The tangled lanes of old Tangier are a cauldron of activity. (Rick Steves’ Europe)

The tangled lanes of old Tangier are a cauldron of activity. (Rick Steves’ Europe)

Tangier well worth a visit — but not with a tour group

Avoid the day-trippers’ groups and hire a private guide to show you the tantalizing Moroccan city.

As we’ve had to postpone our travels because of the pandemic, I believe a weekly dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. Here’s one of my favorite memories from Morocco — a reminder of the fun that awaits us at the other end of this crisis.

As I stand on the bow of my ferry, the Rock of Gibraltar disappears in the mist behind me, while the fabled Pillars of Hercules marking Africa appear ahead of me. I enjoy the thought that you encounter more cultural change by taking this hour-long ride from Spain to Morocco than you do by flying all the way from the U.S. to Spain.

For years, when I sailed from Tarifa across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangier, I braced myself for a city known as the armpit of Morocco. Tangier was long neglected. It was an “international city” — favored by the West and therefore disdained by the previous king of Morocco, who made a point of diverting national investment away from Morocco’s fourth city.

Hopping off my ferry, I’m eager to get up to date with the city. I’ve heard that everything changed when the current king, Mohammed VI, took the throne. He believes Tangier should be a great city once again. As a symbolic show of support, the first city he visited after his coronation was Tangier.

Walking out of the port, I see the king’s grand-scale restorations — the beach has been painstakingly cleaned, pedestrian promenades have popped up everywhere, and gardens bloom with lush, new greenery. The difference is breathtaking. The city, long exotic, is now likably exotic.

I hike up to the venerable Hotel Continental, where I stay when visiting. Hotel Continental takes me back to Bogart days. Gramophones gather dust on dressers under dingy lights. Day after day, a serene woman paints a figure-eight on the loose tiles with her mop.

In the morning, roosters and the call to prayer work together to wake me, along with the rest of this world. When the sun gets high enough to send a rainbow plunging into the harbor amid ferries busily coming and going, I stand on my balcony and survey Tangier kicking into gear. Women in colorful flowing robes walk to sweat shops adjacent to the port — happy to earn $15 a day sewing for big-name European clothing lines.

For little more than the cost of taking a standard tour, you can hire a private guide. With the luxury of my own guide, I venture into the old town. He leads me directly into the market. The scene is a wonderland, with everything on sale — except for pork, forbidden to Muslims. Mountains of brilliant olives, a full palette of spices, children with knives happy to perform for my camera. Each animal is slaughtered in accordance with halal: in the name of Allah, with a sharp blade, its head pointed to Mecca, ritually drained of its blood.

Most tourists I see on the streets are with large groups day tripping over from Spain. A typical day-trip tour includes the round-trip ferry crossing and a guide who meets you at the port. All offer the same five-hour experience: a city bus tour, the famous ride-a camel stop, a drive through the ritzy palace neighborhood, a walk through the market, a quick bit of snake charming, a visit to a sales-starved carpet shop, and finally lunch.

With my private guide, I walk essentially the same route and catch the same colorful glimpses of traditional folk culture. But I’m free to skip the tiresome photo ops, the kickback-oriented shopping stops and the tourist-trap lunch spot. I visit places that can’t handle large groups. And I enjoy the services of a knowledgeable and English-speaking local friend all to myself. He swats away hustlers and other guides.

While the tangled lanes of old Tangier are a cauldron of activity, rooftop tea houses let you enjoy a privileged tranquility while eavesdropping on all the commotion. Perched like a sultan, I sip chai — my chipped antique glass filled with tea leaves, steaming water and lots of sugar, as locals like it. Below us a tour group passes, walking in a tight single file. Clutching their purses and day bags nervously to their bellies like paranoid kangaroos, they trundle past one last gauntlet of street merchants hoping only to get safely back onto their ferry and “home” to Europe. I’m so comfortable, and they are so nervous and embattled. The scene seems pathetic, reminding me of some kind of self-inflicted hostage crisis.

Do yourself a favor: Visit Tangier … but not as part of a tour group.

Rick Steves writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours. This article was adapted from his new book, “For the Love of Europe.” You can email Rick at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

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