The international port city of Tangier, Morocco lies a mere nine miles from Spain’s southern border, just across the Strait of Gibraltar. It’s basically the front door to Africa and has long been the shortest and most direct route for Europeans to escape European weather by holidaying in sunny Africa.
Now, that’s not to say that the Moroccans have always been super-enthusiastic about the Continentals showing up all the time, what with their weird shoes, funny-smelling cheeses, and penchant for colonization.
But Tangier has been a gateway for African travelers going to Europe as well. And not all of them were simple tourists going to experience shitty weather for the first time.
Tangier and Europe have a history that’s checkered, if not paisley-ed.
The armies of North Africa and Continental Europe have a long history of “visiting” each other’s homelands and over-staying their welcomes a bit, sometimes by centuries.
These extended visitations weren’t simply a form of cultural exchange (though they did heavily influence each other’s art and architecture). No, these stop-overs were straight up land-grabs and heavy-handed attempts to control water access between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. [Ed. Note: This was long before Aquaman helped negotiate the historic Terrestrial And Marine Peace Accord (TAMPA) in 1955.]
The 36-mile long Strait of Gibraltar has always been a strategic military choke point. Yet in order to exploit it, you needed to control both the European and African sides, otherwise you get the whole “kid pitting mom and dad against each other” scenario.
So ownership dibs on the Strait have gone back and forth between the Africans and Europeans since the invention of boats. In fact, the Spanish were in Morocco so often, and for so long, that the two border towns of Melilla and Ceuta (aka, Sebtah) are still technically part of Spain—kinda like the way Boca Raton is technically part of New York.
Today, Tangier is Morocco’s welcome mat.
We flew to Tangier from Portugal after briefly mulling over the option of swimming (but this was a three-week vacation, so we just had too many bags). Tangier was our official entry point into Africa for the third—and unexpectedly final—leg of our trip (To find out why, read “Our mostly true tale of survival during a global pandemic”).
We promptly met up with Hamid, the driver we’d hired for a 10-day trek around the vast and rugged splendor of Morocco. Hamid was, and presumably still is, a strapping young and indigenous Berber with a ready smile, a cheerful disposition, and an MP3 collection that defied description—I’m not sure whether he selected music that he liked to listen to, or music that he thought we’d like to listen to, but he was very confused on both counts.
Hamid met us outside Tangier Ibn Battouta Airport, took our bags, and immediately showed us one of Tangier’s more recent economic wonders: early morning rush-hour traffic.
Despite the country being an off-roader’s paradise—with miles of sand dunes and barren wilderness in every direction—most Moroccans nevertheless stick to the country’s paved roads, choking traffic like dads picking up their daughters after a Zina Daoudia concert.
What’s driving the economy of Tangier, Morocco (besides weed).
It seems that a large part of Tangier’s adult population is employed by the French auto industry, and PSA Peugeot Citroën in particular. The Treaty of Fes made Morocco a French protectorate in 1912, so it’s not surprising that the country has deep economic ties with France. Yet Morocco also trades with most of continental Europe as well—hey, where else are they gonna get Toblerones and Nutella?
Due to the country’s location at the top-end of Africa, cross-continental commerce was to be expected. Most of Morocco’s imports and exports go through Tangier’s shipping port which, with the completion of its new terminal, becomes the Mediterranean’s largest port in terms of container processing capacity, which means factory-to-Frenchman car deliveries in just 48 hours.
Some random facts about Tangier, Morocco that I didn’t know.
With a population of almost a million people, Tangier is the third largest city in Morocco, after Casablanca (the city from the eponymous 1942 film about Bogart collaborating with French Nazis), and Fes, or Fez (the city best known for the tiny, red hats that drunken American idiots culturally appropriated in 1872 for their secret society of do-gooding funsters).
Thanks to America’s post-World War II fascination with exotic locales, Tangier was a popular setting for many films, novels, and music around the middle of the 20th Century. It was also a popular setting for getting seriously baked as the nearby Rif Mountains produced camel-dung-loads of kif (aka kief), a mix of finely-chopped marijuana and tobacco.
Unsurprisingly, Tangier attracted its fair share of dirty hippies in the 1960s. By the 1970s, however, the city’s growing criminal activity gave the city a reputation which drove away tourism faster than a COVID-19 spike. The local government has since made major strides to restore the city’s languishing tourist industry by cleaning up its beaches, adding sidewalk cafés and nightclubs, as well as building a new port for cruise ships so passengers don’t have to disembark next to drug-smugglers loading shipping containers with heroin.
What to see and do in Tangier, Morocco when you only have 90 minutes.
If you’re going all the way to Tangier, Morocco just to spend an hour and a half, you have to be pretty thoughtful about where you spend your time. Luckily, I have some suggestions for you—okay, just two, actually. But first, let’s discuss why you’d even want to visit a city that you likely only know from blockbuster Hollywood movies such as “Tangier,” “Tangiers,” “Man from Tangier,” and “The Woman from Tangier.”
What not to do while in Tangier, Morocco.
With only an hour and a half to kill, playing 18-holes is out of the question. And that’s good, because even though the place has perfect weather for golf—arid and dry with cloudless blue skies—there aren’t any good golf courses in Tangier.
The reason is probably because Tangier’s terrain is too mountainous for golf carts that don’t have monster-truck wheels, and using donkeys would destroy the fairways with hoof-shaped divots.
It’s no great loss, though, as I didn’t get the impression that the native Berber people—who settled here before the Muslims arrived in 680 CE—were really the “polo shirts and spikes” type. I can say definitively that there are no Berbers named “Chad” or “Buffy.”
But perhaps the biggest reason to avoid golf in Tangier is the whole “no alcohol” thing the Muslims have going on around Morocco—I mean, what’s the point of golfing sober? No, seriously…I’m asking.
Two must-see sights to see in Tangier, Morocco.
1.) Visit Cape Spartel if you want to see two bodies of water “doing it.”
Cape Spartel is a promontory headland about eight miles west of Tangiers and at the top of the Western coast of Morocco. It’s often incorrectly considered the northernmost point of Africa (a distinction that goes to Ras ben Sakka in Tunisia). Instead, Cape Spartel is merely the Most North–Western point of Africa, and there’s no trophy or prize money for a claim-to-fame that lame.
No, the real reason people visit the Cape is for the view. Standing on the cliff edge, 1,000 feet above sea level, you can simultaneously see both the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea (or, at least, the Alboran Sea) in one eyeful.
Yet, unlike the rather stunningly visible difference between the Sea Of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean, the difference between these two aquatic entities is subtle at best. You’d be hard-pressed to identify either in a police line-up if for no other reason than you’d never be able to fit them into a squad car, and police vans are notoriously leak-prone.
So, what about that lighthouse thing?
While you’re visiting the Cape, it’s kinda hard to miss the 80-foot tall, square masonry tower with its fancy castellated gallery, blue lantern, and Fresnel lens. There’s also an attached two-story keeper’s house where a lonely hermit stares out a window going slowly insane trying to determine which body of water is which.
The lighthouse marks the southeastern entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar. It was built between 1861 and 1864 by the on-again, off-again Sultan Mohammed IV. And, after being deposed five separate times—by his own brothers, no less—Mohammed IV had the foresight to hand over responsibility for its operations to more stable governments like Western Europe and the US (pre-Trump era, obviously).
The Moroccans regained control of the lighthouse when they regained control of their country after almost half a century of the French and Spanish not taking the hint to GTFO.
2.) The Caves of Hercules are worth seeing if you can (it’s pretty dark inside).
An archaeological complex located below Cape Spartel, The Caves of Hercules have two openings, one from the sea and one from land. We used the land opening since we had driven to the caves and didn’t trust that our Toyota SUV was submersible.
Rumor has it that Hercules stayed and slept in this cave before “getting golden apples from the Hesperides Garden” (which is what the kids back then called getting busy with the “Daughters of the Evening”). Previously, King Eurystheus had assigned Hercules twelve labors to complete before EOQ if he wanted to get the promotion to VP Eurystheus had promised Carl in Sales.
Getting to the Garden meant climbing the Atlas mountains, no small feat, even for the son of Zeus. So Hercules, being the poster boy for toxic masculinity that he was, instead just smashed through the mountains.
In doing so, Hercules connected the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. And that, my friend, is how the Strait of Gibraltar was formed, not the movements of Earth’s crustal plates, two meteor impacts, or any other heretical nonsense. Praise Zeus!
Is there anything else to see in Tangier, Morocco?
As a large international city with a rich culture, vibrant arts scene, and a long, proud history, there are a lot of good reasons to visit Tangier, but I certainly didn’t learn about any of them. (Sorry, Tangier.)
Honestly, we were just passing through on our way to Chefchaouen.