Discover the other side of the horizon

Living on or visiting the Marbella coastline, we spend a lot of time looking out to sea and surveying the horizon. In the distance, the outlines of Gibraltar and North Africa sometimes seem close enough to touch – and indeed, whether you take a ferry, yacht or make use of a new half-hour Ryanair flight from Málaga to Tetuan, Morocco is just a short distance away.

So close and yet so different; the short hop across the western edge of the Mediterranean opens up a world of discoveries and an insight into an exotic world of casbahs, minarets and the call of the muezzin. It’s all just on the other side of the water we are so familiar with, where historic cities and beautiful mountain ranges mirror those of Andalucía. Despite the impact on the senses of a place that still has an almost medieval feel in places, where the scent of spices and natural fragrances hangs in the air, there are also definite similarities with Andalucía, for if you’re familiar with the white-plastered villages of southern Spain you will come across places that bear the hallmarks of centuries of interaction between these two shorelines.

This link stretches back thousands of years to a time even before the Muslim invasion of Spain, as both sides of the Mediterranean traded, exchanged cultural influences and eventually fell under first Carthaginian and then Roman rule. The colonisation of Spain by Arab and Berber tribes following the invasion in 711 BCE greatly accelerated this process, imbuing Andalucía with a certain North African feel. Nowhere is this connection stronger than between the shorelines of Málaga province and northern Morocco, for when the Moors and Jews of Spain were later expelled in the 16th century, it was in the villages and ports between Tangiers and modern-day Algeria that they settled.

Even if you’re not really into history and culture, you will find this sense of recognition within an otherwise thoroughly exotic environment a fascinating play on the senses. Northern Morocco is most definitely Arabic-Berber and Muslim in nature, but the region that lays across the short stretch of Mediterranean Sea from the Costa del Sol also offers much that we might recognise from our own surroundings.

Beach resorts and exploration
To begin with, Morocco’s Mediterranean coast has its own ‘Costa del Sol’, a bona fide seaside resort area that feels more like Mijas Costa and Sotogrande than Fuengirola and Torremolinos – which is to say, it is more upmarket and elegant than you may expect. The main part stretches from Marina Smir, just east of Ceuta, to Tamouda Bay and the luxury hotels surrounding the coastal town of Mdiq. Here you will find residential developments set between a stylish, park-like boulevard and long stretches of sandy beach. A charming marina reminiscent of Puerto Banús forms a focal point within the Marina Smir area at the heart of this Moroccan Riviera, which welcomes guests from Europe, the Middle East, the USA, Asia and Morocco itself.

Were it not for the Arabic writing, charming seaside towns such as Mdiq and the distant call of the Muezzin, you could imagine yourself to be in the Algarve or the Costa del Sol. However, while modern and luxurious this is unmistakably Morocco; a land where people still wear traditional dress such as Djellabas and the straw hats rimmed with coloured tassels that remind you of the fact that you’re in the Maghreb region, a mix of cultures produced by the Riffian Berbers of this region and the Arabs that invaded it in the 7th century. The result is an enticing blend of culture and luxury that makes it entirely possible to spend one day lounging on the beach and enjoying five-star hotel and spa comforts, while heading off into the surrounding mountains and towns the next.

Sofitel Tamuda Bay
The coastal area caters to a variety of budgets and personal preferences, but a beacon of modern refinement and pampering is the five-star Sofitel Tamuda Bay resort hotel and spa. Set right upon a wide stretch of beach fronting a wonderful expanse of sea that looks straight back at the Costa del Sol, the resort offers a modern interpretation of the local experience – complete with contemporary Moroccan-inspired architecture, expansive pool area with sunbeds, sunken lounge pits, a variety of stylish outdoor bars and eateries and a beach club with nightclub. You can enjoy waiter service from the friendly and attentive staff by the pool or on the beach itself, from where the views take in the sweep of the coast towards Cabo Negro in the east, and the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in the west.

The accommodation is varied too, offering a choice of spacious hotel rooms, luxurious penthouse-style suites, private villas with concierge service and even attending staff, as well as the very pretty beachside bungalow suites designed with French flair. As the hotel group is French, the resort features a very pleasant blend of French culinary and lifestyle knowhow, combined with a touch of local exoticism that simply adds to the sense of modern exclusivity that the Sofitel exudes. It would be hard to surpass this level of service and pampering, be it in the restaurants, children’s club or the sumptuous spa – everything is laid on for you with a smile and a certain savoir faire, enabling you to simply focus on relaxing, enjoying and heading out to discover this fascinating part of North Africa.

Spanish Morocco
Though we consider it to be simply Arab/Muslim, Morocco is a mosaic of cultural influences that colours different parts of the country. The region in question, for instance, is quite different and far more Mediterranean than Marrakech and the Sahara or Atlas. In fact, by the time it was invaded by the Arabs, the local Berber population had already been interacting with Phoenicians, Romans, Mauritanian kingdoms, Jews and Iberians for centuries. This was followed by contact with the British, Portuguese, Turks, French and Spanish, though the country was only fully conquered by the latter two at the turn of the twentieth century, having escaped Ottoman rule. While most of Morocco became a French protectorate, Tangiers became a hotbed of intrigue as an international Free City, and the region across from Spain fell under its control in 1913, re-joining the rest of Morocco upon independence in 1956.

The almost half century of Spanish rule adds to the tens of thousands of Andalusian Muslims and Jews that settled in this region after they were expelled from Spain shortly after the completion of the Spanish Reconquest, and as a result of these two factors the Spanish-Andalusian presence in the towns and villages of this region are clear. For one thing, while Moroccan Arabic and French are the official languages, Spanish is still widely spoken, alongside English and variations of the indigenous Tamazight Berber language. Unlike Marrakech, this is a white-plastered world much like Andalucía, with tightly-packed houses, cobbled streets, little squares and patios, as well as glazed green and azure rooftiles. In many ways, this is the ‘other Andalucía’ – albeit a Muslim one complete with mosques, minarets and the winding labyrinth of the medina.

Tetuan – Morocco’s ‘Andalusian’ capital
The former capital of the Spanish Protectorate of Morocco is not only the point from which General Franco famously plotted his rise to power in Spain, but also a centre of Andalusian Morisco culture. A short drive from the coast along a good, park-lined road, it is a bustling city whose fringes are developing into a modern urban area complete with attractive planning and 21st century amenities, but head further into Tetuan and you see the centuries winding back as you near the centre. A good starting point for an excursion through the city is the circular square known as the Plaza de España, situated in the heart of the Spanish colonial part of town and also the site of a functional Catholic cathedral.

The streets surrounding this picturesque hub of Spanishness are awash in cafés and shops featuring Spanish names. Venture a little further along the characteristic white and green architecture of Tetuan and you come to an elegant shopping street that was once the base of Jewish merchants. It is an area with old colonial charm, complete with Mediterranean style cafés, though the fact that only men frequent them reminds one that this is Morocco, not Spain or Italy. As if you needed reminding, for before long you come upon a medina of tiny labyrinthine streets crowded with shops, workshops, shoppers and intense impressions. This is a rather medieval world very different from ours, but one in which you move without ever feeling uncomfortable or unwanted. Moroccans are hospitable people, and willing to share this insight into a way of life that – at least here in the old centre – doesn’t seem to have changed much for centuries.

Head into the mountains
If you search for treasure in the mountains just beyond Tetuan you will surely find it, be it in the form of natural beauty, quaint settlements or the famed town of Chefchaouen – the blue mountain village first popularised by travellers in the 1950s. Among them were the likes of Mick Jagger and John Lennon, as this region attracted many of the passing hippie-chic crowd of the 1960s, but today Chefchaouen is firmly recognised as a cultural gem and popular with visitors from across the world. That said, you don’t have to shuffle through the charming historic centre, with its beautiful winding streets, little crafts shops, quaint boutique hotels and traditional homes painted in the natural blue pigment that makes Chefchaouen so unique. The result is a shift from dazzling white to mesmerising shades of blue that somehow calm the senses and install a sense of wellbeing.

The fact that the brightly coloured wares displayed against the blue-plastered walls make every photo you take look stunning adds to this sense of happiness, and when you reach the main square and behold the coming and going of people while sipping the delicious local mint tea, you’re close to a state of nirvana. Chefchaouen is a little over an hour’s ride from the coast on reasonably good roads and certainly worth the trip – or even a stay in the Parador or one of the little boutique riads. If you’re not done picking up goodies in the town itself, why not stop at one of the roadside vendors selling pretty Moroccan earthenware? The route leads through natural parks and farmland dotted with houses and flanked by mountain ranges, lakes and wooded areas in a landscape that is not dry but looks a lot like parts of Andalucía. This is reflected in much of the produce found here, from olive oil and oranges to figs and surprisingly good wines, but if you want to experience this region in ultimate luxury that will make even the jaded Marbella set drop their jaws, then head for the Banyan Tree Tamouda Bay.

Banyan Tree Tamouda Bay
To say that the 92 private villas that form part of this exceptional resort aside the beach are five-star is a gross understatement, for the Banyan Tree at Tamouda Bay defies conventional descriptions of hotels and resorts. Laid out over a large area made up of parkland scenery, evocative waterways and peaceful resident-only roads and pathways, the luxuriant villas surround a series of low-rise buildings whose Arabic-inspired architecture is so beautifully balanced that is evokes the palatial splendour of a thousand-and-one nights. For all this, the ‘palaces’ housing the sublime spa, restaurants and concierge hotel and reception are not overtly imposing, but instead tastefully balanced and in harmony with their manicured surroundings. A private beach club completes a complex where visitors at the sumptuously styled and fitted one and two-bedroom villas have a private butler at their disposal.

Gorgeous bathrooms, gardens with their pools and jacuzzis, as well as the proximity of select gourmet restaurants on-site complete a superlative offer that attracts an international clientele yet is relatively unknown in Marbella. In terms of luxury and experience, it gives the latter a serious run for its money, something discerning visitors could put to the test as they moor their yacht in nearby Marina Smir or land at Tetuan’s small but well-functioning airport, which recently saw the inauguration of a half-hour Ryan flight that brings this region even closer by. With a choice of backpacking, family and Riad venues available, as well as the luxury of the Banyan Tree and the Sofitel, there is every opportunity to make the short voyage across the Mediterranean from the Costa del Sol and discover the pleasures that lie beyond our horizon.

 

First published in Essential Magazine



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