At the southern tip of Spain, not far from the Rock of Gibraltar lies the laid back surfer town of Tarifa. It's as old as the hills, but is frequented by the young who are here to catch waves produced by the collision of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. There is a long, narrow jetty you can walk out on to, where a sign says Mediterraneo with an arrow pointing left, and Atlantico with an arrow pointing right. Just ten miles across the water is the north west corner of Africa. The two continents stare across at one another, so close, but worlds apart.
We found our way to the harbour where we left the car in an all day parking lot, and boarded a hulking white ferry bound for Tangiers. This is obviously a well travelled route. Moroccans were heading home with crates full of European cast-offs including old TV's, bicycles, broken furniture, engine parts, blankets and kitchen appliances. The four of us were all dressed up khaki and linen with nothing but the burden of our cameras around our necks. They must have seen us coming, quite literally, from ten miles away.
Once the great white hulk was tied off in Tangiers new deep water harbour, the huge doors swung open to reveal that beautiful blue Moroccan sky. The human swarm was released and the natives took off in all directions. We followed the well worn path up into town, and were greeted by a hundred men that all wanted to be our tour guide for the day. After saying NO eighty or ninety times, we had managed to shake most of them, but there were four that persisted all the way up to the gates of the city. They spoke to us in English, French, Spanish and Arabic. They bragged that they could get us anything we wanted from the best deals at hotels, to the cleanest prostitutes. Freddie told them in French, English and Spanish that we were not interested. The final guy broke down on hands and knees telling us we were dooming his children to starvation. I gave him a couple of euros for his thespian efforts, if nothing else.
Given its strategic location where Sea meets Ocean, there has been a settlement on this spot for over 2,500 years. It has been ruled by the ancient Phoenicians, the Berbers, the Romans, the Spanish, the French and finally the Moroccans themselves. Despite centuries of history, Tangiers' most interesting period was in the 1940's and 50's when the Beat Poets made it their home. The offbeat charm and dangerous undertone of the city attracted the literary revolutionaries who were keen to expand their minds in a place far away from the laws and constraints of polite society. William S. Boroughs wrote his most famous work, Naked Lunch in these ancient streets. He would have been sharing his stories and absinthe with Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Jack Kerouac. During this time, Tangiers also developed a reputation as a spying and smuggling center that brought in piles of dubious foreign cash. This reputation has clearly carried over into modern times, as the city is regularly featured in spy films: From Russia with Love, The Living Daylights and The Bourne Ultimatum were all filmed here.
My first impression is that the city is caught between two worlds. It wants to be a modern city combing its mix of African and European influences, but doesn't seem to know how to pull it off. Parts of it seem to be stuck in a time warp, while others desperately want to be seen as players in the 21st century. Unfortunately, none of it seems to work very well. Port cities are always a little rough around the edges, and I don't have a problem with that. But there is a desperation in the air here that is unsettling. It is beautiful in its own way, with crumbling buildings in a festival of fading colours and a labyrinth of strange alleyways and arches. Along with that deep blue sky and golden light, it's hard to take a bad picture here.
The city is full of places to eat, and there are always pushy touts outside trying to coax you in. We found a place upstairs on a terrace that offered a break from the heat and the crowds. Two old men wearing Fez hats played strange stringed instruments and we were served a traditional four course meal of soup, cheese pastries, cous cous and a chicken tangine. Mint tea is the drink of choice in this Muslim country, although we were all dying for a beer. That would have to wait until we were back down in the harbour on hotel grounds.
After lunch we strolled the streets and squares and came across the amazing wet market, crammed full of every life form that has ever been pulled from the sea. The haggling was fierce, and I was glad we were not there in search of our dinner. Outside there were carts of fruits and vegetables overseen by old women draped in veils. Scraggily cats darted in and out of the shadows and doe-eyed boys glanced in our direction as we walked by. Dusty men set up tables in the streets to sell everything from rusty nails to old paint brushes. In the squares, the more affluent were sitting under canopies sipping tea and watching the crowds.
As the sun lowered on the horizon, the day trippers are headed back down to the harbour to get back to Spain before dark. The sinister undercurrent of the city at night surely has its attractions. Like the poets, the spies and the Rolling Stones before me, I was intrigued by the seductive nature of Tangiers after dark. But this time, my middle aged sense of self preservation kicked in, and I joined the rest of the Europeans heading for the harbour. It was probably a good call.