You don't come to Tangier to see visions of grandeur or to experience ancient history. You come here because a) it is on the way from Spain to Morocco/Africa and b) to experience the recent present, as in the previous century. The conditions that made Tangier a haven for deviants, exiles and eccentrics from all over the world to congregate are long gone. After it was taken back from the European powers shortly after Moroccan independence in 1956, its anything goes culture came to an end. Tangier declined after that until recently when the new king decided to spruce up the area.
So what can the current visitor expect to experience in Tangier today? While the ghosts of Roman Emperors and Ottoman Sultans leave behind astonishing creations to be gaped at, the ghosts of Beat Novelists don't do any such thing. Sure, you could go to the very places frequented by Bowles, Burroughs etc. and try and imagine for yourself what Tangier was like during the International Zone days, but you are not going to get very far. It is a far easier exercise to go to Athens and imagine what life was like in the Ancient Agora.
The modern day visitors may find themselves caught in a curiously contradictory exercise. Attracted to Tangier because of its seedy reputation and also emboldened by the fact that it is no longer that. Sort of like going to the zoo in one respect. The old walled city (medina) still looks like it could be a dangerous place with all sorts of characters hanging about. Sure, you can see people having conversations with themselves, or surprising you by laughing maniacally in your face for no reason, or perform a mini pantomime for no audience in particular - all these things could be observed in many world cities. But in Tangier, these seem to be the norm. All you have to do is to sip your mint tea (overdosed with that most dangerous of substances, sugar) sitting in Cafe Tingis in Petit Socco, hoping to see what happens in Weirdo Central. Or get lost through the maze of alleyways that don't seem to serve the essential function of getting you anywhere in particular.
Walking through the streets of the medina day or night is a thrill, which is accentuated if you get lost in the narrow lanes (some of which are just staircases) as you quickly lose your orientation amidst the steep walls that enclose the homes of the medina. If you get away from the touristy streets with souqs (markets), getting lost becomes much easier unless you possess a smartphone (a regular GPS will not help as the steep walls will block out most satellites). Then you become a money making opportunity for young boys running helter skelter playing hide and seek. They love lost foreigners who could use directions as they can expect some loose change to change hands after. If you are careful to set expectations, it can be a pleasant transaction. Even if you know where you are, it may still be a challenge to find the odd landmark that you heard about. You could go round and round in a tizzy and get nowhere. We managed to stumble upon the tomb of Ibn Batouta purely by chance. But it took a young boy to point out that we could peep through the hole in the locked door to take a look inside.
Video of Tangier medina near Ibn Batouta tomb
At night, the thrills get sharper. Hooded dark figures emerge through an archway from a lonely alley only to be revealed as harmless women in hijab. Loud sharp noises just happen to be old cronies greeting each other by roughing each other up. And the ones who follow you around are only looking to take your money with your consent in return for food or lodging or information.
And what about Tangier being on the way from Spain to Morocco? In a manner of speaking it is. The Strait of Gibraltar is only 10 miles at its narrowest point but it separates two very dissimilar continents. Even the cultural leakages that have occurred across the strait have not permeated too far north or south. Our stay in Andalusia happened purely through the need for a cheap route from Greece to Morocco, but it happily served as a cultural gateway to our Moroccan experience owing to the shared history of the two regions. And Tangier would now serve as the catalyst for the conversion from Moroccan Spain to Spanish Morocco. On a clear day (which we got), we could see the mountains of southern Spain culminating with the Rock of Gibraltar at its eastern end, just as we could see the mountains of northern Morocco from Gibraltar the previous week.
The slow boat from Algeciras (just a few kilometers west of Gibraltar) takes an hour and a half to reach the African headland and it took us to the new port of Tangier-Mediterranean, some 30 km northeast of the Tangier port/city. It was a clear day and we had a soft ride to Africa on a calm sea with departing views of the Rock. We had the option of the faster boat from Tarifa direct to Tangier's port, but chose this due to timings and cost. The ferry companies in Spain had assured us of the presence of free shuttles from the new port to Tangier but we learnt on arrival that they have started levying a charge since October. As luck would have it, the bus broke down some 6 km outside Tangier and what followed on the bus left no one in any doubt that we were no longer in Europe. A few minutes after the driver pulled off the highway, everyone got restless and the increasingly anxious conversations started but none in a language we understood. Things got heated as two young women in hijab started berating the driver loudly in Arabic while the menfolk merely looked on (the males were obviously on the side of the machine). One of the women unleashed a volley of stern rebukes at the driver while the poor man merely kept it in play through weak defensive maneuvers (from the baseline?). The less perturbed young woman saw that we were foreigners and surprised us by apologizing to us in excellent English, "Welcome to Africa! Welcome to Morocco! Now you know what life is like here!". Our attempts to defend her country and continent with a weak "Oh, it happens everywhere" was met with a contemptuous exhalation that ended with "What the ..." followed by the oft heard expletive beginning with the sixth letter of the alphabet of the above mentioned language. But we'd never heard it originating from lips belonging to a face aureoled by a hijab. It turned out that she was a student of international law studying in Andalusia and was passing through Tangier en route to her Moroccan home.
Thankfully, we did not have to wait an hour for the next bus from the port as a makeshift arrangement was worked out for those with baggage and a minibus took us to the town centre. The young woman (who spoke 4 languages) was extremely helpful in guiding us to a taxi rank with instructions on how to get to the medina before heading off to catch her onward bus. We could not find a petit taxi on the rank that would take us and walked a brief while in the welcome warmth of the north African December sun before managing to hail one from the street. The driver made some unnecessary loops (unaware that we had several GPS devices) to justify his inflated quote but was good enough to drop us outside the main mosque in the medina. Several passersby were only too willing to point the way to our chosen hotel while hurling friendly phrases like "India? New Delhi? Amitabh Bachchan!" etc. at us. A surprising variant on this theme, we heard the following day at the viewing platform outside the medina. "Namaste mate! You from Birmingham or Yorkshire?".
There is more to Tangier than just the medina. It also has a Ville Nouvelle (European style neighbourhoods built by the French in many Moroccan cities) with sweeping views of the Mediterranean and looks as unlike the medina as you can possibly conceive. Facing the Place de France since 1927, the grand Café de Paris is the most famous of the coffee establishments along Blvd Pasteur and the outdoor seating was perfect for people watching while consuming more mint tea (overdosing on even more sugar).
It is not commonly known that Morocco was one of the first countries to recognize the fledgling US of A back in the late 18th century. Anything to spite old England is the reason that is offered for this odd circumstance. Tangier has the honor of hosting the first piece of real estate owned by the US of A outside its own domain. The Tangier American Legation museum is an interesting place to visit. Located in a difficult to find street inside the medina (we passed right underneath the archway it spans before realizing that we missed it), it houses an odd mix of artifacts. There is an entire room devoted to Paul Bowles (author, music composer, musicologist among other things) who spent a good half-century living in Tangier. The painting, Zohra, by James McBey is considered the Moroccan Mona Lisa with a hint of a half smile and eyes that follow you across the room. We tested it, they do.
Google Maps Link
Note: You may have noticed the "gap" in our blog posts between Athens and this one. While we did plan to fly from Greece to Morocco, we ended up flying to Spain and then crossing the Strait of Gibraltar to get to Morocco. But it is not our intention to forego our Spanish blog posts. We wanted to publish our Moroccan blog posts while the memories are still fresh and so you can read them in a similar state. Needless to add, we will double up on closing the gap and complete our Spanish blog entries (soon!) as well. Please look out for them! Please don't mind the gap!
Really ? Tangiers is that sort of a place ??
Btw can't believe either of you can ever get lost - seeing first hand how you simply knew every way in a new city after landing at 10 PM the previous night !!
And Wtf coming from under a hijab ???? What is the world coming to :) From , on Dec 25, 2012 at 03:49PM
@Ramesh : Or in other words, WTF is the world coming to! From, on Dec 30, 2012 at 10:29AM