Tangier or Tangiers as the French call it is having a moment. Like an ancient artefact happened upon by accident and dusted down to reveal wonderful faded beauty, I found it a place which is full of hidden secrets and many exotic stories, and a real gem for artistic photography.
I arrived a day early, as is often the case when travelling with my friend Julia, I had a bit of time to soak up the place before she arrived with her friends, an entourage which included Richard Hamilton the author and a former BBC North Africa correspondent.
Richard’s book ‘Tangier from the Romans to the Rolling Stones’ is a fantastic find if you’re trying to get to grips with the history of the place, it’s a kind of literary archeology which starts off with Hercules and ancient mythology (Hercules Cave on the coast of Tangier is where the fabled hero rested on his way to complete one of his audacious tasks, to collect the Golden Apples). He goes on to excavate the history of the place from Romans through to the famous historic Berber traveller and explorer Ibn Battuta who is buried in Tangier, to Samuel Pepys and onto artists such as Matisse and Bacon and a litany of famous writers; Bowles, Burroughs, Orton finishing with musician Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones.
I hadn’t read the book before I came, so I just kind of experienced the place with the help of my friend who had a few stops in mind both old and new to discover. We stayed near the port in Hotel El Muniria which is where William Burrows famously wrote Naked Lunch, his room is room 9 which is now part of the owners flat on the ground floor, a nice Moroccan family – you can ask to see it, it’s the more elegant part of the building the rest is a simple boarding house which is clean and paired back but no frills. Jack Kerouac stayed in Room 4 apparently, we stayed in room 8 which looks out onto the terrace – bathrooms are shared but its not a real problem they’re very clean.
This part of the city near the port is a bit more run down than others, although the port is being renovated and there is a marina now. Beneath our hotel was the Tangerinn a local bar which is popular with the local Moroccan hipsters and was also a favourite haunt of the Beat Generation. Outside there is the occasional noisy argument, racing moped or football game in the street. But there was a sadness about the El Muniria I felt, which was matched by the grey and rainy weather perhaps, I was reading about Burrows and I sensed the kind of seediness that surrounded his life of drugs, the death of his wife and his sybaritical liberal lifestyle in Tangier. This is the side of Tangier which while famous and part of a bigger story about the Beat Generation is for me a bit dark and not for everyone and it leaves it’s shadow on the city which you can feel when you’re there, the Mohammed Choukri kind of Tangier.
Just down the hill around the corner of the harbour from the hotel are steps up into the old town which you can climb to see the Hotel Continental, another favourite hang out on the literary trail. It sits on top of a hill and looks out across the harbour, I get the feeling very little has changed in the hotel for many decades and the dining room in particular reminds me of days gone by where you can imagine travellers from the 40’s and 50’s pitching up once their trunks had been disembarked and taking their first lunch off the boat. Walking around the city walls in a clockwise direction you then find the renovated sand coloured stone of the Kasbah which is home to many beautifully restored buildings, the Hotel Tangerina is a lovely family owned hotel which was renovated to incorporate a polished kind of Victorian Grandeur – rooms are very reasonable for the level of luxury and there are stunning views from the roof top. There is a special kind of light in Tangier that painters talk about because it is one of the few places where there is a confluence between the Med and Atlantic which apparently causes the effect, Richard told me one of the only other places which features light of this kind is an Island in Denmark. It must have been this light which attracted painters like Matisse and Francis Bacon along with the general artistic vibe and liberal atmosphere of the place.
The Kasbah houses many cool places to visit: Le Sable Bleu for lunch and dinner, El Morocco a restaurant, café, restaurant and bar just within the gates of the Kasbah inspired by the original El Morocco club of New York with photos from the original club in the coctail bar. There is a Spanish designer concept store ‘Las Chichas’ and just a short work away along the sea walls is Café Hafa, a 1920’s café with a sea view, which is popular with the locals and has many stepped terraces with tables and chairs where you can bring your own food down from the bakery or restaurant above, and strong and sweet mint tea is served in glasses for 20 dirham.
Further downtown the Grand and Petit Socco market squares are surrounded by narrow medina style streets, with busy local markets where you can buy healthy oils and spices, fresh fish, and traditional cheese made by the Rif mountain ladies which they sell wrapped in palm leaves, while dressed in traditional striped Rif dress. On the Grand Socco you will find the landmark Rif Cinema a renovated 1930’s cinema which shows the latest films and has a great cafe bar attached, a place to see and be seen with a great vantage point onto life in the square. There are also a few art galleries, and a cafe and shop above the cinema called the ‘Dharma Woman’s Refuge’ for lunch and a browse, the organisation funds work with single mothers and struggling women giving them a place to stay, purpose and school for their kids.
Not far away from the Grand Socco is the American Ligation. Tangier was one of the first places to recognise the American Independence with this elegant building, there is a great art collection inside as well as a museum dedicated to the writer Paul Bowles. I actually heard a story about Paul Bowles from my cousin’s husband, his friend was a fan and managed to get one of the last ever interviews on film of the writer after travelling to Tangier and bumping into Bowles’ former Moroccan lover who took him to him. Returning home he decided to have friends round and after imbibing perhaps a bit too much and deciding to cut what he thought was a video of Moroccan dancers, found he had cut up this last ever interview instead by mistake! I thought wryly of the ‘cut up’ technique the beat generation were famous for and wondered if it was in fact a wry joke played on him by these famous ghosts of the past!
Dotted along the streets of Tangier, you will see glimpses of faded grandeur, like the old Spanish Pavilions now a bit run down and rusty, the ‘Grand Teatro Cervantes’ with its cigar label signage stands out, as well as the old cinemas and local street cafes. It’s a treasure trove for art photographers with no end of material to keep you involved and inspired to tell your own story of Tangier.
In the evenings we often visited Hotel El Minzah a classic style 5 star hotel with a piano bar overlooking the hotel pool and gardens. The experience was made even better by one of Julia’s friends who had been gifted with the voice of Frank Sinatra, he slid up to the pianist and belted out Frank numbers with such rich warm tones that for a moment we were transported back to a time of dinner dances and celebrity crooners. A Moroccan boy was filming the scene with his jaw dropped in amazement at the spectacle that had been created that night, it was heartwarming to see his passion for these old numbers belted out by our Frank impersonator.
And Tangier is like that a mix up of happenstances, small vignettes which when glued together create a rich tapestry of experience that you want to crawl over again and again. There is so much I could write that this feels like a glance across the top of the trip, so I will write more I’m sure.
They say about Tangier that ‘you arrive crying and when you leave you cry’ I can see that, its an emotive place that doesn’t have the immediate impact of Marrakech but slowly reveals itself. There is so much to discover when you start digging that you will want to return again and again just to see the place in different lights and seasons and soak up the atmosphere.
‘The Sheltering Sky’ – Paul Bowles
‘Naked Lunch’ – William Burroughs
‘Tangier From the Romans to the Rolling Stones’ – Richard Hamilton
‘Tangerine’ – Christine Mangan
‘In Tangier’ – Mohammed Choukri