High-speed trains, French cuisine, tapas, tinto de verano, agreeable people, con men, a cathedral that's a mosque, a living medieval city, snake charmers and a Mediterranean city with a whiff of old scandal - that's the Marrakech Express trip from London.
The actual Marrakech Express is a four-hour train ride from Casablanca to Marrakech, whereas my trip is an exotic overland route planned and organised by Railbookers - from London, through France and Spain, ending up in Morocco.
PART ONE: LONDON TO BARCELONA
Culturally there's a gulf between Britain and continental Europe but distance-wise France is no further from London than Birmingham. In less than an hour, our Eurostar train hurtles from the channel tunnel into the Calais countryside and races on through the fields of Picardie. Paris is heralded by rows of dilapidated suburban tower blocks but a short Metro ride to our left-bank hotel in Montparnasse soon erases that grubby part of the City of Light that's glossed over in all the guidebooks.
There's no sign of the smog that recently blighted Paris but the streets are still choked with traffic and the only sensible way of getting around is the Metro. If you have negotiated the London tube then continental Metro systems are a breeze and at a fraction of the price - a rare Paris bargain. Ticket machines have a helpful English language option but you can also buy tickets at the buffet on the Eurostar.
Even in March the Paris crowds are heaving and in most popular places you'll jostle with more tourists than Parisians. Of course Paris is a 'must see' city, only just eclipsed by London as the world's most visited city, but the queues seem endless and the prices are predictably outrageous.
The queues for the Notre Dame are daunting but the open spaces and bridges around the cathedral are full of assorted entertainers, buskers, human statues and there are some great spots for picnicking by the Seine, especially at the western tip of the Ile de la Cite.
Montparnasse has none of the major tourist attractions but that's its beauty, it feels more Parisian and less like a crowded theme park.
Although I'm not a great fan of activities organised specifically for tourists, L'Open bus tour really is an excellent way of getting an overview of Paris highlights. There are several alternative routes and mine takes in the Grand Opera House, the Louvre, along the Seine to Notre-Dame, passes the Musee d'Orsay, around Place de la Concorde, up the Champs-Elysees, around the Arc de Triomphe and on to the Trocadero and the Eiffel Tower. You can get on and off as often as you like and the headphone commentary is a useful guide.
The Luxembourg gardens are perfect for people watching on a sunny Sunday; Parisians make a bee-line for the large octagonal pond and sit on uncomfortable looking upright chairs to picnic or read. Elsewhere people stroll, play tennis or chess and it's enthralling to watch teams take petanque (boules) so seriously. As well as wonderful flower displays there are hundreds of statues, monuments and fountains including the original scale model of the Statue of Liberty by Frederic Bartholdi.
It is a surprise to find our hotel in Rue Monsieur le Prince is just a few doors from restaurant Polidor, which featured in the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris. A tattered and paint-peeling front, waitresses in black and white uniforms, red check tablecloths, packed with locals. The food and wine is simple but superb. Tomato and mozzarella salad and a fabulous beef bourguignon, with wine cost 25 euro ($36) - the price of a couple of drinks in a tourist hotspot.
The train for Barcelona leaves from the sprawling Gare de Lyon station. Even on French trains refreshments from the food cart is poor fare and we draw envious glances as we unpack our wine, cheese and French bread for a splendid onboard picnic.
The new high-speed line connecting France and Spain means it's no longer necessary to change trains at the border so the straight through journey time has been shortened and it's now possible to breakfast in London, lunch in Paris and dine in Barcelona.
Our fast TGV train is a duplex and upstairs is excellent for viewing. They travel on new high-speed tracks so bypass traditional towns and for the first couple of hours there's the occasional attractive hilltop village but mainly the countryside is uninteresting farmland.
By the time we reach Valence there's a hint of the French Alps to the east as we speed down the Rhone valley. The red-tiled roofs, palm trees and olives at Nimes indicate we've come a long way south and the Mediterranean is close. Hugging the coast near Montpellier the marshy Camargue-like landscape has iconic white horses, ibis, flamingo and pelican. Then the mountains of the Pyrenees begin to loom and after Perpignan we dive through the new Perthus tunnel and suddenly we're in Spain.
It may take longer and cost more than a budget flight but for hassle-free comfort, relaxation, sightseeing and all-round travel finesse, it's the perfect way to cross France.
Barcelona is so laid back compared to uptight Paris. The sun obviously helps, food and drink at nearly half the price helps but mainly it's the people - so much smiling, laughter and sheer joie de vivre.
PART TWO: SPAIN
Barcelona has such a vibrant feel, it just makes you smile and feel good. It doesn't have the fiesta-siesta feel of southern Spain but then Catalonians don't think of themselves as Spanish. They have their own language and some think they should be a separate country.
You don't have to bother with galleries and museums in Barcelona, there's Roman ruins, medieval lanes, Gothic buildings and of course Gaudi. The Gothic quarter is a maze of enticing twists and turns with grand archways, intricate carvings, mystery and legends about the city. This entire section of the city is a museum, yet it's still very much a part of mainstream Barcelona.
Gaudi is also an integral part of Barcelona but even if you don't admire Gaudi's fantastical architecture, you have to smile at its garish colours, broken pottery mosaics and loony excrescences. Gaudi's open-air gallery, the Parc Guell, has always been free but now there's an 8 euro ($12) fee to enter the 'Monumental Zone'. The queues are massive and that's just for a ticket to join another timed entrance queue - how to turn a city highlight into a nightmare.
Naturally, all visitors have to stroll Barcelona's most famous street, the tourist-packed La Rambla, but watch your pockets, don't believe any bogus sob stories and above all don't eat or drink there. Locals prefer Rambla de Catalunya - a continuation of the street north from Placa de Catalunya. Here you'll find food that the locals are prepared to eat, drinks at sensible prices and no one looking to pick your pockets.
The bustling capital of Madrid is just three hours by train and getting ripped off by a surly taxi driver is a good caution - it's the capital city. It takes a couple of days before I began to enjoy Madrid as it's tightly zoned into tourist areas (and prices), seedy areas and some brilliant local spots. A small beer might cost 3.20 euros or 80 cents, depending where you sit.
This purpose-built capital was meant to unite northern Catalonia and southern Andalusia, and it's definitely imposing with wide straight boulevards, green spaces and grand classical buildings - the ten-lane Paso del Prado is so huge it has a park in the middle.
The grand seventeenth century Plaza Mayor, with its arches, balconies and painted facades at one time saw bullfights, public trials and executions. Now it's wall-to-wall tourist cafes, but it's still an impressive sight.
Just beyond the northwest corner of Plaza Mayor is Mercado de San Miguel - an attractive iron and glass market converted into an array of deli-style bars with stools, creating an upscale tourist tapas venue - where you can pay through the nose for what you can often get for free elsewhere.
Traditional free tapas are hard to find in Madrid but they do exist. El Tigre in Calle de los Infantas, just behind Gran Via, has incredibly generous tapas - 3-4 items with each drink. I was so full after three beers that I had to go somewhere that didn't give free food, and that was Cerveceria Montaditos, on Calle Mayor. This is where tinto de verno became my Madrid drink of choice - a pint glass filled with ice, topped up with a draft red wine and lemonade mix - fabulously refreshing for one euro.
From Madrid a day trip to Segovia is irresistible. Last time I visited it was a two and half hour rattling train ride across the Sierra de Guadarrama Mountains, now it's a 25 minute high-speed transfer through mountain tunnels. The new high-speed line has attracted lots more visitors but Segovia still rates as one of Spain's most stunning hilltop towns.
There's the improbably massive sixteenth century cathedral, a magnificent eleventh century Alcazar, which claims to have been the inspiration for Walt Disney's castle in Cinderella, but my highlight is the amazing Roman aqueduct. It's over 2000 years old and built with two tiers of arches of huge granite blocks, without any mortar.
Although the high-speed line is incredibly quick it lacks the drama of crossing the snow-capped mountains, so on my return I take the fabulous scenic route on the slow train.
The train from Madrid to Grenada takes around four hours and the closer it gets the denser the olives groves became until finally they stretch to the far horizon.
Locals really have life sussed in Grenada. Everyone is out and about - groups of boys, groups of girls, couples, parents with babies and toddlers, grandparents - well into the wee hours and not a drunk in sight. There are no youth booze bars just hundreds of small, crowded inter-generational tapas bars with plenty of outside seating. Buy a beer anywhere and you'll get ham, olives, beef, chicken, mini burgers, even a bowl of stew or egg and chips. The fact that there's no generational divide seems to be the clue to a healthy and happy city party atmosphere.
Of course the Alhambra is stunningly majestic, the cathedral is spectacular and walking the narrow streets and alleyways of the Albaicin are a joy but frankly it's the people of Grenada that are most memorable. This is a place where I could really live. The laughing, smiling, happy-go-lucky spirit seems to shrug off Spain's economic crisis; they just get on and enjoy life.
Cordoba is the last stop-off in Spain before crossing to Africa, but it's no afterthought. It's been both a Roman and Islamic capital, and 1100 years ago it was the largest city in Western Europe. Its unique highlight is a cathedral inside a mosque and I've wanted to see that unusual sight for years.
There's a vast forest of pillars and arches with an all-pervading smell of incense. The spacious Islamic areas are full of restrained geometrical designs compared to the rather garish statues and icons dripping with gold in the Christian sections - to me it seems like a marvellous jumble.
Is it a great symbol of merged cultures, respect and shared values? Probably not. There's more than a hint of triumphalism on the part of both Muslims and Christians when their military superiority enabled them to belittle the others' beliefs - not much seems to have changed in a thousand years.
Cordoba is a wonderful town for strolling, the small cobbled streets of the old town discourage cars and everywhere there are little bars and restaurants; some with an overtly Arab theme and others more traditionally Spanish. There's something quite rustic about Cordoba tapas as over a couple of days I eat rabbit, venison and wild boar.
The final European leg is through glorious countryside of lush mountains, steep valleys and forests of olive trees but also prickly pear cactus, a hint of the searing heat to come later in the year. Algeciras is the end of the line but there's a bus to the Port of Tarifa where the ferry leaves for Tangier.
PART THREE: MOROCCO
Morocco has the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, the intimidating sands of the Sahara, fabulous Mediterranean and Atlantic beaches, medieval medinas, snake charmers in Marrakech and discos in Tangier; it's a strange and fascinating mix.
It's an easy 25-minute ferry ride across the Strait of Gibraltar, from Tarifa in Spain to Tangier in Morocco. Tangier is Europe's gateway to Morocco and Morocco is Europe's gateway to Africa.
In the heady years after World War II, Tangier was in diplomatic limbo and its sunny shores became a haven for spies, globetrotting businessmen, junkies, beatniks, eccentric foreigners and anyone on the run.
William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac and the Rolling Stones all lounged on the terraces of Tangier's Cafe Hafa, gazing across the Mediterranean to Spain while sipping mint tea or puffing something headier.
I take a beat-up "petit taxi" to Cafe Hafa. "The meter is broken," the driver says, so another taxi rip-off encounter? Except that on arrival he tells me "that'll be US50Â¢ (70Â¢)".
Battered folding chairs litter the dozen white terraces that step down the hillside, all of them occupied but only a couple are smoking hubble-bubbles (water pipes).
Tangier is a surprise: elegantly faded hotels, glitzy modern ones, bright lights and discos along the waterfront, a medieval warren of alleyways snaking through the old medina and unbelievably cheap taxis. It's moved on from its disreputable past.
Morocco's trains are surprisingly good; second class is often bulging at the seams but first class is very comfortable and only a little dearer. However, what you also get with first class, when departing most termini, is a railway con man. They're usually middle-aged, smartly dressed, with a newspaper but no luggage. Often claiming to work for the railway, they are over-friendly and keen to know your travel plans and hotel details.
Chat but don't share any personal info or you'll be on the receiving end of a follow-up con man before long. They quickly move on to the next carriage when they realise they've been rumbled.
On the way to Fez I am expecting a barren landscape but the countryside is incredibly green and fertile. The backdrop of the middle Atlas Mountains, horse and carts on the roads and donkeys in the fields make the journey a mesmerising scene.
From the station, Fez looks pretty ordinary but a short taxi to the old city is a genuine ride into history. The vast ninth century walled city of Old Fez (Fes el-Bali) is one of the most amazing cities on the planet. It's Morocco's oldest imperial city and has the largest and best-preserved historic centre in the Arab world.
My hotel (Riad Fez) is typically Moroccan - through a gate into the walled city, down a series of dingy alleyways and behind a small door there's a fantastically beautiful courtyard with fountains, flowers and sofas, all surrounded by dazzling tiles and ornate stonework. From its rooftop the old city is crammed inside fortified walls and surrounded by the pristine Rif and Middle Atlas mountains.
The medina is the oldest preserved medieval city in the world, mesmerising - tiny shops selling everything, cobblers, tinsmiths, a camel's head in a butchers, women taking dough to the communal bakery. Children are running everywhere, there's the wafting smell of coffee, fruit and spices with an occasional reek from the tannery and regularly the wailing call to prayer.
Fez is like nowhere else I've been. It's a fully functioning medieval city. The buildings are so densely packed they appear to be a single structure, the alleyways are just wide enough for two donkeys to pass and there are no touts; tourists are still a new concept. Many alleyways have smaller alleyways leading to specialised markets for honey, cheese, shoes, tailoring, ceramics, metals - where a dozen little shops sell similar produce.
Old and new constantly collide. A man riding a donkey is chatting on a mobile phone and the chaotically jumbled skyline is dotted with both satellite dishes and minarets.
Getting lost in the tens of thousands of bustling alleyways is the only way to explore and feel the life of the city but the secret of finding your way out is simply to walk uphill because that always leads to an entrance gate.
This is Morocco's most authentic and fascinating city, outstanding for its history and the preservation of its traditional way of life, and it's high on my list of places to return to.
The train to Marrakech requires a change at Casablanca, which has a very modern look with brand- new trams, lots of open spaces and ugly urban sprawl on the outskirts.
Travelling south the Moroccan countryside turns to semi-desert with the dominant vegetation being prickly pear but with an occasional orange tree plantation near water.
Marrakech is a world away from Fez. It's Morocco's tourist hotspot and the locals know it. The walled medina has roads and chaotic traffic, a taxi costs whatever they can get away with and the price of everything has to be clarified and negotiated before purchase.
Tourists are the main source of income so shopkeepers will badger and phoney (illegal) guides will constantly approach you. One devious ploy is being followed as you leave your hotel and then approached a few minutes later with: "Hello, remember me? I work at your hotel. It's my day off, I'm going to a special local auction." Then, almost as an afterthought: "You can come with me if you like?" Cleverly persuasive the first time it happens, especially when they name your hotel.
Moroccans are friendly and helpful people but the basic rule is not to trust anyone who is over-friendly when approaching you - ordinary locals don't do this.
Djemaa el-Fna is Marrakech's focal point, the main square and an open-air circus. During the day the main focus is on shopping in what appear to be countless souks leading off the square. Expect to be hassled from stall to stall but to my jaded eye much of it looks like tourist tat that might easily have been made in China.
As dusk falls, Djemaa el-Fna livens up. Dozens of chefs arrive with mobile grills, benches, trestle tables and lights. Each has a tout to snare diners but they often have an amusing patter, so it can be fun. An eating experience here is an absolute must but it's mass tourist catering, and though it's OK, it is the poorest-quality food I have in Morocco. A little restaurant away from the square is likely to have better, cheaper food but maybe not such a memorable experience.
The lights, the bustle and the smell of food bring out the entertainers - musicians, storytellers, acrobats, gambling games and, naturally, pickpockets. People dressed in national costumes and the water sellers in their fringed hats clanging brass cups are chasing tourist photo opportunities and can turn a bit nasty if you don't tip them enough.
The snake charmers, monkeys and endangered vultures get a lot of interest but if, like me, you are concerned with animal welfare and conservation, you might want to give them a miss.
Flying back to London is such a comedown after slowly rambling across Europe and around Morocco by train. It's like reverse culture shock. Travelling overland was an experience in itself and gradually easing into increasingly exotic cultures was the perfect way to arrive. I should have taken the train home.
Railbookers’ eight-night Marrakech Express holiday starts in London and takes you by rail to Paris, Barcelona, Cordoba, Tangier, Fez and Marrakech. Prices start from $1950 per person and include accommodation with breakfast, ferry travel and all train connections with seat reservations. Book before June 30 2014 to receive a $100 per person discount off your trip. railbookers.com.au or 1300 971 578.
Australians don’t need a visa to enter Morocco. The local currency is the dirham, which is readily available from local banks and hotels but it’s worth taking some low-denomination euros as they are widely accepted.