Once upon a time there was a Spanish enclave in the deep southwest of Morocco. Nothing new there, as the Spanish flag still flutters above Ceuta and Melilla on Morocco’s northern coast where these two possessions have staying power. But Sidi Ifni is somewhat different – above all it’s no longer Spanish.

Its protectorate status ended in 1969 when the last privileged colonials hurriedly boarded planes to abandon their beloved Santa Cruz de la Mar Pequeña, as it was then called. But what they left behind was unique – a spectacular showcase of Art Deco architecture sandwiched between the Sahara, the Anti-Atlas mountains and the Atlantic ocean.

Sidi Ifni – rooftops of the new town

“The edge of civilisation”

When we arrived after an unattractive coast road from Agadir then endless bends through barren hills, it was hardly what I had expected. You can read more about my southern Moroccan forays here, about kasbah hotels here, about the incredible library of Tamegroute here, and about Berber cooking in Souss-Massa here.

Very little has been written about Ifni (the ‘Sidi’ is optional) – a few blogs, one of which obsessed about the polluted beach (not the case now) and another about the semi-ruinous state of the Spanish architectural legacy. Yet another, written by the American rock musician David Lowery, paints a very Paul Bowles-ian picture of what he calls “the edge of civilisation”. Annoyingly he gives no date, but I guess it was in the 1980-90s as he describes access by dirt-road. More telling is his evocative reminiscence: “we drank wine, slept off hangovers lethargy decay and forgotten loves.” Poetic, decadent, stirring stuff – I just had to go there. 

A humped encounter on the road to Sidi Ifni

So the sight of a well-planned Moroccan town was a surprise. It turned out that this modern section had been built after the Spanish left, laid out inland though connected to the colonial enclave high on its clifftop. And yes, for decades that lofty quarter had remained abandoned, its façades peeling in the hot sun and salty winds while all economic attention focused on developing the fishing port to the south. Now thriving, its a hub for canned sardines. But that’s not what you go to Ifni for.

Which side of Sidi Ifni?

Unfortunately I picked the wrong guest-house so we found ourselves in the ’new’ town hosted by a languid French woman and her 16-year old son who appeared to do all the hard graft. We would find him behind his computer in the lobby, morning and night, an informal receptionist while doing his home-schooling. His mother would materialise to serve breakfast – admittedly good – in the garden.

But for readers inspired by this post the coolest place to stay is undoubtedly Suerte Loca (meaning ‘wild luck’ in Spanish). One of Ifni’s Art Deco landmarks, it stands just above the beach and was in fact Ifni’s first hotel, opened in 1934 by a Spanish family. Now with almost mythical status, it was also where the above-mentioned rock musician stayed – and I wish we had too.

Ifni beach acrobats with the terrace bar behind

We still managed to spend a couple of evenings nearby, partly at a beach bar where, unusually, foreigners can drink beer and wine while watching kids somersault on the sand or dripping surfers emerge from the waves and, later, spectacular sunsets.

Up above, in the streets lined with blue and white buildings of striking geometric forms, we found the excellent Nomad Restaurant where we feasted on luscious fish soup and Atlantic lobster. We had to sneak in our own wine as the owner had recently been fined for serving alcohol. Outside on the large, oval Place Hassan II, women and children played until darkness fell, although the men stuck obstinately to their cafés. 

Berber women contemplate sundown from the upper town

Art Deco splendour

Before that, at sunset, the terraces of this upper town filled with Berber women who came to watch gorgeous sunsets dissolve into the Atlantic waves in a riot of orange and purple. Over the horizon lie the Canary Islands, source of the founders of the original fishing, slaving & trading town in 1476 before the vicissitudes of centuries changed Ifni’s political status.

Today little can beat the atmosphere of this 1930s showpiece and luckily recent conservation efforts have restored much of it. That’s quite a volte face in view of Morocco’s justified attitude to its colonial past. For many years it just turned its back on such a blatant reminder of foreign rule.

As a reminder of that Spanish heyday, there’s even a surviving nightclub, the Twist Club – though its doors closed long ago and it is now decidedly dilapidated. Nearby looms another Art Deco hotel, the Belle Vue, immaculately restored and apparently comfortable, and, just around the corner, an attractive little lighthouse. Other surviving buildings include the former Spanish consulate, a hospital, a former cathedral, the Town Hall and the royal palace – once the governor-general’s residence. 

A touch of Hispanic Moorish style here
Blue and white geometry rules
The Town Hall – La Mairie – looking splendid
The former Spanish Consulate, once grandiose and the symbol of power, now deserted
Ultramarine dominates the iconic Bellevue Hotel

End of the high life

This time-capsule echoes the days of a homogeneous society when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together, apparently in harmony. Not surprisingly, the lucky Spaniards who lived here adored the location, climate and lifestyle, and even after their return to the homeland would make annual pilgrimages to relive their past. There are several videos on YouTube of their nostalgic returns, sprinkled with photos of yesteryear.

Their departure was precipitated in 1957 when, following the independence of Morocco from France, armed Moroccan insurgents set their sights on Ifni along with other garrisons in the Spanish Sahara. For eight months repeated assaults and an abortive siege led to Franco’s troops killing some 1,000 Moroccans. It’s a hazy period, little known about, in fact dubbed ‘la Guerra Olvidada’ (the Forgotten War) in Spain. From Franco’s nationalistic point of view, it was better wiped from the history books.

Find your fish – and then your camels

Back to today and this upbeat little town of 20,000 or so inhabitants seems to be on a roll. You can head to the souk to pick up handicrafts or sit outside at the fish market to devour ultra-fresh barbecued fish – a steal. Surfers have discovered its waves and cheap living, too, while in winter, French camper-vans park behind the beach to settle in – less picturesque.

Le souk aux poissons for freshly barbecued fish

Less than an hour away you really feel the proximity of the Sahara if, on a Saturday, you head for Guelmim‘s dromedary market. Here, between bleating goats and sheep, those noble hump-backed creatures lure Tuaregs from the desert. Snapped up for a wad of dirhams, they are then trucked away to another life in the desert.

Some miles beyond Guelmim unfolds the Western Sahara, a disputed territory ever since 1975 when what was then the Spanish Sahara was carved up between Morocco and Mauritania. Still wrangled over to this day, only about one fifth of the territory is controlled by the Sahrawi, the original inhabitants of mixed Berber, Arab and black African descent. Their struggle for independence is just another forgotten story of this remote corner of western Africa.

Sorry boys, off to another life in the desert