Tangier and Assilah

Tangier and Assilah

Pauline de Villiers Brettell, author of the longstanding blog ‘Tea in Tangier‘, and resident of Assilah, has written the following guest post about why you should make time to visit the North. Pauline shares some of her favourite places to visit.

We include Tangier and Assilah on our Essence of Morocco tour itinerary. Please click here for the full itinerary and for further details of the 16 days route. We can adapt the itinerary to offer this in reverse order, or to extend it.

Tangier and Assilah

 

Tea in Tangier and Atay in Assilah

Why Tangier and its neighbours should be included on your Moroccan itinerary

Tangier has quietly been undergoing a transformation over the past several years and is now emerging from its previously somewhat dissolute reputation. It is quite literally spreading its newly paved and painted wings. Historically Tangier has always stood a little apart from mainstream Morocco and it still, in my opinion, offers something a little different to the stereotypical image of Morocco. The obvious reasons for this being both its proximity to Europe, and Spain in particular, along with its distance from the desert. As a result, paellas are often on the menu, beach life is pretty laid back, and Spanish is more often than not a comfortable second language. This was one of the things that drew me to this part of northern Morocco in the first place. I felt like it was taking me back to a more exotic version of my South African roots, yet I was within touching distance of Spain (another country that is close to my heart). Tangier has always been a busy port city, but with the creation of the Tanger-Med port beyond the Tangier city boundaries, the medina port is now a more tranquil base for sea-bound tourism.

Tangier and Assilah

Tangier

Start your journey through Morocco in Tangier

Tangier is the perfect starting point to your Moroccan adventure if that is your point of entry.

The medina is a lot smaller than cities like Marrakech and Fez. It is also a lot easier to navigate because you have a clear sense of geography with the sea on one side and the city behind. Uphill takes you to the Kasbah, downhill you will end up in the port. Although there may be fewer of the “big-five” type of attractions here – no Majorelle gardens or Fez tannery or dunes of the Sahara – there is still a city to experience in a quieter way, which can in fact be more interesting.

A lot of my recommendations to people visiting Tangier seem to involve tea or coffee and generally a slower pace. e.g. take mint tea on the terrace of The Continental hotel admiring the view and taking in the Sheltering Sky hotel aesthetic; or coffee in Café Tingis in the Petit Socco in the middle of the medina simply watching the passers by and getting an idea of who’s in town. There is still a small town feel to Tangier despite its sprawling development.

Move up to the Grand Socco for again more tea or coffee, possibly a bit of cake at this point at the Cinema Rif. You will need the cake to fuel your journey up the Rue de la Kasbah – but make it a slow walk and stop off at various design studios on the way before reaching the top and turning right into the kasbah. I love the kasbah area as it is light and airy compared to the medina of Tangier and has wonderful views across the straits. Being thirsty after the climb, this is the spot I find a place for my favourite Tangeroise drink, lemon and mint juice. Explore the Tangier kasbah at your leisure and you will find a wonderful combination of museums, galleries and boutiques in which to peruse and purchase.

Tangier and Assilah

Tangier

Beaches are obviously something that sets this Moroccan city apart from its landlocked sisters. Tangier is spoilt for choice with the Atlantic on one side and the Mediterranean on the other. The beaches are the centre of all activity in the summer months with a melting pot of people and a cosmopolitan mix of costume. For the best beach experience my advice is to do a bit of research and find the more remote beaches with good summer chiringuitos for a great day out from Tangier.

Although I love Tangier, it is not where we base ourselves when we are in Morocco. My home from home is in fact the small seaside medina of Assilah, just a 40 minute drive up the coast. I am biased, but I love the quieter pace of life and the village feel of Assilah. Everything is within walking distance, such as markets, restaurants, and shops. The medina is tiny, yet full of wonderful quality artisanal crafts, some are made locally while others are brought in. Several people I know in Tangier travel to Assilah to do any carpet shopping. Feel free to contact me for some recommendations if you find yourself uncertain of where to turn when in pursuit of the perfect Moroccan carpet to wrap up and take home.

Tangier and Assilah

Assilah

Assilah is also a great place for independent travel – there are some beautiful riads to rent on platforms like Airbnb and recent years has seen a few more chambre d’hote type of accommodation opening in the medina itself. Stroll out of the medina in the evening and choose to eat at one of the restaurants serving fresh fish with a cold glass of Moroccan Gris. Find a café you like and make that part of your morning routine and you will soon be greeted like a local. A visit to Assilah is more about stepping down the pace and immersing yourself in medina life rather than a place to visit sites and tick off items in your guide book.

Again, do a little research and discover places hidden up and down the coast like Chez Mounir or Chez Abdou – both a little off the beaten track but well worth the visit. Find out about the local country markets (souks). These can be a bit of an eye-opener (I try and avoid the chicken section!) You will find a lot of utilitarian plastic for sale, but amongst it all are local olives, wonderful oils and cheeses and other seasonal produce. One of my favourite purchases at the Monday market were some donkey saddles, which like so many things in this part of the world come with an element of beauty alongside practicality.

And of course there are the paintings and murals in the Assilah medina, a result of the ongoing annual Art Moussem that takes place in the summer. Every year the walls are whitewashed in preparation and ladders bearing brush and paint-wielding artists are found unexpectedly around corners as they put their stamp on a corner of the medina. Until next year . . . when they will be painted over in preparation for the next artist.

Tangier

Tangier

So, put Tangier and Assilah on your itinerary, the walls are white rather than red, the closest you will get to the Sahara is the dreaded shawki winds that make everyone grumpy, but you will discover a laid back blue and white skyline punctuated with clear Tangier sunshine that will draw you into the north and maybe, like us, you will simply never leave!

 

Further images on Pauline’s Instagram feed. Details of Dar Ambrosia accommodation here. Local guide options with Pauline and Jonas in Tangier and Assilah here.

Tea has a special place in Morocco

Tea has a special place in Morocco

Tea-drinking is a big deal in most corners of the globe, from the Far East, Russia, India, to the United Kingdom, the Middle East, and North and East Africa, to say the least. Each nation has its own tea customs and rituals, and not everyone drinks the same blend of tea. Morocco is a nation of tea-drinkers (apparently it was the English who introduced tea here in the 19th Century!) and the preparation and serving of tea is not to be taken lightly. You can’t just “put the kettle on”, you need to savour the process and take time over it.
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The Spirit of Community in Morocco

The Spirit of Community in Morocco

Morocco’s culture and spirit of community

“So, what can I expect when I visit Morocco, tell me something more about Morocco’s culture?” It’s so close to Europe, yet so much further beyond in terms of culture and history. The Arabic name given for Morocco by medieval historians and geographers is ‘al-Maghrib al-Aqsa’, translated as furthest Westerly Kingdom (of the Maghreb countries, in North West Africa). Morocco is just 13km from mainland Spain, and even shares a land border with Spanish territory.

I would urge you to read something of my insight into Morocco’s culture. What follows is what you glean when living in a small community in Morocco, not from the books or the media, or from a short visit. We’ve previously touched on some of the cultural aspects in other blog posts, such as the tea ceremony, and social etiquette with greetings. The guide-books will also help you steer clear of any basic faux-pas, or you can certainly ask your driver/guide during your trip about Morocco’s culture.

Morocco's Culture and Spirit of Community

Use the below as a benchmark to guide your expectations of the Kingdom (and, certainly, of the warm welcome you can expect to receive!). Please do ask us about travelling during Ramadan, Eid al-Adha, and other religious festivities, as they can be quite magical times to visit the Kingdom and should not be ruled out as no-go periods. Such national holidays are a vital part of Morocco’s culture and if you get to experience them, so much the better.

Note: I first wrote this post about seven years ago. Since then, we’ve all gone through the covid pandemic and the devastating earthquake in September 2023. Without going in to detail, the overriding feeling I have taken is the sense of solidarity and support from within Morocco’s mountain communities and the country as a whole – the nation has each other’s backs, to put it bluntly! If that doesn’t speak volumes about Morocco’s culture and spirit of community then what does?…

Morocco's Culture

Morocco’s culture and spirit of community

  1. Gratitude and happiness are derived and enjoyed from what you have in life, not from that for which you yearn. In other words, you are content with your lot in life. Take pleasure from the simple things (such as the beauty of nature) and be thankful to God at all times.
  2. Treating a guest generously and selflessly. A Moroccan proverb says ‘The guest is always a guest, even if he stays for winter and summer’. Moroccans regard travellers and foreign residents as guests in their country and Moroccans take the safety of visitors as a point of honour.
  3. Charity begins at home and is then very much continued outside of the home. One of the pillars of Islam and embedded in Morocco’s culture/spirit of community.
  4. The ability to share freely, e.g. a small meal will always go a long way and a stranger is never allowed to go hungry. Often those who have the least to share, are the most generous.
  5. An open-door policy and acceptance, the knowledge that you are welcome in a stranger’s home, and at face value.
  6. The family unit is key and many generations still share the same home; this promotes selflessness. There may only be one bread-winner supporting a large family (and he will likely be your driver, guide, chef, support team). Respect for elders, especially your parents, is integral to Morocco’s culture.
  7. Knowing your neighbours and treating them as an extension of the family. You may have to call upon them in times of need. This also leads on to the fact that everyone knows each other’s business (good or bad!).
  8. Above all, bear in mind that underpinning all of this is the Muslim faith and the piety of Moroccans. Please ask us about travelling during Ramadan and Eid.
  9. Please see note above on solidarity and support from within.

Please contact us for any further insights in to Morocco’s culture and community spirit.

Please visit our Instagram feed for further images.

 

Our Top 5 Things to Do in Morocco

Our Top 5 Things to Do in Morocco

You can’t possibly do and see everything that Morocco has to offer in one trip. If you can experience our top 5 things to do in Morocco that will be eye-opening enough (and, hopefully, inspire you to visit us again).
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Taghazout Bay: the time to visit this upcoming region

Taghazout Bay: the time to visit this upcoming region

Reconnect to yourself and a harmonious way of life in Morocco’s surfing capital

A guest post by Sally Kirby, resident artist and yoga teacher 

It is time to reveal that this beach, fishing and surf-centric region has had a makeover!

As part of the Taghazout Bay development project, Tamraght, Taghazout and nearby Aourir (‘Banana Village’) are now home to new beachfront cafes, open-air restaurants, luxury hotels, beach clubs, and, a 5km beachfront promenade.
 
After a quiet couple of years – the closure of Morocco’s borders at the outset of Covid-19 brought tourism to a stark halt – life in Tamraght and Taghazout is picking up again.
 
Read on for a little insight as to what to expect in Morocco’s south-coast surf region these days below.
 
Morocco’s-surfing- coastline
Morocco’s surfing coastline on the Atlantic
 
 

Development at Taghazout Bay

Throughout 2020-2021, construction continued, with new hotels and community facilities popping up all over. Creativity boomed, the result: babies and stunning artisan works in abundance.  Those who could honed their trade with online learning and digital working.
 
On a personal level, I was grateful for the option to teach yoga online and to have started a series of online videos, check out You Tube via the link here – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCIF6vNiDnZcsDACql6dQ2wQ/videos
 
It was a wonderful time for the local community to connect. With no tourists to host, our attention was turned to each other, our homes, and getting to know the region better.
 
Now, international flights are landing daily in Agadir again…
 
Taghazout Bay
Restaurant overlooking Taghazout Bay
 
 

New hotels sit alongside the existing artisan & surf community

Several new hotels have opened, including a Radisson, Fairmont, Riu, Hyatt Regency, and a Hilton, Puro Beach coming soon.
 
It has been incredible to see the changes. The initial concerns, how will this affect local tourism, the smaller businesses and hotels?
 
Yes, the village feels different, more diverse in its offerings for travellers and locals alike.
 
The positives are starting to become clear. The beaches are cleaner, the ocean sparkles, the waves are consistent – there are brand new toilet blocks, and even an ATM!
 
And, at its heart, the essence of this grounded community and relaxed lifestyle has been retained.
 
You can choose to dip bread in amlou, a locally produced nut butter, at Babakoul, or dine out in style at a brand new five star sushi restaurant, Morimoto!
 
Surf hotels- luxury-retreats-Taghazout-Bay
Surf hotels and luxury retreats co-exist in Taghazout Bay
 
 

Work:life balance oceanside

Co-working spaces with fibre optic WIFI have popped up to cater for an influx of digital nomads.
 
Pampering pool days have become the norm, hammam & massage, hiking trails, skateboarding sessions, stand up paddle, are all great options for those rare days when there are no waves for surfing.
 
There are new Air B&Bs and apartment options offer a longer stay option for those coming to work remotely, is it time for you to practice finding that perfect work:life balance?
 
I am grateful for the time to be integrated into the local community. To have found a simpler way of life, in tune with the ocean and nature’s rhythm. If you’d like to come and sample this, please get in touch (details below), the Winter surf season has started, and it would be a pleasure to welcome you to/ back to this slice of beach and surfing heaven!
 
Morocco’s-surfing-coastline
Morocco’s surfing coastline
 
 

More about the author, Sally Kirby

Sally is based full-time near Taghazout Bay, drawn to a life spent at the ocean and by a passion for Africa. Her website showcases her artwork, writing and yoga teachings. Sally’s website is here and her Instagram feed here. Thanks to Sally for providing all of the images featured in this post.

Contact us for a quote for one of our ‘Desert to Coast’ holidays. Please also enquire for a customised yoga retreat with Sally and Wild Morocco.

Author-Sally-Kirby
Author, Sally Kirby
Facts on Morocco – Did You Know?

Facts on Morocco – Did You Know?

Facts on Morocco

Discover some little-known facts on Morocco

The Arabic name given for Morocco by medieval historians and geographers is “al-Maghrib al-Aqsa”, translated as Furthest Westerly Kingdom (of the Maghreb countries, in North West Africa). One of the least well-known facts on Morocco is that it is just 13km from mainland Spain (and plans are afoot to investigate feasibility of constructing an undersea tunnel between the two countries before the end of 2030). Morocco’s territory borders 3500km+ of the Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines. It shares land borders with Spanish territory, Algeria and Mauritania.

The Atlas Mountains is a mountain range which stretches across northwestern Africa extending about 2,500km through Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia and dissecting Morocco in two. The highest peak is Jebel Toubkal, with an elevation of 4,167m.

The Anti-Atlas range extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the southwest of Morocco toward the northeast to the heights of Ouarzazate and further east to the city of Tafilalt (altogether a distance of approx. 500km). In the south it borders the Sahara. It includes the Djebel Siroua, a massif of volcanic origin with the highest summit of the range at 3,304m.

An erg (also sand sea or dune sea, or sand sheet if it lacks dunes) is a broad, flat area of desert covered with wind-swept sand with little or no vegetative cover. The term takes its name from the Arabic word ‘arq’ meaning ‘dune field’. Approximately 85% of all the Earth’s mobile sand is found in ergs that are greater than 32,000 square kilometres (12,000 sq mi). Ergs are also found on other celestial bodies, such as Venus, Mars, and Saturn’s moon Titan.

Iriqui National Park is the largest national park in Morocco and the only one in the Sahara Desert. Established to protect the biodiversity, flora and fauna across 123,000 ha of south-eastern Morocco, and in particular to preserve the temporary wetlands of Lake Iriqui, at the heart of the desert (which support grazing of animals and migratory birds in winter).

Facts on Morocco - Iriqui National Park

The Sahara (‘the Great Desert’ in Arabic) is the largest hot desert and third largest desert after Antarctica and the Arctic. Its combined surface area of 9,400,000 square kilometres (3,600,000 sq mi) – accounting for substrates such as the Libyan Desert and the Sudan region is comparable to the respective land areas of China and the United States. Many of its sand dunes reach over 180m (590ft) in height.

Erg Chigaga dunes are Morocco’s longest sand dune field, approx. 40km in length. Erg Chigaga is 90mins off-road journey (60km) across the desert terrain from the nearest village (Mhamid El Ghizlane, see below) and sits within Morocco’s largest protected national park – the Iriqui National Park (see above), approx. 500km from Marrakech by desert piste and road (or 270km from Ouarzazate).

Facts on Morocco - Erg Chigaga dunes - Wild Morocco

 

Temperatures not only in the Sahara but also in Marrakech, Ouarzazate and the Anti-Atlas mountains are in the 40s °C in summer (very high temperatures can start in June). In winter (typically January) snow in the mountains can close the high passes at times, or lead to unexpected delays and route changes. The weather conditions in the desert are prone to change quickly and never predictable. Windy conditions in the desert are common in Spring, however this is not the same as a full-blown sandstorm.

Morocco is home to one of the largest Acacia tree forests in North Africa (a reminder of the savannah that was present in the south of Morocco before the Sahara desert encroached). The resin of the Acacia tree (once crystallised) is added to tea in the south. Look out for the Acacia groves on the Draa Valley and near Foum Zguid.

Facts on Morocco

The Dorcas Gazelle is endangered and you will be very lucky should you spot one in the Iriqui National Park when you visit Erg Chigaga. The Arabic word for gazelle is ‘rhazal’ and the village at the desert frontier, Mhamid El Ghizlane (pronounced rhazlane) is named for the ‘plain of the gazelles’. Keep your eyes open for their white tails, particularly amongst vegetation.

Our team are the last generation to have grown up as children in the desert, previously practising a way of life that was unchanged in centuries. Our parents kept farms and livestock in the desert (in Iriqui National Park as it is now) when water was freely available. That way of life became untenable three decades ago when the river to this region (the Draa) was dammed near its source and the desert encroached on farmland. Of all our facts on Morocco, this one is most poignant.

Facts on Morocco - Wild Morocco

There are three UNESCO biosphere reserves in Morocco established to encourage sustainable development (the Argan biosphere, the southern Morocco Oasis and the Mediterranean Sea Reserve [with Spain]).

The imperial cities of Morocco are the four historical capital cities of Morocco: Fes, Marrakech, Meknes and Rabat. The term was used from the 15th century to denote a self-ruling city that enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy. An Imperial city held the status of Imperial immediacy, and as such, was subordinate only to the emperor, as opposed to a territorial city or town.

Facts on Morocco - Fes

Camels in Morocco are known as dromedaries – camels with a single hump on their backs. These are very gentle creatures that are highly intelligent and extremely patient, the exception being the leaders of the herd, which can become aggressive if the herd is in danger. They have long thick eyelashes and very hairy ears as a protection from the sand. Full-grown camels can stand at a height of between 6 / 7 feet and their lifespan ranges between 25 to 50 years of age. Owners respect them for their natures and their ability to survive in the desert with very little food and water. That amazing ability to survive the desert temperatures comes from being able to increase their own body heat. (An aside on one of these facts on Morocco – camels generate a good income for their owners, especially during the visitor season when camels are used in the hiking trips).

Rock art is found throughout the Sahara, principally in the desert mountain and hill ranges, where stone ‘canvas’ is abundant: including the highlands of Adrar in Mauritania and Adrar des Ifoghas in Mali, the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and Algeria, the Tassili n’Ajjer and Ahaggar Mountains in Algeria, the mountainous areas of Tadrart Acacus and Messak in Libya, etc, as well as the length of the Nile Valley.

Facts on Morocco

Explorations in the early twentieth century by celebrated travellers, ethnographers and archaeologists brought the rock art of Sahara, and northern Africa in general, to the awareness of a European public. More than 300 rock art sites have been documented in Morocco, mainly located in two areas: the High Atlas Mountains, and the Sahara desert region to the south and east. They comprise mainly engravings, which could be up to 5,000 years old, and include domestic and wild animals, warriors, weapons and scenes of battles and hunting. Antelope and cattle are the most represented animals in Moroccan rock art, although elephants and rhinoceros are common.

The traditional ‘kasbah’ of southern Morocco is the family unit of the wealthy classes and has varied forms and multiple functions. For the most part, they are country houses; the ground floor is used for agricultural purposes and the upper floors serve as living quarters in winter (upper portion) and summer (lower portion). Adjoining houses are reserved for agricultural workers. The kasbah can, however, also be a veritable palace-fortress, the seat of local power (e.g. at Telouet – it then takes on the dimensions of a small village).

Ait Ben Haddou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, formed of a series of pise- (earth/mud) constructed dwellings and fortified walls, barely inhabited now, but some families have remained.

Facts on Morocco - Ait Ben Haddou

It offers a complete panorama of pre-Saharan earth construction techniques. The oldest constructions do not appear to be earlier than the 17th century, although their structure and technique were propagated from a very early period in the valleys of southern Morocco. The site was also one of the many trading posts on the commercial route linking ancient Sudan to Marrakech by the Draa Valley and the former Tizi-n’Telouet Pass.

Saffron is produced in Morocco in the foothills of the Atlas. It is a spice derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, commonly known as the ‘saffron crocus’. The crocus bears up to four flowers, each with three vivid crimson stigmas. The styles and stigmas, called threads, are collected and dried to be used mainly as a seasoning and colouring agent in food.

Saffron is one of the world’s most costly spices by weight. Its aroma is often described by connoisseurs as reminiscent of metallic honey with grassy or hay-like notes, while its taste has also been noted as hay-like and sweet.

We hope you enjoyed some of our facts on Morocco. For further facts on Morocco’s geography and getting around the Kingdom, whether with us or by public transport, please refer to our page here.

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