9 mins

Alternative Morocco: The journey to Morocco’s little-visited Atlantic coast

Morocco may be known for its souks and sand dunes, but fringing that famed, exotic interior is over 1,200km of Atlantic coastline and a melting pot of cultures to explore…

A tiled fountain in Tangier (Sarah Gilbert)

As the sunset faded into a purple night, I sipped on a negroni at the rooftop bar of the Hôtel Nord Pinus, tucked into Tangier’s historic kasbah and decorated with vibrant handcrafted carpets, rich in Amazigh Berber symbolism.

Next to me, three Moroccan girls perched around a table and discussed the meaning of life, dipping in and out of Darija, French and English with consummate ease. I scanned the Atlantic ocean; the lights of Spain twinkled on the horizon. I was almost within touching distance of Europe and yet Tangier felt, as Mark Twain said many years before, ‘thoroughly and uncompromisingly foreign’.

Off-the-beaten-track in Morocco (Sarah Gilbert)

Off-the-beaten-track in Morocco (Sarah Gilbert)

Think of Morocco and you might think of the mysterious medinas of Marrakech and Fez, the rugged peaks of the High Atlas, or the sand seas of the Sahara. But along its windswept northern Atlantic coast, from bohemian Tangier and cosmopolitan Casablanca, fishing villages and bird-filled lagoons, storied Portuguese forts and vast swathes of golden sand, there are off-the-beaten-track treasures still to be discovered.

If you take Al Boraq – Africa’s first high-speed train, named after a mythical winged horse – you can be whisked from Tangier to Casablanca via Rabat in just over two hours. But why rush it? Instead, I was taking the coastal road less travelled, driving south from Tangier to Essaouira in order to discover another side of Morocco – its untouched coastline and its mix of cultural influences.

City of artists

Coloured steps in the Tangier medina (Shutterstock)

Coloured steps in the Tangier medina (Shutterstock)

I began my tour of the northern Atlantic coast in Tangier. The gateway to Europe and Africa, for the first half of the 20th century, this port city was an international zone and fabled for its hedonistic excesses, drawing rock stars, socialites, artists and writers from around the globe.

But after it was returned to Morocco in 1956, it lost its anything-goes appeal and began to slip into a seemingly unstoppable decline. Now its story is changing. With the support of King Mohammed VI, investment has poured in. There’s a new glitzy marina, hotels and apartment blocks are springing up around the bay and streets are being spruced up.

I stayed at the beautifully restored La Maison Blanche on the edge of the kasbah, the oldest and highest part of the medina. Here the room names nod to the literary glitterati – including author Paul Bowles, honoured at the American Legation Museum – that have called Tangier home. From the sun-filled terrace, I saw minarets mingled with cranes, but the fabled light that inspired artists such as Henri Matisse was undiluted.

The legendary Café Baba (Sarah Gilbert)

The legendary Café Baba (Sarah Gilbert)

Vestiges of Tangier‘s alluring loucheness remain in its nooks; tales of the Rolling Stones jamming until the early hours with sub-Saharan gnaoua bands, to the legendary Café Baba, where a faded photo of a kifsmoking Keith Richards still has pride of place. I headed to the Petit Socco, once a hub of smuggling and debauchery, and joined the locals people-watching over a mint tea from the terrace of the Café Central. It still felt that – almost – anything was possible here.

Birders’ paradise

Sunset at Moulay Bousselham (Sarah Gilbert)

Sunset at Moulay Bousselham (Sarah Gilbert)

An hour and a half south of Tangier, I discovered Vila Bea perched on the oceanfront of the low-key and distinctly Moroccan resort of Moulay Bousselham. This chic French-owned boutique hotel could have stepped straight from the pages of a design magazine, artfully mixing up Moroccan craftsmanship with vintage European finds – perhaps a Pierre Paulin chair or Verner Panton lamp – all framed by sand, sea and sky.

In July and August, the one-street town throngs with Moroccans escaping the sizzling cities. However, on this off-season evening, I shared the superlative sunset with a handful of fishermen who were braving the breakers to bring in the catch of the day.

Boats in the blue lagoon (Sarah Gilbert)

Boats in the blue lagoon (Sarah Gilbert)

Beyond the beach, the Merja Zerga – or Blue Lagoon – is one of North Africa’s most important wetlands and a big draw for twitchers. Hawk-eyed Hassan has been offering bird-watching tours for more than 30 years and as we left the harbour, bobbing with sea-coloured wooden boats, I realised that he had timed it perfectly. The tide was high enough to allow us to putter across the lagoon’s smooth expanse, but there was enough exposed mud to get up close to the birdlife.

As cosmopolitan as Tangier, among those holidaying were a lone black egret from West Africa, a pair of sandwich terns from the UK and a flock of pink flamingos from the Camargue. I could barely keep up with the array of plovers, gulls and waders, as a flock of ibis ebbed and flowed above our heads and a graceful osprey skimmed the water, a fish lunch in its grasp.

Historic port

Rabat is both a modern coastal capital and a historic port (Sarah Gilbert)

Rabat is both a modern coastal capital and a historic port (Sarah Gilbert)

Like Moulay Bousselham, Rabat – 90 minutes further south – is pretty low pitched, especially for a country’s capital. An imperial city turned administrative centre, it’s home to Mohammed V’s opulent marble mausoleum which stands alongside a forest of shattered stone pillars in testament to an ancient unfinished mosque; as well as the picturesque ruins of Chellah on the city’s outskirts: part Phoenician colony, Roman settlement and Islamic necropolis.

The Hassan Tower, near the Mausoleum of Mohammed V in Rabat (Sarah Gilbert)

The Hassan Tower, near the Mausoleum of Mohammed V in Rabat (Sarah Gilbert)

But I opted to stay in neighbouring Salé, once the base of nefarious 17th-century corsairs, the Salé Rovers who created a self-governing pirate republic, making forays to Spain and beyond in search of slaves to trade. That morning, as I gazed out over the estuary to Rabat’s blue-and white-washed clifftop kasbah, djellaba (a long, loose-fitting robe) wearing beachgoers lounged under umbrellas, kids played barefoot football and people eschewed the shiny new red trams to cross the water in blue rowing boats.

Breakfast at The Repose, Salé (Sarah Gilbert)

Breakfast at The Repose, Salé (Sarah Gilbert)

My base was The Repose in the heart of Salé’s medieval medina, a lovingly restored seven-room riad run by English expat Jan and her husband Rachid. It felt like staying at a friend’s house, with the advantage of superb vegetarian cooking, and a leisurely breakfast on the plant-filled terracce to the soundtrack of competing muezzin (the call to prayer).

After following Jan to the Koranic school, its interior embellished with carved cedar wood, dazzling zellij tiles and ornate stucco, I slipped through the timeless souks enveloped in the aroma of freshly-baked bread, passed stalls piled high with plump olives and pyramids of aromatic spices.

Skeins of wool were traditionally bought and sold in Souk El Ghezel (Sarah Gilbert)

Skeins of wool were traditionally bought and sold in Souk El Ghezel (Sarah Gilbert)

Following afternoon prayers, a crowd began to gather in the tree-shaded Souk El Ghezel, the largest square in the medina, where traditionally skeins of wool were bought and sold. But that day there was a different kind of auction, arranged by women, chiefly for women, who employ men to show off the goods – from richly embroidered kaftans to more prosaic pots and pans – and take the money. 

Djellabas for sale in Salé (Sarah Gilbert)

Djellabas for sale in Salé (Sarah Gilbert)

Later, Jan despatched me to the old-school neighbourhood hammam, where I was led to the first of the hot, hotter and hottest tiled rooms. Shafts of light from the star-shaped holes in the domed ceilings pierced the steam haze, where local women of all ages lounged around in various stages of undress, washing themselves with black soap enriched with olive oil, combing their hair and catching up on the gossip.

Like a child at bath time, I surrendered my limbs to the lady employed to scrub me briskly with a coarse mitt until, satisfied, she showered me with buckets of warm water and I emerged with baby-soft skin.

The White City

The Grand Theatre of Casablanca (Sarah Gilbert)

The Grand Theatre of Casablanca (Sarah Gilbert)

It’s still surprising that Casablanca, about an hour south again, is often overlooked by visitors. Not only is it Morocco’s economic hub and most populous metropolis, but the ‘White City’ also boasts one of Hollywood’s greatest unofficial PR campaigns.

But while people may be (over) familiar with the classic 1942 movie, the fact that the city’s streets are effectively an al fresco museum of architecture is less well known. From the whitewashed 19th-century medina to the grand boulevards of the French colonial era, Casablanca rewards visitors who explore on foot.

Finished in 1993, and one of only two mosques in the country open to the public, the 210m high minaret of the Hassan II Mosque dominates the seafront skyline. It can hold 105,000 worshippers inside and out and is a masterclass in Moroccan decorative arts that took around six years and 6,000 maalems, or master craftsmen, to create. Aromatic cedar wood was brought from the Middle Atlas Mountains, granite from Agadir, the colossal gates are beaten brass and titanium, and the lotus flower fountains in the underground ablution rooms were carved from local marble.

The Hassan II Mosque (Sarah Gilbert)

The Hassan II Mosque (Sarah Gilbert)

On a tour of downtown with Lahbib El Moumni, an architect and member of Casamémoire, a non-profit organisation dedicated to preserving the city’s 20th-century architecture, I marvelled as geometric Neoclassical edifices rubbed shoulders with ornate neo-Moorish façades. Symmetrical Art Deco structures and the contemporary Grand Theatre de Casablanca stood out, all blindingly white against the cobalt-blue sky.

Passage to Portugal

Entrance to the Azemmour medina (Sarah Gilbert)

Entrance to the Azemmour medina (Sarah Gilbert)

Another architectural anomaly lay an hour further down the wild coastline: the Mazagan Beach and Golf Resort stands like a contemporary kasbah on a 7km stretch of deserted beach. There was certainly no shortage of things to do – surfing lessons and horse rides along the shore – or places to eat.

But I bypassed the pool in order to explore Azemmour, a ten-minute drive to the north. The city rises above the banks of the Oum Er-Rbia – the ‘Mother of Spring River’ – that twists through fertile fields and eucalyptus forests to the Atlantic. For a brief period in its history it was Portuguese, after they conquered it with ease in 1513, before abandoning it almost 30 years later.

Azemmour wears its art on its scuffed walls (Sarah Gilbert)

Azemmour wears its art on its scuffed walls (Sarah Gilbert)

I wandered around the tourist-free walled medina, an atmospheric warren of winding streets lined with crumbling buildings, and tagged along with a bevy of street cats in the wake of a straw-hatted sardine seller, as he pushed his ramshackle wooden cart over the cobbles.

As I dipped down snaking alleyways, each one narrower than the last, an elderly lady smiled and wagged her finger at me, signalling that I was heading down a dead end. An age-old Amazigh Berber tattoo decorated her chin. This dying tradition is as much symbolic as it is practical; it is believed to protect against evil spirits, as well as announcing your tribe.

One of the murals in Azemmour (Sarah Gilbert)

One of the murals in Azemmour (Sarah Gilbert)

Known for its crafts, Azemmour wears its art on its scuffed walls. The murals immortalising Mustafa Azemmouri – better known as Estevanico or Esteban the Moor after he was sold into slavery – revealed an unexpected slice of history. While much of his story has been lost in time, we know that he was the first African to set foot in the present-day United States; one of four survivors from an ill-fated Spanish expedition to the New World in 1528, that withstood shipwreck, famine, disease and Native American attacks to make it to the wild west.

To the south of its namesake resort, the 16th-century city of Mazagan – now known as El Jadida or ‘The New’ – was one of the first African settlements built by Portuguese explorers on route to India. It was their last stronghold when they were evicted in 1769 and still has a distinctly European feel. Encircled by ochre-walled, star-shaped fortifications, I strolled its sun-baked streets. The gothic Church of the Assumption sat side-by-side with the grand mosque and its one-of-a-kind five-sided minaret, while a ruined synagogue still bore a Star of David on its façade; another reminder that the region sat at a cultural crossroads.

Melting pot

Essaouira's postcard-perfect port (Sarah Gilbert)

Essaouira's postcard-perfect port (Sarah Gilbert)

My last stop was breezy Essaouira. This laid-back outpost has long been a multicultural mix, with visitors drawn by its 18th-century medina enclosed in honey-coloured ramparts, the postcard-perfect port and vast swathes of golden sand. It’s the latter, along with the omnipresent gusts of wind known locally as the alizee, that help create ideal conditions for windsurfing, kitesurfing and surfing.

It’s also developed into a hub for its own unique style of contemporary Moroccan art. When the Danish collector Frédéric Damgaard arrived in Essaouira in the 1960s, he noticed how similar the two- and three-dimensional nature-focused art of these Swiri fishermen and farmers was to the indigenous art of other cultures. You quickly see what he meant, with many self-taught local artists continuing to produce colourful, naive work.

This laidback outpost developed its own style of contemporary Moroccan art (Sarah Gilbert)

This laidback outpost developed its own style of contemporary Moroccan art (Sarah Gilbert)

Among the trash and treasure of the Souk Joutiya, or flea market, in the former industrial quarter, I found artists’ ateliers surrounded by broken TVs, discarded oars and scrap metal. Inside these fishermen’s huts turned makeshift studios, I discovered a world of vivid colour and curious forms, improvised sculptures and imaginary creatures, painted on canvas, wood, even animal skin. One artist, Abdelaziz Baki, takes inspiration from nature, upcycling objects and turning them in to brightly coloured sculptures of fantastical creatures; Azeddine Nasik creates simple scenes on offcuts of wood; meanwhile Mustapha Filali paints depictions of rural life, filled with humour.

Like many of my encounters along the Atlantic coast, Essaouira was unscripted and surprising. To get here, I’d passed through a confluence of civilisations, everything from Moroccan crafts to Moorish architecture, Portuguese citadels to French design. This stretch of coastline is rich in Amazigh and Arabic culture, but with European, Andalusian, Jewish and African threads of influence just as tightly interwoven and vibrant as the finest Moroccan carpet.

The trip

The author travelled with Audley Travel (01993 838420) who offer tailormade trips to Morocco. The price includes an 11-day cultural tour, including Fez, Asilah, Rabat, Casablanca and Essaouira, flights, B&B accommodation in boutique riads, private transfers and a selection of private tours.

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