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Tangier’s Shopping Secrets

The northernmost city in Morocco offers a stunning variety of antique furniture, textiles, and other authentic keepsakes.

By Lynn Yaeger

“You know what people say in Tangier—‘You have watches, we have time,’” Yves Taralon, artistic director of the Hermès home department—La Table Hermès—tells me, leaning back on a pair of antique pillows at the Hôtel Nord-Pinus Tanger, a beautiful pensione in the heart of the Kasbah. I’m only half listening to him because, frankly, those embroidered cushions are driving me nuts.

The day before—my first day in Tangier—I found vintage cushion covers just like them at the charmingly dusty, cluttered Galerie Tindouf that I was desperate to purchase; their jewel-like embroidery, their delightful crimson-and-white coloration had me at hello (or bonjour or marhaba in this multilingual city). But their price, a surprisingly firm $600 each, had me scurrying back to the Kasbah.

Today, Taralon has promised to share with me the finely honed shopping secrets of his own private Tangier, a place he loves so deeply that he dreams of it constantly when he’s at home in Paris. “The blue of the sky, the yellow of the walls, the Islamic green of the mosques…” he sighs, his gaze drifting across the Strait of Gibraltar to the coast of Spain. Those influences have shown up in full force in the decorative lines he oversees for Hermès—the scarlet-and-white porcelain; the beach towels featuring a giant Hand of Fatima.

Taralon came to Tangier 20-odd years ago, buying what he describes as “an ugly two-room house in the favela.” (It is now vastly expanded and almost unbearably chic.) He arrived from France nearly empty-handed. “I just brought a radio and my new boyfriend with me—the radio is still working, anyway,” he chuckles. “I planned to furnish it with finds from the flea markets. With no money you could do a lot of things at that time.”

You still can. In Tangier, you don’t toss things out when they break, or when you’ve grown tired of them. Everything is repurposed—Taralon’s armchairs were made by a neighboring scrapyard man; every bit of fabric in his home, from slipcovers and seat cushions to curtains, was woven to his exacting specifications by local weavers.

Enough talk! Let’s hit the town! We set out, descending a steep stone staircase and walking through the medina, full of tiny shops open to the street that sell sheepskins right off the sheep, wooden washboards, spangled babouche slippers, and other goods practical and frivolous. Taralon despairs over the fake Vuitton belts and polyester jungle-print robes; I confess that I get a real kick out of their exuberance.

A group of little girls in school uniforms and head scarves, with pink Barbie rucksacks strapped to their backs, pass us at the Grand Socco, Tangier’s main square, where Taralon proudly shows off the newly restored Art Deco Cinema Rif. He and other members of the local artistic community got together to rescue this movie palace, part of a larger effort to save Tangier’s historic buildings.

Wandering the nearby streets, Taralon and I discover something we have in common—an unvarnished love for old-fashioned shops with curved glass vitrines, here selling suits and shoes that appear to be untouched and undusted since the 1950’s. Taralon revels in Tangier’s authenticity, the landscape that makes one think Paul Bowles, patron saint of the colony of disaffected poets and dreamers who flocked here in the 1950’s, could at any minute come strolling out of the raffish Hotel Continental, a ramshackle inn that still presides over the waterfront.

After a quick tour of the massive indoor butcher market, where pale chickens hang by their necks and I nearly slip on blood and gristle (maybe ballet slippers aren’t the right footwear for meat markets), we head for the Fondouk Chejra, the Weavers’ Market, where Taralon has business. We pass through a doorway crowded with stalls selling toilet paper and plastic hangers, then up a flight of deteriorating stairs to a series of covered stalls where men—all men, only men—are busy spinning wool on wooden wheels in a scene straight out of the 19th century. Feral cats, skinny as those dead chickens, tiptoe along adjacent rooftops.

Taralon pops into a particularly unpretentious stall—it is literally a hole in the wall—and stuns me when he says the place does business with Barneys New York. He falls for a length of woven cloth of Christmas tree green with hot-pink stripes. What are you going to do with it?I ask. Is it for your home?For Hermès?“To have,” he shrugs. I turn my back and he buys me a red scarf, explaining that he is obsessed with red. “The red in Tangier—I like so much the red!” he says softly. The scarf has orange fringe. (It isn’t until I get it home that I realize it’s Hermès orange.) Within minutes, I am moved to buy myself a huge, striped, homespun blanket, at once rough-hewn and delicately patterned. The seller ties it up with frayed cord. It costs around $20.

After lunch at the home of a friend of Taralon (you rarely see any women in restaurants here, which frankly unnerves me) we head to Boutique Majid, which he likens to “une vraie caverne d’Ali Baba.” Two minutes inside the door and he is swooning over carpets made of bamboo and leather. “So modern, and isn’t that the Hermès style?”

My gaze, however, has landed on the far-from-modern. I’m entranced by Majid’s jewelry, especially the massive amber bead necklaces that would make the wearer resemble Nancy Cunard, the 1920’s artiste and heiress famous for her penchant for ethnic jewelry. I am contemplating a silver pendant whose main feature is a large Hand of Fatima inscribed with tiny Arabic letters (proving that this decorative motif long predates the Hermès beach towel), when Taralon motions for me to follow him upstairs.

We wander through a seemingly endless warren of rooms piled high with centuries’ worth of local goods. An old rack intended for the back of a camel looks to Taralon like a contemporary sculpture; the austere lines of a synagogue lamp may be reimagined for Hermès with silver horse bits.

Vintage synagogue lamps are swell, but unlike Taralon, I am not the sort of person who relishes rewiring projects. I’m the kind who wants Taralon to help her pick out a pair of incredibly stylish ankle boots at Boutique Volubilis, in the Petit Socco.

Volubilis is just the kind of place I dream of when I’m traveling and am invariably disappointed by the ubiquitous chain stores that clot major downtowns in every city of the world. For me, Tangier’s great strength—besides the wild beauty of the place—is that shopping here is blissfully free of those prepackaged, homogenous goods shoved down your throat in so many other supposedly remote burgs. At Volubilis, the utterly distinctive, handmade, oddly colored booties—halfway between hobbit footwear and Comme des Garçons—are embellished with covered buttons and lacings. After a lot of discussion, I settle on deep-pink-and-forest-green ones, a steal at around $100.

Once I start spending, I’m on a roll. I convince Taralon that we should visit Marrakech La Rouge, even though from the outside it looks like a classic tourist trap, including the shill out front. The ambience may be initially inauspicious, but inside, the goods, culled from all over the country, are cheap and first-rate: spice holders, hand-painted cups from Fez, inlaid boxes, miniature teapots, and more. I stack up a pile of these trifles and begin haggling for the lot, a good-natured ritual that is so much a part of shopping in Tangier.

And where is Taralon?Grumpy?Bored?I locate him in another corner of the store, where he is hugging a tray of olive wood and indulging in his own round of hard bargaining. “See,” I say, “you can find good things anywhere.”

It wouldn’t be Tangier without a visit to a traditional rug store, so Taralon introduces me to Coin de L’Art Berbère, where the owners provide Perrier and we are dazzled by an endless array of carpets, most of them ridiculously underpriced at around $300. I am taken with an orange-and-black checkerboard number, and am fairly kicking myself that I didn’t measure my rooms before the trip. (Don’t make this mistake!)

The next day, Taralon has planned an outing to his favorite restaurant, Casa Garcia, in the resort town of Asilah, which is a sort of white-walled, 15th-century version of Amagansett, if the Hamptons had been founded by the Phoenicians. We drive for an hour, past camels loping down the beach, past the straw market where Taralon has tables and chairs made and which he thinks is in imminent danger of disappearing in the wave of new development apparent everywhere.

Asilah does indeed have a surprisingly laid-back ambience—Casa Garcia is the first place where I’ve seen men and women eating together openly. Berobed young women stroll by, their abayat punched up with skintight jeans, stilettos, and copious eye makeup. Taralon tells me that this restaurant is a hangout for artists and the intelligentsia, and that in high season you can easily sit here for six hours. “It’s a celebration, like a church, a temple, a rite,” he rhapsodizes.

We don’t stay for six hours. We share plates of calamari and then walk through the walled town, filled with small shops selling earrings, scarves, and inevitably carpets, until we reach a high wall over the sea, on which are perched dozens of giggling teenagers.

Then we drive back to Tangier, where Taralon is anxious to show me Casabarata, a flea market so sprawling it’s a city in itself. I think, but don’t say aloud, that this could only charitably be called a junk market, but Taralon is beaming at the stacks of mattresses, the Mickey Mouse blankets, the rusted appliances. He insists that rare treasures exist under the rubble, and indeed a friend of his swears that Pierre Cardin once found a 1950’s Dunhill cigarette lighter here.

I find no gold lighters. When I unwittingly crinkle up my nose at the vast piles of maimed goods all around us, he just grins, thinking no doubt of how the metal washtubs might inspire Hermès chandeliers or how the broken window grills could be retrofitted as mirrors. “There are good things everywhere,” he reminds me.