MARRAKECH, Morocco -- Morocco sits at the northwest tip of the African continent, stretching within just 9 miles of Europe. But, as our train between the cities of Rabat and Marrakech passes a dusty, ancient-looking village that seems as if it could crumble in an instant, I think that culturally, this country and Spain, its nearest neighbor on the Continent, might as well be 9,000 miles apart.
Step off the ferry in Tangier, Morocco, and you might at first think you're still in Algeciras, Spain, where the ferry left an hour and a half ago. Though you'll see a few residents in the port wearing the traditional garb of long, flowing djellaba and perhaps a tight-fitting cap for men and a head covering for women, most are running around in jeans, sweaters or shirts, cell phones pasted to their ears.
But sample the medinas (the old quarters of a city) and souks (open-air markets) of Tangier, Fez, Rabat or Marrakech, or travel through the countryside, and you'll be stepping back 200, 300 or even 700 years into time.
Meanwhile, back in westernized Spain, there are hints, too, of a much earlier time - when the Moors of Morocco ruled for more than 700 years and left their mark before being driven out in 1492, the year Columbus discovered our homeland and almost 300 years before it would officially become our homeland.
The Moorish imprint can be found in the Mediterranean port city of Malaga, whose Alcazaba fortress dates back 1,000 years. And in the pueblos blancos, the so-called white villages west of Malaga named for their neat-looking whitewashed buildings that hint of their Moorish roots.
My wife, Bonnie, and I explored the ancient and contemporary sides of both countries in November 2005 - on foot and by train and minibus - on a budget tour called "Moorish Spain to Marrakech," offered in the United States by the Adventure Center, but operated by Explore!, a company based in the United Kingdom.
For less than $1,000 each (meals and airfare not included), we and our group of 12 others - mostly middle-aged, mostly British, mostly Explore! veterans - spent more than a week traveling by train in Spain and Morocco. Then we explored as a group and on our own. We wandered the souks of Tangier, Fez and Marrakech, where we found narrow, bustling, mazelike alleyways crammed with people, donkeys and motorbikes; and merchants offering heaps of pungent spices and hundreds of brightly colored scarves, live chickens and hanging slabs of meat, fragrant loaves of bread and exotic music instruments.
We saw snake charmers nonchalantly charming sinister-looking cobras. We tried to avoid breathing through our noses as we watched workmen, knee-deep in stone vats of brilliant dyes of all hues, wrestling around hides in the rank-smelling tanneries of Fez.
We sat at outdoor tables, scarfing down tapas and beer, while enjoying the parade of families out for a Sunday walk and talk in the whitewashed Spanish village of Grazalema.
We enjoyed talk and tagines (a dish similar to stew) in a multitude of Moroccan restaurants.
And, in my case, made the acquaintance of a Moroccan doctor who spoke only Arabic and French, but who, thanks to a lot of hand gestures and a couple of prescriptions, helped me get over a troublesome bout of turista.
Turista and all, it was a trip for the memory books.
I looked out the window of our minibus the second day of our trip as we headed to three of Spain's smaller white villages - Setinel, Grazalema and Zahara de la Sierra. In the distance, an island of white floated on a sea of green. It was little Olvera, another of the white villages, clinging to a foliage-covered hill. Very cool. These white villages, mostly leftovers from the days of the Moors, are one of Spain's tourist treasures, and a pleasant place to spend a Sunday morning, wandering the narrow cobblestone streets, admiring the conglomeration of sparkling white buildings and exchanging holas with the occasional resident.
Over tapas and beers at a sidewalk cafe in the last village, Grazalema, we watched the strolling village residents and other tourists and talked about the pueblos blancos with Hazel and Steve from London. The villages are terrific, but there's still a bit of a theme-park feel to them. "A little too neat and tidy," Hazel said.
We had met up with Hazel and Steve and the rest of our small group the day before in the arrivals hall of the Malaga airport. That's where we hooked up, too, with Melanie Norman, the young, petite, blond bundle of energy who would mother-hen us for the next eight days.
And it's where we were introduced to what would become a familiar routine: schlepping our own bags to the distant train platform (this isn't a trip for travelers with mobility problems), getting train tickets from Mel and hopping on clean, comfortable, mostly on-time, mostly first-class trains where we exchanged travel stories on the way to our next destination.