A Day Trip to Morocco
“To Africa!” Cried an old man pointing ferry passengers to the arrivals terminal at Tangier. This northern port city in Morocco has long been a gateway to the vast and magnificent continent for travellers from Europe. For me it was to be an exotic one day diversion during a holiday in Spain.
Visiting Africa from Europe in a day is not usually feasible but from Tarifa, a town on Spain’s southernmost tip it is just a 35-minute ferry ride away. I took a one-day tour with FRS Ferries, the main operator which runs regular services from Tarifa to Tangier and offers guided tours lasting from one to seven days.
The crossing was smooth on a large, modern ferry though the first part was spent queuing to have my passport stamped by the Moroccan authorities. I was met at the port by Fatima, a friendly guide with a broad smile contrasting her austere dress and headscarf. There were two of us that day, myself and a Spaniard and she switched between our two languages throughout the day. We were swiftly shown into a comfy minibus and set off into the city. We passed through the modern quarters of Tangier dominated by the white and sand coloured minaret of the new mosque. There were also churches. Morocco, and Tangier particularly, has been shaped by African, Arab and European influences. We continued up, away from the coast into suburbs where we passed consulates palaces and mansions. Occasionally views would open out of the sea and coastline below. We continued into lush countryside, not desert, until we reached a square where a herd of camels was tethered. For €2 we were offered a ride – just long enough to get a winning holiday snap.
As we drove on I marvelled at how much we had seen in just an hour. Had I come alone I would probably still have been at the port trying to get my bearings from a guidebook and shaking off street hawkers and pushy cab drivers. On the other hand it felt rather like we were on a safari and from the comfort of our air-conditioned vehicle were not really in the country in the proper sense.
Soon though were arrived back into the city where we were dropped off right in the hub of local life. A weekend souk (market) was in full progress. We passed women in traditional dress sat beside colourful heaps of fruit and vegetables. We arrived in the Grand Socco - the main square next to the medina area dominated by a mosque with a vivid pink minaret. We were taken into other souks housed in dark tunnels with stalls selling everything from pastries to electrical goods. It would have been easy to get lost in this network of caverns and side streets but Fatima led the way greeting shopkeepers and passersby every few yards.
We wound up at a restaurant for an early lunch, only 10am local time but Spanish time is two hours ahead in the summer. The restaurant was lavishly decorated with plump, comfy cushions on the seats and was empty apart from another small tour party and a group of musicians who played superb Moroccan folk songs at the start of each course. We enjoyed a three-course meal of traditional Moroccan cuisine. The starter was vegetable soup followed by lamb shish kebabs on alarmingly large sized skewers. The main course was chicken served with raisins and stewed vegetables on a bed of couscous. Baklava - a sweet pastry and Moroccan tea rounded off the meal and Fatima returned promptly to continue our tour.
We continued a twisting route through the medina to visit a selection of shops. We visited a carpet merchant with a huge showroom. The walls were covered with carpets of every imaginable design and he proceeded to lay out one after another for our inspection. Next we went to a pharmacy with walls lined with shelves containing jars of strange ingredients like a potions class at Hogwarts. A young man donned a white coat before giving a talk on some of the products. On being told I was English he replied, “no problem” and didn’t speak another word of English after that!
We visited other shops – treasure troves of jewellery, ornaments and ceramics. At one, the shopkeeper said there was a fifty percent discount that weekend but there were no prices on display. If you want to shop in Morocco there is nothing to do but haggle. In the last shop I was shown another selection of beautiful rugs by a skilful salesman and lively raconteur. In demonstrating the functionality of his wares he modelled one rug as a shawl, headdress and piece of wall art as if playing the old game from ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ Finally I asked the price and he quoted €80 before begging and cajoling me into making a counter offer – luring me into his game which ended with me paying €40 for the rug and a set of ceramic bowls.
We were granted a few minutes free time to walk the streets and take photos before being driven back to port in time to catch the 1pm sailing. We were back in Tarifa, Europe by mid-afternoon.
It is not possible to fully experience a country in such a short time but the well-organised programme allowed us to enjoy some of the best parts of its distinct culture and under Fatima’s guidance we were spared many of the hassles and dangers that the country is notorious for. Overall the experience was like the little cups of mint tea served in Morocco – short but sweet.
In addition to being an access point for Morocco, Tarifa is an appealing coastal town with enough attractions to fill a day or two:
The old town - Get lost in a network of narrow streets and traditional whitewashed buildings.
Isla de Las Palomas - Take a walk between the Atlantic and Mediterranean to this islet.
Castillo Guzman El Bueno - A well preserved fortress with impressive views of the seafront.
Whale and Dolphin Tours - Ticket outlets all over town offer tours that typically last 2 hours and offer the chance to see a range of large sea creatures. http://www.whalewatchtarifa.net/eng/
Windsurfing and Kitesurfing - Tarifa’s windy conditions have made it a hotspot for these sports with international tournaments hosted there. Lessons and equipment hire are available from a number of venues including www.tarifawindsurfing.com.
Day trips to Morocco from Tarifa can be booked on www.frs.es. The website is in Spanish, English, German and French. Ferry tickets can also be booked and the site gives details of longer excursions. These can be booked by phone or email.
Another company offering day trips from Tarifa is www.timeinspain.com who offers pick up by coach from various points outside Tarifa.
Visa Requirements - As always check before travelling but currently visas are not required for US, Canadian and EU citizens for visits up to 90 days. Your passport must be valid for at least 6 months.
There is no need to bring Moroccan currency on a one-day tour. The restaurant and shops accept Euros and other major currencies and most take plastic.