The smells, sounds and sights of the souk are just part of the attraction on a trip to the Moroccan city of Tangiers
I’m standing on top of a cliff next to a 3,000-year-old tomb (well, more of a carved-out hole in the rock). Below me, a digger is working on a new coastal road. To my right is the glorious jumble of dirty white cubed buildings that make up the medina of Tangiers and beyond that is the port, the city beach and the curve of high-rise hotels and office buildings that mark out the limits of the Ville Nouvelle, the new town.
But what really catches my eye is the vivid blue nothingness in front of me: the Straits of Gibraltar, a nine-mile-wide strip of water that separates Tangiers from Tarifa, Morocco from Spain, Africa from Europe... one world from another.
The waters are pretty calm and only a fishing boat chugging out of Tangiers’ busy port disturbs the slight swell. I’m hoping to spot a dolphin or two cavorting in the waves but I know there’s little chance. So I turn my gaze to the coastline of southern Spain, which, unsurprisingly, looks very similar to what’s around me: light coloured rock, pine trees, whitewashed towns.
“It’s a wonderful view, no?” says a voice to my left. “It is,” I reply, “but how do you know I speak English?” Expecting some assessment of my dress sense or else a semi-mystic revelation, I’m disappointed by the response: “I heard you talking to Mustapha at the English church yesterday,” my new friend says.
I should have known. Tangiers may be a large city but it can seem like a small town. Even I’m beginning to recognise people after only a couple of days here. Back to my cliff top conversation at the Phoenician burial grounds, a favourite place for the locals to come and sit and watch the world (or two worlds). Ali, my new friend, is running through a checklist of what I should see: “The Medina, the Kasbah, the beach, the Caves of Hercules, the museums...”
This desire to ensure the visitor gets the most out of the city is typical of the warm local welcome. You can get by with a mixture of English, Spanish and, of course, French, and everyone has somewhere to tell you about. There’s little evidence of the hassling that the guide books warn of; nor, sadly, of the legendary louche atmosphere so prevalent when Tangiers was a honey pot for the liberal thinking and morally loose elements of Western society.
Not that the city’s been spruced up too much – which accounts for a great deal of its charm. Sure, the Ville Nouvelle is businesslike and relatively tidy, all rushing cars and ambling pedestrians. But as you approach the old city, the medina, the atmosphere changes. Stalls selling anything from cigarette lighters and mobile phones to salted fish and hard boiled eggs lay their wares on the pavement; the crowds thicken; the air is full of shouts and chatter; and, of course, the cafes are full of locals watching you watching their city as they sip their sweet mint tea.
Beyond the Grand Socco, the square that divides old and new Tangiers, the mood changes again. From here it’s into the souk, with its thousands of stalls, narrow winding streets, its noises and colours and smells and its overall air of good-natured bustle.
Got a map? Forget it. Just go with the flow, wander the produce markets, haggle with the storekeepers over a piece of leatherwork or a silver charm or an exquisitely decorated pot. It’s part of the game, and there’s no point being here unless you play it.
Tangiers isn’t just an outsized market, though. The Kasbah, the old fortress, is as quiet as its neighbour is noisy: tiny alleys lined by whitewashed houses with beautiful blue or green doors and windows; ramparts affording more startling views of the city and the sea (if you have the nerve to climb them).
Here, too, the options for a rich, muddy coffee or a scalding mint tea are plentiful – not least at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, which is not as grand as it once was but oozes atmosphere, from its broad sea-facing terrace to its tiny, half-hidden salons full of mosaic tiled decoration and cushioned benches.
Ali was right – I had been talking with Mustapha at St Andrew’s Church just uphill from the Grand Socco. He’s been caretaker there for close to half a century and will unlock the church and show you round. Curious to find an outpost of Britishness in this very Muslim society – albeit a tolerant one. The church and its graveyard lie close to the city’s contemporary arts institute – another surprise, housed in a French colonial mansion.
Further uphill and out into Marshan suburb, you feel like you’re in Kensington or Wimbledon: leafy suburbs, grand houses, children in starched school uniforms lugging hefty bags into class and – incongruously – Cafe Hafa, with its terraces overlooking the Mediterranean, its faded charm and its underlying sense of something not quite above board.
It’s this cultural mix that makes Tangiers so very different from anywhere else. Everything comes together here at the crossroads of two continents but there’s no clash – more a subtle mixing of the ingredients. And in a funny sort of way, all that co-existing makes the city seem like a very homely place.
Atlas Blue have direct flights from London Heathrow to Tangiers . Alternatively, fly British Airways from London Gatwick to Gibraltar or Monarch from Luton and Manchester to Gibraltar. Walk across the border into Spain and take a taxi to Algeciras (15 minutes) or Tarifa (40 minutes). Both ports have regular daily ferries across the Straits of Gibraltar to Tangiers. Trasmediterranea operates the Algeciras service and FRS runs from Tarifa.
Where to stay
Hotel El Minzah is still the top option around the medina. Plush, calm and with lovely patios and gardens and big bedrooms
In the Kasbah, La Tangerina is as fantastic as guest houses get. Beautifully restored, with 10 well planned bedrooms, tasteful decor, friendly owners, great breakfasts on the roof terrace and even a hammam
The nearby Hôtel Nord-Pinus Tanger is a seriously luxurious riad – rooms decorated with tiles and leather doors and big brass beds throughout.
Villa Josephine in Sidi Masmoudi, a village west of the city, is a beautiful 19th-century colonial mansion, dripping in original detail, with gorgeous grounds including a pool and terraces with views across the Mediterranean
Where to eat
The terrace restaurant of the El Minzah Hotel (see above) is a great setting; tagines, grills and salads are excellent.
Cafe Hafa (Rue Hafa) in Marshan district, west of the city centre, feels a little dissolute, not least because of the whiff of kif (tobacco mixed with hashish) drifting up the terraces, but the views are great and a plodding waiter will bring drinks and snacks such as olives, dips and bread.
Restaurante Populaire (on the steps at the foot of Rue de la Liberté) is a wonderful local fish restaurant; fish soup bubbles away as the waiters serve grilled fish and puddings like pomegranate in honey; home-made fruit juice comes as standard.
At Hammadi (2, Rue de la Kasbah), sprawl on the sofas and feast on harira soup, delicious pastillas (pigeon meat pasties), tagines and fish dishes.
The restaurant at the Riad Tanja Hotel serves modern Moroccan cuisine in a smart setting.
What to see
The medina is unmissable – the heart of the city; a mass of streets and people boiling over into Grand Socco and, deeper in the souk, Petit Socco. If you’re shopping, buy leather goods, silverware, pots, rugs, throws and wooden carvings and furniture. More authentic craftsmen work deeper in the souk. At the top end of the market, the Aladdin’s cave that is Majid’s (66, Rue des Almouhades) is full of eye-popping antiques from silk dresses to diamonds and old doors.
The Kasbah is tranquil by comparison; great for a sense of how Tangiers was when Samuel Pepys visited in the 17th century. Beware locals offering to act as guides – they’ll demand money later.
The beach is great for strolling, watching the local boys play football and grabbing a drink in one of the bars as the sun sets.
Take a taxi west to Cap Spartel, where the Atlantic and Mediterranean meet (at times you can see the blue ocean and the turquoise sea coming together quite clearly) and its lighthouse, then on to the Caves of Hercules – worth a quick peek. Beyond is the start of an unbelievable 700-mile unbroken beach running south.
The Church of St Andrew’s and the poignant graveyard that surrounds it are worth a visit.
The old American legation in the medina (off Rue de Portugal) has paintings by Delacroix, authentic 18h and 19th-century furnishings, odd artefacts and a room dedicated to Paul Bowles, the American writer who lived in the city and acted as host to the Beat poets and other dissolutes who had such a whale of a time in 1950s Tangiers.