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.
Ancient Lixus is one of the oldest – and most continuously – inhabited sites in Morocco. It had been settled in prehistoric times, long before the arrival of Phoenician colonists around 1000 BC, under whom it is thought to have become the first trading post of North Africa. Later, it was in turn an important Carthaginian and Roman city, and was deserted only in the fifth century AD, two hundred years after Diocletian had withdrawn the empire’s patronage. There are remains of a church from this period, and Arabic coins have also been found.
As an archeological site, then, Lixus is certainly significant, and its legendary associations with Hercules add an element of mythic allure. The ruins lie upon and below the summit of a low hill on the far side of the Oued Loukos estuary, at the crossroads of the main Larache–Tangier road and the narrow lane to Larache beach. A track, worth climbing for the panoramic view alone, wends up to the amphitheatre area, where there are mosaics. The ruins are interesting rather than impressive, and only around a quarter of the site has been excavated.
The legendary associations of Lixus – and the site’s mystique – centre on the Labours of Hercules. For here, on an island in the estuary, Pliny and Strabo record reports of the palace of the “Libyan” (by which they meant African) King Antaeus. Behind the palace stretched the Garden of the Hesperides, to which Hercules, as his penultimate labour, was dispatched.
In the object of Hercules’ quest – the Golden Apples – it is not difficult to imagine the tangerines of northern Morocco, raised to legendary status by travellers’ tales. The site, too, seems to offer reinforcement to conjectures of a mythic pre-Phoenician past. Megalithic stones have been found on the Acropolis – they may have been linked astronomically with those of Mzoura – and the site was known to the Phoenicians as Makom Shemesh (City of the Sun).
A visitor’s centre was being constructed at the time of writing but currently the site is not effectively enclosed and therefore always open and accessible. A notice by the roadside at the entrance explains the site with a useful map board. The Lower Town, spreading back from the modern road, consists largely of the ruins of factories for the production of salt – still being panned nearby – and garum fish sauce. The factories seem to have been developed in the early years of the first century AD and they remained in operation until the Roman withdrawal.
A track, some 100m down the road to Tangier, leads up to the Acropolis (upper town), passing on its way eight rows of the Roman theatre and amphitheatre, unusually combined into a single structure. Its deep, circular arena was adapted for circus games and the gladiatorial slaughter of animals. Morocco, which Herodotus knew as “the wild-beast country”, was the major source for these Roman venations (controlled hunts), and local colonists must have grown rich from the trade. Until 1998, the baths built into the side of the theatre featured a remarkable mosaic depicting Neptune’s head on the body of a lobster; unfortunately, the mosaic was irreparably damaged when the gardien’s son tried to dig it up to sell, and just about a third of it remains.
Climbing above the baths and theatre, you pass through ramparts to the main fortifications of the Acropolis – a somewhat confused network of walls and foundations – and temple sanctuaries, including an early Christian basilica and a number of pre-Roman buildings. The most considerable of the sanctuaries, with their underground cisterns and porticoed priests’ quarters, were apparently rebuilt in the first century AD, but even then retained Phoenician elements in their design.
A Spanish enclave since the sixteenth century, Ceuta (Sebta in Arabic) is a curious political anomaly. Along with Melilla, east along the coast, it was retained by Spain after Moroccan independence in 1956 and today functions largely as a military base, its economy bolstered by a limited duty-free status. It has been an autonomous city, with a large measure of internal self-government for its 80,000 inhabitants, since 1995. The city makes for an attractive stop when en route either to or from Morocco with its relaxed European atmosphere, pristine squares, tapas bars, coastal walks and pleasant accommodation options.
Over the last few decades, the economies on both sides of the border seemed to benefit from the enclave, spurred on by Ceuta’s duty-free status. However, the border is also the frontier between Africa and Europe and inevitably the EU became increasingly concerned about traffic in drugs and illegal immigrants, financing in 2005 a £15m ($22m) hi-tech “wall” with closed-circuit TV and sensors along the eight-kilometre boundary.
The money to be made from outflanking these defences has attracted equally hi-tech smugglers, trading in hash, hard drugs, disadvantaged Moroccans, and refugees from as far south as Liberia and Rwanda. More affluent refugees have been sent over to Spain by night, often in small boats unsuited to the short but difficult crossing. The more desperate try to swim across to Ceuta from Fnideq’s beach or scale the six-metre-high border fence. Most recently, there has been growing dissent in the impoverished residential areas of Ceuta where Moroccan residents have come into conflict with the Spanish authorities over a severe lack of employment and poor living conditions.
As its name – in Arabic, “the Great Enclosure” – suggests, Ksar el Kebir, an eleventh-century Arab power base 36km southeast of Larache, was once a place of some importance. It was 12km north of here where, in August 1578, the Portuguese fought the disastrous Battle of the Three Kings, the most dramatic and devastating in their nation’s history – a power struggle disguised as a crusade, which saw the death or capture of virtually the entire nobility and which ultimately resulted in 62 years of Spanish rule.
The town fell into decline in the seventeenth century, after a local chief incurred the wrath of Moulay Ismail, though its fortunes were revived to some extent under the Spanish protectorate, when it served as a major barracks.
The Sunday souk is held right by the gare routière and Moulay el Mehdi station. On any morning of the week, however, there are lively souks around the main kissaria (covered market) of the old town – in the quarter known as Bab el Oued (Gate of the River). Beyond Ksar el Kebir, a decaying customs post at Arbaoua marks the old colonial frontier between the Spanish and French zones.
There are a number of hotels and basic places to eat located on or near the town square; head south from the Moulay el Mehdi station and turn right after 300m.
Larache is a relaxed, easy-going town, its summer visitors primarily Moroccan tourists who come to enjoy the beaches to the north of the estuary of the River Loukos. You’ll see as many women around as men – a reassuring feeling for women travellers looking for a low-key spot to bathe. Nearby, and accessible, are the ruins of ancient Lixus, legendary site of the Gardens of the Hesperides.
Larache was the main port of the northern Spanish zone and still bears much of its former stamp. There are faded old Spanish hotels, Spanish-run restaurants and Spanish bars, even an active Spanish cathedral for the small colony who still work at the docks. In its heyday it was quite a metropolis, publishing its own Spanish newspaper and journal, and drawing a cosmopolitan population that included the French writer Jean Genet, who spent the last decade of his life here and is buried in the old Spanish cemetery found to the southwest of town.
Before its colonization in 1911, Larache was a small trading port. Its activities limited by dangerous offshore sand bars, the port-town eked out a living by building pirate ships made of wood from the nearby Forest of Mamora for the “Barbary Corsairs” of Salé and Rabat.
Downtown Larache remains delightfully compact and relaxed, largely bereft of any hustle or hassle, despite the ongoing construction of a golf and marina resort to the north of the estuary. A true hybrid of its Andalusian-Arabic heritage, this is a town where paella is served alongside tajine, and where the evening paseo (promenade) is interrupted by the call to prayer.
Moulay Bousselham, 55km from Ksar el Kebir, is a very low-key resort, popular almost exclusively with Moroccans. It comprises little more than a single street, crowded with grill-cafés and sloping down to the sea at the side of a broad lagoon and wetland area, known as Merja Zerga. This is one of northern Morocco’s prime birdwatching locations (see Wetland wildlife), and avid bird watchers from all over the world come here to see the lagoon’s flamingo and other bird colonies.
The beach itself is sheltered by cliffs – rare along the Atlantic – and has an abrupt drop-off, which creates a continual crash of breaking waves. While a lot of fun for swimming as well as beginner surfers, the currents can at times be quite strong and only the most confident of swimmers should venture out past the breakers. In summer, a section of the beach is patrolled by lifeguards.
For Moroccans, the village is part summer resort, part pilgrimage centre. The saint from whom the village takes its name, the Marabout Moulay Bousselham, was a tenth-century Egyptian, whose remains are housed in a koubba prominently positioned above the settlement. In July this sees one of the largest moussems in the region.
Adjoining the Moulay Bousselham lagoon is a large wetland area known as Merja Zerga (“Blue Lake”). The lagoon’s periphery is used for grazing by nomadic herds of sheep, cattle and goats, and the lagoon itself is a Ramsar-listed Wetland of International Importance, and is one of the largest of its kind in Morocco.
The huge extent of the site ensures rewarding birdwatching at all times of the year. There are large numbers of waders, including a large colony of flamingos, plus little-ringed plovers, black-winged stilts and black-tailed godwits.
For serious birdwatchers, it is the gulls and terns that roost on the central islands which are worthy of the closest inspection, as, among the flocks of lesser black-backed gull and black tern, it is possible to find rarer species such as Caspian tern. The adjacent grassland is probably the best place in Morocco to see pairs of North African marsh owl, which usually appear hunting above the tall grasses shortly after sunset. Marsh harrier and osprey can also sometimes be spotted. One bird you’ll certainly see wintering here, usually around cattle (and sometimes sitting on their backs), is the cattle egret. For rarity-spotters, the current grail is the lesser crested tern and its cousin the royal tern, both immigrants from Mauretania during spring and summer.
English-speaking local ornithologist Hassan Dalil is easily the best guide in the region, and can be contacted directly or via the Café Milano in Moulay Bousselham, which also keeps a bird log. Hassan charges 100dh per hour for a tour around Merja Zerga by boat and his expertise is immediately evident. These tours are best taken in early morning or at dusk, depending on the tides; the boat isn’t shaded so bring along a hat, protective clothing, sunscreen and water.
Despite the numbers of tourists passing through, Tetouan is above all a resort for Moroccans, rich and poor alike – a character very much in evidence on the extensive beaches to the east of the town. Throughout the summer whole villages of family tents appear at Martil, Mdiq and, particularly, around Restinga-Smir and Fnideq, further north. Oued Laou, 40km southeast of Tetouan, is the destination of a younger, more alternative crowd. The general increase of investment in the region has encompassed this section of the coast, with the appearance of beachside promenades (corniches) as well as new hotels and all-inclusive resorts with private mini-marinas.
Fnideq, sometimes called by its Spanish name Castillejos, has little to recommend it, especially compared with Mdiq and Martil further along the coast. However, it has seen some development of late, including a new beachside promenade between here and the beach at Restinga-Smir, and there’s a couple of good hotels; if you’re arriving late in the day on your way to or from Ceuta, it makes a decent stopover.
There are a few decent hotels and restaurants dotted along Fnideq’s sea-facing main road, Av Hassan II, and the parallel Av Mohammed V. Out of the summer season, ask for discounts at the hotels.
Martil, only 10km from the centre of Tetouan and essentially the city’s beach, was its port as well until the river between the two silted up. Today it is a modern seaside town which takes on a resort-like feel in summer when Moroccan families flood the beach to escape the heat. The beach, stretching all the way around to the headland of Cabo Negro, is superb – an eight-kilometre stretch of fine, yellow sand that is long enough to remain uncrowded, despite its summer popularity and colonization by Club Med and other tourist complexes.
Mdiq is a lovely coastal town and semi-active fishing port. A popular promenade overlooks the town beach (which gets better the further north and away from the redeveloping port you venture) while a vibrant café-restaurant quarter lies one block back. The small port is undergoing a major facelift that will turn it into a compact, upmarket marina and there are a handful of nice places to stay nearby, which only adds weight to the town’s honest claim of being the best of Morocco’s northwestern coastal resorts.
Travelling southeast from Tetouan, the coastline almost immediately changes and you come under the shadow of the Rif. The road (N16, formerly S608) continues to follow the coast while also hugging the foothills of the Rif; it’s a stunning drive made all the more pleasurable by recent roadworks
Quieter than the more popular beach towns closer to Tetouan, Oued Laou is named after the River Laou that reaches the ocean here from its source in the Rif mountains near Chefchaouen. It’s not an especially pretty place – Riffian villages tend to look spread out and lack any core – but it has a near-deserted beach, which extends for miles on each side, particularly to the southeast, where the river has created a wide, fertile bay down to Kâaseras, 8km distant. There’s not much to do other than relax, read, watch the fishermen hauling in their nets, and swim – not an altogether terrible itinerary. On Saturdays, there is a souk, held 3km inland from Oued Laou, which draws villagers from all over the valley.
The first town south of Tangier – and first stop on the train line – ASILAH is one of the most elegant of the old Portuguese Atlantic ports, small, easy to manage, and exceptionally clean. First impressions are of wonderful square stone ramparts, flanked by palms, and an outstanding beach – an immense sweep of sand stretching to the north halfway to Tangier. The town’s Medina is one of the most attractive in the country, colourwashed in pastel shades, and with a series of murals painted for the town’s International Cultural Festival (3–4 weeks in Aug), which attracts performers from around the world with a programme of art, dance, film, music and poetry.
Before the tourists and the International Festival, Asilah was just a small fishing port, quietly stagnating after the indifference of Spanish colonial administration. Whitewashed and cleaned up, it now has a prosperous feeling to it: the Grand Mosque, for example, has been rebuilt and doubled in size, there’s a wide paved seaside promenade and property developments, including a marina and golf course estate, are popping up either side of the town. As with Tangier, the beach is the main focus of life in summer. The most popular stretches are to the north of the town, out towards the train station. For more isolated strands, walk south, past the Medina ramparts.
If you have an interest in ancient sites, you might devote a half-day to explore the prehistoric stone circle of Mzoura, south of Asilah. The desolate, unfenced site, whose name means “Holy Place” in Arabic, originally comprised a tumulus, assumed to be the tomb of some early Mauritanian king, enclosed by an elliptical circle of some 167 standing stones, mostly around 1.5 metres in height but some up to 5 metres. It was excavated in 1935 and the mound is now reduced to a series of watery hollows. There are photographs of Mzoura, pre-excavation, in the archeological museum in Tetouan.
The Caves of Hercules (Les Grottes d’Hercule) are something of a symbol for Tangier, with their strange sea window, shaped like a map of Africa. The name, like Hercules’ legendary founding of Tangier, is purely fanciful, but the caves, 16km outside the city and above the Atlantic beach, make an attractive excursion. If you feel like staying for a few days by the sea, the beach can be a pleasant base, too; outside of July and August only stray groups of visitors share the long surf beaches. Take care with currents, however, which can be very dangerous even near the shore.
Africa’s most northwesterly promontory, Cap Spartel, is a dramatic and fertile point, and was known to the Greeks and Romans as the “Cape of the Vines”. You can visit the lighthouse and sometimes, if the keeper is around, enter and climb it.
To the south of Cap Spartel begins the vast and wild Atlantic, known locally as Robinson Plage. It is broken only by a rocky spit, 5km from the Cape, which is home to the Caves of Hercules. Natural formations, which were occupied in prehistoric times, the caves are most striking for a man-made addition – thousands of disc-shaped erosions created by centuries of quarrying for millstones. There were still people cutting stones here for a living until the 1920s, but by that time their place was beginning to be taken by professional guides and discreet sex hustlers; it must have made an exotic brothel.