Have you ever been in a place for the very first time and yet felt like you’ve seen it before? You’re kind of sure you’ve never been there, but for some reason everything you see seems strangely familiar. The way buildings look, streets are aligned, people move in droves, that there is a sea, or ocean, view… And this feeling you’re in a city that doesn’t really fit with all the other cities you’ve seen in this country. Something like this happened to me once.
The first Moroccan city I visited was Tangier – specifically, it was its old, very distinctive part called medina. You need to know that many Arabian cities have these medinas and that they constitute a kind of separate microcosm. It’s governed by its own rules and looks nothing like the outside world. What once was simply walled medieval cities is now old towns with particularly rich histories. Some of them even figure on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List. I don’t want to dwell on that topic, however – there will be a separate post on that. What’s worth mentioning now is that they feel like true mazes of extremely narrow alleys and tightly packed tall buildings. So when I and Robert decided to see how regular Tangier looks like, I breathed a sigh of relief… and had a déjà vu in turn.
Tangier is one of the oldest Moroccan cities and can boast a very interesting history. But because of lack of famous monuments it is often treated as a transfer point in a journey further south. It would seem, then, that its attractiveness depends on a good railroad connection to Rabat or Fes, and also on low-cost airlines which fly there. In my view it’s a bit unfair. Even though Tangier is not as beautiful as above mentioned Fes, it’s worth at least two days of walking around. You might just discover something really fascinating.
Where Africa and Europe meet
The singularity of this city begins in the name, which – according to myths – comes from Atlas’s daughter’s name, Tingis. First of all, however, it comes from the Semitic word “tigisis”, meaning “port”. A fitting description given that Tangier is indeed a port city. From the Continental hotel’s terrace one can admire a marvelous view of the enormous harbor (double the marvelousness after dark).
Once you leave the medina it’s also worth walking by the seaside so that you can see a huge industrial area and a ferry station servicing ferries going between Tangier and Spanish Tarifa. You can have a look at distant Europe as well. It’s visible from anywhere at the coastal boulevard. It’s pretty pleasant to take a stroll there or go down to the beach – I recommend sitting back and relaxing on one of the benches – but the real adventure starts once you go deeper inland. Let’s go!
Taking a turn into any street departing from the wide coastal roadway (Avenue Mohamed VI), you have to be prepared for some exercise. Tangier is situated in quite a mountainous area. The streets are often steep, going up at one point just to quickly drop back down. So wandering around might cause a bit of a short breath 😉 Between one gasp and another it’s good to look around. Though at first sight surrounding buildings won’t draw much interest, they’ll quickly become… familiar. Yes, exactly. Roaming around without a plan and looking at residential blocks, I realized that it wasn’t the first time I was seeing these simple geometric forms made of light-colored stone, decorated from time to time with colorful ornaments on the balconies. Window frames weren’t cut out in characteristically Arabic semicircular, slightly pointed peaks, but instead took just your regular square shape. European. Rings a bell yet?
European or Arabic?
City of Tangier has its history influenced heavily by Portuguese and British, but first and foremost it was Spanish and French who left their mark here. The latter’s impact is most clearly visible precisely in simple housing architecture in the vein of Le Corbusier. One can’t help but recall… Marseille. But that’s not the only association. Both cities are ports and important trading centers of their respective countries. Both are situated in quite a mountainous terrain. Both feature a plethora of winding streets, going up and down incessantly. It’s just a loose association but the way from high-ground medina down to the harbor resembles steep way down from Marseille’s train station. A long street departing from the station goes to the port as well and has lots of roads and alleys branching out, leading further to the city’s heart.
The arrangement of both metropolises is not without significance either – both are focused around their harbors which mark their central spots. It’s as if Tangier and Marseille were embracing them with their shoulders. And one more thing – the French port has lots of Arabic influences (mainly due to connection to Algeria, a former French colony). They are especially visible in one of Marseille’s symbols – neo-Byzantine basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde, located on a hill and designed by Henri-Jacques Espérandieu. And also in Romanesque cathedral of Sainte-Marie-Majeure (situated in La Joliette district). It was destroyed in the 1850’s and rebuilt in neo-Byzantine style according to, again, Espérandieu’s design.
Being in Marseille a few years ago I already had this question come to my mind: can we still talk of it as of a European city? Or maybe the Arabic influence, brought in part by a huge influx of immigrants, are too big now to allow such description? Strolling through Tangier, I had similar feelings. Is it still an Arabic city, or maybe its appearance is more European these days? Whose range is greater there? Or maybe a different question needs to be posed: can one even describe any of the two as just European or just Arabic? If not, what have they become? What’s their identity?
Translation: Robert Mróz