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Published: September 16th 2019
He who does not travel does not know the value of men ~ Moroccan Proverb
Today we were travelling northwest from Chefchaouen to Tangier
We woke early to the call to prayer after a broken night’s sleep – the local dogs had been unsettled for most of the night. I did sleep a little with the help of a couple of paracetamol tablets at midnight, but my sore throat was lingering. I needed it to dissipate, as we had a long travel day to Tangier and then an overnight sleeper train to Marrakesh. We were leaving Tangier at 11:30pm, so we would not have access to a shower until we checked into our Marrakesh hotel tomorrow morning.
We headed down to the dark hotel restaurant for breakfast around 7:30am. I hydrated with orange juice and mint tea, and I grazed on msemen
(flaky Moroccan flatbread), harcha
(semolina muffins), goat’s cheese, jam and honey. We’d really enjoyed our time in Chefchaouen, and we were a little reluctant to leave, but the Mediterranean coast awaited us. We carried our packs down from our room through the sprawling hotel complex, loaded them into a minibus, settled in our seats and began our descent from Chefchaouen into the valley below. We’d started our three
hour journey to Tangier.
It wasn’t long before we were winding our way through hilly roads, with plantation timber and rocky slopes on either side. Small villages dotted the landscape, and the vegetation was very green. It had rained overnight, and there had been an unseasonable amount of precipitation in the weeks leading up to our arrival in Morocco, so the rolling agricultural hills were especially reminiscent of our home state (Tasmania). The Rif Mountains stretched along the eastern horizon, and blue sky was fighting to break through the clouds.
Concrete block houses with similar designs appeared to have been plonked in fields with no sense of planning, most of which were surrounded by olive groves. Valleys opened up below us, and we were soon driving parallel to a river bank on the valley floor with mountains and hills rising above us. Man-made dams appeared every now and again, while donkeys and sheep stood shiftlessly in fields. Wind turbines towered into the sky on distant mountain ranges, and olive groves gave way to pine forests as we crept closer to Tangier and Morocco’s northern coastline.
Our driver decided to introduce us to the music of Ahmed Alshaiba,
an oud player from Yemen who has become a social media sensation by playing instrumental versions of popular western songs. At first it sounded a little twee (think Andre Rieu or Richard Clayderman playing popular eastern songs), but after a while I began to warm to it. The oud is a truly beautiful instrument (I managed to pick one up in Istanbul during our Turkey travels), and the sound of Ed Sherran’s Perfect
and Adele’s Hello
seemed to have a lulling effect as we hurtled our way towards the Mediterranean coast.
We arrived in Tangier around midday, and our driver slowly made his way along Avenue Mohammed VI before pulling in to the side of the road and dropping us at our lunch destination – Yemma Yenou. This was to serve as our base for the afternoon, and it was directly opposite the city’s dockland area. Our waterfront location was perfect for lunch, and with Spain only a stone’s throw over the Strait of Gibraltar, we opted for the seafood paella – and it was surprisingly good. We refreshed with mint tea and warmed in the sun at a table on the pavement while soaking in the atmosphere of
Tangier’s bustling port.
After lunch we clambered into the waiting minibus and headed off on a sightseeing tour of Tangier’s coastline. Our first stop was a clifftop picnic area where families had settled in clearings amongst the trees. Adults chatted and cooked tagines on camp fires while children played in the open air. Despite the crowds, this place had a friendly relaxed atmosphere. We could see the hazy coastline of Spain in the distance (approximately 14km across the Strait of Gibraltar), and it was an amazing feeling to be standing on the north western tip of Africa.
The next stop on our coastal sightseeing tour was Cap Spartel Lighthouse – about 15 kilometres west of Tangier. The lighthouse is depicted on the back of Morocco’s 200-dirham note, and the view from the headland was breathtaking. By allowing my imagination to wander, I could almost visualise where the Atlantic Ocean met the Mediterranean Sea – directly in front of me. There appeared to be a line where the water changed colour and texture, which may have been caused by the collision of deep ocean currents. However, this meeting of oceans off Morocco’s northern coastline paled into insignificance to Ren’s
meeting with a baby donkey in the paved lookout area beside the lighthouse. His bushy mop of hair heightened his adorability and cuteness, and he absolutely loved the attention he was getting from Ren. I knew it was time to go when Ren asked if we could take him home…
We clambered into the minibus and drove four kilometres south to the Caves of Hercules, a network of natural caves set in the headland where Hercules is meant to have slept before attempting one of his twelve labours. I tend to drift off a bit when Greek mythology comes up in conversation, because it all gets so outrageously whimsical. Plato and Aristotle were critical of the influence of mythology in Ancient Greece, and we continue to see the influence of mythology today. If only philosophy was as popular as folklore! Having said that, I have to acknowledge Albert Camus’ adaptation of the Myth of Sisyphus to depict the notion of absurd freedom (One must imagine Sisyphus happy
), so maybe there is a place for mythology after all.
The main cave was packed with tourists (local and foreign), and a gaping hole that opened onto the Atlantic was a
magnet for photographers, because it resembled a map of Africa. Unfortunately, the bright sunlight pouring into the dark cave overwhelmed my camera’s image sensor, so I wasn’t able to capture the scene. However, not everything has to be captured. The view of the surging Atlantic through the map of Africa
was incredible, and it will be something I remember for a long time. And while the paved walkways undermined the natural beauty of the caves, they made our low light navigation a lot easier. I loved the sound of waves crashing against the coastal rocks, and it added to the subterranean atmosphere of this place. I can see why Hercules set up camp here for a while. 😊
On emerging from the caves, we drove a short distance to nearby Achakar Beach and parked outside one of the dodgiest roadhouses I’ve experienced in a long time. Ren needed to use the toilet, but the cantankerous old shopkeeper made it clear the toilet was only available if we purchased something from his limited selection of overpriced products – most of which were out of date. He reminded me of an old shopkeeper in Campbell Town (Tasmania) who yelled at me
when I tried to sneak past the counter to get to the toilet at the back of the shop. I’d been driving for a couple of hours and I was busting. She informed me in a loud voice that I had to buy something first, which she would keep for me under the counter until I emerged. I’ll never forget the way she glared at me. I tried to avoid her shop from that point on, but there were times when I had no choice – it was the only place open for miles. There were major celebrations throughout the State when another shop opened a few doors down from her – without any toilet police!
Anyway, back to Achakar Beach. We crossed the road to Dromedary Terrace, made our way down some dodgy concrete steps onto the beach and meandered on the sand in the late afternoon. The beach was long and wild, and we virtually had the place to ourselves. Waves from the Atlantic were pummelling towards the shore, and with them came an unwanted collection of plastic rubbish. I feel a sense of hopelessness when I wander polluted beaches, because the pollution isn’t local – it
hails from all corners of the earth, drifting aimlessly on ocean currents until it arrives uninvited at a once pristine beach…
Achakar Beach had been the last stop of our coastal sightseeing tour, so we jumped into the minibus and headed back to Tangier. It was late in the afternoon when we arrived, but there was ample time and daylight to explore the medina
(the old fortified part of the city). We were catching an overnight train to Marrakesh at 11:30pm, and we were sharing a meal with a local family at around 8pm. Until then, the city was ours!
We walked up the steep Rue de la Plage until we found an entrance to the medina. We wandered its narrow lanes in the late afternoon sun, dropped into a pharmacy to pick up some throat lozenges and paracetamol (my sore throat had developed into a head cold) and then settled at Café Tingis in the historic Petit Socco for mint tea and Moroccan biscuits. The cafe was fantastic, and it was the perfect place to watch people come and go.
Before embarking on our Moroccan adventures, we watched The Perfect Day in Tangier
– an episode
from Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown
series. During the episode Bourdain shares a mint tea with former British journalist Jonathon Dawson at this very cafe. We’d made a mental note to visit the place when we were in Tangier, and we were thankful it was so easy to find. We literally stumbled upon it.
Bourdain was found dead in a French hotel room in June 2018. I remember the day well. We were on an Urban Adventures Bites and Sites
tour of Budapest, and the story started flooding the social media newsfeeds of those around us. We’ve gained many insights from his documentaries over the years, and we always try to listen to his country-specific musings before we travel. He was 61 when he took his life. He fuelled my love of travel, and my love of travel writing. It was great to follow a few of his footsteps in Tangier.
We continued to wander the medina’s narrow lanes before making our way back to Yemma Yenou on the waterfront. We were told a nearby restaurant served alcohol (an absolute rarity in Morocco), so we settled at a table on the pavement and enjoyed a quiet drink as dusk
descended on the city. We were sharing a meal with a local family before catching an overnight train to Marrakesh, so we jumped into the minibus and drove to a large network of apartments in a residential area of Tangier. We discovered on the way that we were dining with relatives of the minibus driver. He had driven us to his sister’s house, and she was preparing our meal. It was a very cute connection, and we felt very welcome in the family home.
The meal was amazing. A large bowl of harira
(Moroccan tomato soup) was placed in the middle of the table, accompanied with khobz
(traditional round bread) and fiery green and red harissa
(chilli and garlic pastes). Small plates of olives and dates were also placed on the table, and we grazed on these while waiting for the main course – and it was worth the wait! A huge plate of chicken couscous
was carried to the table, along with a bowl of sauce the chicken had been cooked in. After serving myself some chicken and vegetables, I literally drowned
(tiny steamed balls of rolled semolina) on my plate with this sauce, and the
taste was sensational. This is quite an admission coming from me, because I’ve never been a fan of couscous
. I’ve always preferred the texture and taste of rice and pasta, but this changed my mind completely.
Following the chicken couscous
, we were each provided with two strawberries and one banana on a small plate (which I found a little strange) – but all was not lost. A massive plate of Moroccan biscuits suddenly appeared on the table, which we enjoyed with mint tea. It was an incredible meal, and it was a great experience to dine in the house of a local family. It would have been great if our driver’s sister had been able to join us, but Moroccan customs cannot change overnight.
Having listened to the oud music of Ahmed Alshaiba on route from Chefchaouen to Tangier, we asked our guide and driver if they could recommend any Moroccan music that we should listen out for. They both suggested Tinariwen, a group of Berber musicians from the Southern Sahara. I made a mental note to look out for any of their CDs in local music shops.
We couldn’t believe the time! It was 10pm already,
and our overnight sleeper train to Marrakesh left in 90 minutes. We bid farewell to our friendly hosts, made our way downstairs, poured out into the cold and dimly lit street, jumped into the minibus and drove to Tanger Ville (Tangier’s train station). SHE SAID...
Today we were travelling from Chefchaouen to Tangier
, by minibus.
We woke at 5:30am with the loud call to prayer reverberating in the hills behind us and echoing through the valleys all around Chefchaouen. I had hoped that Andrew’s sore throat from the day before was a 24-hour thing, but unfortunately it looked like it was getting worse. We finished packing and headed down to breakfast at 7:30am.
Breakfast was pretty much the same as the day before, but we gave ourselves more time to enjoy it. We settled down to feast on the pastries, breads, fresh butter, jams and goat’s cheese. I absolutely stuffed myself with multiple serves of msemen
(flaky Moroccan flatbread) with butter and honey. I also had about a litre of sweet mint tea, which probably wasn’t the best idea on a travel day – but it was certainly going to keep me hydrated! 😊
We piled into a minibus at 9:30am and began our three hour drive to the coastal town of Tangier. The scenery was stunning. There were lightly forested mountainsides, valleys covered in a carpet of yellow wild flowers, and patches of structured plantation pines. The many small towns we passed were surrounded by olive groves, where property boundaries were demarcated with lines of cactus plants, and every house had fig trees in the front yard.
We stopped for mint tea and a toilet stop along the way. However, we got to Tangier in time for lunch soon afterwards. My first impression of Tangier was very positive, and diametrically opposite to the seedy port it’s generally portrayed as.
Tangier experienced a sort of golden age in the 1950s and ‘60s… attracting many expat writers and poets like Paul Bowles, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote etc. who fashioned the popular beatnik generation. Andrew rather likes Paul Bowles’ travelogues, but I have to confess I struggle with his unlikable characters in his fictional work. Since that period of semi-romanticisation of Tangier in literature and art, its reputation seemed to have nosedived into what would have been
called ‘a den of iniquity’ in biblical terms. And it certainly hasn’t been on the well-trodden tourist route for a long time.
We approached Tangier along the scenic corniche (seafront promenade), and it was very obvious that money was being invested in this port city again. Apparently when King Mohammed VI became ruler in 1999, he wanted to renew commerce and tourism in Tangier – as the gateway into Africa. I took an immediate liking to the city, especially as our first stop was at a delightful location across from the sea, in the art deco filled Ville Nouvelle.
This was the warmest and sunniest weather we’d experienced since our first few days in Casablanca, and we revelled in it. We sat in the warm sun, with Spain just across the water from us, and feasted on a delicious lunch of seafood paella at Yemma Yenou, a tiny cafe in a long row of similar waterfront eateries.
We were only passing through Tangier, and we had a few hours to spend while we waited for our overnight train to Marrakesh. Khalid (our group leader) suggested we maximise our time by booking a tour of a few sights
close to Tangier with our minibus driver. We thought it was a good idea.
We drove though the very affluent old suburbs in the hills. The beautiful architecture of the white houses with high walls and security gates suggested that there certainly was a lot of money in this part of Tangier. Being the northernmost city in Morocco, the European influence was also very evident in the streets and architecture.
We drove along the coastline and passed a point where the Spanish coast was only 14km across the sea. I’d read Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits
before this trip, which began with an ill-fated illegal boat crossing in the dead of the night at this particular spot. With many people coming here from as far as West Africa to make the crossing and seek a better life in Europe, it’s a regular occurrence and often ends devastatingly.
Our first stop was at an underwhelming viewing point of the Spanish coastline, with the island of Gibraltar faintly visible through some trees (if you overbalanced on the railing and craned your neck to the left!). It seemed to be a popular spot with local tourists, with many
having picnics with delicious smelling tagines in the shade of the pine trees.
The second stop was far more interesting… but not for the obvious reason of visiting Cap Spartel Lighthouse on the most north-westerly point in Africa. The lighthouse is featured on the 200 dirham note, and was pretty enough against a sparkling sea in bright sunshine… but the absolute highlight of that stop was a baby donkey! As we walked towards the lighthouse we spotted him sitting next to his working mum (being hired for kid’s rides). The old owner initially said it was ok to take photos of the baby, but then changed his mind and asked for some coins when he realised how popular the baby was with the whole group. We paid him 10 dirhams to get as many photos and cuddles with the baby donkey as my heart desired. He was only one month and 14 days old, and Andrew named him Kong (for Donkey Kong). His fur was super soft and he loved his chin being scratched. He also decided he quite liked his fluffy head patted, and snuggled into me as I patted him. Oh my heart! He was such a
cutie. I really really really wanted to take him home! 😄
The next stop was the point where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean Sea. Apparently on some days there’s a very noticeable colour difference in the water which indicates the meeting point of the two seas, but it was barely visible on that day. We walked down to the viewing area and there were a few buses of tourists already there… as expected, there was a low grade case of pushing in to get photos in front of the marker sign. How hard is it to form an informal queue and wait your turn?
The fourth stop was the Caves of Hercules. The Caves of Hercules are legendary, and are believed to have been the resting place of the Roman/Greek hero before his eleventh labour (of twelve labours) – stealing the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, which were guarded by a hundred-headed dragon. It’s been many many years since I read any Roman or Greek mythology, so I’m hazy on how that legend would be connected to this part of the world.
The opening to the cave from the sea is famous for
being supposedly carved in the shape of Africa by Phoenician sailors… and has now become a symbol of Tangier. Personally I saw an outline of a man’s head and neck in profile (wearing an 18th century tricorn hat!) before I saw the vague similarity to Africa. The limestone cave system is supposed to have been inhabited since prehistoric times. And more recently, it’s apparently been used for making millstones… which is supposed to explain the many round indentations in the rock. We joined the hordes of tourists streaming into the cave and towards the cave’s sea opening. Despite the crowds and the noise, I loved standing in the darkened cave and looking out at the Atlantic Ocean crashing against the rocks. We wandered further into the caves, but the erratic lighting didn’t allow for much exploration. I think I would have loved the experience a lot more if there had been better crowd control.
Our final stop was at the sandy Achakar Beach just along from the Caves of Hercules. We walked down some steep and hazardous concrete steps and onto a rather pleasant sweep of sand. We essentially had the whole beach to ourselves and it was lovely
to stretch our legs for a while… but sadly, the beach was definitely not clean or safe enough to allow a barefoot walk. After using the very dodgy toilet in a very dodgy shop near the beach, we drove back to the city to find a cafe and relax for the rest of the afternoon.
We are big fans of Anthony Bourdain’s travel shows, and have watched almost all the episodes of each series. However, we’d missed his Parts Unknown
Tangier episode, and only watched it just before our trip to Morocco. Our travel agent is also a massive fan, and when visiting Tangier last year, he’d put together a walking tour based on that episode. And on his recommendation we picked two possible cafes to try that afternoon.
We walked uphill from the Ville Nouvelle area, past the Jewish cemetery and into the Grand Socco (Big Square) which sits just outside the main entrance to the medina
(the old town). The Grand Socco is a green space with paving, seats, palm trees and a central fountain. It was bordered by the Grand Mosque on one side, and also surrounded by cafes and shops that added a very
social and lively atmosphere to the area.
We liked the Grand Socco but didn’t liger long, as we wanted to explore the medina. We walked through one of the many medina gates and happily stumbled upon the tiny Petit Socco (Little Square) we were looking for. It was right in the heart of the medina, and we had two old world cafes to choose from. After some consideration, we chose Cafe Tingis for having more locals. We picked a corner table outside and settled in. When we ordered our mint tea, I asked if they had any pastries or biscuits and the waiter said ‘leave it with me’. My favourite type of waiter! When he served our mint teas, he asked us to taste it and identify the ‘mystery’ flavour. It had a very floral taste and fragrance, so I incorrectly guessed jasmine – it was orange blossom. It had a fresh flavour, but I think I prefer plain mint tea. We settled in to enjoy our teas with our plate of cornes de gazelle
(gazelle horns – crescent shaped pastries filled with almond paste) and almond biscuits, while we people watched.
Suitably refreshed we strolled through the
medina, taking in the weaving network of tiny lanes and alleyways full of cafes, shops and homes. The medina was quiet and easy to navigate. We eventually ended up at the 15th century Portuguese fortress walls that surround the lower part of the medina. We had a great view of the waterfront and the yellow and white Port Mosque from this vantage point. Tangier reminded me of Casablanca in many ways, and I really began to wish we’d had a few more days to explore this intriguing city.
We retraced our steps and tried to use a couple of ATMs in the Grand Socco, but had no luck. We eventually gave up and walked down to our group meeting point – a bar on the waterfront. I had a Bacardi rum (my first alcoholic drink in Morocco!), and Andrew enjoyed a beer. We still had a few hours before our overnight train, and we had to get to dinner. Dinner was part of the tour we’d organised with our minibus driver – a home cooked meal at his sister Halima’s house, which we were looking forward to.
We piled back onto the minibus and drove into a brand-new
housing estate in the newer part of Tangier. In among dark vacant blocks and half built houses, we were welcomed into a lovely new home. Khalid had given us a crash course in saying a few words in Arabic as we entered the home, but we managed to stuff it up completely… much to the amusement of the extended family welcoming us! At least it broke the ice and we all had a good laugh about it. The home was narrow but tall, with each floor only containing one or two rooms. We were shown into a room on the third floor, this was apparently where the men usually gathered to socialise. The women had a separate room downstairs that was decorated in full pink!
Dinner began with plates of dates (traditionally used to welcome guests), bowls of olives, red and green harissa
(chilli and garlic pastes), khobz
(traditional round leavened bread), and a hearty and tasty harira soup
(a minestrone-like hearty soup of tomatoes, lentils, chickpeas and noodles). We’d hardly made a dent in the soup when a heaped platter of chicken couscous
with carrots, zucchini, potatoes and cabbage arrived! What made this an absolutely outstanding couscous
steamed balls of rolled semolina) dish, was the accompanying luscious buttery sauce made from the cooking juices of the chicken. Couscous
is usually only made on Fridays or on special occasions, as rolling the little balls of semolina is such a labour intensive task. We certainly appreciated the effort Halima had gone to (she had been cooking since 2pm), and we ate until we couldn’t possibly eat anymore! Thank goodness dessert was a light platter of strawberries and bananas. And as always, we finished the meal with a lovely mint tea and Moroccan biscuits.
With full tummies, we were now ready for our overnight train trip to Marrakesh. The Tangier train station was new, clean and a little plush – almost plusher than some airports I’ve been to! We boarded our sleeper carriage and found our small compartment for four (with two bunk beds). We were sharing with Tracey and Meewun, and we soon stored our luggage above the two bunk beds and started sorting ourselves out for the night. We were fortunate that Tracey and Meewun were easy to share with.
I always take the upper bunk but I couldn’t quite work out the ladder access, so
long-legged Andrew catapulted himself up there, and for only the second time in all our train travels together I took the lower bunk. The beds were very clean, with crisp white pillow case and sheets. I normally get very cold on overnight trains, so I had brought many layers, but our carriage was like a sauna… so we ended up leaving our compartment door open all night. There wasn’t even the slightest security concern with an open door, because most of the compartments were taken up by our group, and the carriage was run by a somewhat scary and very vigilant old guard. 😊
I really love train travel, and I enjoy sleeping on overnight trains. However, very unusually, I didn’t fall asleep as promptly as I usually do on a moving train… whereas Andrew fell asleep very quickly. It must be an upper bunk / lower bunk thing – and I’m definitely not giving up my upper bunk again! I made the best of being awake and caught up on my travel notes.
It’s been a few days since the last group dynamics update, so I thought I should write another while I was enjoying the soothing
rock and roll of the train: Firstly, thankfully Ms Whoops hasn’t had any more accidents, but there was a very close call with a wet pavement outside our hotel in Fes. Secondly, we’ve kept our distance from Mr Rude and Ms Scary since the taxi incident in Volubilis, and that’s worked out very well for us. However Ms Scary keeps flying into rages with Mr Rude, where she storms off but then acts like nothing happened within a few minutes. They are two very weird humans.
Thirdly, a new character has come into play since the last update – Little Ms Scatterbrain. She’s nice enough to chat to and travel with, but keeps losing and breaking things at a daily rate. She’d lost her spare camera battery at the first hotel, then left her iPad charger at the next one, and then broke her camera charger at the one after that etc. etc. I had an iPad and the same Sony camera as her… so she started asking to borrow my chargers whenever we got to a hotel. I had to eventually politely tell her that she was welcome to borrow them but only after I’d charged my items
for the next day. Then came the request that because her battery didn’t seem to be charging in her camera, could I transfer it into my camera for charging! I have a lot of sympathy for equipment going bad on a trip, but I’m going to sound uncharitable here and say I was getting really fed up babysitting all her electronics. So I did the most mature thing I could do in the situation – as soon as we reached a hotel and got our key, I would make a run for it before she could give me a list of things she needed me to do! 😄
Next we travel southwest to Marrakesh, Morocco’s favourite child.
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