Tangier and Some Very Nice Tangerines

March 23, 2024

Acting as my travel agent, I sometimes make mistakes, and for a couple of days, I thought that putting us in Algeciras, which is not a particularly attractive place – Rick Steves describes it as “gritty”, existing mostly as a support to the massive port, was one of these mistakes. The reason is that the ferry from Algeciras to Tangier is slow and actually arrives at Tangier MED, a massive cargo port an hour from the old city of Tangier. There is a fast ferry from Tarifa that goes right to Tangier. But I had to return the rental car to Algeciras and by the time I had worked out the difference between Tangier MED and Tangier Vielle Ville, I had booked and paid for the Airbnb in Algeciras.

While in Algeciras, I spoke to Ali in Tangier, the guide we had hired for a full-day tour of the entire Tangier area. He said to be sure to book the Tarifa ferry. I said it was too late. I had booked the ferry from Algeciras and no longer had a car to get to Tarifa. Ali said he believed in destiny and not to worry about it. He told me after we arrived in Tangier that on the day we needed to travel, all the fast ferries from Tarifa had been canceled due to high wind. Plus, it was a good experience on the big ship since we could people- and port- watch for so long, and then destiny kicked in and it turns out that was the only way to get there that day besides.

Today was our repositioning day from Algeciras to Tangier. It was a nice trip but I was confused the entire journey. We got up too early and went to the port too early, but when we got there they said our boat was delayed but we could take an earlier one. The terse lady at the ticket counter said to hurry and get upstairs and get on the boat. We got in line but it was for the wrong boat. It was very hard to understand where we were supposed to be at the ferry terminal and which boat to get on. We kept getting yelled at in Spanish by the guards. A nice Moroccan woman kept helping us out by translating and telling us what to do. The whole day was a “hurry up and wait” kind of day.

It took a long time for our ship to get loaded with people, cars, and trucks and then get on its way, but the journey sitting at the back of the boat across the Strait of Gibraltar was fascinating. During the passage, even though the ship was huge, we had to wait in a long, line to get our passports checked and stamped by the Moroccan Police in an inexplicably small area on an upstairs deck. 

There was a large group of passengers who were Spanish motorcyclists on their way to the Dakar rally as support staff. We tried to eat the food from the snack bar but it was awful. We had a kebab chicken sandwich and a cold Spanish tortilla sandwich. That’s right – it was a potato sandwich. The previously frozen potato patty part of the sandwich squished cold water when I bit down. I can usually eat almost anything when I’m really hungry but both of these sandwiches defeated me.

On land in Morocco at Tangier MED we found our driver for the beautiful 45-minute ride taxi ride through impossibly lush green farms to old Tangier. We passed goats, sheep, and guys riding donkeys and horses. We had stepped back at least 75 years in time.

Check-in to our final Airbnb at Residence Ocean involved a long wait on a windy street corner communicating with the host, Michel on the Airbnb app. He was writing in French but I had the app’s translation service running which was working pretty well, except that it kept translating the name of the cafe where we were supposed to meet our handler from La Rouche to The Hive. This is correct, but it was listed at La Rouche on the building so we, nor the taxi driver could figure out where The Hive was.

Ali had invited us to Ramadan breakfast for our dinner our first night there at his home with his family. He insisted and we were honored to join him. He picked us up in his comfortable SUV wearing a tracksuit. We drove all across Tangier to his apartment where we met his wife, pregnant with their third child, and their ravenous 2.5-year-old. He hadn’t been fasting – most kids don’t try to fast until they are 13 during Ramadan. This little boy ate two chocolates that I brought, four eggs, and lots of other food while we were there.

We were immediately seated at a set of wall-to-wall sofas in a deep red color, lined with fancy pillows. The dining table was right there in the living room and was heaped with dishes of food. After sitting down, the table was slid toward us and we tucked in as soon as the call to prayer was announced. They break their fast with dates. Then we were served meat that I think was liver, nuts, honey-laced cookies, a tasty vegetable soup, and bread. We had water to drink and a choice of two different smoothie juices made from oranges, mangos, and strawberries.

Ali drove us back to our comfortable Airbnb with stunning views of the beach. Locals were giving camel and horseback rides down there. Presumably, we should now be able to see Spain beyond the water, but again, as I’ve mentioned it was foggy.

March 24, 2024

Ali picked us up wearing traditional Moroccan dress at 9 am because the tour included breakfast. We hardly knew what to expect as so little of Tangier was open during Ramadan. We stopped at a charming café and sat upstairs. We were served a sort of naan bread made into a pancake and rolled up with almonds, almond butter, and bananas. There was tea or coffee and delicious freshly-squeeezed OJ.

Our first stop was the main or at least tallest mosque in Tangier. For the second of many times he told us this, Ali said that in Tangier, the calls to prayer are always live. In most places they use recordings. He told us his grandfather was an imam and he grew up hearing his grandpa five times a day. We continued on through the various urban neighborhoods of Tangier, one named San Francisco for its uncanny likeness to the California city, Boston, and various other places named for other places. We were amazed by its size and general affluence. Tangier has a population of 2 million. We learned that the King of Morocco had taken a shine to Tangier several years before and was making all kinds of investments from the largest cargo port on the Med at Tangier MED to the pleasure port we could see from our apartment, and upgrades to authentically-made doors in the old medina market. Throwing off the hippy reputation and the time that the city was co-ruled by 7 or 8 countries has taken a toll. I love a writer named Paul Bowles, who was an American who attended UVA and later settled in Tangier. He wrote a book called The Sheltering Sky made into a movie starring Debra Winger. The line I’ll never forget from that movie is “Ca-TO-li-co! ca-TO-li-co!”, which was something a different character said about the Spaniards. I promise to improve this bit of writing here when I re-read that book. This is really a note to self.

We drove through the swankiest neighborhoods that reminded me of Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego. Ali pointed out the sprawling homes of various Middle Eastern celebrities like Indian shipping moguls, the king of Saudi Arabia, and clearly well-off business people. Tangier has the epitome of Mediterranean climate and it attracts all sorts of folks who need a place to cool off in the summer.

We drove out to a viewpoint of the Atlantic Ocean and a house made famous by a movie, the name of which escapes me now. He told the movie’s plotline of a kidnapping, a drawn-out ransom situation, followed by the kidnappers and hostages later becoming friends. My late sister-in-law would have doubtless brought up something called Stockholm Syndrome at this point.

On we went to an overlook where the Mediteranean meets the Atlantic Oceans. It was so windy that my mom said that if the signpost had not been behind her (see photo) she is certain she would have been blown over the cliff wall. I was having trouble standing up myself.

Next was a stop at the Caves of Hercules. I read Paul Thereau’s book The Pillars of Hercules which refers to the two points, one in Spain and one in Morocco, that signal the entrance to the Med. The Straight of Gibraltar is a pretty long channel that actually opens north to south (not east to west as you might presume).

We were pre-paid by Ali and walked right in to the cave, which had been opened up by heavy machinery at some point. A local guide grabbed my phone, changed a bunch of settings on the phone, and hustled us through a series of photo ops, including some rude thing he had us all do with our open mouths. I deleted all those pictures. There was a supposed shape of a map of Africa opening in the cave to the ocean, but I was having trouble visualizing it. I got a whiff of the caves you can see in La Jolla, California at this point too. Up on the surface, we saw some souvenir shops and raggedy cats.

It was time for a camel ride on the beach. It was so cold and windy, but it was a truly memorable experience, especially when my mom decided at the end to get on a camel just for a photo. My camel decided unexpectedly to sit down at the exact moment I was trying to take a picture of my mom on the camel. I nearly ripped my right index finger off on the rebar handle of the saddle at this point. (I’m home writing this in Arizona and it still hurts!) We got a little look at some juvenile camels waiting nearby. One of them was 12 days old but still relatively huge. I decided then and there to never brag again about delivering an 11-pound baby.

We drove then past a fruit and vegetable market, bursting with gorgeous-looking produce. Then, finally, we parked for a long walk down through the medina. It was a fantastic sight. No one bothered us in the slightest. We went to a rug store for the full treatment of mint tea, water, and the show of unfolding 25 rugs in front of us. Just after I said I wasn’t going to buy a rug, I bought a rug. I really don’t know where I’ll use it, but it spoke to me and I had always presumed they cost thousands of dollars. This Berber hand-dyed rug was $600 with shipping covered by the king.

We next saw the spice seller’s wares and at this point, I think Jen was about to lose her breakfast. Fortunately, it was time for lunch.

We were herded upstairs to an large super fancy tiled room with all the colorful red sofas like at Ali’s home, but inexplicably to the designers in my presence, complimented with pink and green upholstered modern chairs. It was jarring. There were busloads of American and Spanish tourists enjoying the same lunch as us. A guy was playing a stringed instrument later joined by a drummer. All the songs sounded the same.

We had an explanation of the food to come by the host, Ali excused himself because it was Ramadan and it would be too hard to sit there and watch us eat, and then the many courses of food started to be delivered to our table. It was bountiful and delicious. By the time this long lunch was over, I think we had reached capacity for exotic food and a full complement of exciting experiences. Fortunately, Ali had retrieved the car and we only needed to finish the trek through the medina and the tour was over.

I can’t remember what we had for dinner that night, but maybe it was just cheese and crackers at our apartment. We also had a big set of rainstorms which was exciting to watch pass over the Straight.

March 25, 2024

I had scheduled this final day of our trip to go on a field trip to Chefchouen, the Insta-famous blue town, or the beach, but we needed some time to relax. We finally got some views back to Spain, 9 miles or so away. In between showers, we went to McDonald’s because I, as the perpetually hungry person in our family, needed solid food, and a Morocco mug from Starbucks. We found it at the modern train station, housing high-speed trains to Casablanca and Rabat. Honestly, can you believe Morocco has high-speed rail and California is just building some stations now?

See the photos of the traditional Moroccan tent and sofa situation at McDonald’s and the sensible street cat who had bedded down on the unusually comfortable tented outdoor seating area.

We took a taxi to a small mall, looked at the same clothing we had seen at Zara six times already, and bought some snacks for the trip home at a nice Carrefour market in the basement. There was a small mosque next to the bathroom on the same floor as the supermarket.

We took our one-and-only walk on the beach for the whole trip and went to the Hilton for dinner.

The trip finished with a flight to Madrid, an overnight stay in the Senator Barajas Hotel, and our trip home to the US.