I’m probably not the world’s most erudite art-lover, but admirers of the great French painter Henri Matisse should be delighted to hear of the re-opening in that most magical of North African cities, Tangier, of the stunning Grand Hotel Villa de France where the French artist chose to live and work when he came to Morocco a little over a century ago.
Built in 1880, the hotel became the much-loved watering-hole for an élite of Europeans travelling to the international port of Tangier, and since its opening it has hosted many royals, dignitaries and members of the British aristocracy. It was extended in around 1900, outclassing its two main local competitors, the Hotels Cecil and Continental; indeed the Villa de France only lost its pre-eminent position when the Scottish businessman Lord Bute opened a larger and more sumptuous rival in 1930, the Hotel El Minzah, a favourite with Sir Winston Churchill and such Hollywood legends as Rita Hayworth, Rex Harrison and Rock Hudson, and whose excellent reputation continues today. After the Second World War, the Villa de France underwent a slow but steady decline as the El Minzah cemented its reputation. Both hotels are now part of the General Mediterranean Holding group owned by Iraqi-born British businessman and philanthropist Sir Nadhmi Auchi, and their Le Royal Hotels and Resorts division also has a number of five-star establishments in Luxembourg, Spain, Hammamet, Sharm el-Sheikh, Amman and Beirut.
Closed for two decades and threatened with demolition during the 1990s, the Villa de France lies in the middle of what was once the prestigious diplomatic quarter of Tangier. The heritage building has been splendidly refurbished and now houses a discreetly luxurious 58 rooms and suites. I had a superior room, with a large bed and an incomparable view towards the Bay of Tangier. The hotel’s beautifully restored Moorish architecture, along with its fountains, terraces and gardens would all have excited Matisse, who enjoyed one of the most prolific artistic periods of his life during his prolonged stays at the hotel in 1912 and 1913 – indeed he produced over twenty paintings and several dozen sketches during this period. His renowned Window at Tangier (1912) was painted from what was, at that time, Room 35 and today it’s open to guests as a kind of mini-museum. The view from the hotel, on a steep slope overlooking a park with St Andrew’s Anglican Church, the Grand Socco, the Medina and the distant Kasbah, apparently remains almost unchanged to this day.
And so to some exploration of Tangier. The Grand Socco (official name Place du 9 Avril 1947) is the romantic entrance to the Medina, a large, sloping, palm-ringed plaza with a central fountain that stands before the keyhole gate Bab Fass. Once a major market, its cobblestone circle is now the end of the line for taxis, the point at which the modern streets narrow into the past. For the best ground-floor view, climb the steps at the highest point on the circle across from the large tan building (the police station), to what locals simply call La Terrasse. This is what you came for: one of those dreamy moments when you think you’ve entered a movie set.
Then on to the Kasbah. This museum is perfectly sited in Dar el-Makhzen, the former sultan’s palace (where Portuguese and British governors also lived). The focus is on the history of the area from prehistoric times to the 19th century. Placards are in French and Arabic so have your phrase-book handy. You’ll see some pre-Roman tools, a sculpture with scenes of a bacchanalian feast, 16th-century jewellery, an extraordinary floor mosaic from Volubilis and a fascinating wall map of trade routes past and present. Before you leave, don’t miss the exotic Sultan’s Garden off the main courtyard opposite the entrance. The museum is outside the medina – follow the perimeter all the way to the highest part of the city at the western end, enter the Porte de la Kasbah and follow the road along to the museum.