Tanger and the North

“Morocco is a tree whose roots are in Africa, but whose branches extend into Europe.”
– The late King Hassan II of Morocco

Tangier (Tanger) sits on some of the best real estate anywhere. It overlooks the strategic Strait of Gibraltar, keeps an eye on Europe (someone has to, after all), and guards the narrow entrance to the Mediterranean.

The poetically-minded like to say that it is here that Europe and Africa kiss.

Intrepid European travelers have, for centuries, first set foot on the African continent in Tangier. Jewish and Muslim refugees came here in droves after the fall of the Alhambra.

Artists have flocked here as well. Delacroix painted here. Antonio Gaudi (Barcelona) designed a project that was never built. Most famously, Matisse painted some 40 of his best works from his window in Room 202 of the Grand Hotel Villa de France, whose ruins still stand on a hill overlooking the city.

This piece of real estate has a long history: it has been occupied by the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans (it was the capital of a strategic province for them), Byzantines, Arabs, Portuguese occupiers, and Brits.

Even the United States has a history here. The first property it acquired overseas was in Tangier. It was a gift from the Sultan of Morocco; Morocco had been the first country to recognize the independence of the colonies and Tangier was an important port for American ships. The building operated as a consulate for 140 years.

But the history of Tangier starts to get really interesting in 1923 when the world powers decided it should become an international zone. Overnight, it became an “anything goes” zone under no real control. There was nowhere else quite like it.

It was a den of smugglers, spies, and people fleeing the law. And of course, the great literary minds of the 20th century. Tennessee Williams wrote the first draft of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and Williams Burroughs wrote “Naked Lunch” in Tangier. Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, Truman Capote, and most famously Paul Bowles all lived here for stints, as did Mick Jagger.

The parties here were legendary. Among the best-known hosts were eccentric Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton and even-wealthier Malcolm Forbes.

But that past – checkered and otherwise – is long gone.

Should you go? Our answer might surprise you: Don’t go…. at least, if you are thinking about a daytrip from Spain. The hustlers and petty thieves will ensure you never want to set foot on Moroccan soil again and that would be a real shame.

In the context of larger explorations of this very diverse country, it may be worth a visit, at least to see the pretty Kasbah quarter, the American Legation, and then onto some of the very appealing smaller towns in the former Spanish zone.

Asilah

The pretty Atlantic town of Asilah, a few dozen kilometers south of Tangier, is the home to a thriving artists’ colony and Morocco’s most famous arts competition.

Every year, murals are painted in the kasbah and sculptures erected along the seaside corniche. Students and artists from all over the country submit entries. About a dozen winners’ works are installed, where they remain for one year until the next competition.

The restoration of Asilah won the prestigious triennial Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

Chefchaouen

Another highlight of the north is Chefchaouen (aka Chaouen), a picture-perfect town in the Rif Mountains about half-way between Tangier and Fes. It is characterized by the brilliant hues of blue mixed in its whitewashed kasbah. Despite its proximity to Europe (and the then-Portuguese enclaves along the Atlantic) it was forbidden for foreigners to enter Chefchaouen until 1912.