If you are any fraction a literary traveler, Tangier is a must.
Sitting in the Tingis Cafe in the Petit Socco I am trying desperately to take in the still lingering atoms of great authors like Paul Bowles and Mahbret who sat right where I’m sitting. It’s not hard to do. The tiles on the wall of this cafe look like they haven’t changed in over a century. I’m sipping a hot mint tea, and doing some serious people watching. This spot, and this cafe are infamous to westerners who praised the Beat Generation. People like Jack Kerouac, William S Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Tennessee Williams all visited Tangier and most likely made their way to this very square. In fact, Mahbret, in The Lemon writes about the Petit Socco and even more specifically about the Zoco Chico, a five and ten store on the corner. It’s still there and a snap shot with my iPhone was able to bring it back to literary life if but for a moment. Because this is a touristy area, women are fine to visit this cafe. Although do pay close attention. Some cafes are men only, but they tend to be down more residential streets than in tourist hot spots.
We arrived in Tangier from Tarifa, Spain, on the high-speed ferry. We left at 10am, and arrived at 10am, an hour trip, made in zero-time by the magic of time zones. If you decide to go to Tangier via ferry from Spain, the port is located in Tarifa (don’t go via Algeciras. You’ll end up in Tanger-Med; you want Tanger-ville). Also, make sure that WHILE you’re on the ferry, you get your passport stamped before disembarking (get in line right away. Just ask where if you don’t already see the queue. Usually the desk is in the bottom of the boat).
Not willing to get lost in the medina by ourselves, we booked a tour, one I had taken two years prior. After scouring the internet for a reputable tour company, I found Saïd (pronounced Sah-yeed) Tours. With nearly 1000 five-star reviews on Trip Advisor, I was willing to trust that we’d be well-taken care of. And we were! We booked the date in advance, and then met Saïd, himself at the port, who, coincidentally, reminded me of a Moroccan Anthony Bourdain. He walked us to our tour guide, Khalid, and off we went in car and walking. Depending on what you want to see and do, a 3-hour walking tour, with lunch (you pay, I believe) is roughly 50 euros per person, which includes a drive out to the beach, the Hercules Caves, a camel ride, a stroll through the medina and the kasbah, lunch and possibly a quick visit with a snake charmer. We passed on the snakes as Doug has a phobia of them. We opted instead for a stroll through the Petit Socco to see the Cafe Tingis and have a mint tea. You are expected to tip in Morocco and we typically tip well (20%).
Tangier, circa early to mid 1900’s was an international zone, which meant it wasn’t exactly ruled by any country in particular but by eight (UK, France, Spain French Morocco, even Belgium, Sweden and USA at one point). This opened the door for many different cultures to converge in one spot–Arabs, Berbers, Jews, Christians, Westerners, Africans and Asian populations. But after 1956 it became reintegrated back into Morocco. Today, the King of Morocco is breathing a second life into the ancient city (that dates back to Roman times), and the city (and country itself), is now Muslim ruled and follows Islamic Law. However, many Moroccans during our stay here told us that this was not strictly a Muslim country, but rather, a Berber country, setting it apart from the world of Islam. What this basically means for tourists is that if you’re a woman, you can usually get away with wearing a bikini on the beach. And while many men wear djellabas, and women wear kaftans, they are mostly worn to protect from the sun, not necessarily for religious purposes.
In the souk, all that ancient Arab and Berber history seems to linger. Through the markets the smells of mint, lavender, garlic, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric and coriander filled my senses. Goat cheese, nuts, baked bread, roasted lamb, fried fish, fresh fish, couscous, palm leaves, pine trees…a variety of smells completely unidentifiable to me, all mixed with the ever-present salt air and smell of the sea. A true bouquet.
Poverty and wealth too mix side by side. As soon as you come off dusty dirty streets another world awaits behind massive wood doors. This is the secret of the Moroccan medina. From the outside everything looks the same. Rich, poor. No difference. A dusty beat up door can open to poverty or paradise. And the people take their modesty very seriously. By dusk, we located our “riad” (actually a converted mid-19th century villa) the Mimi Calpe, at 71 Salah Eddine El Ayoubi street, formerly known as the Beach street. Boutique in every way imaginable, except perhaps the price, Mimi Calpe has an elongated pool atop the hill behind the gardens, lounge rooms, views, privacy, stunning bedrooms and suites (we stayed in the two bedroom suite), and the absolute best breakfast in town. My suggestion: have breakfast at sunrise in the garden. You can hear the distant Call to Prayer, while a sleek white cat purrs sleepily at your feet.
Tangier is no longer an international zone, nor is it the seedy, forgotten city at the northern tip of Morocco. But it is, well, Tangier, and that means it often gets a bad rap (compared to other Moroccan cities like Marrakech and Chefchaouen). And yet, it’s one of my favorite spots on the globe. It’s scrappy and tough, ancient and modern, conservative and spiritual. Yet its international past still gives it a flair of openness and art.
Our one night in Tangier was not enough. I could have stayed at Mimi Calpe for a month. Hicham (pictured, left), who checked us in and served us dinner, spent a good amount of time trying to convince us to stop thinking that women couldn’t do whatever they wanted here. Morocco is not like the rest of the Arab world, he said. At the same time he also said he couldn’t wait to get out because progress towards modernity was moving too slowly. “Sure, they make changes, but superficially. From the outside. It’s not good enough. Moroccans are only out for themselves. They have dirty minds.”
But, from my outsider’s perspective, I was pleasantly oblivious. We lounged by the pool for a bit, after a few older French women had left, had dinner (served by Hicham), and then stayed in the room for the rest of the night a la Kit and Port in Paul Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky. I leaned out my windows and watched the street below. The men and women walking up the streets and down. Toward the port, away from the port. Across the street was a pension. Two men shared a room; one young, one old. The young man slept on one of the beds, while the old man sat on the edge of his bed looking at his mobil phone. They slept all night, in their djellabas, with their window wide open.
Restaurants & Cafes to Check Out:
⦿El Moroccan Club, a stylish turn of the century restaurant and bar, check out the piano bar and have a cocktail in their “artistic and authentic atmosphere.”
⦿El Tangerino restaurant: fresh, fresh, fresh, fish with over 1000+ 5-star reviews. They must be doing something right.
⦿Cafe Hafa, a cafe overlooking the sea and the straight. It’s the perfect spot to take in the beautiful Tangier seaside.
⦿Cafe Baba: steeped in history (and marijuana) this is the cafe where the Rolling Stones used to hang. TripAdvisor states it’s near Barbara Hutton’s (The Woolworth’s heiress) old house. Go only if you’re okay with kif-culture.
⦿Rif Kebdani restaurant: “best couscous in Morocco!”
⦿Lodging: Mimi Calpe, at 71 Salah Eddine El Ayoubi street,