By Emily M. Grey
Centuries ago, Moors, Phoenicians, and many other ethnic groups coveted Tanger because of its strategic location at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea. Pirates lurked about from the 1300s through the 1800s and beyond. Nowadays, ferries and commercial vessels arrive and depart daily from the busy port. The Iberian Peninsula is only about 6.5 nautical miles from this “Gateway to Africa.”
In 1777, US relationships began with Morocco, the first country to recognize American independence. Recently, the two friends signed a free trade agreement.
The main draws in Tangier are the La Medina and the nearby Kasbah, the Islamic city itself or its soul. The sprawling concrete fortress which once protected rulers’ homes and upper-end businesses is also called the Kasbah.
Beggars, rich men, and thieves, namely pickpockets, frequent the bustling Medina or huge open marketplace.
While on assignment in Spain, I decided to hop a ferry in Algeciras and explore Tangier, Morocco. There, my five senses and even sixth sense were sharpened.
Unless fluent in Arabic or French, a lone body fends for herself in this mysterious place. Most Moroccans I met were exceedingly amicable. Some honked horns and shouted, “Bonjour” and cheerfully spoke in broken English. Then, there are others.
“Hissssssssss!” This writer turns around to see an elderly woman poised to hurl an uncooked egg at me. Mistakenly, this peddler thinks I will photograph her without first paying a few dirhams for the privilege.
“Oh, no!” I exclaim, hurrying from her trajectory.
I give a snake charmer a dollar to perform his entrancing act and then hand a Euro to a tender-faced beggar. As an afterthought, I ask to photograph him and he consents. Then, I direct my attention to an array of unusual things which test my senses in La Medina.
Tantalizing odors waft from bread carts and French bakeries. A squatting man is surrounded by clucking chickens. Golden saffron, caraway seeds, and other sacks of exotic seasonings are a visual feast. Vendors sell everything from glittering lamps to cure-all potions to live rabbits.
With camera concealed, I stand beside a doorway where maybe I can avoid more trouble. I watch for Ali Baba to appear from a large earthen pot or rattan basket.
Shortly, an older man, Mohammed, offers to lead me to the salient parts of his city. We take shortcuts through residential areas, circumventing bustling streets filled with taxis, buses, and noisy tourists. In quieter sections, young children play dodge ball, mothers push baby carriages, and families fill jugs at a community well.
Soon, we arrive at the Kasbah. Charming cafes, cultural centers, and French pastry shops, with heavenly sweet aromas, define this section.
My companion and I enter an exclusive boutique with kaftans, tapestries, and Berber rugs. After serving me hot tea, winsome Ahmed convinces me to purchase a colorful flying carpet at a haggled price. Now, perhaps I can save on airfare.
I dine alone in a restaurant which Mohammed recommends. Delicious couscous smothered in fresh vegetables and skewered chicken sated my hunger. Americans are advised not to purchase iced drinks or raw fruits from street vendors. Many area restaurants serve safe, tasty meals and beverages.
Although it is Sunday, Moroccans conduct business as usual. Friday is their holy day. A Catholic church and a mosque grace the same flowered square.
Visitors preferring a tamer diversion can browse The Kasbah Museum of Tangier, The American Legation, and The Museum of Moroccan Art. Nearby small towns are great places to admire unique architecture. Just outside the city limits, sheep and goat farmers herd their unfenced flocks.
Approximately 20 miles westward, I explore Hercules Cave (Grottoes d’Hercules) and the adjoining coast. People fish, sunbathe, and comb the clean beach at this remote destination. Various high lookout points afford sweeping views of the Atlantic and dunes.
Two guides argue over which will explain the ancient wonders of the cave to me. Later, the chosen one offers to reveal more information and lead me out of the cave for a few more coins. I clearly communicate that I will see myself out.
“Uh, oh,” I murmur from my blanketed throne as my camel rises, shaking vigorously from side to side. A baby tags beside its mother as she clops about the shoreline. Surprisingly, it is comfortable atop this desert ship.
As my slow ferry finally drifts away into the sea, I look back at Morocco with longing. Despite its stark contrast with America’s easy living, I am drawn by the mystery of this Arab nation.
To avoid crowds, travel in late May, early June, fall, and winter. The climate is also more pleasant during these times.
For more information:
*Ferries from southern Spain to Tangier:
*Train (from Seville, Barcelona, or Madrid):
*(Train and ferry tickets must be purchased, first come-first served. Long-term reservations are not accepted).
Another option is to fly to Tanger International Airport.