Morocco – ‘Atlantic Arabia’, Tangier
Experience the exotic and the unexpected in the Bohemian port of Tangier
Reading Tahir Shah’s book, ‘In Arabian Nights’ reminded me of the huge role stories & fairy tales play in childhood. Classics such as ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’, ‘Swiss Family Robinson’, ‘Kidnapped’ and ‘Peter Pan’ were amongst my essential reading when young. Yet my favourite was ‘Stories from the Arabian Nights’, with captivating illustrations by Edmund Dulac. This aged scarlet and gold embossed book holds some favourite childhood stories, as told by the Persian Queen Scheherazade, for those ‘A Thousand and One Nights’.
Maybe those stories might explain my fascination and love of Morocco, a country so close to Europe yet with all the magic and mystery of Arabia.
I’ve been returning to Morocco for some 20 years; falling under the spell of its Imperial cities including Marrakech and Fez; chilling out in rural mountain villages like Chefchaouen; and being amazed by the extraordinary desert south. Yet I’ve never taken the time to stay and explore Tangier, thinking it was a place that has well and truly seen better days.
Well, recently I corrected that error, and I am so pleased I did. The north western Moroccan port city of Tangier is less than an hour from Southern Spain by ferry, perfect for a long weekend. It’s a really fascinating place where you feel like a traveller, not simply a tourist. As Tahir Shah says, ‘Tangier is a hybrid of Europe, Africa and the Arab World’.
The short journey from the ferry port to a hotel or guest house is an intoxicating and bizarre experience. As you pass crumbling colonial mansions and alluring Arab archways, the smells, sights and sounds swiftly plunge you into the city’s gregarious, noisy and frantic way of life – worlds away from Europe.
Tangier was famous for being a neutral International Zone for many years; creating a progressive, modern, bohemian and slightly seedy city that attracted artists, writers, misfits and non conformists – all adding up to make Tangiers the place-to-be in the first half of the twentieth century.
Some of this interesting, creative buzz remains more than half a century later, and is in fact growing with the arrival of more and more creatives heading north from Marrakesh, now regarded as being too commercial.
North African and Middle Eastern food is amongst my favourite cuisines of the world, and I always eat so well in Morocco, yet visitors can sometimes be tempted to take the bland options. Those touristy, ‘that’ll do nicely’ creditcard-friendly restaurants where there is some live music, and not too spicy food.
But why not take a little bit more of a risk? There is some exceptional food to be found but often in unexpected places.
A few years ago I discovered, the ‘Populaire Saveur de Poisson’. It 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. Although opinion websites have brought the tourists here and prices have doubled, I still think it is worth it for a tasty lunch with a difference.
‘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. You’ll typically eat with other Moroccans or French visitors.
This time I tried ‘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!
Dinner is often also very good in a guest house (maison d’hôte) or hotel. I stayed 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 somehow sit wonderfully together.
The Nord Pinus Tanger is a real gem. It is within the original Kasbah in the Medina, the fortified Sultan’s castle in the old town. It affords stunning views across the Strait towards Andalucía, and is full of breathtaking original Moorish features as well as some beautiful antique, vintage and funky Moroccan and European art and furniture.
The kitchen does a great job and dining here is a pleasure. With the markets almost next door, and the day’s catch landed within a few hundred metres, one is assured of fresh seasonal ingredients.
There is a roof terrace offering warming autumn sunshine for lunch or a view of the stars for dinner. In winter the inside dining room is more popular, full of ornately carved Arab arches and alluring candelabras.
Breakfast in Morocco is a serious meal. In the hotel it is impeccably presented in different French and Moorish dishes and includes traditional sugar-dusted fritters, Moroccan crepes, flat harcha semolina bread, and homemade French style preserves that make you want to lick your knife.
It is just as well that breakfast is robust, as a morning visiting the souks is demanding! The old town or medina is the most captivating part of Tangier. Its narrow, dimly lit streets and passageways are full of traders.
This remains the perfect place to purchase beautiful handmade rugs, elegant Fez pottery as well as unusual foods, spices, teas, and soaps. Prices are certainly higher now than they have been and battering slightly less productive, but still assume that the price you will finally pay will be about 40 per cent of the initial price. So enjoy the battering and enter into the spirit of it in good nature and with humour.
After lunch I like to then head to the ‘Petit Socco’ and the scruffy old street cafes there, such as ‘Café Central’ or ‘Café Tingis’; or even Café Hafa overlooking the sea. In these classic retreats from busy life one can while the afternoon away, imagining the era of Tennessee Williams and William Burroughs.
I end the day on the hotel roof terrace, I look out and see minarets that soar up to the clear night sky, punctuated by a million stars; whilst jasmine from the Kasbah’s garden below fragrances the air. It really is like a setting for one of those magical stories from ‘A Thousand and One Nights’
© ANDREW FORBES