Mint tea and desert haze

On the trail of a pilgrim, Troy Nahumko discovers fresh whitewash and the drift back to a changed Tangier.

This used to be as far as you could go, the last stop on the ancient Mediterranean ferry line that began on the shores of Syria and Palestine and stopped at Rhodes, Alexandria, Rome, Libya's Leptis Magna, Marseilles and Barcelona. Tangier was beyond even Hercules's pillars that marked the go-back point for everyone from the Greeks to the Arabs. Beyond here were either dragons or you simply fell off the Earth.

It's been some time since the mythical "There be Dragons" sign was taken down and replaced with a glowing McDonald's sign but even until relatively recently this whitewashed pearl on the north-westernmost point of Africa simmered with a slightly end-of-the-world feel. It was an international zone where anything and everything seemed to go, where some came with the specific purpose of getting lost. Bogart went to Casablanca but it's clear the inspiration came from Tangier.

Years after the last drink was served in Rick's bar, rock stars drifted by Tangier in the 1960s and '70s looking for other ways of getting lost. Amid the haze, they found funky Gnawa musicians from the Berber tribes in the surrounding mountains, absorbed their African blues and took them on the road, giving the world a taste of the fusion that would become trance music. Jimi Hendrix stopped on the way to his "Castle Made of Sand" in Essaouira, while Beat poets came for similar reasons and ended up fixing naked lunches in William Burroughs's haunt, the El Muniria hotel.

Hippies and hipsters spread tales of their adventures in the city the Phoenicians called Tingis but it was a local boy who first spread its name beyond the Levant. He saw it in completely opposite terms from those running away, as a beginning rather than an end. He set off on a pilgrimage to Mecca that became the longest ever recorded journey - that is until the invention of the steam engine made camel trains and sailing ships passe. The year was 1325 and the wanderer was Ibn Battutah.

Battutah tested the limits of the then known world. He ventured into eastern and western sub-Saharan Africa, where he marvelled at the black and white horses no one rode, trekked above the Black Sea into modern-day Russia and the snow desert few would venture into, rode elephants through Afghanistan and India, battled flying leeches in Sri Lanka and finally ended up somewhere in distant China. Maybe he was homesick, for he returned home to tell his tales.

I have come to Tangier on a pilgrimage to his tomb, to see what's left of this traveller's spirit and how his legacy fits with the modern-day boom town that Tangier has become, with skyscrapers and row upon row of new beachside construction.

At first glance the man who clocked more than 120,000 kilometres seems ever-present; the French spellings of his name, "Battouta", can be seen everywhere. You can step off a ferry from Spain with his name emblazoned on the side, book a flight at the numerous travel agencies that carry his name, bed down at his hotel and even get a quick shave and a haircut at his coiffeur. All of which seemed easier than finding someone who has the key to his tomb.

It used to be that the only way most travellers came to Tangier was by sea. Battutah disembarked in the nearby resort town of Asilah. Every other hour, ferries ply the strait of Gibraltar, moving merchandise and people in a metaphoric flow that symbolises the place, somewhere between Europe and Africa.

Advertisement

Every traveller has a tale of stepping off the dock in Morocco and being met by hordes of newfound "friends" wanting to help them into a taxi, find a hotel or even what the rock stars were coming for.

A few of those touts still eagerly wait for fresh prey to step off the boats but their numbers and zeal have been drastically diminished by the influx of thousands of tourists from Madrid, Paris, Brussels, Milan, Vienna and Berlin each day on low-cost flights on carriers such as EasyJet, AirBerlin and Ryanair.

As well, since the September 11 attacks in New York, the Moroccan authorities have attempted to limit the hassles experienced by tourists. Taking their cue from the intensely touristed beaches that lie just 20 kilometres north across the water in Spain and the massive revenue they represent, the Moroccan government has begun reining in the infamous "faux-guides", who at times turned visits here into frustrating tri-lingual insult matches and gave travellers a completely skewed vision of Moroccan hospitality.

With the arrival of the low-cost flights, boutique hotels have opened in the warren of lanes in the old city, completing the fantasy of an oriental getaway. Beautifully refurbished riads with views across the strait and authentic hammams have been added to a range of lodgings that baby boomer backpackers would remember.

The fresh coats of whitewash that give the boutique hotels their Mediterranean dazzle has also been splashed over the medina, or old city. Crumbling old houses are being renovated behind casts of wooden scaffolding and the kasbah, the walled fortress that overlooks the bay, is getting a much-needed facelift. The extra paint and care has had an effect, raising property prices, but even still, your dollar goes a long way here.

The real boom, however, lies outside the walls of the medina. Tangles of cranes sprout just beyond the cleaned-up white strip of beach along the corniche. As the Spanish property market languishes, investors are parachuting across the strait and holiday homes are springing up everywhere.

Multinational companies are sidestepping the rising wages and environmental regulations in neighbouring Spain and settling on the outskirts of Tangier, bringing with them an army of expat managers from Madrid, Barcelona and beyond. Ten years ago you might have been addressed in French as you entered a shop but now the tourist lingua franca is Spanish. Fusion tapas is the latest gourmet fashion.

One thing that hasn't changed since Matisse studied this city's unique blue sky is the pleasure of sitting at one of the tables at the Cafe Tingis on the Petit Socco in the medina, drinking mint tea and watching half the world go by. The French libertine Andre Gide's table is no longer reserved at the cafe and the cosmopolitan ambience in which he thrived isn't the same but the cast of characters amid the Babylonian swirl of languages is still enough to spice many a travel diary.

Up the hill from the Petit Socco on the Rue Siaghine in one of the hundreds of shops selling colourful Moroccan zellij tiles and tagine plates I finally feel the presence of Battutah beneath a mountain of pointed yellow leather slippers.

Bargaining hard to get the price down to a little more than I would pay for the same thing in Madrid's La Latina flea market, I mention the Rihla, Battutah's 14th-century travelogue, to the young salesman and his countenance softens.

"Have you actually read the book?" he asks incredulously.

"Of course," I reply, "I'm here on a traveller's pilgrimage of sorts to his tomb."

He smiles. "My father was a language teacher and I learned to read using that book. A very special discount for you, my friend."

Maybe Battutah's renowned luck as a traveller has rubbed off.

He probably wouldn't have recognised his home town when he returned after 25 years of wandering. But neither would a visitor who had been here just a decade ago.

The city that used to be a terminus is now a beginning. This once down-at-heel end is now an aged rock star on a comeback tour that begins in Morocco and just might end anywhere.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Air France flies to Rabat for about $2270 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including tax. This takes you non-stop to Hong Kong on Qantas (9hr), then to Paris with Air France (12hr 50min) and on to Rabat (3hr). Tangier is 223 kilometres from Rabat by road and there are regular trains (about 2hr).

Staying there

A quiet place in the middle of the action seems impossible but the Tangerina is peaceful and has beautiful views across the strait. Rooms from 650 dirham ($88), at 19 Riad Sultan, Kasbah; see latangerina.com.

Riad Tanja is a boutique hotel in the heart of the old city, with themed rooms to fuel your oriental fantasies from 900 dirham. At Rue du Portugal, Escaliers Americains, see www.riadtanja.com.

Eating there

In the Zoco Chico, a square in the old city, is a new restaurant named after the square run by a European expat serving Levantine cuisine. It's a one-man show with only three tables so don't come if you're in a rush. You can't beat the location, though. At 17 Petit Socco.

The Miami Beach Restaurant could have a better name but couldn't have better fresh fish or a nicer seafront location. Also serves drinkable local reds to complete a feast for about 200 dirham. At 3, Avenue Mohamed VI.