likee.

So yesterday I spent almost the entire day on the train from Valencia to Almería. While the first part is a fast(ish) one, the second leg, after a change of trains in the sleepy town of Alcázar de San Juan, takes way longer in comparison. The countryside becomes hilly and the train crawls up and down the curvy track that winds through seemingly endless olive tree plantations. Those, by themselves, are an interesting sight and I had forgotten about their dominance down here in Andalusia. From the west the low-hanging evening sun cast a special light over the hills and villages in the east with heavy black clouds in the background. Soon everything disappeared in rain and darkness.

I didn’t see much of Almería last night, but when looking back at it from the ferry this morning, it made an interesting impression – especially the mountains around it and its fortress.

Today was spent on the ferry to Melilla. It seemed almost empty.

I’m in Melilla now, a Spanish autonomous exclave in Morocco. It is known to some for its part in the refugee crisis in recent years. Being Spanish-controlled, along with Ceuta further west, politically it belongs to Europe and its border to Morocco is basically the external frontier of the EU, and the only land border between Europe and Africa. Hence it is interesting for refugees from sub-Saharan countries, but also for those from Algeria, Syria and Yemen and many other countries. The former cannot easily claim asylum in the EU and many reportedly camp (or camped) outside the border on Moroccan soil. Every now and then groups of a few hundred people try to climb the border fence and overrun the guards. However, since 2005 the EU is pumping billions of Euros into the defence and fortification of the border, both inside Melilla and Ceuta themselves as well as into Moroccan pockets.

Trip: (Less than) A Week off in Morocco | Country: , | Comments Off on Almería - Melilla

Oldenburg - Bremen

Today’s leg of the trip was most amazing. The total distance from Oldenburg to Bremen is approx. 57 km. Under ‘normal’ circumstances (i.e. on a canal with no current) that would be a 9.5 hour trip at 6 km/h. Enter the tide.

I left my tight parking spot approximately an hour after high water and went down the lock onto the tidal river Hunte. The current helped immediately and the top speed on the ~23 kilometers to the confluence with the river Weser at Elsfleth was a shocking 11 km/h (compared to the usual 6 km/h).

At Elsfleth I waited for an hour for low water to pass and continued upriver on the Weser. And again, the rising tide pushed me towards Bremen with up to 11 km/h! That was somewhat unexpected for me. I arrived in Balkonia’s (new) home port after less than 8 hours of traveling.


Trip: Going Home on Balkonia | Country: | Comments Off on Oldenburg - Bremen

Surwold - Oldenburg

Today was quite a long leg so I started early, around 7am. When I left the harbor/marina the sun was just rising and there was some low fog over the canal. Nothing too bad, visibility was still good. However that changed after a short while and especially the side of the canal not yet reached by the sun (‘my’ side) sometimes disappeared completely. I wasn’t sure whether I was in fact allowed to drive without radar… But what could I do? Stopping (and mooring) was neither possible nor allowed, so I pushed on and after a couple of hours the fog was gone.

The rest of the day was almost uneventful though beautifully relaxed cruising. Boat and engine performed well and I made it to Oldenburg lock by 4.30pm. I decided not to go down onto the river Hunte yet, and instead to leave Balkonia on the Küstenkanal over night, just above the lock, in the smallest possible parking slot ;) (almost).

Trip: Going Home on Balkonia | Country: | Comments Off on Surwold - Oldenburg

Haren (Ems) - Surwold

Exactly at 8am the bridge keepers were back at their post (the traffic light at the water side of the bridge went from off to red) and a few minutes later I was on my way through Haren. At the end of the Haren-Rütenbrock-Kanal I dropped down onto the river Ems through the Ems lock, and paid the fee of 5 € for using the canal. Then I moored just outside the lock and went to town to get some breakfast and coffee…

On the other bank the skippers of the passenger ship Amisia took some interest in Balkonia and we chatted a bit. In the end they gave me their booklet about the canals and rivers in the area, with detailed information about locks etc. Thanks! My Dutch ‘guidebook’ ends here at the Haren-Rütenbrock-Kanal.

Then it was down the river Ems. There isn’t much of a current here due to weirs and locks, and obviously no tide either. Everything went fine and near Dörpen I turned to starboard onto the Küstenkanal.

I made it to Surwold where I stopped at the local marina for the night. The harbor master gave me some hints for the next leg to Oldenburg tomorrow, and there’s supermarkets and petrol stations just around the corner.

Trip: Going Home on Balkonia | Country: | Comments Off on Haren (Ems) - Surwold

Stadskanaal - Haren (Ems)

After a well-deserved Sunday break I returned to Stadskanaal this morning. Luckily, Balkonia was still where we had left her on Saturday.

I called the number of the local bridge keeper (coordinator?), who told me that someone would be with me to open the next Bridge (Eurobrug) within 10 minutes. And indeed, I had just finished preparations for departure when the lights went red/green at the bridge.

From then on traveling was again a blast, along Stadskanaal, Musselkanaal, and finally Ter Apelkanaal. I was ‘handed over’ from one volunteer lock/bridge keeper to the next without delay. Unlike on Saturday, where the two bridge keepers operated all 20 or 30 bridges and locks (or more?) on Leinewijk, Kielsterdiep, and Grevelingskanaal, these guys here only did a few each.

Just after Ter Apel I turned into Haren-Rütenbrock-Kanal, which connects the Dutch canal network with the river Ems in Germany. It used to be part of a bigger German canal network east of the Ems, but most of those are no longer navigable (with the exception of the Ems-Vechte-Kanal a bit further south which is a dead end and not rated for Balkonia’s length anyway). Bridges here are remote controlled from the Ems lock in Haren. Sometimes the bridges were just 10 or 20 centimeters too low, but they were always opened completely and stopped traffic over it for much longer than I needed to get through. Perhaps a technical limitation?

At the outskirts of Haren I was forcefully stopped at a bridge because the lockies/bridgies had gone home for the night. Unfortunately, the only option to moor didn’t have access to the shore. Luckily I had some timber with me and built myself a bridge so I could meet my friend Andi for dinner and a beer.


Trip: Going Home on Balkonia | Country: , | Comments Off on Stadskanaal - Haren (Ems)

Zuidlaardermeer - Stadskanaal

We had planned to leave at 7am but only managed 7.45. The first bridge over the Leinewijk was too low but the map said this and the following bridges and locks could be passed on request in a convoy and would be operated by personnel (volunteers?) op bemande scooters. I called the phone number posted at the bridge and explained our route in English. The reply was a lengthy speech in Dutch before the other side hung up. I hoped the reply was something along the lines of “I’ll be there in a bit”, so we waited.

40 or 50 minutes later I called again and the guy was clearly on a bike or something. We got further with German than with English before and he told me he’d be there in a bit indeed. And so he was.

They (he was joined by a colleague at the first lock) then accompanied us on their scooters along the entire Leinewijk, Kielsterdiep, and Grevelingskanaal (about 15 kilometers in total – a distance that took us probably 3 hours at 6 km/h) and tirelessly opened bridge after bridge for us, many being of the manually operated swing variety. Quite an impressive service.

After their good-byes we were on the Stadskanaal, the canal, and soon had to stop at yet another low bridge. This and the following bridges could be passed in a convoy (i.e. accompanied) twice daily in low season (May and September). I phoned ahead to let the coordinator know that we’d like to take the next slot at 3pm (no other moving boats in sight all day so far) and was told that someone would be with us in time. The guy was there after only 10 minutes or so (well before 3pm) and opened the bridges until we arrived in Stadskanaal, the town. Here our journey ended for today and will be resumed on Monday when the bridges and locks ahead are operated again.

We left Balkonia well moored and locked and went home for the weekend as well.


Trip: Going Home on Balkonia | Country: | Comments Off on Zuidlaardermeer - Stadskanaal

Groningen - Zuidlaardermeer

A friend of mine, Julius, was joining me today for a couple of days on this trip. I woke up to a txt from him letting me know that he’d be in Groningen at noon. So I had a leisurely morning, got some more diesel (just in case), and some helpful advice from the local harbor master, who also ‘booked’ me a passage through the various remote-controlled bridges in the city of Groningen. That is, just before my departure she phoned the control station who would then track my progress on their cameras and open the bridges upon my approach. And that worked indeed beautifully! The only time I had to wait for ~10 or 15 minutes was at a railway bridge which, of course, could only be opened when schedules allowed.

Despite the good progress I didn’t make it to the railway station in time for Julius’ arrival because the lockie of the handful of manually operated bridges in central Groningen decided to have his lunch break a quarter of an hour early (officially from 12 to 1pm). So I cycled over to the station to pick up Julius and we had lunch as well.

Exactly at 1pm the lockie was back and opened the bridge I had been stuck behind, and once it was lowered again he hopped on his bicycle and raced ahead to open the next bridge for us, and so on. Very nice service. We drove through a lot of duckweed and, once we’d left the low bridges behind, we stopped in Groningen’s Zuiderhaven to clean the engine’s water filter. It was completely clogged and water flow had almost ceased.

We then continued on the Eemskanaal and turned into Winschoterddiep to leave Groningen to the southeast. After a short while we also left the Winschoterdiep behind and turned into Drentsche Diep, a lovely winding canal river that brought us into Zuidlardermeer, which is quite a big lake. We moored on the eastern shore, at a public mooring near Meerwijck. Our map showed a bridge to a restaurant but it didn’t exist anymore. So we had to take the boat and drive over there for a beer and dinner. I need a dinghy.


Trip: Going Home on Balkonia | Country: | Comments Off on Groningen - Zuidlaardermeer

Wide Ie - Groningen

The wind had picked up a bit during the night and swung the boat closer to the shore. The anchor had held well according to the GPS, but my gut feeling told me that it had dragged a few meters. Not sure.

I left my anchorage after a morning swim and continued on the Prinses Margrietkanaal past Burgum and through the Burgumer Mar, another lake-like extensions on the canal.

On the Van Starkenborghkanaal, near Gaarkeuken and somewhat unexpectedly for me, I had to go through a lock. On my approach the lock gates were opened but the signal remained red (no entry) and a Dutch announcement was made through some speakers. I didn’t understand a word, so I veered off and made fast at a mooring a bit to the side. I went over to the lock’s control tower where I met a very friendly official who explained that I had to give way to the two big cargo ships that were also approaching the lock. I could then enter last. I went back to the boat and was back at the lock gate when the last of the cargo ships had just went in, but I followed a little too early and they almost squashed me against the lock’s wall when their stern suddenly swerved off towards my side of the lock. I just managed to avoid a collision by going backwards. Lesson learned.
The lock took me up a whopping 40 cm.

Coming through Zuidhorn next, I decided to stop to get some fuel. I still had plenty but wanted to play it safe and get an extra jerrycan filled. I knew that mooring on the side of the canal was forbidden here but I saw someone else park their boat on the side of the canal and figured it would be ok for a short stop. I got the diesel from a petrol station near by, then went to town on the bike for some quick lunch. When I came back half an hour later I saw something big and neon-yellow approach my boat – Rijkswaterstaat! (Not exactly water police, but still official maintainers of the Dutch waterways.) Oh crap.

I went back quickly, unsuccessfully hoping they’d go past, composed myself, and stepped on board of Balkonia where an officer was already waiting. I explained the situation (need moa deezel!) and the very friendly officers let me get away with a gentle warning. Had I come back any later they’d have towed the boat away, they said. Phew! They also gave me some tips for the route after Groningen.
The other boat moored a few hundred meters back was less lucky. The Rijkswaterstaat ship was still stopped next to them when I lost sight of them driving away.

On the approach to Groningen I turned off the Van Starkenborghkanaal at Dorkwerdersluis (lock) and went into Reitdiep. I stopped at Reitdiephaven at the edge of Groningen for the night.

I had not gone through many locks before on any boat, and never done any single-handedly, but they turned out to be easily manageable.


Trip: Going Home on Balkonia | Country: | Comments Off on Wide Ie - Groningen

Franeker - Wide Ie

So I happen to have a boat that goes by the name of Balkonia. It needed to be transported from Franeker, in the Friesland province of the Netherlands, to Bremen, Germany. Since both places are located at some kind of waterway the obvious mode of transport is to cruise her along the Dutch and German canals and rivers. The total distance is about 300 km, and the top speed will be 6 km/h.

The day of departure had been delayed by some technical problems but today everything was solved and fixed and I finally set sail left Franeker at 2pm, short-handed (on my own).

The route goes mostly in an eastish direction, first following the Van Harinxmakanaal to Leeuwarden. On an earlier attempt last week we had moored in the city for one night, but today I sped past with still a few hours of sunlight left.

A few kilometers after joining the Prinses Margrietkanaal I decided to anchor in the Wide Ie, a lake-like extension on the canal, near the shore and well away from the navigation channel of the canal. Earlier in the afternoon I had seen another ship anchor in the middle of a lake so I figured doing so would be ok.

The cruising had been easy today. All bridges were high enough for my little boat and there were no locks. That is going to change tomorrow.
I was still a bit stressed over those problems that delayed my departure, but that is slowly fading away.


Trip: Going Home on Balkonia | Country: | Comments Off on Franeker - Wide Ie

Hiking in Andorra

I happen to be in the French Pyrenees for some hiking with friends. Due to some knee trouble I decided to chicken out and let the others finish the hike on our planned route. I, on the other hand, took train and bus to Andorra yesterday, that tiny landlocked country between Spain and France, to have a look at it and try my luck with a day hike without backpack.

So today I left Pas de la Casa to the north to follow the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne (HRP), a hiking trail along the entire length of the Pyrenees, for a few hours. It took me an hour to climb out of the valley and leave the noise of the city behind. ‘City’ is a bit of a euphemism here. There are three things prevalent in Pas de la Casa: hotels, duty-free shops, and ski resorts.

Anyway, from then on it was beautiful walking over grassy slopes and the occasional scaling of a hill’s summit (e.g. Pic de Maià, 2615m). The HRP was joined by La Volta a Andorra, a circular trail around Andorra, and I followed both for a while, not without coming across the occasional marmot. Before the trails separated again they led me into a most beautiful valley, that of the Riu Siscaro. I can’t describe it in words, and the photos won’t do it justice either. The same goes for the following traverse, to the valley of the Riu de Juclar. They looked almost wild and unspoilt, except that the nearest road and settlement was never more than 1 or 2 kilometers away, of course.

Near the latter river’s source (?) is a refugi at an artificial lake, Estany Primer de Juclar, that I briefly visited before heading down along the Riu de Juclar towards Andorra’s main road.

Though impoverished until the 1950s, from what is left of old architecture and roads, Andorra must have been an amazing-looking country. Tourism brought money but spoiled the beauty. Quite a catch 22, eh?

Walked: 18.5km or so

Trip: Day Trips | Country: | Comments Off on Hiking in Andorra

The End

I’m taking trains through Denmark today and I’ll sleep in my own bed tonight.

A pretty cool trip, if pretty expensive. Trains in western Europe are not exactly cheap, especially if not pre-booked. It is also slightly annoying to be limited by few connections per day, or even weekly or no connections at all, like in the Baltics and Belarus. Of course, buses to the rescue, if you’re into that mode of transport (I’m not, and they’re not necessarily cheaper).
I don’t think I’ll travel like this again.

The robbery in Minsk and yesterday’s experience in Sweden make for good stories to laugh about.

However, taking the bike – best decision ever. It adds so much mobility that’d simply be impossible to be had otherwise. Yes, it made things more difficult sometimes, but it was well worth the hassle.

Trip: Bouldering to the North | Country: | Comments Off on The End

"Don't argue with me, I'm a female!" (Stockholm - Göteborg - Frederikshavn)

The nice thing about traveling by ferry with a bike is that usually I am the first to board and the first to leave.

So I had solid Swedish soil under my tyres and sped to the train station. I got a ticket for the last available seat on the X2000 to Malmö, took the bike apart (Hello Belarus!), and left Stockholm less than an hour after arriving there.

Then I had the chance to re-rank both Sweden and Belarus in terms of bike-friendliness and conductress-friendliness: The conductress, upon entering the car to check the tickets, got quite upset about the bike.

She said bikes were forbidden to be taken on board, unless taken apart and wrapped. I had asked in Stockholm when buying the ticket and had received an OK. She said that by buying a ticket I had agreed to SJ’s (the train company) terms of service, which state the wrapping is required. That is not entirely correct, because nobody had even shown me their terms of service, of course. She cut me off mid-sentence. She said that the bike was a safety hazard in case we had an accident. I pointed out that neither did I want to be hit by any of my fellow travelers’ hard-top cases. Tucking the bike in some corner or locking it to a spare table (for wheelchair users; none aboard) wasn’t an option for her either.

Conductress: “My highest priority is safety, safety, safety, safety. Next is that the train is on time. Service is very very low.”
Her words.

“Yes, I noticed.”

Then the discussion took a most unpleasant turn:

Conductress: “Would you argue with somebody else?”
“Err, yes, of course.”
“Would you argue with a police officer?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Or are you arguing with me because I am a female?”

Dafuq???

“Are you making it more difficult for me because I’m a foreigner?” Unfortunately, I didn’t say this.

To make it clear again, I was ‘arguing’ because I had paid 750 Swedish kronor (~80 Euros) for a valid ticket, and I had checked in Stockholm whether taking the bike like this was ok. Now she tells me I have to leave the train and buy a new ticket if I manage to wrap the bike and take the next train. So I am losing both time and money. Instead of killing the conversation with such a ridiculous kill-all question she could have offered a solution. Because, is that really the standard we have reached in society? Do I have to obey every female now simply because they’re a female? This is a stupid and dangerous development.

Well, I had to leave the train at Norrköping, somewhere between the middle of nowhere and the end of the world (i.e., not far from Stockholm). When I was about to disembark, people came forward and apologized for the hassle. One suggested I throw the bike away to be able to continue traveling. Yes, thank you, I see you fully understood the problem.

What is wrong with this country? There are numerous cycle tourists traveling in Sweden every year, and it is impossible to quickly take a bike on a train??? Even a proper folding bicycle has to be wrapped in a ‘protective case’, whatever that is and whoever or whatever it is supposed to protect. And what’s with the weird attitude?

I was unable to find a suitable cardboard box in the sleepy town of Norrköping at 8.30 in the morning. It is also impossible to take bikes on SJ’s regional trains. So the only option was the bus. This is how I got to Göteborg, fortunately a port city with frequent ferry connections to Denmark. The original plan had been to be home tonight. I scratched that.

Well, I apologize to Belarus and all Belarusians for previously calling their country the most bike-unfriendly one. Sweden just took over that title with flying colors. And it is also the first country where I have been confronted with this new social mis-development of weirdly misguided feminism, even though I am sure society is just as f*cked up in other places as well.

I did get a full refund of the train ticket in Göteborg thanks to SJ’s unfriendly but fair José. However, that still leaves me with an additional ferry crossing and hotel to pay for, an additional day of traveling, and a lot of annoyance.

I feel like avoiding Sweden in the future, I am so fed up. But I guess that will go away after a good night’s sleep. I’ll avoid SJ for sure, though.

Göteborg is nice nonetheless.

I’ve crossed the Kattegat already and am in Frederikshavn, northern Denmark, now.

Trip: Bouldering to the North | Country: , | Comments Off on "Don't argue with me, I'm a female!" (Stockholm - Göteborg - Frederikshavn)