The Taste of a Place – Tangier
The Taste of a Place – Tangier
(Before I go any further, I feel I need to qualify what follows with this disclaimer, we were in Tangier for less than 24 hours, as it turned out. As such, this is a far from an exhaustive review; more a whiff of Tangier….)
I had long been intrigued by Tangier. It all started many years ago, as many things have started; with a book. Namely, The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. An evocative yet cautionary tale of a well to do 1940s American couple setting off to discover Morrocco, without a plan (or a clue). Its an affecting read with heightening tension that threatens to suffocate, set against the beautiful (yet often sordid and dangerous) backdrop of Tangier and Morrocco.
I loved this tale of love, death, sex, alcohol and alientation and resolved to visit this mysterious place one day. Everything I learnt subsequently about Tangier, such as it having been a favourite hang out of the Beat poets, The Stones etc . Or the fact that it had been viewed as “a place apart”; renowned for all types of hedonism during its time as the “International Zone”, only added to its allure.
We had been visiting Cadiz province, in the south west of Spain for many years. With only 14km seperating Morocco from Tarifa, on a clear day, the outline of Morocco is tantalising. Yet, it took us many years to take the 45 min ferry journey. On reflection, it is clear that crossing to another continent had always been more of a psychological barrier than a physical one.
The ferry crosses 11 times a day from the laid back, surfers’ paradise of Tarifa. It is efficient and inexpensive. The winds across the strait can be strong, so the crossing can be a little turbulent at times. On the morning we set off, we were told we had been lucky with the weather. Yet, even so it was a little “challenging”…
The first mysterious thing to happen was that on the ferry, we noticed a long, important looking queue forming, so I duly joined it (you can take the girl out of England etc, etc..) and waited for the serious looking officials to silently check our passports and issue us with some kind of landing document. We weren’t aware that it was necessary to obtain a document to allow you to enter the country. No announcements were made, so we were lucky to be in sight of the queue.
On disembarking, we queued again to have the document stamped and our passports checked one more time. We entered without issues.
Through the other side of the terminal, there was a throng of guides waiting on the other side; buzzing around, keen to offer help. We, of course had turned up with no cash (of any denomination), so we had to refuse the help (and taxis) we could have done with!
We had a room booked for the night, so we headed towards what looked like the centre of town. Try as we might, we could not find the B&B (or a bank!) and we walked around for a long time, getting increasingly hot, bothered and disorientated. We found a street map, that looked like a regular map, but it seemed to be in reverse – but perhaps we were just dehydrated and a bit overwhelmed! So, after about 45 minutes of walking round in circles I gave in and phoned the owner of our B&B – Dar Nakhla Naciria. He came to meet us outside the catholic church (another surprising find).
Said led us through the maze of winding streets (more like passages) of the medina to the beautiful traditional house which was our B&B. He booked us into our small but perfectly formed en suite room and we were then treated to a refreshing mint tea on the roof terrace. Here we could admire the view across the higgledy piggeldy rooftops to the neighbouring mosque and beyond where we could look back and marvel at the coast of Spain. Truly amazing to finally be in Africa!
After a quick freshen up, armed with knowledge about banks from Said and his Australian wife, Sue, we headed back out to look for a snack. Despite the plethora of restaurants, we plumped for a quick baguette in a kebab shop. Speed over form. (looking back, it must have been a little odd for the guys owning the place to be faced by two starving tourists in what was clearly a kebab shop, asking for a tuna sandwich, in very basic French). However they fed us royally and were extremenly attentive regularly giving us the universal thumbs up, to make sure we were alright (at least we hoped the meaning was the same…). On leaving, they seemed uncertain as to what to charge us – I don’t think they had seen many of our ilk in their shop (& also it was unlikely that tuna sarnies were on the menu!). Anyway, they barely charged us anything and bade us a very cheerful goodbye.
Girded by food and caffeine and feeling altogether more human, we headed for a look about. What we found was a veritable feast for the senses. There were numerous tea shops and cafés. There were stores selling all manner of leather goods, rugs, earthenware, teapots, shoes, you name it. We walked through a covered food market selling bread, spices, the most fabulous fruit and veg. As well as some challenging looking meats. We saw men wearing Jellabas; the traditional long hooded robes and beautful doors and mysterious looking doorways painted in faded hues of blue and green. Amidst this, were grand art deco buildings such as the Gran Teatro and the Cinema Rif, reminiscent of what must have been ”The Sheltering Sky” era.
Everywhere, there was an overwhelming sense of activity. Maybe because it was Saturday evening, but everyone and everything seemed to be on the move. It was vibrant. On the main square, the Gran Socco, where old and new meet, we saw many ancient Mercedes taxis with people piling into them, strangers sitting on each others laps, waiting for the driver to decide he has enough fares before screeching off.
There seemed to be men fixing things, everywhere. Like open air bike repairers, car parts, machinery, you name it, it was being fixed in the street. The buzz of activity was mesmerising!
I had done a little (important) homework and had a short list of places to visit on our very brief trip (Which became even briefer when serious wind was forecast for the next day leading to cancelation of afternoon ferries). First stop was the Cafe Metropole, the descriptions of which led me to imagine a place for secret assignations and of course, spies. I love a bit of intrigue and this was just my kind of place. A large, busy, yet quietly efficient meeting place (for international agents and mercenaries, perhaps?). Lots of tiles, wood and smoking. Likely no one was up to anything much, other than a quick cuppa, but I could swear a lot of people were whispering behind their newspapers and large sunglasses. Cue more mint tea and acting natural.
After that, we hunted out the famous colonial era Hotel Continental for a pre dinner drink. This was the place where Paul Bowles had lived until his death 20 years previously and some of the movie of his acclaimed novel was shot there, so it was a must see. With its sunrooms and reading rooms it has a lot of nostalgic charm and a slightly faded elegance which we found very appealing. We sat on the terrace whilst the sun went down over the bay, sipping on yet more mint tea! (We didn’t drink alcohol on this trip as we were unsure of the etiquette, but I’m certain there are times/places where this is aceptable).
We then tasked ourselves with finding somewhere for dinner. Fortunately, this wasn’t difficult as we were happy to be led by our noses to a tiny, but busy restaurant in a side street, very near the Continental, where the delicious smells told us this was our place. We were not disappointed. Again the personnel were so warm and welcoming in this cosy, candlelit place and they cheerfully humoured our abyssmal French. We ate a delicious local chickpea-based soup; Harira, then a Tangier style chopped salad followed by an excellent seafood tagine with couscous and a dessert of nuts, dried fruits and honey. Everything was so fragrant and flavourful. A very memorable experience.
We returned to our guesthouse and had a blissful night’s sleep. Only roused from our slumber by the call to prayer (5am, if I remember correctly). Again, this was so mysterious and exciting to us, as it was our first time in a muslim country. Later at a more sociable hour, we gathered ourselves for breakfast on the roof terrace. Said looked after us royally. I can honestly say this was one of my all time favourite (top 5) meals. We were served a wonderful array of local produce; from the ripest, most delicious fruit I have ever eaten, olives, sheeps cheese (delivered to the house by a local farmer), a selection of the most beautiful breads, a delicious spread called Amlou, made from almonds, honey and argan oil. Freshly squeezed orange juice and great coffee too. The memory of this simple, yet sumptuous feast, coupled with the incredible views to the strait, across the ochre coloured rooftops will stay with me forever.
After breakfast, we had just a short time left to explore the cobbled alleyways of the Kasbah and sip a coffee in the petit socco, once a hangout for nefarious types, now a charming little sunlit square. The only “hassle” you might get here could be from a guy wanting to shine your shoes. Again, eveyone here is friendly and keen to help. Armed with directions back to the port, we headed back to our ferry with a very cheery farewell from the officials, we headed reluctantly back to Europe.
I don’t doubt there is much more to Tangier than the little we had time to see. I have read there are some fabulous beaches and some amazing restaurants. We didn’t really see any tourists – maybe they head straight off on the new (ish) high speed rail service from Tangier ( I have to say I could definitely be tempted by a fast train to Casablanca – sounds so exotic….) But it would seem a wasted opportunity not to stop and enjoy Tangier’s many charms.
Certainly for us, there were a good few thngs we didn’t get to do; we didn’t make it to the famous Café Hafa, favourite hangout of the Stones. Nor did we visit the Grand Mosque or the American museum. Sadly, we also didn’t manage to hear any of the music for which the city is famed. So it seems clear we will need to return in order to experience some more…
In short, Tangier was everything I hoped it would be (and more); by turns, beautiful, intriguing, tantalising, disorientating, mesmerising and at times perhaps a little overwhelming. The people were what really made it for me – so welcoming. Tangier is exhilarating and alive; a true feast for the senses. It really leaves an impression.
As you know, we are budget conscious travellers and I tend not to recommend places to stay unless they are out of the ordinary. Well I’m happy to report that we stayed in the Chauoen Room at the lovely Dar Nakhla Naciria in the Medina. Everything was as we could have wished; from the welcome to the décor, the sense of history and local details and friendly advice. Not only can the charming hosts Said and Sue organise a guide for you, but they also offer evening meals on request – I will definitely be taking them up on both of these when we return!
(I have spoken to Sue recently and she tells me they do not have Facebook or Instagram at present. You can find them on the usual booking sites, but may prefer to contact them direct via email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone +212 (0) 607216956 – this works well for everyone involved)