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Discovering Tangier

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.

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