In September we traveled from Portugal (see blog here) to Spain (see blog here), and had a tiny window of time to fit in a day trip to Morocco, so we decided to book a tour with a small tour business recommended to us by friends. This turned out to be one of the best choices we have made yet in our travels! We loved our entire day of touristy highlights mixed with real, raw, behind-the-scenes life in Tangier. It was so fun, the kids didn’t want to leave! It was a nice break to have an expert in charge, sharing so much information about the area while showing us around. Our guide, Abu, seemed to know everyone, so we had little complimentary tastes of treats in many shops we stopped into as we zipped around the narrow Kasba streets with ease.
Our first stop overlooked the sea and showed the divide between the wealthy side of Tangier (known to locals as “California”) on the left, and the lower-income side of Tangier on the right. Tangier is usually a warm, comfortable climate and in the summer there is usually very little rain or cloud cover so it was unusual for the day to be overcast. We were hoping it would clear off for us and sure enough, it did – just in time for us to reach the coast.
Abu, our tour guide, explained that Moroccans have a rich history of varying occupations, which is why the languages people speak here are Arabic, French, English and Spanish. Most signs are written in Arabic and French, but the culture itself is uniquely Moroccan. Throughout our time we were able to see or experience most of the things Morocco is famous for: mint tea (mixed with green tea and honey), hand made rugs, spices, Argan oil products, tajine (a spicy dish), airy pancakes, couscous, olives, many stray cats, beautiful tile work and Moorish architecture everywhere! Our next stop was the northwest tip of Morocco, Africa where the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Oceans meet. The skies had cleared and we were greeted by little tables of vendors and two young boys with fuzzy donkeys. They knew this was a popular place for tours to stop and they took full advantage of that! We didn’t mind, of course, as the children love animals – especially baby ones! There was a baby donkey and a mother donkey that Willow got to sit on.
Shortly after seeing two bodies of water colliding, we drove by the long sandy beaches to a spot where our little family of camels was waiting for us. What a delight to see the mamas with their babies nursing between rides. It was amazing to watch these lumbering giants kneel down and then stand, walking in their gangly, goofy way along sandy coast. It was definitely a thrill to be together as a family on camels in Morocco – I just wish I could’ve bottled up the sounds of excitement Willow made when our camel stood up and began to walk! It was hilarious!
After this special experience, Abu brought us to the Hercules caves. We noticed in our travels that several places in the Straight of Gibraltar region used Hercules as their mascot or symbol. Hercules was all over buildings in Seville, Spain. The Pillars of Hercules stand on the tip of Gibraltar as the gateway to the Mediterranean Sea. Finally, the Caves of Hercules in Cape Spartel, Morocco were named from a legend telling how Hercules slept in this cave before performing great feats that created the pillars of Hercules on either side of the Straight of Gibraltar. At any rate, it is a beautiful cave. We have seen many caves, but this one had special meaning for local Moroccans. The shapes of the different rock formations represented points on a map, including the actual seaside entrance to the cave which is, from the outside, shaped like Africa. We had a very frail, sweet old man show us around the caves, and he explained that much of the cave had been excavated for large, round, disc-like pieces of stone. The stone was valuable to people at the time as it was loaded with seashells and minerals and was seen as an important slat to grind flour and grains on. “They would grind, and it would add calcium to the flour,” he told us. It was clear from the shape of the inside walls that a great deal of the cave was cut away for these purposes. It was quite large inside, and we even saw a room full of sleeping bats! It was quite dark inside and our guide used a flashlight to point out different rock formations of meaning, so photographs were nearly impossible.
After the caves (and spotting tons of stray cats) we continued along our journey into town. We had worked up quite an appetite by this point, and the kids were getting anxious to have some lunch, so Abu opted to make our next stop a walk through the market where he had made us reservations for lunch. Willow had taken a liking to Abu at this point, so she held his hand as we walked through the “Kasba” or inner walls of the city. It was such a privilege to be with Abu, who seemed to know everyone, and get a real, behind-the-scenes experience in Tangier! He first showed us a little confectionery shop where he let us all choose a little cookie to try. These nut-based cookies were a delight! Honey is a common ingredient here, and it was obvious by the swarms of BEES all through this shop – even inside the display cases! It was amazing. We walked up, through, and around narrow alley ways and keyhole door openings with walls three stories high. Some of the doors to the ‘hotels’ in these parts were very elaborate, and we just had to snag photos of them!
At one point we heard loud shouting and singing. Abu alerted us that it sounded like a funeral procession was coming our way, so we stepped aside to allow them to pass. Sure enough, a group of men and boys were marching jovially along with their loved one held high on what appeared to be a covered stretcher, chanting and celebrating (?), and passed us just before entering the nearby mosque. After they passed, the Imam who greeted them noticed us, and gave a big smile and wave to our girls, who got a pat on the head as we passed him. It was so cute! They smiled right back.
Soon we reached the courtyard near our restaurant. As we walked, Abu told us about the King of Morocco, who is the very first king to allow his wife to be seen. “His mother,” Abu went on, “was always covered. This King is more modern and decided to be open and break with tradition.” We also learned that Lalla, the King’s red-headed bride, is the first to have an official royal title and be publicly acknowledged. It sounded like they are a well loved family.
Although we had seen glimpses of the beautiful Moorish architecture and tile work around the Kasba, there was a stunning example just before our lunch where we just had to stop and take photos. Through this courtyard was our restaurant, La Terraza de la Medina, overlooking the whole Tangier bay where we entered that morning on the ferry. It was a spectacular view and a wonderful place to stop for lunch with a sleepy and cranky Willow…
During our yummy lunch of Moroccan salad, tajine (lamb and chicken), skewers with Moroccan spices and soooo many olives, we listened to beautiful traditional music played by two gentlemen on an Oud (lute-type instrument) and a Darbuka (hand drum) and before we left, they encouraged the girls play the tambourine. They loved it! Especially wearing the fez (hat).
After a delicious and fun lunch of local treats, Willow (and all of us) were re-charged for an afternoon of shopping around the Kasba. Before venturing out to the market, Abu had a little “surprise” for us. A little old man emerged from a nearby doorway carrying a wooden box. He was dressed in traditional Moroccan garments (known as a djellaba) and was wearing a turban. Right away Derek said, “Oh, no. If that’s a snake I’m out of here!” Sure enough, he slowly opened the box and pulled out a black king cobra! The children squealed with delight and amazement – and Derek took big steps back. We couldn’t believe it! He began “charming” the snake to do different movements, showing his skills. Next he took out a little light brown grass snake and encouraged all of us to hold it – which we all did, except for Derek! “I’ve always wanted to do that!” exclaimed Didi, “Me too!” said Willow. These kids were totally engaged with it all…
After the snake experience, we were off to the market. So, through the winding alleyways we went. We stopped at a few shops where Abu knew the owners or workers, and he pointed out traditional clothing, fancy handmade embroidered items, shops with bins of candy, olives, spices, or nuts as far as the eye could see, and even a butcher who was de-feathering a chicken. The kids were amazed by this (they didn’t grow up on a farm) and when the butcher noticed the kids watching, he reached down and picked up a huge live rooster from under his counter. HA! They all laughed and the kids’ jaws dropped. The butcher looked at us like, “Want us to do it?” And we just laughed and smiled and continued on our way. Along the way, Abu took us into a tiny doorway in a back-alley and down into what felt like a pit. If we didn’t trust Abu with our safety, this would have felt very sketchy indeed! Instead it was a totally eye-opening encounter with the resident “wood-oven baker,” whose job it was to bake items that people bring to him. “You see, not everyone here has an oven. If they want something baked, they can bring it to him and he bakes it for them for a small fee. He bakes all day long in his oven.” He was SO friendly and SO sweet with the children, letting them get right down with him and even try some of the treats he was baking. We saw a big dish of tajine cooking in the oven! Someone would come later to pick it up for their dinner. Imagine.
As we passed shops, Abu pointed out traditional marriage gifts and explained with a laugh, “that’s why I’m not married.” He pointed out older men sitting in a park and said, “these men don’t have work, so they come and sit. The work they could get pays so little that it is not worth it for them.” He stopped in the main square and pointed out the one movie theater in Tangier, saying that Netflix and IMAX have replaced the older movie theaters. Then he pointed out men sitting along the sidewalk with buckets of tools, electrical, or paint supplies and explained that when people need a handy man, carpenter or worker of some sort they drive by and choose one of these men to help them. “They don’t call a company, they just come here. And they want to choose someone with less of a tanned face, because that means they have been doing more jobs and not just sitting out here in the sun getting burned.”
We passed a few mosques, and this one Abu let me photograph inside. We heard the Muslim prayers several times throughout the day and would see people making their way to the mosques, taking off their shoes and heading inside. Abu explained that there are separate areas for men and women in the mosques but I couldn’t quite tell where the men’s and women’s entrances were.
Eventually we came to a beautiful Argan Oil and spice shop, as well as a consignment store FULL of rugs, pottery and leather goods. We shopped around a bit, and even picked out a few souvenirs to bring home. I couldn’t leave without mint tea! It was overwhelming at times – just ALL THE THINGS – but also beautiful and mesmerizing. Impressively, the kids didn’t ask for much, but Didi and Beau left with some embroidery floss to make friendship bracelets and Willow was tickled to have a dyed geode.
After spending the last hours of the day shopping around, we had to make it back to the port of Tangier to head back to Tarifa, Spain. On the way we saw the newest Mosque in Tangier and the hotel that Rick Steves always stays in when he comes to Tangier.
We all had such an amazing day – the kids didn’t want to leave! We have so much gratitude for Jamal Chat Tours and our tour guide Abu for giving us such an incredible, full day of fun in Tangier, Morocco. It’s one country we look forward to returning to one day!