What a day, from the high stress navigation of the Medina, with “guides” beckoning for business every step of the way, to a great dinner in an English speaking country. We had great food in both countries: lentils, vegetable tagine, and mint tea in Morocco and pizza, pasta and Crabbies ginger beer in Gibraltar. We logged a trip record 14 miles of walking today, much of it at a frantic pace through a developing country I was not fully prepared to take kids around in.
It all started with the 2 hour drive to Tahira, the southern tip of Spain where ferries leave to Morocco every 2 hours. We were just in time for the 11 am ride, and made it through immigration just in time as the last cars were loaded onto the ferry.
Its 25 miles from one country to the other, and the ferry travels at 30-40 mph, making it a 45 minute ride. The decision we made before this was to go without a guide, despite an expected onslaught of proposals after landing. Guides are free, but get commission in the stores that take you to, and shopping was of little interest to us. Their famous rugs can’t be brought back on the plane anyhow. Going with a formal tour is another option, but that involves photos with the snake charmer, a camel ride, and big, sterile restaurants. We saw those groups of older people walking through town, mostly Americans and Europeans. I had the sense that this might be similar to Tijuana now, not the libertarian place where writers like William Burroughs once hid away to write and get high. However, much has been written lately about the Moroccan president who is cleaning this area up and making it safer. If Rick Steves says it can be done without a guide, that’s good enough for me.
I had a carefully planned, and seemingly simple, route to a Moroccan restaurant for lunch, a visit to the Kasbah museum, tea overlooking the Atlantic, and then a walk back to the ferry. But our first steps in Africa were met with more guides that I expected. They came at us one after another, super friendly and English speaking. Our plan was to go to the Medina without a taxi cab, since cabs required negotiating the price in advance to avoid getting ripped off, and the languages here are Arabic, French, and (sometimes) Spanish. We were up against several challenges: language, culture, no wi-fi, vegetarians, and currency (we had no Moroccan Dirhams). I faced guides like this walking the Intremuro in the Philippines, but in an English speaking country, and by myself, it was not that stressful. But here, they talked to all of us, saw the confusing looks from all of us, and it was hard to stay together in firmly responding “No thanks” to each one. And I did have to pull out my directions a few times, which led to some pointing us toward the Medina. They would then follow us that way, causing me to try to go another way, and getting us lost. Its hard to get too lost, as all streets go uphill from the port, but the alleys are so narrow and twist and turn, too narrow for GPS to work most of the time. And many of the streets are unnamed. Maile thought it was fanny pack (yes, I’ll admit to having one to keep my camera hidden) that called us out as tourists and caused so many to follow us and ask us to be a guide. But I’m afraid its the whites and Asians that stand out here. The only others we saw were in groups with a guide, following in single file through the streets with stickers on their shirts. I was proud of being more adventurous than them, but wondered if it was a big mistake given how stressful I was feeling being responsible for all four us today. I’d be much more relaxed if I were one of the backpackers on the ferry, traveling in a group of other adults. Those truly adventurous probably took buses and trains to places like Casablance and Cairo.
After a half hour of uphill walking in the sun, we were sufficiently away from the coasts to be away from most guides. We weren’t getting bothered as much anymore, but that’s where the developing nature of the country set in. People lived in the tiniest, most run down places, but went about their daily lives barely looking at us as we passed by. Men stood in doorways talking on cell phones, women in headscarves pushed strollers, boys played soccer in the street. I didn’t feel unsafe, but the Arabic writing and speaking everywhere triggered anxiety that I’ve never experienced before, perhaps due to the negative images of the language in our media. I couldn’t sensitively take any photos of the poverty we saw, just the busy street scenes.
After lots of twists and turns, we made it to what we thought was the restaurant, but turned out to be a hotel with a similar name. The hostess spoke no English or Spanish, but had a staff member direct us to a nearby restaurant. More stress, as now we would be expected to pay him and had no money with us, and we would take us to some unknown restaurant that would have to politely decline. We wondered if it would even be open since the time change was two hours to Morocca–its farther west plus no daylight savings. However, I was beyond relief when it was the restaurant I had wanted, Rif Kerabdani, and the waiter spoke perfect English. It was a massive reprieve from the busy streets of people following us, a small place with just five tables, and I wanted to stay there all day. And the local Moroccan food was great—vegetable tangine, lentils, and mint tea. I was never so relieved to see the Trip Advisor sticker on the window, a website I look at but always question too. This time, this top 10 restaurant rating in Tangiers was spot on. They accepted my Euros and had free wi-fi.
Next stop: the Kasbah, a museum a the top of the Medina, the old Tangiers neighborhood. I was feeling much better now, and the tea was so good. Morocco is the 4th African country in quality of life index, behind South Africa, Algeria and Tunisia. Maybe there’s nothing to worry about. We fought off more guides on the way to the top, only to find it is closed on Tuesdays. We settled for a quick photo outside and left the walled city toward our afternoon tea spot. I wasn’t sure what was even in the museum, but look up later it is focused on the history of the area from prehistoric times to the 19th century. They have Pre-Roman tools, some 16th-century jewelry, a wall map of trade routes past and present, and the Sultan’s Garden. No one was too disappointed. We kept moving.
Next stop: Cafe Hafa, with views of the Mediterranean and Atlantic. The Beatles and Rolling Stones have even been there. This route took us through some parks and more neighborhoods, with even fewer solicitors. More excellent tea, and great views. We put up our feet for an hour before heading back to the port to catch the 3 pm ferry back to Spain. On the way, we bought some bread from a frail old man on the street. Many people don’t have ovens or even room in their tiny homes, so they rent space for tasks like baking bread. We walked by many tiny spaces with an oven in it with a person making break.
With the 2 hour time difference, we wouldn’t arrive in Spain until 6 pm, cutting our trek to Gibralatar short. We had a 45 minute drive to Gibraltar, but the cable car to the top had just closed for the day, which meant no views from the top or walking down through all the monkeys. We went straight for dinner, but found out most places were closed by 8 pm, including the stores, a clear distinction between their culture and neighboring Spain.
Its such a tiny country of only 30,000, and as a member of the United Kingdom since a treaty in 1713, it is English-speaking and uses pounds for currency. I’m not sure why they hold on to this territory so tightly. This is the last known place of Neanderthals, with fossils dating back to 25,000 BCE, and maybe their genes drove the 98% voting to keep this in the UK in the 2002 referendum. The tiny strip of land has an airport that fits so tightly into their land that we had to wait for the planes to land before we could walk across the runway!
We did have a great meal and walked around the tiny town square before heading home, a 90 minute drive across southern Spain. We left at 8 am and returned at midnight. I’m glad we did the trek to Morocco, but once is probably enough for a family. In the end, I did get duped once, on our walk back to the ferry. They’re so good, with lanyards and photo badges even, to appear official. I thought the two men standing in some kind of uniform worked for immigration or the ferry service, but were instead there to help people fill out their immigration forms, the ones that I had already completed in advance. They looked at our passports and forms, informed me that our passport number had to be written again on the top of the form to ensure accuracy, so they did that on each form. And then they pointed us to the “fast lane” to get on the boat, even though there was only one route. I thanked them and then they chased after us, asking us for some money to help them. It was only then that I realized what had happened, and I gave them a few Euros before we ran up the stairs into the actual immigration. I wouldn’t mind paying for actual help I need, like the guides, but there are so many scams and secret tactics that its hard to know who to trust.
Other scenes from today included this Tangier building probably not paying royalties to Disney. A school, perhaps?
The ferry was super comfortable, enough to sleep or draw some geometric shapes as seen throughout Tangiers.
I did not know at the time, but this sign that caught my attention is French for shower.