Fortified Wall around Chellah Necropolis, Rabat, Morocco

Morocco //

The Atlantic coast: Rabat to Essaouira

This five-hundred-kilometre stretch of Atlantic coastline takes in Morocco’s urban heartland and accounts for close to a fifth of the country’s total population. It’s an astonishingly recent growth along what was, until the French Protectorate, a neglected strip of coast. The region is dominated by the country’s elegant, orderly administrative capital, Rabat; and the dynamic commercial capital, Casablanca. Keep heading south, and you’ll encounter some delightfully low-key coastal resorts, including El Jadida, Oualidia and Essaouira. This is the most Europeanized part of Morocco, where you’ll see middle-class people in particular wearing Western-style clothes and leading what appear on the surface to be quite European lifestyles.

The fertile plains inland from Rabat (designated Maroc Utile, or “Useful Morocco”, by the French) have been occupied and cultivated since Paleolithic times, with Neolithic settlements on the coast to the south, notably at present-day Temara and Skhirat, but today it is French and post-colonial influences that dominate in the main coastal cities. Don’t go to Casa – as Casablanca is popularly known – expecting some exotic movie location; it’s a modern city that looks very much like Marseilles, the French seaport on which it was modelled. Rabat, too, which the French developed as a capital in place of the old imperial centres of Fez and Marrakesh, looks markedly European, with its cafés and boulevards, though it also has some of Morocco’s finest and oldest monuments, dating from the Almohad and Merenid dynasties. If you’re on a first trip to Morocco, Rabat is an ideal place to get to grips with the country. Its Westernized streets make an easy cultural shift and it’s an excellent transport hub, well connected by train with Tangier, Fez and Marrakesh. Casa is maybe more interesting after you’ve spent a while in the country, when you’ll appreciate both its differences and its fundamentally Moroccan character.

Along the coast are a large number of beaches, but this being the Atlantic rather than the Mediterranean, tides and currents can be strong. Surfing is a popular sport along the coast and Essaouira is Morocco’s prime resort for windsurfing.