Couscous and Kasbahs: Exploring Tangier, Morocco’s Cosmopolitan Gateway
Couscous and Kasbahs: Exploring Tangier, Morocco's Cosmopolitan Gateway - Wandering the Winding Streets of the Medina
No trip to Tangier is complete without spending time wandering the winding streets of the medina. This old walled city is the historic heart of Tangier, full of life and culture around every corner. Getting lost in the medina is part of the experience - you never know when you'll stumble upon a hidden square, a shop filled with treasures, or a cafe to stop for a break.
The maze-like streets date back centuries and have barely changed over time. As you weave deeper into the medina, the more traditional Moroccan architecture surrounds you. Brightly painted doors, intricate mosaic tiles, and arched alleyways transport you to another world. Vendors fill the narrow paths selling everything from fresh produce and spices to traditional Moroccan shoes called babouches. The smells of mint tea and baked goods drift through the air.
One of the best parts of the medina is people watching - fishermen, shopkeepers, locals going about their day. Children play soccer in the small squares while their mothers chat nearby. The melodic call to prayer echoes through the streets five times a day. As the sun starts to set, the medina comes alive at night with storytellers, musicians, and markets.
It's easy to get turned around, but getting lost is part of the experience. Don't be afraid to step through an intriguing doorway or follow a winding path. You never know what you'll discover. Ask directions from a friendly shopkeeper or follow your nose to a secret restaurant tucked away on the upper floors of a building. Wandering without an agenda lets you experience the medina as it unfolds before you.
What else is in this post?
- Couscous and Kasbahs: Exploring Tangier, Morocco's Cosmopolitan Gateway - Wandering the Winding Streets of the Medina
- Couscous and Kasbahs: Exploring Tangier, Morocco's Cosmopolitan Gateway - Breathtaking Views from the Hafa Café Terrace
- Couscous and Kasbahs: Exploring Tangier, Morocco's Cosmopolitan Gateway - Shopping for Berber Carpets in the Grand Socco
- Couscous and Kasbahs: Exploring Tangier, Morocco's Cosmopolitan Gateway - Exploring the Caves of Hercules Just Outside the City
- Couscous and Kasbahs: Exploring Tangier, Morocco's Cosmopolitan Gateway - Sampling Local Specialties at the Central Market
- Couscous and Kasbahs: Exploring Tangier, Morocco's Cosmopolitan Gateway - Marveling at Colorful Tilework in the Sultan's Palace
- Couscous and Kasbahs: Exploring Tangier, Morocco's Cosmopolitan Gateway - Learning About the City's International History
- Couscous and Kasbahs: Exploring Tangier, Morocco's Cosmopolitan Gateway - Watching the Sun Set Over the Strait of Gibraltar
Couscous and Kasbahs: Exploring Tangier, Morocco's Cosmopolitan Gateway - Breathtaking Views from the Hafa Café Terrace
After getting lost in the crowded alleys of the medina, you'll welcome a break at the Hafa Café terrace for its breezy views of the sea. Perched on a cliff overlooking Tangier's coastline, this cafe offers one of the best vantage points in the city. The scenic outlook has drawn bohemians and creatives for decades, along with tourists eager to soak up the atmosphere.
As you climb the winding path to Hafa Café, the sounds of the medina fade behind you. Your reward is a sweeping panorama of the Strait of Gibraltar and, on clear days, Spain glimmering in the distance. The exterior of the café is modest, but don't let that fool you. The real magic is on the terrace. Find an open table along the edge for optimal views. Cozy up and let the vibe of the place take hold.
Hafa Café has attracted international celebrities like the Rolling Stones as well as famous writers drawn by the inspirational views. Paul Bowles and Jean Genet sipped coffee here back in the day. Today you may spot local artists with easels set up to capture the scenery. Let your eyes follow the coastline dotted with villages, then gaze outward where sea merges into sky. Watch ferries cross the strait while fishing boats return with the day's catch.
When the sunset colors spread across waves, the panoramic views become even more stunning. Many cap off the experience by smoking a hookah pipe filled with fruity tobacco. For the best sunset views, time your visit in the late afternoon and watch dusk settle over the sea.
The cliffside setting also means pleasant breezes that temper the heat. The outdoor tables are popular on summer nights when locals seek a respite from the medina's stuffy alleys. Listen to animated conversations in Arabic, French and English as flavors from the kitchen mix with sounds of laughter.
Apart from the views, Hafa Café also offers reasonably-priced Moroccan staples like tagines and couscous. Mint tea is a must. Don't miss their avocado juice cocktail either. While not fancy, the food completes the chilled-out café vibe.
Couscous and Kasbahs: Exploring Tangier, Morocco's Cosmopolitan Gateway - Shopping for Berber Carpets in the Grand Socco
No Tangier sightseeing excursion is complete without a stroll through the Grand Socco, the medina's main square that serves as a bustling center of activity. Vendors' carts laden with goods intermingle with locals socializing at outdoor cafes in a blend of sights, sounds and scents like nowhere else in the city. While it can feel chaotic navigating the square, keep your eye out for the carpet shops tucked into the corners. Here you'll discover the brilliantly hued Berber rugs that Morocco is renowned for.
The Grand Socco has lured shoppers for centuries with its mix of goods from shoes to spices to crafts. But it's the piles of handwoven rugs that catch your eye with their vibrant colors and intricate patterns. Traditionally woven by Berber tribes in the rural Atlas Mountains, a Berber rug purchase in Tangier connects you to centuries of history and nomadic craftsmanship.
As you step into a carpet shop, you'll be enthusiastically welcomed with a cup of mint tea, known as 'Moroccan whiskey'. Take a seat and survey the rows of carpets as the shopkeeper shares background on the different tribes. Styles and motifs vary between regions, with some displaying geometric designs, while others feature abstract patterns. Prepare for a visual feast of rich jewel tones, natural dyes, and artful precision that's almost hypnotic.
Don't be shy about taking time to feel the soft, hand-spun wool and studying technical details like the tightness of the weave. Ask how natural dyes from saffron, henna and indigo are used to achieve brilliant ruby reds, sapphire blues and chartreuse greens. Berbers often use symbols passed down through generations that give deeper meaning to motifs.
When you find a rug that captures your spirit, be ready for a relaxed bargaining process over several cups of tea. Offer an initial lower price, then slowly increase as the shopkeeper counters. With persistence, you can get 25-50% below the opening ask. Paying with cash also helps shave the final price.
For the best deals outside the square, wander the medina's carpet souk on rue des Chasseurs. Here shops cram together displaying hundreds of rugs. Go in late afternoon when sellers may slash prices rather than hauling inventory back. Bigger is better too - shops cut deals on larger rugs to avoid storage hassles.
While machine-made knock-offs abound in the medina, ask if the seller can provide a 'Certificate of Authenticity'. This documents the rug's origins and technical specs, giving peace of mind it's a genuine tribal weaving. To ensure quality, check the tightness of the weave, look for a mix of pile heights, and make sure the backside shows no glue.
Couscous and Kasbahs: Exploring Tangier, Morocco's Cosmopolitan Gateway - Exploring the Caves of Hercules Just Outside the City
Just a short drive from the city, the Caves of Hercules offer an intriguing glimpse into Tangier’s ancient past. The series of natural caverns burrows deep into Cape Spartel, said to be the northernmost point of Africa in antiquity. According to legend, these caverns are one of the entrances through which Hercules traveled during his 12 labors. Though mythical, the connection touches on the caves’ place in the Western imagination. Over the centuries everyone from Francis Bacon to Alexandre Dumas has woven tales around the Caves of Hercules.
Today just as in the past, a trip here feels like an adventure into new frontiers. The caves occupy an important spot both geographically and spiritually where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean. Many visitors come to watch the waves crash against the shore under the towering cliffs that form the mouth of the caves. As you descend the stone steps towards sea level, you’ll feel small standing before the forces of nature. Inside the cool grottoes, observe where water and wind have smoothed the rock into sensuous curves. Let your hand trace the ripples and ridges while imagining the passage of time.
Venture further into the chambers to find shimmering pools and stalactites hanging overhead. In the innermost cavern, see by the light of your phone screen where the steady drip of water from the limestone has created natural sculptures over millennia. The serene beauty tempts you to linger. But beware the rising tide – more than one tourist has met their fate when unexpectedly trapped by the swirling surf.
Instead take a moment to ponder the thin line between history and myth. Long before Hercules, the Phoenicians built a temple near here dedicated to their god Baal. Later the Romans constructed a shrine devoted to Venus, goddess of beauty. Though only ruins remain today, you can still perceive the aura of sanctity. Gaze upward until you pinpoint the opening where light filters down into the main cavern. This celestial connection led ancient cultures to revere this site as a holy passage between worlds.
For the best experience, time your arrival at Cape Spartel for sunset when the views over the Atlantic become even more spectacular. Watch the fading light transform the ocean from azure blue to molten gold. As darkness deepens, see the beam from the Cape Spartel lighthouse sweep over the waves. Let the timeless atmosphere renew your spirit before heading back to Tangier’s urban energy.
Couscous and Kasbahs: Exploring Tangier, Morocco's Cosmopolitan Gateway - Sampling Local Specialties at the Central Market
No visit to Tangier is complete without a stroll through the central market, locally known as the Grand Socco. This sprawling market has existed for centuries as the beating heart of commerce in Tangier. Like markets across Morocco, it provides a glimpse into local culture through the sights, sounds, and flavors unique to the region.
As you weave through the tight maze of stalls, vendors sing out in a mix of Arabic, French, and Spanish, hoping to entice you over. Follow your nose through the crowds and let your senses guide you. Tables overflow with mounds of olives, dates, spices, and dried fruits in vibrant pyramids. Sample almonds roasted with Moroccan Ras El Hanout, an aromatic blend featuring notes of cinnamon, turmeric and ginger. Let the medley of flavors linger on your tongue.
Keep an eye out for fruit stands piled high with produce not found back home. Prickly pears, grown in nearby orchards, add a sweet tart pop when peeled. Try small bananas bred locally instead of the Cavendish variety most Americans know. Seek out tangy blood oranges, known as Sanguinelli, that perfume the air.
Don't miss the fish stalls either, where the daily catch lays glistening under the late afternoon sun. Vendors busily clean and prepare the seafood, trimming fins and removing heads. Octopus, sardines, red mullet, and sole will later transform into that night's tagine or Bastilla feast.
When hunger strikes, join the queue at one of the pop-up stands dishing out piping hot street food. Treat yourself to a spiced kefta kebab with cumin-scented ground beef, rolled in a warm flatbread. Or try the snail vendors selling bowls of steamed escargot simmered in a peppery broth. For a quick bite, nibble on the deep-fried chickpea fritters known as taktouka, a popular snack.
Venture deeper through the flea market section to scout treasures from jewelry to lanterns to traditional leather babouche slippers. Browse stalls filled with handmade ceramics in the blue and white palette distinctive to the region. Haggle for a tagine dish or decorative tiles to bring home.
Couscous and Kasbahs: Exploring Tangier, Morocco's Cosmopolitan Gateway - Marveling at Colorful Tilework in the Sultan's Palace
No landmark embodies Tangier's cultural fusion quite like the Sultan's Palace and its exquisite tilework. As the headquarters of the Museum of Moroccan Arts and Antiquities, this palace exemplifies a unique merging of Fassi craftsmanship with European aesthetics. Wander room after room and discover 400 years of Moroccan history told through vibrant ceramic tiles.
It all began in the 17th century when Sultan Moulay Ismail made the palace a showcase for Moroccan artistry. Master artisans from Fez were commissioned to handcraft intricate mosaics, painstakingly assembling the tiny geometric pieces. But when Morocco became a French protectorate in 1912, European touches were incorporated during palace renovations.
This unexpected blend reaches its peak in the Grand Salon with its resplendent walls and floors completely covered in mosaics. Linger over progression of blues from pale sky to deep ocean, accented with warming honey tones. Notice how patterns combine both Islamic eight-point stars and classic ogee arches influenced by Art Deco.
Yet make time for the Andalusian-style Courtyard, glowing with saffron walls and mint pillars. Its namesake highlights the presence of refugees who brought their Moorish aesthetic from Spain. Elaborate zellij mosaics form intricate arabesques across the courtyard.
Climb to the top floor to marvel at the panoramic views of the Strait of Gibraltar from the Mirrored Hall. Its glittering Venetian mirrors reflect light across surfaces overflowing with mosaic motifs. Refining natural clay and hand-cutting each tile demonstrates how revered ceramics were by Moroccan sultans as an artform.
Speak with a guide to illuminate hidden meanings - butterflies symbolizing transformation, latticework representing the veiled women of court. Subtle imperfections reveal how artisans intentionally 'flawed' the design to show respect for divine perfection alone.
Couscous and Kasbahs: Exploring Tangier, Morocco's Cosmopolitan Gateway - Learning About the City's International History
Tangier’s strategic position along the Strait of Gibraltar has made it a cultural melting pot throughout its long history. Walking the streets, you’ll hear a symphony of languages echoing the various powers that have ruled the city-state over centuries. To understand Tangier today, it helps to learn about key eras that shaped its international character.
From the 15th to 17th centuries, the Portuguese and then English held sway over the city. You can still find the remains of their diplomatic missions dotting the medina’s alleys. When the English diarist Samuel Pepys visited in the 1660s, he noted Tangier was “the best and most hopeful plantation that ever England had.”
Yet the most intriguing chapter unfolded when Tangier became an International Zone from 1923 to 1956. The cosmopolitan era saw an influx of artists, spies, exiles and businessmen converge, many living out unconventional lives. Eccentrics like the Forbes heir Malcolm Forbes rode his motorcycle down the medina’s paths. The city became a haven for playwrights like Tennessee Williams and beat poets like William Burroughs.
Burroughs moved to Tangier in 1954, partly inspired by accounts of Paul Bowles who’d relocated in 1947. In the International Zone, they experienced freedoms unavailable back home as gay men. Burroughs gathered material for novels like Naked Lunch in Tangier’s Rue Delacroix, nodding to the city’s openness. His writing immortalized Tangier’s shady underworld - “a sanctuary of nonconformity,” he called it.
This creative ferment unfolded under the watchful eyes of expat spies. Agents mingled at the cafes, cloaked in orientalist romance. Ian Fleming partly set his first 007 novel Casino Royale in a Tangier modeled on the city’s contradictions, mystical yet sinister. “The Scope and spirit of the Orient,” he wrote.
Strolling the medina’s lanes lets you imagine the intrigues hatched over cigarettes in those smoky cafes. But Tangier’s days as “the spy capital of the world” ended when Morocco reclaimed control in 1956 and exiled most foreigners. Still, the legacy of its freewheeling International Zone remains embedded in Tangerine myth.
For insights into this bygone era, visit the Forbes Museum housed in Malcolm Forbes’ former palace. Its exhibits showcase Art Deco furniture belonging to international residents alongside letters documenting their unconventional lives. Or climb the steps to the ruin known as the Old English Consulate, once the hangout of Tangier’s creative expat crowd.
Couscous and Kasbahs: Exploring Tangier, Morocco's Cosmopolitan Gateway - Watching the Sun Set Over the Strait of Gibraltar
Watching the sun set over the Strait of Gibraltar is a quintessential Tangier experience. As dusk settles, find a cafe terrace or scenic viewpoint to witness the changing colors sweep over sea and sky. This daily visual drama highlights the strait's strategic importance since ancient times as the gateway between the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea.
The narrow passage of water separating Morocco from Spain is only about 9 miles across at its closest point. Yet standing at land's end in Tangier, Europe feels tantalizingly close. On a clear evening, you can even make out the twinkling lights of towns across the strait. Ferries and massive container ships crisscross the waters, evidence of the heavy maritime traffic. Looking out reminds you that the strait has been a bridge between worlds, cultures, and civilizations for millennia.
Phoenicians sailing from Tyre crossed the strait as far back as the 10th century BC, establishing trading colonies along its shores. Ancient Greeks knew this passage as the Pillars of Hercules, demarcating the edges of their known world. The Romans watched their empire fade as Vandals swept across the strait from North Africa to conquer southern Spain in the 5th century AD. A thousand years later, Moorish exiles gazed from Tangier across these waters towards a homeland lost when the reign of Al-Andalus ended.
The power of place resonates most at sunset when natural beauty transforms the seascape. As the sun sinks towards the horizon, soft light illuminates the coastline's hills and valleys. The deep blues of sea and sky intensify in color until waves shine like liquid mercury. Slowly the fiery sun melts into the watery expanse, spreading shimmering pathways of molten gold. Silhouetted ships float upon this gilded sea hinting at undiscovered worlds beyond.
In these sunset moments, you can almost glimpse through the centuries like past travelers who stood mesmerized by the strait's beauty. Imagine Portuguese explorers departing from Tangier in the 15th century, eager to find new routes around Africa. Or picture American writers like Paul Bowles who made bohemian Tangier their refuge, moved by the romantic sunsets and promise of sensory awakening.
The mood shifts entirely once darkness settles over the water, bringing the strait alive with other meanings. Lights sparkle from the towns speckling the Spanish coast. The beam from the Cape Spartel lighthouse methodically sweeps its path. The faint flash of night ferries crossing between continents speak of journeys and separation.
Tangier locals have long told tales of lovers waiting on opposite sides of the strait, lighting signal fires to symbolize passions burning across the divide. Many believe the narrow waters contain mystical secrets and serve as a mystical bridge between worlds. Standing under the emerging stars, you might just feel those eternal connections between past and present, mortality and myth.