Tough out the choppy Strait of Gibraltar and in less than an hour from the shores of southern Spain, a mystical white-washed skyline shadows the coastline, welcoming you to a continent worlds away from the one in your rearview mirror.
The place: none other than Tangier, Morocco’s most notorious city and the gateway to North Africa.
Tangier’s popularity among European day trippers, who brave the Moroccan summer sun to catch their first (and often, last) glimpse of Africa, is undisputed.
But is this city, once a permanent retreat for expat misfits, really the best introduction to a country as fascinating and diverse as Morocco?
Lovely (and not-so savoury) first impressions of Tangier
Ignoring every horror story I’d ever heard, I truly wanted to love Tangier. I came with an open mind, inspired by Anthony Bourdain’s Moroccan adventure on Parts Unknown, hoping to single-handedly dispel every myth ever uttered about the place and prove the whole world was wrong about Tangier.
It turns out that sometimes myths aren’t so far-fetched.
First, some good stuff.
Arriving in Tangier by sea packs a deadly visual punch. I challenge you to not stare in awe at the smattering of colonial, Moorish, and Andalusian architecture clinging to the medina’s hillside as you drift into shore, especially as the evening sun dips below the Kasbah and casts a warm glow on the city.
Unfortunately, Tangier’s fine first impression dies right here; once you’re fed through the port turnstiles, it’s every man and woman for themselves.
The touts of the port of Tangier are legendary. Ever since the days of Interzone, Tangier’s port has been a place to avoid, and although it’s seen sketchier days, the area still hosts a motley crew of hustlers, ranging from (somewhat) helpful and harmless to belligerent and threatening. And it didn’t take long for us to encounter the latter.
Only a couple of kilometres separated us from our apartment, and as the always stubborn independent traveller, setting out on a nice evening walk with the family along the edge of the medina seemed liked a brilliant introduction to the city. As much as I’d like to believe that my traveller’s instinct is rarely wrong, choosing to brave it out amongst the wolves of Tangier’s port was a massive miscalculation.
Defending ourselves against the first wave of touts was nothing out of the ordinary—that is, until we ran into “Youssef”, a seemingly friendly Moroccan twenty-something, all too eager to welcome us to Morocco and “show us around”.
Countering every attempt to steer us off-course with a simple “No, thank you.” had zero effect on this persistent youth, who clearly saw us as the evening’s last chance to make a few dirham.
For blocks “Youssef” followed and hounded us, drifting away only briefly every few minutes to fill his lungs with the toxic fumes from a clear plastic bag filled with glue. As the hustler’s eyes reddened, glazed over, and became increasingly vacant, it was obvious that our polite pleas were falling upon deaf ears.
Then came the final straw. “I’ll give you two camels for this one.” he said, sneering venomously and pointing at my 12-year old stepdaughter. My wife’s face dropped, and as her motherly instincts kicked into high gear, I was all but certain we’d soon be bailing one of our own out of a Moroccan jail.
Fortunately, it didn’t come to that.
Harsh words flew back and forth, punctuated by Youssef’s peculiar demand for “two euros” for the “help”, and a creepy reminder that he would remember our faces. Desperately seeking to escape this drug-addled lunatic, we hailed and hopped into a dilapidated Peugeot taxi, looking back only to see Youssef jogging behind, arms flailing, still holding out a faint hope for scraping a few bucks from a few gullible tourists.
Tangier by day: Is it any Better?
Confident that last evening’s entertainment was an aberration, we took a morning stroll from the Ville Nouvelle to the medina, the heart of Tangier whose façade so forcefully captivated our attention the night before.
By day, Tangier had a much different energy—well-dressed youths kicking around soccer balls or enjoying a morning coffee mingled seamlessly with older men wandering the streets in their djellabas, the traditional wool Berber robes with distinctive pointed hoods that you’ll find scattered around Morocco. All of the hassles of previous night mysteriously disappeared; no one even seemed to notice our presence.
Until we found the medina.
As soon as we stepped one foot beyond the Grand Socco, Tangier’s most famous square and the boundary between the Ville Nouvelle and the ancient medina, it was the port all over again: the touting, shouting, and all of the “fun” that went along with arriving in Tangier was set on repeat.
I’ll admit that Tangier has some redeeming features:
- The medina is never boring. Even in the deep recesses of the narrow, twisted alleyways, there’s always something interesting to behold, whether it’s watching artisan bakers fire up ancient bread recipes or dodging threads on the street while weavers spin silk hijabs.
- The colours. From the blues of the Kasbah to the copper-hued alleys and bright red doors of the medina, no one would ever accuse Tangier of being monochrome.
- The food. Tangier’s colonial past left it with a rich gastronomical scene. Moroccan food isn’t the half of it. French, Spanish, African, even Asian—you’ll find all of it in Tangier.
- The seaviews. As you scale higher into the Kasbah and medina, the views onto the Strait of Gibraltar become all the more impressive. On a clear day, you can even see across to the hilly shores of southern Spain. It’s worth a gander.
- The history. For bookworms like me, retracing the footsteps of literary legends like William S. Burroughs and Tennessee Williams makes the trip to Tangier worthwhile. Clichéd reason to like Tangier? Yes. But totally rad? Absolutely.
But here’s what completely soured my opinion of Tangier:
- Enjoying Tangier’s medina without constant bombardment is next to impossible. Every step we took, it seemed that someone wanted to pull us into their “uncle’s” shop or restaurant. Understandable—it’s their livelihood, after all—but “no” means “no”, not a cue to follow us down the street and harass us for several blocks. (On that note, I couldn’t even fathom being a solo female travelling in Morocco.)
- Exploring Tangier without “navigational” advice is unlikely. If you’ve been following this site, you’ll know that wandering aimlessly is sorta my thing. And when you take that opportunity away, I can get cranky. Every single time we veered away from the crowds, out of the woodwork would pop a “tour guide” advising us “There’s nothing to see that way.” or “There are markets this way; follow me!” (NOTE: If you can’t find markets in Tangier without the help of a tour guide, perhaps you should hang up your backpack. It’s not exactly rocket science.)
Maybe it doesn’t seem like much, but the hassles of walking around Tangier’s medina for one day (and, did I even mention, running into and getting stalked out in the Petit Socco by “Youssef” again or the very public arrest of our Kasbah tour guide?) were enough to keep my wife, step-daughter, and mother—all of whom have travel experience—from wanting to re-enter.
And who could blame them? You’d be crazy to love (or even like) a city whose first—and second—impressions involved an endless stream of hassles, hustles, and uncomfortable moments. For us, that was Tangier in a nutshell.