Exploring the Medina & Rocking the Kasbah
Just 20 miles across the Straight of Gibraltar from Spain, Tangiers is a Moroccan city with an international past. Starting from 2,500 years ago when it was part of the Carthaginian Empire, the city has been held by the Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Visigoths and Umayyads. It became part of Morocco in 11th century A.D. but the invading fun didn’t end there with Portugal, Spain and Britain fighting over and claiming it at different times through history. The matter was finally settled by branding Tangiers an internationally controlled zone during the Protectorate Era from 1912 to 56. Before it finally became part of Morocco again.
Its unique journey through history has resulted in a city that is distinctly North African with infusions of Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, and French cultures. Not to mentions expat Brits and famous American artists, writers; especially Beat Writers such as William S Burroughs who famously wrote his magnum opus Naked Lunch in Tangier.
The city isn’t large but it is atmospheric and a few days spent in Tangier as included on a wider Morocco itinerary is a must. In fact, because the city is not overly large with a population at the most of 3 million, Tangiers has a charm and intimacy not felt in say Marrakesh or Rabat. The best place to soak up the same atmosphere that has attracted everyone from musicians to millionaires is in the center of the city, smack dab in the old town.
Starting at the city’s port and venturing north adjacent to the coastline are the original areas of the city: the Medina and the Kasbah.
The Medina was and still is the commercial center of every city in Morocco and Tangiers has a one to rival them all. Narrow, windy, streets that were designed so invaders lost their way now see countless tourists do the same. Still, getting lost in the Medina is no hardship as it is an adventure full of surprises.
Tangier’s Medina is bookended by two mosques and between them it is foot traffic only, although motorcycles and bicycles are usually tasked with goods deliveries. Some tourists hire a guides but others venture in alone to explore the markets, restaurants, cafes, bakeries, souvenir shops, and artisan shops, selling everything from leather goods, carpets, antiques, jewelry, clothing, cloth, cosmetics, spices, olives, honey, meat, fish, fruit, vegetables and more!
The merchants are friendly and expect you to bargain. The touts on the other hand can be a bit too forward trying their luck. Many earn their daily bread pressuring tourists to use them as guides in the Medina and most are knowledgeable and honest. It is perhaps a cultural divide when some tourists find their tactics, such as following them around the Medina until they agree to engage their services, a little intrusive if not aggressive. If you do not want a guide then a firm but polite, ‘No thank you’, should see them on their way.
A guide is not really needed as if you find yourself completely disorientated, locals will point you in the right direction. If the thought of wandering around the Medina left to your own devices makes you panic then any reputable hotel can source a private guide for you. Remember the deeper you go into the Medina’s labyrinth the cheaper the prices so it’s well worth venturing into its depths.
Shopping is not the only thing to do in the Medina, the architecture is also something to behold. An interesting mix of Moorish, Andalusian, and European colonial; houses, shops and mosques all combine in the maze like streets where life has gone on for centuries.
In Morocco a lot of life goes on in its cafés. The café culture is strong here and expats and tourists have gotten easily caught up in it throughout the years.
In the Petit Socco adjacent to the Medina’s walls is the Gran Café de Paris a favored hang out of those aforementioned Beat writers and other artists who called the city home for a period of time. Now tourists visit the café to soak up the atmosphere and revel in thoughts about those who once sipped a coffee here.
Leaving the Medina and following its streets upwards and northwards you come to the Kasbah where another famous café can be found in its windy streets. Café Baba has been in operation for over 75 years. It started out as a typical local café but was adopted by the expat community as a place to drink tea and smoke whatever was in their pipe – so to speak. We can’t speak for what goes on here now, but in the 1960’s the Rolling Stones spent their time here whilst in exile for drug charges. Enough said. Still it is a fun idea to roll up (joking!) at Café Baba and see where rockers, royalty and other notables have watched their time go by..
There are other things in the Kasbah besides cafés but after a couple of hours in the Medina and an uphill climb to the top of the old city, a hot or cool drink is in order. Once sufficiently refreshed, a wander around the Kasbah will see you enter into another era completely. The past of the quarter which was originally home to the sultan meets the present with historic buildings now boutique hotels and private residences.
The Dar el-Makhzen Palace built in the 17th century is now the Musee de la Kasbah where visitors can marvel at the building’s architecture and learn about local history.
The other view to marvel at is the Kasbah’s strategic one over the city itself, the Straight of Gibraltar and even a glimpse of Malaga, Spain on a clear day. An entire trek around the Kasbah takes about an hour and does not require a guide.
More Moroccan life is found outside of the walls of the Medina and the Kasbah, but they are great places to start. Walking around these areas can add up to day full of authentic experiences, panoramic views and hopefully, a special purchase to take home and remember the magical Tangiers by.