A snatch of plaintive Arabic music, small children playing marbles in the street, a Berber woman covering her face with a scarf… narrow alleyways dotted with rubbish, houses painted azure blue, canary yellow, terracotta pink; ancient, exquisite carved wooden doors; piles of gleaming fresh aubergines, tomatoes and strawberries stacked high in a market stall; figures wearing the djellabah, a long, medieval robe with pointed hood; young men glued to a Spanish football match on TV in a bar, with the sweet aroma of hashish swirling around. Snapshots of a brief but intense experience.
Readers who follow my blog’s Facebook page (see Like box on right, part of snazzy new self-hosted look) will know that I recently went to Tangiers.
This was my first ever trip to Africa – a new continent, and a new country: Morocco. Separated from Europe at Spain’s nearly southernmost point by just a few kilometres, the two continents pushed apart by Hercules, so the legend goes. After 10 years, finally I got around to making the short, easy trip. Having been warned to expect hassle I was apprehensive, being out of practice at coping with third-world countries (trips to Europe, Asia and South America from my late teens to my mid-thirties seem like a lifetime ago), while at the same time being more excited about visiting a new place than I have been for years.
The ferry takes a smooth hour from Tarifa, with a modern, efficient system where your passport number is printed on your ticket – and the return is open, so you can always decide to delay coming back (it’s tempting, believe me). At the other end, few touts were waiting as the ferry terminal disgorged the latest batch of arrivals, mostly day-trippers. Driving away from the port towards the Kasbah, the fortified area at the top of the medina (old town), what struck me most was that the city looked remarkably like Spain – a wide avenue lined with palm trees and a variety of glass-fronted, first-world shops.
But then, but then… we climbed a hill and turned right through a series of low, narrow arches, the horseshoe shapes found all over my beloved Andalucia – and we stepped back in time. This was Bab Kasbah, the gate to Tangiers’ medieval fortified area, high up above the rest of the medina. Once inside, we saw tables and chairs set out under an ancient tree, old men whiling away the day – and then our riad. These are traditional Moroccan houses built around a central patio – just like in Andalucia, I hear you say. Not surprising, considering that north Africans, known in Spain as the Moors, occupied Andalucia for 800 years. Their architectural legacy is highly visible, providing some of the region’s most famous and beautiful monuments – Granada’s Alhambra, the Mezquita of Cordoba, the Giralda in Seville. So I suppose it wasn’t surprising, then, that in many ways, Tangiers felt familiar – like a place whose features are already so well-known, it’s as if I’d dreamed about them. This is where so much of the literature, culture and gastronomy of Andalucia came from – pomegranates (granadas in Spanish), oranges, rice, almonds.
Our small hotel, La Maison Blanche, a newly-restored riad with just nine rooms, was decorated only with Moroccan artesan pieces – from the most gorgeous lamps, to carved cedar-wood doors, to metalwork bins (no plastic or IKEA here). Everything felt authentic and of its place; the heavy print fabrics weren’t all to my taste, although our boudoir-ish red room was heavenly; one upstairs room, with north African light drenching its antique metal four-poster bed and white furnishings, was right up my alley. They haven’t used wallpaper; just fabric hung on the wall, or hand-painted designs. Yes, it’s that classy. The interior designer was French, and the owners are a Moroccan-Spanish couple, Aziz (Tangerino) and Pilar (Malagueña), so it’s a hotel with French sophistication, Spanish warmth and Moroccan style.
When we arrived in Tangiers it was wet and cold, and by the time we got to the hotel I was freezing (yes, I had dressed warmly: a fleece and hiking jacket, FFS), so we had a hearty Moroccan breakfast of flatbreat with goat’s cheese and pain au chocolate by the open fire, sitting in plush rich-red chairs. I was itching to explore the city, so Aziz, who is a professional guide – American travel writer Rick Steves (his word is gospel for many US visitors) is a big fan – took us on a walk around town. That’s the only way to get around these streets – few of them are wide enough for cars.
We walked down to the main square of the Kasbah, past the 13th-century mosque, the madrasa (school), the museum (a former palace), and the house where the Rolling Stones recorded Continental Drift from the Steel Wheels album with a Berber group called Jajouka in 1989, and through another arch to look out to sea. We saw a craftsman in his workshop, meticulously chipping glaze off a tile to create a classic geometric shape, as seen on azulejos all over Andalucia.
As it turns out, my first impression had some logic to it: as Aziz told us, they’re building a new multi-million-euro marina in Tangiers bay, supported by King Mohammed VI, who is keen to see the city develop economically – he was visiting while we were there, and red Moroccan national flags were everywhere to honour his presence. In parallel, monuments in the Kasbah, such as the mosque’s minaret and the old city walls, are being restored, and illegal houses built along the outside of the walls will be knocked down. The horseshoe arch which looks out to sea from the Place du Kasbah’s archway, Bab Bhar (in the photo above), has been shored up with ugly concrete, blocking out the horseshoe form – luckily you can still make out the original stone shape. Let’s hope it can be restored to its original glory as part of these plans.
Those were my first few hours in Tangiers; I will be writing more about this African adventure soon: markets, carpets, movies, artists, and our gorgeous hotel.