With such quick and easy access to Morocco across the Strait of Gibraltar, it’s something of a wonder that more people in the south of Spain don’t take advantage.
For those with their own transport, it could not be much easier to mosey on down to Tarifa and hop on a ferry to Tangier.
But for those second-class citizens dependent upon public transport in the Costa del Sol, a little weekend getaway across the Strait becomes a whole lot hairier.
But what’s an adventure if things don’t go completely and avoidably wrong?
GETTING TO TANGIER BY THE CURSE OF PUBLIC TRANSPORT
In order to maximise our time among the souks and minarets of Morocco, we decided to hit the road late on Friday afternoon from San Luis de Sabinillas, booking a 16.50 bus to Algeciras, from where we would get another bus to Tarifa.
Our first introduction to the public transport apartheid that blights life in this part of Spain came as we stared down the A7 waiting for a bus that would not come.
Just as we were starting to look at Uber prices, our bus did decide to arrive, around 50 minutes later than advertised. Lesson number one: bus timetables are imaginary numbers dreamt up by office workers who probably own cars.
But as we wound our way south along the rumpled and folded landscape, we had an epiphany. It turned out that ferries departed from Algeciras to Tangier, saving us the unmitigated hassle of relying on public transport to get us further on to Tarifa.
So, off we hopped at Algeciras, and over we hopped to the port, where we booked return tickets to Tangiers with a smiley woman who warned us that the ferry might be a ‘little late’.
The port was another black box experience, with staff arbitrarily moving us around from waiting room to waiting room while departure times were completely meaningless. Eventually we boarded a big ship and the worst was behind us, we were certain.
The customs process aboard was admirably lackadaisical and haphazard – a passing ship worker happened to notice us in the corridor and led us to a desk to fill out some forms.
The number of passengers on the ship was barely in double figures, but there was no organised way to make sure everyone filled out their paperwork.
But finally, after about another hour of waiting, the engines on the ship started purring, the water started moving underneath us, and the huge floating agglomeration of steel started to leave the port under a black sky.
Once the orange lights of the Spanish coastland had receded into darkness, the heavens above came alive as we traversed the invisible ocean on the outer deck. And I was reminded that there really is something magical about a sea voyage. All the stars and the planets and the constellations glittered around us as if a cave painting coming alive at night.
The wonder was soon replaced by bemusement, however, as we figured out that our ferry was heading in the wrong direction.
At this point our internet failed us also, as we left the protective embrace of the European Union and entered African waters.
Where the hell were we going? And why the hell weren’t we making a beeline for Tangiers?
So, perhaps the most important bit of information buried in this screed is that, although ferries to Morocco leave from both Algeciras and Tarifa, they both only go to their corresponding port across the strait, and they do not criss-cross. We had bought tickets to a port called Tangier-Med, which is not in Tangier. In fact, it is 80km east of Tangier.
The lady from Balearia who sold us the tickets probably should have told us that.
Anyhow, no worries, we will just get a taxi. Only, it was getting late now after all the delays, and the two-star hotel we had booked would close its reception at 11.30pm.
The race was on as we set foot on a strange new continent to find someone who could drive us there. Finding a taxi was actually very easy, but avoiding eye contact with the drug dealers who were peering in at us in the backseat not so much. Then we set off into the Moroccan night, with about forty minutes to get to our hotel before the receptionists went home, leaving us stranded in Tangier.
We were reminded once again how totally dependent we have become on technology to substitute for a human brain once we arrived and could not just follow Google maps.
We were fortunate that Mohammed, the young man manning the hotel, had waited up for us after his shift had ended, and even escorted us to the ATM. Everything had turned out fine.
We ate some chicken and chips after midnight in a slightly grotty restaurant where both the staff and other customers were friendly and interested in us, and then hit the hay in our barely passable hotel rooms.
THIRTY SIX HOURS IN TANGIER
A day in Tangier might start sooner than you would like, as the call to prayer sounds out from the minarets around 6am this time of year.
But that’s fine as you don’t want to lose time if you only have one day to do everything and take it in.
Not even realising my hotel room had a window, when I awoke to look out of it, I was stunned to see the first rays of the morning sun hitting the clutter of rooftops of the Ancien Medina. It had all been worth it.
A dawn stroll through the whitewashed old town of Tangier is a sight to behold.
Wandering the narrow, confined streets, that are in turns grimy and gorgeous, we somehow found ourselves taken hostage by Sam the unappointed tour guide.
His opening conversational gambit was to say “hello geeza, luvly jubbly” and then suddenly we were being whizzed through the side streets and historical alleyways, with this strange guy saying hi to everyone he passed.
He pointed out some beautiful locales, took us for a mint tea in bar-cafe in the Kasbah, showed us some of the best buildings, ignored us when we asked him to show us specific places and would not go away when we tired of him. In the end we paid a €20 ransom fee and with a hug he was out of our lives.
Once rid of Sam, we paid a visit to the Museum of the Kasbah in the highest part of the old town overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar, the Spanish coastline distant in the haze.
The building was a beautiful, ancient construction of pillars and white walls, where artefacts and mosaics both ancient and modern from the various occupying powers over the centuries – including a brief stint by the English in the seventeenth century – were housed.
One of the most charming features of life in the old town was the prevalence of cats everywhere, blinking contentedly at strangers, perched on motorbike seats or doorsteps. Living in communal harmony with humans in a relationship of equals, and so happy if you showed them any attention.
Lunch was a huge dish of chicken couscous that was easily enough for two people and then we strolled on over to the large sandy beach in the middle of the city.
The beachfront was lined with incredibly trashy-looking discotheques and nightclubs but the sand was soft and fine and tourists were trotting along on horses. There was even a camel ride which was tempting but ultimately we declined it – perhaps a regret.
TANGIER NIGHT LIFE
After a nap in the hotel room, it was time to find a beer. I had been assiduously taking note of bars that had beer signs as we had been strolling around – but not one was located in the Ancien Medina. We had to venture into the new town.
The old town, whilst having a fairly authentic feel to it – that people actually live their lives and jobs there, as opposed to being a tourist playground – still felt unreal. It was in the new town that the true measure of Tangier could be found. It was bustling and active, but felt like a fairly unremarkable city, with shops and restaurants and cafes – but not many bars serving alcohol.
Eventually we followed Google Maps through a saloon-style door to a genuine hole-in-the-wall bar large enough for maybe fifteen people max.
An awkward hush immediately descended over the cramped space as these two outsiders entered their furtive, socially-shunned world.
But the inhabitants of this bar – all Moroccan men over 50 – soon got used to the strangers in their midst and – perhaps – even appreciated the presence of foreigners who wanted to spend time in their bar. After a few minutes of awkwardly standing, one old fella brought stools over for us to sit down on. Then the bartender handed us a little plate of tomato salad, and we had been accepted.
There is something about drinking beer in Tangier – so clandestine and underground – that is quite special and unlike doing it in Spain, where you never have to walk more than 30 metres to find a bar and beer is served in school cafeterias (probably).
We were rubbing shoulders with the impious of Moroccan society, and they were so welcoming.
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Stepping in to another bar crowded with Saturday night revellers, as foreigners we were immediately invited to sit with two men who turned out to be incredibly drunk.
It was another kidnapping-style situation, in which Karim, a man in his 50s who spoke good English but would not say where he learned it, was having a whale of a time and wanted us to enjoy ourselves too.
He was also a little bit unhinged and at one point tried to stab me goodnaturedly in the neck with a pen. I quickly noticed he was annoying everyone else in the bar with his shouting and screeching and gesticulations and in the end we had to extract ourselves.
Later on we found ourselves in a car with two men who took us to Bling Bling discotheque, where I had to pay €30 to enter (girls get in free) and made the mistake of ordering a €20 vodka Redbull.
Unfortunately our two new friends could not afford the entrance fee and I could not bring myself to stump up €60 for them, and they departed crestfallen.
But me and my friend still managed to have a great time, boogying the night away in Tangier until the first call to prayer.