Tangier, Morocco and the Cave of Hercules

To recap: Rachel, Baby Dana and I found inexpensive roundtrip tickets between Philadelphia and Madrid.  We arrived around noon on March 2, 2017, joining Rachel’s parents.  The following morning, Friday March 3, we headed back to Barajas Airport to take a flight to Morocco.  It was considerably cheaper to buy a separate ticket from Spain rather than fly from the United States to Morocco on one itinerary.  Of course, given that they were not connected itineraries, they had to be on different days to be safe.  (Indeed, we might still have been in trouble if, after our first flight from Philadelphia was cancelled, Delta hadn’t rebooked us for a flight on the same day).

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Board at the gate for our flight to Morocco. Lowell Silverman photography, 2017

We arrived at Barajas Terminal 4’s maze of check-in desks.  A courteous Iberia staffer pointed us to a dedicated check in station for families.  We made our way to security, where once again there was a dedicated family lane under a cute sign reading “BIENVENIDOS PEQUES” (Welcome little ones).  The flight departed from the Terminal 4S, which is connected to Terminal 4 by shuttle train.  At the designated boarding time, we headed downstairs to a bus which drove us out into the field to an CRJ-1000 belonging to Air Nostrum, an Iberia regional airline.  The flight was unremarkable, with clouds obscuring most of the scenery.

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The area east of Tangier

I struggled to get my bearings once we had descended through the canopy of clouds.  The terrain was quite green, so I assumed we were still over Spain.  When it was clear that we were actually going to land soon, I joked to the rest of the family that I hoped I booked tickets for the right Tangier.  I’m a bit embarrassed now to admit that I’d pictured all of North Africa as being quite arid.  In fact, the area around Tangier has a Mediterranean climate and a decent amount of rainfall except in summer.

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Tangier seen on approach to Ibn Battouta

The flight approached Tangier from the east, passing a wind farm on the hills outside the city.  I recognized the city and its port from the maps I’d studied prior to the trip.  Some mosques and a large stadium were also visible on approach.  The flight landed under a brooding sky.  No sooner had we gotten inside the terminal than heavy rain began.

Entering Morocco was a bit more time consuming than the European Union had been.  We had to fill out entry sheets which passport officers studied intently and entered into a computer before stamping our passports.  We also had to run our luggage through machines at customs.

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After clearing customs, we located our guide, Zainab, at the entrance.  Zainab, a translator by trade, had worked for Rachel’s cousin previously.  My reading about Tangier strongly recommended hiring a local guide.  Not only is the medina quite the labyrinth, but unaccompanied tourists are likely to be hassled by locals who insist on showing them stores or restaurants in exchange for tips or kickbacks.  Rick Steves also cautioned that one must chose wisely; hire the wrong one and you might find yourself in stores where the guide is getting a cut of your purchases rather than actually seeing the city.

Our party was a little too large for Zainab’s car, so my father-in-law Bart and I caught a taxi to downtown Tangier (150 D or about $15).  The drive seemed somewhat roundabout, apparently due to some bridges being closed.  Taxis prefer to drop you off at a parking lot downhill from the medina.  Zainab and the ladies had gotten held up leaving the airport by some sort of traffic issue, so my father-in-law and I headed for the hotel on our own.  A boy offered to show us the way to the hotel, the Dar Souran.  I agreed because the alternative was relying on Google Maps to make our way through the maze in the pouring rain.

Since Baby Dana’s arrival, Rachel and I have found packing light to be impractical.  My father-in-law also packed a jaw-dropping amount of luggage in two suitcases that must have weighed 50 lbs (22.7 kg) together.  He insisted on carrying it uphill, refusing all offers of assistance from me and our young guide while huffing and puffing all the way.

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The unremarkable entrance to the Dar Souran belies its lovely interior

Upon arrival at the beautifully maintained hotel (a riad with all the rooms around a central courtyard, in this case one covered by a glass ceiling), my father-in-law declared that we could not possibly stay there…ostensibly because his wife, would not be able to handle the hill.  I replied that we might as well check in because we would not be getting a refund at this point.

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Our hotel room at the Dar Souran, in Tangier’s medina

After a few minutes, the ladies joined us at the hotel, none the worse for wear.  As it turned out, vehicles could get partway up the hill and much closer to the hotel…most taxi drivers simply preferred not to do so because they would then have to carefully back out.  The hotel was actually only about a block from a road that went a ways into the medina, but we mostly only saw service vehicles traveling it.  I think we would have missed a lot of the experience of the Tangier if we’d stayed at, say, the Hilton Garden Inn instead of a hotel in the medina.  Still, I realize that in the future I would have to take into account the physical abilities of all members of the party when booking.

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A boat at the port of Tangier

By the time we were settled at the hotel, the rain had cleared up.  One of the hotel staff members called a van style taxi for us.  Taxi is definitely the best way to travel in the greater Tangier area; the taxi took the entire group to multiple places over the course of four hours for 400 MAD (about $40).  We asked to see the Cave of Hercules, which is located on the Atlantic coast west of downtown.

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Cape Spartel Lighthouse

The driver was definitely laid back in comparison with taxi drivers I’d ridden with in big cities…those guys are always in a hurry to get rid of you so they can find their next fare.  He even made a couple of interesting, unsolicited stops along the drive to the cave.  The first was at an estate that he said belonged to the Saudi king.  The second was at Cape Spartel, where the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea meet at the Strait of Gibraltar.  The mid-19th century lighthouse there was actually the subject of an international treaty in which the United States and European powers agreed to guarantee the lighthouse’s neutrality and to pay for its upkeep.

When we arrived at the Cave of Hercules, a strong wind was blowing in off the ocean.  The walking path leading into the cave is tiled but rather steep.  Fortunately for the older members of our party, there wasn’t too much walking required inside the cave itself.  The cave opens to the ocean with a shape that is said to resemble the continent of Africa on a map.

The stiff wind made for heavy wave action at the mouth of the cave.  Aside from the mouth of the cave facing the ocean, there are a few chambers visitors can explore.  Our taxi driver pointed out one area that is sort of like a tunnel between chambers (though one needs a light to even see through it!).  In one of these chambers, my father-in-law suddenly fell flat on his face.  One hand broke his fall, while the other lifted his Nikon like a football player straining to cross the goal line.

“Don’t worry!” he bellowed. “The camera’s ok!”

“Nobody cares about your camera right now!” I sputtered, in disbelief about his priorities.

One local custom that surprised us was that several women approached Rachel and Baby Dana in the cave and asked to kiss the baby.  Once given permission, they kissed her on the cheek!

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Tangier
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Streets near the Kasbah

Leaving the cave, we headed back to Tangier to see the Kasbah, variously translated as a palace or fortress.  Zainab said some of it was closed for restoration, but we briefly stopped at the museum there.  Some artifacts, some dating back as far back as Neolithic times, were on display with captions in Arabic and French.  The intricacies of the architecture were a preview of the sort of impressive buildings we would see at Granada’s Alhambra.

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Kasbah

After seeing the Kasbah, we returned to our hotel until dinner.  One of the hotel’s staff volunteered to guide us to a restaurant, also named Kasbah.  Due to the mazelike nature of the Medina, this was basically required.  No map would have helped!

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Streets of the medina

It takes a lot for a meal to impress me.  Rachel often gets aggravated when, in the course of a perfectly good meal, she will ask me how the food is and I’ll just shrug and say something like, “Ehhh.”  This meal, however, may have been the best I’ve had in years.  There were two menu choices per course, though everybody had the same thing.

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Pastilla

First course was vegetable soup along with Moroccan bread.  Second was pastilla (aka bastilla), a chicken pie with a pastry dough topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar.  The third course couscous with chicken, the best couscous I’ve ever had (spices to perfection).  Zainab mentioned that couscous is traditionally eaten on Fridays, so we’d come on the right day.  For dessert, fruit and a pastry that resembled baklava.  Our hotel guide returned to walk us back after the meal.

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Couscous and chicken
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