Bruno Frisoni, the designer for Roger Vivier, has just begun renovating a house in the casbah, after looking at property in his native Italy. Like most expats here, Frisoni sees distinct risks in Tangier’s rebirth, despite obvious benefits to residents in the form of jobs and cash. “There’s a lot of new building that’s not so beautiful,” Frisoni says. “Then again, Tangier has never been about beautiful buildings. It’s more about the mix of cultures and the strange, miragelike quality that nobody can really define.” (An added attraction, stemming from the city’s lack of world-class restaurants: “It’s a great place to lose weight,” Frisoni jokes.)
Visitors craving an atmospheric dose of old Tangier would do well to start at Galerie Tindouf, a cluttered antiques shop outside the city’s mazelike but compact medina. Owner Boubker Temli, a third-generation dealer favored by locals like Yves Saint Laurent, runs the place with a nod to the city’s international history, stocking everything from 18th-century Moroccan peasant crockery to drawings by Beat artist Brion Gysin. Another antiques landmark, deep inside the medina, is Boutique Majid, three stories of well-chosen antique rugs, fabrics, jewelry, linens and 18th-century marriage caftans.
But the adjacent neighborhood known as Ville Nouvelle, or New Town, is getting noticeably sleeker: In June French decorator Régis Milcent opened the city’s first high-end European interiors shop, where locals can get their fix of Pierre Frey fabrics. “There’s something happening here in Tangier, obviously,” says Milcent. “But I’m not sure it will ever be like Marrakesh. The people coming here are always going to be slightly, uh, different.” That’s putting it mildly. A longtime haven for marginal types and eccentrics, Tangier still attracts the kind of people who do their food shopping wearing Russian czar outfits, and everyone knows of the man who lives here with a staff of dwarves (who sometimes dance for dinner guests) and a pet rooster named Birdie.
When the Tangier elite—eccentric and otherwise—venture out, they’ll often gather for a poolside lunch at El Minzah, built by Lord Bute in 1930 and now the hotel of choice for fans of faded grandeur. From the hotel it’s a quick walk to the hectic main square, Grand Socco, or a five-minute drive up into the lush hills of Old Mountain, where you’ll feel as if you’ve ascended the coastal bluffs of Majorca. It’s here that foreign homeowners such as Madison Cox tend their magnificent gardens, validating Tangier’s reputation as a landscaper’s paradise where just about any plant will thrive. For the past few years, Christopher Gibbs, the retired London antiques dealer, has been merging several plots of land into a gorgeous cliffside compound, complete with a century-old water garden. (Gibbs notes that renovations go much more quickly here than in his native England, where “if you want to build something that is going to disturb a single butterfly, you need to get 10 signatures. Here you just do it.”) The area has only one hotel, the opulent 10-room Villa Joséphine, an early 20th-century colonial-style mansion at the end of a driveway that cuts through a long row of yuccas. From the verandas and the poolside terrace, there’s a spectacular view over Tangier’s jumble of concrete rooftops and, beyond, of the ferries crisscrossing the Strait of Gibraltar.