“Essa…what?” my travel companion, Mary, asked. “Where do you want to go?” Essaouira “Essa—ouuu…rja,” I repeated, savoring every sound. I admit, I had secretly practiced. Everybody can say ‘Casablanca’ or ‘Marrakesh’, but to get your tongue around the name of this particular pearl in the necklace of Moroccan beauties needs some doing. Never mind, once you tell your hotel receptionist in Marrakesh that you would like them to arrange a taxi for a day trip to Essa—ouuu-rja, they will break into a broad smile, nod their head vigorously and say: “you’ll love the decadent charm of the place” or “enjoy the city of sunlight and wind”. Or other words to the effect, but always with a poetic nuance to it.
We set out early one sunny morning in May from our base in Marrakesh. Our young guide and taxi driver was a Berber as he proudly pointed out after introducing himself as – you guessed it – Muhammed.
The coastal town of Essaouira lies at a distance of approx. 120 miles west of Marrakesh on the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a straight run, the first part of it a smooth and modern motorway. But, as the suburbs of Marrakesh fade into the distance you find yourself in the desert. Dunes line the road, more rubble and pebble than sand, while the lush green vegetation of Marrakesh gives way to thorny bushes, gnawed at by herds of goats and sheep. The wind starts blowing much stronger and at about halfway point, ‘smooth’ is a word of the past. “This,” Muhammed explained with a grin, “is what we call a Moroccan massage.” Here and there huge Argan trees overshadowed the bleak, surrounding ground. We were grateful for a break in the monotony as we approached a wonderful and very interesting small factory where we could see how the Argan nuts were treated and made into fantastic soaps, creams and oils. They are a pleasure for all senses, so we stocked up on some beauty treats.
Thankfully, a few miles out of Essaouira the ‘Moroccan massage’ came to an end and the first glimpse of our destination entered our view. A white, wide, long beach was pounded by crashing waves while the rolling sea beyond revealed the countless, colorful sails of windsurfers and kite-surfers bobbing in the distance. Essaouira is a windy city, indeed, and a paradise for water sport enthusiasts.
“Let’s eat first,” Muhammed suggested, “and then you can stroll through the medina.” He didn’t even ask if we liked fish, as you don’t eat anything but fish if you visit Essaouira. The city is famous for the freshest fish imaginable and it is even better if it is consumed right at the fish market. Stall after stall offer the latest catch. You simply point at the fish you want, sit down at rickety communal tables, order your drink and salad, and whilst you wait for your choice to be grilled, you engage in lively conversation with other patrons. And, it is here that you get your first impression of the massive fortress, walls and ramparts which surround the medina as well as the sea wall and the dramatic coastline behind with the island of Modagor which is visible in the distance.
Essaouira has a long and colorful history with traces of its first settlements dating back to pre-historic times. The fortress and medina, however, go back no further than the 18th century when King Mohammed III decided to make Essaouira Morocco’s primary port and the center of trade. French engineers and contractors from other European nations designed and constructed the fortifications as they are today and Essaouira became the trading centre for wares brought by caravans from the sub-Sahara to Timbuktu as well as from across the desert and the Atlas mountains.
Upon finishing our delightful, satisfying lunch, we wiped our mouths and fingers and went through one of the massive main gates into the medina of Essaouria. Tour guides and taxi drivers are not allowed to accompany you, so we strolled on our own.
Immediately, we understood what the decadent charm was all about. A bit of peeling paint here, a missing shutter there, wooden doors askew and the whole setting populated by locals and visitors alike, for whom the words ‘hurry’ and ‘no time’ did not seem to exist. Essaouira was a favorite hangout for the likes of Jimmi Hendrix and Orson Welles. Winston Churchill liked it too, and there is even a bust in his honor. Essaouira was also a hippie favorite and quite a few are left over, sporting dreadlocks and a slightly forlorn look on their faces.
The winding alleys are lined with art galleries and crafts shops, with wood carving being preeminent. Some of the paintings are quite outstanding and so are the fabulous assortment of bags, slippers and, of course, hand crafted silver jewelry. The entire atmosphere is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of its counterpart in Marrakesh. You get the impression that the shop keepers are just happy to sit in or in front of their shops, drinking tea and engaging in conversation. They do not seem to care whether a potential customer shows up or not.
Essaouira is still a breathing reminder of times gone by and the laid back atmosphere is contagious. So much so, that we nearly forgot we had to go back to our Marrakesh base that same day. We immediatly began looking for our waiting taxi driver who we found fast asleep in the backseat.
If you want to spend the night or a few days, there are a variety of hotels available. Modern hotels tend to be near the beach while the more romantic, but simple hotels are in the medina. Also, you may want to check out the annual Gnaoua Festival of World Music in the last week of June.
Written by and photos by Inka Piegsa-Quischotte for EuropeUpClose.com