Today turned out to be a little weird.
When we started planning this whole trip, I hoped that we might have time to make a quick trip to Tangier, Morocco, which is supposed to be easily accessible from Southern Spain.
In fact someone we ended up sitting next to for dinner a few nights ago was telling us how much fun Tangier’s Medina (old town), and Kasbah were.
As we found ourselves a little ahead of our planned schedule, we ended up with enough time to be able to do a day trip to Morocco. We chose to stay in a Spanish port town called Algeciras which has fast ferries to North Africa, and is also very close to Gibraltar, our next side trip.
I do quite a bit of research for our travels, but I was getting terribly confused when checking the ferries to Tangier. To cut a long story short, and only after finding a brief mention in a travel related forum, I figured out that over the last year, the new, modern port of Tangier MED was opened, which is about 40KM (25 miles) from the old port of Tangier, which is right next to the town. All the Algecerias ferries go to Tangier MED, from which it is another hour by train, bus or taxi to get to the old city. There are still fast ferries that go to Taniger town, but these leave from Tarifa, which is about a 25 minute drive west of Algeciras, so no real problem, once we figured this out.
Although people told us there were several ferry operators running the Tarifa-Tangier line, it turns out there are only two. The FRS schedule online says the journey takes 35 minutes – it is even painted in huge letters and numbers on the sides of their boats. Yet consulting the online schedule showed that boats leave on odd hours and arrive at exactly the same time in Tanger which is an hour behind Spain. Sounds more like 60 minutes to me than 35!
Also the online forums said that the boats often run late, and indeed our boat ended up leaving about 45 minutes past schedule. Once we got just outside Tangier, they apologized, but we needed to wait for a while before docking, about another 20 minutes. So, make that 35 minute journey more like 2 hours.
The boats themselves are large catamarans that take anything from motorcycles all the way up to large trucks and buses across the 9 mile straight. Passengers walk off the car ramps before the vehicles are allowed off.
When we got into Morocco we tried to go to the arrivals area, but a border guard told us that our arrival cards had not been stamped, which was supposed to have been done on the ship. There was no sign to this effect, not even next to the forms when we picked them up, so we had to go back on board to get an entry stamp, BUT the immigration official had already left the ship, so we had to wait for the official who was going to make the next crossing. The boat personnel said “just 3 minutes”, but I figured this would be a Moroccan 3 minutes, not a German 3 minutes, and indeed about 30 minutes later we had our stamps and walked out of the port. Thankfully many of the touts and “guides” had already left, but we still had a few offers to guide us around, which we were eventually able to refuse.
In the end, old Tangier came across to me as just another border town, kind of like an Islamic Tijuana. That doesn’t mean that it was awful, but I certainly didn’t find it quite as interesting and exotic as others appear to have done. Perhaps this is because we’ve travelled many places, including Islamic countries and aren’t intimidated by Muslims or Arabic writing.
The main things to see were the Medina (old town) and Kasbah (fortified noble person’s house, confusingly sometimes also used to describe a Medina). The Medina reminded us of the old city of Jerusalem (albeit with less Hebrew and more Arabic and French!) with its steep, narrow, winding streets. Perhaps one of the best parts of the day for me was just wandering into residential areas and seeing the amazing variety of bright colors used to decorate the exteriors of the houses.
The Kasbah houses an interesting museum that has artifacts from Roman times through the 19th century and was a pleasant, cool place to wander around in quiet.
We tried to have lunch, but the cafes were apparently not serving for at least another hour. I think this had something to do with it being Friday. In the end, we were able to get some lovely mint tea and some sandwiches of almond butter on nice bread. Not quite as exotic as we were hoping!
Just before we went back to the port, we decided to hunt for the Jewish graveyard I remember seeing on a map, although it was not marked on any of the maps we had with us. We located a graveyard, but it appeared only to be a Muslim graveyard and was the worst looking graveyard I have ever seen. Apart from it being overgrown (right next to a mowed park), and strewn with trash, many of the graves were smashed and lots of fires had been lit nearby. This seems quite odd odd to me. For what it is worth, when we got back to Spain, I looked up the Jewish cemetery and it is apparently very neatly kept and well maintained.
My favorite part of the day was looking at the people with their wide variety of dress. Lots of men wore kaftans with hoods, some in simple colors, others in interesting striped patterns. I know part of Star Wars was filmed in North Africa and I am sure that they must have based some of the costumes such as the Jedi Knight’s cloaks after the locals’ dress. We also saw a few women who were dressed wearing hats that looked a bit like Mexican sombreros. These, I believe were Berber women, who were there for market day. Unfortunately it was pretty clear that people did not want to have their picture taken, so I refrained from making any portraits, but there were some wonderful subjects.
When it came time to leave Morocco, would you believe we had more paperwork problems? The immigration official wanted to know where our departure cards were. We told her we didn’t have any and hadn’t even seen these. In the end she grumpily gave us two (which didn’t match with each other), stamped them and kept them. At no point in the trip on the way over was there any information about these.
We decided to take the 4pm sailing back and arrived at the port a little early, but there was something wrong with the boat, so we ended up having to wait for another one to come from Spain. In the end, the boat arrived after about 90 minutes, but by the time we left Tangier it was 7pm local time (3 hours late) and the return trip took another hour. So in the end we probably spent as much time waiting for, and traveling on the boat as we did in Tangier!
I’ve heard from several other travelers I know that Morocco is a wonderful country, and I hope some day that we can come back and explore the more interesting parts, but Tangier won’t be high on my list to come back to. If one has only traveled through European cities, I supposed I can see how this day trip might be exotic and exciting. In the end, I am glad we made the journey, but won’t be in any hurry to do it again.