‘From Beatniks to Berbers’ – Discovering Northern Morocco
The bohemian port city of Tangier and the nearby aquamarine mountain village of Chefchaouen capture the magic and mystery of authentic North African culture and cuisine.
The vintage cream Mercedes ‘Grand Taxi’ idles up the steep, narrow lane from the port towards the Medina. This short journey is an intoxicating experience. Passing crumbling fin-de-siècle colonial mansions and alluring Arab archways, the smells, sights and sounds swiftly plunge you into this city’s gregarious, noisy and frantic way of life.
This is Tangier, famous for being an International Zone in the first half of the twentieth century whilst Spain, Britain and France jostled for diplomatic and political superiority here. This bohemian city became home to spies, artists and writers of the Beat generation. William Burroughs and Truman Capote were at the centre of a creative community that also attracted Francis Bacon, Joe Orton and the US writer Paul Bowles.
Arriving in the Medina, one is immersed in a world where modern life collides with medieval architecture; where Europe, Africa and Arabia blend to deliver an exhilarating, unique experience.
Although the enchanting and spellbinding qualities of Morocco’s Imperial Cities are world-famous, over recent years they have become more and more commercialised. This has led to cities like Tangier experiencing a genuine creative and commercial renaissance as people search for the authentic Morocco, leaving behind westernised Marrakesh.
Where once only humble Maison d’hôte offered accommodation, there are now upscale luxury boutique hotels in the old town. Stay at the ‘Nord Pinus Tanger’, owned and styled by Anne Igou, of the original Nord Pinus in the South of France. Anne has a wonderful aesthetic, a creative eye that allows her to find interesting and unique pieces and furniture that sit wonderfully together, creating a seductive ambiance.
The Nord Pinus Tanger is a real treasure. It is within the original Kasbah in Tangier’s Medina, the former Sultan’s castle. It affords stunning views across the Strait towards Spain’s Andalucía, and is full of breathtaking original Moorish features as well as some beautiful antique, and vintage African and European furniture.
Tangier is the perfect gateway to Morocco. Both its old and new towns are captivating and full of life.
The souks, with their narrow, dimly lit streets and passageways are the perfect place to find beautiful handmade rugs, robust Fez pottery as well as unusual foods, spices, teas, and soaps – and remember to batter over the price in good nature and with humour.
Eating out also a great pleasure. The ‘Populaire Saveur de Poisson’ still offers an exceptional set menu of fish and seafood in an authentic setting, with a head waiter and owner that are full of character.
‘Agadir’ is another city institution. It’s a bijou, simple Moroccan restaurant with a tiny kitchen but the cook turns out exceptional classic dishes, served with interesting Moroccan wines.
Try also ‘Casa d’Italia’ in the beautiful setting of the ‘Palais de Mouley Hafid’. It may seem odd going to Morocco for Italian food, but it’s a wonderfully surreal experience. Classic Italian dishes are served by waiters in black tie, on a 1950s terrace surrounded by the Islamic craftsmanship and exotic palms of this staggering ancient Sultan’s palace!
Just a few hours’ drive south east of Tangier, is the striking azure mountain village of Chefchaouen. This ancient Berber community is recognised for its extraordinary sixteenth century labyrinthine old town that appears lost in time, painted in shades of blue, mauve and aquamarine.
Walking its narrow streets becomes mesmerising, as if in an underwater Atlantis, where subtle pastel shades blend to create an unexpected experience. The maze of mauve and turquoise alleys of Chefchaouen is full of aroma and colour, punctuated by Lilliputian doorways, as if from a fairytale.
Access to this wonderful ancient medina is impossible by car, so park by the city walls and walk to one of the elegant yet simple boutique Riad hotels. Many of the old town’s distinctive courtyard properties or ‘Dar’ that have been converted into boutique guest houses and hotels that offer comfort and even luxury yet with plenty of authentic touches.
Tagines & Couscous
The food here is astonishingly good. One of the best known is ‘Restaurant Tissemlal’ in the Casa Hassan Hotel. It offers authentic dishes, including ubiquitous couscous and tagines. Being a vegetarian here is a joy, as there is a wide choice of non meat dishes, whilst the carnivores can tuck into richly-spiced, slowed-cooked stews with dried fruits and nuts served in iconic tagine plates topped with heavy conical clay lids.
This is perfect hearty food that tastes even better after a day’s trekking in the Rif Mountains; or exploring the village’s artisan stalls; or following a robust massage in one of the local Hammam baths.
Northern Morocco is one of the world’s great frontiers, where Europe meets Africa, Christian meets Muslim, and the developed world directly touches the developing. It’s a place where you don’t feel like a tourist, you feel like a traveller, truly immersed in a rich and fascinating culture that feels worlds away from home.
Text COPYRIGHT 2013 Andrew Forbes