It was still dark as we docked in Tangier, Morocco. Our captain had chosen to skip Casablanca because of an approaching winter storm and head to Tangier instead.
City between two continents
The waves are huge even if the storm just passes, we realized. The night was somewhat restless. Fortunately, we had been able to book an excursion to Tangier and as we opened the balcony doors we could see the walls or the kasbah of the medina, the old part of Tangier. We were exited as we would visit that part of the city later the same day.
Our tour guide Samier explained the city has a reputation of great night life, even famous names like Jack Kerouac and The Rolling Stones can be linked to the party heritage of the city. The unique location between two continents has made this city a special one in many ways.
Tangier is the most Northern city of the African content. For us Finns, it is also one of the starting points of a legendary board game Afrikan Tähti (“The Star of Africa). As kids the name of this city got our imagination flying and to be honest, it still does. Between 1923 and 1956 Tangier got the status of an International City. That time it was ruled by French, Spanish, British and Italian officials.
During the International City years Tangier was like something out of a work of fiction: think of international diplomats, spies, businessmen, outlaws, artists, writers and aristocrats with extra time and money in their hands plus a hunger for decadence and escapism. You could be or become anyone here. In 1956 Morocco re-gainad the rule of the city from the colonial powers, but quite a many things remained.
To this day the city of Tanger has a special vibe. Many cultures, rulers and nations and visitors have left their mark for thousands of years. You have the modern Morocco and then those areas where time seems to stand still. Places that may have looked the same for decades, even for centuries.
Green City Getting a Facelift
Tangier gets around 2000 ml rain each year and the greenery defines the city. You can go explore the beautiful gardens and parks. There are even national parks you gan access from the city. As the road rose through the posh city part called California, Samier asked us to look down through the bus windows, we could see the kasbah and medina, located below us by the marina.
There are huge tourism development projects under way in Tangier these days. Especially the marina area is being transformed into a visitor luring destination. Something King Mohammed VI wants to develop within a short period of time. The city obviously is a special one as the royal family has their vacation palace here and numerous world rulers have purchased their own second homes on the green hills.
Cap Spartel and Caves of Hercules
Our first stop was Cap Spartel. This is where the two seas, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean shake hands. The sea is rough here as the warmer, saltier and thus, heavier Med water slides under the Atlantic waves. In the horizon, just 27 km off the Moroccan coast is Spain. Everyone wanted to get a photo in front of the sign showing the special location.
Not far away from our first stop we exited our tour bus again to visit Grottes d’Hercule, The Caves of Hercules. This archaeological cave complex 14 kilometers west of Tangiers is surrounded with wild and colorful mythological stories. Some stories come from the Greeks, some from the Romans. Some from the Phoenicians and the Berbers.
Regardless, all the stories try to explain how the continents and the seas were formed. The cave has two openings. The one opening to the sea is known as the Map of Africa and according to our guide, from a certain angle you can also see the side profile of Hercules.
The walk down to the cave on the slippery, moist stones was not easy and thus, a word of warning: if you have any mobility issues, at least have someone to help you to go down to the cave and especially, up the slippery path. Wonder what it is like early in the morning or after the rain.
Rock the Casbah
The famous Clash song has nothing to do with Tangier, but it just kept playing in our heads after Samier reminded of it as we walked into the old, walled medina. Kasbah means the walls. A number of famous names can be linked to the city of Tangier. As mentioned earlier the status of an International City made Tangier a cosmopolitan hub where names like Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg pilgrimaged to get artistic inspiration, to feel liberated and to escape.
As we wandered through the narrow alleys Samir listed famous painters who spent time here, most famous must have been the French impressionist Henri Matisse. It was obvious why Matisse fell in love with Tangier in 1920’s and completed a great number of canvases and sketches during his time here. The bold, bright colors and the luminous light in contrast with the white washed walls is almost a surreal combo. For Matisse this city was a real painter’s paradise and he spent hours commemorating the people and everyday life of the mesmerizing medina.
As we adventured further into the maze of corridors we noticed a cafe sign that was oddly familiar. Samier grinned and said “Booze or no booze, this city is a party central and this cafe (est. 1943) is still the place for sex, drugs and rock’n roll.” Cafe Baba is where the Rolling Stones got stoned during the hippie years without anyone recognizing them.
Years after the Rolling Stones escaped to the dreamy Tangier, Anthony Bourdain arrived to film and seek for the vibes that have lured so many creative types. The 5th episode of Parts Unknown got some people annoyed because of Bourdain’s opinions on illegal substance use. He explored the production of delusional sweet treats and also, hanged around the Cafe Baba. “Sweet mint tea and thick, slow-moving haze of smoke. It smells like my dorm room, 1972.”
Rooftop Gardens and Pretty Tiles
When you travel with a group, part of the time goes into pretty annoying, lengthy restroom breaks. But in Tangiers the stop was not your average stop.
The Kasbah Museum of Mediterranean Cultures exhibits the history of Tangier and the area surrounding it. This museum has an important role in nurturing the collective memory of the Mediterranean region. You can explore archeological and ethnographic artifacts reflecting both the diversity and specificity of Tangier.
The coolness of this former Sultan’s Palace (transformed into a museum 1922), the architecture and the decorated tiles complement the museum beautifully. And what about the garden? It is an exotic rooftop oasis complete with palm trees, flowers, fruit trees, fountains, secret hideaways, benches and the blue sky. The museum is not just a museum, it gives you an idea of the very private lifestyle the nobility could have within the busy medina.
Flying Carpets and Aphrodisiacs
Because our change of itinerary happened so quickly, we didn’t have time to read about excursion and tour experiences. Tangier is not a regular port for Norwegian, but they seem to have some back-up options, like our tour.
Being guided through all the narrow lanes, between the rows of tiny shops and artisan work shops with loud and pushy sellers was a thrill. Kids playing on small squares, cats enjoying the sun, women peeling veggies and fruit, men sipping mint tea, laughing and tiffing with each other. Scents of spices, sewer, rotting veggies.
We don’t, however, like being taken into shops chosen by someone else. It is annoying and pushy, something that is a total turn off if until that moment we had imagined some shopping. We were taken into the Traditional Art Gallery that obviously has good quality items on sale from beautiful carpets to small artifacts and souvenirs. We can negotiate prices if we feel like it, but we just got annoyed when our city tour took us here.
The other address that we were not happy about was some herbalist who, with all respect, really knew how to make people buy. First he told about all the fantastic stories of natural remedies like white musk, Argan oil, saffron, black cumin, arnica oil, ginseng, rose cream, orange flower oil, cannabis oil… and more than half of the time spent at the store he sold stuff for the cruise passengers who felt they just can’t say no.
With all respect, those natural remedies are well known, but our buying pants just didn’t work because of this annoying, pushy representation. Instead, we would have liked to see more of the city.
Mint Tea and Sweets
Our Tangier tour ended at the Hotel Continental’s terrace, just before the call to prayer. The Grand Mosque and the one down by the port both started their prayer calls almost at the same time. We only had a day in the city and maybe it was designed that way, but the prayer call at the end in such a city sort of wrapped it all up.
The hotel itself was also a fine ending point, it has seen a lot of life, personalities, international negotiations. Parts of the Movie Sheltering Sky were filmed here and those who’ve visited inside tell the hotel still oozes the fading grandeur of the International Zone years.
The terrace offers fine views to the casbah and the port. It was easy to imagine famous movie stars sipping their cocktails here. We were served some sweet almond treats and mint tea.
Will we return? You never know. Do we recommend Tangier? The medina was fantastic, but we would have enjoyed it more without the tour group, definitely. If you live in Spain or stay there for a longer time, you can hop on a ferry and come for a day or two and find out if the city is for you. Rock the Casbah!