42km (26 miles) S of Tangier; 191km (118 miles) N of Rabat
Asilah (also spelled Assilah) is an attractive fishing port and coastal town with a medina of white and blue houses surrounded by imposing ramparts and lying alongside a quaint harbor and an extensive beach. It's the northernmost of the former Portuguese outposts, and today has a strong Mediterranean feel, assisted by the hordes of Spanish weekenders who drive down here once disembarking from the ferries in Tangier.
History began here more than 3,500 years ago. Ancient Greek geographers Ptolemy and Strabo mentioned it, as did 10th-century Arab traveler and writer Ibn Hawqal. Over the centuries, the little village saw Phoenicians, Romans, Normans, and Arabs come through. In 1471, the Portuguese garrisoned themselves here, constructing the town's still-impressive fortifications. Their king, Dom Sebastian, landed here in 1578 on his way to defeat at what was to become known as the Battle of the Three Kings. This defeat led to the Spanish absorption of Portugal, and thus of Asilah. The notorious Alaouite sultan Moulay Ismail then recaptured the village in 1691. During the 19th century, Asilah was used as a base for piracy, which led to bombardments in 1826 by Austria and 1860 by the Spanish. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Moulay Ahmed er Raissouli, a bandit chief who terrorized much of northwestern Morocco, was based in the town and described by his one-time hostage and later friend, Walter Harris, in the book Morocco That Was. Er Raissouli built his palace in the medina, from where he reigned in terror over much of the northwest region, eventually fleeing to the Rif mountains once Spain took control of the town in 1911 as part of its protectorate.
Asilah can be a pleasant introduction or relaxing end to traveling in Morocco. Hassle is negligible, and even when the town is jampacked with August holidaymakers, it becomes lively and not intolerable. In the 1970s, the town was just a backwater fishing village, its medina crumbling, filthy, and lacking electricity. In 1978, former resident Mohammed Benaïssa, now Morocco's foreign minister, and local artist Mohammed Melehi organized a cultural and arts festival as a vehicle for rejuvenating the medina and inspiring its residents. Thirty years later, Asilah's International Cultural Festival is one of the country's best and is truly an international event, with recent programs including artists, musicians, intellectuals, and lecturers from countries including Germany, Austria, Chile, Spain, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Japan, Senegal, Syria, the Czech Republic, Tunisia, and Morocco. It runs for most of the month of August and is worth organizing your travels to coincide a visit during this time, although you'll need to prebook your accommodations or visit as a day trip from Tangier.