Every now and then a person finds themselves roaming through southern Spain on a cloudless December day, doing nothing other than casually searching for their next Rioja and tapas fix, when they accidentally make eye contact with the horizon, which means they have to go to Africa.
Accordingly, we boarded the boat in Tarifa, the small historic town in which we were doing our tapas-hunting, and a bumpy 57 minutes later we were getting our passports examined on Moroccan soil. This was a spontaneous trip, so we hadn’t done much research. If we had, we might have known that as soon as we exited the terminal building in Tangier we were going to be surrounded by locals, all telling us that we needed to let them escort us around or we “wouldn’t make it” in the city. It would have been handy to have a convincing response prepared, but we just shook our heads and said “uh, no thanks” a lot while walking as purposefully as we could, trying to ignore shouts of “It’s not safe outside the port!” and, comfortingly, “One mosquito is better than a hundred, right?”.
We figured they would give up once we left the port… but no – and now they were arguing with each other over which of them would get to “have us”. Still attempting to lose them, we walked for about half a mile alongside a busy highway, continuing to be followed by one particularly persistent fellow, before sitting down on a bench to try and work out what we were going to do now that we were here. It was clear that there was no way of getting our hands on a map (the “tourist information” at the port was literally an empty room), which was kind of what our ability to do anything in this unfamiliar city hinged on. It was also clear that these gentlemen weren’t going to take no for an answer, so rather than have them trail us around all day while we walked aimlessly through the wrong parts of the city, we had a quick vote and unanimously decided to bite the bullet and see what one of these locals could actually do for us.
We waved at the little man who had followed us all the way here, and he bounded gleefully over, obviously aware that his incessant pestering and mild scaremongering had finally had the desired effect. His name was Shamir. He showed us a picture of his daughter and said that for 20 Euros (which, of course, we wouldn’t have to pay until the end) he would gallantly protect us from all the other crazy locals, show us all the bestest parts of the city, and chaperone us back to the port in time to catch our return ferry. Great, Shamir – let’s do this.
In our quest to ditch the swarm of guides, we had been walking in the wrong direction, towards the new part of town – which is apparently “like Europe” and therefore “not good to see”. Shamir knows that what we want is the real Tangier experience, so he takes us back the way we came, then up the steep Rue Portugal which leads to the Medina – the old city. He gives us a jolly historic commentary as we go, while at the same time, true to his word, warding off any beggars that come near us with threats in rapid Arabic and the occasional poke.
When we reached Rue Amerique du Sud, we were told that it happened to be market day. This basically meant that, instead of being contained to their usual shopfronts, the merchants were spilling out on to the pavements, flogging everything from oranges to bathroom cleaner. Down a side street was the chicken market, which was…interesting. Chickens everywhere! Some in cages, some in shops, some just chilling on mats on the street in front of their owners. And of course eggs. Huge cardboard boxes filled to the brim with the things.
At the top of the hill was the St. Andrew’s Anglican Church. Shamir knocked on the door, and a man came out and gave us a brief tour of the surrounding cemetery, where some vaguely-notable Scottish people were buried. He then took us inside the church where he told us about its history, and explained what the intricate Arabic carvings on the walls were all about – despite being an Anglican church, the architecture and the interior were very Islamic-looking, which was nice, with the bell tower resembling a minaret, and lots of keyhole arches. We gave the him a few euros for his efforts, since, presumably, that was what we were supposed to do… I know that there’s no such thing as free information.
This church was interesting actually, as an indication of just how international a city Tangier is. Located at such a strategic point at the entrance to the Mediterranean, it seems to have been occupied by just about everybody at some point. There’s a mosque just down the street, a Jewish burial ground on the corner, and this particular church had been built in the late 1800s on land donated to the British community by the Sultan of Morocco. Isn’t that jolly, everybody getting along?
Shamir then took a “nice shortcut” through some narrow, deserted, trash-filled alleyways. Pushing aside thoughts of “if this guy wants to steal all our money this would be a very easy time to do it”, we followed him, and he led us into a huge building that turned out to be (we could smell it before we saw it) the fish market. The variety and number of fish on offer here was quite astounding and, briefly cursing my choice of footwear as the fish juice from the wet floor seeped into my left sock, I walked around getting up-close and personal with various crustaceans and a large octopus. The fish market led into the meat market, where you can pretty much find any part of any animal hanging from a hook somewhere (vegetarians, look away now). The meat market then led into the “all other food” market, where you can buy bread, cheese, olives and anything else that takes your fancy, really.
We popped back out in to the open at Place du 9 Avril 1947, the large square (technically it’s an oval) commonly known as Grand Socco. Crossing the square, we take a quick walk through the Jardins de La Mendoubia, a nice grassy area that is home to a giant banyan tree, estimated to be at least 1000 years old. For some reason they have painted the bottom of the trunk white, which kind of ruins the natural beauty of it, but whatever. It’s a big tree.
We exited Grand Socco along Rue D’Italie, named for the Italian-style buildings that line it (and yet another nudge to the city’s multicultural history). Shamir showed us the historic Jewish Quarter on to the left, then we took a right turn down a tiny street into the heart of the Medina. Here, I begin to lose track of where we go, as the streets are extremely narrow and go all over the place. This is the beehive.
Shamir says he knows a good pace to go for lunch. We had actually found a restaurant on TripAdvisor that looked nice, but he told us that it was “too French”, and so takes us on a winding journey through the Medina’s ever-narrower streets to get to a better, more Moroccan, place. On the way, he lets us peek inside the doors of various traditional workplaces where people are hand-making things like dresses and belts. One place of particular interest was the bakery that didn’t make bread, just cooked it. A lot of people in the historic centre don’t have ovens in their tiny houses, so they make the dough at home, then bring it here to be baked for a small fee.
The streets widen somewhat as we near the top of a steep hill, and Shamir tells us that we are approaching the Kasbah, an ancient fortress that once defended the city. He shows us the impressive and intricate horseshoe arch that is the famous Kasbah Gate, but before going through, turns around and points to a lovely white building opposite. This is the restaurant he wants us to have lunch in. Cool. When we walk in, Shamir and the maître d’ have a short conversation in Arabic – they clearly have some sort of deal where he brings tourists here and gets a cut. He says he will meet us outside when we have finished eating, and the waiter takes us up the stairs to our table.
We go up to the third floor, and what was a relatively unassuming building from the front turns out to have a spectacular sunny balcony with amazing views out over half the city and the Mediterranean. There was one spare table on the balcony, and we nabbed it. There were 3 set menus available, and I went for one which involved Moroccan soup, chicken with couscous and some sort of orange-based desert. Holy shit, it was GOOD.
After the food we ordered mint tea, which is a Moroccan speciality. It comes in a big metal tea pot, and the waiter pours it dramatically from a great hight into small glasses. It’s sweet and minty and the perfect way to end a meal. As we were drinking our tea, the people at the table behind us (who were Australian) were greeted by their guide, who took them off to explore the Kasbah. This is obviously an on-the-cards stop for people being guided by locals, but so what? The food was great, the view was amazing. Everybody is happy.
From the terrace, I had seen a spiral staircase going up to what looked like the roof. As we were about to leave, I asked the waiter if I could take a look up there. That was a good call, because the view from here was even better than the view from the balcony – you could see the whole city spread out before you, from the tiny terraces of the medina, all higgledy-piggledy and built almost top of each other, to the bigger buildings of the new town.
After meeting Shamir out front, just like he promised, he showed us a plaque on the side of the restaurant wall stating that the building had appeared in the latest James Bond film, Spectre. While I have seen Spectre, I can’t actually remember that scene, so clearly I’ll have to watch it again. I look forward to doing the obligatory “I’ve been there!” exclamation. Such fun.
Through the Kasbah Gate we go. Atop one of the high fortress walls is a little café called Le Salon Bleu. We had seen this one on our brief TripAdvisor session, and wanted to go in for their famed pomegranate juice. Happily, Shamir voiced no complaints about this place, and again, said he’d meet us outside. This place has three tiny floors, a balcony and a roof terrace. The décor is super cute, all blue and white, and the views from the roof are predictably stunning. The pomegranate juice was ridiculously good… If I could drink that every day, maybe I wouldn’t mind living in a country where they don’t serve alcohol. I said Maybe.
It’s almost time for us to start heading back to the port to catch the boat back to Spain, but Shamir has not finished showing us Tangier’s offerings. He takes us back through the winding streets of the Medina, into a building where “ladies do art”. This turns out to be a carpet shop, and it was as the owner was unrolling the seventh rug out on to the floor, when we realised that we weren’t just here to see the “art”. We miraculously managed to avoid taking a carpet home, but I caved in the basement and bought a small marble camel – a nice souvenir symbolising my newly-discovered inability to say no to Moroccan tradesmen.
The last place Shamir took us was a spice shop. We were getting used to people trying to sell us stuff by now, so weren’t in the least surprised that the owner went into a 15-minute spiel about how awesome Moroccan spices were. We bought some reddish-brown powder, which was supposedly the Moroccan equivalent of Garam Masala, because it smelled awesome (not because we felt pressured in to it), and if there’s any chance of replicating the food I had for lunch, I’m going to grab it with both hands!
Satisfied that we had spent money in all his friend’s shops, Shamir took us back down to the port. We were half expecting him to up his fee, but he just wanted the 20 Euros that he had asked for at the beginning of the day. We actually gave him 30, because we enjoyed his tour so much, and even that was well worth it. He was a lovely, friendly, helpful guy, and his guidance basically made our trip. When you think about it, it’s an excellent system they have going on. Shamir gets his 20 Euros at the end of the tour, plus whatever cut the restaurants and retailers give him for bringing them paying customers; the restaurants and retailers get a steady stream of consumers to boost their businesses; and you, the tourist, get an excellent and informative tour of the true Tangier, the security that comes with being with a feisty local, good seats at a nice restaurant, and taken to a few traditional shops where you can buy some nice wee souvenirs. Everybody wins really, which is no small feat in this world.
So. My number one piece of advice for people visiting Tangier is to take a guide. Sure, it’s kind of overwhelming when they swamp you at the port like you’ve got a sack of free iPhones, but don’t assume they’re out to scam you, like we initially did. Shamir told us how much they all rely on tourism, and how, consequently, they want everybody to go home with the best possible impression of Morocco. Pick one you like the look of and go for it! Without Shamir, we would have had a pretty hard time experiencing the city. A guide will show you things you wouldn’t otherwise see, tell you things you wouldn’t otherwise hear, and, crucially, act as your first line of defence should anybody out there want to mess with you!
Thanks Shamir, and thanks Morocco – it’s been short but sweet, and not bad at all for a trip with zero planning.