Get lost inside the maze of the medina and discover the hidden secrets of this historic and cosmopolitan African resort
"You’ll either love it or hate it,” said Farida, “but it’s certainly magnetic.”
Plenty of people have hated it: Samuel Pepys and Mark Twain among them. But there are many more who’ve fallen for Tangier’s (sometimes disreputable) charms, from Errol Flynn to Matisse, Paul Bowles to the Beat poets, Winston Churchill to the Stones.
For much of the first half of the 20th century Tangier was an International Zone and one of the Mediterranean’s most cosmopolitan resorts. A hotbed of intrigue and fabled for its hedonistic excesses, when it was returned to Morocco in 1956 it began to slip into a seemingly inexorable decline.
Now the decline is reversing. With the support of King Mohammed VI and his ambitious plan to transform the neglected coastline, investment is pouring in. An enormous port is under construction, new roads are being built, and upmarket resorts and apartments are springing up around the bay.
Farida is a native Tanjawi. With her German husband, Jürgen, she spent four years restoring an old riad – which sits by the Kasbah’s ramparts at the highest point of the medina – into La Tangerina, a delightful boutique hotel with its own traditional hammam (Turkish bath). Behind closed doors, Tangier’s old town is enjoying its own renaissance.
As I stepped through La Tangerina’s imposing wooden door into the cobbled street, the stench of fish filled the air along with the guttural cries of the fish-seller as he pushed his wheelbarrow through the narrow alleyways.
The medina – an amalgam of dark lanes and sunlit squares – was made for wandering aimlessly rather than sightseeing. I stopped off at the palatial Museum of Moroccan Art on Place de la Kasbah, then through the Bab el-Aassa gate and down the hill, past the dilapidated Café Baba, where a photograph of a debauched Keith Richards – Afghan coat slung over his shoulders, kif pipe in hand – has pride of place.
I ambled through the warren of streets, where 1930s cafés sit next to medieval mosques, to the Petit Socco, where tourists have replaced exiled writers people-watching from its many cafés.
Losing yourself in the medina by day is one thing but by night it’s far more daunting. In a hybrid of Spanish and French, I enlisted the help of a local, following him down a series of snaking alleyways, each one narrower and dingier than the last until – for the price of a coffee – he delivered me safely to the Riad Tanja.
The restaurant of this restored mansion is one of Tangier’s newest and finest and, in a move indicative of the city’s upturn, its chef hails from Marrakesh. In the red-toned, Moorish lounges, a fez-clad oud player strummed in the background as we feasted on dishes – dainty pastillas, rich tagines – which, like the city itself, were traditional with a modern twist.
Tangier is by turns smart and shabby. Sitting at the crossroads of Europe and Africa, Christianity and Islam, nowhere is this more evident than on the Grand Socco, the teeming square that joins the medina to the Ville Nouvelle. Although the snake-charmers, performers and markets are long gone, the hubbub remains and the landmark Cinéma Rif has recently been reborn as the Cinémathèque de Tanger. It’s retained its classic art deco architecture but now the retro interior houses a WiFi café.
I walked to the Ville Nouvelle along the bustling rue de la Liberté to the Gran Café de Paris. It may be more famous for Jason Bourne than Paul Bowles nowadays, but it was an atmospheric place to linger over a mint tea while I watched the frenzy of activity on Place de France.
To the north of the square, the derelict Grand Hotel Villa de France is finally being restored. Since Matisse painted the view from its windows, the choking traffic is new but St Andrew’s Church is unchanged. He was drawn to Tangier by the intensity of the light, which is undiminished.
That evening, the vivid blue of the sky and the fresh Atlantic breeze on La Tangerina’s roof terrace were invigorating. I asked Jürgen for directions to a restaurant for dinner. “It’s easy,” he said, with a wave of his hand, “just go straight down and turn right at the fountain”. But in Tangier there’s no such thing as straight; I found myself back on Place de la Kasbah, outside what must be the world’s smallest music venue.
Inside there was space for no more than ten people. Elderly men strummed their ouds and guitars, passing on the evocative Arab-Andalous rhythm to younger musicians. I sat, mint tea in hand, and listened for a while, before they dispatched a boy to guide me to the Dar Nour guesthouse.
I climbed up the dar’s twisting stairways, past lusciously decorated nooks to the roof terrace where dinner was served. As we ate, Jean-Olivier, one of the French owners, pointed out the former abodes of Gore Vidal, Yves Saint Laurent and Brian Jones. I looked over Tangier’s rooftops, where aged minarets mingled with cranes, and asked him about the city’s enduring appeal. His reply was simple: “It’s that anything seems possible here – the best and the worst.”