“I will give you 3,000 camels and the Sahara desert if you will be my wife,” said Mohammed, our young, dark-haired Moroccan guide, as he looked at me with soulful brown eyes.
I bit my lip to keep from smiling. Then I thanked him, assuring him I would consider his offer if I could fit the camels on the airplane. This didn’t deter him from guiding my friends and I back to the exit of the Medina, the old native quarter, and, to my surprise, not once did he implore us to visit his friends’ shops before we left.
This was Essaouira (pronounced ess-ow-EE-ra), a peaceful, friendly seaside resort on Morocco’s southern Atlantic coast, where life and hustlers move more slowly than in larger Moroccan cities and tourists can browse shops without feeling harassed.
You’ll find Essaouira, which is amazingly inexpensive, safe, and exotic, to be one of the most relaxed, likeable resorts in Morocco. This gentle city, surrounded by white walls and fringed by the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, is especially popular with independent travelers and a few in-the-know Europeans, but it remains largely undiscovered by most travelers.
In this town — with its windy but mild weather, crescent beach, and interesting Medina filled with stonework and blue-shuttered houses – all the main tourist attractions can be reached by foot. Essaouira is attracting more and more tourists, in addition to fishing and small handicraft industries.
The town promotes itself as “Windy city, Africa,” and indeed, the wind, known locally as the alizee, can be fierce, and while not ideal for sunbathing, the waves it creates are coveted by surfers and windsurfers. The sea swell is bigger in winter, the wind stronger in summer, and a wetsuit is necessary year-round.
A good place to stay is the Hotel des Iles, conveniently located outside the Medina and across the street from the beach. With its bungalow-style rooms built around a large swimming pool, it’s an ideal base for exploring the town. Each night the wind will howl outside your window, as if to tell you it’s still there. In the mornings, you’ll awake to the call of the muezzin, reminding you that you’re in exotic Africa and an exciting new day is beginning.
With its dramatic fortifications and sea bastions, Essaouira seems older than it actually is. And while the town began in the 7th century as a small Phoenician settlement, it wasn’t until the 15th century that the Portuguese occupied it and built the fortifications around the harbor.
They called the town “Mogador,” from the Berber word amegdul meaning “well-protected.” In 1765 the Alawite sultan Sidi Mohammed Ibn Abdellah transformed it into an important commercial port, and, following Moroccan independence from France in 1956, Mogador was named Essaouira, which comes from the Arabic es saouira, meaning “fortified place.”
Since then, Essaouira has drawn poets, scholars and craftsmen from all over Morocco. You’ll find evidence of this throughout the Medina as you explore art galleries and wood workshops and examine wares such as carpets and silver jewelry.
The Sidi Mohammed Ibn Abdellah Museum features extensive displays of many of these Moroccan handicrafts, including carpets, costumes, jewelry and musical instruments. There, you’ll also find exquisite examples of marquetry, a craft in which the burls of thuja, a mahogany-like hardwood from a local coniferous tree, are inlayed with citron, wood, walnut, ebony, mother-of-pearl, and silver and copper wire.
The marquetry created in Essaouira is one of the best examples of the craft in Morocco, so this is a good place to buy it. Many of the good quality pieces you’ll see elsewhere are originally from here.
Castles in the Sand
In the 1960s, the town attracted many hippies and their icons, including rock star Jimi Hendrix, whose song “Castles in the Sand” was supposedly inspired by the buried ruins of an 18th-century palace on a beach south of town.
Across the bay lie the Iles Purpuraires, named for the rich purple dyes used to color the imperial cloth the Romans once produced here. At one point, the largest island, Ile de Mogador, held a prison. Today, it’s a nature reserve, the only non-Mediterranean breeding site of the dramatic Eleonora’s Falcon, which, during early summer evenings, you may be able to view with binoculars from Essaouira’s beach.
After touring the Medina, take a break in the town’s main square, Place Prince Moulay El Hassan, where you can sip Moroccan mint tea, a combination of fresh mint, green tea and heavy doses of sugar. The square is a great place to people-watch; you’ll see young men with long hair and dreadlocks, tourists of various nationalities, and Moroccan men and women dressed in the djellaba, a hooded caftan, going about their daily activities.
Rows of Grills
Essaouira’s port is a colorful, busy area where gaily painted trawlers in vibrant shades of red and blue are built of teak and eucalyptus in the tradition of ancient dhows. The lively port is situated at the foot of the town’s ramparts and at the end of a long, sandy beach.
Chez Sam — Restaurant du Port, a seafood restaurant at the seaward end of the harbor, is an ideal spot for lunch. Try the garlic shrimp, which is plentiful and tasty. The service is friendly and efficient, and most tables offer nice harbor views — you can dine while watching brightly colored fishing boats arrive and depart. Feline lovers will enjoy the many cats that greet you outside Chez Sam; they no doubt are well fed on the establishment’s leftovers.
If you’re not interested in eating at one of Essaouira’s many restaurants, the port’s grills are a good place to find an informal lunch or early dinner. Merchants set up the grills in rows outdoors — take a seat at an umbrella-shaded, communal table, choose your fish, and watch while the freshest seafood meal around is grilled before your eyes.
Pirates and the Portuguese
After lunch, return to the Medina, which is enclosed by walls. After paying a small fee at the kiosk near the Port de la Marine, you can climb the town’s ramparts, the Skala du Port — an old Portuguese sea defense and battery.
Here, cannons still point outwards, beyond the lichen-covered rocks and churning sea-spray, for this part of the Barbary Coast was once plagued by pirates and Portuguese men-of war.
Although Essaouira is a quiet fishing town today, up here, with a brisk wind blowing and panoramic views of the sea, it’s easy to imagine the days of old when piracy and plunder were the norm. Today, visitors climb up here to relax and enjoy the views of the town’s Kasbah, Medina, and Mellah quarters and the waves crashing on craggy rocks below.
After descending from the Skala, stroll through the spice and jewelry markets, where young merchants will find many ways to entice you to stay. One such merchant placed a small lizard on my shoulder. After a few moments, I managed to gently pry “Charlie” loose and return him to his grinning owner before dashing after my companions.
Two days in Essaouira will help to recharge your body and renew your spirits before you move on to the busier, faster-paced Moroccan cities. For me, it was a peaceful, relaxing time I would happily remember, even when I had to return home without Mohammed’s 3,000 camels.
– Melody Moser