Back in my younger days, I sought out travel experiences just beyond what everyone else seemed to be doing. Although too risk adverse to do anything too daring or exciting, I proudly stayed in a hostel in Ukraine, took a night train to Moscow, and was whipped with birch twigs in an authentic banya in an authentic Russian village.
For those of us living in southern Spain, Morocco is a common day trip. Common as it may be, it still gave me back a sense of that more free-wheeling adventurism with which I used to travel. Maybe it was making the trip without my children. Either way, it felt so good to take the ferry ride across the straits with my parents and sister, Katie.
Upon arriving in Morocco, I felt a keen need to be an emissary for our country. We are always unofficial ambassadors for our country, our communities, our families, wherever we journey. We’ve traveled plenty since moving to Spain, but this is the first time I consciously thought about it. Maybe it was the striking differences in culture. Maybe it was because of those differences and because we were welcomed so warmly that I wanted to make sure that I was also extending a sense of welcome. With each “Merry Christmas” we heard, and there were many, I hope that I was able in return to somehow exude that I respected them for their differences and similarities.
So, here is the rundown on our trip. From Rota, it is a roughly one-and-a-half hour drive to Tarifa where we caught the ferry. As I mentioned, this is a very popular trip with our community here in Rota, and so I was able to get a recommendation for a popular tour guide – Jamal Chatt – who met us as soon as we disembarked.
The trip from Tarifa, Spain, to Tangier, Morocco, takes all of 45 minutes, yet Morocco certainly has its own unique flair. While there were similarities – our guide would note buildings in “Andalusian-style,” the architecture was different, the style dress was different, the markets were different. It was indeed not Europe. Which seems obvious, but again being so close, I expected a more muddied line.
Our day began with a driving tour of the new part of the city. What a luxury it was for me to be child free, with a driver, and a tour guide explaining a new location! In my book, a driver is a must in Tangier. It is one of those places with a driving style you could only own if you grew up driving (and walking) in those streets. The roads were narrow and winding and the pedestrians are many and prone to stopping suddenly in the middle of the road.
We drove up and down hills in the exclusive “Hollywood” neighborhood, where expats make their homes amongst large, and often still unfinished, McMansions with impressive views of the city and the coast. We stopped by the lighthouse, where Jamal seemingly provided backstage access to wander around the lighthouse garden and look back across the strait to Spain and Gibraltar.
Our driving tour also stopped at Hercules Caves, where a different guide explained how civilizations long past cut the rock rich with nutrients into circular disks used to grind flour. All through the underground cavern, you could see the marks of this repeated impressive feat. The enthusiastic tourism industry in Tangier has also further carved out an opening to the cavern to mirror the outline of the African continent. In my mind, it is a poetic attempt to capture tourists’ attention using natural wonder and age-old history, but for goodness sake, everyone just needs to imagine carving a perfectly circular disk out of the rock – over your head and without power tools. That is a story!
The last stop of the driving tour was a quick camel ride. What an awkward beast to travel on. For some reason, all of our camels were tied together, which resulted in many bumps and squeezes that I was sure would result in me tumbling off my steed and under another’s hooves. I was thankful to check-off “camel ride” from my list, but was happy to be off and onward.
After a quick run-in with a snake charmer, we headed to lunch at the fantastic Salon Bleu. We attempted to eat out on the terrace. The views of the harbor were worth it, but due to winds and dropping temperatures, our hosts moved us back in for our main course. From the mint tea to the traditional Ramadan cookie and everything in between, this was a delicious and special meal. Once again, as throughout Tangier, we were taken such good care of and welcomed so heartily. Lunch was truly the highlight of my day.
To walk it off, Jamal led us through the winding streets of the Medina, or old town. Even compared to Spain, the streets were unbelievably narrow. I’m not sure we would have ever found our way without Jamal. We walked through fish markets and olive markets and markets with whole heads of goats. We saw spices of every bright color and stepped into a neighborhood bakery and watched the baker place the loaves into the giant stone oven. Because homes aren’t each equipped with their own oven, families will mix up their loaves at home and bring them to the bakery to be finished.
Jamal led us to a fantastic shop full of every type of rug imaginable – along with some furniture, pottery and other pieces. Fortunately, the store owner saw mom and dad as the big fish. Katie and I got to watch the showmanship of a Moroccan salesman pursuing a sale from the spectator seat. I think he sized us all up well.
We had originally opted for an eight-hour day, but after further discussion with Jamal, dropped our time to six hours, which still allowed us two hours for wandering through the markets. If it was a busier time of year, or if we were a large group, or particularly interested in shopping, probably the eight hours would have been a safer bet. But, we were perfectly happy to take the earlier ferry back as the sun was beginning to set across the strait.
It was a long, but easy and enjoyable day. Looking back, it is hard to believe that it was such a short journey to experience something so different from our norm – indeed, to experience a whole new continent.
All photo credit due to my sister, Katie. Did you really think I was letting go of the camel long enough to take any pictures?