Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in… Tangiers

Building on a flamboyant legacy of bohemian expats and literary icons, new investment is adding ever more sparkle to Morocco’s unique port city, says Fiona Dunlop.

March 09 2010
Fiona Dunlop

It must be the wind. Like an urban chameleon, every few decades Tangiers undergoes a metamorphosis, defying its critics and justifying its legendary status. Although its nightlife is still embryonic and its appeal ever controversial, this cosmopolitan port is making the pleasure seekers in Marrakech take notice. In the past three years, a renaissance has brought a surge of energy, a new wave of foreign residents and alluring riad hotels and restaurants.

People switch languages at the drop of a fez here, reflecting the powers – Spanish, French, English and, earlier, Portuguese – that have angled for dominion over this strategic spot ever since the Phoenicians founded the city in the fifth century BC. A lingering sense that this is a place of louche dealings and unconventional residents need not bother visitors, who will instead be struck by the swathe of sapphire sea, the vividly coloured walls twisting through the Kasbah and luminous skies burnished by fresh Atlantic breezes.

Tangiers is a place of sensations rather than monuments or consumer obsessions. For artists, it has always been inspirational. The mythical “Interzone” of the US writer and one-time resident William Burroughs was inspired by Tangiers, which remains a halfway world – a bridging point – between Europe and Africa, between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, as well as between unbridled extravagance and gritty port life. Add to that a permissive underbelly from the days of International Tangiers, 1923-1956, and the heady decades that followed, cloaked in a haze of marijuana smoke, and you have a recipe for something special.

Small enough to feel intimate yet large enough to get lost in, Tangiers overlooks a stunning 5km-long bay. At its highest point is the Kasbah, a citadel surrounding the former royal palace, which was mostly rebuilt in the 18th century after it was torched by the departing English occupiers. From here, the medina spills downhill through meandering alleyways to end at the harbour. Now choked with container lorries, ferries and cargo ships, this working port will change into a hedonists’ marina when activities move 35km east to the new cargo port, Tanger-Med – another sign of Tangiers’ changing fortunes.

Swooping down to the bay by the medina, the Ville Nouvelle is a time- and place-warp of boulevards and 1950s cafés with names such as La Giralda, and the quirkily named lookout point the Terrasse des Paresseux (“the idlers’ terrace”). This area morphs into beach clubs and new developments that culminate triumphantly in Africa’s second-largest casino, standing on a wannabe Croisette (without the starlets or style of Cannes). These represent the investments of the latest economic invaders, Libyans and Emiratis encouraged by King Mohammed VI, who, unlike his father, is keen to transform the city’s fortunes.

The casino may be an acquired taste but no one should miss the re-landscaped Grand Socco (aka big souk), which links the old town with the new. This large square is backed by a typical Tangerine juxtaposition of mosque, church (the turn-of-the-20th-century St Andrew’s with its Alhambra-style interior), art-deco cinema (reinvented as a cinematheque) and food market, all overlooked by the Grand Hôtel Villa de France above. Old Tangiers hands breathe a sigh of relief to see this long-derelict landmark finally being rescued from crumbling oblivion.

Back in 1912 when Matisse stayed here, he was so taken by the plunging view that he captured it in Paysage vu d’une fenêtre. What he didn’t paint were the dozens of Berber women in wide hats and striped shawls who congregate in front of St Andrew’s every Thursday and Sunday to sell produce fresh from the mountains. In front of them, a mouthwatering display of fresh fish backs onto the tiny Sidi Bouabid market where cheese sellers rub shoulders with basket sellers and, in a corner, an ageing Abdul Khader prices vintage sunglasses, 1950s table lighters – even a copy of a Stradivarius violin. Check him out, then head to the Petit Socco for one-off men’s jackets at Volubilis, and rare antiques, rugs, eye-popping jewellery and textiles at the pricey Majid in the main shopping street.

Traces of Tangiers’ mid-20th-century zenith haven’t left the backstreets. You can shadow the kif-smoking days of The Rolling Stones and the Beat generation of William Burroughs and Timothy Leary at the battered Café Baba, higher up in the medina. Drop in for a tea and a chat with its owner, Abdul, who as a teenager served Keith Richards and Barbara Hutton between her rooftop extravaganzas across the street. Even Kofi Annan passed by recently, immortalised in photos on the flaky walls, next to that of a bemused-looking Princess Irene of Greece.

Film buffs can have a mint tea on the terrace of the wonderful old Hotel Continental just above the port. This is where Bertolucci filmed scenes from The Sheltering Sky, based on the novel by Paul Bowles, the pioneer and last of that generation to leave Tangiers when he died in 1999. Literary souls should continue to the Librairie des Colonnes on the Boulevard Pasteur, once a temple for expat writers from Saint-Exupéry to Jane Bowles (Paul Bowles’s wife). Still limping on, the bookshop is now managed by a young Frenchman (fluent in Russian; how typical of Tangiers), who, against the odds, publishes a multilingual literary revue.

At the top of the boulevard is the Café de Paris, a setting once loved by secret agents, as well as Francis Bacon and Jean Genet. Commanding a prime spot opposite the French Consulate, it boasts original fittings and vinyl-covered banquettes, but no alcohol. This is a less welcome aspect of Tangiers’ changing face – though if you slip round the corner to the Minzah, a swish hotel opened by Lord Bute in 1930, you can sink into nostalgic reverie with a cocktail at the plush Caid’s Bar.

For a visual overview of the past, visit the American Legation Museum. Tucked into the medina walls just above the port, this surprising island of civilised calm is much appreciated by locals for its library and classes in basic literary skills. If you’re lucky, you’ll be taken around by the genial director Thor Kuniholm, a resident of 18 years and a mine of cultural information. The rambling mansion, given to the US by the Sultan of Morocco in 1821, is stuffed with donated paintings, prints, maps, photos, books and stunning Moroccan carpets. Like the city, the building is a hybrid – in this case, of Moorish architectural features and early Federalist interiors.

Surprises abound, such as Cecil Beaton’s watercolours of the medina, sketches by David Roberts before he had even set eyes on Egypt, and clever etchings by long-term Scottish resident James McBey, as well as portraits of his wife, Marguerite. Finally, the jet set of the 1950s and 1960s comes to life in a collection of photos in the Paul Bowles Room, the city’s only testament to that dizzy era.

Just round the corner from the Legation, at Riad Tanja you can dine in elegance on modern Moroccan cuisine (delicate starters include a delectable pigeon bstela), courtesy of Moha Fedal, the innovative Marrakshi chef. Otherwise, most of the new riads and restaurants are up in the Kasbah. With thick, old walls and boho-chic interiors, their most recent addition is the French-owned Hôtel Nord-Pinus, where a sumptuous, neo-Oriental style culminates in stupendous views from the roof terraces.

A better-value, less style-driven neighbour, La Tangerina shares the same views, while a couple of streets back the city’s oldest guesthouse (all of 10 years old), Dar Nour, is a labyrinth of stairs and cosy salons. A recent change of hands has given it a new lease of life and a hip, mainly Gallic clientele.

All the riad guesthouses offer excellent menus du jour, and advance booking is open to non-guests for dinner. It is also worth investigating Le Détroit, an eccentric, Spanish-owned restaurant with a vague gastronomic direction. Occupying a wing of the 17th-century sultan’s palace (on the same square as Laure Welfling’s eclectic shop of ceramic sculptures, chandeliers and lavish kaftans), it has been renovated to showcase its fine Moroccan detailing and walls the distinctive cerulean of the Tangerine sky.

In the same complex of patios and sculpted archways, the Musée de la Kasbah’s archaeological artefacts feature a Roman mosaic floor from Volubilis – it is one of the few places where your attention will be drawn to your feet rather than up to the heavens. For under limpid sunlight or glittering stars, little can beat Tangiers’ sheltering, and ever inspiring, vividly blue sky.