Tangier: Gateway to the Mediterranean (or Africa, Whichever You’re Going To)

I leave Rabat by bus at 8 the next morning, arriving in Tangier just after lunch. From Tangier’s bus station, I ride a taxi to the medina, where my hostel is located. As soon as I get down the taxi, a man holding a bunch of what I assume to be keychain he’s selling approaches me and asks if I am staying at the Medina Hostel. I say yes, and he immediately tells me to follow him, at which point I realize it’s going to cost me a few dirhams (which is really unnecessary since I already have the directions downloaded in my Google Maps, but anyway…).

I check in at the hostel and, as usual, I set off right away into exploring the neighborhood — particularly the medina. The medina is the heart of Tangier and its most popular attraction, with a labyrinth of narrow pathways contained by the walls of a fortress built by the Portuguese in the 15th century. The essence of the medina, for a traveler, is getting lost while witnessing the daily life as it has existed for centuries.

Tangier sits on the coast at the western end of the Strait of Gibraltar, essentially at the cusp between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea .
Tangier’s medina is a dizzying maze of both residential and commercial structures.
Sipping Moroccan tea while people-watching is a popular activity in the Petit Socco.
The Tangier-American Legation Museum is the only U.S. National Historic Landmark in a foreign country.
Old meets new as Tangier’s kasbah (fortress) towers above the upscale Tanja Marina Bay, a billion-dirham attempt by the government to modernize the city.
Cafe Hafa is said to have the best views of the Strait of Gibraltar in all of Tangier.

After a few minutes of traversing the labyrinthine alleyways, I find myself in the Petit Socco, where drug deals and prostitution once upon a time regularly occurred. When Tangier became an international zone in 1923 and was managed by colonial powers, the city became a magnet for many Europeans and Americans from all over the spectrum — diplomats, businesspeople, spies, bohemians, artists, writers, and anyone looking for freedom and cheap thrills. The city became part of the hippie trail in the 60s, eventually leading to a rise in crime rates and giving Tangier its dangerous reputation. Today, none of Tangier’s shady past is evident from the cafes and restaurants surrounding the square.

Another essential stop in the medina is the Tangier-American Legation Museum. The museum provides visitors with a window to the longstanding relationship between Morocco and the United States. Morocco was the first country to recognize the U.S. as a nation after the latter declared its independence from Great Britain. The museum also has a dedicated wing to Paul Bowles, an American writer who went to Tangier in 1947 and lived the rest of his life here.

Having my fill of the medina, I venture just outside its walls to explore the kasbah (fortress) walls. A short walk further west takes me to Cafe Hafa, a popular spot among locals and tourists to sip tea while gazing longingly at the sea with Spain just on the horizon. The heavy clouds obscure the view somewhat, but there’s still that giddy feeling I get knowing that I’m just a ferry ride away from Europe.

Shortly before dinner, I go to the Grand Socco, officially called the Pl du 9 Avril 1947, at the southern entrance of the medina. A family of acrobats are performing in front of a sizable audience by the fountain in the middle of the square. I walk around a bit, eventually settling in Cinema Rif for another glass of Moroccan tea while watching the world go by.

Grand Socco provides a charming entrance to the medina.
The Gran Cafe de Paris is where Tangier’s writers once hanged out.
The Libraire des Colonnes’ architecture makes the bookshop one of Tangier’s landmarks, although most of the titles are in French.
Tangier’s beach provides locals and visitors with a host of activities, such as horse-riding by the sea.

After breakfast the next morning, I concentrate on exploring the Ville Nouvelle neighborhood. The area a few meters from the medina evokes the 1930s era, with numerous colonial French architecture lining the uphill roads. Some of the most notable ones are the Gran Cafe de Paris (where Tangier’s expat writers famously gathered), the El Mizah Hotel (which was the basis for Rick’s Cafe in the movie Casablanca), and the Libraire des Colonnes (a quaint bookstore that happily survives in the digital era).

Eventually, I emerge into the corniche and into the beach. It’s not really conducive to swimming, unlike in Rabat, but strolling along the beach makes for a great weekend morning activity. I have lunch at a cafe overlooking the beach before catching a taxi to the bus station.

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