Escaping Christmas In 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]

Relax in style at the Hotel Hivernage

The greeting you’ll receive at the Hotel Hivernage is pure charm, but it requires patience. Instead of tapping your toe at the front desk while the guy in front of you spills his life story, you’ll be invited to sit in the lobby while you complete your check-in forms. The staff is not in a rush, so set aside your New York-sculpted expectations. This first taste will set the tone for your stay: relaxed, luxurious and high-tough.

When you visit Marrakech, you’ll be tempted to stay in the medina (i.e., inside the city’s walls). Trade proximity for comfort with the Hivernage. It’s a short walk to the medina, though a taxi is prudent (and cheap) depending on where you want to go. Being able to retreat from the craziness of the narrow alleys at the end of the day will be worth the seeming inconvenience. While the action inside the walls is fast and the environs confined, the Hivernage is spacious and clean.

No detail is overlooked, from the melon juice cocktail served at check-in to the rose petals scattered in your room’s sink and bathtub. Stretch out on the king-sized bed at the end of the day, or sip a glass of wine out on your private balcony.

Hivernage offers several dining options, including a bar, full-service restaurant and café (which is great for breakfast). Menus are available in both English and French, and the waitstaff can accommodate both languages (and Arabic), as well. The food is tasty, but neither adventurous nor exotic. Both local and western dishes are provided.

Be sure to block a day off to spend in the hotel’s spa. You can take advantage of a variety of treatments, including several traditional therapies. The contrast to the souks – the shops in the medina – is profound, but you’ll be too subdued to care when the stress of haggling with the medina’s merchants is kneaded from your back and shoulders.

This touch of luxury is not as expensive as you would expect. A comparable hotel in New York or Paris would cost you at least $500 a night. I spent just under $150 a night for the Hivernage … expensive by local standards but absolutely worth it.

Get a guide for the Marrakech medina

When I hit the ground in Marrakech, Morocco, last week, I wasted no time in passing through the gate and heading into the medina (the old part of the city). After all, I’m a seasoned traveler, and I know how to read a map. If I did get lost, I reasoned, I could see the Koutoubia Mosque from just about anywhere in the city — it’s the tallest building around (by law) at 77 meters high. Less than an hour later, I was in a covered, narrow alley and couldn’t see natural sunlight, let alone Koutoubia’s minaret. My map, which only showed streets, was worthless. Even on the streets, the map was little help, as there is a dearth of street signs.

Suddenly, I realized I shouldn’t have dismissed the hotel manager’s suggestion that I hire a guide for the day.

Several hours later, I found my way outside the medina, only to realize I was on the wrong side of the city, and walked around the outside back to my hotel. My wife was furious. I was irritated. And, I realized what my plan for the next day would be. It involved the experience of a local pro, Mustapha. I don’t regret paying the $25 for his extremely helpful services.

I know what you’re thinking … it’s what I thought. Guides are scammers. You feel that you can navigate a city on your own. If you’ve read any travel literature on Marrakech, you know that the guides exist only to bring you to the souks (shops) that pay them the highest commission. So, you’re being guided right into a high-pressure sales situation. In reality, all these perspectives hold a bit of truth.

As soon as I walked into the medina the first day, I was pestered pretty regularly by many “freelance” guides, some of whom claimed to work for major hotels. He was incredibly persistent, offering to take me around the city. Here’s a hint. If you don’t meet your guide in the hotel, he doesn’t work for one. As you get deeper into the city, they drop the hotel charade but have plenty of other stories. One explained that he just wanted to practice his English. In fact, when I responded to him in French, he kept going in English. I knew the situation but applaud his tenacity (now, at least). Avoid these guys. They will take you directly into the souks, and that’s all you’ll see.

When I met Mustapha at the Hivernage Hotel and Resort, he was clad in a jacket and tie. His English and French were heavily accented but more than sufficient. And, he smiled. He asked what I wanted to see. I listed off places like the Saadian tombs, Bahia Palace and Jemaa el Fna (the medina’s main square), and he dutifully noted them. When I finished, he added, “And the souks?” Yes, the souks …

Immediately, I saw a difference. Mustapha hailed a taxi and got us a good price. We went directly to the spots I wanted to see, and his explanations brought them to life. It turns out that I was near every major attraction on my list the previous day, but I never would have found them. With my guide, it was quick and painless. He also pointed out the differences among the people who walked by, providing some insights into the ethnic groups of Morocco. Buildings without exterior windows or balconies, for example, were from Berber inhabitants, while those with windows and balconies facing the streets were built by Jewish settlers. I never would have figured this out on my own.

The little touches were nice, as well. As we approached the Saadian tombs, Mustapha saw a large tour group approaching. Instead of taking us to the window to pay our admission fee, he nodded in its direction and led us straight into the building. He took us to the prized places quickly. When I turned around, I saw a large crowd behind me. I would have spent plenty of time waiting but instead had a prime position for as long as I wanted. On our way out, we went over to the window and settled up. If I had tried to pull this off on my own, I don’t think I would have gotten far (had I even thought to try).

When I saw what looked like rather ordered graffiti on the walls throughout the medina, all I had to do was ask. Mustapha explained that there are 32 political parties in Morocco, and each is allotted a specific space on the wall to use for campaigning. I didn’t understand the message at all, but at least I got the drift.

As we navigated Marrakech’s winding streets and narrow alleys, I did notice that fewer of the freelance guides approached us. A few of the bolder ones did make the effort, but Mustapha dismissed them quickly. Also, he let me know how I could break the rules. Most of the hard-core locals don’t like having their pictures taken, but he’d give me a look when their heads were turned, so I could get the shots I wanted.

Of course, you know where we wound up …

A good portion of our day was spent in the souks, which are intricate mazes of small shops located all over Marrakech. I don’t enjoy shopping, so I was bored to tears, but I did find some of the presentations (and that’s what they were) insightful. My wife enjoyed the experience thoroughly. I do think that these were Mustapha’s favorite spots — that’s just the cynic in me. But, since there was a trusted relationship, you didn’t feel worried using a credit card or having goods sent to your hotel (or shipped home) later. Morocco’s is a selling culture. You just have to accept that when you step inside the city’s walls. The trick is to find any advantage you can. In this regard, having a guide helps. A lot.

When I let Mustapha know that I was finished shopping, he brought us by Jemaa el Fna for some photo opportunities and then promptly back to Hivernage. The time had come to pay the piper, and like every interaction, it was a negotiation. I asked how much, and he replied that I should pay whatever I liked. Eh, I kicked the rate quoted by the hotel up 20 percent. He earned it.

Holy Ethiopian City Harar Hopes to Become Tourist Hub

I’ve never heard of Harar, Ethiopia, but maybe I should have because it’s the fourth holiest city in Islam, behind Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. More importantly, it’s possibly the birthplace of coffee.

Last year, the city was named a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the regional government is hoping to attract hordes of tourists soon. But the town has some work to do; currently, Harar has only a few hotels and suffers chronically from water shortages. To encourage growth, 10-year tax breaks have been offered to anyone who wants to build a tourist facility.

The move into the future is an ambitious one, but it sounds as if there’s plenty to delight tourists. Besides a 13-foot wall surrounding serpentine alleys and ancient mosques, the Associated Press lists as an attraction an old man who hand-feeds 50 hyenas every night, (check it out!) “treating them like obedient kittens.”

All the more enjoyable with a cup of fine coffee in my hands, of course.

[via Msnbc]