Asilah seems like an isolated spot, but it’s actually closer than you might imagine. Located on the Moroccan Atlantic coast, it’s only a 40-minute drive down the spotless coastline that separates it from Tangiers.
If you think that getting to Tangier from Spain and other European countries is easy, then getting from Tangier to Asilah is a piece of cake. In less than an hour, you can get there by very reasonably priced train, bus, or taxi. Getting a taxi from the airport has a set price of around 300 dirhams, or €30. From the city, the price is somewhat more negotiable.
If you take your own car, there are two roads, a secondary one that runs along the coast and a motorway with tolls that runs almost parallel. The secondary road is obviously a bit slower than the motorway, but it’s got better views of the vast swathes of construction-free, semi-wild beaches that run alongside it.
As soon as you get to Asilah, you’ll see a strong Spanish influence. The most famous restaurants in the town are Casa Pepe, Casa García, and Restaurante Sevilla, and the most popular dish is fried fish, just like you’d get on the Costa del Sol. What’s more, a significant percentage of the population speaks Spanish, facilitated by both the fact that the greatest number of visitors to the area come from Spain, as well as a colonial past in which Spanish was spoken.
That said, make no mistake – Asilah has maintained its traditional roots despite the influx of foreigners and any foray across the strait and into the area guarantees a decent dose of culture shock!
So, what’s Asilah like? What makes its streets some of the loveliest in Morocco?
First, you’ll pass through the walls that defend the medina from the sea to the west and vast Maghrebi lands to the east. At first glance, it seems narrow – and it is – but soon you’ll find yourself wondering whether to head straight ahead or to take the alley to the right or the uneven passageway to the left. The gentle smell of a labyrinth wafts out bit by bit, but don’t worry – getting truly lost here is impossible since the area is tiny. Despite its size, Asilah hides many secrets, like its synchronicity with the ocean – the tangy sea breeze tickles your skin at every step as if it was an urban representative of the sea that beats against the wall.
Blue and white are the colours that predominate here, with green and varnished wood accenting dainty doors. The detailing on some streets, with arches linking opposing buildings, window frames with meticulous carving, and the constant caress of the sky that surrounds the medina make up the pieces of a puzzle that visitors must put together bit by bit until, eventually, they’re left holding the city in the palm of their hand.
Another one of Asilah’s peculiarities is found in one of its elements from the 15th and 16th centuries. Looking at the walls and, above all, the large tower (el-Karma) that dominates the largest square in the medina, Sidi Ali ben Hamdush, no one could blame you for wondering if you’ve actually ended up in a small Portuguese village. Around this plaza is where you’ll see life springing up, especially once the city’s charming little craft shops open. This square tower – which would look more at home on a medieval Iberian castle – has clearly been the centre point of Asilah for the last 500 years. It is undoubtedly the highest point in what is, admittedly, a pretty squat town.
The most characteristic of the Portuguese elements are, of course, the ramparts that protect the white city from the beating of the waves and, in their time, protected it from conquistadors and raiders. Close to the far south of this old city, following the sea wall in a straight line, an excellent viewpoint emerges, a fantastic place to enjoy the panorama of Asilah with its striking walls protecting the city from the battering of the waves. There, gazing into the sea, feeling the Atlantic breeze, and admiring the bright reflections of the neo-Arabic houses, tourists, locals, and other curious onlookers gather like nowhere else in the city,
Asilah is one of those cities, which, without you even realising, invites you to get to know it and move through its streets guided more by intuition than knowledge. That’s the key here – let your intuition direct you and your steps. This is the concept of “losing yourself” in the medina, forgetting about the map and, instead, letting yourself be guided by improvisation and instinct. The streets will tell you where to go – you just have to let yourself be led.
Another aspect that makes Asilah something special is that it is a meeting point for artists from all over the world. Every summer, festivals gather painters, musicians, and poets together in the town. Houses loan their walls for a temporary covering of bright murals and this show of modernity in an incredibly old location – done with taste and different every year – is the perfect accompaniment to the medina. It creates a strange but really attractive synchrony that reminds you at every step that Asilah is one of North Africa’s capitals of culture. The footsteps of bohemians and artists linger in the white streets, making them among the purest, most attractive canvases of the 21st century. Finding the artistic heart of Asilah is one of the most important things a visitor can do when passing through this beautiful Atlantic city.