The ferry ride across the Strait of Gibraltar is a startling journey of contrasts and culture shock. You suddenly realise how incredible close Europe and Africa really are, which makes the differences between them even more unaccountably stark. The Strait is very narrow indeed - only 13 km (8 mi) at its narrowest point, and 50 km (31 mi) separate Algeciras from Tangier.
Algeciras is not the sort of place that anyone goes to by choice. A sprawling industrialized city on the Bay of Gibraltar, at the bottleneck between the Mediterranean and Atlantic, it is one of the busiest ports in the world. But, for that very reason it is a peculiarly exciting city, with the highly-charged, chaotic atmosphere that invariably pervades a port. Once you start to explore, you will be pleasantly surprised by how attractive the older parts are.
Even before you step on the ferry you feel the presence of North Africa in the groups of djellaba-clad migrants and back-street tea shops. As soon as you are aboard this sensation is heightened. Everyone around you is suddenly speaking Arabic; you are the outsider. As the boat departs, you experience a surge of anticipation then, looking back to catch a last glimpse of the Rock of Gibraltar, a quite extraordinary sense of loss, only to be overwhehned minutes later by the thrill of sighting the minarets of Tangier in the distance.
Landing in Tangier, your nostrils are assailed by the exotic smells in the air, and there's a sultry atmosphere that befits the city's reputation as a seedy adventurers' haunt. Tangier has a curious, fading grandeur about it and while it's by no means a typical Moroccan city or indeed an African one, it is an exciting and idiosyncratic introduction to an extraordinary continent.
WHEN TO GO
TIME IT TAKES
70 minutes to 2.5 hours depending on ferry speed
Aigeciras - Mercado de Abastos - main market, Barrio San Isidro - old quarter of Tangier - Views of the Rock of Gibraltar and Dar el Makhsen, Tangier – 17th Century sultan's palace housing vast art collection.
Drinking mint tea or coffee at one of the cafes in the Petit Socco in Tangier or having a drink at (posh) Minzah Hotel or the (unposh) Muniria Hotel, where William Burroughs wrote The Naked Lunch.
YOU SHOULD KNOW
You can also get to Tangier by the fast ferry from Tarifa in only thirty minutes - much quicker but far less thrilling.
Cecil Beaton, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac are just some of Tangier's famous past residents and habitues. Though the Tangier of today is a pale shadow of its former self, it still has a certain seductive allure.