If Marrakech is the Soho of Morroco, then Tangier is Dalston.
Artsy, rough around the edges and charming as hell, Tangier still has that quality of old Morocco where, up a winding staircase or behind a door, you could discover almost anything – the perfect leather shop, a courtyard oasis or a hidden smoke-filled café.
Tangier is still relatively tourist-free which, to me, is ideal. There is nothing more depressing than being in a far flung place and overhearing “Oh man, I need a Starbucks’ – yes, this is a true story and yes, they were American.
The old part of Tangier (Ancien Medina) is incredible to wander aimlessly around and discover its cobbled streets and hilly, winding roads. If your feet are anything like mine, they will sprint towards the shops – and I never run, not even for buses – littered around the medina and Kasbah that are treasure troves full of old antiques, textiles, hand-painted tiles and accessories. And don’t worry, American or not, if you’re still trying to find your caffeine fix, there are cafes everywhere where you can sit and while away an afternoon people-watching with a nos nos (half Moroccan coffee, half milk).
To discover Tangier and make the most of your time here (4 days is ideal), it’s a thrill to stay in the epicenter of it on the Rue de la Liberte at the famous El Minzah Hotel.
The El Minzah is a 5* hotel in the heart of old Tangier. Opened in the 1930’s, it’s a hotel that is steeped in old world glamour and has hosted the likes of Rita Hayworth, Yves Saint Laurent and Rock Hudson. Unlike any other 5* hotel I have visited, this hotel has somehow stopped in time; staying here, you are suspended in 1930’s 5* Moroccan glamour. A slick ‘Western style’ luxury hotel this is not, but if it were, it would totally be at odds with its environment. The El Minzah reflects Tangier perfectly; nostalgic glamour that’s a little worn around the edges but authentic in every way.
The hotel’s interior is classic, old school, Moroccan. Filled with hand-carved woodwork, arabesque doorways and mosaic tiles. For me, the part of the hotel that really comes alive is the main bar (of course), just off the main courtyard. In the evening, it’s like slipping into a Bond film (it’s no wonder they filmed Spectre in Tangier), – it’s all moody shades of purple, the large windows are filled with the black night sky and through a smoky haze (they still allow smoking inside in Morocco) you can sip your Martini and exchange whispers with the who’s who of the city, which include all manner of eccentric, artistic expats who have taken up residence in Tangier.
If you fancy experiencing the French side of Tangier, across town in the diplomatic quarter is the Grand Hotel Villa de France, part of the same hotel family as the El Minzah. The Villa de France, built at the end of the 18th century, has a distinct European flavour. It has a stately, French-inspired interior in soft, restrained colour schemes throughout the hotel.
When we visited the Villa, there was literally no one around, apart from the delightful staff, and we had the run of this magnificent place…I can only describe this feeling akin to having Buckingham Palace to yourself…it was immense. I’ve lost count of the number of floors and corridors we ran around and if you run around enough, you’ll eventually bump into the artist in residence! If you fancy getting away from it all or, in our case, we had exhausted ourselves from running around exploring, then drinks on the patio of the Villa, overlooking the medina at sundown is a very civilized way to spend an evening.
Tangier on the whole isn’t refined or modern in the slightest, which is its main attraction as an antidote to the slick, fast-paced, structured worlds we normally live in. The El Minzah reflects this beautifully; its an interior experience from a bygone era, distilling faded glamour, sincere and belonging to an older, simpler time – but don’t worry you’ll still get decent coffee and wi-fi.
Greg and I were lucky enough to be guests of the El Minzah Hotel but all opinions are my own.
If real adventure is what you’re after, you can travel to and from Tangier two different ways:
To Tangier: Fly to Malaga, Spain and take a bus to the port at Tarifa where you can catch a boat across to the port of Tangier. (Greg’s suggestion)
From Tangier: by direct flight from Tangier to London with Royal Air Maroc. (My suggestion)