Umberto Pasti's exquisite home, full of museum-worthy objects, may be the House of a Lifetime, but the writer and horticulturalist has always been equally inspired by its enthralling location: Tangier. Here, he shares a very special insider's guide, a real must-read for anyone contemplating a trip to the Moroccan city.
BY UMBERTO PASTI | MARCH 2023
Why Tangier? How is it that this provincial and not especially beautiful city, devoid of important historical monuments, can so instantly feel like home? Is it the expanse of blooming irises, as far as the eye can see? The solemnity of the site? The two seas that border Tangier, engulfing her like the two elders gazing at Susanna in her Bath? Perhaps it’s the memory of five sensational paintings by Matisse, each inspired by Tangier and Moroccan culture? Or the great, great novel – La Vida perra de Juanita Narboni? Or is it the hospitality of the locals?
In truth, it is a little bit of everything, and something else: the Tangeri way, the Tangeri style. It’s very difficult to grasp and describe, but if you recognize it when you get here, you are one of those who will stay forever.
Where to Stay
Aux Trois Portes: In Tangier, there are a thousand homestays, with patios that smell of incense and the hum of fans to lull your siestas. But if you prefer a hotel, you have a fairy tale at your disposal. It sits atop the cliff facing Spain. Designed by Jean Louis Ricardi - a brilliant decorator and Madeleine Castaing's former assistant - it has gardens with shady corners and grottos, living rooms of an Uncle Vania-style house, and beautiful rooms where it feels like a Proust Duchess has just made love with a Simenon spy and Paul Morand's Hecate is to return from a party behind the port! It's a reminder of the close relationship between interiors and literature.
Hotel Minzah: More traditional than Aux Trois Portes, but as comfortable and reliable as an old pair of shoes, is Hotel El Minzah (pictured above, left). They serve an excellent dry Martini at the bar.
Hotel Continental: The third hotel I'd recommend is the old Hotel Continental in Dar Baroud. Once the best hotel in the city (the Spanish royal family used to stay there), it is today a crumbling beauty, which has been relentlessly restored. But certain atmospheres survive everything. Despite the Walt Disney-style restoration of the ancient walls of the medina, the smells and noises - and the light that made Matisse fall in love, and deluded so many mad men - are still there.
Where to Shop
Bazar Tindouf: The sancta sanctorum of the city's antique dealers is Bazar Tindouf, in Rue de la Liberté, opposite Hotel Minzah. You’ll find lanterns, carpets, mats and local handicrafts, but also Spanish Art Nouveau tiles saved from houses undergoing demolition, chairs from cafes that have closed, heaps of old fabrics, and rare painted Berber chests. You’ll also find the owner, Mohammed, a man with delightful manners who always sits in the same Thonet chair. I've known him almost 40 years and I love him. Bazar Tindouf, 64 Rue de la Liberté; +212 5399-31525
Boutique Majid: I can say the same about dear Majid, in the heart of the medina, famous all over the world for the quality Moroccan antiquities he collects and trades: carpets, kilims, Berber doors and southern ceilings, ceramics, caftans of indescribable colors, jewels, embroideries. Spending an afternoon with Majid is even more fascinating and educational than a visit to the Kasbah Museum (see below).
Casa Barata: One of the most beautiful markets in the world. Here, you could buy twelve Victorian windows with Iraqi red-and-green panes, a marble Roman head, a Berber museum carpet, and two black-and-gold lacquered Regency chairs – all in a couple of hours. Historically, Casa Barata drained the flow of antiquities coming from the estates of late ex-pats: and foreigners, in those years, were all collectors in some way. Today, Casa Barata is less opulent, but still fun.
Where to Eat
Le Saveur de Poisson: As with many Muslim cities, Tangier does not have a well-developed restaurant culture. You can eat well, very well, in private homes, where teams of women are dedicated to preparing the incredibly elaborate dishes for which Moroccan cuisine is famous. However, next to Hotel Minzah is a tavern called Le Saveur de Poisson where the fish soup is exquisite.
Casa de Italia: You’ll also have a pleasant dinner at Casa de Italia, which is set in a beautiful building that once belonged to a Sultan and is now owned by the Italian government. It’s like entering a 1960s Italian pizzeria, particularly because it's frequented by all the foreigners who live in Tangier.
Snail soup: After dinner, especially if you are very drunk, take a stroll down the beach promenade, which used to be called Avenue d'Espagne, now Avenue Mohammed VI. More or less in front of the Marina Bay, you will find a van that sells snail soup. Seasoned with garlic and thyme, served in ceramic bowls, the little snails are delicious and dispel hangovers. After a couple of servings, you'll be ready for a dip in the icy waters of the bay just across the road.
What to See & Do
Of course, the Kasbah Museum is worth a visit, both for its collection and the beauty of the building and old garden. Two other gardens should not be missed, both cemeteries. The first is around the Anglican church of Saint Andrew. This is where all the English (who, by living – and dying – here, contributed to the legend of this strange city), are buried. The second is that of Boubana, on the road that leads to Cap Spartel. In Boubana, Christians are buried – the Spanish, French, Belgians and Italians who had emigrated here and built roads, houses, bridges, schools, opened butchers and dry cleaners, doctors and lawyers’ offices. Wandering among the neo-Moorish tombs of Boubana, full of calla lilies and wild gladioli, among the stuccos swollen by the rain or cracked by the sun, you find yourself in a world where many foreigners settled. Driven by hunger, they found much more than bread. Kasbah Museum, Place de la Kasbah, 90030 Tangier; +212 5399-12092