Unlike anywhere else in Morocco, the forgotten northwest corner of the country has suffered the most from a long history of selfishness and neglect by the very same powers that have fought so hard to possess it. Subtly different from the rest of the country, thanks to its relatively recent Spanish occupation, the northwest has historically welcomed far fewer tourists than the more popular regions of Morocco to its south. This was partly due to a well-earned reputation as the country's worst region for hustlers and con men, but also as a result of a long period of disownment from a king who seemed to genuinely dislike the region -- perhaps as a direct consequence of two failed attempts on his life that supposedly emanated from here.
Tangier, one of the oldest ports known to man, has been exploited almost since its beginning, when the Phoenicians settled here in 1500 B.C. at the western edge of the then-known world. Many nations have since passed through the port and proceeded to accept all the gifts provided by its strategic location without any real commitment toward bettering its residents or developing its infrastructure. This exploitation reached its peak during the first half of the last century when no less than 14 nations -- begrudgingly including Morocco -- were involved in the city's administration. This was the "InterZone" period of Tangier, a time of excess and vice that earned the city a reputation that still lingers today.
Chefchaouen sits hidden away in the Rif mountains, the wildest of the country's ranges. Isolation by xenophobia -- rather than exploitation by outsiders -- was the curse of this little village. For more than 400 years, the villagers (Andalusian refugees who came here to start a new life after expulsion from reconquered Christian Spain) determined never again to let the "Christian dogs" rule over them. They denied entry to all Westerners, even poisoning one who made it through the village's gates. The region was placed under Spanish "protection" from 1912 to 1956. However, rather than a time of prosperity under colonialist rule -- as it could be argued occurred in the rest of the country under the French -- the northwest was again subject to a reign of plunder and neglect, with little or no infrastructure, education, or health initiatives. This very isolation and lack of development, however, has over the past 10 years seen Chefchaouen deservedly becoming a must-see destination on both the backpacker and mainstream tourist route. Travelers now come here to see the medina's photogenic and once-off-limits blue-washed houses and kick back for a couple of days, enjoying the fresh air -- both natural and narcotic -- and small village friendliness.
The quaint fishing village of Asilah was also settled by the ancient Phoenicians before witnessing through the centuries a steady stream of invaders and conquerors. Also under the jurisdiction of the Spanish until Moroccan independence, the village was headed for obscurity up until the late 1970s, when a prominent ex-Asilan who grew up in its historic, and by then crumbling, medina launched a festival of arts that has turned the town's fortunes around. The festival, held every August, is so popular that the city's hotels are often booked out a year in advance and property prices within its once bargain-basement medina have risen to levels matched only by Marrakech.
Both Chefchaouen's and Asilah's current popularity is finally being duplicated in Tangier. For the past 5 years -- thanks to a new king who makes no secret of his affection for the city -- a frantic amount of restoration, landscaping, and foreign investment has resulted in the city being coined "Morocco's St-Tropez." Its once-seedy past is now looked upon with nostalgia by those Westerners old enough to remember the days of beat writers and Barbara Hutton, while hordes of Spanish visitors arrive every morning for a day's exploration of an Islamic kingdom only a 2- to 3-hour ferry ride away. Moroccans themselves also come to the city for a beach holiday and the city's cosmopolitan atmosphere.
While most independent Western travelers will still choose to take a taxi between Tangier's port and train station to head straight out of the northwest for more "glamorous" regions farther south, those who delay that journey for even just a few days will have the chance to experience a world-weary part of Morocco with a charm and style all its own.