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The central market is the perfect place to start exploring the city.
The central market is the perfect place to start exploring the city. / D. Finch

Tangier: colourful past, vibrant future

  • The city has undergone enormous upheaval over the past century but still retains the charm and mystique which once attracted the jet set

From an Arabic outpost for spies and writers, to the perfect getaway for rock stars and the jet set, Tangier has seen it all. Controlled by everyone, and at times no one, Morocco's northernmost city has always been uniquely placed in the Arab world.

As you take a stroll through the city's streets, you see elements of East and West combining in a way scarcely seen elsewhere, product of centuries of toing and froing between the international powerhouses of the day.

This is what makes a dip into the history books essential before any visit, not that the blink-and-you'll-miss-it flight from Malaga gives you much chance!

Prime location

Tangier has always attracted the gaze of foreign powers, owing to its strategic location at the mouth of the Mediterranean. During the Scramble for Africa at the start of the 20th century, European powers set their sights on the city. Though the vast majority of Morocco fell under French control, the British held a keen interest and the city was pronounced an 'international zone'.

By the time the 1920s arrived, this ambiguous status manifested itself in a bohemian, bordering on clandestine, ambiance which characterised the film 'Casablanca' which was, in reality, much more representative of its northern neighbour. In fact, the décor of the El Minzah hotel inspired Rick's Café in the 1942 film, but also the Hispano-Arab styling which swept Hollywood.

During this period, the nearby Continental hotel, the oldest in the city, played host to Antonio Gaudí, Pío Baroja and William Somerset Maugham, the best paid writer in the world in the 1930s. The poet Mercedes Acosta sought refuge in one of its suites after breaking up with Greta Garbo. It was there where she bumped into Djuna Barnes, who was at that time fending off the advances of Winston Churchill.

There are constant reminders of the city's past around every corner.

There are constant reminders of the city's past around every corner. / D.F.

The city's atypical status remained until Morocco declared independence in 1956. The spies, writers and politicians gave way to musicians and the Beat Generation. Mick Jagger could often be found taking in the sea views from the Hafa café while the city inspired Bob Dylan to write 'If You See Her, Say Hello'. It was William Burroughs who showed the city's secrets to Jack Kerouac.

However, the authorities' tolerant stance started to shift after independence and the so-called 'Great Scandal' saw scores of foreigners locked up for sexual crimes, including corruption of minors, and the consumption of drugs. The city's mythical status was in tatters.

Tangier fell into the hands of delinquency in the 1980s and for several decades stagnated until Mohamed VI came to the throne at the turn of the century and set his sights on rejuvenating the city, proposing Tangier should become the "St Tropez of North Africa". Since then the city has experienced both an economic and cultural boom. The construction of a superport on the outskirts has freed up space for a seafront promenade, a marina and several new hotels, many of them luxury establishments.

Mindful of economic necessity, Tangier cannot afford to draw a line under its past. Instead, hints of it are still preserved. El Minzah is still considered one of the finest hotels on the continent, while the neighbouring Villa de France, after losing its five stars and eventually closing in 1992, reopened its doors two years ago.

Its elegance is understated and you can't help imagining bumping into Eugène Delacroix on the terrace as he formulated his vision of the East which would inspire a number of 19th century painters, or a frustrated Henri Matisse in the corridor, shouting "Paradise exists!" after the rain finally cleared and he could leave room 35 where he was cooped up and painted 'View from a Room'.

It's easy to see why both artists chose the former French Consulate building as their base. As you walk down the hotel's steep driveway, the walled complex gives way to the controlled chaos of Place du 9 Avril 1947, the gateway to the Medina. Vibrant colours and lively atmosphere converge and the smells of leather treatment and spice become inescapable.

Here there is little point in taking a map. The narrow, winding streets soon become indistinguishable and the chances of you passing the same stall more than twice is highly likely.

The central market is a good place to start, even if it is just for a colourful Instagram photo, as you try to get your bearings. Then once you feel brave enough, get yourself lost within the old city. It is the only way to do it.

Eventually you will stumble across the kasbah, whose museum is well worth a visit, and its vast open courtyard. Built in the 17th century, the museum is in what was formerly the Sultan's palace. It deserves to be seen not only for its collection of artefacts, from the Phoenician to modern times, but also for the building itself and its garden (though be mindful that information is only given in French and Arabic).

Roll up your sleeves and dig in! Saveur du Poisson is a must-do in Tangier.

Roll up your sleeves and dig in! Saveur du Poisson is a must-do in Tangier. / Katrin Goethals

Despite the large number of visitors, few people speak English. However, rudimentary Spanish should help you get by, even if it is to get rid of the 'guide' you have somehow acquired and who will insist on taking you to see the sites - for a fee, of course.

Sadly, this is the side of Moroccan culture that puts many people off. However, in a bid to strengthen the tourist sector in the wake of the terror attacks in Marrakech, the authorities have cracked down on vendors and guides harassing tourists and they are almost nonexistent outside of high season.

That's not to say you shouldn't be vigilant, but I would encourage any visitor to shrug off any scepticism for fear of it ruining your visit completely; Moroccans can be very generous and accommodating people, especially when it comes to food.

Nowhere encompasses this better than Saveur du Poisson. While we probably associate Morocco with tagines and couscous, we mustn't forget that Tangier is a Mediterranean city. Whether it is a cod brochette or a grilled seabream, the rich flavours are spellbinding and surprising in equal measure.

Located on a shady backstreet, this restaurant is certain to give you an unforgettable experience. If you're on a date, forget it; here you share a table with whoever they can cram into the small dining room. And they will talk to you; whether its the charismatic waiters or the enthusiastic locals eager to practice their language skills.

If you're used to all the trimmings of fine dining this place isn't for you. The tables are covered in paper to keep cleaning to a minimum. And there isn't a menu. You get what you're given - four generous courses all for less than 20 euros. But if you want to feel the essence of Tangier and its people, roll up your sleeves and dig in.