The Road to Morocco and Across the Straits of Gibralter

Lagos to Tarifa

A gusty wind and scattered rainstorms accompanied us along the Portuguese coast as we headed east to Spain.  The wind followed us as we turned south towards the tip of Spain and Tarifa, a port city dating back to the 8th century, just 14 kilometers across the Straits of Gibraltar from Morocco.  The wind kicked up whitecaps in the sea promising a rough crossing and, when we checked with the ferry company, FRS, we found that all ferry passages had been cancelled for that Sunday and the following day, when we had planned to travel, looked doubtful as well.  A little disappointed (but we’d seen enough news stories of sinking ferries to be anything but grateful to a company who valued safety) we made our way to our hotel.  The Hotel Convento Tarifa was a converted convent with simple but comfortably furnished rooms and friendly staff who assured us that, if the ferry cancelled its scheduled trips for the next day, we’d have a place to stay for another night.

Guzman Castle (circa 960) and city walls with ferry station in foreground.

Guzman Castle (circa 960) and city walls with Tarifa ferry terminal in foreground.

The next morning dawned bright with a blue sky and a cold wind that seemed just a bit diminished.  After checking with the ferry company we learned that, while all the morning passages had been canceled, the ferry might resume its service with the first crossing scheduled for 13:00.  We hustled down to the station, bought our tickets, (one of us) downed meclizine to stave off sea-sickness and boarded.  We were ON OUR WAY TO MOROCCO.

A little background for those readers who like their complicated history in an easy-to-swallow, capsulized form.  We could start with archeological excavations showing the presence of hominids at least 400,000 years ago or move quickly on to recorded history with the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Berbers occupying the territory between the 8th to 3rd centuries BCE followed by the Romans annexing it for a few centuries.  The Vandals, Visigoths and Byzantines all had a piece of the action from 430 to 700 CE that ended when the Muslims conquered the region and the Berbers, though converted, took to the mountains.  The Muslim conquest brought the religion of Islam to the region as well as the advanced Arab civilization and over the succeeding centuries Morocco was a hotbed of political and religious turmoil with various dynasties squabbling, rising and falling while the Ottoman, Spanish and especially the French crouched like vultures waiting to swoop in and get a share of Morocco’s vast mineral resources as well as its strategic location for themselves.  In 1912 Morocco’s instability resulted in its becoming a protectorate of France with Spain horning in to claim its own zone of influence as both countries vied to exploit Morocco’s natural wealth.  Finally, in 1956, after years of nationalistic movements, Morocco gained its independence from both France and Spain.  Today, Morocco maintains strong ties to the west, enjoying free trade agreements with both the US and the European Union.blog Tarifa to Tangier Ferry

We reached Tangier, Morocco, in about an hour-and-a-half, the ride not particularly smooth but neither of us turned green or lost our breakfast.  Earlier we had decided to heed conventional wisdom and leave Tangier to the day trippers and when we disembarked from the ferry at the tail end of the crowd we found that just a few taxis remained.  Although we had planned to take the train for the five-hour trip to Fès (also known as Fez) it didn’t leave for another two hours and we made a quick change of plans.  We talked to one of the drivers who spoke a little English and lots of Spanish (our common language), conferred briefly and decided to hire a taxi for the drive after agreeing upon a price.  Our driver, who introduced himself as Younes, was full of smiles as he loaded our bags into the van and set off. Eunice - our driver

And very quickly we learned how driving is done in Morocco.  We edged our way into a roundabout of five lanes in which the cars all seemed to be pointing diagonally into each other’s paths jockeying for an in to the next lane rather than staying in what would appear to be their own lanes. Horns honked, cars edged in and out flirting with disaster, miraculously avoiding each other and then we were free and onto the next driving lane and roundabout.  After a lot of quick gasps, clutching the door handle and hitting the imaginary brake pedal, Tangier was behind us and we were in the countryside with Younes demonstrating the next feat in his repertoire of Moroccan driving.  Once again the lanes seemed to be a mere suggestion of where the driver should be.  Younes straddled the center line of the road and only ceded way to the approaching driver at the last moment.  He ruthlessly tailgated the cars in front of us and seized his advantage when a break appeared in the traffic, smashing his foot down on the gas pedal and careening around the car.  Just in the nick of time he’d move to the right to let an approaching car pass us.  And it wasn’t hard to see when he felt someone had violated the traffic rules either as he would twist his wrist and flick his fingers in a gesture of scorn and his lips would curl down in disdain.  All this while he talked to himself and occasionally addressed a remark to us.  And smiled.On the road to Essaouira

We were trapped.  Fortunately for us, we’d had some training as passengers on Guatemalan chicken buses and Nicaraguan roads where the rules were nothing like what we’d learned in Driver’s Ed so we tried to relax, listened to the Moroccan music Younes had thoughtfully provided and gazed out our windows at the passing countryside. Younes kept up his conversation with himself in the driver’s seat, occasionally laughing and nodding his head.  It felt surreal…  The countryside was patchworked fields in brown and green, flocks of sheep scattered about with shepherds close by.  Small 3-wheeled trucks loaded with as many as eight people passed, which Younes jokingly call “Pakistani taxis.”  On the edge of the road were burros and mules hitched to small carts led by men in robes with pointed hoods (djellabas) pulled up against the cold wind.On the road to Essaouira

 

On the road to EssaouiraWe drove through small towns with shops along the roadside selling souvenirs and pottery and outdoor cafes filled with men only, sitting at tables watching the cars go by, drinking from small cups and talking.  The signs appeared in Arabic with an occasional translation in our own Latin alphabet for us to guess at the pronunciation.   Flat land and hills passed by, shockingly littered for as far as we could see with trash and plastic debris. Off to the south-west the Atlas Mountains emerged in the distant background.

We stopped at a large restaurant, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, for a late lunch about mid-way through the ride.  A butcher brandishing sharp knives hacked at legs of lamb and fed the meat through a grinder.  Walking into the restaurant we were surprised.  The many tables were set with white linen and because it was late in the afternoon our group was the only one on our side of the restaurant.  Younes urged us to order the sweet tea with mint and excused himself for prayers.  A trip to the bathroom was our first encounter with a squat toilet but the sink was equipped with running water and soap.  We picked a ground lamb dish which came with Moroccan flatbread and a colorful salad served family style and enjoyed our first delicious Moroccan meal with Younes as our guest.Lunch on the road - butcher

 

Moroccan salad

Back in the van the afternoon faded into evening and still the ride went on mile after mile, darkness draped around us, a few stars peeking through clouds.  We’d forgotten how dark it could be in the country with no lights along the road to mark our way.  The van’s headlights pierced the night, the Moroccan music played in the background and Younes continued his self-talk.

And finally, we were in Fès winding our way through roads with street lights and shops, cafes open for business and people walking along the streets.  Periodically, Younes would take advantage of the stalled traffic, roll down his window and shout at the adjacent taxi driver for directions to our destination; more-or-less the Moroccan taxi drivers’ GPS.  At last, he stopped at a lane that led to our riad (a traditional house with a central garden and fountain) and indicated that cars were not allowed in this portion of the Medina (the original historical Arab city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and that we needed to walk from there.  A group of young men argued over who would help us with our luggage, small carry-ons with wheels that we could have pulled ourselves, and we found ourselves paying for a service we hadn’t requested, caught up in a kind of hijack as they led us down the dimly lit, narrow lane, into the medina, showing us the way to Ryad Ayla.

Next post:  Fès, Morocco

By Anita and Richard

 

 

58 comments

  • Always a great read friends and Marti & I hope to be exploring a few places with you both in the not tooooo distant future. I liked your answer above about how you have learned to adapt your plans around issues that arise and just take and accept things as they come…A wise small piece of new found wisdom for travelers..lol. Marti would tell you I need a lot of practise with this… As always, enjoy life and be safe out there!

    Liked by 1 person

    • One of travel’s great lessons to us has been, “We control nothing!” 🙂 For a couple who spent their previous lives as classic “type A” personalities making plans, we’ve learned that it’s infinitely easier, much less stressful and a lot more fun to go with the flow. We’re looking forward to playing hosts to you and Marti when you make it over here. We’ll all just take deep breaths and let the days unfold … !

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  • I would rather juggle gelignite than drive in Morocco!

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  • What a great adventure! Your post reminded me of my very worst experience on a cruise ship. We encountered rough seas crossing the Straits and almost everyone on the ship (including the crew) got sick. I’m so glad that the ferry service was prudent in canceling service.

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    • The wind was so gusty the day we arrived that even the wind turbines on the surrounding hills had been shut down. I’ve spent enough miserable hours in boats, the back seats of shuttle vans and even cars going around (and around) on the round-abouts that I wasn’t looking forward to this ride! Tarifa is famed for its winds and runs several windsurfing schools as well as international competitions but for us “faint-stomached” travelers it’s not a selling point!

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  • What an adventure! I’ve been in many a cab that has scared me to death in India and Italy. Even the circle around Arc de Triumphe in Paris can be daunting. What makes us take these crazy rides? The thrill of seeing new places and meeting new people. Can’t wait to see what other destinations you’ll get to from Portugal.

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    • Your question “What makes us take these crazy rides?” is interesting. I’ve recently read a couple of articles that theorize about a “risk gene” that explains why some people become travelers and the rest stay at home. Since we’re not thrill seekers or adrenaline junkies maybe the theory of a risk gene explains the itch to see new places and step out of our comfort zone occasionally!

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  • We went to Morocco from Malaga but chose to go on a day tour and were trapped in Tangier. You braved a taxi ride and saw the countryside, had some authentic non-touristy Moroccan dish and have led us to Fes! I will wait eagerly for your next post!

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  • Once upon a time while visiting Gibraltar I considered taking this trip. Since I missed it then, I am enjoying taking it with you virtually now.

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    • So glad you enjoyed your virtual trip Carole, and we’ll be writing more about Morocco in the next few posts so that you can maybe consider this exotic country for a future visit. We missed visiting Gibralter this time but we’re hoping to see it in the next few months when we’re in the area again. It’s great to have so many interesting places to visit nearby.

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  • ME BE in Panama

    Awesome post, as usual. Your writing is so descriptive we (your readers) make your journeys with you. Will you publish a “Best of Our Travels” book one day?

    Liked by 1 person

  • Fabulous post – makes me want to go back to Morocco. I could feel your excitement, and fear. What a journey! Looking forward to your next post. I have rich memories of the fabulous Fes medina.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Alison and we’re glad that we evoked some great memories of your visit to Morocco. We’ve agreed that the Medina in Fès was the high point of our time in Morocco (in addition to the various journeys around and about the country!) and have talked about returning again to learn more about this centuries old city and fascinating culture.

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  • I loved reading this: so vividly described! It reminded me of our taxi ride to Petra from Aqaba in Jordan with a driver who fell asleep at the wheel! When a trip like that is happening, it’s scary, but, assuming you survive, it makes a great story afterwards!

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    • I’m picturing your face Rachel, as you realize your driver is asleep… ! Listening to the stories about the journey can be just as entertaining or interesting as the destination. I’ve always wondered why more taxi drivers don’t fall asleep at the wheel because of the monotony of the drive and road hypnosis. Maybe, like Younes, they just have fascinating conversations with themselves! Some of them put in incredibly long days, too.

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  • Great post, Anita. I love reading travelogues.

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  • Great description of your white-knuckled taxi ride – glad you made it safe and sound 🙂

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  • Crossing the straights is certainly a bucket list item, and we can think of no better way to reach Morocco. Hope we get to do both someday.

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    • So many more places to travel to and experience. It seems the more we travel the longer our bucket list becomes. One thing I really like though, is the interesting feeling that the more we travel the smaller the world seems to be. Once we open ourselves up to the idea of traveling the only question is “Where to next?”

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  • I love your description of Younes. In our experience, the Universe has always put the person we needed most (sometimes for unknown reasons which are only later revealed) in front of us. To me, it sounds like this is what happened with you and him. Your description of the traffic made me think of traffic in SEAsia, where there are similarly no real rules yet everything mysteriously works out. Going with the flow on arrival, too, is part of the game. Can’t wait to hear more.

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    • Over the years our travel has become much more about “going with the flow” rather than sticking to a plan that really isn’t practical. That isn’t to say that we don’t do our preliminary research but it’s (generally!) less stressful to tweak our plans as opportunities present themselves and we get from A to B in a more timely or comfortable manner. And then sometimes, the journey becomes story in itself!

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  • At first I thought, “Why didn’t they just take their car over and drive in Morocco?” and then I read about your journey. Bet you were glad you got a taxi, too! I love Morocco and found the people really great. Taking the ferry over wouldn’t thrill me (sea sickness) but it’s so much more convenient sometimes. Great report on your…survival!

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    • As one of those unlucky persons who gets sick on merry-go-rounds and even round-abouts, I made sure I was dosed up with meclizine in case the ride was rough. And neither of us can imagine driving in Morocco where only the natives know the rules! We couldn’t quite understand why there weren’t accidents everywhere but we didn’t see one fender-bender during the 10 days we were there.

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  • Oh, this post brings back so many memories. We stayed at Hotel Convento, too. We were day trippers to Tangiers, although I really wanted to go to Fés, but our time was limited. We laugh about our experiences in Tangiers. I still have visions of the piles of rugs spread out at our feet. We were forced to buy a rug before we could leave the store. I drank so much mint tea trying to stall the rug vendors…to no avail. Then, when we returned to the ferry, we had to buy copper bracelets because the vendors were so aggressive. There was no escape.
    And as for your ride…you knew what you were getting into because Nicaragua gave you lots of experience with wild rides. lol
    We just returned from Cartagena. Beautiful city, but I am glad we weren’t there in the rainy season. Can’t wait to see your pictures and read your post about Fés.

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    • Ah Cartagena! Still one of our favorite cities although you’ll remember our first rental apartment lacked a mattress (ha!). The Hotel Convento was much nicer and we thought the rooms were charming and that the staff was very helpful. The vendors must not vary from one city to the next in Morocco – they make the used car salesmen in the US look passive! We can totally understand why you used “forced” to describe your sales experience as we also ended up in a room in a totally unplanned visit, piled high with beautiful wool and silk rugs while the salesman kept bringing the price lower. We (just barely) got away with nothing the first few days but finally ended up with a very small silk rug to take back. No escape indeed! 😉

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  • Haha, now you might understand why we rarely put our lives into the hands of foreign drivers. We prefer to drive in our own vehicle – that’s reducing the risk by more than half. It still leaves us in the mad traffic around us but affords some control. And I wouldn’t have expected a quick trip anyhow, the distance might be short, but as far as I remember the road winds its way up the Atlas mountains…

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    • Many times as I read your posts I have to admire the fact that you navigate and drive your camper van into what I think of as “uncharted territory.” It’s so much easier to give an address to a driver and trust (hope?) that they get us (in one piece) from point A to point B. And then sit back and “enjoy” the ride!

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  • What an interesting adventure! I didn’t realise how short the journey was from Gibraltar to Tangiers. A great way to travel and experience a new culture. I’d love to do that journey myself, but don’t think I want to drive.

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  • I am between laughing hysterically and being terrified for you. Obviously, you made it and sorted out the tipping of the unneeded help. Such fun learning from experience, because it’s almost never what you expect, is it?

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    • Just when we get a bit smug by thinking we’re “experienced” travelers who know many of the things that can go wrong … we find ourselves in a new situation! Probably like most travelers, we have a lot of “learning experiences” that take us way our of our comfort zones. And the fact that Morocco felt so foreign contributed to the surreal quality that made us laugh (a bit hysterically) later. About the only thing we can really expect in future travels is that there will be many more journeys that take a different turn from what we expect!

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  • Your description of your road trip made me laugh, although it is actually quite scary how it could have so easily gone terribly wrong. But at least you arrived safely and I look forward to hear the rest of this exciting adventure.

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    • I think the thing that comforted us the most was the fact that we didn’t see one car wreck while we were in Tangier nor on the road to Fès despite what we would call (at best) unsafe driving! We never did feel in danger – either from our eccentric driver nor the drive itself. Maybe we got desensitized a bit in Central America riding on chicken buses in Guatemala, driving across Honduras with a driver trying to dodge soldier checkpoints or speeding down roads on the wrong side of the road in Nicaragua while the drivers played a kind of leapfrog. Travel can be as much about the journey as well as the destination!

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  • Loved this! I had Joel read it last night and he started laughing. . .said he could imagine being right there in that taxi. We once had a taxi driver who looked like “Honey” in the Doonsbury cartoon pick us up in downtown Paris for a trip to the airport. As she went around the same traffic circle a few times and also started talking to herself, Joel visibly paled and noted we might have a long trip ahead of us.

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    • This is the first time I’ve noticed a driver talking to themselves but between him, the drive and absorbing the foreigness of the country we were “on the edge of our seats!” We used to read Doonesbury religiously but I had to go online to remember what Honey looked like – now that I’ve got her in my mind I can also picture your drive! And who remembers the perfect drives anyway? People like Younes and your driver are great conversation starters … “Remember the driver who ..?”

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  • What a great description of this journey. I felt as if I was there with you, gripping an imaginary handrail and holding my breath as the taxi careens around other cars. I look forward to reading about your adventure in Fes and finding out if it was worth the ride there and back

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  • WOW! Sounds like a movie, similar to The Sheltering Sky, which describes the road chaos. Kudos to you for courage and convictions in your journey.As a valuable tourist, you will be kept safe. Thanks for this note. I always wanted to go there but I’ll go vicariously through your journey.
    With love,

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  • What an adventure. Thanks for sharing the good and bad.

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  • Sounds like quite an adventure. Similar driving rules apply in Colombia. I’m glad you reached your destination safely. I look forward to hearing more about this great adventure.
    Suzi

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    • Our worst ride in Cartagena, Colombia happened during a HUGE downpour in the historic part of the city. The water was flowing down the streets about a foot high and it was raining so hard the taxi’s couldn’t even see people trying to flag them down. Once we got into the taxi the engine kept stalling out and it took several restarts before we even got close to where we were living. And of course, we still had to cross the streets which were shallow rivers by then, trying to keep our flip-flops from floating away and get to our apartment. All we could do was laugh … There are a lot of adventures which sound much more fun in hindsight, huh Suzi? 🙂

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  • It sounds like a wonderful adventure so far. It is really hard to get used to sitting in the back seat of a van driving like you’ve described. Closing your eyes helps but we always hate to miss out on anything. Looking forward to hearing about your impressions of Fez.

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    • There are many times that the journey is as interesting as the destination and this was one of them. Sometimes we just put our fate into the driver’s hands and, as you’ve suggested, squinch our eyes shut! Not sure if that’s better or braver than looking death right in the face … 😀 . As your own nomadic journey is about to start soon, you’ll have to let us know, Tim and Anne!

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  • Haha! Sounds like a fun ride 🙂 . I have learned to just sit in the back and close my eyes often or look out the window. It’s insane how they all drive in the middle. You’d think l would be used to it as that is the way they drive at home too. We never made it to Fez, just Marrakesh. Looking forward to hearing your take on it and seeing just how similar they are. We stayed at a Ryad too in the Medina, which was lovely.

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    • Looks like we both need to make another trip back to Morocco, K to visit more of the many places we missed on our first visits. And luckily, it’s not too far away for either of us should we get the itch to see more of it. There are a lot of similarities between Fès and Marrakesh but Marrakesh was really over-run with tourists and some of the fastest talking, hard-sell vendors we’ve ever seen. I can’t imagine what it would be like during the high season!

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  • Oh dear. I’m an anxious passenger in the US. Note to self: do not use any taxi driven by someone named Younes in Morocco. I’m looking forward to reading about Fez (and seeing photos). Glad you made it.

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    • I think we kind of entered a state of paralysis after a time as we looked at the traffic chaos and noticed that the other drivers all seemed to drive with the same disregard for life and limb. Miraculously, we didn’t see any accidents although we’re not quite sure why. Now that would really have increased our anxiety levels!

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