WORLDS WITHIN TANGIER
Exploring the eclectic bazaars and Moorish arches of Morocco’s cultural capital
Exploring the eclectic bazaars and Moorish arches of Morocco’s cultural capital
Tangier has forever been a magnet for artists and writers, philosophers and socialites. The city seduced Matisse and Degas with its light, enraptured Bowles, Burroughs and Ginsberg with its liberal, exotic atmosphere, and thrilled Barbara Hutton and Malcolm Forbes as the ideal setting for their elaborate parties (with celebrity guests like the Rolling Stones often in attendance). An international community of writers, artists, chefs, filmmakers and designers maintain its reputation as a unique Euro-African enclave. Multilingual and multicultural, Tangier has a cosmopolitan ambience infused into its streets and walls. French, Arabic and Spanish hang in the air, yet English is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. This ever-shifting city looks to the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, waiting for the brisk squalls that wash clean its dusty streets.
Different worlds overlap here. From the antique charms of the Ancien Medina, to the international artisans clustered around the American Legation building at the Medina’s border, to the tree-lined coast overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar, Tangier will always show you a new face. Here are a few highlights for discovering the secret pleasures of this international city.
ENTERING THE MEDINA
The Medina is the hub and the heart of Tangier, and the Grand Socco, dominated by cafés, offers entry points between the Medina and the modern city. Consider stopping here for coffee or mint tea before continuing into the city proper. In Tangier, café society is alive and well and raised to something of an art. The beautifully restored Cinema Rif and terrace café is a good place to practice the timeless skill of sitting, relaxing and absorbing the environment. An hour spent with an espresso observing the light, the people and the buildings is never time wasted. The architecture is a collision of Spanish, Arab, French and Portuguese; fine old mansions are abutted to dilapidated houses with unkempt wrought-iron balconies. Bougainvillea tumbles from rooftops and enters windows
AN HOUR SPENT WITH AN ESPRESSO OBSERVING THE LIGHT, THE PEOPLE AND THE BUILDINGS IS NEVER TIME WASTED.
uninvited. The elite rub shoulders with the impoverished, and there is still a mild air of subterfuge to be found in the right bar, at the right time of night. Tangier has spruced up its appearance but has never surrendered its multifarious personality. Hip on one corner, down-at-heel on the next, it’s hard not to be seduced.
At its core, The Medina is composed of narrow lanes and alleys in varying states of revival or survival, some not much more than a meter or two wide. These are home to all manner of craftsmen, spice vendors, fabric shops, leather workers, jewelers, shoemakers, fruit stalls, bookshops and patisseries. It takes a keen eye to distinguish the good from the bad in this mélange but, at the very least, pick out a pair of handmade leather slippers to remind you of your Tangier experience. If a color exists, there is a slipper to match it. Ascending the Medina into the Kasbah, you will find Las Chicas, a modern, multilevel store holding an interesting collection of objects, pictures and clothes, as well as a small café. Pushing the pecuniary envelope further, Laure Welfling produces highly priced, handmade kaftans, original ceramics and high-end Moroccan leather goods. Her store is next to the newly renovated Kasbah museum atop the Medina.
CARPETS, CLOTHES AND CURIOS
A visit to the Tangier American Legation is an experience less dry than it sounds. Rescued from dilapidation by a group of locals and expats, the building — donated to the United States by Morocco in 1821 (and the first piece of property acquired overseas by the American government) — is a loose affiliation of museum, cultural centre and school. The Legation no longer conducts diplomatic activities but holds an eclectic assemblage of Tangier and Moroccan memorabilia. It houses Paul Bowles’ music, books and photographs and, among other activities, conducts literacy classes for women who live in the Medina. Cecil Beaton watercolors of Morocco enliven the walls.
Worth a deviation and just a few yards beyond the Medina walls is the weaver’s market. The Fundook Cheira is a vast, canopied affair holding fabric sellers and tiny, bustling workshops. Morocco is known for its fine fabrics — simple linens and complex weaves. Usually operated by one man and an apprentice, the working interiors of the fabricas are a fascinating confection of 19th-century pedal-driven looms, pulleys, wheels and winches that travel up the walls and across the ceilings. The resultant fabric evolves at the appropriate speed — slowly, but with skill, care and attention.
IF YOU’D LIKE A CITY ESCAPE, HEAD BY TAXI THROUGH THE PINE FORESTS AND ALONG THE VERDANT COASTLINE TO CAP SPARTEL, A FABULOUS LOOKOUT POINT TO THE ATLANTIC AND THE STRAITS OF GIBRALTAR.
Little is abandoned in Morocco and the Medina’s bric-a-brac stores are crowded with things reformed, recycled and reanimated. A discarded birdcage becomes a lamp, a bedstead reappears as a table, a bicycle frame is dismantled and reformed as a chair. Metal workers are on many corners and just watching the creative process is worth the time.
If you wish to wander beyond the environs of the Medina — for example, to the Boulevard, the modern commercial zone just beyond the old city — hail a petite taxi that will stop even if occupied. The choreographed chaos of the Tangier taxi experiences is part of the adventure. Don’t be alarmed if you find yourself traveling with strangers and in the wrong direction, but you will get to your destination — eventually. There is life beyond the Medina and it’s worth the quick zip to La Casa Barata, a vast, sprawling market of discount wares, carpets, clothes and curios which require hours if not days of examination.
Sustenance is required after a morning’s assault on the senses so head to El Morocco Club atop the Medina in the Kasbah. The three-story restaurant’s slick décor, moody piano bar and calm, tented rooftop terrace provide a perfect lunch venue. An outside, street level terrace provides lighter fare and sits on a leafy square. Under the direction of Vincent Coppée and Oscar Badji, the Morocco Club presents an intriguing and constantly evolving menu catering to a devoted local audience and to well-informed visitors.
THE CITY LIMITS
If you’d like a city escape, head by taxi through the pine forests and along the verdant coastline to Cap Spartel, a fabulous lookout point to the Atlantic and the Straits of Gibraltar. A grand taxi (i.e. it will be yours alone) will deliver you in 30 minutes, and there the exclusive Hotel Le Mirage and restaurant will be waiting. A wraparound terrace provides the perfect lookout toward the Atlantic and the almost 200 miles of uninterrupted beach that stretch from Tangier to Casablanca. The menu features traditional Moroccan cuisine and a daily supply of localcaught fresh fish. The restaurant is popular and exclusive, so reservations are advised.
If you have time in your itinerary, strike out along the coast another 20 minutes and find Asilah, a pretty port and medina town, impeccably whitewashed and maintained. Many visit for the day, and many visit solely for lunch. If you do make Asilah your lunch stop, try La Perle, which has a fusion menu of French Moroccan ideas under the ownership and guidance of native chef Larson Iouini, who spent over 25 years running his own restaurant in Dublin. Asilah also has excellent carpet stores, with many handmade textiles sourced from the High Atlas.
For a farewell to Tangier, make a stop at Café Hafa in Marchan, a Tangier icon, now approaching its 100th birthday and composed of a jumble of terraces descending toward the coast road. Take a final mint tea and contemplate Spain, just 8 miles distant, etched in mauve on the horizon. Or watch the storks, year-round residents, drift across the sky. It’s likely that Bowles, Genet, Kerouac and many others did the very same thing.
An old Tangier saying hangs in the air: “You have watches — we have time.”