Hire a local guide to help you navigate the medina, sleep in a converted riad, enjoy Tangier cooking at its finest and sample the mint tea in legendary cafés
For a first-time visitor to the city, Tangier can appear daunting, particularly as most travel guides mention a seedy reputation and stories of scams and hustling. Read on to discover that this is not always the case and it can be welcoming and exciting.
Tangier is famous for being the origin of the name tangerine, as this is where the first tangerines were shipped from to Europe. In the 1940s and 1950s the city was a meeting place for secret agents and a hangout for millionaires. Tangier inspired several famous writers including Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams and William S. Burroughs. Nowadays there is lots of modernisation underway; including a new airport and port, but the classic view of white-washed buildings tumbling down the hillsides is untouched.
I took a sleeping compartment on the famed Marrakech Express; the overnight train between these two cities. Tangier station is a bit of a surprise with its neo-Moorish style; a symbol of a modern, confident Morocco.
My taxi driver abandoned me in the car while he wandered off to hunt down more customers. I sat wondering if this was typical Tangier taxi driver behaviour. Minutes later, and with a French couple deposited in the back, we sped off and I instinctively grabbed my seat belt. The driver laughed “not working.” I would just have to somehow enjoy the way that he tackled the corners as if on a formula one track.
Where to stay
My hotel, La Tangerina, is located at the top of the medina (old city) within the Kasbah (fort). Travellers’ tales of getting hopelessly lost inside medinas abound, so it was worrying that my native taxi driver had to stop twice to ask for directions. A man said that he would walk me to the hotel. I took up the offer but worried he would hassle me for money. In fact, he subjected me to nothing more than pleasant small talk.
Entering La Tangerina I found myself in a world of calm and relaxation. Chopin was playing on the radio and I was shown to the breakfast room. Freshly squeezed orange juice, strong coffee and freshly baked croissants awaited. Five minutes into enjoying this I was pleasantly surprised by the arrival of a crêpe that the kitchen had been preparing since I had sat down. I loved that the plates had the hotel’s name on them, but each in a unique writing style and colour.
Hotel La Tangerina is a converted riad, the former townhouses belonging to the richest families. It has ten rooms, arranged on three floors around a central courtyard, each with its own character. My room, number 4 (950 dirhams), is a beauty with twin beds on a mezzanine level and a small sitting room and bathroom with large walk-in shower downstairs. The rooms have antique radios which are centrally tuned from the reception; classical in the morning, pop in the afternoon and jazz in the evening. It is a really nice touch.
My evening meal (Dh200) here was one of the best I had in Morocco. A starter of harira; tomato and lentil soup seasoned with ginger, pepper, and cinnamon. A salad course consisted of a bowl of mixed salad, marinated aubergines and crunchy green beans. The main course of chicken tagine had melt in the mouth meat, chunky olives and a tomato sauce fragrant with ginger, garlic, cumin and cinnamon.
The rooftop terrace, unsurprisingly, has adjective-inducing views over the medina and Strait of Gibraltar. Make sure that one of your companions is a camera, particularly at sunset.
I hired a guide because I felt it was the most efficient way to see the city in one day and to keep away the hustlers and conmen that I had read so much about. Said Nacer (Dh315 for city tour, www.d-destination.com) is a wonderful ambassador for Morocco. It was like spending a day with a good friend as he was happy to talk about any subject. I saw so much with Said that it is impossible to describe everything here, so I am going to pick out my favourites:
I pounced on the stalls selling dates. Once you have tasted fresh dates in North Africa you will never be able to accept what is on offer at your supermarket ever again. In these markets there are at least a dozen varieties with different prices according to quality and taste. Morocco actually has to import dates from Tunisia as it cannot produce enough to satisfy the population.
American Legation (8 Rue America, www.legation.org)
Morocco was the first country to recognise the newly independent United States of America and here in Tangier is the first ever American property outside of the US. You can walk through the rooms that are a nice slice of colonial America and view the fine art collection. A room dedicated to Beat Generation writer Paul Bowels is on the ground floor.
Coffee break and lunch
We took café noir and chatted in Café Central (Petit Socco) the hands down winner when it comes to people watching spots in the medina.
I took lunch in one of Said’s favourite restaurants, Andalus (7 Rue de Commerce) a few steps away. This is the kind of place that only a local would know about. You have to walk through the tiny, rudimentary kitchen to reach the tables of which there are only six. The decor is non-existent, but the food is freshly cooked to order and very, very tasty. Mullet with chips and peas seasoned with cumin was simply delicious (Dh60).
Hotel Continental (36 Rue Dar el-Bariud)
Hotel Continental is an example of faded grandeur. Churchill, Degas and Kerouac once stayed here. The bedrooms (from Dh400) are mostly threadbare, but the decoration in the public rooms is drop-dead North African gorgeous. Colourful and patterned tiles and intricate stucco work kept me amused with my camera for ages. There is a little café where you can take your mint tea in a cute sun room or on the terrace looking out to sea.
Departure and café hopping
I spent the following morning on my own. First stop was Café de Paris (Place de France), once a meeting place for spies, literati, painters and nationalists. See if you can find where Julia Stiles sat in the Bourne Ultimatum.
Next up was Pâtisserie Española (97 Rue de la Liberté) the best place in Tangier for cakes and pastries.
I took the ferry to Spain and to get to the port from La Tangerina I had to walk through the medina. Despite having a backpack, carrying a carpet and taking quite a few wrong turns I didn’t get hassled. One shop keeper chased after me with a glass of mint tea insisting that I had hours before the ferry left and should spend this in his shop, but that was just a bit of fun. My conclusion is that Tangier largely fails to live up to the negative image of danger and annoyance.
How to get there
Overnight train from Marrakech: Dh350 for a bed in a four-berth compartment.
Ferry from Spain: Dh300-450 to Algeciras.
Flights: direct from London, Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona.