Visiting Three Worlds in Three Days: Tangiers, Gibraltar, and Marbella
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
We were tired after an overnight bus ride from Casablanca. The CTM coach was comfortable, yet, as most revellers will testify, being awake all night is not the best way to land in a strange city. On the other hand, reaching Tangiers early in the morning has its advantages. The streets were empty and only a few lads were around presenting themselves as guides or offering anything you want for a price. After we refused their services, they quietly faded away. During the day it is much different. The bus and other travel areas are teeming with young men who hang around like leeches, suggesting they could be of use in every language under the sun.
We walked up the seaward sloping streets to the centre of town where we had reserved a hotel. In less than 10 minutes we were resting in a charming abode, preparing ourselves for the exploration of the most cosmopolitan of Moroccan cities and a symbol of magic and adventure. We were convinced that this city which is the meeting place of Africa and Europe was the best place to begin our journey into three worlds in three days.
This was a logical choice since Tangiers embodies a rich cultural mixture and is much affected by foreign influences. Every European language can be heard in its streets, beaches, and cafes. In this mysterious oriental town of charm and excitement, the Arab, English, and Spanish worlds, which we were to explore, all can be found in some part of the city.
Tangiers was founded by the Phoenicians who named it Tinges. Some centuries later it was conquered by the Romans. However, the Arabs who occupied it in 705 A.D. left their lasting imprint on the city – an aura still vivid in our times. In later centuries it was occupied by both the Portuguese and British, but when they departed their influences faded away. After the First World War, Tangiers was made an international city. This status lasted until Morocco became independent and it again became part of that country.
We hired a petit taxi for an hour to tour the parts of town which we could not do on foot. We drove along some of the loveliest beaches in the world. With the temperature averaging between 13o and 23oC, swimming is possible for most of the year – a luring coastline for the nearby Europeans.
We lingered awhile on the enticing sands, then left to explore the expanding suburbs. On slopes of wooded hills, luxurious villas set amid clusters of trees appeared to be everywhere. We, I am sure, like many other tourists, were surprised to see so much greenery. Not many travellers associate this North African city with mountains and trees.
The taxi let us off at the Grand Succo, a large square which contains the sights and sounds of Africa and the Arab world. Hungry, we munched on barbecued kababs and fish from one of the many stalls bordering the square.
Leaving this teeming marketplace on the edge of the Medina (old city), we walked through crowded streets to the Little Succo with its concentration of old hotels and cafes. IN this heart of the old city, we sat in one of the cafes and watched a kaleidoscope of people. Men and women in all types of western dress mingled with those wearing a variety of traditional Moroccan national costumes. Especially noticeable were the Rif peasant women in their colourful mountain garb.
After resting a while, we strolled up to the kasbah which towers above the city. It was simple for us to walk the labyrinth of the Medina streets since I could speak Arabic and, hence, ask directions. Tourists are well advised to take guides to help facilitate their exploration of this ancient part of town.
From the kasbah gateway we entered Tabor Square with its batter of old bronze cannons. It was a clear day and we could see Spain form this high point-a speck in the distance. Like all tourists we took pictures, then stopped a while at Dar el-Makkzen, an impressive palace housing two museums: the Museum of Moroccan Art and the Musée des Antiquités. When these storehouses of historic objects closed their doors, we ended our sightseeing by walking down to the Mendoubia Gardens. Here, we wandered through a world of flowers and trees, dotted with cannons set amid this greenery.
Our day of exploration led to a climax in an evening of oriental food and entertainment. After a fine Moroccan meal at El-Hammadi near the Grand Succo for $10. U.S. each, we attended a folkloric evening in the Morocco Palace. For $4. U.S., we were treated to a night of oriental splendour. Berber drummers, acrobats, dancers with lighted candles, singers, and of course, the famous belly-dancing made for an unforgettable evening.
At 9:30 next morning we departed on a hydrofoil for Gibraltar. As the immense Tangier bay faded into the distance, I reminisced about the busy beehive of life in Tangiers – an exotic eastern world of colour and passion with which I was loath to part. The mixture of ancient and modern, embellished by the mysterious Orient had tantalized then spellbound us.
It took a little over an hour to cross the 32-mile straits and enter another world. A tiny part of England, Gibraltar is an Anglo-Saxon island set between the North African and Spanish worlds. Only two and a half miles long and one mile wide, this miniature country was ideal for a one day visit.
A bare 14 miles from Africa, it was known in ancient times as one of the Pillars of Hercules. It gets its name from Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Arab conqueror who occupied the Rock in 711 A.D. After it was subjugated, the Arabs remained masters for almost 800 years. When the Muslims in Spain were defeated, the Spaniards inherited it for a short period of time until it was taken over by the British in 1704, and it has remained under their sovereignty ever since.
After we landed on this minute part of overseas Britain, we immediately hired a taxi and toured the Rock. We had a two hour trip which took us around the whole colony, then up to the top. Along the way we stopped to photograph the eastern face which is paved to collect the rainwater – the only source of water in the country. Also, we halted awhile at St. Michael’s Cave to view its beautiful display of stalagmites and stalactites; the Moorish Castle, an Arab stronghold which still awes passengers passing through the Straits when it is floodlit; and the Apes’ Den where we photographed the famous friendly apes, first brought by the Arabs to Gibraltar.
Down from the heights, we went shopping along the main street and connecting lanes. Food and restaurant prices were about double those of Morocco. However, tobacco and liquor were cheap and good buys could be found in perfumes, jewellery, and watches.
In the streets and shops, we heard more Spanish than English. It seems probable that in the future, the language of Don Quijote will overwhelm that of Shakespeare and the world of England will quietly fade away.
However, at present, visitors to this little bit of Britain can still feel the attachment which was once felt for the mother country by the subjects of the British empire. A mixture of North African, Spanish and British stock they, nevertheless, claim their ancestors to be British. No better example of this can be found than in the taxi driver we hired for our tour. All he talked about was how the Gibraltarians, like himself, were proud of their English ancestry and how the Rock must remain British. When we bade him adieu, I asked him his family name. He quoted a Spanish surname, then smiled and walked away. the appellation told all. His lectures had been in vain.
Late in the afternoon we rented an auto and crossed the border into a Spanish world. The prim and proper of England were now transferred to the passion in the land of Spain. Passing La Linea and San Roque we drove on until we reached the bathing resort of Estepona. In this charming town we stopped for a refreshing cup of café con leche, then followed the neat Costa del Sol until we reached Marbella – known as the resort of aristocrats.
It is said that this enticing city has more Rolls-Royces than any other town on earth. This could very well be true since for years it has drawn like a magnet the rich from all parts of the globe.
Once, the opulent of Britain built their villas on its outskirts. However, in the last few years, the wealthy of the Arabian Peninsula have come in increasing numbers to erect their luxurious homes in this famous tourist town. What their ancestors had lost in war, they were now buying back peacefully. Here, in this former land of their forefathers they feel more at home than in any other part of Europe. Well they might, for many of the Spanish customs are inherited from the Moors.
Tourist literature describes Marbella as a resort of sun, sea and clear blue sky impregnated with the scent of Andalusian oranges and picturesque in its location. Protected by the Sierra Blanca, this city has throughout the year a mild gentle climate. Laying between the mountainside and long sandy beaches, the town’s wetting is made beautiful by the surrounding luxurious estates. The oldest and most fashionable resort on the Costa del Sol, Marbella is handsome, stylish and retains much of the old Andalusian atmosphere.
This aura of southern Spain, luring and spellbinding, has evolved through the centuries. Phoenicians, Romans, and Arabs all did their part in the formation of this seductive atmosphere. Marbellas’s encompassing orange groves and sugar plantations and its eye-catching white-washed homes half hidden in their own gardens owe much to these bygone ancestors. Decorated with potted flowers, the city’s captivating abodes tempt the visitor to become poetic.
It was not hard to find a room in this attractive resort. Some of the finest hotels along Costa del Sol are to be found in and around the city. We chose an elegant abode with a touch of Moorish -Andalusian décor, then went restaurant hopping through the dozens of cafes tucked away on the narrow thoroughfares.
It was late in the evening when we entered the Fiesta on Calle Valentuñana to attend an evening of flamenco. We sat spellbound as the fiery women dancers stamped their feet in proud fashion while behind them a man sang heart-piercing ballads. For two hours our very souls were captivated watching the colourful performance. A leftover from the Moorish past, this rousing dance is one of Spain’s greatest drawing cards.
Early in the morning we began our daylight exploration of the picturesque city. WE wandered through its narrow Andalusian streets admiring the white homes with their wrought-iron grilles and flower strewn walls. The main avenue, Ramón y Cajal with its shops and cafes held our attention for a while before we left to examine the town’s historic sights.
The white stuccoed ayuntamiento, a 16th century town hall situated on the edge of the main city square, Plaz de los Naranjos, was our first stop. Inside, we admired its Mudéjar panelling and frescos of the crucifixion, then, as we were departing, rested for a few minutes b an impressive 16th century fountain.
From this mixture of Moorish and Spanish we left to view the remains of the Moorish Alcazaba and parts of the ancient ramparts. These relics from the Muslim age give Marbella an air of the mysterious Orient and add much to its charm.
After our visit to the reminders from the Moorish age, we strolled along the picturesque waterfront lined with impressive hotels. Its pleasure-boat harbour filled with showy yachts and the nearby casino have for years drawn the affluent of the world. For decades, a fashionable crowd has made this small port their mecca in the sun.
With a feeling of some sadness, we left this tourist paradise with its eternal spring-like weather, white sandy beaches, and exceptional setting. Even though it is the most expensive resort on Costa del Sol, we, lie a great number of visitors, wanted to spend just a little longer relaxing in its tempting and refreshing environment. The few dollars extra it would cost cannot keep away those who, like us, seek the joys and beauties of this world.
We returned to Gibraltar in the afternoon, then took the ferry back to Tangiers to end our visit to three worlds. From the exotic land of the modern Moors, we had travelled through an organized bit of Britain, then enjoyed ourselves for a moment in the country of the flamenco. In three days, we had lived in three worlds. There are not many other spots on earth where this can be done with such comfort and ease.