At first glance, it would appear that Morocco’s northwest corner has everything a traveller could want. Bordered on one side by sweeping expanses of near-deserted coastline washed by both Atlantic and Mediterranean waters, and on the other by the wild, rugged Rif mountain range that defines the physical boundary between Europe and Africa, this part of the country is home to a number of ancient, walled Medinas that remain mainly non-touristed and begging to be explored. As idyllic as it may sound, in reality the region has often been the country’s ugly duckling and, especially in the latter half of the twentieth century, was virtually ignored by both king and state.
The reasons for this cold shoulder were historical and twofold – Tangier’s reputation for European-influenced vice and extravagance, and two assassination attempts on the king (Hassan II, the current king’s late father) that were widely believed to have emanated from within the largely lawless interior of the Rif mountains. This is all firmly in the past now, however. As a young prince, King Mohammed VI enjoyed many a summer holiday here jetskiing and hiking, and since the death of his father in 1999 he has steadily opened the country’s (and foreign investors’) eyes to the northwest’s obvious charm and attraction, both in its natural beauty and close proximity to Europe.
Nowhere is this progress more visible than in Tangier. Once seedy from its days as a centre of international espionage and haven for gay Europeans and dodgy banks, the city has reinvented itself over the past decade as a vibrant, accessible and modern Mediterranean beach resort. South of Tangier along the Atlantic coast are the seaside resorts of Asilah and Larache, both of which offer wonderful, aimless meanderings within their compact whitewashed Medinas. Asilah is a relaxed and low-key town, well known for its International Arts festival, while Larache is similarly attractive, and close to the ancient Carthaginian-Roman site of Lixus. A more distinctively Moroccan resort is Moulay Bousselham, south of Larache, with its windswept Atlantic beach and abundance of birdlife.
The Spanish enclave of Ceuta was a possession too valuable for the Spanish to hand back to Morocco upon the latter’s independence in 1956, and makes a pleasant change of pace when coming from the relatively haphazard and chaotic Moroccan side of the border. In the shadow of the Rif mountains, Tetouan has a proud Andalusian-Moroccan heritage and offers up yet another fascinating, authentic Medina while its nearby beaches are popular with both locals and visitors. South of Tetouan is the mountain town of Chefchaouen – a small-scale and enjoyably laidback place with perhaps the most photographed Medina of them all.
Northern Morocco has an especially quirky colonial history, having been divided into three separate zones. Tetouan was the administrative capital of the Spanish zone; the French zone began at Souk el Arba du Rharb, the edge of rich agricultural plains sprawling southward; while Tangier experienced International Rule under a group of foreign legations. Subsequently, although French is the official second language (after Arabic) throughout Morocco, older people in much of the northwest are equally, or more, fluent in Spanish – a basic knowledge of which can prove useful.