Tangier: Not the Mysterious Hash Den I’d Imagined

Our first day trip from Rabat was to Tangier. Or Tangiers, Tanger, Tánger, or Tangah. They’re all correct pronunciations, apparently, depending on whether you’re speaking English, French, Spanish or Berber. However you say it this pretty city is in northern Morocco and located right where the Mediterranean and the Atlantic meet, on the Strait of Gibraltar. This Michigander just learned that Detroit means strait. Which explained why so many shops and things were named “Detroit” in Tangier.

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Anyways, this was an Embassy-led trip a few weeks back with a guide on a nice air conditioned bus, which was money for us, since although our car (and all our worldly possessions) arrived to Morocco almost one month ago, we’re still without them thanks to paperwork.

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say to prepare for an upcoming trip (or sometimes even a move) I think “Has Anthony Bourdain done an episode on this place?” There is indeed an episode of Parts Unknown on Morocco, focused solely on the city of Tangier. In that episode, the brilliant Tony (I miss him so very much) presents Tangier as a hash-smoked  seedy-but-romantic labyrinthine city where Bourdain’s literary idol William Burroughs shot massive amounts of heroine and produced the classic The Naked Lunch, prompting other Beat-era artists to relocate to Tangier. There’s a scene in the episode where Tony goes to a garden party with a group of octogenarians who moved to Tangier in the 1950s and 1960s (when the rather lawless city ruled by “International powers”) and this group is so interesting and quirky, they’re pretty much the cast of Clue the movie and I would have loved, loved to have been at this party. While I thoroughly enjoyed the episode, I did not find Tangier to be especially gritty nor teeming with spies/expats/writers/heroin addicts/hash pushers. But you know what, a city can be a poem/cloud/mirror and you see what you want in it. (In no city is this as true as Jerusalem, my goodness, but I digress).

Here’s what we saw:

The cave of Hercules, where the storied strongman rested when he was pooped. Apparently the opening looks like Africa? I guess I see it.


The stunning Cape Spartel, the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar. It was pretty cool to stand here and see southern Spain just across the strait. (Oh beloved Spain, I’m coming back to you so many times over the next few years).


We had lunch at the posh Le Mirage hotel, sitting on the terrace overlooking the very blue Atlantic Ocean.


And then moved to the medina of Tangier to tour the American Legation, which is the first American public property outside of the United States. According to our guide, it was gifted to the U.S. by Morocco, which was one of the first countries to recognize the newly sovereign United States of America. The Moorish building and grounds was a Consulate for 140 years and now its a museum. I especially liked a little wing that houses the typewriter and letters of Paul Bowles, the writer of The Sheltering Sky, a book that has greatly influenced by own writing. Bowles called Tangier home and died there in 1999.


After that, we walked through the medina for a bit. As one grumpy fellow tourer remarked “You’ve seen one medina, you’ve seen them all.” But I disagree. Medinas in Arab towns are all distinct and you can really get a feel for a place by seeing what’s for sale and how it’s sold, and how people move about these old walled shopping neighborhoods. Tangier’s medina had a relaxed and slightly mysterious feel and I would have liked to have shopped a bit, but we were rolling with a large group.


To cafes in the main square of the medina: Café Central and Café Tingis both have storied pasts, the place for meetups of intellectuals, writers, diplomats, and spies, supposedly.


We walked by Cafe Baba, the legendary cafe where the Rolling Stones and lots of other celebs have drank Turkish coffee and smoked hash. It may surprise you to learn that we did not go inside and light up with 20 of our government colleagues. But I did snap a picture of sleeping cat. Insert joke about it having a contact high.


After a stroll about we went to a cute place for dinner called Salon Bleu.


And then back on the bus for a three-hour drive back to Rabat. Yes, Tangier is not so close to Rabat so if you’re visiting, I’d recommended at least an overnight.

Since then, I’ve also gone way south to surf/yoga camp with a visiting friend and I’ll post a blog on that very interesting experience real soon.

To Tangier,


Update from 2021: Not very long after I wrote this post, a high-speed train began operating, from Rabat to Tangier. Take the train! It’s awesome.


  1. Beautiful views of Tanger, which was my first stop in Morocco. I thought it was truly exotic, second only to Marrakesh. The dinner reminded me that I hadn’t eaten couscous in my life. It was wonderful, and the meat and vegetables looked and tasted so fresh. The sunlight was as bright as on a Greek island.

    As a twenty-four-year old tourist on her first time abroad, I thought nothing of wandering around on my own. I didn’t have a guide, but a young boy came up to me and asked if I’d like a tour on his goat-cart, which I agreed to on this burning afternoon. He took me to a medina and the public baths, where mothers cared for their young sons. Where were the daughters? The bath water looked blackish, and cold, and I was rather appalled. Now I’m probably remembering Marrakesh rather than Tanger. I’m sure things have changed since 1971; I’m looking forward to more posts from this fascinating country!
    How nice it must have been to travel by air-conditioned bus. My 10-hour bus ride from Casablanca to Marrakesh didn’t have such amenities, but we made a “rest stop” in various villages enroute, where I’d buy a bottle of Coke and an orange or two, and big shiny black olives that began my love affair with the drupes. I steered clear of the display of sheeps’ heads on a fly-specked table. I felt adventurous, anyway, just by being there. I’ll play catch-up by following your blog! Thanks.

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