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Discovering Tangier

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.


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