‘Better to have one mosquito around you,’ says the faux guide, running to keep up with my purposeful strut across Tangier’s medina, ‘than a thousand.’ Here, in the hot, noisy streets, having just stepped off the ferry from Algeciras, my backpack marking me as new meat, this poetic insight stops me in my tracks. ‘You’re happy?’ he asks, with a grin, as I step into a petit taxi. I nod, obviously unsure. ‘Good,’ he replies. ‘That’s what we like from you.’ Disappearing into the souk, he shouts: ‘See you later, Alligator!’
Morocco is a long thin country which throws up a wealth of holiday options, from desert trips to city breaks. Having travelled here extensively in the past, particularly in the South, this time I chose Tangier, Fes, Marrakech, and the Atlas Mountains, a stretch covering hundreds of kilometres but just doable in a week by train (with long journeys of up to 7 hours).
Ports are transitory, paradoxical places, and Tangier is no different. Its status as an international zone (from the 1920s to 50s) and sybaritic paradise – where homosexuality was even legal – attracted writers like William Burroughs, Paul Bowles and Tennessee Williams, but, as gateway to Morocco, and occupied in turn by the Romans, Spanish, Portuguese, French and English, its morals had been deemed ‘loose’ for centuries: 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys even labelled it ‘Sodom’.
Since reunion with Morocco in 1956, its boozy haze has cleared to reveal a more straightforward tourist resort largely for Moroccans but Tangier still retains a certain je ne sais quoi. And, once free of the backpack – and consequently the faux guides – traversing the hilly streets, I realize it’s a town for the flaneur, a place to drift, dream, reflect. There’s even an ‘Idler’s Terrace’, near Place De France, where men sit and chat, or stare out to the hypnotic blue beyond.
And it’s the quiet sights that shape a visit to Tangier: the small medina’s souks and central square, Petit Soco; the Phoenician Tombs, a stunning sea-facing beauty spot in the Marshen quarter, and nearby Café Hafa; and the Kasbah, the citadel area high above bay and old town, burnt to the ground when the English left in 1684, and fashionable address for the mid-20th century literary set. I stay in Dar Nour, a French-owned boutique b’n’b which nestles within its maze-like streets, their roof terrace offering one of the best views in Tangier.
I leave the herb-scented Dar Nour terrace, the red dollop of sun dripping onto the bay, as the muezzin’s call to prayer echoes above the whir of kids’ voices in the streets below. I try the elegant Gran Café De Paris, former literary heart – and Bowles’ favourite – whose strongest brew is now mint tea; The Windmill, a café on the beach, once frequented by Joe Orton; nearby Sun Beach, which is, happily, licensed; The Tanger Inn, an old beat bar only open after 1030pm; and Number One, where I eat a simple dinner and chat to owner Karim. He shows me a 1950s magazine article which seems to sum up my feelings about Tangier: ‘There’s a sense of peace, space, freedom, friendliness,’ it says, ‘and in addition to that, eternity.’
A five hour train ride whisks the traveller to Fes. It’s worth splashing out on first class, as it’s cheap (less than £10), but be prepared to talk to Moroccans on the train. Humility is a key word in Moroccan culture, and rudeness will be met with miscomprehension or even anger. US author John Hopkins summed it up in his Tangier Diaries: ‘There will come a time when The West, exhausted from its insatiable thirst for material wealth, will turn to [Morocco] to re-learn lessons of the spirit.’
And a sense of what makes Moroccans tick may help you understand Fes Es Bali, the ancient medina (and UNESCO World Heritage Site), whose 9500 twisting medieval streets are so narrow that, for fresh arrivals, it’s barely navigable without a guide. On the advice of our friendly Riad owner, Ahmed, we enlist the services of the suave Najib (around £10 for a morning).
‘In Morocco we have time,’ he says, sauntering ahead down a pencil-thin alley in which groaning donkeys with open sores and tyres nailed to their feet (to stop slippage down hilly streets) jostle past hollow-cheeked men in djellabas selling sardines, camel’s heads, clucking chickens and tortoises (‘they chase the devil eye’, says Najib).
As we pass a succession of ornate Medersas (colleges) and Mosques, Najib explains that Fes was founded in 800AD, and is the spiritual and intellectual centre of Morocco. Soon we reach the clattering carpentry district: ‘In Morocco we retire here,’ says Najib, pointing at the coffin.
We think he’s joking until we witness the Tanneries, in which hundreds of semi-clad men, old and young, leap across red, orange, black and white pits carrying pails of dye, the rotting smell of pigeon shit, cow urine and animal fats heavy in the air. ‘You see?’ he says, giving us a sprig of mint to protect our delicate Western noses. ‘They work down there for 30 years at a time.’
Humbled, we meander through the quieter Jewish quarter (Fes El Jedid) and climb the hill to the Merinid Tombs, a scattered 14th century ruin that provides the best views over this sprawling low-rise city, its teeth-like houses spluttering under permanent smoke clouds (‘from burning olive stones in the potteries’).
Back down at the Riad Dan Anebar, we chat to Ahmed, who spent 18 months converting his family’s former home into a palatial maison d’hote with lavish bedrooms, vast palm-filled courtyard and spectacular terrace. He offers us excellent harira soup (chick peas, tomatoes, spices) and tender tajines. But the real discovery is Moroccan wine: both Cuvee de President and the delicious Guerrouane reds are as light as a good Burgundy.
Fes, despite its bustle, retains a quiet old-world dignity, but Marrakech is a different place altogether. Catch next week’s instalment where I take in the Red City and famous mountain retreat La Rosarie.
Words & Pictures: Stephen Emms