Five Hours in Tangier: From the Medina to the Markets

When the ships come in, Tangier comes alive. With only a few hours in port, you’ll need to hustle to take it all in.

Tangier, Morocco, is a sensory explosion. The sights, sounds, and aromas surround you, sweeping you into the culture and flavors of this enigmatic North African port city. I’ve wanted to spend time in Morocco since I was a teenager, taken by the rhythmic sway of a belly dancer’s hips and the mosaic of zaffer tiles lining the walls of Disney’s Epcot pavilion.

For a variety of reasons, every time I’ve made an attempt to see the real deal, it was thwarted, until last March. Finally, I stepped foot on Moroccan soil. And though it was only for a few hours, it was enough to know I’ll venture back again soon. Here’s a look at how to spend five hours in Morocco.

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Disembarkation

On this trip, I was traveling with my mother. We contemplated taking a shore excursion to one of the many historic sites surrounding the city. Ultimately, we decided they were too high priced and would leave us little time to explore the city afterward.

Depending on how much time you want to spend sipping mint tea–a local favorite–in a corner café or shopping in the souk, you can see the main sights in just a few hours. So you can choose to take it easy in the morning and get off the ship later in the day if you need a few extra hours of sleep.

We’re early risers, and we like to get ahead of the crowds, not to mention the mid-day heat. We had our feet firmly on land within an hour of arriving at port. Once you’re off the ship, it’s just a short walk to the old town–10 minutes or so. Since the port is also home to a ferry service, you will need to pass through a terminal on your way to the medina.

As you’re passing through the terminal, men will begin to approach you, offering you tours around town. They are very pleasant and will back off the moment you refuse their offer, but there are hundreds of others who will all ask the same question, especially once you step outside the terminal. Here, you’ll find dozens of taxis just waiting to take you on a tour. If you’re unprepared or haven’t traveled to other places where people heckle you, this could be overwhelming.

I prefer to make my own tour. I like to walk the streets at my own pace, stopping and starting wherever and whenever I want. So, I politely refused every offer. As a savvy traveler with a bold personality, I have no problem expressing myself. But even I found it a bit of a challenge, but mostly, I simply found it annoying. I just wanted to be left alone. I was truly relieved when we made it to the main street, Avenue Mohamed VI, and could see the medina just up ahead.

Just when we thought we were in the clear, a pedestrian approached us, asking if we wanted to be accompanied on our walk. Again, we refused. A few hundred feet later, two more pedestrians approached us. Once again, we refused. By now we were at the base of the Hotel Continental, a landmark 3-star hotel marking the entry to the medina from the port. We began our ascent to the top of the stairs, where we could see a gate leading into the old town.

Tangier



Booking.com

Lost in Translation

In the distance to our left, we could see a few men gesturing to us. Tired of fending off local “guides,” we opted to turn right at the top of the stairs to avoid them. Unfortunately, this path led only to the Hotel Continental lobby. We had no choice but to turn back around, only to find one of the men standing a few feet away. As per the others, he offered his services, and we once again refused, making our way past him and toward the gate into town.

It wasn’t long before we realized he was walking only a few feet behind us. After a few steps, he began hollering something at us. We assumed he was simply trying to change our mind about taking his local tour. When we reached a locked gate a few minutes later, we realized he’d been trying to warn us we could not go that way. He pointed us in a new direction. We thanked him kindly and carried on.

We meandered through a few streets, completely uncertain where we were headed. Normally, I kind of like it that way. But for every five steps we took, a new man would pop out of the shadows and ask if he could accompany us. It was tiresome and frustrating. Not to mention I was having trouble focusing on my adventure. All I could think about was finding a way for us to explore in peace and quiet. I was starting to sweat, and it wasn’t even hot out. Not good. That’s when I realized our “friend” was still only a few steps away. He’d been following us the entire time. Suddenly, I had a revelation.

This guy seemed pretty nice. He was letting us do our thing and simply making sure we got around safely. What if we adopted him as our guide? It would keep the others away, and we could do walk around freely without any hassle. So, I half turned and asked him a quick question about which way to go. He took a hesitant step forward, pointed to the left, and smiled. And that was that. We had ourselves a guide.

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Walk the Kasbah

At first, Eduardo, stayed a half block ahead of us, pointing here and there at various buildings and signs. He spoke very little English, but we managed to sort out the basics. He took us to the top of the Kasbah, telling us when to stop and look at the place where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean. Then he walked us through the streets, pointing out buildings owned by the elite. At some point, he must have realized I like colored tiles because we found ourselves a bit off the beaten path. He would take us down side streets just to point out a pretty door. It was sweet, and I didn’t see a lot of others from the cruise ship getting the same special treatment.

Before we knew it, we were walking side by side with Eduardo, conversing with hand gestures and head nods. By now, we realized every single tourist we passed had acquired a guide. And life was certainly easier with one. We had only a few hours to enjoy this lovely place, so there was no time to waste.

Tangier

Pro Tip: If you’re only in Tangier for the day, relent, and hire a guide. It’s the best 10 Euros you’ll ever spend, even if all he does is keep the other guides from heckling you. Eduardo knew where to take us to see the hotspots, and he kept us from being harassed. Choose someone who is nice and polite, and he will treat you well for the day.

Socco it to ‘Em

After the Kasbah, Eduardo walked us through even more streets, making sure we didn’t miss a single mosaic. He even took us inside a local house to watch a man bake homemade bread in a traditional oven. Eventually, we wound our way down to the Grand Socco. Here, new meets old, as the narrow alleys of the old town converge with modern city streets. This plaza and green space is mostly a meeting place, but it also acts as the gateway to the medina.

Socco is another word for souk or suuq, which means “market.” Across the street from the plaza is still an open market, where vendors peddle fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fish straight from the ocean, and baked goods. They spill into the crowded aisles, showcasing their wares to the locals.

Tangier

After a quick walk through the market, Eduardo took us on a traditional walking tour of the local shops. Though he wasn’t an accredited guide, he still made sure we were treated like royalty. At the rug shop, they rolled out the red carpet…and blue, purple, ivory, and orange. Anyone who has been to a North African country has seen the spiel. In a shop overflowing with hand-woven rugs of all shapes, colors, and sizes, two or three men roll out dozens of styles and tell you about their many features as you sip freshly brewed mint tea. It’s fun, and a little awkward. Though we declined to purchase anything, they still let us view the entire area from their rooftop patio. And what a beautiful view it was.

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From here, Eduardo took us to a beautiful shop filled with silver accessories, adornments, and décor. It was lovely and utterly impractical. But the owner was a hoot and joked about how ridiculous it would be for us to purchase an overpriced item from him. In much the same fashion, we visited spice shops where we were surrounded by savory aromas and stores filled with Moroccan oils for every part of your body. One of my favorite stops was the silk shop, where scarves, bags, dresses, and more are woven on site. Here, they demonstrate the process, and also take time to wrap women in the perfect hijab made from a scarf of their favorite color. So much fun.

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While Eduardo was ready to wrap up the tour–we figure he was hoping to grab a new set of tourists to make a few extra bucks in the afternoon–we weren’t quite ready to leave. I was desperate for a pair of babouche, or Moroccan slippers. So, we asked Eduardo to make a few more stops. Of course, we couldn’t find anything we liked at the first two shops, but we struck gold at the third. We practically emptied our purses here buying shoes, trinkets, souvenir tiles, hair oils, and more. Eduardo sat quietly in a chair and nodded appropriately when I asked him which shoes he liked best. He was adorable, like a man who’d been watching his wife shop for 50 years.

The shop owner was fluent in English and joked with us heartily. He even sent someone to find items at another shop if he didn’t have what we were looking for. Turns out he had just opened his doors and was competing with his father for sales. We felt like we got a good deal after bartering a bit, but I’m still pretty sure they took us for twice what it was worth. We had fun anyway.

Fond Farewell

Lastly, Eduardo took us to the infamous Café Baba, where the Rolling Stones and other musicians would often hangout during their time in Tangier. It was empty while we were there so we got to take a good look around. It was a rare treat.

After about four hours with Eduardo, it was time to say goodbye. He walked us all the way back to Hotel Continental, where we hugged and took pictures together–leaps and bounds from the distance we’d kept at the start of our day. Though we didn’t have an agreement with Eduardo to pay him anything, we had heard others saying they expected about 5 Euros for a tour of the old town. My mom and I had already decided we would each give him that much, but after forcing him to shop with us for an extra hour, we doubled down. Our lives in North America are blessed with luxuries Eduardo will never know. We spent thousands of dollars to be in Morocco, what was a few bucks more?

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Back on the Boat

We contemplated heading back to the souk for a bit of time on our own in Tangier, but we knew we would end up acquiring yet another guide whether we wanted one or not. Instead, we headed back to the port, where the lovely NCL Epic was waiting for us to board. We met an elderly lady on our way who was just arriving at the main road. She was insistent on deflecting all offers from locals for assistance. We advised her to give in, but she just brushed us off. I wonder to this day if she made it on her own.

We left so early that morning there hadn’t been any vendors outside the port. By the time we returned, they were lining the street. If you aren’t interested in visiting the old town, you can pick up some dandy souvenirs here. I had meant to buy a traditional top, something I had dreamed of since I was that teenager back at EPCOT. I managed to find exactly what I was after just as I was about to get back on the ship. I was delighted.

Tamgier

Tangier was just the tip of the iceberg for me. I plan to head back to Morocco for more adventures on the mainland. But this was a wonderful way to sample the culture. Have you been to Morocco? Head to the Wanderlust Wayfarer Facebook group, and let me know where I should visit on my next trip to Northern Africa.

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Five Hours in Funchal: From Gondolas to Street Toboggans

One of the best parts of cruising is going to places you might not have otherwise considered, like Funchal, Madeira.

 

This picturesque city has slightly more than 100,000 people and is the capital of Madeira, a Portuguese island in the North Atlantic Ocean. Funchal is magical, but before my ship entered its port, I had no idea I wanted to go there. Heck, I had no idea it existed. Within 15 minutes ashore, I knew it was one of my new favorite places in Europe, and even though I still had the whole day ahead of me, I didn’t want it to end.

I had no idea what to expect so I thought about taking a ship-sanctioned shore excursion. In the end, I decided not to take one. Instead I chose to take my chances on making my own itinerary. I studied the ship’s recommendations and decided I could see the main city sites and still have plenty of time to stroll the streets if I did things on my own. And I was right! I packed in a ton of fun and never once felt rushed. Here are my tips for the best ways to spend five hours in Funchal.

Disembarking

Funchal

To make the most of this beautiful port, I urge you to rise early and beat the crowds. If you get up at 6:30 a.m., you can be dressed, have a bite to eat, and be ready to go by 8 a.m. This was the projected arrival time for NCL Epic.

As soon as I heard the captain give the A-OK to get off the ship, I headed toward the gangway. Trust me when I tell you not to waste a single minute of time you have in this lovely place. I was the very first person to disembark for the day. And I was glad to have the quiet streets to myself for a few hours before most of the other cruisers made it off the ship.

It’s a bit of a jaunt from the ship to the heart of the action, but it’s a well-designed route once you get past the ship dock. Simply walk off the ship and keep going until you reach a fork in the road. Make a right on Avenida Do Mar, and keep on walking. The level pathway, scenic view along the waterfront, and smattering of shops make it an easy stroll. You can turn left at the first main intersection to head straight into the tourist area. But I decided to up the ante and keep walking. I had a special plan for my morning.

Morning

I walked all along the pathway for about 45 minutes at a brisk pace. I had an ulterior motive: to get on the cable cars or, as they’re called locally, Teleférico do Funchal, before the crowds of tourists arrived. I made good time, arriving by 8:45 a.m. Sadly, they didn’t open until 9 a.m. so I could have walked at a more leisurely pace and enjoyed the sights. Still, even as I waited to get inside, throngs of tourists arrived. In fact, three busloads were waiting just behind me.

I swooped in as soon as the doors were unlocked and bought my ticket to the hilltop village of Monte. Monte has lots to offer in its own right, including beautiful gardens. You can purchase tickets to various attractions at the same time as you buy your cable car fare. Just remember, Funchal also has lots to offer too. Watch the clock so you have time to enjoy both places.

Monte

I bought a round-trip ticket and boarded the very first car of the morning. I’m terrified of heights, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it wasn’t so bad. Treetops and roofs appear to be just a stone’s throw away for most of the ride up. There are a few places where you’re suspended fairly high above the ground, but the journey lasts only 15 minutes. You can do anything for 15 minutes, I promise. And the view is so worth any anxiety you may experience.

When you reach the end of your journey, there’s not a lot of signage telling you where to go. Because I was the first tourist at the top, there wasn’t anyone to follow. If you turn right, you’ll head toward the gardens. If you turn left, you’ll make your way toward the Church of Our Lady of the Mount. It’s a short walk either way you turn.

I was hoping for a few shops and cafés where I could while away the morning in Monte, but there were no such thing. After you walk the stairs to the church and take in the exceptional view of Funchal, there’s not a lot else to do…except for maybe the most amazing experience ever. Read on.

Mid-Morning

So the real reason I wanted to make my way to the hilltop town of Monte was so that I could ride in a wicker basket back down the hill. A wicker basket! I believe the locals call it a toboggan, but I call it like I see it. For the high, high price of 25 Euros for one person or 30 Euros for two, you can sit in a basket while two men push you through the village streets at relatively fast speeds. You can’t make this stuff up.

Funchal

The men wear special boots that help them glide along the well-oiled streets. Occasionally, they slow the pace to let a car pass along at a cross road. Along the way, men will pop out from the side streets to snap your picture. You can buy it later for 10 Euros, along with a cute history of the toboggan ride. I figured no one would believe me when I told them what I’d just done without evidence, so I snapped it up. There’s also a little market where you can haggle for souvenirs and a place where you can grab a bite to eat.

Pro tip: If you plan on taking the toboggan ride down the hill, you only need to purchase a one-way ticket for the cable cars. I learned this the hard way and could have saved myself a few bucks. Oh, and try to have cash for the toboggan ride. In theory, they take credit, but it’s a hassle. My “drivers” were quite unhappy about not being paid cash.

Downhill

It’s important to note the basket ride only takes you partway down the hill. There’s still a long way to go to reach the bottom. You have three options, take a tour bus, hop in a taxi, or walk. As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, I like a good walk. But I can tell you, I am the only person who chose this option. And it was a long walk at a steep angle. I’m glad I did it, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it, unless you’re really keen.

I stopped a few times along the way to take some snaps of my ship in the port. I also caught a few glimpses of locals going about their daily business. I like that sort of thing. It feels more intimidate, which can be hard to achieve with only five hours in Funchal.

Mid-Day

I’d promised my traveling companion I would return to the ship by 11 a.m. so we could spend the rest of the day in town together. Believe it or not, I had already accomplished all of that excitement and got back to the ship 15 minutes early. To my delight, she was already waiting for me outside, leaving us even more time to explore Funchal.

We spent the rest of the day meandering through the city streets. We went into every shop, walked down every alley, and ate gelato. From trendy boutiques, like Dona Hortensia, to the local market, Mercado Dos Lavradores, there are endless unique shopping options. Zara, Mossimo Dutti, Mango, and all of the other major chain stores are present too.

Funchal

It’s hard not to fall in love with the stunning scenery of town square. Quaint cafés, like The Ritz, lush greenspaces, and white buildings and cobblestone streets give Funchal a romantic glow. Praça do Município, the main square, the statue of João Gonçalves Zarco, and Sé Catedral do Funchal are not to be missed. I could spend a month just sitting at a café taking in Funchal’s beauty, writing a romance novel and enjoying the atmosphere.

In the Old Town, the Rua de Santa Maria features a public art project that’s helping to revitalize the area. Known as Arte de Portas Abertas, it features more than 200 doors painted by local artists. It’s a feast for the eyes.

Alas, with only five hours in Funchal, by mid-afternoon, it was time to make our way back to the ship. I was sad to sail away from this fairy tale town, and dream of visiting Funchal again soon.