Our hearts are pumping as we puff up Rue Belgique in the medina’s puzzle of sly twisting streets … and not only because of the lung-testing gradient.

We’re invited to lunch in the home of a Moroccan family, an exciting ‘first’ although slightly daunting to we westerners. Is my skirt too short? My blouse too low? Will there be sheep’s eyes? Should we shake hands?

It’s only 15km from Spain on a 35-minute belt-up-and-you’ve-landed Royal Air Maroc flight but Morocco still feels like a foreign country. Ahmed Chaara, our guide on Blands Travel’s Hidden Tangier tour, understands. He’s Berber but his wife is Swedish so he sees the European viewpoint. “Relax, everything’s going to be cool,” he reassures us.

And so it was, thanks to Imad Soussi of Travel Link, Blands Travel’s Mr Fix-It in Morocco who organises all their north African adventures. Every tour is an ‘experience’ cushioned by stays in five-star hotels, romantic riads and luxury tents in the Sahara Desert, with transport in air-conditioned people-wagons carpeted with beautiful Moroccan rugs.

Most expats do Tangier in a whistle-stop day trip by fast ferry from Tarifa for the buzz of haggling for camel leather handbags in the spice-scented souks. But you should linger a little longer to discover the true character of a city that was the quintessential good time had by all.

For three decades during the last century, Tangier was shared by nine countries – Britain, America, France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden. Known as the International Zone and populated by expats known as Tangerines, Moroccans needed a passport to get in! Each culture left its mark – in the architecture, the street names, the cuisine (don’t leave town without trying the fabuleux French patisseries).

From 1923 to 1957, the law book was relegated to the bottom shelf and spies, smugglers, gangsters and social dilettantes found in Tangier a ‘garden of earthly delights’. Errol Flynn came for the girls, Gore Vidal for the boys, Cecil Beaton didn’t mind. Matisse and Degas came to paint, Yves Saint Laurent to design, Malcolm Forbes to launch an Arab edition of his magazine for millionaires and the Rolling Stones for the Class A drugs. Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, Paul Bowles and William Burroughs came to write. Everyone came for the kif.

With our guide ‘Ahmedpaedia’, as we called him, you experience it all – with passion! The culture and colour, the fascinating history, the dingy cafes that inspired great literature. But lunch in the home of a Tanjaoui family is a ‘first’ and we are the inaugural guests!

Magic Carpet

So, on a Thursday in late August, we’re in the Calpe Lounge overlooking Gibraltar Airport runway, mixing bloody Marys and helping ourselves to free sandwiches and English newspapers. At £20 for a pass from the Gibair desk, you’re worth it.  With check-in two hours beforehand, there’s time to stock up with duty free (all but the hotels and a few restaurants in Tangier are ‘dry’)…

Words Belinda Beckett Photography David Cussen and courtesy of Le Royal Hotels and Resorts

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