THE ROAD BEST TRAVELLED PART 8: Atlantic Coast

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This morning, we had a quiet breakfast of a cheese omelet, fresh orange juice, bread and tea at a small cafe in Assilah, south of Tangiers, right on the coast. The local people were already busy, kids on bikes heading to school, women heading for the market, men off to work. A man walked by, nonchalantly scrolling through messages on his phone with one hand, a trio of chickens, still glorious in their plumage, dangling quite dead from the other. He crossed the street, slipping through the door of his restaurant. To be sure, chicken tagine and brochettes are on the menu today – guaranteed fresh! We’re in lovely Essaouira now. Actually, the two towns have quite a lot in common. They’re both on the Moroccan Atlantic coast, and both are tidy blue-and-white, reminiscent of so many similar spots in Greece and Turkey. Of the two, Assilah is quieter: it’s a bit off the beaten path, since most people heading northward to Tangiers are more likely to take the big highway. But it has nice beaches, wonderful seafood, and… it’s quieter. Essaouira is also charming: it’s a bigger city, a popular day trip from Marrakech, and a destination for surfers the world over. Yes, there are lovely beaches, but it’s often very windy – hence its appeal for surfers. It’s easy to spend a lazy day strolling the easily-navigable medina, exploring the many artisans’ workshops. I guarantee you’ll want to take something of everything home. But here’s what I love: where else can you visit the fish market, purchase something directly off the boats, then take it to one of the nearby restaurants and get them to cook it for you? That’s what we did: we’re nursing a Moroccan beer on one of the restaurant’s terraces, looking out over the Atlantic while the sun’s going down. There’s a line of gulls perched on the old city walls, also taking account of their day in the falling light. I don’t know about them, but here’s what we did… If you really need to make time, you can take the beautiful big freeway and zoom down the coast all the way from Tangiers to El Jadida, just south of Casablanca, before it swings inland almost to Marrakech and then back towards the coast south to Agadir. But we like to take the secondary highway that runs parallel to the freeway but on the sea side, so you actually get better coastal views — and of course, endless opportunities to stop and just take it all in! (Besides, if you’re going to Essaouira, you eventually have to leave the highway at El Jadida to take the coastal route anyway.) This is the route of hidden treasures! We love taking people to the amazing excavations of the Roman capital of Volubilis, about an hour from Fes or Meknes. But no one knows about Lixus! Just south of Assilah and about 5 km east of the town of Larache, Lixus is the site of another set of Roman ruins, much smaller and not as far along in the excavation process as Volubilis, but still amazingly interesting. The source of economic development at Lixus was salt production instead of olives and olive oil. There are still modern salt production operations in the area. Still, there is much to see at Lixus: the ruins of the town, the amphitheatre, baths, and mosaics. If you’d like a guide (recommended) the security guards will put in a quick call to bring someone out for you. (It’s a pretty quiet spot…) If you choose to wander on your own, you’ll see the security guards lurking, just checking on where you are. This is truly for your safety: if you stray from the path in one particular area, you may find yourself wandering into the habitat of deadly-poisonous snakes. …Truly, stay on the path! Another 50 km or so down the road is the village of Moulay Bousselham and the Merdja Zerga Natural Preserve – a magnet for bird-watchers! Seeeecret!!! The truly serious birders book themselves on a boat tour with local ornithologist Hassan Dalil. They also plan their visit to coincide with whatever birds they’re interested in seeing, which of course depends on the birds’ migration patterns and time of year. Although there are always birds of some kind hanging around here, you can plan your trip to see specific types of wading birds, colonies of flamingoes, little-ringed plovers, egrets, various gulls and terns, including rare species such as the Caspian tern, lesser crested tern, and the North African marsh owl. If you’re like us, a little less serious but still interested, slide into the Café Milano, which handles Dalil’s bookings, and take your chances – or simply go with one of the other boatmen in the area. Believe me, there are LOTS of them! Of course they’re not ornithologists, but if you just want to go for a nice boat ride on the lagoon and see whatever birds are there to be seen on the day you’re there, it’s just great! Even if you don’t book a tour there, the Café Milano serves wonderful food, and so is a great spot for lunch before or after your boat ride. If you’re just dying for a glorious beach, though, absolutely stop at Plage des Nations, otherwise known as Sidi Bouknadel, about 13 km north of Rabat. There’s a promenade here with places to eat. Enjoy the wide sweep of sand, but be careful about swimming as there are dangerous currents here. There are lifeguards patrolling only during the busy summer months. If you’ve made a stop here, you’re also close to Lac Sidi Boughaba where there’s more bird-watching to be done, or for a total change of scene, Les Jardins Exotiques de Bouknadel, also in the neighborhood. I like this quiet little spot! There are color-coded paths leading you through gardens representing different traditions: a Brazilian rainforest, Japanese garden, a Mexican cactus garden, a tropical garden reminiscent of French Polynesia, and an Andalusian garden featuring native Moroccan plants. There’s also a vivarium where you can see a variety of snakes, scorpions, and other beasties. The remaining stretch of coastline all the way down past Casablanca to Essaouira is a continuous line of rugged cliffs with crashing surf interspersed with tiny jewels of golden beaches, some accessible, some not. The route is dotted with little fishing villages and private properties, some over-the-top gorgeous.. others, not so much! There are many other worthwhile stops, too. …You know, you could easily spend two weeks just working your way along the coast – easily! Many people from Europe do just that, bringing their trailers/caravans with them. They also drive or fly down for indulgent weekends, arriving in Tangier, Rabat, Casablanca, Essaouira, or Agadir. They know all the secret beaches, the glorious spa resorts, the best seafood restaurants… And so do we! El Jadida is another great spot, best-known for the fortifications of the Old Portuguese City (an UNESCO World Heritage site) and serene underground cistern. It’s only an hour out of Casablanca, so a great spot to overnight if you want to escape high city prices and “western”-style hotels. Safi is also worth a stop for its famous Quartier des Potiers (potters’ quarter), where the traditional methods of making ceramics are still practiced. In fact, if you plan your Morocco tour to take in this part of the Atlantic coast, by all means visit the ceramics factories in Fes, but wait to buy your treasures in Safi where the prices will be lower – if you do your negotiating well! Oualidia is another wonderful little stop. Strategically, though, it’s better to visit Oualidia after Essaouira, so, going south to north, because you’re more likely to hit it at lunch time. And Oualidia has fabulous seafood! Oooh – especially oysters! They’re famous for oysters. This is another great spot for a quiet boat ride on the lagoon behind the breakwater that protects the town and local beach from the ravaging Atlantic surf – so great on a hot afternoon! (There’s also a to-die-for spa hotel here… seeecrret!) Well, the sun is down, the air is cool… oooh! The jazz is HOT! We’re heading for the upper terrace for the next excitement! Maybe we’ll make Agadir tomorrow – or maybe not!
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