Morocco & Andalusia: The Atlantic Coast
Numerous Portuguese forts dotted the Atlantic coastline of Morocco as of the 15th C., established for trade but also with an eye for an eventual conquest of the land. While the Portuguese were decisively ousted by a Moroccan army after the 1578 Battle of the Three Kings, their former outposts still retain a certain Mediterranean European flair, with whitewashed buildings and blue doors, massive battlements bedecked with cannons, and an easy-going atmosphere. The prime jewel among them is World Heritage Site Essaouira, whose history reaches to Phoenician traders as of the 5th C. BC and Romans who produced their precious purple dye from local murex mollusks. Once the city was built up to be a major port in the late 18th C. it became Morocco’s most important Jewish community, the Jews acting as trade intermediaries between the kingdom and Europeans. Essaouira’s unofficial “patron saint” happens to be Rabbi Chaïm Pinto! Tea, which mixed with mint is truly Morocco’s national beverage, was only then introduced into the country by British traders. In the 1950s Orson Welles brought the town an international spotlight by filming his “Othello” amid its battlements and port. In the late 1960s the relaxed mood and then abundant supply of hashish led to a “hippie invasion,” along with such rock luminaries as Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger and Cat Stevens. And as of the 1980s, possibly spurred by the mix of international influences and drugs, a number of residents with no formal artistic training began developing a truly original native art movement, their works now on display in modern art museums and galleries around the world.
What to do (North to South)
El Jadida: Just South of Casablanca, this former Portuguese bastion, recently added to the World Heritage List, has a superbly preserved 16th-C. underground cistern (also used in Welles’s “Othello”). It is a favorite beach getaway spot for Casablancans and thus has a number of good eateries and offers a variety of water sports.
Oualidia: According to many an expert, the very best oysters in the world are cultivated in this little enclave.
Safi: Morocco’s largest pottery center, primarily for decorative ware. Also one of the country’s biggest ports, foremost for the shipping of sardines and phosphates, two of Morocco’s prime exports.
Essaouira: With its narrow alleyways closed off to traffic during the day, Essaouira is a strollers' paradise. Start in the colorful, always busy fisheries port, to see the building of fishing boats whose shape has remained unchanged in centuries, the mending of nets and, in the early mornings, the manual unloading of the night's ample catch. The ramparts above the port offer a great view of the city and were used by Welles for his soliloquy in "Othello." Within the former munitions warehouses of second set of ramparts to the North craftsmen are busy at work tooling decorative objects from the grainy root of the indigenous thuya tree. Nearby is the Sidi ben Abdellah museum of local culture, with interesting insights on the mystical Gnawa sect, descendants of African slaves who may be seen performing at market places and restaurants throughout the country but make Essaouira their spiritual home (the city hosts a Gnawa Festival of World Music in late June each year). The late 18th-C. home and synagogue of respected sage Rabbi Chaïm Pinto have been restored within the former Jewish quarter, then Morocco's largest. There is a yearly gathering in his honor of Moroccan Jews from around the world. The vibrant, truly unique paintings and sculptures of Essaouiran artists may be seen at numerous galleries throughout town, the most renowned at the Gallerie Damgaard, while the up-and-coming at the Espace Othello. The isles across from the port are a protected rookery of the endangered Eleanora's falcons and you may see the birds feeding in the early morning at the stream estuary at the southern end of town. Great fresh seafood abounds.
The "Argan Coast": The pristine rural landscape South of Essaouira is the realm of the argans, native trees the nuts of which produce a fragrant dark oil used both as a local staple and for cosmetics. Goats may often be seen climbing the trees to get at the nuts! The area is also famed for its thyme honey, one of the finest (and priciest) in the world. Farther South, along the banana plantations of Tamri, is a nesting area for the rare Bald ibis.
Agadir: Morocco's main beach resort. Lots of leisure activities, truly no Moroccan cultural value.