48 hours in Tangier

Leave the winter gloom behind and escape to this bustling Moroccan port. Rhiannon Batten discovers a vibrant, sun-soaked city that's just a short flight away


Why go now? As Britain slumps deeper into winter gloom, the promise of some African sunshine becomes ever more seductive. Perhaps more than any other Moroccan city, Tangier is a place to escape to - not only because of the sunny skies, nor the fact that it boasts the shortest flight time from the UK, nor indeed that you don't even have to adjust your watch, but because it is a booming modern port and, as such, there are few other tourists here to dilute the North African experience.

Why go now? As Britain slumps deeper into winter gloom, the promise of some African sunshine becomes ever more seductive. Perhaps more than any other Moroccan city, Tangier is a place to escape to - not only because of the sunny skies, nor the fact that it boasts the shortest flight time from the UK, nor indeed that you don't even have to adjust your watch, but because it is a booming modern port and, as such, there are few other tourists here to dilute the North African experience.

The icing on the cake If you've got enough time, it's well worth making the trip up to the small town of Chaouen in the Rif mountains. It will take you about three hours to get there by bus (£2), or an hour and a half if you hire a grand taxi (£25), but even the scenic journey won't prepare you for the destination. Tiny cobbled streets, with their whitewashed houses boasting a definite blue rinse, wind their way up to a kasbah at the top of the town. Sitting in a café by the kasbah, surrounded by hulking mountains, it is easy to think you're across the Mediterranean in Moorish Spain.

A walk in the park Up at the top of the medina, just by the entrance to the kasbah, the Dar El Makhzen, a 17th-century sultan's palace, charges you 10 dirhams (60p) to view its heavy wooden coffers, ceramics and textiles, many of which are displayed around an impressive, tiled central courtyard. For a little slice of tranquillity within the city, dally a while among the fruit trees and exotic plants of its Andalusian gardens.

Bracing brunch If you feel happy in completely male company, you could sit at one of the pavement tables outside the Metropole Café, (27 Boulevard Pasteur), sipping café au lait and munching on a pastry from Le Petit Prince bakery, just opposite. If not, try the nearby Salon Vienne (1 Rue de Mexique, 00 212 39 93 03 09), an old-fashioned European- style café that attracts more women and families. A café au lait and a croissant here would set you back 8.50 dirhams (50p).

Sunday morning, go to church St Andrew's Church is an odd little pocket of Englishness just up the road from the Grand Socco. Built in 1894, it still holds Anglican services each Sunday but you can look around on any day if you give the friendly caretaker, Mustapha, a small donation. Look out for the Lord's Prayer carved in Arabic over the chancel, and the grave of one-time Tangier resident Walter Harris.

Demure dinner El Korsan, in the El Minzah hotel, is reputed to be the best restaurant in town and offers live Moroccan music and speciality local dishes. Just around the corner is far better value at the Restaurant Populaire Saveur de Poisson (2, Escalier Waller Local, 00 212 39 93 63 26), a family fish restaurant where 100 dirhams (£6.50) buys you a five-course feast comprising olives and almonds with about five different breads, fish soup, spicy tagine with a glass of prune juice, a honey, nut and cinammon couscous dessert and half a custard apple.

Window shopping Tangier shops are supposedly open from around 8.30am to noon and from 2.30pm to 7pm, but in reality they are often shut at odd times. Apart from the Moroccan bags, lamps and tagine pots on sale in the medina, the Librairie de Colonnes (54 Boulevard Pasteur) is a useful, though mainly French, bookshop, with lots on Paul and Jane Bowles. For a few pounds, the Parfumerie Madini (14 Rue Sebou) sells "Type Miss Dior" and "Type Chanel No5" in gorgeous glass bottles.

An aperitif The traditional spots are either the Café de Paris or the Café de France overlooking the Place de France, but these are very much a male preserve. Female travellers (and those who want to drink alcohol) might feel more comfortable in one of the bars of the El Minzah hotel. If you're not fussed about booze, the terrace of the Hotel Continental is ideal for watching the sun sink and the lights of the port twinkling. Mint tea or freshly squeezed orange juice should cost between 6 dirhams and 25 dirhams (40p-£1.60).

Cultural afternoon Tangier Gallery of Contemporary Art (Zankat Angleterra, 00 212 39 93 84 36) charges 10 dirhams (60p) entrance. It's worth it not just for the bright, technicolour paintings - all by local artists - but also for the building itself, with its high ceilings and chandeliers. If you have time, try to make an appointment to visit the American Legation (8 Zankat America; 00 212 39 93 53 17). The exhibition of paintings here was collected together by Marguerite Macbey, and the building itself, a decorative jumble of genteel Americana and earthy Africana is a real surprise.

Lunch on the run The entrance to the medina is a good place to head to for lunch. Various patisseries will sell you freshly baked cornes de gazelles (cream horns), pain au chocolat or spicy chicken pasties for between 2-10 dirhams (12p-60p), or you could browse the nearby produce market for glossy olives, fresh French-style bread, paper-wrapped pine nuts or almonds and, of course, tangerines. If you'd rather sit down, Restaurant Ahlen, at 8 Avenue Mokhtar Ahrdan (00 212 39 93 19 54) offers Moroccan specialities such as harira for 4 dirhams (25p).

Take a ride Amid the hectic, polluted bustle of modern-day Tangier you need a strong imagination to see what lured so many writers and artists to the city in the last century. If you hop in a taxi and drive out to Cap Spartel, the attraction becomes clearer. On this northern tip of Africa, the light scatters across a deep turquoise sea and behind you is a mass of healthy green pine trees. Nearby, the Atlantic crashes in within neat breakers at exactly 90 degrees to the beach.

Take a hike The most immediate way to get to grips with the city is to take a stroll through the medina. Until you're confident enough to leave your map behind, you will probably be victim to some fairly persistent hassle, but if you smile politely and decline unwanted offers of help you will eventually be left alone to enjoy the network of alleys and small streets that lead from the Grand Socco, past the Petit Socco up to the kasbah. The ground levels out just before the kasbah and, if you turn to your right here, an opening in the old wall brings you on to a lookout point with views across the city and the sea.

Get your bearings Tangier spools out in roughly three directions from the Grand Socco, or market-place - north to the old walled city, or medina, east to the port, and south to the new town. Streets in the new town aren't easy to navigate because the signs are bad and accurate maps are hard to find. But the medina is on a hill extending up to the kasbah, or fortress, so the topography guides you (don't be bullied into paying for a guide). The Tourist Office, at 29 Boulevard Pasteur, is friendly but doesn't have much information.

Check in The grandest hotel in town is the El Minzah(85 Rue de la Liberté; 00 212 39 93 58 85; www.elminzah.com), which was built in 1930 in Spanish/Moroccan style but is now showing unfortunate signs of belonging to a European hotel chain. Double rooms cost from 1,300 dirhams (£85). If you want more atmosphere, the Hotel Continental (36 dar Baroud, 00 212 39 93 11 43), which featured in Bertolucci's film The Sheltering Sky, is hard to beat. Doubles (of which no two are alike) cost 307 dirhams (£20). If you're on a really tight budget, try the Pension Palace (2 Avenue Mokhtar Ahardane, 00 212 39 93 61 28), where grotty but characterful doubles cost about a fiver.

Beam down I travelled as a guest of GB Airways, which flies in British Airways' colours from Heathrow to Tangier on Wednesdays and Sundays, and returns on Mondays and Thursdays. Return fares cost from £249.50; book through BA on 0845 77 333 77 or www.britishairways.com. Royal Air Maroc (020-7439 4361; www.royalairmaroc.co.uk) also flies Heathrow-Tangier, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, from £242 return. From the airport, a taxi into town takes about 20 minutes and costs 100 dirhams (£6.25). An alternative is to fly to Gibraltar and then take one of the 10 daily ferries from nearby Algeciras (£13.20 one-way, two-and-a-half-hour journey) across to Tangier. GB Airways operates 11 flights a week from Gatwick to Gibraltar, while Monarch (08700 40 50 40; www.flycrown.com) flies from Luton for a bargain £115.

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