A fisherman casts his net in the bay off the coast of Tangier, Morocco. The city is a mix of old and new buildings, of beautiful homes and dirty slums, of exotic scents and foul odors.

A fisherman casts his net in the bay off the coast of Tangier, Morocco. The city is a mix of old and new buildings, of beautiful homes and dirty slums, of exotic scents and foul odors. (Scott Schonauer / S&S)

A fisherman casts his net in the bay off the coast of Tangier, Morocco. The city is a mix of old and new buildings, of beautiful homes and dirty slums, of exotic scents and foul odors.

A fisherman casts his net in the bay off the coast of Tangier, Morocco. The city is a mix of old and new buildings, of beautiful homes and dirty slums, of exotic scents and foul odors. (Scott Schonauer / S&S)

Jutta Huser, a tourist from Germany, calmly allows a Moroccan snake charmer’s cobra to circle around her neck as the charmer entertains a crowd in Tangier.

Jutta Huser, a tourist from Germany, calmly allows a Moroccan snake charmer’s cobra to circle around her neck as the charmer entertains a crowd in Tangier. (Scott Schonauer / S&S)

A Moroccan man entertains a group of German tourists in Tangier.

A Moroccan man entertains a group of German tourists in Tangier. (Scott Schonauer / S&S)

Tangier, Morocco, is a whiff of smelling salt for the senses.

The coastal town can be revolting and pleasant, slightly scary and fascinating — all within a city block. The delightful scent of spices from the market can quickly turn to the pungent smell of rotting food with the turn of the corner. Down the street, children playing with a soccer ball share space with smiling snake charmers.

Morocco is a quick ferry ride from Spain, but it might as well be a world away.

Stepping off the boat into what is known as the “Gateway to Morocco” feels like being an alien arriving on another planet.

You wonder if the port’s shady reputation as an outpost for hustlers, drug dealers and refugee runners is true. There is a tinge of mystery and a hint of anxiety for what lies ahead. A circus of belly dancers, handicapped beggars, haggling carpet dealers, one-eyed fishmongers, camel drivers and a seemingly endless supply of pesky street peddlers inhabit the labyrinth of streets and alleys.

Nothing says “We’re not in Europe anymore” more clearly than the city of Tangier.

Whether that is a good feeling or not, depends on one’s thirst for adventure and the experience of the traveler.

High-speed catamarans launching from Spain’s wind-swept town of Tarifa zoom passengers across the Strait of Gibraltar in as little as 35 minutes.

Most visitors are day-trippers on vacation in southern Spain who can’t resist the chance to cross the strait, visit another continent and be back at their hotel in time for paella and sangria.

A day trip to the coastal city of Tangier sounds exotic, almost romantic. Exotic might be a good word to describe it. Romantic it is not.

Neither is it boring.

Tour agencies offer package deals from Spain. I bought a trip that included transportation to Tarifa, the ferry ride, lunch and a guided tour for 85 euros — about $112.

The bus picked up our group, most of them German tourists, at various hotels in and around downtown Rota, close to the Navy base. The first stop was at about 7:30 a.m.

On the way, our tour guide, Maria Elvira Garcia Fernandez, gave us an overview of the trip, the do’s and don’ts, including customs and the faux pas of taking photos of some locals.

“Some people feel that taking a photo of them steals their soul,” she said.

Since it was during Ramadan, when Muslims abstain from drinking, smoking and eating from sunrise to sunset, she warned that tempers would be short. More than 98 percent of the country is Muslim.

“Often, the locals take out their frustrations on the tourists, who can eat, drink and smoke during Ramadan as long as they’re not Muslim,” she said.

After a two-hour bus ride from Rota, we hopped on board the catamaran and slipped into its airline-style seats. As comfortable as the chairs are, some passengers couldn’t bear the ride across the rolling swells and lost their breakfasts. The catamaran is similar to what the U.S. military uses and is affectionately nicknamed the “Vomit Comet” by Marines.

Heed this warning: Don’t take a seat near the bathroom or you will be within earshot of the guttural heaves.

The Navy base in Rota doesn’t sponsor tours to Morocco anymore because of security concerns, so I asked if I should be worried that I am an American.

“Not at all,” Garcia said. “They love Americans.”

They actually like all visitors, especially those who come to buy. It doesn’t matter whether you spoke English, German or Swahili. Chances are that somebody in Tangier spoke your language and had something to sell.

A line of freelancing tour guides, taxi cab drivers and street hawkers made up an enthusiastic welcoming party that would stay with us most of the day. The best part of arriving on the pier with a guide is that he or she can be a buffer from the badgering merchants. If you’re with a guide, you’re “already taken.”

A tour guide, however, won’t shield you from the wave after wave of street salesmen and boys selling everything from leather purses to bongo drums. They followed our group’s every move throughout the day like the paparazzi shadowing Brad Pitt.

Buying something seemed to be like throwing chum to a pool of sharks. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “No.” In fact, savvy travelers going through the gantlet of street peddlers will say it early and often.

This might be the only time rudeness is a virtue.

We began our tour of Tangier with a windshield tour of the city in a taxi. We drove through the Jewish, English, Spanish and American quarters. The city is unlike any other Moroccan town because of its mix of cultures.

Our drive took us past the summer homes of Saudi royalty, wealthy Egyptians and a compound that serves as a summer residence for Morocco’s king. At the top of the hill, apparently waiting for us to arrive, three men stood with camels. Men selling hats, jewelry and purses hovered nearby.

For a small fee, people could hop onto one of the camels and pose for photographs. Those who climbed on top got a whirlwind ride around a small dirt lot on the side of the road.

It served as a cheesy photo opportunity but little else. Better snaps could be taken down the road.

Tangier is the fifth-largest city in Morocco, and the vistas from atop the English quarter offered the best views of the urban jungle below.

We met up with the rest of the group on the edge of the Old City.

We walked deep into the heart of the city, where we got a better slice of Tangier life. Women washed clothes in a public fountain, and children ran in and out of the tight alleyways playing tag. A snake charmer on one corner brought out his snake while a pair of men played drums.

The few charming parts of town give way to slums dominated by the smell of urine and garbage. This is where Tangier earns its bad reputation. As we strolled through some neighborhoods, women in our group clenched their purses like a vice.

After walking past tiny hair salons, tailors, bakeries and butcher shops, we stopped on a corner.

It wasn’t to see a monument, visit a mosque or hear about a historical landmark. Our guides had taken us to a souvenir stand with postcards and other trinkets.

I wanted to buy a guidebook to see what we could’ve seen if we didn’t spend so much time looking at guidebooks.

There is a souk, or open-air market, for everything. Leather, fruit and vegetables and spices are for sale. This is what Morocco is all about. This is what a visitor wants to see.

The urge is to break away from the group and meander the streets, taking in the potpourri of colors and smells of the medina.

Vendors were selling grilled meat on the streets, but lunch plans took us to a restaurant down an alley close to the markets.

The guides called this a “typical Moroccan restaurant,” but it is doubtful the typical Moroccan eats at this place. Everyone, except the waiters and a three-man band, was a tourist.

Lunch was included in the price of the trip, but customers paid extra for beer brewed in Morocco. The meal included soup, a second course of shish kebabs, and a main dish of traditional couscous with chicken and black olives. Mint tea was served with a dessert that included a pastry drenched in honey.

It was tasty.

Toward the end of the meal, a portly woman covered in a silk gown and wearing a straw hat danced around the restaurant as the small band played. She twirled around and shimmied her belly but didn’t show any skin. Good thing. We had just eaten.

After lunch, our guides took us to the city’s superstore of souvenirs, a Wal-Mart of Moroccan handicrafts. Several floors sold everything from ceramics to carpets.

“Whatever you do, don’t pay the asking price,” our guide instructed.

A salesman boasted that the store had the best Moroccan-made carpets and rugs in Tangier. Since I had been in Morocco for only a few hours, I couldn’t debate that claim.

Rolls of carpets, large and small, filled the sides of the room. The salesman and some of his associates rolled out more than a dozen carpets. Haggling brought the price of one beautiful rug down by more than 50 percent from the original price, but I balked at dropping several hundred dollars and walked away.

At around 3:30 p.m., I caught up with the rest of our group at our next and last stop of the day — the spice shop.

It is there that Sai’d Khayat ripped into his spiel about the many spices, oils, herbs and powders from the region. He stood in front of a table full of jars filled with stuff that he claimed would cure everything from a headache to a poor libido. An orange power for meats and chicken was perfect “for people who can’t cook,” he said, chuckling.

By this time it was after 4 p.m. and our day in Tangier was almost over. But the onslaught of salesmen was not.

As we got closer to our ferry trip home, peddlers seemed to pop out of nowhere. Some trailed our group for several blocks, shoving their belts, bracelets and golden camels in people’s faces as we tried to flee.

They knew the group was leaving and they were making one last attempt at making a sale.

I suddenly had dark thoughts of what it would have been like to have brought a Taser gun with me.

It was too much for some.

“No money!” one of the women in our group yelled in both English and German.

But they still trailed her like a pack of dogs in heat, almost stumbling over one another.

The most creative hawker emerged at the end.

A man wearing a German soccer shirt had followed us taking photos toward the first half of our trip. I thought he was part of our group. But before we boarded the boat, another man tried to sell us photos the photographer had inconspicuously taken of us.

At that point, the lengths some folks went to sell something didn’t surprise anyone in the group.

Love it or hate it, nobody could argue that the 13-hour jaunt to northern Africa wasn’t memorable. For those who had had enough, they could find solace in the fact that Spain was only a short boat ride away.

One day in Tangier is probably enough for most travelers — even those who don’t mind getting their shoes dirty in the medina and shooing away incessant handicraft salesmen like flies.

For others, one day might be too much.

About Morocco ...

Moroccans call the American section of Tangier “California,” but, today, few Americans call it home.

The United States has had a long and sometimes notorious history with the eccentric city that some say is Africa’s version of Tijuana, Mexico.

During the early 20th century, it stood as a trendy international city, where American novelist Paul Bowles wrote books and the late millionaire Malcolm Forbes owned a palace.

The city also had a seedy side, attracting pirates, money launderers, pimps and prostitutes.

The wealthy international elite are gone, but con men, unscrupulous money changers and hookers remain in the shadows of what was a popular expatriate outpost decades ago.

Morocco was the first country to recognize U.S. independence. In 1821 Moroccan Sultan Moulay Suliman gave the United States a building, the first piece of property acquired abroad by the U.S. government, which became the American Legation — one diplomatic step below an embassy.

It has been renovated and expanded through the years, and today holds a museum tracing the relationships between the two countries.

— Scott Schonauer

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