The decadent charm of Essaouira
“Essa…what?” my travel companion Mary asked. “Where do you want to go?” “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, the lush green vegetation of Marrakesh gives way to thorny bushes, gnawed at by herds of goats and sheep. The wind starts already 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 ground and we were grateful for a break at 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. A pleasure for all senses and 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 hove into view. A white, wide and long beach, pounded by crashing waves and dotted with countless colorful sails of windsurfers and kitesurfers. 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, you don’t eat anything else if you visit Essaouira. The place is famous for the freshest fish and it’s consumed right at the fish market. Stall after stall offer the latest catch, you point at what you want, sit down at rickety communal tables, order your drink and salad and whilst you wait that your choice is grilled, you engage in lively conversation with your fellow guests. And you get your first impression of the massive fortress , walls and ramparts which surround the medina as well asf the sea wall and the dramatic coastline behind with the island of Modagor visible in the distance.
Essaouira has a long and colorful history and traces of first settlements date 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 engineer as well as specialists from other European nations designed and constructed the fortifications as they are today and Essaouira became the trading point for wares brought by caravans from the sub-Sahara to Timbuktu and from there across the desert and the Atlas mountains to here.
Wiping our mouths and fingers and with our stomach happily full of fish, we went through one of the massive main gates into the mediana 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 people, locals and visitors alike, for whom the words ‘hurry’ and ‘no time’ did not seem to exists. Not for nothing was Essaouira a favorite hangout for the likes of Jimy Hendrix and Orson Welles. There is even a bust in his honor. Winston Churchill liked it too.Once upon a time a hippie favorite, 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, wood carving being preeminent. Some of the paintings are outstanding and so are fabulous bags and slippers as well as 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, drink tea and engage in conversation and actually couldn’t care less if a potential customer showed up or not.
Essaouira is a still 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 the same day and needed to make an effort to go and find our waiting taxi driver…fast asleep in the backseat.
If you want to spend the night or a few days, there is a variety of hotels available. Modern ones near the beach and much more romantic, but simple ones in the medina. Also check out the annual Gnaoua Festival of World Music in the last week of June an event which inspired the title of this post and added yet another moniker to Essaouria: The Moroccan Woodstock.