Tangier, top of the continent and a name that conjures myth, legends and exotic stories of decadence is a city of intrigue. Go see for yourself.
There’s the labyrinthine medina, an expat dream town, cafes and souks, tempting tagines – there is so much to uncover in Morocco’s top town. It’s a city on the edge, always has been, in every way. It squats at the northernmost tip of Africa just 14km across the narrow Strait of Gibraltar connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, which separates Gibraltar and Peninsula Spain in Europe from Morocco and Ceuta in Africa.
Looking to the Straits of Gibraltar.
This city is more than a destination, it is a heady escape that has attracted spies, outlaws, outcasts, and writers for centuries.
All imaginable pleasures were to be had here, back in the 1950s characters such as Errol Flynn, Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton and Ava Gardner did their best to establish Tangier as the last word in louche and hedonism, while writers William Burroughs, Jane and Paul Bowles sought out the dark side of depravity and drug addled derangement. This was Tangier offering a haven to those who pushed the artistic boundaries of creativity.
In the 20th century writers drawn to Tangier wrote some of the most influential and incendiary works of our time. The Naked Lunch, The Sheltering Sky were two of those novels that influenced the beat generation and future hipsters.
Tangier has been a strategic gateway between Europe and Africa since Phoenician times. There are some startlingly lovely buildings in the city with its whitewashed hillside medina: Moorish mansions, French villas and palaces converted to museums.
This is an enigmatic city that begs to be explored, so take your time and take a glimpse into modern Tangier.
- The American Legation: restored (from shabby obscurity) the American Legation in the medina is a 1982 Moorish former consulate, which documents early diplomatic (very peaceful and businesslike) relations between the U.S. and Morocco (the kingdom of Morocco was the first country to recognise American Independence). The first American public property outside the United States, it commemorates the historic cultural and diplomatic relationsbetween the United States and the Kingdom of Morocco. It is now officially called the Tangier American Legation Institute for Moroccan Studies, and is a cultural centre, museum, and a research library, concentrating on Arabic language studies.
- Stay in the fabulous Hotel Villa de France, a hotel with its own secrets and list of celebrity guests. Biggest name has to be the French impressionist Henri Matisse, who stayed at the hotel in 1912 and 1913. He painted some of his great works here because of the inspiration of bright, clear African light, vivid colours and the soft sensuality of the landscape and gardens.
His room is still in the Hotel Villa de France, room 35, and a few notes change hands to obtain a night’s stay here. It’s not glamorous or elaborate, just a sensible double bedroom with ensuite. But – it has the fenetre which is the window to Tangier!
The most famous painting from that hotel room period though is “Landscape Viewed From a Window”. There’s a copy of the painting in room 35.
- Leave the hotel behind and across the road we see the square white steeple of St Andrew’s English church, now nearly hidden by date palms and evergreens. St Andrew’s Church is one of the more curious buildings of Tangier. Completed in 1890 on land granted by Sultan Hassan, the interior of this Anglican church is decorated in high Fassi style, with the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic curving over the altar.
The graveyard yields history wherein the journalist, socialite and traveller Walter Harris is buried here, along with Squadron Leader Thomas Kirby Green, one of the prisoners of war shot during the ‘Great Escape’. There is also a sobering section of war graves of entire downed aircrews, their headstones attached shoulder to shoulder.
- The medina maze Now, into the medina. (A medina is the old walled city.)
Across from the church enter the corner of the medina where the bazaar area of the grand souk (markets) stretch through colourful alleyways.
From baskets, to ropes, to carved sticks (to hit what?), hand made cheeses, fruit juices (try the pomegranate), stalls groaning with mountains of olives of all persuasions and flavours, hats, sweets, dates, breads (the staple food of Moroccans), butchers with nose to tail pieces on display (and so clean and fly-free), camel meat with the obligatory head (real one) hanging to advertise the fact that this is real camel meat, shoes, buckets and nuts of all sorts, fat and fresh.
Walking though the crowded curved alleys of food and noise and people jostling, Berber tribal woman wearing wide-brimmed conical hats with pompoms, and children darting through the melee carrying stacks of flat bread is a dizzying sensation – but every step is rewarded with a bold sensation. Just step aside for the donkey carts.
Food is a dream here. Fresh vegetables, subtle spices, fruit and centuries-old cuisine that has been refined by many invaders, protectorates, governing bodies, religions – there’s something for everyone.
- Food – Be warned – bring your appetite to Morocco. Food servings are big and hearty. Must eats are the traditional tagines, meat, fowl or vegetable, cous cous Tagines are basically an aromatic stew cooked with a thick sauce with fruits such as prunes and dates; harira is a delicious soup normally made from chick peas; pastille – a dish made from pigeon meat, rice and egg and covered with a sweet filo pastry – sounds weird but – it’s scrumptious.
If you fancy a glass of wine with your dinner you will have to hunt out a shop, but most good hotels and restaurants have a wine list, and wine is produced in Morocco so give it a try.
Due to legal restrictions of Morocco being a Muslim country, remember that drinking in public is prohibited.
- Take in the sunset views of the harbour after walking through the medina that tumbles down to the sea. The old homes are hidden and only a fancy or perhaps a modest door and decorated doorway indicates that there’s life behind the door. It can be a vast riad (a type of traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard). Homes and shops are all spick and span and the houseproud Moroccans keep their entrances well-swept and houses and windows painted fresh and in pretty colours.
7. And shopping. Leather slippers called babouche (French for slippers), argan oil, lanterns, wonderful leather goods, beautifully decorated pottery and carpets and mats are in abundance and on display art every corner. Shopping here is a sport and the prizes are great indeed.
8. Take a Tangier side trip: Cap Spartel marks Africa’s The promontory projects into the water, marking the boundary of the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean. For atmosphere, the best time to come here is at sunset, when you can see dusk settle over the Atlantic.
This is Tangier, short on conventional attractions but it’s the artfully aged fabric of the city itself – the magnificent ruination of the Cervantes theatre, the lush graveyard gardens of St Andrew’s church, or the casbah walls’ tiled starbursts – which supplies the spectacle. The sights come thick and fast in a city where its compactness is a big slice of its charm.
The writer travelled with www.bypriorarrangment.com
This article has been published in www.letstravelmag.com