You know those “refreshing lemon towlettes” or “toallita de limon” one sometimes gets in homespun restaurants, to freshen up after devouring maybe a plate of seafood at lunchtime? Maybe like me, you don’t use them as you prefer to wash your hands in the bathroom rather than risk serious skin damage due to their industrial, caustic catering pack quality; yet you can’t help saving them, thinking that they might come in handy one day.
Well, I have now found the perfect use for them – for sanitising as you pass through Morocco! Luckily, stuffed away in a zip pocket of my carry-on, go-everywhere bag, I discovered 4 perfectly preserved towlettes. They proved invaluable last weekend – for wiping chairs, table surfaces, door handles, taps and loo seats (when one was lucky enough to find a loo with a seat!) and of course hands and face, but ideally not with the same wipes used for the previous cleaning activities!
Yes, last weekend I enjoyed a dirty weekend in Tangiers – well in fact more of a filthy weekend in Tangiers. This was my second trip across the straits from Algeciras to Tangiers. This time I went to meet some close French friends, holidaying in Morocco. Some of you may recall my last trip to Tangiers, when I went to buy all the furnishings for the country house in Guaro. The trip was fraught with drama, including my passport stamp irregularities from my last trip to Marrakech, the impounding of my Spanish car due to a missing Green Card and of course the need to bribe most people in the port to facilitate the return of my car, the loading of my purchases and my safe passage home!
So this time I decided to leave the car behind, and adopt a relaxed and patient attitude to the proceedings – this was the right thing to do. Of course the departure process was less of a process and more of a Ryanair-style rush towards the departure gate. The “Fast Ferry” once again took twice as long as scheduled and the on-board catering was, well, not on-board – there was just a coffee machine and some Pringles. But, I was relaxed and upon arrival walked with confidence through the port, past the numerous hustlers, offering “friendly advice”, cheap taxis, cheap accommodation, artefacts and other means to start a dialogue for money, and went directly to my hotel that would be my base for the next few nights.
Immediately upon disembarking one is greeting by the energy, noise and frantic behaviour of the local people. In many ways I feel the atmosphere is exaggerated to make vulnerable tourists feel even more disorientated and more likely to seek the help of the hustlers and street hawkers – is this my cynicism showing itself again?
But, maybe this alien atmosphere is more to do with the unique character of Morocco. It may be a cliché, but its culture is defined by its colliding characteristics; the cliché of East meeting West; the dichotomy of Islam and Christianity; the diversity of Europe and Africa and of course the joining of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
I stayed at the Hotel Continental. It’s a simple, very cheap, colonial hotel overlooking the port and backing onto the old town. This is the place to stay if you want to have a more authentic experience of the town – in fact the area was a touch too authentic for me and I couldn’t help thinking everything needed a good hose down. Where else to you see the discarded entrails of a gutted chicken lying beside children playing in the street? I know that taking the ferry across to Tangiers is hardly pushing the boundaries of exploration or travel, but it’s remarkable how a narrow stretch of water can divide such different places.
Tangiers is not really on the sophisticated cultural tourist map – although it is popular as a port through which the adventurous independent travellers pass through on their way to the treasures of Morocco. In addition, the town caters for the hundreds, if not thousands of weekly day-trippers that take the fast ferries from Spain to Morocco, so they can say they’ve been to Africa and come back with some trash and trinkets from the numerous stalls and shops in the Medina.
Unlike tourist cities where the old towns have taken on a slightly Disneyworld “tweeness”, Tangiers is an unapologetically real, Moroccan port town. The Alcazaba or Kasbah is not restored but affords good views across the town and over the port. The narrow streets give an insight into the real lives of families that are just holding there own in society without any social security or formalised education system. Television provides the only real escape from a life of survival. The roofs of old town are littered with terrestrial TV aerials and satellite dishes receiving images from across the planet of a supposedly better life in other countries.
Walk into new town and you quickly recognise the French influence from the 1940s and 1950s, with street cafés and patisseries. Much like the bars in Andalucia, the tea bars and coffee shops in Tangiers are brightly lit and always have a TV blaring away in the corner – its light, noise and activity providing a compelling attraction for the customers, like moths to a flame.
For a more civilised experience visit the Hotel Minzah in new town. Evening cocktails or sweet Moroccan tea taken by the pool transports you from the frantic, chaotic reality of life in the city to a holiday paradise. Here, at the hotel I had a superb Hammam on the morning before my departure, where my skin was scrubbed and pummelled by a woman three times my size!! I left feeling relaxed and very clean!
Religion clearly dominates the life of the town’s inhabitants with regular calls to prayer broadcast over speakers. Each night I was woken at 3am by the broadcast of a 20 minute prayer. This early start means that many people retire to bed early, with establishments closing at 10.30 or a little after. The town at night is only populated by men and may be a few foreign women. Young men hustle for money, some offering a little more than the sale of an illegal CD copy or DVD.
There are a few places like Dean’s Bar that date back to when Tangiers was the bohemian capital of North Africa from the 1920s through to the 1960s. Many artists and writers and the privileged like heiress Barbara Hutton lived in the city to capture a feeling of an exotic culture and the promise of a more relaxed and alternative lifestyle.
If you rent a car you can begin to explore the area beyond the city – but avoid driving at night when the roads have traffic without lights driving in quite an erratic fashion. I had time to visit the sandy, windy beaches of the capes. As one drives out of town, you pass the wealthy suburbs that contrast so greatly with the old town. The day I was there the Royal Family were coming into town, so the streets were lined with smartly dressed Police Offices with pristine uniforms and white gloves.
Tangiers is certainly worth a visit – it’s easy to get to from Algeciras and even quicker from Tarifa, but be aware that the time difference is a surprising 2 hours, so on your return you lose a further two hours, making a day trip seem a little rushed when you factor in the inevitable delays of the rather relaxed ferry service.
Just remember to take your refreshing lemon towlettes with you – you’ll need them!