I recently realized that I had a nearly completed draft detailing Part 1 of our trip to Casablanca and Tangier, Morocco two years ago…that I never published. I know that I meant to publish it but I have no idea what happened! SO, here it is, the first several days of our Moroccan adventure in 2015. Enjoy!
“Tangier is one of the few places left in the world where, so long as you don’t proceed to robbery, violence, or some form of crude, antisocial behavior, you can do exactly what you want.” – William S. Burroughs
We flew from SFO to JFK on Jet Blue; it was easy and painless. Then we had a three hour layover before boarding Royal Air Maroc for our seven hour flight to Casablanca. The plane was a brand new dreamliner and was SO nice. Each of the leather seats had a nine inch touch screen with plenty of free movies and TV plus a USB port at each seat. NICE. As soon as we boarded the plane loud Arabian music began playing and continued until we were 10,000 feet in the air. To my untrained ears it sounded a lot like Indian music…but what do I know. We were seated in Economy and were perfectly comfortable. Royal Air Maroc does not have a Premium Economy section for this flight, which is what I prefer to fly when Business is too expensive.
Sam and I were some of the only Americans flying to Morocco on this flight. It was a full flight and truly an immediately immersive experience into Middle Eastern and African culture. All of the women onboard wore a head covering of some kind. I heard almost no English. My seat mate was a young Moroccan mother traveling with her 18 month old son. She was also pregnant and we can all imagine how tiring it is to travel while battling morning sickness and caring for a toddler. I held her son a few times on the trip and loved being able to help. Sam’s seat mates were from Liberia and spoke very little English. It was our first time flying back to Africa since our journey in 2010 to Ethiopia and honestly, it felt like going home.
Once we landed in Casablanca, we each took up residence in the bathroom to change clothes and clean up a bit. Brushing your teeth and applying deoderant after a long flight is positively renewing. I’m glad that we took our time cleaning up because we stood in customs for nearly two hours. Just STANDING. We hardly ever moved more than a snails pace every 15 minutes. I still do not know why it took so long. It was hot and dingy in that part of the airport and I needed to do some positive thinking/deep breathing/digging deep to GET THROUGH the ridiculousness of it all. Plus…jet laaaaaggggggg… I did not have a great impression of the Casablanca airport.
Finally it was over and we were through. We ran out to the taxi line and I quickly asked the first driver I saw if he spoke English. Ummmm…clearly he did not. I switched to French and got us on our way to the Casa Voys train station in Casablanca. For some reason, I thought that this taxi trip would be five minutes long. It was more like 25-30 minutes. My brain was fried from traveling and I quickly realized that I was going to need my French to come through for me in a big way because people were NOT speaking English.
After an initial scuffle with the taxi driver over the price (our first attempted shake down of the trip) we ran into the train station with about 15 minutes to spare to make our train. I had studied up on all of my train station/purchasing vocabulary and it worked perfectly! I think it was about $50 for both of our tickets. Let this be a lesson to you: study the languages you will be encountering on your international journeys. It makes everything so much easier! Also as a side note, we decided early in our trip planning to simply land in Casablanca and be on our way. There isn’t much to see or do there (although the name evokes a mysterious Hollywood glamour) and we wanted to spend two nights in Tangier.
Have you seen the film Darjeeling Limited? It is a favorite of ours. The train travel in that film was fairly similar to what we encountered in Morocco. We booked a first class compartment, which is just a fancy way for saying that there were six comfortable seats inside our compartment instead of eight or ten cramped seats like in the second class cars. There was a snack cart that would come through the compartments every hour or so and a rudimentary bathroom at either end of the car. The seats were comfortable and we were wiped from being awake for nearly 24 hours. We both crashed as the train made its way through the countryside from Casablanca to Tangier. The journey took about 4 1/2 hours.
Upon arriving in the port city of Tangier, we ran from the train to grab a taxi. Our taxi driver was a bit of a hustler but at least he was pleasant about it. He drove a circa 1970 Mercedes sedan, had on a red and white striped shirt, a cigarette behind his ear and spoke only French. It was like something out of an old movie and I was all heart eyes for it.
We stayed at the riad Dar Chams Tanja near the wall of the old Kasbah.
We later discovered Dar Chams was in a GREAT location. I would absolutely stay there again. The owners were an older French couple and really charming. They spoke almost no English so I was up to bat again with translating duties. By the time I went to bed on that first night my brain was so tired of translating. Our hosts got us situated with pastries and our first proper cups of mint tea on the roof.
Up on the roof was the first time that we heard the call to prayer from mosques across Tangier. I can’t fully describe how incredible it was to hear in person for the first time. I loved it. I never got tired of hearing it and looked forward to it every day of our 12 days in Morocco.
We had the best views of the old city as well as the port from the roof of our riad.
Eventually we headed out looking for dinner (it was nearly 5:30 PM). We took our cues from Anthony Bourdain and his CNN Parts Unknown special on Tangier. He had talked about Cafe Tingis, Cafe Baba and a magnificent meal at Saveur de Poisson. We set out to find all three.
We literally stumbled onto the legendary Cafe Tingis! I was so excited. Cafe Tingis is located in the historic Petit Socco (or Little Square) of Tangier and has been around since early Venetian times.
Next it was onto the famous Saveur de Poisson. YOU GUYS. This was best meal I had the entire time I was in Morocco. This wasn’t just a meal, it was an experience. Saveur de Poisson is only open for a few hours in the afternoon and then after 7:00 PM in the evening. The owner brings in herbs and vegetables from his farm somewhere near Tangier. No one really speaks English. The restaurant is very small and rustic and smells divine. There is no menu and dinner comes in four courses. We began with olives and some kind of insanely delicious sauce and breads and nuts.
Just looking at the above photo makes me feel crazy inside. The next course brought a seafood soup and then the best fish I have ever tasted. The olives? Out of this world. We ate shark for the first time and dove into dishes of food where we had no idea what we were eating. It didn’t matter; everything was delicious. At one point I asked for a glass of water and was told, “No water. Only juice”. The juice was some crazy pulpy blend of grapes and plums and maybe blueberries? I lapped it up. Dessert was honey drizzled over berries and almonds.
Sam remembered the happy character in the photo above from the Anthony Bourdain CNN special. This man is the owner and spends the evening running around the small restaurant space filling bowls, bringing heaps and heaps of fish and breads, smiling and laughing with the guests. He did not speak French or English, only Arabic, so our communications were pointing and simple phrases. We soon noticed he was bringing us more treats than the other tables (extra berries and honey, more mint tea). Finally as we were leaving, he washed off two sets of wooden spoons and forks, gave them to me and hugged both me and Sam. It was a magical evening and the perfect end to our first night in Morocco. If you ever find yourself in Tangier you MUST go to Saveur de Poisson. If you do nothing else, go there.
We slept well on our first night in Morocco. I find that it is always tricky sleeping soundly in a new place. We were awakened by the middle of the night call to prayer around 3:30 or 4 AM. We had left our bathroom window open and the minaret loudspeakers woke us immediately. But we loved it! We actually left our room and tried to get onto the roof of the riad so that we could hear more clearly but the door was bolted shut. Jet lag is such a strange thing. We were wide awake at 4:00 AM and then slowly drifted back off to sleep. We never set an alarm for the morning.
I awoke first and glanced at my tablet. The time said 7:35 AM. Awesome! This left plenty of time to get breakfast and head out into the city. Suddenly I realized that my tablet was still on NY time. I ran over to where my phone was charging and discovered that it was actually 12:35 PM in Morocco! YIKES. We had already slept the entire morning away!
After scrambling to get ready and eating a very late breakfast we headed into town. Our plan for today was heading down to the port to see all of the fishermen. A man on our train had given us the tip of going to the port then veering off to the right where there was a place to eat fresh seafood. He told us that there were platters and platters of shrimp and fish and it was really cheap. Sign us up!
The first thing I noticed about Tangier, and Morocco in general, is that there are A LOT of men around. Just…around. Guys between 18 and maybe 35, in groups of three or more, hanging around street corners and doorways and alleyways and cafes. There is a restless energy around these men. It was unsettling until I realized that it just felt unfamiliar and they meant no harm (generally speaking). School ends for most kids around age 15 and then they are expected to help provide for their families. Only wealthy families can afford to send their children on to higher education. There aren’t a lot of good jobs and as a result people either have to be very resourceful (ie: hustling travel guides) or wait out the downtime.
I think if I had been traveling alone or just with a group of women I would have been more unsettled by this preponderance of restless male energy but because I was with Sam I wasn’t as bothered by it. Still, it is something to be aware of if you are planning to spend time in Morocco.
The port was large and teeming with activity. There were NO women anywhere. I noticed this after we had been walking around for about 15 minutes. No Moroccan women, no tourist women. No women. This was one of the only times on our trip that I felt a little uneasy. Not scared, not worried; just a bit uneasy. No one bothered us; these guys were all busy doing their jobs.
We followed the directions the man on the train gave us and sure enough, we ran right into a large covered area filled with customers. Here as with most other places in Tangier it was necessary to communicate in French. Luckily it was easy and the large platter of fresh unpeeled shrimp a man brought to us was fantastic. We were able to eat fairly leisurely while people watching. It was a comfortable way to spend an hour.
Also, another note on eating in Morocco: unless you are eating soup, no one really uses utensils. You eat with your right hand and use table bread to scoop meats, vegetables, and sauces into your mouth. It is surprisingly easy to get the hang of; I found I didn’t miss forks and knives at all. There is always a small sink near the dining area that is just for washing up before and after eating. Most of the time instead of paper or fabric napkins we were given thin sheets of butcher-like paper.
When we finished we walked back up into the medina. Eventually we made our way to a pastry shop and filled up on an assortment of desserts. None of them were stellar but the sweetness helped and the air con inside was strong. Again, it was a great place to just sit and people watch.
I never realized how little I people watch in my daily life at home. Do you know why? Because the pull of my fancy Iphone is too strong. Wifi connects me to everyone and everything and I am so used to pulling out my phone whenever there is more than 10 seconds of downtime. For our trip to Morocco, we turned off all cellular data. Our phones only worked when we were around wifi, which usually meant we only had connection in our riads at the beginning and end of the day. This meant no Instagram or Facebook status checking or CNN or weather or blog checking while we were out and about. It was incredibly liberating after just one day. My people watching skills came back! I was in the moment, soaking up what was going on around me.
And honestly, I needed my brain at full capacity because I had to speak French 90% of the time while in Tangier. We spoke no Arabic except for “la” which means “no” and “selam” which stands in for “hi”. After only a day or so I didn’t miss the constant wifi at all. Shocking but true.
We spent the balance of our last day in Tangier wandering. Wandering is the BEST way to see any city in Morocco. It’s the best way to see any city ANYWHERE, am I right? We found a local guide who wasn’t pushy and spoke great English (thank goodness for a brief reprieve from translating into French). We asked him to take us to a restaurant that he liked; nothing touristy. Naturally, I didn’t write the name down of where we had dinner but OH MY GOODNESS the food was sublime. It was here that we were introduced to our new favorite food in Morocco, the pastille.
After dinner we continued to wander with our guide through the streets of Tangier. We explained that we had no interest in the touristy version of Tangier; we wanted to see where the locals shopped and ate and worshipped. It was great to go off the beaten path for a few hours. Eventually, we made our way to the famous Cafe Baba. This place is known as hash heaven, and while we didn’t partake of the legendary Cafe Baba smoke culture, we loved being a part of the vibe. Funnily enough, we discovered that Cafe Baba was literally around the corner from our riad!
After a long day of walking and taking in all that Tangier had to offer, we headed back to our riad to pack up and have a good night sleep. The next morning, we headed to Fez. More on that to come 🙂