Following in the illustrious footsteps of Matisse, Paul Bowles, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, Maeve Walsh succumbs to the well-documented charms of this historic Moroccan port, and gets lost in the maze of the Medina
Why go there?

Tangier has always been the gateway to Africa from Europe, but it used to be a lot of other things, too: Portuguese, Spanish, British (briefly) and, from 1912-1956, an international zone. It also used to attract artists, writers, musicians and bohemians: Matisse painted it; Paul Bowles documented it, and the Beat writers were inspired by it. It used to be one of the Med's most exclusive beach resorts and second home to a jet-setting elite. And it also used to be notorious for its brothels, rough trade and, in the 1960s, a paedophilia scandal. Present-day Tangier is growing rapidly but, although it has been earmarked by the tourist board for regeneration, it is the remnants of all these past lives which make it so fascinating.

When to go

Tangier's climate is more temperate than inland Moroccan cities, with temperatures reaching 25-30C in July and August. Ideal for beach-lovers, but the city can get crowded: thousands of migrant workers pass through the port on their way home from Europe. The temperature falls to 16C in December and January: it is pleasantly quiet but expect some rain.

Getting there

Flights from Heathrow to Tangier take around two-and-a-half hours. Maeve Walsh travelled courtesy of Royal Air Maroc (tel: 0171-439 8854), which offers fares from pounds 238 return, plus pounds 26 tax. British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) also has direct flights, with off-peak prices starting at pounds 198 return, plus tax. There is no public transport from Boukhalef airport to Tangier (15km); a taxi costs 100 dirhan (around pounds 7).

Where to stay

El Minzah, 85 rue de la Liberte (tel: 00 212 9 935885). Built by Lord Bute in 1930 and recently refurbished, this is the city's most opulent (and expensive) hotel. Centrally located, with a large courtyard, garden and pool, it's all marble, fountains, and cool elegance. Rooms start at Dh900 (single), Dh1,200 (double).

Hotel Solazur, av des F.A.R. (tel: 00 212 9 940164). Large but friendly beachfront hotel, ideal for families and sun-lovers, but it's a 20-minute walk to the Medina. Rooms are comfortable and, at the front, have a great view of the beach - and the main road and railway, so they can be noisy. Singles from Dh582, doubles from Dh713.

Hotel Continental, 36 rue Dar el Baroud (tel: 00 212 9 931024). An atmospheric, historic hotel - a certificate commemorating the visit of Queen Victoria's son Alfred in 1885 still hangs over reception - located on the edge of the Medina with a large terrace overlooking the port. The interior oozes Moroccan character. Prices, including breakfast, are Dh190 (singles) or Dh259 (doubles) in low season, rising by 20 per cent in the summer.

El Muniria, 1 rue Magellan (tel: 00 212 9 935337). One for literary pilgrims: most of the Beats spent time here in the 1950s. (Kerouac stayed in room 4; Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch in room 9.) Located between the beach and boulevard Pasteur, it is basic but well kept, quiet and good value. Most rooms are en-suite, some with a sea view. Singles: Dh100, doubles: Dh120.

Pension Palace, 2 rue des Postes (tel: 00 212 9 936128). Not for the faint-hearted - it's slap-bang in the Medina - but it's spotless, cheap and charming, with a mosaic courtyard, garden and roof-terrace. Rooms start at Dh40 (single), Dh80 (double).

What to do and see

This depends on which Tangier you choose: the large sandy beach, the bustle and colour of the Medina, or the fading European elegance of the Ville Nouvelle.

The Medina is best explored by wandering through and/or getting lost in its narrow steep streets and mazy alleyways, where life goes on as it has done for centuries. Its multi-layered history is there at every turn: the old Spanish cathedral on rue es Saighin backs on to the old Jewish quarter, while tall European dwellings with wrought-iron balconies adjoin traditional Moorish residencies. As a general rule, if you're going uphill, you're heading towards the Kasbah, the heart of the old town. The Place de la Kasbah is bordered by the Dar El Makhzen (see below), and the old jail and the Portuguese fortifications on the cliff edge, and the steep streets around the square are dotted with whitewashed villas inhabited by expats since the 1920s.

From the Grand Socco, just south of the Medina, you can do a whirlwind tour of Tangier's more recent international past. Fancy an English anachronism? St Andrew's Church is a traditional 19th-century country church drenched in whitewash, with some interesting former residents buried in the graveyard. Maybe a little French flavour? There's the crumbling Grand Hotel Villa de France, from where Matisse painted the view, the grander French consulate, the chic boutiques of the rue de la Liberte, and the pavement cafes of the Place de France. Or a glimpse of Spain? The steep rue de la Plage has some fine Spanish townhouses, the old Spanish school and, in a side street, the derelict Gran Teatro Cervantes, an art- deco theatre built in 1913. For a panoramic view of the city and bay, try the terrace cafe of the Complexe Dawliz, on rue d'Hollande; and for a true taste of Morocco, the markets are a must, particularly on Sundays when Berber women come to town to sell their produce.

Dar El Makhzen, Place de la Kasbah (10-6pm daily except Sun; entrance Dh10). The former sultanate palace, built in the 17th century by Moulay Ismail, is a fine example of Moroccan architecture; don't miss the ornate wooden ceiling to the right of the entrance. The palace now houses a museum of crafts and antiquities. There's also an exhibition of archaeological finds from the Roman settlement of Volubilis.

The American Legation, rue d'Amerique (10am-1pm, 3-6pm Mon-Fri; entrance free). A hole in the Medina wall on rue de Portugal leads, via steps and a few twists and turns, to this official "American Historic Landmark". Morocco was the first country to recognise US independence, in 1777, and this former palace was donated as an ambassadorial residence. It has an elegant interior, lots of historical artefacts, and an impressive collection of paintings of Morocco by local and international artists. All visitors get a personal tour.

The Forbes Museum, rue Shakespeare (10am-5pm daily; entrance free). A 10-minute walk out of the Kasbah takes you into the exclusive Marshan area, where the largest of the luxurious properties is the Palais du Mendoub, the Tangier residence of billionaire publisher Malcolm Forbes between 1968 and his death in 1990. The palace is now on the market (for $6m), but the house still drips with glamour (and photos of Forbes), and the gardens are beautiful. Go while you can; it's looked after by one of Forbes's personal staff, who is full of wonderful anecdotes. On the way back to the Medina, a narrow lane opposite the football stadium leads to the cliff-top Cafe Hafa, a perfect place for tea and cake. Its ramshackle terraces overlook the straits and it is obvious why it was the favourite chill-out of Tangier's hippies in the 1970s.

Food and drink

Restaurant Africa, 83 rue de la Plage (tel: 93 54 36). On the ground floor of a Spanish townhouse, this colourful family-run restaurant has a wide choice of Moroccan/Western dishes, as well as a set menu for a mere Dh50.

L'Manza, 92 av d'Espagne (tel: 93 19 28). Seafront restaurant with a large, roof terrace, serving pizzas from Dh25-40 each, plus a variety of Western and Moroccan dishes from Dh50.

Restaurant Hamadi, 2 rue Kasbah (tel: 93 45 14); and Mamounia Palace, 6 rue Semmaraine (tel: 93 50 99). There's little to choose between these two: both overdo the kitsch decor, have live music and offer a traditional menu for around Dh100 per head. Consequently, they both feature on tour groups' itineraries - but they're quite an experience.

Restaurant Raihani, 10 rue Ahmed Chaouki (tel: 93 48 66). The exterior may not look promising but the Raihani is highly regarded for its classic Moroccan cooking at a good price. Around Dh150 per head.

Nightlife

Although some areas are still redolent of Tangier's seedy past, nocturnal activities are otherwise subdued. People-watching and parading around the late-opening cafes in the Place de France is de rigueur, and, in summer, the bars along the beach open until 1am. Caid's Piano Bar in the El Minzah hotel is a pretty upmarket institution.

Deals and packages

The Moroccan Travel Bureau (tel: 0171-373 4411) offers half-board hotel deals from pounds 130 per week in combination with flight offers; Cadogan (tel: 01703 828300) has flight and hotel packages, with high-season prices starting at pounds 366 per week.

Further information

The Moroccan Tourist Board (tel: 0171-437 0073). In Tangier, the tourist office, 29 bvd Pasteur (tel: 94 80 50), is open Mon-Fri.

Comments