Maybe it has something to do with Tangier being the gateway to Africa and a hop and a skip across the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain, or perhaps it’s because Tangier has developed something of a romantic reputation over the course of the 20th century as an international haven for intrigue, spies and mavericks, but either way, there is a sense of exotic mystery and a decadence that I found most fascinating.
Tangier is one of Morocco’s oldest cities, founded in the 10th century BC. It is a cultural melting-pot of African, Spanish, Portugese, British and French influence, making it one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the continent.
In deciding which of the cities of Morocco to visit, I was keen to see the coastal place that has become the second home for European weekenders, and there was indeed a sense of European sophistication that, when blended with the uniqueness of North Africa, made it a city unlike any other.
We arrived by bullet train from Rabat, a journey that took only an hour and 20 minutes. This Al Boraq – high speed train is indicative of the progressive stance that King Mohammed Vl and the Moroccan government are driving to secure Morocco’s place as the leading country in Africa. The station is modern and as sophisticated as an airport. But it wasn’t always the case, that Tangier was seen as contemporary and trail-blazing.
From the 1940’s through to the 1950’s, Tangier attracted a crowd of travellers who took advantage of the diplomatic ‘limbo’ of its post WWll International Zone status and became a haven for spies, thieves, smugglers, degenerates and other more devious pleasure-seekers. To this end, the previous King Hassan ll, deliberately ignored and avoided a place that, to his mind, argued with the devoutness of Islam, leaving the city to decay in its seediness and depravity. (He didn’t visit it once during his 38 year reign!)
His son King Mohammed Vl is determined to revive the city, recognising the cultural and commercial gateway between Europe and Africa and has injected millions into long-term development projects that include not only the train network but also a vast new port, marina and renovated architectural gems throughout the city.
We stayed at Dar Sami, which is a guest house located right at the entrance to the Kasbah. Bab El Kasbah is the west gate of the Medina and is situated at the top of a very steep hill. Once you have puffed your way to the top, the views are quite incredible. Our hostess, Marie, showed us her old photographs of Tangier and shared a little bit of its history.
From the roof terrace of our Dar, the views over the white city and blue Mediterranean sea were dazzling. Marie took us up to get ourselves orientated. Shortly afterwards, we set out on foot to lose ourselves in the adjacent medina.
I can imagine that it would take days to establish a degree of mastery over this atmospheric but alien terrain, a vehicle-free warren of stepped alleys, adobe arches, floral murals, cavernous antiques shops and bustling markets.
We stepped through the imposing archway signifying the entrance to the Medina. We marvelled at the charming, narrow alleyways, and paused to take in the varied architecture with high walls, colourful houses, colourful shutters against the dazzling white buildings and ornate gates. In the early autumn heat, things were shimmering….
There were a couple of would-be guides lurking at every turn, ready to pounce at the first sign of hesitation. We deflected these approaches by appearing to know exactly where we were going – even though we didn’t really have a clue. The most annoying was the young man who claimed to be our next-door neighbour at Dar Sami. We were a bit suspicious but engaged in the usual conversation about where we were from and what he is studying etc. And then he suggested he guide us through the medina. We declined, explaining that we were just having fun, wandering about and taking photographs. He shrugged and went off ahead of us, miraculously appearing every time we paused, to point in a direction in order to re-direct us. It was so annoying because if you then went in that direction, it was as if you were buying into his advice, and if you did the opposite, you would compound your ‘lost’ status and be even more vulnerable to his assistance.
Local guide notwithstanding, we wandered casually through the interesting and peaceful streets. Despite the sun being high in the sky, the crooked passageways in the old town were swathed in shadows from the tall buildings on either side, making it a pleasant experience despite the 32 degree heat. We admired the 17th century minaret of the Grand Mosque with its unique octagonal rather than square shaft of the majority of Moroccan minarets. The entrance is protected by an archway embellished with vibrant zellij tile work in radiating geometric designs.
We pretty much rubbed shoulders with the ebb and flow of local people going about their daily activities. We continued through archways towards rows of shops and sneaked pictures of local people sitting around in their city, shopping at the markets, drinking mint tea in the cafés.
Walking randomly in any old town is always an enjoyable experience and we slowly made our way to the Petit Socco. This celebrated square is the heart of the city’s famous café scene. At the celebrated Gran Café Central, waiters serve endless silver pots of mint tea, steeped in sugar. The café’s look as though they have witnessed interesting times and you can imagine the intriguing scenes that might have played out.
The splintering lanes of the medina district are tiny arteries that are filled with stalls and stores selling artisanal goods, such as cushions, lanterns, handbags, and kaftans. There were also a great deal of interesting looking restaurants that you enter through an unimpressive door which then leads you to a terrace with magnificent views over the medina and the bay. We also looked in at some quaint little art galleries.
Set atop the city’s tallest coastal promontory, the kasbah has served as Tangier’s military and political center since the Roman era. We also watched in amazement as a young man hopped onto his motorcycle together with his collie. They zoomed off across the cobbled Place de la Kasbah, the dog literally beaming from ear to ear. 🐶
The Portuguese occupied the Moroccan town of Ceuta in 1417 and launched attacks from there on Tangier. These attacks were, at first, defeated, inflicting a serious blow to Portugal that reverberated around the world. But in time, the Portuguese persevered and finally succeeded in occupying Tangier. They enclosed themselves in a fortified enclave, looked seaward, and turned their backs to the Moroccan hinterland. It was not a sustainable way of life since they were, in essence, self-quarantined and made themselves easy targets for siege operations and ambushes outside their fortified walls.
When King Charles II married the Portuguese Princess Catherine de Braganza in 1661, the dowry included “the possession of Tangier, a place likely to be of great benefit and security to the trade of England.”
(Tingismagazine.com; Anouar Majid; 2014)
The views of the breakwater and fishing port are enchanting. Coastal fishing is an important source of employment for locals. From the ramparts of the Kasbah, we were able to observe the boats and the harbour activities.
We eventually emerged from the city gate onto the Grand Socco or 9 April 1947 Square, which is the most iconic area in Tangier’s historic quarter. This bustling place is the epicentre of the Ville Nouvelle, a public gathering and meeting place around a large fountain. Cats lounge around in abundance. Towering above the Grand Socco and built in 1917, is the Sidi Bou Abib mosque. The minaret is decorated with a colourful rose, green, blue and white tiles. Only worshippers are allowed inside beyond its keyhole-shaped green doors. We strolled down Rue de la Liberté past the antique shops, retro hotels and theatres in search of retro café Gran Café de Paris on the Place de France, featured in many movies where a good dose of the seediness that comes from a resplendent (but decayed) bygone era is required.
Tangier’s chequered past means that parts of the old city features in many movies that involve international spy or crime storylines, such as the Jason Bourne series and a couple of James Bond movies. We were intrigued to find out that scenes from “Spectre” were filled right outside the restaurant we chose for dinner! (Check the grid pattern on the window to the right)
In the afternoon we took a petit taxi to Rue de la Plage and strolled along the grand promenade below impressive old but newly renovated architecture. Here the roads are wide and spacious in contrast to the narrow alleys within the kasbah.
We passed the The Grand Mosque of Tangier. The current building dates from the 19th century but the site has been used for religious purposes since 5th century AD when a Roman church stood here. Beautifully restored in 2001, the walls of the main building of the Grand Mosque of Tangier are covered in white stucco, although some surfaces around the doors and part of the minaret have green and orange ceramic tiles in geometric shapes. If you could look down on it from above, you’d see that the roof is covered in green ceramic tiles.
One of the more celebrated dinner recommendation is Le Saveur du Poisson in Ville Nouvelle. Naturally suspicious of anything that comes with loads of hype from the guide books, we nearly chose to eat elsewhere, but eventually decided that the chef’s fresh offering of seasonal sea food might be quite delightful. We got there well before opening time – a queue starts to form on the steps below Rue de la Liberté (see picture relating to the Bond movie) and if you are late, you might miss the first seating.
We were barely seated when we were served with a generous glass of juice, a seasonal mix of pomegranate, fig, orange and many others (unique, exotic and refreshing.) It was topped up frequently during the course of the evening.
There is a daily set menu, dominated by freshly caught fish sold at the nearby market. Usually there is a soup to start, served with flatbreads, harissa, walnuts, dates and olives, and, in our case tasty with morsels of delicate white fish. This was followed by a sizzling mixed seafood tajine with all the subtle Moroccan flavours. We mopped up the sauce with our bread. And then a whole chargrilled seabass was delivered to our table. It was stuffed with delicious citrusy herbs. Also a kebab of baby shark scented with coriander and cumin. Dessert was ruby-red raspberries and succulent pomegranate seeds in rosewater. It was served with toasted almonds and barley in honey. Scrumptious textures and fresh sweetness to round off an inspiring meal.
An evening stroll to observe the activities in the Grand Socco followed by a long walk up the hill to our accommodation was justified after all that food. It’s so much more pleasant to do it during the relative coolness of the evening than during the heat of the day.
We thought that breakfast would be wasted on us after such a huge meal the night before. However at Dar Sami, Marie prides herself on offering a delicious and substantial start to the day. Excellent fresh orange juice, flaky breads, yoghurt, local honey and pastry and even the perfect boiled egg.
All this in the fresh cool ocean air on the open roof terrace overlooking the awakening White City.