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

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.

After a hearty meal my thoughts turned to the Isle of Mogador. I had always wanted to visit this island, whose ruined fortress and prison rise above a boulder-strewn shore just across from Essaouira proper. A nature reserve, it is populated by rabbits, gulls, and, at times, Eleonora’s falcons, but no human beings except a caretaker. The Rough Guide told me that I would have to apply to the municipality for permission to land on the island, but this amounted to nothing more than asking the Royal Gendarmerie at the port if I could go.

At the quay I found a fisherman named Mohammed and bargained with him for a ride to the island. We boarded what he called his felucca—an outboard-powered scow that bore no resemblance to the slender vessels of the Nile—and pulled out of Essaouira’s small harbor, crossing bands of sea now deep blue, now luminous green.

Up close the island turned out to be covered in thorny scrub and seagulls’ nests. After disembarking on a tiny concrete pier, Mohammed and I hiked up into the birds’ domain. Gulls squawked at us from their nests in the brush, where they were incubating mottled green-brown eggs; they circled above us and dove down at our heads, often approaching from behind and screaming a few feet from us before veering away.

The gulls left us at the prison, a simple structure built in the nineteenth century by Sultan Moulay El Hassan. Only lichen-splotched gray stone walls now remained. Upon first entering, we could see where the offices and staff quarters had been. Farther into the ruins was a huge courtyard. This was where political prisoners were kept, Mohammed said—exposed to the elements, often chained to the walls. Beyond the walls stood a dilapidated minaret.

Near the shore again, we happened upon a stone hut where fishermen were mending nets. One of them told me that he wanted to show me something. I followed him back into the gulls’ domain to a clearing, where the earth was bone-colored and gravelly. He reached down and wrestled what looked like a pale stone the size of a grapefruit out of the earth. It was a human skull. Around us, I noticed with a shiver, lay femurs and tibiae, finger bones and ribs. The site was a graveyard, and the wind had blown away the earth to expose the dead.

“This was once a man, like us,” the fisherman said. He held the skull to the sun and peered into its empty eye sockets. “God grant him mercy.” He replaced the skull in the friable earth and covered it with sand.

For months at a time mists shroud Sidi Ifni, where little disrupts the quiet except the occasional chug of fishing boats. That Morocco and Spain fought a war in the 1950s over this sugary-white, now somnolent town is hard to imagine but true. Sidi Ifni belonged to Spain until 1969, when besieging Moroccan troops forced Madrid to return it. The Spanish left behind an Art Deco town center, including a church and quarters for their administrators that now house offices of the Moroccan government. Nearby, from the dozens of cafés along Avenues Hassan II and Mohammed V, ceaseless but friendly chatter emanates, and cars are few.

I followed the promenade from Place Hassan II in the town center down to the tomb of the marabout, or Sufi saint, who is said to have given Sidi Ifni its name. For centuries marabouts claiming descent from the Prophet Muhammad have attracted large followings in Morocco with their teachings and their ability to bestow baraka, blessings that supposedly have the power to heal. (There were no baraka on offer that day—I had missed Sidi Ifni’s moussem too.) A brass crescent moon tops the tomb’s white dome; pink-and-green columns support the roof over its courtyard; and blue-green tiles cover the lower half of its walls. All this seemed starkly geometric against the granite slopes of the Anti-Atlas Mountains, but roses growing in parterres in front of the tomb softened the impression.

Later that day I decided I needed a haircut. The Rough Guide recommended a barber named Hassan Anzag—but not for his talent with scissors. The book said he collected pictures of colonial-era Sidi Ifni. As Hassan’s scissors flicked above my ears, I thumbed through black-and-white snapshots of old Sidi Ifni, which, I was not surprised to see, looked a lot like new Sidi Ifni. One photo in particular caught my eye: it was of a young Elizabeth Taylor.

Hassan grew excited. “That’s Liz,” he said, “during the shooting of a movie. I’ve been trying to get her address, you know. I’d like to let her know I have this photo.” His scissors paused. “You wouldn’t happen to have her address, would you?”

In this timeless town it seemed almost plausible that I might. In the end, though, Hassan settled for exchanging addresses with me.