Escaping Christmas In Tangier

Tangier
The Christmas holiday in Spain is a classic case of too much of a good thing. Stretching from before Christmas to after Epiphany, it’s a long haul of eating, drinking, socializing and getting nothing done. I have no problem with that except it goes on for way too long. My Spanish wife agrees, so we decided to escape for five days, a sort of holiday from the holidays.

She wanted to go to Tangier, Morocco. I was skeptical. We’d been to Marrakech a few years before and found it a huckster’s paradise. While the tagines were tasty and the mosques marvelous, the constant pestering by touts made it a hassle. Everywhere else turned out to be too expensive, though, and so we hopped on the flight from Madrid and an hour later found ourselves in Tangier.

The difference from Marrakech was immediately noticeable. There was a chilled-out vibe that the more southern city lacked. I’d heard that the authorities had wisely cleared out the most annoying touts in order to encourage tourism. Walking around we had numerous young men offer us a tour but they took no for an answer, at least after two or three nos. In Marrakech it generally took ten or 12 nos. Tangier is also a remarkably clean city, with a fresh sea breeze coming off the bay and streets that lack the minefields of dog shit that I’m used to in Spanish cities.

There are two main neighborhoods in Tangier of interest to visitors. The Casbah is the old sultan’s palace complex and stands on high ground surrounded by a wall and overlooking the bay. The medina is the old city and includes a sprawling marketplace. Beyond these lies the modern city, stretching along the bay and further inland. While pleasant enough, it lacks any real distinctiveness except for some fine old cafes.

%Gallery-174508%The Casbah is the most popular place for foreigners to stay. In fact, many have bought second homes there and the population is now 60% foreign. Situated on Tangier’s highest point and surrounded by an old wall, it was here that the Sultan lived with his family and staff. Ornately carved wooden doors and window lattices decorate the whitewashed buildings. Some have rooftop terraces offering fine views of the bay and the Strait of Gibraltar. Many of the better hotels and restaurants are in this neighborhood.

A little rougher and far more lively is the medina, the old city that includes the marketplace. Here labyrinthine alleyways lead past rows of stalls selling everything from heaps of spices and fresh produce to local handmade leather and cheap Chinese imports. Bustling crowds of shoppers fill these narrow lanes. Old men in burnooses stand to one side having quiet conversations, or sip tea and play checkers in dark cafes. There are also tranquil residential side streets that are almost abandoned, the only sound being the conversation of women and laughter of children filtering out from behind closed doors.

It’s easy to get lost in the medina, but being fairly small it’s hard to stay lost for long. One trick I’ve learned in Middle Eastern cities is to think of the streets as a circulation system. The alleys are the capillaries. If you want to get out, take the biggest one you can find. This will eventually lead to a wider artery, which will take you to the heart or lungs (one of the main squares) or the eyes and mouth (the gates to the new city). When you come to a branch in the road, always pick the wider path and you’ll be out soon.

The medina has the highest amount of public drug use I’ve seen in any city, Amsterdam included. The smell of kif (hash) mingles with the turmeric of the spice stalls and in some cafes people smoke quite openly. There are plenty of junkies around too. In the main square one guy was staggering around in filthy rags, drooling as he sniffed glue from a plastic bag. Ever seen a hardcore glue sniffer on a binge? It ain’t pretty.

Like many ports, Tangier has an international feel. Arabic is the native language, and French is the default foreign tongue. Spanish and English are also widely spoken. At times they all get jumbled up and something as simple as ordering a tea can involve all four languages. It’s great fun.

Tangier is an easy flight from Madrid and many other European cities and makes a great short holiday or the starting point for a longer exploration of Africa. One bit of advice: don’t use the American Express currency exchange office in Madrid’s Barajas Airport. They ripped us off on the exchange rate. You’ll get a much better rate in the Tangier airport or from one of the numerous licensed money changers in the medina.

This is the first in a short series on Tangier. Coming up next: “The Tangier Art and Cafe Scene!”

[Top photo courtesy Almudena Alonso-Herrero, that cool wife I mentioned. Bottom photo by Sean McLachlan]

Tangier