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Why Is Tangier Known as 'the Gateway to Africa'?

Updated on May 3, 2019
Stella Kaye profile image

Stella has travelled widely throughout the Mediterranean and owns a holiday home there, so she has written extensively about this region.

View Over Tangier Harbour and Port

The port of Tangier from McDonald's restaurant
The port of Tangier from McDonald's restaurant | Source

Tangier Travels

My first experience of Tangier was at the tender age of ten. I was on a British India educational cruise aboard the S.S. Uganda in 1969. It would never happen nowadays that English primary school children would be left to their own devices, roaming freely around the streets of a foreign country but we came to no harm and were given the opportunity to learn more from the direct experience of another culture than we ever could from a geography book. The 17,000 tonne Uganda took us from Southampton to Vigo in Northern Spain, Lisbon, the capital of Portugal and Tangier in North Africa. It was my first ever foreign trip and it gave me a zest for travel which has never diminished. We sailed into the Bay of Biscay towards Cape Finistere, maintaining a southwesterly course along the coast of North West Spain. Portugal remained in sight as we approached Cape St. Vincent lighthouse, the Bay of Cadiz and Cape Trafalgar before finally arriving in Tangier harbour - and all this for a mere fifty pounds!

During the few days our ship was berthed at Tangier, we strolled through the cobbled streets of the Kasbah, visited the Caves of Hercules and toured the city by coach, even having time left to visit a camel camp before returning to our ship, our bags laden with souvenirs. Tangier was just the type of mystical, magical destination that appealed to my childhood imagination. The sights and sounds of the souks; the old medina; the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer - it was as if we schoolchildren had landed on an entirely different planet. We learned to barter for stuffed toy camels and African drums and absorbed a whole new culture and language, soon coming to realise that the country we called home was just one small island in the Atlantic.

The SS Uganda 1969

Postcard of the SS Uganda 1969
Postcard of the SS Uganda 1969

The sights and sounds of the souks; the old medina; the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer...

— Stella Kaye

Tangier Coastline

View over the coastline at Tangier
View over the coastline at Tangier | Source


Vivid childhood memories of Tangier were to remain for over thirty-six years before I was to visit again. The stark contrast between Europe and Africa was something which couldn't be forgotten. This time I was there to view some vacation homes for sale, ninety kilometres east.

I had mixed feelings when I revisited Tangier. Would my memories of the place now be tarnished? How much of it would have changed? Would I be disappointed? Again I approached from the sea, this time from Algeciras in Spain, a pleasant two-hour journey across the Straits of Gibraltar - a narrow channel which is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Here you can spot dolphins cavorting in the waves as you approach the "gateway to Africa," as Tangier is often known.

Tangier is the most Northerly city in Morocco. It has an airport but the majority of visitors arrive from Spain, as I did. I took a taxi to my hotel the Dawlitz, which boasts one of the best views over the harbour and the city. There's even a McDonald's restaurant if you prefer not to sample the local cuisine! My first impression was that the place hadn't changed in the slightest since my childhood visit. It's still a curious mix of old and new. I could still imagine the S.S. Uganda docked at the quayside unloading its cargo of children.

Whether Tangier will remain unchanged for much longer is anybody's guess. Future plans include the construction of a tunnel under the sea, similar to the channel tunnel between England and France. This will bring a huge influx of tourists and investors to the shores of Northern Morocco. At present the coastal areas to the east of Tangier are relatively unspoilt - much like the Spanish Costas were forty years ago - but the demands of the tourist industry are rapidly changing the face of the landscape. This is not altogether a bad thing since there's a great deal of poverty in Morocco and tourism appears to be the only solution in providing regular employment for the general populous. The people are friendly and eager to embrace tourism as the way forward rather than be reluctant to abandon their more traditional occupations.

Tangier offers a wide range of hotels to suit every tourist but the Dawlitz is worth it for the view alone. Here you can lounge on your balcony and watch the sun rise over the port as the city wakes to a new dawn.

The beautifully patterned Moorish architecture is commonplace throughout the city and it's easy to find some secluded courtyard restaurant under the shade of cooling cypress trees. Here you can enjoy a simple meal of Couscous, the national dish of Morocco, in pleasant surroundings well away from the busy traffic on the city's main roads.

Tangier has a clean sandy beach that continues for miles. Lined with a mix of both well-established and newly-built hotels and apartments, it's the ideal location from which to explore Northern Morocco. Not far to the east is Mount Moses, reputed to be the other half of the rock of Gibraltar and the nearby Spanish colony of Ceuta which is a duty-free haven. The scenic mountainous coastal route is not to be missed and well worth the journey. Car hire and taxis are cheap enough and you can look back from vantage points along the way to photograph the city of Tangier as it stands proudly on the Atlantic seaboard of Morocco.

Tangier Stands at the Entrance to the Mediterranean

Camel on a Moroccan Beach

Camel rides are popular along the sands in Morocco
Camel rides are popular along the sands in Morocco | Source

My 2009 Visit

It was late August; I spent ten days in Morocco with my friend, Vera and my two teenage sons. After purchasing a vacation home in Morocco three years previously, I'd had to travel there three times to finalise the purchase. This over, I thought I now deserved to spend some time there during the Ramadan (this is the time of year when I was unlikely to secure any rental bookings). Tangier was now becoming more like a second home.

After a pleasant two hour flight from Leeds Bradford to Malaga, we took a taxi to the port of Algeciras where we crossed over the Straits of Gibraltar. It’s quicker to fly direct from Manchester to Tangier but the cost is three times more than with! Everyone loves a sea journey, so we were happy to catch an old rust bucket of a ferry which was a bit like the proverbial 'slow boat to China.’ We gained two hours and it was invigorating to enjoy the sea air out on the top deck with the coasts of two continents continually in view. On the return journey, the superfast ferries are more convenient, when you have to pay back those two hours gained!

We spent three nights at the Hotel Rembrandt in the centre of Tangier. After this, we took a taxi to Tamuda Bay on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco where I own my vacation home. It was rented when we arrived in Tangier - hence our stopover.

The hotel was adequate if not a little dated and the pool and gardens were quite delightful. We ate breakfast in the restaurant overlooking the pool and admired the view over towards the port and the beach. Swaying palms offered peace and seclusion to our hotel grounds and we felt we'd made a wise choice. The price we paid for accommodation was ridiculously low by both American and European standards and I’d be more than happy to stay here again.

I’m no mere newcomer to Tangier, having travelled there more than anywhere else, but I still manage to lose myself in the labyrinthine alleyways of the medina whenever I visit. This time, accompanied by my friend who has never previously visited Morocco, I was determined to impress her with my knowledge of the place and not to lose my way. I arrived in Tangier well prepared with a reputable map which I soon discovered was no use at all - because I’d left my reading glasses at home.

The Hotel Rembrandt is situated on the main road through the town; Boulevard Mohammed V, so it’s relatively easy to locate although losing your way is all part of the fun when discovering foreign destinations. You can always hail a taxi to take you back to your hotel if all else fails, but becoming lost in the dark alleys of the Medina can be a little more daunting. This is the only place where relentless summer sunlight cannot penetrate; this is the real Morocco which has survived a thousand years before tourists arrived to tread its ancient cobbles.

I’d intended to find the location with the best vantage point to take a panoramic photo of the port and beach area and knew by dead reckoning that it was ‘over that way somewhere.’ My friend followed me unquestioningly as if I'd been a regular tour guide all my life.

We stepped out of our hotel and followed the main road. It was a great time to explore Tangier during the month of Ramadan when the main areas are relatively quiet during daylight hours and the shady, narrow streets of the kasbah offered welcome protection from the heat of the day.

Soon we were in need of some refreshment and cool freshly squeezed, purer than pure, Moroccan orange juice was worth working up a thirst for. We discovered a friendly, little cafe but when we left we headed off in entirely the wrong direction and it wasn’t long before I had to admit to my friend that we were lost. This caused her to panic momentarily until she discovered we’d stumbled onto a film set. The name of Leonardo De Caprio was mentioned in an overheard conversation and my friend suddenly began snapping away frantically with her disposable camera. The elusive Leonardo was probably on tea break (if he was there at all) so, for lack of a glimpse of him, we wandered even further into the kasbah to do some shopping before making any attempt to retrace our steps to the hotel.

The medina children follow tourists relentlessly in the hope of a few Dirhams; their wide, appealing brown eyes speak more volumes than any language. ‘Mi amiga! Mi amiga!’ one of them called after me in Spanish (remember, Spain is only a short ferry trip across the Straits so Spanish is widely understood in Tangier). He pulled at my cardigan as I moved away and turned out his pockets to demonstrate how empty they were. I conceded defeat even with the knowledge that if I gave in to him, a few moments his sister, brother and half a dozen friends would appear from nowhere and request the same. It was the nearest I'd ever come to being the Pied Piper.

The roads are always busy in Tangier but the pavements are wide and there are many places of interest with pleasant gardens that allow the visitor a welcome sanctuary from the throng of the busy centre. The Grand Socco is one of these open spaces that we discovered quite by accident as we found our way out of the narrow alleyways behind it.

Adjacent to this, are the Mendoubia Gardens which afford some respite from the heat of the day. As a change from orange juice, a glass of hot mint tea can be just as effective in cooling you down. There are many pavement cafes in this area that will serve the tea in the traditional way, in ornate silver teapots on silver platters.

Tangier is fairly compact and several of the main attractions can be viewed on foot if time is limited. It's an amazing mishmash of old and new, side by side. With a rich history dating back to the Phoenicians, there are plenty of museums of antiquity and the Museum of Moroccan Art to discover. There's also a site of antiquity facing over towards the Straits of Gibraltar which can easily be approached from the city centre.

The Caves of Hercules are located a few miles outside the city and are one of the best-known attractions. It's said this is where the mythological Greek hero of the same name spent time in quiet contemplation before one of his twelve famous labours. Also near the Caves is Cape Spartel which commands a wonderful view of the sun sinking low into the west and indeed this is the most westerly point in the region. Morocco is often referred to in Arabic as Al-Maghrib – the land of the setting sun.

Americans will no doubt be pleased to discover the McDonalds in the very heart of Tangier and it's highly probable that it's the one with the best view in the world. New Yorkers will also be interested to know that Morocco and New York were once joined millions of years ago. At the Hotel Dawlitz complex, you will be able to see the port, the old town and the beach. In the early morning glow of the sunrise it's perhaps at its best but at night you can sit on the balcony munching a burger while admiring the illuminated coastal scenery.

Nightlife in Tangier is subdued and is more centred on cafes and restaurants such as the Cafe de Paris. The visitor would find it difficult to fill in the days with enough activities for a full two-week holiday but it's an ideal place for a few days stopover en route to the beaches of northern Morocco as was our intention.

After three days we were ready to leave the hustle and bustle of the city behind as we travelled by taxi along the coastal route taking in some magnificent scenery along the way.

When our Tangier travels were over, we arrived at the area known as ‘the Golden Mile,’ between Marina Smir and Kabilah Marina. Here you'll find sands to rival the Caribbean and two opulent marinas worthy of berthing any millionaire's yacht.

The salubrious Sofitel adjacent to Marina Smir basks in sub-tropical gardens and enjoys a prime front line position overlooking the beach. There's every opportunity at Tamuda Bay for enjoying a beach-based holiday and that’s why I bought an apartment there!

My two sons were disappointed to find that the aqua park was closed during the month of Ramadan, but for the next seven days before the end of August, we knew that because of this we were guaranteed to have a quiet holiday. Such tranquillity is hard to find nowadays in the height of the tourist season and in contrast, I imagined how busy it must be just a few miles distant on Spain’s Costa del Sol. As I sat on the sands of Morocco’s golden Costa Vista with Cabo Negro and the Rif Mountains as a backdrop, I knew where I'd rather be.

Many Tourists Visit Tangier on Day Trips from Spain

Hotel Rembrant, Tangier

The  grounds of the Rembrant Hotel
The grounds of the Rembrant Hotel | Source

The Beach at Marina Smir, Known as Tamuda Bay

Tamuda Bay on Northern Morocco's 'Golden Mile'
Tamuda Bay on Northern Morocco's 'Golden Mile' | Source

Tangier Port

Overview of Tangier harbour and port looking eastwards.
Overview of Tangier harbour and port looking eastwards. | Source

Would you consider a day trip to Morocco when staying in Southern Spain?

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Mystical Music to Moroccanise your Mood!

© 2016 Stella Kaye


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