Sex and the city: in search of forbidden pleasures in Tangier

It's a place of inspiration - and fornication - for some of the greatest names in literature. Adrian Mourby follows in their footsteps

'Don't go to Dean's," said my contact. "Dean's has died. There was a time when people said Dean's wasn't what it used to be. Now it isn't even that." We were sitting in The Tangerinn, a small, louche, windowless bar above the harbour. It was very late at night but then it usually is in Tangier. My contact had a certain grotesquerie about him - Sidney Greenstreet with more than a touch of the grande dame, but I got the impression that he'd seen all the expats in his time - from Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal and Joe Orton, who came here for the boys, to Errol Flynn who came for the girls and the Beatles who just wanted to smoke illicit substances. Europeans have been hanging around louchely in Tangier ever since Samuel Pepys wrote his diary sitting under a fig tree in the kasbah, and Degas set his easel up in the window of the Hotel Continental.

'Don't go to Dean's," said my contact. "Dean's has died. There was a time when people said Dean's wasn't what it used to be. Now it isn't even that." We were sitting in The Tangerinn, a small, louche, windowless bar above the harbour. It was very late at night but then it usually is in Tangier. My contact had a certain grotesquerie about him - Sidney Greenstreet with more than a touch of the grande dame, but I got the impression that he'd seen all the expats in his time - from Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal and Joe Orton, who came here for the boys, to Errol Flynn who came for the girls and the Beatles who just wanted to smoke illicit substances. Europeans have been hanging around louchely in Tangier ever since Samuel Pepys wrote his diary sitting under a fig tree in the kasbah, and Degas set his easel up in the window of the Hotel Continental.

I was here on a personal pilgrimage. Being one of the few people who has not only seen but thoroughly enjoyed John Malkovich and Debra Winger in The Sheltering Sky I wanted to find where, in 1990, Bertolucci shot the film based on Paul Bowles's 1949 book. At first, modern-day Tangier can seem disappointing. The new king, Mohammed VI (known as M6 to his younger subjects), has favoured the notorious "free city", long neglected by his father. M6 spends quality time here and even used to go jogging through the suburbs before he settled down with Princess Lalla Salma, the first Moroccan queen whose face has been seen in public. The sovereign's common touch has proved golden. Investment has flowed into Tangier. On his recent flying visit to Morocco President Chirac came here, not Casablanca, Rabat or Marrakesh. But I wasn't interested in the Tangerine economic miracle nor the new five-star hotels, the new cricket pitch or the villa where Richard Branson and Francis Ford Coppolla board. I wanted to see where Bertolucci's doomed Americans began their journey of self-destruction and enlightenment.

"Oh, the Hotel Minzer's unchanged," said my contact as two large women in leather Goth gear began dancing together in front of the Tangerinn's dartboard. "During the war it was a hot-bed for spies and poseurs like Ian Fleming. There's still a whiff of intrigue. Mind you they've built a wellness centre on the back which has ruined it." I had to agree. That huge plate-glass window overlooking the harbour was a mistake. One doesn't come to Tangier to see Moroccan businessmen in shell suits pounding the treadmill. "Oh and there's a splendid little bar that's so notorious that French sailors are actually forbidden by their captains from visiting it. You'll never get in though. It's full of matelots."

The Goth ladies were getting amorous on the dance floor. More worryingly, they were trying to kiss and play darts at the same time. So we left, my host and I. The bouncer on the door was a Berber, swarthy and pot-bellied. He took my hand in a surprising soft, limp grasp and told me he hoped to see me again soon.

By day I was quite happy to tour Tangier on my own. The Hotel Continental above the harbour looked exactly the same as when Bertolucci used it. The fireplace was smoke-stained, a wind-up gramophone sat in the dining room next to a 1930s telephone switchboard, and a note in reception advised customers that no credit cards would be accepted for payment of bills. Of course not - it is still the 1930s inside the Continental. Just above the hotel, next to the tomb of holy man Sidi Hosni, stands the shuttered home where Cary Grant and his wife, Barbara Hutton, lived. Further along the headland, Café Hafa (founded in 1921) still perches its metal chairs and tables on top of the cliffs where the Stones smoked kif and Bowles and William Borroughs - that skull in a trilby - wrote. Borroughs, of all the expatriates, lived longest in Tangier and wrote The Naked Lunch about his experiences. It was people like Burroughs claiming that "Tangier throbbed with the heartbeat of the world" that drew so many writers to this city in search of sensation, illumination and multifarious forms of fornication, though Cecil Beaton was less impressed, describing Tangier, at its height, as "an oriental Cheltenham".

Maybe I was chasing a dream. Today this city has succumbed, like all Muslim tourist attractions, to pseudo-soukdom - all Aladdin-lamp tea sets, tatty tin sabres and badly stitched sandals. It's almost impossible to get a meal without being harassed by belly dancers. Tangier by day made me nostalgic for the era of Hooker A Doolittle, Major Harry Twentyman and Winthrop Buchanan, men of improbable nomenclature who had known Tangier in its dark and glorious heyday. I found all these gents in the graveyard of St Andrew's Church, a plot of land given to the English in 1894 by Moulay Abdelaziz, one of M6's fierce ancestors who would do anything to annoy the French. Dean's grave is here, too. No Christian name. "Died February 1963. Missed by all and sundry". Me too.

What might the legendary Dean make of Tangier today? Too wholesome by day but by night he might still catch that whiff of opium and brimstone that Bertolucci captures so well. I'm sure he would have recognised the young Joe Orton-lookalike English journalist who I ran into at the Movenpick casino (evidently the second biggest in all Africa). I watched as he smoked and gambled his way through a great deal of dirhams and then joined him to lurch from one dubious dive bar to the next. The music got louder, the drinks more expensive, and the women looser until we parted at about three in the morning. I'd had enough, but Joe had heard of this amazing place full of French sailors. As I watched him tripping down to the docks it was just like seeing the ghost of Orton - or maybe Bowles - in perennial search for forbidden pleasure. Yes, Tangier by night has still got it.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Adrian Mourby travelled to Tangier with Royal Air Maroc (020-7439 4361; www.royalairmaroc.com), which offers return flights from £250. He stayed at the five-star Movenpick Hotel and Casino Malabata (00 212 39 329300; www.moevenpick-hotels.com). The hotel offers double rooms from Dh2,022 (£124) per room per night, excluding breakfast.

A week's all-inclusive car hire in Morocco starts from £179 booked through Holiday Autos (0870-400 0010; www.holidayautos.co.uk).

Where to find out more

For further details contact the Moroccan Tourist Office (020-7437 0073).

'The Sheltering Sky' is on BBC2 on Tuesday at 11.20pm

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