The new dawn of Tangier – how Morocco’s dissident diving regained its mojo

Iit’s a cool winter day with wood smoke hanging in the air and high up in the Kasbah of Tangier, Café Baba is busy. A group of teenagers blocked a corner of the covered balcony in pursuit of a board game. A lone smoker gazes out to sea through tall horseshoe-shaped windows that skim the crenellated white roofs. If it weren’t for the hip-hop flatscreen TV, you could say this Tangier coffeeshop, with its torn seats and chipped arabesque tiles, has changed little since the 1950s when it was in use. from marijuana to writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.

Like so many establishments in Tangier, Café Baba is legendary for its catalog of visitors. First the Beat writers, then the hippie generation and musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger, Santana and Sting. A black-and-white photo on the wall shows the teary-eyed Rolling Stones lounging here in 1967 with cafe owner Hnifza. Hnifza is still around, but these days it’s his grandson Mohamed who manages the flow of mint tea and everything in Café Baba.

dissolute past

Overlooking the tip of Africa just 35 miles from Spain, Tangier has always had a reputation for being different. Between 1912 and 1956, the city was an international area that belonged collectively to Morocco, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, England, Italy and Spain. It became a place where artists, outsiders, libertarians and dissidents came to lead a freewheeling life, in a gap between the French Moroccan protectorate and the corseted powers of Europe across the Strait of Gibraltar. Even today, Tangier’s population is more diverse than anywhere else in Morocco, with 40 percent non-Muslims.

(Lorna Parkes)

After Morocco’s independence, refusing the city’s cowardly behavior, King Hassan II effectively locked the gates of Tangier and threw away the key. Rot has set in, floating through the streets of the medina like a sour sea breeze. In the 1980s and 1990s, the city became a shady destination for tourists, with a dilapidated medina full of hustle and bustle. It wasn’t until King Hassan II’s progressive son, Mohammed VI, took over, that Tangier was slowly brought back into the fold. Today, investments are pouring in and the city is changing accordingly.

City on the verge of change

“Tangier is the gateway to Africa and the gateway to Europe,” my guide Ali said proudly as he led me through the medina, his djellaba swelling as we encountered the coastal breezes. in the alleys of the Kasbah. The city’s geographic position, which once helped forge Tangier’s unique relationship with Europe and set the stage for cheeky mid-century travelers, is now being used to make Tangier a key industrial area for the government. Moroccan and a commercial gateway to Africa.

The completion before the pandemic of the extension of the Tanger Med 2 port, 50 km east of the city, should make Tangier the largest commercial port in the Mediterranean in terms of container capacity. Meanwhile, a recent TGV link to Casablanca and the capital Rabat is attracting rich Moroccan weekends, and the redevelopment of the downtown ferry port – to include a lifestyle marina – is expected to draw the whole of the country. luxury yachting.

There was definitely something in the air – besides the scent of rose water and grilled sardines – that lent Tangier a bit of magic.

After showing me the city’s Roman cemetery, sitting so precariously on the edge of a cliff that it seems ready to tip over into the Mediterranean, Ali and I walked along the spectacular fortified walls of the Kasbah built by the Portuguese in the 15th century. century to prevent the British from invading (Tangier was later given as a dowry to King Charles II when he married the Portuguese Catarina de Braganza in 1662).

At Bab Al Bahr, a clifftop gate that frames Tarifa in Spain like a postcard across the Strait of Gibraltar, Ali highlighted the construction of the marina and ferry terminal below. “We say you can see Tangier in the future there,” he said. “Forty years ago there was nothing. Now look at all the buildings.

When I visited in 2019, the construction boom in Tangier was in full swing – not everything was pretty. On my way to town from the airport, I passed empty plots of land loaded with pallets of bricks and concrete mixers, billboards announcing future golf courses, and a giant new mall. At the water’s edge, 8-foot signs promised a conference center from the W hotel and showed an elegant and landscaped view of the redevelopment of the port and marina of Tangier Ville, temporarily obscuring the view of the sea from a row of pretty period buildings in the Italian style along the promenade.

(Lorna Parkes)

The soul of Tangier

Yet the old core of Tangier – which stretched from the Grand Socco to the craggy medina and the Kasbah at the top of the hill – was still disarmingly beautiful. Buildings dating from the 14th century were painted a crisp white, green spaces were landscaped, and investments had inspired a legion of entrepreneurs and small businesses who embraced the city’s bohemian spirit. One of them was Saba’s House, the first five star riad in the medina where I stayed, around the corner from Café Baba. It opened in February 2019 and had already hosted the Prince of Chad at the time of my visit.

Owner Roya is a Tunisian businesswoman whose husband was born in this house. It took him two years to convert it into an elegant art-deco retreat with six rooms named after luminaries with ties to Tangier. I was in Mick Jagger’s room; the others are Antoni Gaudí, Elizabeth Taylor, Ibn Battouta (a 14th century Tangier-born explorer), Malcom Forbes and Barbara Hutton. Hutton, a troubled New York socialite who decamped to Tangier after a brief marriage to Cary Grant in the 1940s, lived in the riad adjacent to Saba’s house.

In front of the hotel door, the streets of the Kasbah are a maze of interesting little shops. A sparkling tarbouche here, a 60s style harem pants there. Posters in the windows advertised book readings, gallery exhibitions and jazz nights. There was definitely something in the air – besides the scent of rose water and grilled sardines – that lent Tangier a bit of magic. Traders spoke of the city’s arty soul.

At the Las Chicas concept store, I met Yasmine and Ayda, who sell high-end Moroccan-made home and fashion items, while running an in-boutique tea room with golden rococo chairs and a menu of bowls from Buddha tarte tatin and quinoa. “It’s true that there is a lot of change,” said Yasmine, “but Tangier is still Tangier and I feel like time has stood still here.”

Cultural cafe

My visit to the medina also included the renovated Kasbah Museum and the American Legation Museum, with its wing dedicated to the American composer Paul Bowles, who settled in Tangier in 1947. Tourist attractions are rare, however, so I returned to Tangier cafes. Perhaps the most unique is the period cafe inside the art-deco Rif cinema, where I found the creative types from Tangier in skinny jeans and lumberjack shirts communing over an espresso in the middle of vintage posters advertising the films of Joan Fontaine.

(Lorna Parkes)

I followed the trail of the Beat writers to the Gran Café in Paris, an old-fashioned place for people-watching with mirrored walls and starched staff in vests. And Cafe Hafa, founded in 1921, where the magnanimous sea views from a trickle of bare terraces inspired visions of Burroughs poring over his manuscript of Naked Lunch here in the early 1950s, his prose no doubt fueled by a endless stream of mint tea. .

Rich in caffeine, I made my last stop at the Morocco Club, a lively bar and restaurant inspired by the 1930s Manhattan club of the same name. I was shown a zebra-print sofa in a saffron-colored room with wood paneling and pictures of Elizabeth Taylor and Mick Jagger on the walls. Oysters were ordered, lavish parties discussed, and I felt like I had stepped into a clubhouse for the literati, expats and entrepreneurs of Tangier. It was utterly alluring and a perfect tribute to Tangier’s shady past. The city may be changing, but the rhythm of old Tangier continues.

Travel essentials

Where to stay

High in the Kasbah, overlooking the sea from an elegant glass-walled roof terrace, Saba’s House is a luxurious riad with excellent service. Doubles from £ 233, B&B.

For a budget option, try Dar el Kasbah, located in a period building on bustling Kasbah Street with a reading nook, occasional art exhibits, and a cozy courtyard. Doubles from £ 39, B&B.

Getting There

It is usually possible to visit Tangier from Europe without taking a plane, thanks to a handful of ferries from Spain and France. The most convenient route is Tarifa-Tanger Ville with FRS, although it was interrupted during the pandemic. Intershipping operates a regular service from Sète and Marseille in France, the journey takes around 45 hours and currently costs around £ 370 round trip.

Air Arabia offers direct flights to Tangier from London Gatwick.

About Opal Jones

Opal Jones

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