Tafifa to Tangier, and Europe's other fabulous little ferry routes...
The Tangier ferry looms over the old castle of Tarifa
Europe’s collage of countries and assortment of seas support hundreds of ferry routes. These handy sailings can be pretty cheap too, and Europeans think nothing of hopping on a ferry to holiday, save a long drive, or simply buy cheap booze for the weekend.
My favourite ferry route is from Tarifa in southern Spain to Tangier in Morocco. It takes less than an hour, costs under £50 return, and is about the most exotic little sea crossing I know.
I started in Tarifa on the Costa de la Luz in Andalucía. It has a 10th century castle and fine city walls, but is neglected by most tourists who pass without stopping on their way to Cadiz, Jerez and Seville.
Cantering into a tangle of Kitesurfers on the beach at Tarifa
That’s not true for wind and kitesurfers, who flock here for the dependable winds that lick along the Strait of Gibraltar and across the town’s seven-kilometre beach. The constant buffeting isn’t ideal for a landlubbing beach break, but step inside the city walls and you’ll find that the ancient alleyways are aligned to create an uncanny stillness. So I mooch around the hole-in-the-wall boutiques, stand outside a tiny tapas bar, and even unfold a map – an act of folly anywhere else in Tarifa.
Next morning I check out of my hotel and walk through the main city gate to the small ferry terminal. It’s 100m away and dominated by a Tasmanian-made red and white fast catamaran.
The motly and magnificent jumble of Tangier's Kasbah
Spain and Morocco are just 14 kilometres apart at the narrowest stretch of the Mediterranean. It means that once I set sail, there’s just enough time for a cold beer and a walk on deck before the glistening skyline of Tangier appears - like a genie from a bottle. I watch the whitewashed walls of the Medina (walled old town) become distinct, followed by the hilltop Kasbah (fortress) and beach-fronted corniche.
The ferry docks to the whoops of Moroccan larrikins showing off their dives from the stone breakwater. There’s a lot more commotion in the port than in Tarifa’s, but soon enough I’m in a beat-up Peugeot speeding past packed shisha cafes and streets full of families and youngsters preening and promenading.
One of the entrances to the Kasbah in Tangier
The bifocaled man on the reception desk of the Continental Hotel handles my passport with immense respect – and then an extremely tall bloke shows me to my 2nd floor room and hesitates to leave. He’s not hanging out for a tip though, and gestures to the window. Happy with my reaction to the smashing vista of the harbour and the Mediterranean, he bows and goes.
The marvellous Hotel Continental, as seen in The Sheltering Sky
The hotel’s antique shop, like the hotel itself, is theatrical, and on the terrace a waistcoated waiter makes an outlandish twirl of the silver platter on delivering my mint tea. With similar flourish, he leaves me to gingerly sip tea from the hot glass and breathe in the warm-scented African air.
Later, the evening sky flames crimson and tangerine (a word given to the mini oranges that first arrived in Europe from here) and the city lights flicker weakly into life.
There’s no alcohol in the Medina, so I make for the city’s most famous hotel, just outside the walls. A fez-wearing doorman ushers me into the El Minzah. Built in 1930, it dates from Tangiers’s heyday as an International Zone, when the city was run by seven squabbling European powers and gained a reputation for intrigue.
The Al Minzah is opulent and calm, and probably the best hotel in Tangier
Spies were apparently rife and Rick’s Cafe in the movie ‘Casablanca’ is said to be based on the Al Minzah’s. Cue vast maroon drapes, high ceiling grandeur, and a raised piano area. After cocktails I cross the moonlit courtyard, where another doorman in calf-length baggy britches opens a door to the best restaurant in town.
I certainly feel as though I’m on a movie set. White robed musicians play on traditional Berber instruments as mounds of grilled sardines and lamb Tagine arrives, and a green-veiled belly dancer gyrates discreetly in the distance. I lift a glass of wine and consider that with a simple ferry crossing, I’ve traded countries and continents for a location that feels part fable, part fantasy.
|Reasons to be cheerful: I've been to Tangier many times, and the short ferry ride across the Straits of Gibraltar never fails in getting the trip off to a great start. FRS sails from Tarifa to Tangier up to eight times a day and has impressive fast catamarans that make the journey to the atmospheric old port in Tangier (Tangier Ville) in under an hour. FRS runs a free bus service for its passengers from Algeciras to Tarifa port and vs. vs.|
You can't always get what you want: it used to be the case that all the crossings docked at the lovely old port of Tangier, but now a new port - Tangier Med - has been built 40 kilometres to the east. That's fine for drivers heading straight to the south, but for day trippers it's far less romantic, eats away at the amount of time you'll have in the city, and will involve a haggle over the taxi fare to Tangier city
|Fitting Quilalea into a holiday: Gibraltar is the closest airport to Tarifa, about 30 minutes away by taxi, or under an hour by bus with a change in Algeciras. Or try Malaga, which also has busses to Algeciras. Tangier makes a great city break destination, but thanks to handy overnight train services from the city, it's also a good entry point from which to begin a journey around Morocco. The nightly train to Marrakech stops in Sidi Kacem, Meknes, Kenitra, Sale, Rabat, Casablanca, Oasis and Settat. Trains depart Tangier at 9pm and arrive at Marrakech at about 8am.|
Getting there: FRS runs ferries from Tarifa to Tangier Ville, as does Inter Shipping Inter Shipping. Both companies also operate crossings from Algeciras (22 kilometres west of Gibraltar) to Tangier Med, and FRS also crosses to Gibraltar and Motril (between Malage, Granada and Almeria).
When to visit: the humid equatorial climate here means temperatures change little across the year - and average around 30°C. There is hardly any rainfal between May and December, which are the best months to visit. The rainy season here is a proper one, with over 120mm of rainfall in each of the wet season months.
More info: there's a super little boutique hotel in Tarifa old town, called La Sacristia. And in Tangier, Le Royal el Minzah Hotel is in a good central location. For more country information see Visit Morocco
Visa and safety: always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance and passport are valid, plus if you need a visa. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice for Spain and Morocco.
Europe's other great short ferry journeys
Helsinki - Tallinn
Ferries crossing the Gulf of Finland between the Finnish and Estonian capitals are prone to party. Finns love Tallinn’s mediaeval Old Town, and they like a drink too. The bars are great and are a lot cheaper than home. Linda Line has a dozen sailings per day with a journey time of 1h:40m.
Athens - Santorini
Arriving at the Greek island of Santorini by ship involves steaming into a patch of sea that, until an apocalyptic eruption in about 1640 BC, was the centre of a volcano. Ferries dock at the base of a 260m cliff topped by the whitewashed capital, Thira, reached by taxi, cable car or donkey. SeaJets has three sailing daily with journey times under five hours.
Dover - Calais
There are swish Eurostar trains between Paris and London, but for anyone looking to dally across northwest France or Kent, the ferry is best. It takes 90 minutes to cross the English Channel, and on a clear day you’ll see the White Cliffs of Dover before leaving Calais. P&O Ferries has up to 23 crossings per day.
Rovinj - Venice
You don’t have to stump up a fortune for a fancy cruise to arrive in Venice by sea. Ferry routes criss-cross the Adriatic Sea and the most beautiful departure port for Venice is the red-roofed Croatian town of Rovinj - built on a rocky headland with an 18th Century belfry modelled on St Mark’s in Venice. The 2h:30m crossing sails along the Guidecca Canal and passes St Mark’s Square. Book with Venezia Lines