Border-crossings are often exciting. The short journey, interspersed with passport checks, brings you in touch with a new nation, a new culture, a new language perhaps.
There are border-crossings in Europe that offer only slight changes for the traveller, such as passing from Belgium into France, or Germany into Switzerland or Austria. These changes are significant if you look closely, but the landscape, language and foods remain the same, or at least very similar, after the transition.
At the Morocco-Spain border, however, it’s a different story. Despite the two countries being linked by a short ferry crossing and their hot climates (it’s hard to find a steep difference in climate over the small distance of a national border), the cultural contrast between the two countries is impossible not to notice.
Towards the end of our stay in Morocco, we had become familiar with a certain Ramadan ritual. Every evening, at sunset, when the mosques put out their call to announce the end of fasting, the soukhs were closed down. All through the medinas (old towns) of Tangier, Rabat and Marrakech, you could feel anticipation rising like the evening humidity. People conversed in excitable whispers – somewhere between reverence and ecstasy. Once the call made sundown official, they sat, huddled intimately around small tables, and tucked in. With the sky darkening and the yellow and orange clay walls saturated by the sun’s late evening warmth, it made a magical sight.
Visiting Morocco during Ramadan certainly amplified the country’s differences with Spain. Only one supermarket was licensed to sell alcohol during the festival season, and only then to tourists with official documentation. The absence of food on the street in daytime also makes the visitor a little self-conscious. Whilst it is easy to be respectful of custom when visiting during the religious holiday, it’s trickier to feel completely at ease.
The Islamic nation’s other contrasting features are ripe throughout the year. Food is always an easy way to mark out one country from another, but the absence of pork in Morocco is especially notable, not least when you arrive in Spain to see market stalls hanging whole legs of the meat above their counters. Religious conservatism in liberal Morocco is much lower than in other Islamic nations, but is very apparent nonetheless. There is very little bodily contact between men and women, the latter of whom wear some form of head cover – from the stylishly modern hijab to the black burqa.
Contrast this with our arrival in Spain on a Saturday night in Granada. You could feel the fiesta. Wherever you walked, groups of young women flaunted their legs. Couples necked on street corners. The salty smell of tapas wafted over you. And the sun hadn’t even set. It was as though we’d entered a completely different part of the world.
Suddenly, it dawned on us that we had left the exciting but stressful Morocco and were into the intoxicating Spanish equivalent of The Only Way Is Essex (with a warm climate and real tan). Our first stop: the bar, which greeted us with the welcome surprise that each beer came accompanied by a free plate of tapas.
Though the two countries are tied by their weather, rugged landscapes and a late-night culture, their differences in culture and religion make for a very unique geographical contrast, fitting of a inter-continental border-crossing.