Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Morocco: The Temptations of Tangier

The view from the roof terrace at Dar Chams Tanya, our riad in the Tangier medina. In the distance
are the beachfront that the city is redeveloping with shops, parking and other amenities and some
of the buildings of the "new city," the city outside the medina. Buildings in the foreground
are in the medina.
At one of the medina gates, El  Morocco Cafe
seemed always to have a crowd. Prices are in
dirham, which is about a tenth of a U.S. dollar.
It is developing its wide sandy beach to, it hopes, compete with Mediterranean beach destinations, especially those in Spain, which is visible just across the Strait of Gibraltar. It is promoting its once-neglected medina, which is attracting investors, such as the French couple who own Dar Chams Tanya, the riad where we stayed. It has been the home or vacation spot for celebrities through the years, including Tennessee Williams, the gay playwright who found acceptance here. 
    Tangier, in short, is unique among Moroccan cities. The medina does not rival those in Fez or Marrakesh, but it has its own unique attractions, including a fort that overlooks it all and, at the other end, the historic American Legation, a former palace given to the U.S. government and now a museum celebrating ties between the U.S. and Morocco, which during the American Revolution was the first country to recognize the U.S. as an independent nation. It is said to be the only U.S. National Historic Landmark not in the United States.

For the itinerary of our three weeks in Morocco
and links to hotels, click HERE.

    Outside the medina, Tangier looks and often feels like a modern French city. There are tables outside cafes with chairs side-by-side facing the street, ideal for people-watching. Most signage is in French, though Arab is of course still prominent. Spanish also is used. Most people are dressed in western fashion, though you'll see plenty of women in conservative Islamic attire. The French consulate is in a prominent building at a busy intersection, and the Union Jack flies over an Anglican church not far away. If Morocco can be described as combining Arabian and European cultures, Tangier is the premier example of it.
Our lunch spot at the port. I don't like people
who are always photographing their food in
restaurants, but here I wish I had taken a shot
of the fish we were served.  Here our waiter
is carrying a bread basket and fresh paper
to cover a table. 
    We arrived here after a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Chefchouen in time for lunch. We wanted fish, so our riad's owner directed us to the port, where she said we'd find sidewalk restaurants serving fish. We crossed the busy oceanfront highway and ventured into the industrial-looking port, saw fleets of fishing boats tied up, and eventually found a strip with several alleys housing fish restaurants. We chose one in a covered alley with cheap plastic chairs and wobbly tables. Other diners were being served seafood in huge piles dominated by steamed shrimp. We didn't want shrimp. We wanted fish. We told our waiter "no gambas." He eventually brought us what he said was "for one person," a large round tray loaded with fried seafood -- calamari and several different kinds of finned fish, some lightly breaded, some not breaded at all. It took us a while to plow through the tray.  When we finally got around to paying, it was 50 dirham for the fish and a large bottle of water. That's five U.S. dollars for lunch for two.
     Another good fish spot is Populaire Saveur de Poisson, a short walk outside the medina on the edge of downtown. There's no menu and no choice. You get what they serve you and you like it. It's more expensive than the place at the port at 200 dirham or $20 a person, but that includes a fruit punch that is served in lieu of alcohol, which is not available nor allowed. For our meal, the punch was an ice-cold fig-raisin concoction that I actually liked. You'll get a full meal, not just fish, but it's the fish that you come for, either whole or on skewers or both.  At the port, we were the only non-locals. Here the crowd seemed half tourist, half locals. 
Fishing boats crowd into the port at Tangier.
Fishermen repair their nets at the port in Tangier.
      Tangier is the only city in Morocco where we spent much time at all outside the medina. We wondered if we would have liked the modern districts of Marrakesh and Fez as much as we liked modern Tangier. After three nights in Tangier, we caught a 6 a.m. flight to Lisbon. We had another country and another culture to explore.
A cannon on a terrace along a busy downtown street is aimed north
toward Spain, which is visible across the Strait of Gibraltar.

The American Legation displays a copy of the letter in which
Morocco became the first country to recognize the U.S.
as an independent country. A later sultan gave a palace
to the U.S. government; the building housed American officials
and is now a museum focused on the relationship between
the two countries.

The courtyard inside the American Legation

The corner window in our room at Dar Chams Tanya.

The same window as seen from the outside.

What's a beach without camels to ride? Tangier's downtown beach is being redeveloped, but it appears the
camels are determined to stay.

An old stone tower marks one of the gates into the medina.

Tourists at the Cave of Hercules, an oceanfront grotto outside the city.

The opening to the Cave of Hercules is thought to resemble
the outline of the African continent.

School children on their way home in Tangier, near but outside the medina.

A distant view of Spain from Cafe Hafa a few blocks from the medina.
Its terraces cascade down a steep hill and are a great spot to enjoy Morocco's
 traditional mint tea, which is black tea to which mint leaves and sugar are added.

Morocco: Chefchouen Is for Tourists

Hats and other handicrafts are for sale along a street/stairway in Chefchouen's medina. Buildings
in Chefchouen are traditionally painted blue or white, and the town is known as the Blue City.

Chefchouen gets a good bit of publicity in the travel press, and that publicity seems to be working. When we were there in late March 2017 the city's medina, built on the side of a steep hill, was crowded with tourists, many of them college age, from Europe, Asia and the Americas. I'm pretty sure that among pedestrians in the medina, tourists greatly out-numbered the local inhabitants. We saw more Asian tour groups here than anywhere else in Morocco. Chefchouen is known as the Blue City because so many of its buildings are painted blue. The only other color used is white. Flower pots adorn the exteriors of many residential and commercial buildings, but a close look reveals that many of the flowers are plastic.
      Chefchouen's medina seemed more like a theme park than a place where people live and work, though we did find quiet residential streets along the highest part. Almost all commercial activity in the medina is directed at tourists -- handicraft vendors, Berber textile shops, restaurants and hotels. It's not unpleasant, but it's not the Morocco experience that I think most tourists want.  I'd recommend skipping Chefchouen for another day in Fez, Meknes or the Sahara.

For the itinerary of our three weeks in Morocco
and links to hotels, click HERE.

    In the center of the medina is the Kasbah, which in this case is something like an old stone castle. In front of it is a square lined with restaurants, all of them with people out front brandishing menus at passers-by. A nice uphill walk from the square will take you to what is called a waterfall, though really it's a fast-moving cascade with covered platforms on either side where laundry can be washed using built-in washboards. Several cafes overlook the scene. Those are the sights.
     The medina itself is fairly small and, once you learn a couple of landmarks, easy to navigate. Some of the streets are really stairways and it's easy to circle back to where you started. Handicraft shops and vendors offer largely the same wares we saw in Marrakesh and elsewhere -- though some vendors said they made knitted goods themselves. We bought a couple of baby hats.
     We stayed two nights at Lina Ryad, just outside the center of the action in the medina but still on a lively-enough street.  A couple of doors away is Lala Mesouda restaurant, worth a visit for its unusual cave-like decor as well as its traditional Moroccan food. The owner operates another restaurant, in the medina but further down the hill, with the same menu but without the distinctive setting.
     Lina Ryad has a nice hamman, spa and indoor pool. If you're visiting Chefchouen, you might as well book a hammam/spa visit because the medina and other sights will not fill an entire day.

The Chefchouen Kasbar as seen from its garden.

The sitting area in our room at Lina Ryad. The city's
blue theme is continued inside many buildings.

View from our window at Lina Ryad. Note the steps in the street to the right. 

An alley leads to the doors of
three homes in the medina. Here
even the pavement is painted blue.

Blue is the color. These buildings face a rare open space in the medina.

Laundry is done at public washboards along the
cascades in Chefchouen, a short walk from the medina.

Sneakers, dresses and other goods for sale along a street in the
medina. In addition to western tourists, Chefchouen also draws
visitors from elsewhere in Morocco.

Heavy chairs carved from the trunks of trees and elaborate brick arches create a cozy ambiance
at the restaurant Lala Mesouda, which seemed to attract a few locals along with the tourists.

When all else fails, drink, drink again. This is the view from one
of the rooftop terraces at Lina Ryad.