Story & photos by Myscha Theriault / Tribune News Service
Less than a one-hour train ride from Tangier along Morocco’s northern Atlantic coast lies the breezy seaside town of Asilah. Part of the landscape for more than 3,000 years, it offers an authentic Moroccan experience with a Mediterranean vibe.
There are several things to appreciate about the destination, including affordability, the freshness of the food and an extremely comfortable climate. Regarding those things that make Asilah unique from a tourism perspective, the following are a few of my personal favorites.
Art: In addition to the typical shopping stalls filled with locally produced souvenir items and garments, travelers who look closely will see the trimmings of a true art scene. Small galleries have popped up, the results of international mural-painting festivals adorn the interior medina walls and street artists selling pieces created with recycled materials add to the town’s unique flavor.
Architecture: With ancient elements dating back to Phoenician times, a history that includes being a former Spanish territory and traditional Moroccan elements everywhere you look, the historic section of the town offers a fair bit of photographic eye candy for avid excursionists. Exploring the narrow streets inside the fortified walls of Asilah proper will lead you past the countless colorful, creatively decorated traditional doorways that are a matter of local pride.
Access: Not only does Asilah allow you to experience the seaside away from the hustle and bustle of Tangier, it’s location also allows you to easily explore the local farm country and other area antiquities. One such antiquity is the giant stone circle of Msoura. Located outside of town amid local farms and set in a countryside that could have you easily believing you were in southern Spain, the site is believed to be a funerary monument of some sort. In addition to being able to experience the site itself, the view from the top of the center mound is spectacular.
Visiting here in late spring prior to the summer onslaught will ensure a peaceful and reflective visit, and a pleasant drive. In fact, we had the entire place to ourselves. While there appears to be no official ticket office, modest gratuities are appreciated by whichever local person is available to open the access gate for you when you arrive. Since Msoura is a relatively quick stop, you can easily extend your morning road trip to the Roman ruins at Lixus. With new archaeological excavations scheduled to take place, and further work having been done in the recent past, they offer an easy one to two hours of exploration time with more to come once future digs have been completed. Spectacular views accompany this antiquity site, as well. If you want to experience true local culture, however, consider heading to the weekly Sunday market just outside of town. It’s the largest one in the area, and offers the majority of what any local would need. From livestock and rows of farm-fresh produce tables to flea market offerings of everything from cooking pots to random bits of hardware, this is true local commerce in all its earthy splendor. Be prepared to dodge groups of sheep trying to make their escape, cranky donkeys, family farm trucks and more to make your way to your desired wares. Food stalls offer fresh-grilled meats, hot bread and mint tea.
Authenticity: For as much as the population explodes during the summer with foreign tourists, spending a few weeks in Asilah during the off-season has shown me just how much of a community exists here. From the local dad walking his daughter and son home from martial-arts class in matching karate outfits, to the schoolchildren playing soccer in the streets and local grocery vendors checking with each other for inventory backup when they have a customer, this place is at heart a small town where people live their lives and raise their families.
One of the facets of this community I find most authentic is how much farm animals are still involved in the local transportation system. For all of the cars, taxis and daily train stops, donkeys with saddle bags full of cabbage and flat, horse-drawn carts carrying passengers and bags of rice still make up a large portion of local traffic. It’s an absolutely precious part of the local scene here I selfishly hope never changes.
Appetites: Savory meat tagines, couscous concoctions and mixed fresh seafood platters are the name of the game here. So are the fresh-squeezed juices and small breakfast menus that many cafés offer all day long. Fresh Moroccan bread comes with everything, and is nearly as much a source of pride as the ever-present mint tea.
In fact, when we tried to buy some from the local baker one night on our walk home, he wouldn’t sell us his two remaining loaves when he realized they had been sitting in the display counter longer than he’d thought. We would need to come back in the morning. They are equally serious about their produce, as you’ll see if you book a place with a kitchen and need to access the daily market. Giant bundles of fresh mint for a buck, bags of mixed gourmet olives for 50 cents and fresh lemons by the crate are just some of the goodies you can expect to find.
When it comes to grabbing a basic traveler’s lunch at a local restaurant, you can do that anywhere and get a decent meal. However, if you are willing to walk a few streets away from the walled portion of the town, the average per plate price drops from around 6 bucks to an even more affordable $4. If you are a couple traveling with a teen, that means strolling a short distance will save you the cost of your third plate.
Also more common a few streets away are the family-run restaurants where sitting to eat your meal will let you witness grandchildren and nieces popping by to visit older relatives and Moroccan culture in general. If you have your heart set on being near the water with a view of the historic district, however, consider heading to Cafe Pepe. While their price point is a bit higher end, they offer good seafood, a decent cheese plate and access to paella without a prior reservation. They are also one of the only establishments in the area licensed to offer alcoholic beverages. You’re welcome.