Tangier’s Art And Cafe Scene

Tangier
Tangier in Morocco is an interesting blend of European, African, and Middle Eastern culture. This has made it a longtime meeting ground and inspiration for artists and writers.

The city is best known in the West as the residence of many of the Beat Generation writers. William S. Burroughs wrote “Naked Lunch here and Tangier’s International Zone inspired his Interzone, a setting that appears in several of his novels. Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Corso passed through and non-Beat Tennessee Williams also spent time here. Paul Bowles stayed the longest, coming to Tangier in 1947 and living there for half a century.

Several hotels, bars, and cafes proudly proclaim an association with one famous writer or another. I didn’t go hunting them down as I felt no great urge to see the vestiges of a literary scene that had died before I was born. It’s the writing that endures, so instead I started rereading “The Sheltering Sky,” a haunting and mysterious novel that any writer can profit from studying. Maybe I’ll hunt down those literary landmarks next time. Tangier is one of those places that draws you back.

While I didn’t go hunting for the literary scene, that scene sprang on me quite by surprise. I heard that Mohamed Mrabet was having an exhibition at Art Ingis at 11 Rue Khalid ibn Oualid. Mrabet is one of my favorite writers, an old-style Arab storyteller whose kif-laden tales were first translated by Paul Bowles in 1967 and blew my mind all through the ’90s. He’s also a prolific illustrator, using a thick pen to produce intricate designs reminiscent of the patterns women henna onto their hands in this part of the world.

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I didn’t even know Mrabet was still alive. Seeing the exhibit immediately became a top priority and it didn’t disappoint. Check out the image above and the gallery to see examples of his work. Some of the smaller drawings were affordable and one became the best Christmas present my wife ever gave me. It now hangs on the wall of my home office. With that kind of good luck, I’m sure to head back to Tangier.

Art Ingis was recently opened by a Parisian who is such a newcomer that he hasn’t had time to learn Arabic and Spanish yet. I suspect when I see his next show he’ll be coming along fine. Many of the galleries are owned by French expats who pass easily between the mix of languages spoken here.

Rue Khalid ibn Oualid feels like a little stretch of displaced France. Across the way at number 28 is Les Insolites, a friendly little bookshop with mostly French titles as well as a shelf of English and Spanish books. They serve up European-style coffee in a little terazza and the shop is adorned with photography and African sculpture, all for sale. It’s in a sleek Art Deco building that also houses an interior design boutique run by a French Algerian.

Not far away on Rue de la Liberté is Le Centre Culturel ibn Khaldoun, which had an exhibition opening of several local painters. There was also a show of the French painter and sculptor Yanik Pen’du at Galerie Delacroix just down the street at number 86.

We found all these exhibitions without really trying. There were several other galleries we didn’t have time to explore, and I’m sure there are many more we didn’t even hear about.

Being a center for art and literature, of course Tangier has a great café scene. There are two main types – the traditional Moroccan teahouse and the French-style café/patisserie. Traditional teahouses are everywhere, from little cubicles in the market to larger, dimly lit affairs on the plazas. The few women who go to them are mostly foreign and the drink of choice is tea made with fresh mint leaves floating in the water. The pace is slow. It takes ages to get your drink or even pay for it and that’s OK. This is a place for whiling away the hours in relaxed conversation.

Some of the cafes welcome kif (hash) smokers, while others don’t tolerate them. It seems that a café either has someone smoking a joint at every other table or nobody is smoking at all. As I mentioned in my overview of Tangier, public drug use is common here.

The French-style cafes see more of a mix of the sexes and no smoking. Some of these are lovely places that look like they’re straight out of a French New Wave film, although a little frayed around the edges. In addition to the ubiquitous tea, they offer coffee, cake, pastries and elaborate goopy ice cream concoctions.

All this familiar culture might make you think you’re in some far southern outpost of Europe, but that would be a mistake. The Africans discovered coffee and invented cafes long before the bean became all the rage in Europe. The art, too, is mostly Moroccan. This is an African city that has absorbed European influences like we’ve absorbed some of the best of Africa.

[Photo of a drawing by Mohammed Mrabet taken by Sean McLachlan]

Salt, wine, and wealth in Spain’s Basque region

Basque, wine, Rioja, wine tasting
In the modern world we don’t give much thought to salt. We casually pick some up in the supermarket or tear open a packet at a café, but in the past salt was a vital and sought-after commodity. Everyone needed it for preserving food and as a source for iodine. Nobody could live without it and those who controlled its supply became rich and powerful.

The Basque region of Spain was a major supplier of salt thanks to a strange legacy dating back 220 million years. The remains of an oceanic deposit of salt lie close to the surface at Salinas de Añana. People have been digging up salt here for at least 5,000 years. Our hiking group is visiting this valley. We see pipes channeling saline water onto platforms, where the water evaporates and leaves behind a salty crust. The water has 250 grams of salt per liter. By way of comparison, the Mediterranean has only 40 grams per liter. The Dead Sea has 350 grams per liter and is so salty you can float on it.

The salt is ultrapure and highly prized by top restaurants. Despite this, international competition from more affordable brands has led to a decline in business. Fifty years ago there were some 5,500 salt platforms. Now there are only 45. Yet the workers at Salinas de Añana have carved out a niche for themselves and are hoping their traditional extraction process will get the valley named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

%Gallery-124223%Leaving the salt valley behind, we follow the old Salt Trail through rolling fields punctuated by forest. We circle Arreo Lake and come to Fontecha, a town made rich by salt. Back in the Middle Ages, salt meant wealth, and wealth meant power. Two huge towers glower over the little town, erected by rival families from the money and influence the salt trade gave them. Sadly, both are being worked on and are closed to visitors. Instead we stop for lunch at a terraza, the outdoor seating of a local café. Sitting at terrazas is a favorite pastime in all regions of Spain. Sip some wine, talk to friends, and watch the world go by. It’s a nice way to spend an afternoon or relax after a hike.

More wine comes that night when we visit Bodega El Fabulista in the hilltop town of La Guardia. This is in La Rioja region, where Spain’s best wine comes from. An employee takes us down into the cool cellars, where vaulted stone ceilings shelter orderly rows of oaken barrels. The air is a constant 11-13°C (52-55°F) and 85% humidity. The barrels are made of various types of oak to lend the wine distinct flavors. The amount of time the wine is left in the barrels is critical for its rating: crianza wine spends a minimum of 12 months in oaken barrels, reserva needs 15 months, and gran reserva spends 5 five years in the winery and at least two years in the barrel.

This is all very interesting, but I’m getting anxious to sample some good old Spanish vino. I have some more waiting to do because as we stand glass in hand, the wine temptingly close, we’re treated to another lecture. This time it’s about tasting wine. When a waiter opens a bottle for you and pours out a little for you to check, there’s no need to actually drink some. Smell it to make sure it hasn’t turned to vinegar, and look at it to make sure no bits of cork are floating in it.

Next we examine the wine’s “crown”. If you tip the wine a little while holding it over a white surface, you can examine its edge. The color tells you how old it is. Young wine has a purple edge. As the wine ages it gradually darkens, until with gran reserva it looks brown. Finally we’re allowed to taste it, and everyone holds forth on their observations about its accents and flavors and subtlety. I suppose I could too, but I know very little about wine (I’ve always tasted it to check it, and until now I had no clear idea what crianza meant) so I’ll spare you the pontification and just say that to my uneducated palate, Rioja wine, especially that from El Fabulista, is delicious.

Wandering through the narrow, winding streets of this medieval town we see that wine, like salt, meant wealth and power in the old days. Many houses are adorned with ornate family crests, and the town gives off an aura of money and social standing. Rioja wine is drunk all across Spain. While the salt from Salinas de Añana has become a specialist product for connoisseurs, Rioja has a major market share in a country that demands quality wine.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own.