On a rainy morning in Tangier, the only people in the medina, the old walled city, in addition to us, are two girls wearing pink Disney princess’ backpacks who scurry in front of the ancient kasbah and a man trying to sell us umbrellas. “Very cheap,” he insists, thrusting a bouquet of black stemmed ones in front of us.
The rain, just a drizzle now, feels good and the view from the hilltop kasbah of the Straits of Gibraltar, even on an overcast day, is memorable. Spain, currently shrouded in clouds, can be reached in two hours by ferry.
Tangier’s proximity to “the Continent” makes it a popular tourist spot for Europeans plus a centuries-old target for invaders.
Since just an olive shop is open, we wander into the American Legation Museum, the only U.S. historic landmark located abroad. Site of the U.S. diplomatic mission to Morocco from 1821 until 1956, the facility, a series of interconnected buildings some dating to the 18th century, features a collection of art detailing Moroccan culture and history. Eugene Delacroix’s memorable portrait of “Zorah,” a lovely, 13-year-old girl dressed in a purple caftan and white head scarf hangs in the dining room.
The Paul Bowles room displays photographs of the American writer who, along with William Burroughs, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and others lived large in Tangier after World War II when the city sported a laissez-faire attitude to drugs, illicit sex, cheap thrills and other vices.
Outside, the downpour morphs into a storm. Thoroughly soaked, we head to the Café Central, in the Petit Socco or “Little Square” for a warming cup of coffee. Legend has it that William Burroughs hung out here, probably people-watching and sobering up.Zacarias, the shop-keeper at the nearby Bazar Daoudioate, tells me how much he wants Obama to be president then quotes a high price on a necklace with amber colored stones. “If you have good taste, “ he says, “it’s not my problem.” Be prepared to bargain for the antique and new jewelry, pottery, lamps, mirrors and other items.
Lunch at the Saveur de Mediterranee, just around the corner from the El Minzah Hotel, is a find. The aroma of the house specialty, a fish soup of shrimp, baby shark, calamari and barley, cooked in an earthenware pot over a wood fire, draws us in. After this course, the owner serves us a savory dish of sautéed shrimp and bits of baby shark seasoned with cumin, ginger and garlic. We eat family style, using wooden spoons and forks to help ourselves from the central platter. Next, come delicious grilled sea bass followed by a dessert of pine nuts, almonds and barley mixed with honey. The tasty four-course feast costs 150 dirhams, or about $20.
What else to do for legal indulgence on a wet afternoon? We book a hammam at the El Minzah Hotel. During this luxury version of the typical public bath, Bouchra, a plump and smiling woman from Meknes, washes us with traditional black soap made from olives, then hoses us off, gesturing for us to relax on the heated marble slab while she readies the next round, a significant scrubbing and rinsing.
Bouchra, cutting quite the figure in her leopard spotted bathing suit, applies the ghassoul, a paste of Moroccan clay infused with orange blossoms, rose water and other ingredients. We sleep on the warm marble in the steamy, tiled oasis until Bouchra gently wakes us for the final dousing. For more pampering, we follow the hammam with an aromatherapy massage.
Relaxed, smiling and ready for a nap, we realize that even rainy days in Tangier have their own charms.