Travels March 2006

Going Coastal

Away from the heat and bustle of Morocco’s historic cities lie some of the friendliest and most tranquil places in North Africa
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Where to Stay and What to Eat
A brief guide by Jeffrey Tayler.

Morocco’s main attractions can weary travelers as much as enchant them. The imperial cities of Fez, Marrakesh, and Meknes boast tiled tombs and ornate mosques set among medinas, or old quarters of cities, of medieval squalor as well as medieval allure. The moonscape crags of the Atlas Mountains demand of climbers powerful lungs and legs of steel. The oases of the deep south, with their towering casbahs, groves of palms, and fields of feathery alfalfa, stand amid Saharan wastes where the temperature can reach 120 degrees. Most wearying of all are the aggressive teenage faux guides, who, touting their services, can turn a stroll down a spice-scented lane into an excursion as tranquil as a stint of trading on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. While living as a Peace Corps volunteer in the medina of Marrakesh, I thought I would lose my mind or have to quit the country, intrigued though I was by it, until I discovered the towns along Morocco’s Atlantic coast.

These towns offer soothing breezes, temperate weather all year long, and, most important, tranquillity. They remain relaxed and welcoming to outsiders, perhaps because they aren’t overrun by visitors and depend more on fishing than on tourism for their income. In other ways, too, they little resemble Morocco’s inland cities. Although most of the country became a French protectorate in 1912, in the preceding centuries some parts of the coast fell to the Portuguese, others to the Spanish, and this has left the region with a uniquely varied architectural and cultural legacy. Some sixty miles south of Casablanca is Azemmour, whose Portuguese-built ramparts shelter what was a sizable Jewish community until the 1960s, when the Arab-Israeli wars sparked large-scale Jewish emigration from Arab countries. Down the coast is Essaouira, whose medina has of late become something of a cross between an artists’ colony and a resort for le tout Paris—a development that, surprisingly, has enhanced the city’s ambiance. Still farther south, at the edge of the Anti-Atlas Mountains, is Sidi Ifni, probably the friendliest and most peaceful inhabited place in all Morocco.

These towns can serve as refuges for travelers seeking a quiet interlude after the clamor of Marrakesh or Fez, and Essaouira in particular is worth a trip in its own right. Getting to them is no problem: they are connected by roads, other roads tie them to the interior, and international airports in Casablanca and Agadir make readily accessible the northern and southern parts of the coast. To travel between towns you may hire grands taxis (usually serviceable old Mercedes) at the rate of around three dirhams (thirty cents) a mile, or take (much less comfortable) buses. About $75 a day per person should be enough for meals, transportation, and accommodations in the better hotels. For information on getting around, maps, and historical aperçus I recommend TheRough Guide to Morocco and Cadogan’s Morocco.

At an indentation in the coast, near  where a river called Oum er Rbia (“Mother of Spring”) pours its dark-green water into a pale-green surf, rise the ginger-tinted ramparts and cream-colored houses of Azemmour. The Portuguese occupation of the town lasted only a few decades in the sixteenth century—barely enough time to build a fortress. During my most recent trip I was struck by how little had seemingly happened since then. Just inside the fortress’s main portal a young man in a blue djellaba pushed a lopsided, creaking cart marked, in wavering handwritten Arabic, Muthallajat al-Nahdha (“Renaissance Ice Creams”); tiny boys in skullcaps clustered around him, buying his wares. Farther on a bearded elder in pointy-toed yellow slippers guided a cart loaded with vegetables. From second- story windows housewives lowered buckets, into which he placed carrots, cauliflower, and onions. Veiled women strolled by with small sacks of semolina balanced on their heads or circular tablets of aromatic bread in their hands. Not only bread scented the sea air: fragrant purple-blossomed flowers were in bloom, their petals and leaves providing shelter for finches and warblers.

I wanted to visit the tomb of Rabbi Abraham Moul Niss, where a town moussem, or festival, is held each August. I had never seen a Jewish monument of this sort in Morocco, although the country had a rich Jewish history before the Arabs brought Islam, in the seventh century. When I asked directions at a shop on the main square, the owner told his eight-year-old nephew, Abdelwahid, to show me the way.

We left the square and followed narrow lanes that rose and fell, but mostly fell, through the medina and led into the once-vibrant mellah, or Jewish quarter. The mellah looked abandoned, with boarded-up windows and crumbling arches. By the western rampart, facing the Atlantic, we found the rabbi’s tomb, a whitewashed stone structure with Hebrew lettering above its locked steel doors, but the custodian was away and admittance was impossible. “The Jews come back for the moussem,” the boy said, “but you’re too early.”

We retraced our steps to his uncle’s shop, and from there Abdelwahid led me up a flight of stairs to show me a place on the ancient ramparts from which I could see the ocean. On the shore, a half mile or so distant, a wooden boat lay wrecked in the sand. The sight called to mind notions of tragedy and abandonment, but then I heard the excited voices of more little boys: the ice-cream vendor had pushed his cart beneath our spot on the wall.

From Azemmour the main road runs 180 miles south across the plain of Doukkala—the breadbasket of Morocco, where horses pull carts through burgeoning fields of wheat—to Essaouira. The beach at Essaouira is long, wide, and flat, a favorite with windsurfers because of the strong wind off the Atlantic. The hauntingly serene blue-and-white medina, enclosed in Portuguese ramparts, is home to the French-owned Taros, Morocco’s first literary café. But I had other things on my mind when I arrived, foremost among them charcoal-grilled fish, served at outdoor restaurants that overlook the surf. The fish had all been caught that day, sometimes that hour, aboard trawlers that by evening were moored just down the quay. Each dish came with a warm baguette and a crescent of fresh lemon.

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Jeffrey Tayler is a correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of four books, including Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Bus, Truck, Boat, and Camel.

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