Ancient Agadir: beyond the booming beach

 

Agadir is Morocco’s major south-western city, the capital of the Agadir province, and the Sous-Massa economic region. Tourism has developed in a different vein here to its popular cousin Marrakech. With a perennial climate of water, waves and sunshine, the Agadir ‘brand’ has long been associated with Northern Europeans holidaymakers, as betrayed by the concourse of identikit 3 and 4 star hotels betraying a booming ‘winter sun’ trade. And yes, the package tour is omnipresent in Agadir.

I will be the first to admit that I underestimated Agadir. Famously berated as the ‘Malaga’ of Morocco, many consider Agadir to have passed its prime – unsuitably brash for the more culturally driven Moroccan adventures. Renowned for its nightclubs, and feted by Thomson as a destination of choice, I was not expecting to particularly like Agadir. In my eyes, it was a convenient stop along my (more exciting) sojourn in the Sahara and surrounds.

However, Agadir’s quirks expose a grittier underbelly to the increasingly trivial luxe proffered by Marrakech. Indeed, a stint in this city does not have to be transitory. Agadir has an evocative identity, which is very much its own. I found myself shamefully surprised.

Agadir is a modern Moroccan city, with a population of 800,000. The Port of Agadir is the second largest in Morocco, supplying some 140,000 tons of fish annually, and transiting some 2 million tons of goods. Industry aside, tourism dominates the Agadir food chain, supporting the local population, albeit (arguably) to the detriment of the abundant natural loveliness of the bay.

Change is afoot, however. Walking along the impressive 9km stretch of sandy beach, it is clear that the beachfront is undergoing redevelopment. Out with the buxom, and in with the boutique; the it-hotels of the 1970s (the majority of which were built after the devastating earthquake of 1960), are being gradually updated and replaced with modern counterparts more entitled to harness the wild beauty that still exists in (namely the Eastern echelons of Agadir beach). The international Sofitel brand is very much leading that charge, with its new, luxury, flagship Thalassa Sea and Spa.

The beach is a beauty, interesting in its modernity, but with abundant reminders of Agadir’s rich history. This is a proud, Islamic city, with “Allah, the King, the Nation” (literally) etched into the hillside above the beach. These three pillars of the kingdom of Morocco are formidably illuminated at night, culturally ironic in the face of parades of western bikini-clad bathers, and casino-goers on the beach below. Indeed, as with all such, modern cities, the syncretistic dynamic between tourist and resident continues to shock. Perhaps not an isolated revelation in a modern Morocco, however visitors to the main Agadir beach concourse (for better, or for worse), are certainly unsympathetic to a traditional North African vision.

And, Agadir is one of the true ancients, revered in the travel diaries of the Greek historian Polybius in 200BC. This is the capital of the ancient Berber people, and the rich cultural tapestry, which that identity engenders. There is much more to Agadir than beach.

Agadir has played a quiet, albeit palpable, role on the world stage, participating in the great eras of trading history, and the modern warfare of the 20th Century. Featuring on 14th Century maps belonging to the Amazigh tribe, the 16th Century brought imperial rule to Agadir, with a Portuguese occupation and further decades of tribal warfare. Restored to the vestiges of the Moroccan dynasty in the 18th Century, Agadir was utilized as a valuable harbour for European trading routes, fostering strategic relationships between the North Africans and the Dutch in the declining years of the great Dutch empire. In the early 20th Century, Agadir was caught in the flaring hostilities between France and Germany, competing for African territory, prior to the onset of the First World War. In 1911, the famous ‘le Coup d’Agadir’ propelled the city onto the world stage, when Germany sent their SMS Panther into the Bay of Agadir.

Agadir remains a striking city – framed by the soft, rolling Atlas Mountains in the middle distance, the foothills of which are resplendent with oleander, almond trees and old tribal Kasbahs atop mountain out-crofts. Heading south towards the Sahara, yields wild and deserted beaches, where a more traditional life ensues, and a new occupying force of surfers, kite-surfers and extreme sports enthusiasts increasingly congregate.

Agadir, and its surrounds, has atmosphere in spades. Whilst Agadir’s Club Med (built in 1965) still seeks to emit dance music onto the beach, the magical charms of this very Moroccan city are still there to be discovered. Look beyond the booming beach, and you will be (very) pleasantly surprised.

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