Morocco is situated in the northernmost tip of Africa, with the bustling city of Tangier nestled in its north-eastern corner. Being just 20 miles from Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar, this ancient port is one of the country’s most accessible destinations. Its position on the cusp of two continents is largely responsible for the city’s unusual past; the strategic importance of Tangier’s location and its identity as a free port made the city a key destination during the European colonisation of Africa.
For much of its history, Tangier wasn’t even governed by Morocco. So its African roots have been interwoven with Spanish, Portuguese, and French influences. This blend of cultures is unique in Morocco and explains much of the attention this city has garnered from tourists.
Discover Tangier’s tangled history
Tangier’s fascinating history has been attracting travellers to its romantic medinas and alleyways for decades. If you’re interested in classical mythology, visit Cap Spartel on the western Maghreb coast to take a tour of the Caves of Hercules where the mythical hero is said to have rested after his labours. During World War II, the city became a place of international intrigue, with both Allied and Axis spies running networks against each other here. Caid’s Bar at the Minzah Hotel was where they mingled over evening cocktails, and this watering hole was allegedly the original model for Rick’s Bar in the movie Casablanca.
Uncover the city’s artistic flair
Tangier was an international zone from 1932 to 1956, and it was during this period that the ‘white city’ became immortalised as a haven for creative souls. Artists, writers, rockstars, and intellectuals were attracted by the city’s “anything goes” atmosphere. The Gran Cafe de Paris on Place de France was once frequented by the likes of Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, while the great painter Henri Matisse took up residence at the Grand Hotel Villa de France. His favourite room (number 35) has been kept decorated and furnished as it was when he resided within its walls.
Follow the footsteps of the famous faces from Tangier’s Past
If high arts don’t take your fancy, discover Tangier’s grittier past as you head into the medina. Tourists wander around the square of Petit Socco, but 50 years ago it was a favourite hang-out of the writer William Burroughs, who lurked here to score hard drugs and cheap sex. The Muniria Hotel, his regular choice of accommodation, is still in business! Other famous writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac visited Burroughs here. Le Tangerine bar was one of their favourite drinking spots and is still a cool hangout for local hipsters to this day.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s Tangier had a certain allure with foreigners as a destination notorious for wild parties, brothels, and a thriving gay scene. The Rolling Stones were great fans, but the 1960s “Great Scandal” saw a crackdown on these activities and many foreigners were arrested or faced expulsion. The sale of alcohol was also banned in the medina as Tangier became a little more conservative to align with its sister cities throughout the rest of Morocco.
Step from the past to the present as you observe Tangier’s fresh facelift
However, Tangier has retained its identity as an individualistic city with a rebellious and creative edge. It hasn’t been able to shake off a lingering reputation as an unsavoury (or even unsafe) place, but this contributes to its unusual personality. While admittedly short on conventional attractions like museums and galleries, a fresh generation of new creatives are transforming the city’s atmospheric backstreets with some hot new hangouts.
The process of rejuvenation is supported by an influx of hoteliers, restaurateurs and boutique owners who are breathing fresh life into Tangier while simultaneously celebrating and restoring its historical and cultural features. A prime example is the El Morocco Club which opened in Tangier’s hilltop kasbah in 2012. The restaurant regularly achieves rave reviews but the soul of the place, fundamentally Tangier to the core, is the animated and uproarious piano bar at the foot of the stairs. This is fast becoming a legendary addition to the city’s distinctive and notorious nightlife scene, typically eccentric but with an interesting modern edge which only adds to its appeal.
Tangier may be occupied by its past, but the city’s gaze is equally and firmly focused on the future. It’s one of the largest and most modern ports in all of Africa and a high-speed train line to Casablanca is currently under construction which opens up even more possibilities for the adventurous traveller. Underneath these young, urban developments Tangier has plenty of traces of it’s libertine past still there to be discovered.
Do you want to follow in the footsteps of the famous figures who have passed through this ancient port? Discover Tangier and many more of this North African nations’ wonders on one of our Morocco tours!
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