The Back Lanes of Tangier

Rick Steves: On the pleasures of wandering in the evolving Moroccan city

05.18.10 | 12:11 PM ET

Tangier (Photo: anjči via Flickr, Creative Commons)

A week ago Monday was my birthday, and no one in Morocco knew it. To celebrate, I took a couple of hours alone just floating through the back streets of Tangier, observing.

Looking at a window filled with photos of adorable little boys wearing fezzes and gauzy girls dressed like princesses, I realize why I like the display windows of family photographers throughout the world. They show the cultural ideals to the extreme—the way mothers dream their children might look—and provide insight.

I don’t know if men run the show here, but they outnumber women in the cafés 100 to one. I want to take a skinny teenage girl’s photo. She giggles with her friends, shows me her wedding ring, and says her husband would have her head if she let me do that. Yesterday my local friend told me, “Moroccan men like their women meaty, not skinny. But that is changing with the young generation and television.”

Old men walk around like sages in robes with pointy hooded jellabas. It makes me wonder whether a teenager might say, “Dad, I know you wear it and Grandpa wore it, but I’m just not going to wear the pointy hood.” Seeing these old men in pointy, rough cloth hooded robes, I keep wanting to ask, “Where’s the gnome conference?”

Wandering through the market, I collect a collage of vivid images. A butcher has made a colorful curtain of entrails, creating mellow stripes of all textures. Camera-shy Berber tribeswomen are in town today selling goat cheese wrapped in palm leaves. A man lumbers through the crowd pushing a ramshackle cart laden with a huge side of beef. He makes a honking sound, and I think he’s just being funny. But it isn’t the comical beep-beep I’d make behind a wheelbarrow. Small-time shipping is his livelihood, the only horn he has is his vocal chords, and he is on a mission.

Wandering deeper into the back lanes, I see henna stencils in plastic wrap—a quick and modern way to stain the designs onto your hands. Another gnome walks by with a pointy hood and a long beard—half white and half hennaed red.

Tiny shops buzz with activity. One small place, no bigger than a small bedroom, has been divided horizontally with a second floor five feet high. It houses a rickety loom on each level, employing four men who wiggle in and out of their workstations each day ... all their lives.

Around the corner, the click-click-click of a mosaic maker draws me into another tiny shop, where a man with legs collapsed under himself sits all day chiseling intentionally imperfect mosaic chips (as only Allah is perfect, the imperfection is considered beautiful) to fit a pattern for a commissioned work.

It’s pouring rain, water careens down the stepped brick lane, and, exploring on, I feel like a wet dog. Drenched, I follow a woman wearing colorful scarves into a community bakery. She carries a platter of doughy loaves under a towel ready to be baked into bread. The baker, artfully wielding the broom-handled wooden spatula, receives her loaves. He hardly misses a beat as he pushes and pulls the neighborhood’s baked goods—fish, stews, bread, sunflowers and cookies—into and out of his oven. After observing the baking action, I’m dry in minutes.

Spending my birthday in Tangier, barely seeing another tourist, I am struck by how the energy here just makes me happy. This Moroccan city is not pro-West or anti-West. It’s simply people making the best of their lives. This society seems to be growing more modern and affluent ... and on its own terms. And it’s a joy to experience it.

Rick Steves

Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. He is the author of Travel as a Political Act.

8 Comments for The Back Lanes of Tangier

Linda 05.18.10 | 9:01 PM ET

The article was written in a manner that let me feel, smell and be a part of the action of the town of Tangiers!  Well written and so informative, makes you want to go there.

elaine white 05.19.10 | 10:57 AM ET

I enjoyed reading about Rick’s experience in Tangier. It is exactly the type of experience that I am looking forward to during my short 2 day visit to Tangier this coming September. Not the tourist hubs but to actually dip into into the culture and the way of life. Which is why we opted to not do this city as a part of an organized tour and instead make our own way through the bricked lanes, bakerys and markets.

Thanks to Rick for making me all that more excited about my trip!

Dan 05.20.10 | 9:06 AM ET

Now there’s the experience I wish I’d had in Tangier, but maybe I’ll be able to try again someday. In 1993, I tried wandering the back alleys and streets of the old city. Once I got away from the crowds, it was quiet and felt very intimate. But I also ran into a group of kids who were vigorously defending their neighborhood from outsiders like me—not really threatening, as long as I didn’t go down their street. Ok…

Back in the busier part of the old city, I finally enlisted the aid of a “guide” to help me find a restaurant just around the corner that I was having trouble finding. We agreed on a price, and then he spent the next several minutes trying to take me to any restaurant except the one I’d asked about (I’m assuming there was a commission for him at the other places). Finally, he took me to the correct restaurant and doubled his price! I initially said no, here’s what we agreed on, but the knife threat made me change my mind. Not a big deal, and not a big loss of money. (Actually, the restaurant owner chased my “guide” away, but only after I insisted on paying him).

Mostly, though, people were nice and the experience unforgettable.

I’ve read that Tangier is not quite so crazy as it was those 17 years ago, and I might have had some bad luck. Back then, it was hard to meet anyone because unofficial guides were following tourists around. These guides seemed to be fluent in several languages and maybe should’ve been working as translators, but instead, they were trying to scrape by on the meager rations of the local tourist trade. I heard them called “mosquitos,” even by a couple of guides themselves, as they were so hard to shake off. I saw many instances of hapless tourists walking ahead of guides that they were desperately trying to ignore, while the guides themselves chattered on behind them about the usefulness of their services. It was actually a comical sight, less funny if I was the one being followed.

A lot of people grab the ferry from Spain and take a day trip to Tangier. That’s what I did, but in retrospect, I’d allow more time to take in the city. It takes a day just to figure it out and get past the initial culture shock. Grab a hotel, soak up the city for a couple of days, and enjoy.

anjči 05.21.10 | 5:05 AM ET

Very well written, Rick, many thanks! It reminded me of the times in Tangier vividly and instantly.

Thank you also for using my photo for the article! You are welcome to use any more in the future. Good luck with your travels.

Levinson Axelrod 05.25.10 | 12:13 PM ET

Excellent article. Your words paint an incredible image of your experience. Thanks for sharing your story.

Melissa Carlson 05.25.10 | 1:50 PM ET

Happy Birthday by the way! And thank you for sharing this wonderfully written article. I could almost smell the bread baking! I enjoyed it very much. I think part of the reason people travel is to get a slice of the unfamiliar, but often people are people no matter where you go and those common threads are what makes traveling so memorable.

Helen 05.26.10 | 9:57 AM ET

Rick I hope you get around to more than just Tangier.  Fes the historical city of Morocco; Rabat the modern capital, Casablanca the sprawling metropolis with it’s white highrise buildings.  The seashores with the boys playing soccer.  The desert is my dream.  I even found this website and it’s seems like a dream.  You can either sleep in the comfort of an air conditioned room or be brave and freeze under a Berber tent.  You can walk up the sand dunes to watch the sunrise or the sunset - just don’t lose sight of the guy with the flashlight.  Take a peak at this.  It is only one of many.  You can’t forget Ourazate, the film capital of Morocco.  Many desert films have been made there - from the lush oases to the dry barren desert.  Morocco may be considered poor by our standards, but I have found the majority of people wonderful.  I cried the day I left to come home.  Strangers I only met briefly remembered me for my smile and thank you came to say goodbye to me.  I hope you can write about these wonderful strong people living in Morocco.  Essouria, El Jadida, Mohammedia.  From the French to the Spanish to the Portuguese and of course the Arabs - all have influenced Morocco to make the people who they are today.

Laurie 06.01.10 | 9:30 AM ET

I missed Tangier during my time in Morocco. This description brings back vivid memories from other areas as well though. I agree with Helen that there are so many more places to see and visit in Morocco. The diversity is incredible that you can never see it all.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.