A blurred vision in lime linen and a straw planter's hat, Hamish Bowles is darting across Rue de la Liberté, the teeming artery that snakes down to Tangier's medieval medina. After a week's worth of tea parties and cocktail parties and dinner parties (so many that Bowles is often double-booked), he is about to leave Morocco for his home in Paris. In his slender British hand is a checklist as arduous as any he has worked through as Vogue's European editor at large: Pick up monogrammed leather portfolio at Art de la Reliure. Pay for 18th-century Mughal miniature at Galerie Tindouf. Try again (maddeningly) to find souk selling straw slippers.
"There's nothing obvious about Tangier. Its charms and beauty are real but elusive, not overt the way Marrakesh's are," says Bowles, dodging a baby carriage rigged to carry bales of the fresh mint used for making tea. Gently swiped by another cart, this one selling water in white plastic bleach bottles, Bowles doesn't miss a beat. His brow isn't even damp.
"Tangier appeals to the sophisticated," he continues, picking up the pace (shops close in 10 minutes!) as the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. "For Westerners, it's delightfully familiar on some levels and disturbingly alien on others. You're always making discoveries by taking wrong turns, pushing open closed doors. Tangier has an edgy, louche, flyblown character that I'm strangely drawn to. I visit Naples and Marseilles for those same Mediterranean port-town qualities."
Pinned to the tip of North Africa, Tangier is within winking distance of Spain, across the Strait of Gibraltar. In 1923, 11 years after Morocco became a French protectorate, France agreed to share Tangier with its World War I allies—Spain, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Britain. Thus began the city's gilded age as a free port and proudly sinful International Zone governed by European delegations. Anything went: drugs, smuggling, espionage. Sex—any way you liked it—was cheap and plentiful.
Whose interest wouldn't be piqued?The Beats came: William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac. Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton showed the beau monde that Africa—Africa!—was safe for its kind. Cecil Beaton and Tennessee Williams got their feet wet. When Truman Capote called Tangier "that ragamuffin city" he meant it as a valentine. Paul Bowles visited and never left. He and Tangier are a perfect fit, the place supplying the writer with the mind-bending disorientation that powers his work. He has celebrated his adopted home as "a dream city…[with] the classical dream equipment of tunnels, ramparts, ruins, dungeons, and cliffs…a doll's metropolis."
The party has been a lot less festive since 1956, when France and Spain handed Morocco back to the Moroccans. Nasty hotels offering holiday packages have gone up on the beach, and everyone from the Rolling Stones to Malcolm Forbes has stepped in when Tangier needed a jump start. One of the figures steering the current renaissance is the city's other Mr. Bowles, Hamish.
"With its layers and remnants of many periods, Tangier is just so achingly nostalgic," says Bowles, whom Vogue relies on to tell its readers how to get into the late decorator David Hicks's landmark Oxfordshire garden (by faxing Hicks's son, Ashley), and about the unknown Paris artisan who makes by hand the signature braid on Chanel couture suits (Raymonde Pouzieux). "And the contrasts in Tangier are thrilling. The mountain ladies who ride down on donkeys to sell their bouquets look like Chaucer's Wife of Bath; it could be 1399. Middle-class Tangerine teenagers walk side by side with their mothers, the young women with Spice Girl midriffs and platform sneakers, the mothers in all-enveloping robes, heads covered, faces veiled, eyes flashing. The young Arab men wear royal-blue nylon soccer shorts under their djellabas. And there's a whole subcommunity of campy English seaside landladies and old French diplomats' wives who have stayed on."
Did Hamish mention the burgeoning colony of international designers and decorators, painters and photographers?"It all makes for a very mad, stimulating vibe," he promises. And on questions of vibe, no one argues with a Vogue editor.
Where to Stay
Before Bowles traded up to deeply glamorous rental houses that allow him to bring friends, entertain, and settle in for longer periods, his address in Tangier was always El Minzah Hotel (85 Rue de la Liberté; 212-9/935-885, fax 212-9/934-546; doubles from $130). Built in 1930 in a pleasing Hispano-Moresque idiom by an English lord, it is as close to a full-service luxury hotel as the city has to offer, with a pool, health club, and sauna. El Minzah's sterling location in the heart of town puts the medina, souks, boutiques, casbah (the ancient military and political center), and beach—and the most interesting cafés and restaurants—all within strolling distance. The hotel also presents the delicious contrast between the rough-and-tumble of Tangier street life, one step outside the front door, and the serenity of vivid gardens, grassy terraces, and a fountain-cooled, blue-and-white-tiled courtyard. Birdsong is another lovely de-stresser.
The best (and only a handful) of El Minzah's 123 rooms and 17 suites have balconies facing the Strait of Gibraltar, serving up wraparound palm-fringed views some say are alone worth the trip—even if the balconies themselves could use a good sweep. While rooms are a little on the fatigué side, they and the public spaces are appointed with a catalogue of Moroccan style elements, including pierced metal lanterns with colored glass panels, furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl, the straw wall coverings known as hsirah, and bedspreads shot with metallic thread. Wonderfully knowledgeable about Tangier, the front desk staff turn on a dime, never stopping to relax their imploring, how-can-I-help?smiles. "I love that typically Moroccan thing of always wanting to please," says Bowles. "At the Minzah, if you express the least concern about the weather, somebody will always assure you it's going to clear up."
Shopping for a romantic, potently nostalgic venue for the 40th birthday party of his boyfriend, British designer-architect Peter Kent, Bowles settled on the hulking, labyrinthine, 70-room Hotel Continental (36 Rue Dar El Baroud; 212-9/931-024, fax 212-9/931-143; doubles $28, including breakfast). "It's a fabulous period piece," says Bowles, "with a traditional Moroccan smoking room lined with low banquettes just off the lobby. The Continental is for the more adventurous—and for those seriously into Bowlesiana," he adds, noting the hotel's reputation for evoking the Tangier of Paul Bowles's books. Parts of The Sheltering Sky, Bernardo Bertolucci's movie version of one of those works, were shot here, and the director made the Continental his home during filming. Painter James Brown is also sensitive to the hotel's poetry, and always books room 108.
Built on the edges of the medina, the Continental opened in 1872, with Queen Victoria's eldest son, Edward VII, among the first to check in. His endorsement ensured that it would become the place to spend the night in Tangier. The next year, according to the original guest book, which patrons are invited to thumb, Degas and society portrait painter Giovanni Boldini visited. Today, to be fair, the Continental strikes some as underfunded and gloomy. Still, an ambitious renovation program is under way, netting stylishly offbeat rooms with sculpted plaster ceilings, brass four-poster beds, wacky upholstery, and wrought-iron tables topped with zelliges (geometric mosaic tilework). Rooms at the back of the hotel overlook the exhilarating whitewashed chaos of the medina. If you're predisposed to like the Continental, the derricks visible from the front rooms will seem an ineluctable part of the Tangier harborscape.
If El Minzah is full and you aren't up to the moody atmosphere of the Continental, consider the Rembrandt, a hotel whose rather anonymous feel is partly balanced by a pool and a central location (Blvd. Mohammed V; 212-9/937-870, fax 212-9/930-443; doubles from $41).
Le Mirage (Grottes d'Hercule; 212-9/333-332, fax 212-9/333-492; doubles $195), a resort of 22 newly minted, blindingly white attached bungalows crowning a rocky Atlantic promontory nine miles from Tangier, is "over-landscaped but a good option in blistering summer," says Bowles. The bright and fresh accommodations have kitchenettes, private terraces, wicker furniture, and ceramic globe lamps.
If you want to follow Bowles's lead, consider renting a house. Dar Sinclair, his five-bedroom villa, with a large garden, a pool, and sweeping views of the city, goes for $1,680 a week. It is available through CLM Morocco (69 Knightsbridge, London; 44-171/235-0123, fax 44-171/235-3851), an agency with a good range of listings, including Dar Kharroubia, or La Maison Rose ($1,600 a week), the deep-pink four-bedroom villa that once belonged to the late Honorable David Herbert. The younger son of the 16th earl of Pembroke, and one of the expatriate personalities who got Hamish Bowles interested in Tangier, Herbert ruled English society in the city like a despot from the late 1930's until his death four years ago. His house, 10 minutes from town, is a kind of Moroccan Grey Gardens, strangled with oleander and hibiscus and filled with the exquisite furniture, paintings, and objects he collected. A picture of the queen is inscribed "For David from Elizabeth R. 1984." Herbert was known acidly as "the Queen of Tangier." His wizened ghost fills Dar Kharroubia.
Where to Eat
There aren't even a half-dozen places serving authentic, high-quality Moroccan food in Tangier, so don't waste your time looking for them. The finest is El Korsan in El Minzah Hotel (dinner for two $30). On almost every trip, Bowles indulges in the restaurant's ceremonial méchoui, typically a hindquarter of lamb patiently baked in a slow oven. When properly cooked, the meat should be falling apart and have the marvelously fibrous texture of confit. "Méchoui is one of those traditional North African fête dishes that works best when there are a lot of people," Bowles says. El Korsan is also noted for three other Moroccan grand classics: m'qualli tagine, a luscious chicken stew with preserved lemons and pungent olives; pastilla, a flaky pastry pie filled with squab or chicken and almonds, and finished with a lattice of confectioners' sugar and cinnamon; and couscous, accompanied by lamb and seven vegetables, or by meltingly soft onions and plump raisins.
Saveur de Poisson (2 Escalier Waller; 212-9/336-326; lunch for two $30), a quirky little hole-in-the-wall, "is another spot people swear by," Bowles says. "The owner, Belhadj Mohamed, brings in all these strange herbs, grains, and spices from the Rif mountains, where he's from. Not only is his cooking healthful, he claims it will improve your sex life."
What is known for sure is that Mohamed's food is earthily delicious: barley-and-seafood soup simmered in an enormous teardrop-shaped terra-cotta vessel over a charcoal fire on the steps in front of the restaurant; grilled bass stuffed with succulent baby shrimp. Burst figs slathered with a rustic honey taste like a bite of the Moroccan countryside.
The restaurant is hung with naïve fish paintings and basketwork ceiling lights. Following Arab custom, diners wash their hands before eating—at a sink in the middle of the room. A meal at Saveur ends with a musky, viscous, plum-colored drink made by boiling down peaches, bananas, and a handful of other fruits for a full day. Mohamed is such an eccentric personality that, while discussing a dish with you, he may suddenly begin eating off your plate. With the check comes a surprise gift of wooden cooking utensils.
The real draw at the Nautilus (9 Rue Velàzquez; 212-9/931-159; dinner for two $27), down on the beach, isn't the food—though the grilled fish is good enough—but the surreal show of camels prancing across the sand in a mixture of floodlight and moonlight. "It's one of Tangier's great spectacles," Bowles says. "And the view of the glittering town rising behind you is wonderful." The Nautilus's cool, restrained (for Tangier) design is the work of Stuart Church, the city's well-regarded American architect-in-residence. One nod to local building traditions is the tataouni, or oleander-reed, ceiling. Hostess Sally Wool-Lewis's playful bossiness and deadpan Englishness ("Anyone into pud?") definitely plays a part in the restaurant's popularity with the Bowles camp.
The comfort level is low, and the place even looks a little grubby, but the Valencia (6 Ave. Youssef Ben Tachfine; 212-9/945-146; dinner for two $22) is probably the most serious seafood restaurant in Tangier. Check any hesitations at the refrigerated case of clear-eyed, red-gilled fish by the entrance. The crowd, too, tells you you're in the right place: old-guard French rug designer Jacques Demignot; bourgeois Tangerine families; bands of the city's sexy jeunesse dorée. Order the giant platter of deep-fried fish and shellfish and an iced bottle of Guerrouane Moroccan rosé.
Exuberantly designed for an earlier generation of Tangier tourists, Hamadi (2 Rue Kasbah; 212-9/934-514; dinner for two $40) is another of Bowles's favorite period pieces. Mile-long banquettes nuzzle the walls, cushions and curtains are of red-and-green flocked fabric, and vintage Morocco tourism posters dot the room. The intent isn't kitsch, but that is the overwhelming effect. Hamadi is especially pleasant in late afternoon, when mint tea and an assortment of Arab pastries is a mere $2. The restaurant also serves respectable pastilla, couscous, and kefta (small skewered lamb patties).
What to Buy
All the best shopping in Tangier can be done on foot. Set aside at least two full days, one in the Ville Nouvelle, or modern city, and one in the adjacent medina. Never agree to the first price announced by a merchant—bargaining here isn't a sport, it's a way of life. Many shops close from early to mid-afternoon.
IN THE VILLE NOUVELLE "The genial Temli brothers have the monopoly on boutiques in Tangier," Bowles says half-jokingly of Boubker Temli, who runs Galerie Tindouf (72 Rue de la Liberté; 212-9/938-600), a high-end antiques shop, and Mohamed and Ibrahim Temli, who operate Bazar Tindouf (64 Rue de la Liberté; 212-9/931-525), a more accessible crafts shop.
"The Galerie offers a perfect, concentrated look at the eclectic taste of high-style Tangerine interiors," adds Bowles. Boubker Temli explains the eclecticism: "The Tangier look was never purely Moroccan, because of all the Europeans and the diverse possessions they brought with them." Typically, his boutique might be stocked with towering Imari vases, Bohemian crystal made for the Turkish market, and Orientalist paintings. A caftan in ice-blue Lyonnaise silk, embroidered locally with metallic flowers, once belonged to Barbara Hutton. Old sepia postcards of Tangier make nice keepsakes. Designer Jacques Grange became a Galerie customer while decorating the Tangier villa that Yves Saint Laurent recently bought.
Ibrahim Temli worked on the decoration of Chez Es Saada, New York's fashionable North African restaurant. His Bazar Tindouf offers the closest thing to one-stop shopping for Moroccan crafts that can be found in Tangier. This is the proverbial cavern made famous by Ali Baba, a deliciously shadowy place with, indeed, a piled-high basement, back room after back room, and merchandise coming at you from every direction. Keep your elbows in as you squeeze through the aisles, examining amber-and-resin snuffboxes, kef pipes, silver-and-glass bottles for dispensing rose and orange-flower water, brass star lanterns. For their "almost Jacobean simplicity," Bowles admires the geometric motifs embroidered in cranberry wool on straw rugs. Silver tea services come with everything needed to follow the highly codified Moroccan tea-making ritual: a squat, potbellied teapot ("They've been using the same mold since 1845," Bowles says), plus containers for tea, sugar, and mint.
Bowles is as seduced by the quality of the traditional clothing at Bambi (6 Rue de la Liberté; no phone) as he is by the courtly manners of the gentlemanly owner, Mohamed Larbi Homrani. Vintage fezzes are sold in their original boxes, whose fadedness adds to the charm. With its terrazzo floor, old-fashioned fittings, and whispering echoes of Tangier's International Zone era, Bambi is one of the few places where you find djellabas and caftans that are not only of the best handloomed fabric, but also entirely hand-sewn.
Hand-tooled and -stamped leather goods are sold directly out of the minuscule atelier Art de la Reliure (Rue de Belgique; 212-9/932-580). Everything made by this friendly team can be quickly personalized: address books, frames, pencil cups. Bowles relies on Reliure for last-minute gifts, usually in the "rather over-the-top Moroccan" combination of lipstick-red leather with gold tooling.
De-Velasco (26 Blvd. Mohammed V; 212-9/322-495) is "less about antiques than what I call 'haute decoration'—overscaled pieces that make a big impression and are not too bothered about pedigree," Bowles says. Ormolu-tipped rosewood furniture represents delirious feats of cabinetmaking. Porcelain cachepots stuck with realistic fruit are sized for mature palm trees. The boutique itself has a tented ceiling, a staircase with mirrored risers, and wooden tassels dangling from fabric swags. According to Bowles, De-Velasco's capes with padded shoulders—made on the premises as a sideline—were endorsed by fabled Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, and are now a favorite of Carine Rotfeld, muse of Gucci designer Tom Ford.
At Z'Rabi (122 Ave. Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah; 212-9/943-214), the made-to-order hand-knotted wool rugs with a repeat pattern of interlocking initials are "a page out of British decorator David Hicks's book," Bowles says. Jacques Demignot is the owner of this small factory and showroom in a dusty modern suburb five minutes from town. He started his career in the fifties, as an assistant to Hubert de Givenchy in Paris, then set himself up as a decorator in New York City. Demignot's own innovation is hemp-and-cotton rugs, cool and crunchy underfoot, that are especially suited to beach houses.
IN THE MEDINA As a kid in the late sixties, Abdelmajid Rais El Fenni earned five dirhams a night emptying ashtrays at Barbara Hutton's parties. Today his Boutique Majid (66 Rue Zankat El Mouahidini; 212-9/938-892) is one of the top antiques shops not just in Tangier but in all of Morocco. When El Fenni crows, "I've got the finest, most extensive collection of antique textiles in the country," no one challenges him. Mountains of beautifully rehabilitated brocades, lush velvets, humble checks and ticking stripes, muslin wedding sheets, and elaborate floral crochet-work fill his well-tended, atmospheric shop. Bowles goes jelly-kneed over a 19th-century felted cashmere caftan in raspberry with plum trim—"So Schiaparelli, don't you think?" Berber jewelry of coral, silver, and fragrant hand-polished amber is another Majid specialty.
You can practically reach across the alley from Majid to Coin de l'Arts Berbers (53 Rue Zankat El Mouahidini; 212-9/938-094), which Bowles says has the best rugs in town, "including the kind of grid designs in ivory-and-black shag that the legendary decorator Billy Baldwin used in so many houses." The rug inventory encompasses styles from 42 Berber tribes. The shop is also known for architectural salvage, such as carved cedar keyhole doors from the Sahara.
Part of the fun of shopping the medina is not having a plan. But if an improvised expedition doesn't lead you to the following souks, make a point of seeking them out. Bakkali Jaafar (1-3 Rue de la Fontaine Nouvelle; 212-9/933-321) sells cotton velveteen cushions and tissue-box covers in juicy colors. Alaoui Lamrani (9 Rue de la Fontaine Nouvelle; 212-9/938-646) has the wide gold passementerie-and-rhinestone belts worn by Muslim brides, and bright yellow leather babouches, or slippers. "Our décor hasn't changed in seventy years!" proclaims the owner of Madini (14 Rue Sebou; 212-9/934-388), an adorable closet-size shop that sells 27 essential oils from crystal decanters, as well as copies of 97 brand-name perfumes. Bazar Najah (10 Rue de la Tennerie; no phone) stocks a wide selection of verre eglomisé (reverse paintings on glass) of folk scenes and peasant portraits. The staff at Secret des Plantes (50-52 Rue des Almohaden; 212-9/939-585) is precise and unhurried when explaining the uses of exotic medicinal herbs. The shop also sells chunks of amber for scenting linen cupboards, and sandalwood bark for cleaning teeth.
What to See
Depending on which concierge you talk to, the Grand Hôtel Villa de France (Rue de Hollande) is on the brink of being either razed or renovated. "It's utterly derelict, but the hotel's place in Tangier history makes it worth a look from the outside," Bowles says. "If you were to open the shutters of room thirty-five, you'd see exactly the view Matisse painted of the Grand Socco, the city's main square."
Even cultural institutions are steeped in funky charm. Built in the 17th century as a sultan's palace, the Dar el Makhzen Museum (Place de la Kasbah; 212-9/932-097) houses ravishing mosaics from the Roman city of Volubilis, as well as Moroccan costumes and household implements. Any of the gamins playing outside the museum will eagerly lead you to Sidi Hosni, Barbara Hutton's former villa.
Bowles's second trip to Tangier, in 1989, was to cover the $2.5 million 70th birthday party Malcolm Forbes threw for himself at his Palais Mendoub. "This was during Malcolm's Elizabeth Taylor period. Guests thought they were coming to Monaco, not Morocco. You never saw so many hairpieces and Scaasi ball gowns." Following the publishing magnate's death in 1990, his bougainvillea-swaddled mansion became the Forbes Museum of Military Miniatures (2 Rue Shakespeare; 212-9/933-606). Stirred in with toy soldiers and war memorabilia are snapshots of Forbes's famous balloons and his infamous Vanity Fair portrait as a biker. Weird.
"Morocco in its infinite wisdom was the first country to recognize American sovereignty after the Revolutionary War," says Bowles. Sultan Moulay Suleyman even made a gift to the United States of the 18th-century building that served as the country's consulate and is now the American Legation Museum (8 Zankat America; 212-9/935-317). Straddling a passage in the medina's old Jewish quarter, the museum has an enchanting collection of works with Moroccan themes by Claudio Bravo, Oskar Kokoschka, Cecil Beaton, Yves Saint Laurent, and others. Pretty reception rooms are adorned with nine gilded Louis XV mirrors made for the African market. Another exhibit is devoted to correspondence between the sultan Moulay Abdullah and George Washington, and an entire room is given over to Paul Bowles—his first editions, photographs, original manuscripts, a study for Lawrence Mynott's noted oil portrait, and even the writer's old luggage.
THE PERFECT DAY TRIP
Exploring Tangier's environs in a taxi cannot be considered an indulgence, not when $100 buys up to 12 hours in a roomy, gently worn, if slightly antique, Mercedes-Benz. Asilah, 28 miles south of the city, is close enough that you're not exhausted once you get there, and different enough to make you feel that you've been somewhere. "The drive hugs the Atlantic almost the entire way," Bowles says. "And once you arrive, there's this big surprise—a jewel of a port that looks as if it was lifted straight out of the Aegean."
Asilah's medina is cleaner, more orderly, and easier to navigate than Tangier's, and strolling the waterfront is more pleasant. The other secret is that its restaurants are better. Every season, lines are drawn over whether Oceano Casa Pepe (22 Plaza Zalaka; 212-9/417-395; lunch for two $15) or Casa Garcia (51 Rue Moulay Hassan Ben El Mehdi; 212-9/417-465; lunch for two $20) does a superior version of the Spanish specialty, threadlike baby eels sautéed in olive oil, chili peppers, and garlic. Le Pont (24 Ave. Amir Hassan Ben Mehdi; 212-9/917-461; lunch for two $15) is a humble, pristine new restaurant right on the beach that specializes in Moroccan fish dishes.
Asilah's shopping is as good as its food. Lining the main road into town are makeshift wind-raked stands displaying tagines and other terra-cotta cookware for next to nothing. The kilims and crafts at Bazar Atlas (25 Rue Tijara; 212-9/417-864) are several notches above what you see almost everywhere else. And Tangier has nothing to match Jasmin et Corallo (8 Rue Sidi Libenhamdouch; no phone), which sells sophisticated contemporary jewelry (cord chokers strung with coral and silver beads) and home accessories (mirror frames covered with beach glass and coral). It's the kind of smart boutique you expect to find in St.-Tropez or Positano, not on the far-flung North African coast.
Hamish's Essential Tangier Checklist
• At the daily Marché de Fès (Rue Moussa Ben Noussair at Rue de Fès), buy dozens of electric-colored flowers—gladiolus and zinnias—for your hotel room.
• Eat an almond-filled corne de gazelle from Traiteur Al Mouatamid Ibn Abbad (16 Rue Al Mouatamid Ibn Abbad; 212-9/943-072), a pâtisserie with more than 70 different Arab pastries.
• Visit the lighthouse at Cap Spartel, nine miles west of Tangier, and then lunch on fried calamari at the Mirador (Cap Spartel; 212-9/933-722; lunch for two $20), "a crazy fifties restaurant."
• Swim in one of the Atlantic coves between Cap Spartel and the Grottes d'Hercule.
• After a trip to the beach, sip mint tea at the cliff-top Café Hafa (Marchane Quarter, near the Forbes Museum; no phone), the best place to experience Tangier's famous lassitude. That's kef (or hashish) you smell wafting from the next table. On a clear day, look for Spain.
• Walk through the daily main food market, with its hillocks of olives. (To find your way, enter the medina via the Grand Socco's big gate, then walk through the first archway on the right.)
• Take a front-row seat at the Gran Café de Paris (Place de France) at 7 p.m., when the evening paseo, or promenade, is in full swing. Same time another day, nurse an espresso on the Petit Socco, "a square that looks like a magical stage set—all false perspectives and foreshortened buildings."
• Have cocktails at Guitta's (110 Sidi Bou Abib; 212-9/937-333), a seen-much-much-better-days bar, restaurant, and guesthouse. Try to get owner Mercedes Guitta talking; she happens to be one of the last conduits to Tangier's heyday as an International Zone.
• End the day in El Minzah's Mirador bar (85 Rue de la Liberté; 212-9/935-885) with a Barbara (vodka, crème de cacao, and crème fra&iric;che), a cocktail named for Barbara Hutton.