Matisse in Tangier

Of the many artists who have passed through Tangier, Henri Matisse is one of the most famous. The French impressionist and leading light of the early-20th-century Fauvist movement called Tangier a painter's paradise. His two visits to the city, in the spring of 1912 and again the following winter, had a profound influence on his work.

Inspired by the luminous North African light and the colour and harmony found in traditional Moroccan art, Matisse completed some 20 canvases and dozens of sketches during his time in Tangier. In them he honed the qualities that define his mature work: bold abstract lines, two-dimensional shapes and vibrant, expressive – as opposed to natural – colours.

Matisse mainly looked to the daily life of the medina for his themes. He produced several striking portraits of Zohra, a local prostitute, and a wonderful painting of a strong-featured Riffian woman sitting legs akimbo against an azure sky.

However, it is Matisse's renditions of the city that really strike a chord. Two of the most evocative are Vue sur la Baie de Tanger (View of the Bay of Tangier) and La Porte de la Casbah (Entrance to the Kasbah). Both are relatively subdued in their use of colour, but in Paysage Vu d'une Fenêtre (Window at Tangier) the artist hits full stride. The painting shows the view from his window in the Grand Hôtel Villa de France, looking out over St Andrew's Church, with its squat tower, to the kasbah beyond. The overriding colour is a pure, sizzling Mediterranean blue.

Paul Bowles in Tangier

Perhaps the best-known foreign writer in Tangier was the American author Paul Bowles, who died in 1999, aged 88. Bowles made a brief but life-changing trip to Tangier in 1910, on Gertrude Stein’s advice, then devoted the next 15 years to music composition and criticism back home. In 1938 he married Jane Sydney Auer, but they were never a conventional couple – he was an ambivalent bisexual, and she was an active lesbian. After WWII, Bowles took her to Tangier, where he remained the rest of his life. Here he turned to writing amid a lively creative circle, including the likes of William Burroughs and Mohammed Choukri. Visiting writers, from Jean Genet to Truman Capote, all sought out Bowles.

During the 1950s Bowles began taping, transcribing and translating stories by Moroccan authors, in particular Driss Ben Hamed Charhadi (also known by the pseudonym Larbi Layachi) and Mohammed Mrabet. He was also an important early recorder of Moroccan folk music.

Thanks partly to Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1990 film, Bowles’ best-known book is The Sheltering Sky (1949), a bleak and powerful story of an innocent American couple slowly dismantled by a trip through Morocco. His other works include Let It Come Down (1952), a thriller set in Tangier; The Spider’s House, set in 1950s Fez; and two excellent collections of travel tales, Their Heads Are Green (1963) and Points in Time (1982). A Distant Episode: the Selected Stories is a good compilation of Bowles’ short stories.

There is a dark and nihilistic undercurrent to Bowles’ writing. The Tangier American Legation Museum has a wing dedicated to Bowles' life and work.

Tangier & the Beat Generation

The Beat Generation was a post-WWII American counterculture movement that combined visceral engagement in worldly experiences with a quest for deeper understanding. Tangier was a key location in its development. Writer Jack Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsberg both passed through here, visiting the father of the movement, William Burroughs, who had moved here in 1953. The Interzone of Burroughs' most famous work, Naked Lunch, was written in and directly inspired by Tangier. Burroughs' writing utilised the cut-up technique pioneered by the multitalented Brion Gysin, who also spent a significant part of his life here. Burroughs, along with Paul Bowles, inspired a coterie of local artists. The result was a mixed bag, from the heights of artistic creativity to the lows of moral depravity. Traces of Tangier's grimy literary history can still be found:

  • Hotel El Muniria The hotel where William Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch, holed up with a supply of typewriter ribbons and methadone.
  • Le Tangerine A sleazy bar turned tourist and hipster hang-out, where Ginsberg, Kerouac and others drank: check the photos on the wall.
  • Café Central Burroughs’ principal hang-out on the Petit Socco, where he sized up his louche opportunities.
  • Tangier American Legation Museum Houses a wing dedicated to Paul Bowles, as well as a small section on the Beats.
  • Hotel Continental Scenes from the movie version of Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky were filmed here.
  • Gran Café de Paris The main post-WWII literary salon during the Interzone, it also drew Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote.

For more on the Beats, and Tangier's other writers, read Josh Shoemake's essential Tangier: A Literary Guide for Travellers.

21st-Century Tangier

Times were that Tangier was exactly the Moroccan destination that you'd pass through – a rundown city full of hustlers trading on stories of a libertine past. Those days are long behind it, and Tangier has entered the 21st century with a fresh face and a confident spring in its step.

Tangier's renaissance began in 2007 when the main port was replaced by the Tanger Med facility, 40km along the coast, now one of the busiest ports not only in Africa but anywhere in the Mediterranean. The new port allowed investment to flow in, not least the flagship Renault-Nissan car plant. Tangier now makes over 200,000 vehicles a year, exporting to the European Union as well as selling on the domestic market – the majority of petits taxis are now locally made Dacias. The plant is entirely fuelled by biomass from Morocco's olive oil industry – a neat fusion of ancient and modern Moroccan know-how.

The next step has been the Tangier Metropolis program, remodelling the city's corniche, building a new marina (due to open in 2017) and redevelopment around the train station, and adding hotels, malls and the new TGV train station for the high-speed link to Casablanca. The medina has been cleaned up, and the plan is to put the city back at the forefront of Moroccan tourism. There's a strong focus on domestic, Gulf and package tourism, but Tangier still lags behind destinations such as Marrakesh when it comes to boutique offerings. In spite of this we'd suggest keeping your eyes on the kasbah area as the place for future developments. Still, with events like the hipper-than-thou Nuits Sonores electronic music festival, and the artsy digital start-up at Technopark, the city's forward motion is bringing an optimism that it hasn't known for decades.