Newsletters  | Mobile

Discovering Tangier

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.

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.


Sign Up

Connect With Travel + Leisure
  • Travel+Leisure
  • Tablet
  • Available devices

Already a subscriber?
Get FREE ACCESS to the digital edition