As I rushed through the crowded streets I tried to mind my steps and keep up with the pace: Our day in Tangier had become a shopping marathon with a guide we nicknamed “speedy Mustafa.”
Earlier that morning, the shops were still closed when we arrived by ferry from the Spanish coast. To pass the time, we had relaxed in the patio of El Minzah Hotel enjoying mint tea and Moroccan almond cookies. The hotel is a classic example of Moorish architecture with arches and traditional mosaic tile work known as zellige.
From Bazaar Bargains to Argan Oil and Pigeons Pies
Our shopping expedition started as soon as the shops opened. We left the hotel and walked across Rue Liberté, lured by the intriguing objects suspended around the door of Bazaar Tindouf.
Inside, the Moroccan crafts displayed from floor to ceiling left little space to walk around: Heaps of hand-woven kilim rugs, rows of hooded djellabahs, mounds of deflated leather ottomans (poufs), piles of brass trays, loads of copper pots, and various kinds of boxes some adorned with marquetry and others with tin and camel bones.
In the back of the shop, traditional leaded-glass lanterns dangled from the ceiling of a narrow hallway, and glowed like church windows. At one end of the hallway, we found an old man welding in a cavernous alcove close to a decrepit concrete staircase.
We tiptoed down the steps made narrower by piles of ceramics. We ended up in a dark room stockpiled with kilims and ginger jars with mosaic designs. In a corner, another risky staircase was still too tempting to pass. It led us to more of everything. When we thought of how deep below street level we were, the musty air suddenly became unbearable: It felt as if we were in the guts of Tangier.
In Your Bucket Because…
- If you are on vacation in Southern Spain, it’s just a day-trip away.
- Moroccan artisans are skilled, creative, and use traditional natural materials.
- For die-hard shoppers/hagglers, discerning eyes, good walkers, bargain hunters.
A Guided Tour for Shopping on the Run
Back on the street, I was checking a city map when a man introduced himself: Mustafa said he wanted to be our guide. My friends and I tried to communicate privately, but Mustafa speaks every language we happen to know. After his persistence won us over, we wondered if he was one of the guides in white djellabahs that we had dismissed at the port. But having a guide meant that Mustafa carried our finds from Tindouf: small lacquered bowls in rich jewel tones adorned with tin cut-outs, and two sconces wrapped in Le Journal de Tanger.
After a while, we noticed that Mustafa tended to keep his distance and often ran to the opposite curb. When we complained, he explained: He is an “independent” guide who might get in trouble by the “authorized” ones, and occasionally by the police. We had heard through the travellers’ grapevine that official guides tend to be despotic: We felt lucky to have Mustafa even if he occasionally disappeared.
Around the Shops in a Few Hours
We hurried down a street lined by small gadget vendors and arrived at a market area crowded by locals. There, men sell from stalls everything a Moroccan housewife could possibly want. Among the mounds of fruit sold by vendors, oranges reminded us that when they were shipped from Tangier to Europe for the first time, they became known as tangerines. Being tourists, we passed on the somewhat overwhelming way of doing business. Moments later, we found a kitchenware store: tagine dishes with pointed lids and multicolored tea glasses joined the load on Mustapha’s arms.
But the stores didn’t only carry practical items: Our next stop, an antique shop, dazzled us with displays of traditional vintage clothing, embroidered fabrics, painted wooden chests, and amazing Berber jewelry.
We browsed in shops selling filigree jewelry, formal caftans, silk and sequins footwear (babouches), silk knotted-buttons, hand-woven belts, carpet rugs, thuya wood boxes/pen holders/domino sets, and mosaics.
Mid-day found us at El Andaluz: four tables, a portable barbecue, a two-burner stove on the doorstep, and a small wall-hung washbasin. The only women there, we felt welcome and safe. While we ate, Mustafa answered the call for prayer.
After lunch, Mustafa guided us to Madini’s Oriental Perfume Essences. Never mind that it was closed: Mustafa disappeared briefly and returned with the owner/chemist who pulled up the heavy metal door. In the small shop, vials with hand-written labels were aligned on shelves: jasmine, rosemary, verbena, sandalwood, patchouli, “azahara” citrus blend, and the costliest of all, the “absolute of rose.” We loaded bags with natural soap and glass tubes of liquid amber and musk: sweet, fresh, heavenly. We also bought argan oil from a Berber pharmacy. From trees endemic of Southwestern Morocco, it is valued for its nutritive and medicinal properties. It is a praised beauty product of Moroccan women.
We were almost running out of time, yet we still had to find the Mouatamid pastry-shop where we had pre-ordered bisteeyas: traditional pigeon pies loaded with hearty ingredients. But first, we needed to buy baskets (hand-woven from palm leaves) to carry the growing load that would soon pass from Mustafa’s arms to ours. When I wanted to pay, Mustafa got into a heated conversation in Arabic with the young vendor — He felt insulted that the young man charged us too much. Later on, Mustafa intentionally bumped into someone on the street: the basket vendor.
Ambulant merchants tried to get the last of our cash as we headed out of the souks. Time had come to pay Mustafa. We considered that this is how he makes a living in a city with high unemployment. Thankful, he pocketed 40.00 euros without knowing what we gave him.
We had one more stop: the pastry shop. We ran in, and were flabbergasted by a huge misunderstanding: Twelve boxes of pigeon pies ready for our pick-up. “They can be frozen,” we were told.
The taxi driver loaded all the pigeons pies in the taxi, and had porters help us as we caught a late afternoon ferry back to Spain. When we retrieved our baskets from our car late that night, oil had dripped from the pigeon pies into the trunk. Our long but exciting shopping-marathon-day was not quite over.
- Check the ferry schedule and book online. Then, hire a guide upon disembarking, but set a firm price. Or, hire a guide through your hotel, or through a Spanish travel agency: the price will be set, but inquire about end of day tipping. Return ferry tickets are valid on earlier or later crossings. From southern Andalucia, ferries leave from Algeciras and Tarifa. If you book a tour, know that you will speed-walk through the streets as a group.
- Cash is better for haggling, which is expected. Merchants prefer euros to the local dirhams. Most shops take credit cards.
- Comfortable closed-toe shoes, long loose-fitting skirts and a covering top are highly recommended — Don’t forget your passport and beware of pickpockets!
- A shopping day goes by fast: Shops open at 10 AM, and close for at least 2 hrs. mid-day. Morocco is 1 hr. behind Spain’s time (2 hrs. during daylight saving time).
- Ensemble Artisanal is a government-promoted handicraft center where visitors can observe artisans at work, and buy quality items (prices are set and higher than in the souks). It is located at a walking distance from El Minzah Hotel between Casbah and rue de Belgique.