Tangiers, Morocco. Turquoise and navy ocean waters mingle off the port of Tangiers, a physical embodiment of the way time coalesces as one strolls through the snaking alleys of the city.
Erstwhile writer’s haunts can be found amid the labyrinth of an ancient medina, along with those of disavowed royalty and spies from Europe and beyond who flocked to the torrid city to scheme against each other.
Indeed, one of Tangiers' most famous scribes-cum-residents, Paul Bowles (author of ‘The Sheltering Sky’), wrote of it, "I am now convinced that Tangier is a place where the past and present exist simultaneously in proportionate degree, where a very much alive today is given an added depth of reality by the presence of an equally alive yesterday."
Tangiers, Africa's most north-westerly city, has always been a strategic prize because of its situation on the Strait of Gibraltar.
The Medina is a dizzying jumble of buildings seemingly piled on top of each other and draped in a gleaming white mass over a hill overlooking the port. At the summit of the promontory, a plaza called the Kasbah provides a spacious counterpoint to the chaotic ramblings of its walkways.
A gap in the plaza's ancient Roman wall leads to a small bluff with views out to roiling ocean waters and, in the distance, the hazy coast of Spain. It can be reached with some luck and skillful navigation, or a sharp memory, following flights of stairs ever upward.
Along the way, amid pastel-hued piazzas, is the doorstep where Bowles was called on by the English punk band The Clash to write the lyrics to one of their songs, which led to their single Rock the Casbah.
This unlikely juxtaposition that made Tangiers a locus of creativity, between ruminative corners that whisper secret worlds and the persistent draw of the debauched, is still alive to the observant traveler.
A visit to St. Andrew's church, a modest chapel behind the Grand Mosque on Tangiers' central square, the Gran Socco, reveals a piece of the city's embattled cultural history.
Contested since the Roman Empire, and bouncing between European colonial powers for decades, Tangiers became an international zone jointly administered by France, Spain and Britain from 1923 to 1956.
It was especially during this time that a parade of artists and diplomats coming through the city left their mark: Jack Kerouac, Truman Capote, William Burroughs, Susan Sontag and Mohamed Choukri are just a few to have found inspiration in what Burroughs called the interzone.
It is still possible, upon ascending the steps of the opulent Grand Hotel Villa de France that sits off the Gran Socco, to be directed to the room where Henri Matisse painted his window-scape looking out to the old city.
"Through open doors, tables and booths and bars and kitchens and baths, copulating couples on rows of brass beds, crisscross of a thousand hammocks, junkies tying up for a shot, opium smokers, hashish smokers, people eating talking bathing, back into a haze of smoke and steam," wrote Burroughs in Naked Lunch, the book that shocked US obscenity law enforcers when it was published in 1959. Burroughs' dream-like world is harder to find now, though. One Tangiers tour guide, Abdullah, can recall the days when wandering hippies slept in the doorways of the Medina, but many of today's expatriates are more drawn by the aesthetic wonder of the city's pastiche of colors and the fierce pink sunsets. Seeking to trace Burroughs' footsteps, the visitor will find the infamous Dean's Bar (off the Gran Socco) shuttered and the bar at Hotel Continental (overlooking the port) serving only coffee and tea. Sitting at the once-opulent Caid's Bar, adjacent to the pools and gardens of the El Minzah hotel, one gets a sense of bygone extravagance.
"No, Dean's Bar doesn't exist anymore," the bartender says with a laugh as he sets out a plate of roasted almonds. "It was a favorite with the artists who used to come... That era is over." Nevertheless, a diligent eye finds traces of what drew a generation of adventure-seekers and misfits. It is quiet on the streets after dusk, but in the plazas, young boys still flirt with each other. And looking up, the visitor will see aged men in dark djellabas, silently smoking kief into the still night.
A VISITOR'S GUIDE:
Among the bustling markets and crowded cafes, it's easy to get lost in Tangiers. Meandering the alleyways of the ancient Medina will keep any traveler occupied, but it's worth having a couple of touchstones as a guide.
What to see:
St. Andrew's Church, behind the Grand Mosque on Tangiers' central plaza, is a peaceful reprieve from the swirl of the city. The caretaker, Yassine, is a fount of knowledge about the church's cultural history. Rue d'Angleterre 50 Librarie des Colonnes is a multi-lingual bookstore founded at the apogee of the interzone literary period. Boulevard Pasteur 54 Hammam Franco, in the middle of the ancient Medina, is a traditional bathhouse with no tourists in sight. Rue Cheikh Mohamed Ben Sekkid
Where to stay:
Dar Jameel is an exquisite example of Moroccan interior design nestled in the midst of the Medina. The manager, Idriss, can probably answer the most eccentric question with great aplomb. Rue Mohamed Berghach 6, $40-70 per night. Grand Hotel Villa de France overlooks the central plaze. A grand old landmark with a generous terrace protected by gardens, it's also where Henri Matisse painted Window at Tangier. Corner of Rue d'Angleterre and Rue Hollande, $130-245 per night.
Where to eat:
Le Nabab is a quiet, upscale restaurant that's open late into the evening. Traditional Moroccan food is served, along with wine, by multilingual staff. Rue al Kadiria 4, approximately $23 per person. Restaurant Kasbah is a favorite with tour guides, with good reason. A four-course lunch menu - soup or salad, a traditional chicken pie called Pastilla, tajine with meat and couscous, and fried sweets and pomegranate - can be had at a leisurely pace in the midst of the market. Rue Gzenaya 7, approximately $13 per person.