My first experience of Tangier was at the tender age of ten. I was on a British India educational cruise aboard the S.S. UGANDA in 1969. It would never happen nowadays that English primary school children could be left to their own devices, roaming freely round the streets of a foreign country, but we came to no harm and were given the opportunity to learn more from the direct experience of another culture than we ever could from a geography book. The 17,000 ton Uganda took us from Southampton to Vigo in Northern Spain, Lisbon, the capital of Portugal and Tangier in North Africa. It was my first ever foreign trip and it gave me a zest for travel which has never diminished. We sailed into the Bay of Biscay towards Cape Finistere, maintaining a south westerly course along the coast of North West Spain. Portugal remained in sight as we approached Cape St. Vincent lighthouse, the Bay of Cadiz and Cape Trafalgar before finally arriving in Tangier Harbour.
Vivid childhood memories of Tangier were to remain for over thirty six years before I was to visit there again. The stark contrast between Europe and Africa was something which could not easily be forgotten. We had strolled through the cobbled streets of The Kasbah, visited the Caves of Hercules and toured the city by coach, even having time left to visit a camel camp before returning to our ship, laden with souvenirs. Tangier was just the type of mystical, magical destination that appealed to my childhood imagination. The sights and sounds of the souks… the old medina… the Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer… it was as if we schoolchildren had landed on an entirely different planet. We learned to barter for stuffed toy camels and African drums and absorbed a whole new culture and language, soon coming to realise that the country we called home was just one small island in the Atlantic.
I had mixed feelings when I visited Tangier again, years later. Would my memories of the place now be tarnished? How much of it would have changed? Would I be disappointed? Again I approached from the sea, this time from Algecieras in Spain, a pleasant two hour journey across The Straits of Gibraltar – a narrow channel which is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Here you can spot dolphins cavorting in the waves as you approach the “Gateway to Africa,” as Tangier is known.
Tangier is the most Northerly city in Morocco. There is an airport but the majority of visitors approach from Spain as I did. I took a taxi to my hotel The Dawlitz, which boasts one of the best views over the harbour and the city. There is even a McDonald’s restaurant if you prefer not to sample the local cuisine. My first impression was that the place had not changed in the slightest since my childhood visit. It is still a curious mix of old and new. I could still imagine the S.S. Uganda Docked at the quayside unloading its cargo of children.
Whether Tangier will remain unchanged for much longer is anybody’s guess. Within the next eighteen months or so there will be a tunnel constructed under the sea, similar to the channel tunnel between England and France. This will bring a huge influx of tourists and investors to the shores of Northern Morocco. At present the coastal areas to the east of Tangier are relatively unspoilt – much like the Spanish Costas were forty years ago – but the demands of the tourist industry are rapidly changing the face of the landscape. This is not altogether a bad thing since there is a great deal of poverty in Morocco and tourism appears to be the only solution in providing regular employment for the general population. The people are friendly and are eager to embrace tourism as the way forward rather than be reluctant to abandon their more traditional occupations.
Tangier offers a wide range of hotels to suit every tourist but The Dawlitz is worth it for the view alone. Here you can lounge on your balcony and watch the sun rise over the port as the city springs into life.
The beautifully patterned Moorish architecture is to be found throughout the city and it is easy to find some secluded courtyard restaurant in the shade of cooling cypress trees. Here you can enjoy a simple meal of Couscous, the national dish of Morocco, in pleasant surroundings well away from the busy traffic on the city’s main roads.
Tangier has a clean sandy beach that continues for miles. Lined with a mix of both well established and newly built hotels and apartments it is the ideal location from which to explore Northern Morocco. Not far to the east is Mount Moses, reputed to be the other half of the rock of Gibraltar and the nearby Spanish colony of Ceuta which is a duty free haven. The breathtaking mountainous coastal route is not to be missed. Car hire and taxis are cheap enough and you can look back from vantage points along the way to photograph the city of Tangier as it stands proudly on the Atlantic seaboard of Morocco as “Gateway to Africa.”