In early February 2014, my husband and I decided to escape our Ice Palace in Tangiers and head for the famed Thursday market at Assilah. (Nowadays, most weekly markets are on Thursdays in order to provide fresh vegetables for the Friday couscous.) Assilah is a small fishing village an hour from Tangiers, known for its summer arts festival and its Iberian charm. Instead of using the highway to get there, we took the N1, the old route along the Atlantic coast. What’s the hurry when the sun is out and car heater works? That way, we passed the new tourist resorts being heavily promoted in Tangiers. What we saw did not encourage us to invest: The new resorts lacked any sense of place and the old resorts lacked any sign of maintenance.
Once in Assilah, we sought out a Moroccan GPS unit, in other words, a savvy local. Our US GPS unit, affectionately known as Garmina Burana, is still learning Morocco and sometimes just goes blank. We found our Moroccan GPS, a young man heading in the right direction. In return for a ride, he told us to continue on the N1 south (toward Rabat) for about 3.5 km. We were sure that we were going in the right direction because we saw determined housewives pushing locally-made shopping carts on two wheels covered in plaid plastic. (If you speak French, check out Gad el Maleh’s comic sketch on YouTube called “Le GPS marocain.”)
The term “market” does not do justice to the place. The Thursday market is more like a temporary city. The market used to be in town on Avenue Hassan II but it outgrew its urban location. Now, those arriving in a motorized vehicle park in a dirt lot at the entrance to the market. A separate lot in a green field is reserved for the vendors’ donkey carts. The stalls stretch on two sides of a country road and up a small hill. Shoppers dodge delivery trucks, police cars and those determined housewives, as they cross from one side of the road to another. One side of the road affords glimpses of green fields and the Atlantic Ocean. The other side is bordered by a line of tall trees. In other words, the setting is attractive, especially when the sun is shining.
You can find anything you want at the Thursday market from guaranteed organic vegetables to Chinese-made plastic containers, grilled sardines, or a single shoe in search of its pair. The first stalls after the parking lot are full of used articles, such as bales of second-hand clothes from the US. (These are pronounced “baal” in Moroccan dialect.) The only item to catch our interest was an ancient telephone with a brass earpiece. We have heard that the flea market is better in the summer when the Moroccans living abroad return with European goods for sale. They finance their vacation that way. In season, we see them leaving the port of Tangiers with goods piled dangerously high on top of their vans.
After the flea market, the vegetable and fruit stands start. As we walked, we sampled local delicacies (dried figs, almond nougat, and marinated olives) for free and bought most everything we tasted. We also tried the latest products of Moroccan greenhouses, strawberries and bananas. The strangest delicacy we tried was Juma, a local fruit found in the mountains that looked like a hairy South Sea idol with a green headdress. After the vendor stripped off most of the hair and bark, we ate the white inner core of the fruit. It tasted like heart of palm. Our vendor assured us that it was full of vitamins and good for stomach aches.
We walked for miles carrying armloads of produce and wished that we had one of those shopping carts. Suddenly, someone approached us with a wheel barrow (bruouetta). For under a dollar, he wheeled all our purchases to the car. My husband gave him more than he asked for and, in return, he blessed both our families for generations and generations.
After all that walking, we were hungry. So we headed to Casa Garcia, our favorite restaurant in Assilah. One pass, two passes along the seafront and we established that the Casa Garcia we knew had closed. Or so we thought. We turned to go home and spotted the new Casa Garcia on the ground floor of an attractive white apartment building with traditional blue shutters. The new Casa Garcia is at the corner of Avenue Prince Heritier and Mellilal; tel 05 39 41 74 65). We went inside and found that Casa Garcia was now a trendy pan-Mediterranean place. It sported the usual nautical decor and a red, white and blue overturned dinghy spilling out the fish of the day. The anchovies in vinegar matched our memories of the place. We were astonished, though, at some of the new prices. A dish of eels cost $40.00 a serving. If you want to see what the old Casa Garcia looked like, watch a tribute to the owner, Antonio Garcia Riquelme on YouTube.