Tangier, Morocco: Stop And Stay A While

Tangier
Almudena Alonso-Herrero

Every now and then in my travels I find a spot where I want to stop for a while. Damascus, Harar and the Orkney Islands have all captured my imagination because of their rich culture and laid back atmosphere.

Damascus is lost, sucked into the maelstrom of a country intent on destroying itself. Harar and Orkney are far away. So I’m lucky to have discovered Tangier, Morocco, less than an hour’s flight from my home base of Madrid.

Set in a broad bay next to the Strait of Gibraltar, it’s been an important spot since ancient times. On a high hill stands the Casbah, once the domain of the Sultan but now an exclusive neighborhood for rich Moroccans and an increasing number of expatriates. Below lies the medina, a jumble of houses and labyrinthine streets that are home to shopkeepers and laborers. There’s also a sprawling new city thanks to the booming port.

Tangier is a fascinating city. You can see all the tourist sights in two days and spend the rest of your life figuring the place out. Tangier has one of the most mixed populations I’ve seen. Arabs rub shoulders with Berbers from the Rif, Sahrawis from Western Sahara, and an increasing number of Senegalese and other migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. The men dress in everything from the traditional djellaba to T-shirt and jeans; the women in everything from the niqab to miniskirts. There’s also a long-established expat population of French, Spaniards and British.

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This ethnic alphabet soup means you hear half a dozen languages as you walk down the street. The local Arabic is called Darija and is distinct enough that my rusty Levantine Arabic is almost useless. Berber is often heard too. If you don’t speak either of these languages, chances are that any individual Moroccan will speak French, Spanish or English, or perhaps all of them. I’ve never met an African who spoke fewer than three languages.

It’s often hard to know which language to use first. I generally start conversations in Spanish because that’s more widely understood than English, although one young guy immediately switched to English and asked, “Why are you speaking Spanish if you’re from an English-speaking country?” Conversations often slide from one language to another. This is a place where you can end up using four languages just asking a waiter for a cup of tea!

Speaking of tea, sitting in a cafe with a cup of Moroccan mint tea (cloudy with sugar and with the mint leaves still floating in the water) is the best way to see Tangier. The locals love to relax with friends and watch the world go by. My favorite place to sit is the Petit Socco, a small square in the center of the medina through which everyone seems to pass. Not far off and outside the old city walls is the Grand Socco. It’s even more lively but the blaring traffic makes it less relaxing.

You won’t have to sit long before you’ll get in a conversation with someone. Moroccans are very social and you can learn a lot about life in their country by spending a couple of hours lounging in a cafe. I’ve been treated to everything from Berber tales of spirit possession to catty gossip from longtime expats.

Tangier used to have a bad reputation for hustlers and touts. They’ve been mostly cleaned out in recent years although you’ll still have young guys coming up to you asking to be your guide. A polite “no” will work if repeated two or three times. This doesn’t work in Marrakesh or Fez! Once you’ve been around a couple of days they’ll all recognize you and stop asking.

There are other advantages to staying for a while. Most visitors spend only a day or two in Tangier, or come as day trippers from Gibraltar or Tarifa and disappear after a few hours. The locals quite understandably see these people only as sources of money. Once the folks in Tangier have seen you around for a few days they start getting curious. Soon you’ll get to know the people who hang out at your regular cafes. The kids will start following you to get English lessons. You’ll start getting invitations for lunch or parties or day trips.

This, of course, works most places. What makes Tangier special is the diverse range of people to meet and the vibrant feel to the place. It’s a place of constant movement. People come here to make their fortunes or to use the city as a launchpad to get to Europe. It’s welcoming to newcomers because so many people are newcomers. You’ll meet a lot of interesting people with interesting dreams in Tangier and to become part of the scene in this endlessly interesting city requires only a bit of time and an open mind.

Tangier
Almudena Alonso-Herrero

Spotted In Tangier: Sting And Bruce Springsteen Going Native

Tangier, Sting, Bruce Springsteen
This photo pretty much speaks for itself. I came across this interesting snapshot in a shop in Tangier, Morocco. Sting and Bruce Springsteen got to this shop before me and stopped for a photo with the owner.

I like what this image says about the three people. The owner is obviously pleased to have two music superstars in his shop, Sting is being his usual overly serious self and Bruce looks like he’s loving his trip.

Unfortunately the owner wasn’t around and his assistant didn’t know enough English to tell me more about this shot. To me the two stars look younger than they do now and my hunch is that this was taken in the ’90s. Can any fans out there enlighten us?

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Ibn Battuta: The Greatest Adventure Traveler Of All Time

Ibn Battuta, adventure traveler, Tangier
This humble little building in a back alley of Tangier is the final resting place of the greatest traveler in history.

Ibn Battuta was born in Tangier in 1304. In 1325 he left to go on the Hajj and ended up visiting not only Mecca, but crisscrossing much of the Middle East and sailing far down the east coast of Africa. Then he headed east, passing through central and Southern Asia and making it as far as Beijing before coming back and taking a jaunt through much of western Africa.

While I’m not too keen on citing Wikipedia as a source, it does have some detailed maps of Ibn Battuta’s journeys. In all, he traveled an estimated 75,000 miles, three times as much as Marco Polo, but is far less known in the West because Marco Polo was European and Ibn Battuta was Arab. So it goes.

Reading his accounts shows you that travel hasn’t really changed all that much: loneliness, illness, hospitality and fascinating sights were the hallmarks of adventure travel then as they are now. He had only made it as far as Tunis when he first became aware of the crushing loneliness travel can bring. He was with a group of fellow pilgrims who all had friends in the city. When they arrived everyone was greeted except poor Ibn Battuta. He started to cry and one of his fellow pilgrims took pity on him and talked with him to cheer him up. Again and again in his accounts, he talks about the hospitality and kindness he found on the road.

Later he visited Alexandria and was perhaps the last writer to describe the famous lighthouse, one of the wonders of the ancient world. It was already in bad shape when he first saw it, and when he saw it again in 1349 it had crumbled into total ruin.

Of course he had some troubles along the way. He mentions getting sick numerous times and was lucky not to catch the Black Death that was raging through the Middle East at the time. In Egypt he had a run-in with some hyenas that rummaged through his bags and stole his supply of dates! In Niger he had a more serious incident. He went down to the river to relieve himself and a local had to save him from a crocodile.Like any good traveler, Ibn Battuta was intensely curious and loved to see the sights. His description of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is especially moving for me, because it was that building that first turned me on to Islamic architecture. He also describes the Ummayed Mosque in Damascus as the “most magnificent mosque in the world.” I’d have to agree.

In the Maldives he learned to love coconuts (which he said “resembles a man’s head”) and lived on them during his year-and-a-half stay. Ibn Battuta understood some important things about travel: go slow and try the local food.

Ibn Battuta’s enthusiasm for travel is apparent even 700 years later. He talks of his amazement at seeing a meteorite, has the balls to ask the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos III to assign him a tour guide to show him Constantinople, and is shocked to see the Muslim women of Mali walking around naked.

There was no way I was going to visit Tangier and not pay my respects at the grave of one of my heroes, so one afternoon we headed out into the labyrinthine alleyways of the Old City. We finally found the tomb at the intersection of three lanes. There was a little historic marker on the outside, but otherwise nothing to mark the burial place of Tangier’s most famous native son.

This is typical in Muslim cultures. Most graves don’t even have an epitaph, and it takes someone pretty famous to have an identifiable tomb. Inside a caretaker was chanting in Arabic. He greeted us cordially and then went back to chanting.

As you can see from the photo below, there’s not much inside except the tomb draped with a carpet and some nice tiles on the interior. If my expression looks a little pained it’s because as we were taking photos, the caretaker let out a loud and quite toxic fart. It ruined the atmosphere of the place – literally.

Considering the dangers and hardships Ibn Battuta went through on his journeys, it was a small price to pay to see the tomb of the greatest traveler who ever lived.

Don’t miss our other articles about Tangier!

[Top photo by Sean McLachlan. Bottom photo by Almudena Alonso-Herrero]
Ibn Battuta, adventure traveler, Tangier

The Anatomy Of A Perfect Hotel (In Tangier)

hotel ,Tangier
A hotel can make or break your vacation. We’ve all heard stories about crappy dives ruining someone’s trip. Hey, we’ve written about plenty of them here on Gadling. But every once in a while we come across a hotel that exceeds our expectations.

Hoteliers, take note. This is how to do it right.

While fleeing the Spanish Christmas to Tangier, we took a relative’s recommendation and booked a room at La Tangerina Guest Home in the Casbah. The first good impression came before we got there with their detailed website where you can view all ten rooms – a big help in deciding which one to take. We selected Room 3 for 65 euros ($86), one of the cheapest. There is also a smaller, cheaper room, and some larger suites suitable for a whole family. The price includes breakfast.

Since we assumed there would be the usual hassle at the North African airport, we booked a taxi through the hotel. We later found out they didn’t overcharge us like a lot of hotels would – another point in their favor.

La Tangerina is located on the northern edge of the Casbah overlooking the protective wall facing north to the Strait of Gibraltar. It’s part of an old private residence. Only the Sultan’s family and hangers-on were allowed to live in the Casbah, so the building has a good pedigree. There are four floors built around an inner courtyard. The ground floor has a couple of lounges opening onto the courtyard and the dining room is also on this level.

%Gallery-175868%We got to sample the kitchen the first night. I had an excellent tagine. Breakfast the next day included bread, cake and msemen, a sweet flatbread popular here in Morocco that quickly became my favorite. Service was fast and the food consistently good.

The rooms are tastefully decorated with bright walls and old prints of Tangier and Morocco. Bathrooms are modern and everything was cleaned daily. In a cage outside our door was a happy little canary I nicknamed Parsley. That’s an inside joke between the Spanish and the Moroccans. They don’t think it’s funny; I think it’s hilarious.

We didn’t spend much time in the room, though, because the rooftop terrace was where we really wanted to be. The terrace offers sweeping views of the Strait of Gibraltar. There’s a covered divan if you want to take a nap, chairs and tables if you want to sit and read, and an upper sun deck for tanning. We spent a lot of time lazing around up there, drinking mint tea and eating amazing little Moroccan sweets. We had a nice surprise when we checked out and discovered they were free!

The terrace really makes this hotel and induces a certain laziness that cuts into sightseeing time. That was fine by us because we wanted a relaxed holiday. It also served well for a New Year’s Eve party with some of the other guests. While Spain is due north of Tangier, it’s in the next time zone and so we got to watch the distant flare of fireworks at 11 p.m., and then have a second celebration at midnight.

Luckily for us, this hotel serves alcohol, which isn’t always the case in this Muslim nation. The Moroccans make some fine white wine, although the red we tried was too young for our taste. There was also French champagne on hand for New Year’s Eve.

All in all, La Tangerina is one of the best hotel experiences I’ve had in 33 countries of travel. The management gets everything right, from the beautiful terrace to little touches such as the bowl of free tangerines in the courtyard. The one thing I didn’t try was the hammam and massage service. I suspect those are excellent as well.

Would you like to give a shout out to your favorite hotel? Tell us about it in the comments section!

For more on what goes on behind the scenes in a hotel, check out McLean Robbins’ series “The Birth of a Hotel.”

[Photo by Almudena Alonso-Herrero]

St. Andrew’s In Tangier: A Church With Muslim Art

Tangier
Being in Morocco, Tangier is a mostly Muslim city. Being a port, it’s also a mixed city with a long history of Christian and Jewish influence. That interesting blend comes out in the language, music, art and cooking. You can see Tangier’s mix of cultures everywhere.

Even in the churches.

The Church of St. Andrew is an Anglican congregation close to the Place du Grand Socco. The first thing you’ll notice is the church tower shaped like the square, Moorish-style minarets so common in the mosques here. The only difference is the English flag flying from the top and the lack of a loudspeaker to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer.

Entering the churchyard, you’ll find a shady oasis of trees, shrubs and a well-manicured garden. Cats lounge amid the headstones, which include several for the fallen from various Allied armies during World War II. This part of the property looks like a regular English churchyard except for the palm trees and lack of moss on the headstones. Go inside, however, and you’ll see something quite different.

The interior has several Islamic touches. The doors have rounded arches and elaborate carvings. The carved and painted wood ceiling looks like something from a Moorish palace. The arch just before the altar is the most elaborate and looks like it came from a Muslim palace. Arabic calligraphy spells out the words “bismi-llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm” (In the name of God, the most Gracious, the most Merciful), which is the first line of each Surah (chapter) of the Koran.

%Gallery-175720%So how did a verse from the Koran end up decorating an Anglican church in a Muslim country? The story starts in 1880, when the Sultan, Hassan I, gave land to the British expat community in Tangier so they could build a church. One was built but soon proved too small for the growing Christian community and so the present church was built in 1894. It was consecrated in 1905.

The design includes Islamic styles as a way of recognizing the friendly relations between the UK and Morocco and to honor the memory of the Sultan’s donation. The work was done by Moroccan craftsmen.

St. Andrew’s is by no means unique. During the height of Islamic civilization during the Middle Ages, European art and architecture borrowed frequently from Muslim styles. European artists copied Islamic styles and even included Arabic calligraphy in Christian works of art. Check out the gallery for a couple of surprising examples.

Don’t miss our other posts on Tangier! Coming up next: The Anatomy Of A Perfect Hotel!

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]