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When you are youngish, single and driving a beaten-up Volkswagen Passat, a Moroccan visa in your passport is a siren call to customs officials. I learnt this in 1993 on my return to the UK on the Santander-to-Plymouth ferry after a year-long sabbatical in southern Spain.
After disassembling the car, Her Majesty’s officials probed about my own chassis before sending me on my way. Granted, their thoroughness was a response to my quip, under questioning about my occasional sorties across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangiers, that I did not need to smuggle Moroccan hashish into the UK ”because there was already enough on the streets of London”.
Balder, wiser and with my wife and young daughter in tow, I was surprised to find myself before a similar inquisition on a recent return to Spain after an overnight stay in Tangiers. As the Spanish civil guard prodded our packages and shook down my daughter’s pram, he wondered why our visit to the Moroccan city had been so brief. Why had we whizzed from Europe to Africa in a high-speed hydrofoil, spent hours wandering the labyrinthine Arab quarter and lounging about in French cafes, only to rush home in time for work? Well, I said, it was simply because we could.
As far as instant culture shock goes, it is hard to beat the short crossing from Algeciras to Tangiers, perhaps the only African city that is visible from mainland Europe. Although it has seen better days, the novelty and historic value of Tangiers make it worthy of a stopover before exploring the rest of the country, or as a weekend break. Though it looks like a white-washed Andalusian town, its mosques and palaces give a taste of the enchanting Islamic kingdom beyond, while its unique colonial legacy is in evidence at every turn.
A longtime strategic meeting point between Europe and Africa, Tangiers was the launch pad for the Moorish occupation of the Iberian peninsular from the 8th century. The expulsion of the Moors from Spain 700 years later made Tangiers vulnerable again, and the Portuguese took it in 1471, before giving it to the British 200 years later. It returned to Moroccan hands soon after and stayed there until early last century, when it became the centre of an international trading zone run, variously and conjointly, by the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italians, Americans, Belgians and Swedish.
Paul Bowles, the American author and composer who lived in the city from 1947 until his death in 1999, once observed: ”During the international years the dramatic extralegal facets of the city’s character were much publicised, and Tangiers was thought of as a place where every fourth person was a smuggler, a spy or a refugee from justice in his native land.”
Mr Bowles pined for the ”quiet attractive town” he fell for on his first visits to Tangiers in the 1930s. While fascinated by its dramatic rise to prominence as an international business, financial and tourist centre, he lamented its aesthetic decline. As the colourful medina was swallowed up by concrete sprawl, and the spies, traders and refugees morphed into street hawkers, tourist touts and drug dealers, he wryly noted that ”the city would never strike a casual visitor as either quiet or attractive”.
Still, he refused to move, becoming Tangiers’ most celebrated artist-in-residence, despite stiff competition. William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Truman Capote, Jean Genet, Jack Kerouac and Tennessee Williams, to name a few, all spent time in Tangiers, drawn as much for its cheap living as its fame for drugs, prostitution and social intrigue. American socialite Barbara Hutton - whose palatial home in the Kasbah remains a tourist attraction - was said to throw the wildest parties.
These days, Tangiers is an important port, and its beaches are popular among inland Moroccans escaping the summer heat. Many foreign tourists, on the other hand, view it simply as a one-night transit point for the rest of Morocco. Others, like us, bolt across from Spain for a change of scenery.
My wife thought of it as a shopping trip, so spent most of the time energetically haggling with stall-keepers in the souks. We also enjoyed a typical Moroccan lunch of harira, a hearty, spicy soup, and tajine, a vegetable and meat stew, at Mamounia Palace, in the heart of the medina.
We politely fended off would-be guides for a good two hours, before finally allowing a young ”student” to lead us through the medina’s inner maze, where we picked up a pair of sky blue babouches, traditional Moroccan slippers, and a snoring remedy from a herbalist.
After peeping into the Grand Mosque (which, like all of Morocco’s mosques, is out of bounds to non-Muslims), we climbed to the kasbah, the walled-off administrative quarter that dates from Roman times. The former sultanate palace, known as Dar el Makhzen, today houses an impressive collection of arts and crafts. And there are gaps in the citadel’s walls through which you can look out at the sea.
Travel guides recommend a 15-minute stroll along to the smart La Marshan quarter, with its concentration of villas, foreign embassies and cliff-top cafes. Other landmarks include the Grand Socco, a former market square near the entrance to the medina, whose cafes offer a window on daily life, and the new city’s Place de France, the centre of intelligence-swapping and covert activity during the international years. For a glimpse into the city’s seedy past, grab a table at one of the cafes of the Petit Socco, once the heart of the lively red district. Prostitution died out with the return to Moroccan rule in 1956, but the tiny square retains a slightly threatening air.
After an uncomfortable night in one of the new town’s featureless three-star hotels, we strolled along the beachside promenade in the morning before heading to the ferry terminal. As we queued for hours amid the chaos of what seemed like thousands of Moroccans returning to Europe after a holiday break, we not only missed our scheduled hydrofoil, but started to wonder if we would ever get back to Spain.
Once cleared through passport control, we sprinted to the next available craft, a slower vehicular ferry that made the crossing in just over two hours.
Algeciras, an unglamorous port city with few redeeming features, seemed like an old friend as we drew in to the terminal. Yes, it had been the briefest of stays. But like any continental-hopping trip, it had been a total adventure.