From the tip of Spain, we took a ferry across the Straight of Gibraltar to Morocco. It is intensely bizarre how geographically proximal yet culturally disparate these two places are. It seems like it should be impossible. And yet, after a short ferry ride we found ourselves at Tangier-Med, the boring “container port”-cousin of Tangier proper. We strained our atrophied haggling muscles and got to work figuring out how to get to our hotel. Our phones don’t work in Morocco, so that made things extra fun.
After protracted negotiations, we ended up in a shared taxi for the 50 km+ drive to central Tangier. The ride was a great ‘Welcome back!’ from the Arab-world and we loved every minute of it. Our cab-mates were 5 extremely agitated men, who by the tone of their voices were either professing an undying hatred of each other’s mothers or talking about the weather. I’m sorry – I just can’t tell in Arabic. The most entertaining gentleman was slightly older than the others and seemed to be the peacemaker. In a moment of drama, he ended the argument (or discussion) by clapping twice and kissing the back of his own hand for emphasis. How can you argue with that? (the ‘final word’ emoji : 👏👏😘 )
Arriving in Tangier, it was obvious that this is an odd place. I don’t think that the word ‘seedy’ is exactly right, it’s more like ‘mottled’. The city began as a Berber outpost for trade with the Phoenicians, but Tangier’s recent history was shaped by a three way colonial tug-of-war between France, Spain, and Britain. In 1923 this struggle resulted in a unique political situation that established Tangier as an ‘International Zone’ – essentially an economic DMZ – that was ruled by a bizarre committee of 9-member states (including the US, I might add). Until Morocco’s independence in 1956, Tangier’s ‘Interzone’ was an international haven for mis-fits like Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac. Homosexuality was widely tolerated and the city was called “Queer Tangier”. Wow, times have changed. After Moroccan independence this cosmopolitan flair was lost, but a shifty vibe remains. In Tangier the touts are remarkably tout-y (fun new word) and hashish offers are ubiquitous (we declined… we’re no fun).
We stayed in the center of Tangier’s old city – the Medina – and though small the Medina offers marvelous exploring and people watching. We visited a well-preserved Kasbah (or central fortress), and the small Kasbah museum was surprisingly interesting. In addition to some great tile, the museum had a fascinating exhibit of old maps illustrating trade routes. Jeff and I spent like an hour obsessing over our new favorite map: the Tabula Rogeriana. It was created by the Muslim cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi in the 1100s for the Sicilian King Roger the II, and it depicts the entire Eurasian continent with the south at the top.
From Tangier, we took a bus south to the wee town of Chefchaouen nestled up in the Rif mountains. There isn’t much to do in Chefchaouen except soak up the ambiance of the town, but it’s incredibly atmospheric so that’s a strong draw. The town was founded in 1471 as a small Moorish fortress to protect Muslims and Jews fleeing the turmoil in Spain. The architecture in the town’s central Kasbah reflects this Andalusian providence and really gives you a sense that this place was on the edge of the known world. In fact, Chefchaouen so isolated itself from outsiders that no Christians were allowed to enter the town until Spain ‘absorbed’ it in the 1920s.
You’ve probably seen pictures of Chefchaouen – the streets are fabulously beautiful and bright blue. It really is stunning, especially if you can see beyond the horde of Chinese tourists Instagramming every inch of it. I’d like to congratulate the team who conceived the ‘Chefchaouen’ marketing campaign in China – they did a remarkably thorough job. Jeff and I devised a game wherein you get a point if you can spot a Chinese person without a camera to his or her eye. I might have seen one, but Jeff says she was Japanese so I don’t get a point. (👏👏😘 )
In addition to new-money Chinese, Chefchaouen draws quite a few ‘drug tourists’ from Europe and North America. Marijuana cultivation is a major industry in the surrounding Rif Mountains and drug use is oddly tolerated in this otherwise conservative region. What a fun combo: photo-grubbing Asians and dreadlocked American potheads. Luckily the Chinese stay near one especially Instagram-esq street and the druggies stay near the central square, so if you wander away from these places you have a quiet mountain town to yourself.
A highlight for us was spending the evenings on the rooftop of our guesthouse. The town is built on a gentle hill and our location near the top gave us a full view of the rooftops below. A surprising level of activity happens on rooftops. Aunties hang out laundry, kids scamper about with kitties, and as the sunsets a handful of crackly and asynchronous muezzins blast the call to prayer across the town. It was a pretty magical experience and completely lost in a photo (sorry Chinese tourists).
After several relaxing and uneventful days in the Rif mountains, we girded our strength for the next destination: Fez.