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Saturday, 01 July 2006

Tangier: The White City - A City Full of Color

Written by Michelle Won Belanger
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ImageI should be picturing scenes from Casablanca as I sit in the catamaran, which ferries from Tarifa, Spain to Tangier: the so-called White City of Morocco. Instead, I’m imagining Raiders of the Lost Ark with turban-wearing, swash-buckling fighters carrying fez-wearing monkeys on their shoulders running down a dusty dirt road, which is strange, since Raiders of the Lost Ark takes place in Egypt. Regardless, I prepare myself for the teeming throngs. After disembarking the catamaran, my husband, Damon, and I first need to find our private tour guide, Amine, at the dock. I doubt we can find each other through my imagined chaos.

Despite the power of Hollywood stereotypes, we find Amine within minutes and are soon speeding off in his VW Jetta.  I am not disappointed that he is wearing a chambray short-sleeve button down shirt and Dockers, but I am saddened by the fact that I will not have the chance to bond with any four pound monkeys. I had plans for us.

After settling into the El-Minzah Hotel, our first site in Morocco is Cap Spartel, where the fresh Mediterranean waters meet the salty Atlantic Ocean. We zip past an impressive, upscale neighborhood in Tangier, called California (also, ironically, the name of the place we’re from in the U.S.A.).  At the coast, we should be able to see a clear distinction between the two seas, which, because of the difference in temperature, salinity and density do not mix. Unfortunately, it is a hazy day and all we can see is just that: haze. Despite the circumstances, we take pictures. Back in the car, we drive past the King’s mansion, which looks stately with its iron gates and manicured gardens. Further up the road toward the beach, we see two camels.


Amine asks, “Do you want to ride a camel?” Damon and I simultaneously say, “Sure!”  This is something we had both been looking forward to – a camel ride on the beach. Anticipating the rough way camels stand up, we brace ourselves and manage to stay seated.  The camel handler must get a lot of tourists because he takes control of our camera and snaps our picture.  He yells at us to kiss, so we do. Now that I think about it, he might have been talking to the camels.  Since we only ride the camels for three minutes, we don’t need the bandanas we bought to block out the sun and wind.

Next stop is lunch.  As with all memorable experiences in my life, food is a big factor.  No different here, in the African city closest to Europe.  Our first lunch is upstairs at the Restaurant Hammadi, the restaurant is entirely empty.  The atmosphere is exotic with red and gold wallpaper throughout, colorful seat cushions and intricate curtains.  The only sounds I hear are from the bustling street below.  We feel very much like we are in Morocco.  The chicken tagine is good, although nothing to write home about.  The dessert is sweetened mint tea and a sweet, sticky pastry.  Not being a tea fan, I am pleasantly surprised how much I love the mint tea: its sweetness, the fresh mint leaves soaking in it and the cool, refreshed feeling afterwards.

For dinner, we cowardly opt for the French restaurant in the hotel, El Korsan, since we don’t want to brave the streets of Tangier on our own.  Set in the lush courtyard, it is a serene and peaceful escape (probably a great place to have mint tea!), and the French food is good but not memorable.  What is memorable is the woman at the table next to us smoking feverishly.   I realize it is a treat to not have smokers puffing away while you’re enjoying your meal, as I’m used to at home in California.

marketThe next day we visit the old part of town, the medina, which sits within the casbah, the walled city. We walk to the produce markets. The narrow, stone-paved streets are packed with people and children, some in traditional abaya, a hallmark of Muslim dress, and others dress in casual T-shirts and jeans. At one point, the street becomes so narrow; we have to walk single file. I look into every open door to catch a glimpse of Moroccan life. I see tile shops, tailor shops, shoe shops, all kinds of shops – most are the size of a small office cubicle. Despite having so little space, the merchants look comfortable, whereas I would be ready to gnaw my own forearm from claustrophobia. After winding through innumerable streets that look alike, we are suddenly inside the market, a high-ceilinged room with lively, colorful stalls overflowing onto the street.

Every piece of real estate in the market seems to be occupied by fresh mint leaves, pyramid-stacked spices, or an old Berber woman.  Berbers are an indigenous group of people from North Africa and their name may have been derived from the Latin word for “barbarians.”  Once I step into the market, I foresee my toes smothered in oily olives and slices of lamb and wish I hadn’t worn flip-flops.  The produce looks phenomenal. All the fruit is ripe and ready to eat, and the vegetables are ready to burst.  As I walk by a butcher, I see that he is cutting some sort of large animal leg on a glass counter filled with flanks of meat.  Everything is that fresh.  Not only is this a food market, but also for sale are toiletries, household cleaners, and probably anything else you can find at Target.

For lunch, Amine leads us around the corner and down the hill from our hotel, to Saveurs de Poisson , a place we surely would never have noticed on our own.  We enter the small, crowded restaurant and, following local custom, wash our hands in the freestanding sink next to the cash register.


As soon as we sit down, the food arrives.  No one had ordered, and there are no menus; every patron receives the same meal of the day.  We start with a delicious soup – flavorful, yet light and fresh. We don’t mind that it is shark soup.  We can’t argue with heavenly food. The next dish of grilled fish is equally delicious.  The rudimentary wooden forks and spoons are a challenge, but we prevail. To accompany the meal is a thick, orange-colored drink.  We can’t get a detailed description of what fruit was squeezed for our refreshment; we just know it is a “mixture of fruits.”  The origin is irrelevant because I am convinced it has miraculous, yet-to-be-discovered medicinal powers.  Damon, however, is not as enthusiastic, since the drink is served warm and is not entirely refreshing.  Having walked all morning in the sun, he opts for water instead.

To top off our lunch, we feast on a pile of fresh, glistening figs.  This lunch is perfect – authentic, delicious, healthy; nearly the best meal in my life.  Fully satisfied, we prepare to leave, but a fellow named Muhammad beckons us to the back room of the restaurant.  With Amine’s reassurances, we follow.  From a cauldron, Muhammad pours a dark, syrupy liquid into a container.  The aroma of the elixir is oily and nutty, but not offensive.  He pushes up my sleeve and begins to rub the elixir onto my arm.  He explains bluntly that it is good for my skin and will prevent blemishes on my face. Then he rubs it roughly onto Damon’s arm; for him, the liquid will make him stronger.  For another tourist who joins us, an older lady, Muhammad says it will get rid of her wrinkles. Who knew a panacea existed in the back of a Moroccan restaurant with Muhammad? He hands me my own complimentary jar of elixir, along with two trivets, a fan, the forks and spoons we used, and a woven basket to carry it all in.

Let me mention that I highly suggest hiring a tour guide in Tangier. A reputable guide will take you to great local, scenic and historic sights, and offer insightful knowledge, if not just memorized facts – like the fact that Morocco was the first country to recognize America as an independent nation. Or the fact that Arabic is the official language and more than half the population can speak French, which is often used in business.  On our third day in Tangier, we stroll into a ritzy resort for the rich and famous as if we are paying guests, and Amine points at an elegant, young woman: “That is the Princess of Hungary,” he says.  I’m not sure if Hungary even has a princess, much less whether this is her, but I don’t question him.

Looking from the patio down to the shoreline, we see the void that is the pristine beach below.  There is absolutely no one on the beach, and no condos or hotels creeping onto the shore.  We are told that Muslims are not keen on wearing swimming suits or being seen in them.

Next on the itinerary is a trip to the old town, where we visit a community oven Down a steep flight of stairs that leads to a sparse, compact room, it gets 10 degrees hotter.  We are invited to look into the immensely huge oven, which is not unlike a pizza oven.  The loaves, which are brought in from the families in the community, are baking and rising.  They also roast nuts here.  Once out of the oven, we hear bells ringing from a nearby mosque.  It’s prayer time.  We look up at the minaret and realize that the mosque is probably visible from all parts of the city.  We note that there are also Catholic churches and Jewish temples throughout the city, as well as mosques, and determine that Morocco must be a tolerant country.

We are certain nothing can top the previous day’s sumptuous lunch, but we are gladly mistaken.  It starts with an appetizer called pastille: a jumbo, hockey-puck shaped, deep fried…thing topped with a snowflake design of powdered sugar and sitting on a bed of lettuce.  Damon and I look at each other, thinking, “Should we tell Amine they messed up our order (though no one ordered anything)? The dessert came first.”  Amine senses our hesitation and says, “There’s chicken inside.” There’s always one dish that native folks love, but outsiders loathe: case in point – 1,000 year old eggs and salty fish for the Chinese.  Being of Chinese ancestry, I love them.  We figure this must be Morocco’s.


Expecting the worst, we crack through the crunchy skin with our fork and a bit of chicken sprinkled with herbs tumbles out. I take a nibble and… it is indescribably scrumptious. The complementary sweet and salty flavors are perfectly balanced. I can’t get enough. I ask Amine three times what this is called so that when I get back to California, I can order it at a Moroccan restaurant, knowing it will never taste as good as it does now.

narrow streetIt’s our last day and we’ve missed our scheduled catamaran back to Spain.  Amine takes us for some very last minute souvenir shopping and back to the port barely on time.  He whizzes us through customs, setting off the security alarms, although no one seems to care.  We sadly say goodbye to Amine and to Morocco.

As I sip mint tea back home, I remember the trip in all its vibrant colors, intriguing smells and lively sounds.  I can see why this country has captivated writers and artists like Henri Matisse, Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles and William Burroughs, and why Americans regard it with a romantic sense of nostalgia as expressed in Casablanca.


El-Minzah Hotel - 85 Rue de la Liberté

El Korsan - Restaurant in El Minzah Hotel

Restaurant Hammadi - 2 Kasbah Street
Saveurs de Poisson - 2 Escalier Waller

©Michelle Won Belanger

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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