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Published: June 25th 2015
It’s official. Morocco has won me over. The combination of the amazing food (we’ll talk about that in a minute), the stunning architecture and the diverse landscape - all at an affordable price - is truly a traveler’s dream. But what makes it truly unique is the meddling of cultures – the red tiled Andalusian rooftops, the centuries old Arabic Medinas, the historic mellahs (Jewish quarters), and the traditional Berber tribes. Old and new is very visible here. Traditional Berber women descend into the Medinas with straw conical hats, while teenagers chat away on their cell phones, wearing Western shorts and tees. The size is also a huge plus - we have only been here a week and already we have seen a bustling seaside city, a small sleepy port, and now a small backpacker’s hub nestled in the mountains, with very little travel in between.
After Tangier we traveled south down the Atlantic coast for 45 minutes, until we reached the sleepy town of Assilah. Similar to Tangier, the majority of the town is painted bright white, creating the illusion you are on a Greek island, rather than in Northern Africa. A wide esplanade runs along the sea until
it intersects with the honey colored walls of the Medina. The opposite side of the street is lined with cafes and restaurants serving fresh fish and the ubiquitous mint tea. If you continue up the hill into the Medina, you find a wide clean street that leads to the smaller, twisting alleys filled with souqs (covered shops). Further in, on the seaside of the Medina looms a large imposing fort, the Palais de Raissouli, which towers over the rocky shore. Locals and tourists alike gather here to take in the view of the Atlantic.
We spent two fairly quiet days in Assilah which consisted of mainly people watching, wandering through the Medina, and eating delicious seafood. This point brings me back to the food of Morocco, which I may have mentioned before, is nothing if not amazing. I can’t think of one meal yet that has not been near perfect. Breakfast (included with all of the riads) consists of an array of sweet breads with jelly, plates of dates, olives, fresh squeezed orange juice and strong, thick coffee. Lunches have been quite light, as we have tried not to eat out in public, since everyone is fasting for Ramadan.
We have snuck in a few pizzas here and there however. For dinner, we have sampled a wide variety of restaurants and cafes – from fancy multi-tiered places to small corner cafes. The prized local dishes are primarily chicken/lamb tagines, a traditional rich stew, generally served with potatoes, peas, and carrots and pastillas, minced chicken or other meat (traditionally it was pigeon meat) inside a flaky pastry with cinnamon and powdered sugar on top. The mixture of savory with sweet is amazing. And then of course there is cous cous, prepared with chicken or vegetable stew spooned over top. We have also eaten quite a lot of fresh seafood, barbeque swordfish in Tangier, fried seabass in Assilah, and several platters of flavorful calamari. And in between all of that, before, and after, is the mint tea which is served always in a silver pot with sugar cubes and cookies.
Although Assilah was quiet, I was glad we decided to stop there for a few days. One thing that makes it unique to other Moroccan cities, is the prevalence of local artists. Large murals cover several of the Medina walls, and galleries are dispersed throughout. One day, as I was
taking a picture of one of the large murals, an older gentleman, named Abdul struck up a conversation with us. “Don’t worry” he said, “this is a tourist town, people taking pictures all the time. Come, take picture with me.” He convinced us to sit with him and place Moroccan instruments for a while. Abdul was the first of several people who have invited us back to their house for tea and soup at sunset. So far, we have not obliged, fearing that we may end up leaving with several carpets in tow if we do.
The difference between the rhythm of night and day was perhaps most clear in Assilah. Both nights as we ventured out for dinner around 8:30pm (right after the breaking of the fast) the esplanade was practically deserted. An hour later, as we finished our mint tea, we looked up to find that the entire town had awakened. People were pouring into the esplanade from all directions. Groups of young boys and girls descended onto the streets, holding hands, laughing, and giggling into their cell phones. Whole families came out to stroll slowly along the water. Men set up stalls all along the esplanade
selling steamed corn, sweets, and other essentials. Before long, the town was buzzing with activity. We fell asleep both nights to the sound of drums playing outside our window.
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