Travel Journal: Tangier

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I was 100 percent prepared to not like Tangier. But from the moment I saw it out my plane window—with its sugar cube-white buildings set into vernal greenery against the sapphire backdrop of the Strait of Gibraltar—I was done, gone, 100 percent, thunderbolt-style in love. Within hours, I was taking note of buildings marked for sale. 

The mythology of Burroughs, the Stones, and all the other bad boys who came chasing the vices and lives that would get them tossed in a slammer (or worse) elsewhere, still gets draped around Tangier's shoulders like a tatty, skunky shroud. If you're not the type to get wistful about all that, it quickly becomes a tiresome subject in one fashion mag article and travel guidebook after the next. But let the fanboys prattle—they can have their version of Tangier, if they want it that way. The city has enough history, enough hidden corners, enough moods that you can have it your own way. 

 

Wandering the Medina

The medina is encircled by 15th-century fortifying walls, put up by the Portuguese during one of the briefish exchanges of power that compose Tangier's history. It's hardly a surprising state of affairs for a city perched at the natural gateway to the Mediterranean, but impressive nonetheless: The Phoenicians and Carthaginians established trading posts in the area as early as the 7th century B.C. before the city itself entered into history as the Mauretanian settlement of Tingis; when the Romans took over, it became the capital of the province of Mauretania Tingitana. Later came waves of attacks, repulsions and conquests by everyone from the Vandals to the Byzantines to the Arabs, who wrested control from the indigenous Berber tribes in 705 A.D.

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 After a few hundred years of interruptions by the wall-building Portuguese and the British, it was back to the Arabs, under Sultan Moulay Ismail, the second ruler of the Alaouite dynasty and forefather of Morocco's current King, Mohammed VI. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Europeans got that old imperial feeling again. While Spain and France descended on other parts of the country, in 1912 Tangier was declared an "International Zone" and controlled jointly by the U.S., U.K., Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, Italy, Sweden and, yes, France and Spain too. With that many cooks in the kitchen, a, shall we say, permissive environment drew eccentrics, artists, ne'er-do-wells, junkies, spies and other livers of very interesting lives. When Tangier came back into Moroccan hands after independence was achieved in 1956, the freewheeling Interzone set mostly wheeled off elsewhere, and the city went to seed, developing a reputation as a place with more than a thin edge of danger to it. Now though, Tangier is a favored child in the eyes of King Mohammed VI, who sees tourism as a major boon for the country and Tangier as one of its most potent attractions. Efforts to restore, clean up, build anew are visible throughout the medina and in the Ville Nouvelle (new city) and the former commercial harbor is being converted into a marina for cruise ships and private yachts.

Do a lot of the old timers mourn the loss of the way things were back in those heady days? Sure they do—and who could blame them? For better or worse, though, today's travelers will never experience the city in that way. But Tangier, even the cleaned-up version, has its own magic, much of which you'll only find while getting lost. Toss your map. If you're staying in the medina or kasbah (and you should be), just get a card from your hotel and someone will be able to help you back, if you need. Now, step over the threshold and take the first turn that looks good. Then just keep turning until you find a scene that takes your breath away—it probably won't take too long.  

Tucked inside the medina is the kasbah, a walled quarter within the larger fortifications of the medina, which was once home to the sultan (the palace, Dar el Makhzen, now houses a museum). The kasbah's tight little alleys wriggle around centuries-old houses and lead you past public water fountains and colorblocked houses and into tiny workshops where men surreptitiously smoke kif while nonchalantly (but perfectly) hammering out copper and brass frames to wrap around mirrors.

As in any city of significant size in Morocco, in Tangier, you'll have to deal with touts offering to guide you around town. Because it was the first stop on our trip and we had some word-of-mouth, not-in-the-guidebook places on our agenda, we acquiesced and engaged the first guy who knew the places we were talking about. He was sweet and uncomplainingly tolerant of our refusal to buy anything in the few shops he led us into. "No problem, you are welcome," he said as we begged off buying screechily scented hand creams and flammable-looking nylon scarves from his "brothers." He also led us into the courtyard of a private home, forested in palms and orange trees, telling us it was open—and indeed, the gate had been cracked a little bit. The guard who stepped out from a side courtyard had a different definition of "open," though, and sent us on our way.

Special note to fans of elaborate doors: You're going to lose your everloving mind in Morocco, and Tangier is as good a place as any to get the process rolling. Inlaid, carved, studded, incised, polished, crumbling, scratched, adorned in brass and entire spectra of paint—you really will find portals of every description, each more photogenic than the last, around virtually every corner.

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Craftsmanship in Tangier

Crafts that stretch back over millennia, like hammering brass and complex silk embroidery, are still going strong in tiny workshops throughout Tangier—as seems appropriate in a city where deep layers history are rarely, if ever, out of your sightline. It's evident that the number of craftsmen is dwindling in favor of shops selling mass-produced knick-knacks, but those who pick up the mantle do so proudly, with astonishing talent and with an eye on the vagaries of the modern global marketplace.

I found my personal heaven not on my own, but with the help of our guide. Tangier's weaver's souk is utterly unrecognizable as such on the exterior and is housed in an old caravanserai, Fondouk Chejra, where travelers could rest and merchants could stay with all their wares as they passed through. The rooms have been converted to workshops, most with huge looms crammed inside and inventory hung and stacked everywhere it'll fit. 

It's definitely men's territory—both the spinning and the weaving (we didn't see dyeing happening here) were being done by men and I was the only woman in the place on the first day we visited. 

The weavers at work here are experts, with decades—and often, generations—of experience, and it shows in the goods they produce. Wool is woven into dense, earth-toned lengths used to make djellabas, traditional hooded garments worn by men all over Morocco (women wear djellabas made with other fabrics). Cotton becomes tightly woven blankets, foutas (towels) and other home goods. There is definitely some synthetic material creep going on, but with a keen eye, you can find all-natural goods. 

Bargaining is at its most highly evolved form in Morocco, and the sell is capital-H Hard, so it pays to be an experienced traveler and haggler. One of the trickier things is figuring out value—any time you ask a price, the pressure to buy skyrockets, so comparison shopping takes both a spine of steel and, most importantly, a sense of humor. Be playful, be respectful, be genuine—it's easier to say after the fact than it is to achieve that balance in the moment, but having fun makes a world of difference. 

Markets in Tangier

Near the edge of the medina, sidle off the street and down into Tangier's covered central market, or mercado central, or marché central—this is a city where you can pretty well take your pick among French, Spanish, Darija (Moroccan Arabic) and English and expect to be understood.  

Markets are consistently my favorite places to visit while traveling, for a few reasons: They're bustling and full of energy; they're an easy way to jump into the everyday rhythm of a place; they're unassailably beautiful, bursting with color, scent, sound and texture; and, last but certainly not least, they're brimming with food and ingredients that speaks volumes about the local culture, palate, history and environment. 

Berber women, identifiable by their be-pompomed hats and/or their red-and-white striped foutas worn as aprons or shawls, come in to the market from the countryside selling milk, yogurt and cheese in elaborately plaited palm crowns. They can spot a camera at 200 paces and don't like being photographed without their stated consent, so ask before you shoot. This lady gave the OK, but modestly averted her eyes.

The main market hall leads down to the fish market, where all the sleek and silvery gifts of the Mediterranean are laid out to tempt shoppers in lighting that looks like it was designed by the Dutch masters. 

Staying in Tangier

There are some incredible, historic places to stay in Tangier. But for me, it's the serene, sweet and cozy Dar Nour. If I can't realistically entertain the dream of having a pied-à-terre in Tangier, I can at least take comfort in knowing that I could just as well stay here whenever I come back to town. "Dar Nour" translates to "House of Light" and it certainly lives up to its name. 

It's composed of a few older houses that have been connected together (old Moroccan houses were commonly built cheek-by-jowl; additions would sometimes overlap adjacent buildings, in a sort of Tetris-like construction). That makes it a little tiny maze of its own on the inside, but also gives it a few connected rooftop terraces, from which there are spectacular views of the city, the sea, the surrounding hills and the Plage Municipale. 

The on-site kitchens turn out some truly exceptional food and having dinner within the comfortable confines of its lounge rooms (or on those terraces, in warm weather) is nothing short of blissful. If dinner is good, though, breakfast at Dar Nour is transcendent. As a subscriber to the Leslie Knope-Ron Swanson Tao of Breakfast, the morning spread here was my personal vision of paradise: freshly squeezed juices, jewel-toned jams, tart yogurt in tiny glass jars, cheeses, fruits, pancakes, and eggs and breads in more variations than you could reasonably eat. 

Dar Nour's decor is eclectic without being self-consciously boho. Beautiful textiles are not just displayed, but in use, as cushions on banquettes, carpets adorning the floors or draped on the walls. Antiques and vintage items are scattered throughout the public spaces and the rooms—but they're smartly edited to create interesting vignettes instead of clutter. It's a laid-back chic that's often imitated but rarely done so well. Above all, it's a welcoming, comfortable place, and the credit for that mood goes to Dar Nour's staff, who are ready to help with anything, and genuinely warm and friendly. 

Tangier Forever

I had the opportunity to talk with Abdelmajid Rais el Fenni, owner of the most incredible treasure trove of art in town, Boutique Majid, and a certified celebrity in my book. He was featured in Anthony Bourdain's Tangier episode of Parts Unknown and is a living connection to the city's heady past and its legendary residents and visitors. As he tied Berber necklaces worth several full paychecks around my throat and wrapped handiras around my shoulders after modeling them himself, he told me, "People love Tangier or they hate it. If you love it, you know right away. And you always love it." I guess I'm in for the long haul.

 
Gina Czupka