After decades of neglect, the north Moroccan city once talked about in the same breath as London, Paris and New York, is undergoing a renaissance
‘You can be anyone in Tangier. You can remake yourself, rewrite your backstory, reform or deform, indulge your subconscious, cultivate nemeses or simply start anew,” says Josh Shoemake in the opening of his brilliant 2013 book Tangier: A Literary Guide for Travellers.
Maybe that’s the reason some scenes from the next Bond film, Spectre, out on Monday, were filmed here.
The city was once talked about in the same breath as London, Paris and New York. During its glory years from the mid-1920s it was an international zone, administered by a joint convention including France, Spain and Britain. The big mystery is how and why Tangier was left out in the cold for so long.
One obvious answer seems to lie in its long neglect by former King of Morocco Hassan II who, for an entire generation, disdained its international appeal (and undeniably notorious reputation for sleaze and scandal) and even made a point of diverting national investment away from Tangier.
However, all that has changed under his son, King Mohammed VI, who came to the throne in 1999. He saw the economic potential of a city at the crossroads of Europe, Africa, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and now Tangier is on the verge of having not only Africa’s biggest port, but North Africa’s biggest car factory and Africa’s first high-speed rail link, to Casablanca, due to open in 2016.
But it’s in the old cultural heart of the city that the whiff of a great renaissance, spurred by all this new economic activity, is strongest. This is where the many privately funded and often painstaking restorations of its most famous landmarks are helping to return it to its former glory. There’s the hallowed Librairie des Colonnes, Tangier’s legendary bookshop and a famous haunt of writers including Samuel Beckett, which was opened in 1949 and restored in 2011. At the Grand Hotel Villa de France, a whole room has been preserved in honour of painter Henri Matisse and reopened in March last year after a two-decade closure. Even the hugely popular Tanger Inn, famous scruffy hangout of the beat generation, enjoyed a bit of a facelift last summer, but retains the black-and-white photographs of Jack Kerouac and his ilk on the walls.
For those who prefer things cool and low key, however, other classy renovations to be found in the centre of old Tangier include the snazzy new El Morocco Club, and Villa Zahia, a sumptuously restored colonial house with luxurious apartments to let. Last but not least, the revamped 1930s-era Cinema Rif, whose adjoining cafe spills out on to the legendary Grand Socco, has become the beating heart of Tangier’s new cultural vibe.
But there are scores of swanky new five-star hotels going up here as well, including not one but two new Hilton hotels – which surely goes to show that someone other than James Bond is placing a very big bet on the roulette table here.