Often visible from our coast and tantalisingly close yet Morocco is a totally different country, a different continent, with an atmosphere that can only be described as, well, different. It is an ideal place for a weekend away, you will feel as though you have been somewhere exotic. Many people are put off this short journey by the reported difficulties other people have had so this account starts at the travel agents.
Luxtours operate a two night, three day break in the 5 star Movenpick Hotel in Tangiers for, currently, 206 Euros per person bed and breakfast. The hotel is a couple of kilometres from the centre, a 16 Dirham (11 Dirhams = 1 Euro) taxi ride. The other 5 star, the El Minzah is an older, though elegant, hotel, in the centre of the city and the lesser starred Solazur was also on offer, but is now closed for refurbishment so there is no telling where you will spend the night. You will be booked on a fast ferry from Algeciras direct to Tangier. You can choose the times out and back. To take full advantage of the offer take an early ferry out and a late one back. The crossing takes one hour and Morocco has a time difference two hours behind Spain.
Your adventure starts at Algeciras if you have taken your own car that far. Follow the signs for the port and then head towards the terminal buildings and multi-storey car park. It is signposted only with a big blue P for parking and somewhat confusingly the word Ceuta. You will pay 17 Euros per 24 hour period here but the alternatives in the city involve stick men, gruas, and no guarantee your car will still be there when you return.
In the departure terminal head for the window at the furthest right with your information from the travel agent and your passport. You will receive your ferry tickets and your departure gate. At this point, if there is a trolley, grab it; it will be your last chance for one. If the inevitable wizened old man beats you to it, carry your bags to the ferry. You will also receive an immigration card with your tickets that you must complete before passing through customs in Tangier. Fill it in on the boat, hand it in at the Information Desk on the main passenger deck and have the necessary stamp put in your passport, thereby saving you hassle later.
An hour or so later you will arrive in Tangiers and the fun really begins depending how far from the terminal the boat parks. As soon as you leave the ferry you will be approached by helpful men wanting to help carry your bags. Fine, there are no trolleys and they will only expect a Euro or so. However they will expect you to follow them on foot to the terminal building, which can be a distance of a kilometre or so. There is a free bus that will be waiting nearby, just keep your eyes open.
At the terminal you pass through customs and find yourself through the doors into the port, prey to all the lurking taxi drivers poised for just such a moment. Here again Luxtours make it easy. Their guide will be waiting with a sign with your name on it. He will take your bags, expecting no recompense, and escort you to a vehicle, shooing away anybody who dares to approach you. You will be taken directly to your hotel and he will inform you at what time you should be waiting for your return journey. If you arrive before 12 noon the hotel will store your luggage for you.
Obtaining dirhams can be perceived as a problem. Every place is prepared to take Euros although the rate of exchange is not good. At least you can get taxis and refreshment without worrying. There are many Bureaux de Change that offer a standard rate for dirhams but the best value is obtained by using a Euro visa card for expensive purchases.
Once installed in your hotel you are ready to explore the city that, due to a combination of history and politics, is like no other on earth.
Strategically placed across the Gibraltar Strait from Gibraltar itself Tangier has been a crossroads for people and trade for three thousand years. It first appears as Tingi in Carthaginian texts of 500 BC, already an established Phoenician trading centre. After the destruction of Carthage by the Romans, Tingi became affiliated with the Berber kingdom of Mauritania, then an autonomous state under Roman protection and eventually, in the 3rd century AD, a Roman colony, capital of Mauritania, Tingitana. In the 5th century the Vandals evacuated Andalucia and sailed from Carteia to Tingi, using the city as a bridgehead to sweep across North Africa. In the 6th century Tingi became part of the Byzantine Empire.
In 710 the city was captured by Moussa bin Nasser and was a base for the invasion of Spain the following year. Tangier as it was now known became a focal point in the four hundred year struggle between the successive dynasties of the Idissid, Umazayyad, Fatimid, Almoravide, Almohade families, the Tunisian Hafsid dynasty and finally the Merinids.
By the 14th century Tangier was a thriving port. European vessels traded cloth, spices, metals and hunting birds for leather, wool, carpets, cereals and sugar. In 1471, whilst Spain was pre-occupied with the final stages of the re-conquest, Portugal conquered and occupied the city. The next three hundred years are remarkable. Tangier passed into Spanish hands, back to the Portuguese and then the English. In 1662 Charles II of England accepted Tangier as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza of Portugal.
The Tangiers regiment was raised in 1661 to garrison the city and it became the senior English Infantry Regiment of the Line. Arriving in Tangier in 1662 it defended the city from continuous attacks by the Moors until 1684 when Charles decided, for financial reasons, to abandon the city. The regiment returned home and was renamed the Queen's Royal Regiment and awarded the armies oldest battle honour, 'Tangier 1662-1680'.
Although the Moors rebuilt Tangier it now entered a period of decline until the mid 19th century when the European colonial governments of France, Spain, England and Germany fought for influence over Morocco. In 1905, following the Algeciras Conference, Tangier was granted a special status as 'The Tangier Zone', under the authority of an International Commission with the Sultan of Morocco as nominal ruler. Tangier became a centre for smugglers and spies who were allowed to go about their business with little official interference until 1956 when, following Moroccan Independence, Tangier was integrated with the Kingdom of Morocco. Through the first and second world wars the Rif Hotel was unofficially the German headquarters and the El Minzah the British. The film 'Casablanca' was actually set in Tangier.
Tangier, for reasons known only to the rich and famous of England and France, became a desirable place to live or at least vacation. You will still bump into the occasional ex pat surviving from that period, keeping a stiff upper lip, living in isolated grandeur in huge villas overlooking the city or in Bohemian poverty in a mid city apartment. Tangier has an atmosphere all its own. It is a mixture of seedy skulduggery, international intrigue, averted eyes and faded elegance. You can still, if you wish, purchase marijuana in bulk, grown in the foothills of the Riff mountains, or single cigarettes from a street trader.
For more legitimate purchases then Tangier has one of the most shopper friendly Medinas in Morocco. Friendly because it is small and built on one side of a hill. It is very difficult to get lost, head either uphill or downhill and you will emerge from one of the gates but not before you have been assaulted on all sides by sounds and sights you will not see in Europe. Each souk specialises in one type of produce, fresh vegetables, spices, meat, though not pork, poultry, patisseries, bread, leather goods, silver and so on. The contents of small storerooms spill out into the narrow streets where the vendor sits on his haunches waiting for the next victim to wander into his web. It is all good natured. They actually understand the word 'No'. You may even find yourself the butt of a joke. See you later you say to a merchant who has heard it all before and takes bets with his neighbours. On your return he will act surprised. Not as surprised as his neighbours though if he pays out. Within the Medina is the American Legation building, now an ex pat library. The building was given to the United States in 1777 when Morocco became the first country in the world to recognise the United States as an independent nation.
Overlooking the Medina is the old palace, the Kasbah, now a museum that is doing its best and still worth a visit. Do not expect any information in English. Outside the Medina the squares and streets are obviously French and Spanish colonial. There is the obligatory Café Paris in the Place de France. There is an English Tea House on Boulevard Pasteur, there are restaurants catering for Belgians, Portuguese, French, Americans and Germans, every nationality seems to have left its mark here and all serve mint tea. Somehow you have to be there, sat at a pavement café table watching the world go by, to fully appreciate this beverage. The retired locals, men only naturally, can spend an entire morning over one cup, putting their world to rights. Some drink the black, thick, syrupy, flavoursome but gritty coffee that arrives in a thimble glass that has to be an acquired taste. Alcohol is not freely available except in the hotels and at the beach side restaurants and the very occasional ex pat bar.
The daring can eat at the many roadside kiosks or small cafés. Typically the food is Moroccan and inexpensive. Typically too the owner will speak enough English to get by if your French is not up to scratch. Nothing is too much trouble but the general poverty shows. One establishment may well not have all that is on the menu so your meal and drinks may arrive from all over the street, it is all part of the show.
The less daring will find good food of an International flavour at the beach side restaurants. These places generally have a security guard and offer more comfort than the street cafés. Some have a swimming pool beside which you can relax for the whole day if you want. You pay a premium but nowhere near what you would pay here.
For those that want to try Moroccan food that is as good as you will find in Morocco, the Moroccan restaurant in the Movenpick Hotel served an authentic menu and a selection of interesting Moroccan wines, and the live entertainment enhanced the meal. Attached to the only casino in town the Movenpick also has two other International restaurants. If you venture into the casino and play the machines or tables then your drinks and buffet food is 'on the house'. You do not have to be a resident to take advantage of the services offered at this hotel.
On your return journey you will be dropped off at the port terminal. Make sure you ask your driver for immigration cards. You must complete them before you reach the customs post at Tangier or you will be turned back. Enjoy your visit to Tangier.
© Nicholas Craig Nutter 2004 - 2012. Nick Nutter asserts his rights as the author of this article and all associated images. This article and images may not be copied or reproduced in any way without written permission of the author.