Tangier is living in the shadow of its colonial past. By Hugh O'Shaughnessy
African life hits you full in the face as you disembark in Tangier. Forget the Marks & Spencer, Mothercare and red pillar boxes of Main Street, Gibraltar, on the other side of the Straits. Put aside memories of the once-poor, now-prosperous Andalusians in Algeciras. This, with a vengeance, is Moslem Africa - poor, noisy, chaotic, infinitely exotic and stupendously interesting to the European eye. Tangier may have become Portuguese in 1471 and been part of Catherine of Braganza's dowry when she married Charles II in 1661, and the British flag may have flown over the city for a few years, but that was a long time ago. Tangier has been firmly absorbed into the kingdom of Morocco.

Check your money carefully at the bureau de change. Haggle with the taxi driver before you allow him to take you to your hotel. Stare at the men, some wearing crimson fezzes and hooded jellaba, drinking mint tea in the pavement cafes.

The women don't sit in cafes. Some veiled, some in brown wimples which make them look like Carmelite nuns, they glide about town doing more than their fair share of manual work.

There are two cities in Tangier. The one where people have been living since Roman days is now mainly Islamic and centred on the medieval medina, the labyrinthine walled city full of tiny houses with Moorish arches set in culs-de-sac and nooks. They have stout doors and barred windows rather than electronic burglar alarms and you expect to find Ali Baba around any corner. The stalls in the covered market are full of newly butchered meat, or dishes brimming with 20 different kinds of olive, or fresh mint for the tea. Nearby alleys are full of silversmiths and goldsmiths making the garish jewellery Moroccans love. The medina's grand mosque is on a site previously occupied by Portuguese cathedral and Roman temple. London, York and Coventry must have been like this four centuries ago.

The other city, the ville nouvelle, stretches along the beach and is tattily French. It has broad streets with names such as Avenue Pasteur or Rue d'Angleterre, which are filled with banks and airline offices. It contains a massive French consulate-general like a Roman villa where they fly the tricolour as if to recall the 19th century when the French exercised their "protectorate" over Morocco.

Ghosts survive of a past when the city was a hotbed of intrigue among European diplomats plotting to seize parts of Africa, spies watching the Straits and gays finding refuge from legal and social outlawry in Europe. Between 1923 and 1956, Tangier was an international enclave ruled by a committee of consuls from 30 countries, an international no-man's land where anything went. No wonder William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg warmed to the place, putting up at the Hotel al-Muniria in Rue Magellan.

Little mementoes of Britain linger on. Beside the ancient gramophone at the reception desk of the Continental Hotel, arms of Prince Alfred Ernest Albert, Queen Victoria's fourth child who became Duke of Edinburgh and later Duke of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, are framed. Once the most fashionable place in town, the Continental is friendly and run-down, where British dukes have been succeeded by jolly, tattooed British sun worshippers and Sun readers. A few yards from the hotel, in an ancient battery overlooking the sea, the inscription on a gigantic 19th-century gun tells you it was made by Sir W C Armstrong and Company in Newcastle.

The best hotel is El Minzah, erected in the centre of town by the Marquis of Bute in the Thirties. Its courtyard, with a cool fountain and waiters in fezzes and baggy trousers, is covered with rose petals. It is the perfect place for breakfast.

Here you can conspire with some of the cultured expatriates who have stayed on, and settle your onward travel plans: deeper into Africa from this cosmopolitan pimple of a city, or reluctantly to make your way back between the Pillars of Hercules to Gibraltar: from Morocco to the mundane.

How to get to Tangier

Royal Air Maroc flies twice-weekly between Heathrow and Tangier; GB Airways flies once a week on behalf of British Airways (0345 222111). Fares of pounds 175 including tax through discount agents.

Where to stay there

The El Minzah hotel (00 212 9 93 5885) is at 85 rue de la Liberte, and charges pounds 110 per night for two, excluding breakfast. Plenty of less expensive places are available.

How to get to Essaouira

Take the express train from Tangier to Marrakesh, a journey of 9-10 hours. Frequent buses cover the remaining 100 miles to Essaouira in three hours. The total cost is around pounds 15.

Who to ask

Moroccan Tourist Board, 205 Regent Street, London W1R 7DE (0171-437 0073).

What to read

Morocco: a Travel Survival Kit (Lonely Planet, pounds 9.95).