Castillo San Marcos

Castillo San Marcos
13th-century castle, El Puerto de Santa Maria. That WAS our house to the left and behind the tree!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Across the Strait of Gibraltar: AFRICA!

Yet another similarity between southern Spain and southern California, aside from the weather, the Mediterranean climate, the laid-back lifestyle, and the proximity of the ocean, is the lure of the exotic frontier.  I have always loved Tijuana, gritty though she may be; we can see the Tijuana bullring and the lights of this Mexican border city from our house in California. While it is not quite so close, the frontier city of Tanger (or Tangiers in English) beckons, and the African coast is quite visible across the Strait of Gibraltar from the Spanish port city of Tarifa.   So, one day, my visiting friend Dede and I ditched the kids and plunged into a whole new continent...

Spanish coast seen from Tanger, Morocco, Africa

Tanger has a reputation as the “Tijuana of Africa” and not the best place to see Morocco, but we had only one short day to see whatever we could fit in. I asked around the Rota naval community and found a wonderful guide, Jamal Chatt, (find him here) to help us take advantage of our time in Africa.  For 90 Euros each (about $112), Jamal was our personal guide and travel agent, arranging boat fare, lunch, shopping, a visit to the snake charmers, and even a camel ride…

Jamal Chatt, guide extraordinaire

Morocco is a Muslim country, although according to Jamal, a very modern one.  We did not need head coverings or skirts, but from the moment we got off the boat it was clear we were in a very different culture.  Men strode around in long robes, small taqiyah (skullcaps) on their heads, and nearly every woman had her head covered.  There are over 50 mosques in this port city, calling the faithful to prayer six times a day (4 am, 6 am, 1:30 pm, 5 pm, 8:30 pm, and 10:30 pm).  We visited the outside of Tanger’s Grand Mosque, built in the 1950s; there are separate entrances for men and women, no non-Muslims allowed. 

Grand Mosque's Men's Entrance
Neighborhood Mosque

We toured through Tanger first by car, stopping at viewpoints and important buildings and driving up to the Casbah (although we did not rock it).  At the top of this old fortress, built by the Portuguese in the 16th century over old Roman ruins, we found snake charmers, men willing to take their cobra out of its bag to make it flair its hood for the tourists, all for a couple Euros.  The show lasted only a few minutes, the snake-charmer’s partner beating on a tambourine-like instrument while the charmer himself wove back and forth across from the five-foot cobra.  Clearly against any US regulations!

Modern-day snake charmers
Morocco has 900 kilometers of gorgeous, mostly untouched beaches with (apparently) good surf.  We headed out to Cape Spartel, the mouth of the Mediterranean and the closest point between Europe and Africa, the Spanish coast clearly visible a mere 13 kilometers (8 miles) away.  History whispers here:  the Phoenicians crossed this straight from Africa to first settle the Spanish coast some 3000 years ago, followed by the Romans, and the tempting site of the Spanish hillsides made it easy to imagine the Berbers and other Arabic tribes sailing across in a Moorish invasion to conquer the entire Iberian peninsula around 780 A.D.  Morocco, incidentally, has a Catholic cathedral but very few Catholics, all of them foreign-born.  There is, however, a significant native Jewish population, as many Spanish Jews crossed this straight after the expulsion of all non-Catholics from Spain in 1492.  

Moroccan Beach Scene
It was here we found the camels.  Lining the road for the tourist buses that came through, the camels lay kneeling in the hot Moroccan sun patiently chewing their cud.  Dede and I clambered aboard two smiling steeds, and with a few Arabic shouts and a thwack with a stick, each camel lurched to its feet, hind legs rising first and the front legs following.  They are a LOT taller than horses, but the comfortable padding of the saddle-like collection of cloths felt secure.  I had no idea how to make a camel go and no stick of my own; the camel owner led us for a five-minute walk across the cliffs fronting a lovely little beach, stopping regularly for photo ops.  These desert beasts of burden, with their rolling gait and long-lashed gentle brown eyes, helped us feel like we were definitely exotic!

Camel Jockeys: no spitting allowed
Lunchtime found us in a beautiful, if touristy restaurant (our own fault, as Jamal had offered us a choice of three: “where the locals eat,”, a charcoal seafood restaurant, or this fresco-and-tile-covered, cushion-filled, foreigners-only haven, complete with musicians for your dining pleasure).  It was delicious, chicken pie and a couscous tangine, olives, bread and olive oil, and delightful tiny cookies for dessert. 

Moroccan musicians
Our final stop before heading home on the 6 pm boat was the Medina, a maze of tiny streets filled with various shops hawking everything from the ubiquitous Berber carpets to jewelry to Nike knock-offs to cheap clothes from China.  It was as to be expected, and just like Tijuana: three times as expensive as anything inland, and mostly junk at exorbitant prices.  Even after very aggressive bargaining and a vow to pay less than half the asking price, I only managed to match the prices I had found in an earlier trip to Granada, Spain!  I did, however, find some lovely tea glasses to complement the Moroccan tea pot my sister Suzanne had brought me from her own 25-hour trip to this fascinating country.   And the kids got some fun new costumes.

Still Life with Teapot

Charming Belly Dancers
In sum, our trip was a great introduction to this accessible culture, and left me with the desire to follow my German grandmother (a painter who traveled here extensively) and venture more deeply into Morocco.  Fez and Marrakech, here we come!


  1. Wonderful description of the day! I agree that the minute you step off the ferry, you know you're not in Kansas anymore. This was similar to the experience my sister and I had when we did a one-day venture there from Costa del Sol for her 50th birthday. We also have pictures of us on camels!

    I have a former student who is in Peace Corps in Morocco, in El Jadida. She has room for us to stay so we're considering going there for a few weeks next year. I think it would be a very different experience to be in the, as you put it, non-Tijuana part.

  2. What do you mean we did not rock the Casbah?? (or is it Kasba?). I think we rocked it!! Great description of our fun excursion. I still can't believe we were there. You forgot to mention the Hercules cave where we showed off our strength! Miss you and wish I was still there. I have been researching why the Spanish coffee is so much better. Think I found the answer. Now need to get me a machine! Next mission, perfect croissants!! xo Dede

  3. Really enjoyed this story. They really have such colorful interiors/buildings. Loved your photos...thanks for sharing!

  4. OMG, sister, your photos are fabulous!! And who is that skinny brown haired girl on the camel?? So cute! I loved reading this. It's been a tough day and it's just what I needed to put a smile on my face for bed. Although I almost cried when I saw the pic of Tia and Sash belly dancing. I miss you all so, so much. Viva Morocco! Let's go. Love you.


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