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A Taste of Tangiers

Taking the time . .

. . to discover Tangiers, is a bit like lifting the lid off a steaming tagine and trying to identify all the fragrances and spices that make up the whole.

A waft of cinnamon, a hint a cumin .  . . and then the more evasive scents – a bit of saffron perhaps, a touch of garlic, lemon?

Tangiers is historically and remains today, a melting pot of people and cultures as it sits facing Europe but clearly rooted in Africa but remains above all, quintessentially Moroccan. On a clear day the coast of Spain can be seen within touching distance across the azure-blue sea, while not that far away in the opposite direction your view is framed by the Rif Mountains which are all that separate you from the rest of Africa.

I think it is precisely this mix of continents and cultures that draws me back to Tangiers time and time again. It satisfies my yearning for Africa, and throws in a generous pinch of the exotic along with that laid back pace of life that goes along with the ebb and flow of the Mediterranean. Tangiers, some might say, has had its hey- day when in the 50’s and 60’s it was a mecca for artists, writers and other exotic and often lost souls. More recently it was the city guidebooks warned you off, and was for some time more than a little rough around the edges with its glamour in need of some serious attention. Well, the last few years has seen Tangiers getting exactly that resulting in a lot more attention both from well heeled travellers, as well as the Moroccan government as it has been identified as being a key player in Moroccos Plan D’Azure which is an ambitios and far reaching plan to develop the tourist infrastructure of Morocco as a whole and the Mediterranean coastline in particular.

And while it still remains a few steps behind its sister city Marrakech in the glamour stakes, it has what Marrakech will never have – the sea. In fact it has two: Tangiers is I think, the only city in the world where you can swim in the Mediterranean in the morning and then, just for a change of scene, you can spend the afternoon frolicking in the Atlantic!

And as far as the glamour goes, it’s there, you just have to know where to look!

Arriving and stepping off the plane, the warm air of Africa is welcoming and Tangiers is, I think, an easy introduction to Morocco. It is lot easier to be a visitor rather than a tourist in Tangiers – a good thing I feel.

An quick taxi drive takes you into the heart of the city where you have several options for accommodation – big international hotels are being developed along the coastline to drive forward the Moroccan tourism plan, while in the centre you could choose one of the older grande- dames near the medina. For a more personal experience in the medina or Kasbah try one of the many converted riads that are emerging. All offer something a little different, their own a particular view of Tangiers. I have spent an afternoon languishing on a sun lounger alongside the pool of a stylish international hotel, had my morning coffee in the bijoux back garden of a chambre d’hôte in the Marchan district, and sat on the rooftop of a riad enjoying my mint tea while contemplating the straights of Gibraltar – all have something to offer and its up to you to decide what part of Tangiers you want to make your home while on holiday.

All these areas; the medina, the Grande Socco(main square), the Kasbah and the Marchan are within walking distance of each other, making it relatively easy to get a sense of the city on foot. Should the steep hillside walk from the medina up to the Kasbah prove too much on a sultry summer day (especially if you have had a successful shopping foray into the medina) you will find no shortage of taxis in the Grande Socco happy to help you out for a reasonable price.

If you have spent enough time in the city and want to explore further afield, the small harbour town of Assilah is about a half hour drive from Tangiers and is the perfect place to go to escape the noise and perpetual motion of the city.

Wind down, kick back and take the time watching passers-by over your cup of coffee. This ancient fortified seaside town is the perfect place to go if you want to discover what it is like to go shopping in the local market, chat with the spice merchant, find the baker and discover the pace of life in the Moroccan medina.

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There is something special about Assilah and it has got a lot of attention over the last few years to the point of being dubbed “the East Hampton of Morocco” in an article in the New York Times, but what makes it especially unique is its annual art festival.

Every August this usually sleepy little town comes to life with a bang and is filled to bursting with artists, musicians, television crews and holiday makers from both morocco and further afield. The white walls of the medina are handed over to a different group of artists every year and ladders, pots of paint and brushes are brought out as works of art are created on the walls to remain there until the following festival.

By September everyone has gone home, the paint has dried and I can go back and find my favourite seat in the coffee shop and watch people pass by at a more leisurely pace.In fact, if I think about it, the best way to discover the city of Tangiers or its more sedate neighbour Assilah, is to discover the best places to sit and contemplate while allowing the sights and sounds of morocco to wash over you. So whether its mint tea at Tangiers famous café Hafa, coffee at the beautifully renovated Cinema de Tanger on the Grande Socco, or a glass of white wine with your couscous in Assilahs La Kasabah    - make that your starting point and I am sure the rest will fall into place.