There was a time when if you controlled Tangiers, you controlled everything going in and out of the Mediterranean. That explains so much about the city. In fact, it explains everything about the city.
Founded by the Carthaginians, taken by the Romans, sacked by the Vandals, conquered by the Umayyads, fought over by the Portuguese, English, Spanish, and French until subsumed by the Moroccans (you know, the natives) in 1956, this city overlooking the both Spain and Atlantic is so strategic and has seen so many players stampede through its streets that it pretty much wrote the book on what an international city should be before they even existed. “Rollicking history” doesn’t even begin to describe this place.
It is why, as I walked through the medina, everything looked so much different than Fez, Meknes, or all the other Moroccan cities I had seen. It looked like a particularly crammed-together European city. And this makes sense, since each group that swept through Tangiers reinvented the city in their own image. France was the last occupier, so there is a definite Parisienne vibe, from not only the architecture (très cru chic!), and the menus (très délicieux!) but also the fact that French is the second language of just about everybody here. Even the street signs are in French. It’s very cosmopolitan, which is something Tangiers has been for ages.
Called “Tanger” by the locals, whom themselves are called Tangerines, the city has long been a destination for more than just its strategic importance and its legendary status as a city-sized safe-house for espionage. Tangiers really was a hotbed of intrigue in the day; spies, assassins, and dissidents all prowled the streets even as the sultans, politicians, and power-brokers stalked the palaces. It was very shifty, and everybody knew it.
But there is more to it than that. From Europe’s perspective, Tangiers was far enough to be “outside” but close enough to be practical; Spain is all of 20 miles away. Artists looking to clear their heads and duck the spotlight back home hightailed it to this exotic-yet-familiar, rough-yet-sophisticated city for inspiration and rejuvenation. Famously, they found both.
Like Matisse. When I put down my luggage at the Grand Hotel Ville de France, arguably the toniest address in town, I knew that this was the same place the Fauvist stayed during his famed “Moroccan period.” I didn’t know they kept his room exactly as it had been in his day, right down to the original room key and turn-dial phone. Amazingly, except for a few subtle changes, even the view from his room is as it was back in 1911. I wasn’t lucky enough to actually stay in the Matisse Room, but I did manage to wrangle a look-see with a copy of Window at Tangier on my phone, and the similarity between the over-a-century-old painting and the cityscape of today was downright eerie.
The grande dame of Tangiers, the Hotel Ville de France was from the start an “it place.” Built in the final days of the 18th Century, if you stayed in the city, you stayed here. The guest list is illustrious, and the location cannot be beat: perched on a hill overlooking the medina, the Ville was perfectly positioned to offer guests easy access to all the sights and sounds of Morocco, while at the same time being a respite from the frenzy that medinas are. It still is.
Because, knowing that I had a huge pool, scrumptious hammam, spectacular food, and thread counts out the wazoo waiting to decompress me, I dove headlong into old Tangier, with all the noise, hubbub, smells, colors, crowds, and pure ENERGY this city has.
My destination was the Musee de la Kasbah, pretty much the museum of the history of the city. In this neck of the woods, a Kasbah is the oldest part of the old city, usually the original fortress, and it is always somewhere, usually dead-center, of the medina. And the thing about going to a destination in a medina: Half the fun is getting there.
The spice souk, and all its delicious scents and colors. The views of the Strait of Gibraltar, with Spain beyond. The tomb of Ibm Battuta, the Muslim World’s answer to Marco Polo. The old prison, now one of the most prestigious of Tangerine addresses. All the old consulates, from when Tangiers was such a political hotbed. I found them all. And the shopping! It probably took me twice as long to get to the museum because I was taking so many pictures along the way (and waiting for people to get out of frame). Let it not be said that this is a one-note town.
Sure, Battuta’s tomb is wildly modest; you could walk right by the one-room thing and not know, but he is a patron saint for all travelers. And maybe you go to the spice souk only for the photo-op, but it is one hell of a photo-op. The consulates are fascinating, and as Morocco was, in 1777, the first to recognize the USA as independent, are a window into the birth of a nation. To wit, the Tangier American Legation Museum is the oldest American diplomatic property in the world, and the only one listed as a historic landmark that is outside the country. I think I got to the museum about two hours after I was supposed to get there, and that was only after I picked up a genuine gandoura, the traditional robe Moroccans wear.
And once I did get to the Musee de la Kasbah, housed in a former palace, I went hog-wild among the Carthaginian relics, Roman mosaics, a giant puzzle-box that was the safe of a sultan, and a garden straight out of Babylon. But as it was, the city was already acting as a museum before I ever got it. Not a let-down, but certainly a whodathunkit.
Interestingly, one of the great must-dos of Tangiers isn’t in the city, but way outside it to the west on Cape Spartel. It’s a lighthouse, and it is, technically, where the Atlantic and Mediterranean meet. Also famous for the neolithic Caves of Hercules beneath it , the Phare Cap Spartel, rising in a serene setting of palm trees, is as far from the bustle of Tangiers as one can get. Now closed, the light sits atop a traditional, four-sided minaret; it actually looks like a little mosque or castle. And it explains very neatly why the city even exists. This lighthouse guided all those coming and going safely through the Strait of Gibraltar — although what happened to them afterwards is anybody’s guess. This was Tangiers, after all; it didn’t get its spy-vs.-spy rep for nothing.
But it was hard to imagine anything dastardly with ocean breezes fluttering by. I’m happy that I was in a Tangier that would allow me to get away with letting my guard down.