Once a haven for expat Beat poets, artists and musicians, Tangier retains a feel of yesteryear.
Set on the Maghreb coast on the Strait of Gibraltar, Tangier has long been considered Europe’s gateway to Africa. Due to its unique location, overlooking both the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, the Moroccan port city has been a melting pot of foreign influences over the years.
Spain, England, France and America have all made an impact on Tangier in some way. The influences can be felt from its Mediterranean lifestyle to its ubiquitous cafe culture. Today, it continues to straddle the ancient and modern worlds. A strange, surreal melange of what’s been, what is and what still could be.
We arrived in Tangier after a long travel day from the famed Blue City of Chefchaouen – complete with our bus breaking down.
After a few hours (and false starts), we eventually arrived in Tangier by way of a shared private car with other travelers. The ride took us through a countryside of lush, fertile valleys and amazingly tall peaks.
We dropped off a few passengers in Tetaouen before finally arriving in Tangier in the evening.
Thankfully, our Scottish expat host, Maggie Deane, was very accommodating – even picking us up at the CTM bus station. After settling in at her delightful guesthouse, she walked us to the perfect hole-in-the-wall dinner place, Cafe Andalus. Joining the locals at one of the many tiny tables, we enjoyed a Spanish omelette and beef kebabs while watching the Barcelona vs. Arsenal football (soccer) match on television.
After dinner, we returned to our cozy room, took much needed hot showers, and feel into a deep sleep.
The next morning, we stepped out onto our small patio to find an expansive panorama of Tangier’s rooftops before us. Whitewashed concrete buildings featured pops of crimson red and ubiquitous satellite dishes against the azure Sea of Gibraltar.
For breakfast, Maggie had laid out a delicious meal for us: Moroccan bread, butter, jam, fresh strawberries, poached eggs and hot coffee. While her cat, Bilbao, and dog, Sophie, looked on, she told us how she’d lived in northeast India as a child, spent 25 years in southern Spain, and 17 years in Tangier. A true expat.
Our wanders in the grand port city began at the Grand Socco, also known as Place du 9 Avril, the “big square.” Its historic circular roundabout separates the old Town (medina) from New Town. Dotted with palm trees and park benches, this central area is a bustling scene. Trucks make deliveries, street cleaners tidy the area, and people head to work and run errands.
Once inside the medina, we wandered the markets which are particularly busy in the mornings.
We found it interesting that the shoppers and the vendors at the fish market were men. We noticed this phenomenon at the cafes too. In fact, the dominant presence of men was felt throughout our time in Morocco, leaving us to assume most women stay at home, likely to care for children.
Past the Jewish Cemetery, we stumbled on the American Legation Museum.
This stately mansion is considered the first American public property outside the United States. It’s also the only U.S. national historic site in a foreign country. The building has functioned in many roles including diplomatic residence, Peace Corps training center and even an espionage headquarters.
Today, the museum serves mostly as a research library and community center. It also continues to serve as a symbol for American cultural diplomacy and peace between Morocco and the U.S. Our favorite part? A framed photo of President Barack Obama hung in a prominent spot.
We spent the afternoon wandering the narrow medina streets with the Tanjawa, as Tangier locals call themselves. Being our last stop in Morocco, we made sure to appreciate all the nuances of Moroccan culture – particularly its architecture: keyhole arch doors, wood lattice screen windows, Terracotta roof tiles.
Of course, people are part of the culture too. In every city, there always seemed to be the same characters.
For example, the curious young boy who followed us everywhere. The incessant “yes please” remarks of the shop vendors. And the ever-willing local guide, quick to point out and lead you where you are already going.
Strolling through a lovely park, the scent of orange trees reminded us we’d soon be returning to one of our favorite places: Seville, Spain.
In fact, we could see Spain once outside the 15th-century ramparts. Standing on a hill of crumbling rocks, we looked out on the Strait of Gibraltar, where the Mediterranean Sea connects with the Atlantic Ocean.
The weather had been windy during our stay. Little did we know, the ferry ride from hell that would take us to Spain a few days later…
One afternoon, after hours of wandering, we sought out DARNA, a community house to help local women in need. Since 2002, the Women’s Association of Tangier has offered up a three-course fixed menu with proceeds going to the charity. We enjoyed a traditional meal of chicken and stewed vegetables (complete with hearts and livers) and Ma’akouda (Moroccan “French fries”).
Afterwards, we explored quaint St. Andrew’s Church nearby. Once serving the British expat community, the Anglican church is still in use today, catering to a predominately African congregation.
Perusing the small nearby cemetery, we read the names of the deceased, many whose tombstones were carved by hand. A stray cat sauntered between the tombs, serving as the unofficial guardian of the graveyard.
On our last night, we headed to the Hotel Continental, one of Tangier’s first hotels. Built in 1870 to house a British diplomat, it became famous when artists, writers and notable people began to stay there like Edgar Degas, Jack Kerouac and Winston Churchill.
Afterwards, we headed to Cafe Central, a prime people-watching spot in the Petit Socco (“little bazaar”) of the Medina.
Sipping our mint tea, we reflected on how Tangier was a place that people often came in search of inspiration and conversation. People like our host, Maggie, who seemed to live life with the same glamorous mystery as Tangier itself. We thought about the interesting experiences she’s had over the years and the relationships formed among people from all over the world.
In our travels, we realized we were neither locals, nor expats. Merely vagabonds… wanderers passing through without commitment or allegiance to any one place. After all the fascinating places we’d seen so far, how does one choose where to put roots anyway?
One thing’s for certain: Morocco seems like a dream – from the bustling souks of Marrakech to the coastal vibes of Essaouira to the unfathomable vastness of the Sahara Desert. Our nearly month-long stay unfolded an exotic world before our very eyes. A world that must be seen, heard and felt in person.
Hearing that one last call to prayer was a reminder that tomorrow, we’d be leaving our alluring adventures of North Africa behind and head into much more familiar ground: Europe.