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Travel to Morocco: Two Weeks in the Kingdom by the Sea

Travel to Morocco: Two Weeks in the Kingdom by the Sea

To find yourself in Morocco is to enter into a most foreign world. Still, it is a globalized world. One of Coca-Cola and Bob Marley and the endless groping of iPhones. But don’t be fooled by these familiar scenes–the world remains a wild place, full of surprises. This rings especially true for the Kingdom of Morocco. And here we find ourselves in the salty-sea splashed village of Tangier.

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Arriving at *Ibn Battouta International, you’re greeted by a legion of stately portraits of King Mohammed. The building is quiet, the bells and whistles of London-Heathrow are of distant relation. The signage is simple, the pace casual.

Then, away from the almost tranquil airport, heading for the heat of Tangiers in your rental car, driving in a foreign country, with foreign street signs and foreign pop-radio blaring the world closes in on you. From the humble airport you’re swallowed into the Machine–Tangiers consumes you. The roads narrow, people are everywhere, the streets are teeming with movement as people chase down food carts, barter off goods for other goods, vegetable stalls line the streets, butchers are hacking away at the carcasses of dinner. All this as You narrowly avoid colliding into a caravan of donkey-led carts.

The buildings tower over you with brief intervals of open sky looking out across the city and the sea beyond as you roll up and down these rich hills.

Street-signs are rare, not that they would be helpful when the roads themselves meander in an incoherent swaying east-south-east-north-east-north like the alleys of a medieval village, with that precious view of the skyline here and there to assure you that you might be on the right track.

Traffic picks up. Donkeys, police on horseback, motorbikes and tiny-Euro-boxcars dart across your windshield, leaping across the road from one tight alley to the next.

Then, with relief the great blue void that is our sky begins to open and the Mediterranean opens and suddenly the world is at peace. Spain is on the horizon, a distant sliver of mass on the blue horizon floating on the back of a mythical turtle.

The air is salty and grey with sea foam and intermittent breezes carry a wide array of aromas depending on their direction. From the west, the rich meats and roasting delicacies of the Medina, from the south gusts of fuel, of hot tarmac under the African sun and the thickness of diesel, from the east and north the endless reordering of things as ocean spray and clean Mediterannean air.

Welcome to Morocco. Welcome to Tangier.

StayHotel Rembrandt

Against the Mediterranean sea, Rembrandt offers clean rooms, a great continental breakfast, a refreshing pool and a decent and well priced bar (if you’re a wino, like me, order the local Guerrouane Rose. DOA, from Meknes.) Ask for a seaside view. What’s more, from the front door of the hotel you’re on Mohammed V Ave, the main drag which runs through the entire city–a 10 minute walk to the Petit Socco, 7 minute walk to the Medina.

Expect rooms around 500 Dh (50usd)

See: Medina

The Medina of Tangier is its central highlight. An interconnected maze of markets, boutiques, cafes, bakeries and homes all packed within the ancient city walls. Here you will find cobblestone plazas lined with centuries old cafes, great for people watching, and opportunities to dive into the universal labyrinth that is all Moroccan cities. Think of this as training ground, for it only gets wilder from here.  Note the French and Spanish influences on architecture, the mud-brick and stucco lined alleys. Tangier’s medina is particularly easy to navigate in that anytime you get lost, just head uphill, keep going uphill until finally, you’re back at the entrance of the medina. Its dirty, grimy and a complete blast.

See//Drink: Cafe Tingis (Petit Socco)

First things first, Cafe Tingis, in the cool morning retains the freshness of nights cleansing air. As the day heats up, the Medina has a tendency to become stale with the unstirred air of butchery, roasting meats and garlic. Open your ears — Darija, Moroccan Arabic, is one of the most loveliest languages on this earth.

On the menu? Berber whisky and nus-nus. Nus-nus, is often espresso, rich yet creamy, in-your-face bold coffee ground with cardamom or other spices. Berber whisky, is Morocco’s national drink (shayy ma nana // tea with mint, in Arabic.) This is the nectar of the sahara, sickeningly sweet, but oh so quenching. The mint steals you away from the often unpleasant aromas of the Medina. Pick up a Moroccan pastry from a foodcart along the way. Tingis serves drinks alone.

SeeAmerican Legation (medina)

Here’s a fantastic slice of history for you. Morocco just so happens to have been the FIRST country to recognize an independent United States, way back in 1777. That’s bloody right. And US-Morocco relations remain tight as ever –Think Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, Fish and Chips…– What the American Legation represents in the first United States territory outside of the continental US. The building now houses various relics, a museum and various resources for Arabic language studies.

Eat: Everything in sight (devour food carts)

One of the greatest perks of traveling in Morocco is the countries food culture. Around every street corner, down every alley, at the edge of every desert, on the sides of roads, sleepily hidden in the shadows are kiosks and grills behind which men and women and sometimes children rotate kebabs, peel onions, bake bread, spread cheese, crack nuts, press oranges, you name it. Street food is a holy undertaking, often simple but not to be underestimated. Often a satisfying meal can be collected on the street for under 30Dh ( about 3 USD)

Eat: Bastilla (pastilla)

A lesser known dish from Africa, this pigeon pie is traditionally consumed at Ramadan, now available at the odd café here an there. Pigeon or chicken, is cooked with aromatic herbs, eggs, cinnamon then wrapped in layer after flaky layer of phyllo dough creating a succulent and moist interior and a hard shell, pie-like exterior that is dusted in powdered sugar and a touch of additional cinnamon. Expect notes of rose, or vanilla to be present. Tangier makes some of the Most delicious i’ve had.

Shop: Rugs at Bleu des Fes

We scoured the country, built relationships and burned bridges to ascertain the best prices on rugs that might be offered to an outsider. Bleu des Fes, along with another dealer in Marrakech were, not only among the friendliest associates, friends, we made but met our haggling head on in an effortless move towards what they called a “Happy Price,” or a “win-win.”

Bleu des Fes = Rue Hadj Mohamed Torres, in the Medina

Shop: Insiders Tip, Haggling 1.0

Here’s the thing, Tangier has been host to countless invaders. The French, the Romans before them, African Tribes, and others i’m forgetting. It’s unwittingly international but extremely greasy, at that. So what i’m getting at is that merchants, these ringleaders of the bizarre, are highly skilled artists with a lineage of pleasing the unassuming tourist by dangling what may appear to be a satisfactory price but is  in reality exorbitantly so.

So, a rule of thumb: Take the initial asking price of an item and offer to pay 25% of that. This gives you enough space to wiggle towards paying the reasonable rate of 50% of the original asking price. Haggling is an art. Some people excel at it, others fail — while I fully recognize the craft of it, I am a miserable haggler! So don’t ask me for help! If all else fails, linger, play the broken heart, then walk away slowly. Often in this instance you’ll be chased down with a final offer, which is generally the lowest price a vendor will offer.

See: Place des Canons

This plaza, set between the medina and new town, is something of a hang-out where young and old gather for the odd game of backgammon or the daily gossip or to share a cup of nus-nus (Arabic coffee.) The canons that line this ancient wall are pointed at Europe, more accurate Spain. Tangier has spent much of its life invaded or occupied by foreign forces, namely the Romans, then the French, so these are seen as somewhat symbolic of Independence.

Taxis run on the unmetered system of predetermined fares. Fares that usually make considerations of appearance. Expect to haggle for a fare your comfortable with. If the cabbie disagrees, walk away. Maybe he’ll chase you down in defeat, maybe you overpay. Either way, fares shouldn’t be more than a 20DH to get around the city

When the world seems to have fallen asleep, keep alert–there is more than meets the eye and this is especially for Tangier, well Morocco as a whole, actually. If you lurk with an open mind you might just find your way into one of the quasi-legal nightclubs that pepper the underground

Insiders Tip: Arabic, French, Berber, Spanish

If you’re not familiar with the languages listed above, you’ll find that English is spoken fairly economically, that is not often, and the English that is understood is often for the purpose of commerce. So, don’t be that guy/gal who dives into Morocco head-first without a little Arabic (of French, or Berber, or Spanish) under your belt.

Arabic The Basics: Use these and you’ll fit right in. A little effort makes all the difference in the world.

  • Salaam alaykum — peace be upon you
  • wa alaykum asalaam — and upon you (response to salaam akaykum)
  • afak — please
  • shukran — thank you
  • hay-da — that  (as is “hay-da, afek” or “that, please”
  • besh-hal? — how much?
  • feen al-merhad — where is the bathroom
  • ma salaama — goodbye

The local dialect of Arabic is called Darija. Take these with you, use them generously. Play with the enchanting way they roll off the tongue. Play with their various sounds until you feel comfortable for they will be your greatest assets. I was surprised to learn just how different the Arabic in Morocco was compared to what I had been studying of Levantine Arabic in Jordan. Think old vs. new english.

Insiders Tip: Directions and getting lost and embracing it

Here’s the cold, hard, inconceivable truth. Street signs are often missing, street names often don’t match your map and very often misleading. First off, Tangier is a safe city, and a small city, so getting lost is actually part of the fun. There’s truth in that once you become lost, you can actualize an intimate understanding of a city. So embrace it.

 

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