Essaouira, in south Morocco, was once the port through which the bounty of the camel trains (including slaves from West- and Sub-Saharan Africa) was exported and it even served as the port for Timbuktu. In the halcyon days of the 60s it was on the hippy route – an extension of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Marrakech Express” if you like – and many local businesses still trade on the “Jimmy Hendrix was here” claim.
Today, Essaouira is still a bustling fishing port and you can eat delicious sardines and other fish literally straight off the boat. It is also a haven for Moroccan and foreign artists, who have galleries in the labyrinthine streets of the UNESCO World Heritage listed medina (walled city). The vibe in Essaouira is considerably less bustling than in bigger Moroccan cities. The whitewashed walls; the typical blue doors and shutters of the buildings and the fact that one whole side of the medina is open to the sea (and the Atlantic breeze, les Alizés in French), make the place much airier and brighter than, for example the maze of the Fes medina.
Essaouira is also a Mecca for watersports and world music enthusiasts. The trade winds which helped established Essaouira’s port now make it Morocco’s top kitesurfing destination. Surfing and windsurfing locations are also available along the coast.
For world music fans, Essaouira’s Gnaoua World Music Festival every June is a must-see. The festival showcases the best of gnaoua music (a kind of Islamic spiritual music involving trancey beats and acrobatics) and music from around the world. The main concerts are open air and free, and each foreign group performs a fusion gig with the gnaouis, which is really special. However, all year round you can hear local and African instruments and attend small concerts around town.
Essaouira’s history as the gateway to Africa, a Portuguese fortress (known as Mogador), a Jewish trading port, part of the French Protectorate of Morocco, as well as connections to Moorish Andalusia, have left an interesting heritage which is visible in the faces of its inhabitants as well as in their music and culture.
If all of that activity and history sounds a bit too much like hard work, visitors can take a leaf out of those hippies’ books and just relax. Essaouira has a multitude of bars, restaurants and cafes, many with roof terraces. The beach is long curve of golden sand, right outside the city walls. If you feel the need, there are plenty of shopping opportunities which are a lot more laid back than in the bigger city souks. Essaouira is the perfect place for chillin’!
Essaouira has an airport served by various budget airlines, depending on the whims of their timetables (and currently none from the UK). The town is around 2.5 hours by taxi, private transfer or bus from Marrakech or a little further from Agadir, both of which are more reliably served by several airlines.
I have known Essaouira for more than 16 years. People often ask me for my top tips and inside info, so here’s the skinny, as we say in Scotland.
When visitors arrive in Essaouira, to orientate them, I take them to the junction of the souks in the medina. This is the heart of Essaouira and where all the key business is done. Here, you are surrounded by bustle and business: the fish souk, the spice souk, the auction souk, the veg souk; the chicken souk – the butchers, bakers and Berber pharmacists. In one direction is the port, in one Bab Doukkala, in another Bab Marrakech. Once you figure that the sea is on two sides and figure out the main gates (Bab) in the medina walls, you have Essaouira in the palm of your hand.
The quintessential, picture postcard view of Essaouira is through the round window of the Skala du Port. Pay a 10dh (90p) entrance fee to look back at the white walled, blue-shuttered houses sheltering behind the pinky-beige medina walls. These fortifications were built allegedly by a British convert to Islam on the orders of Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abduallah in the second half of the 18th century, who developed Mogador (as it was known) into a key trading post between Africa, Europe and the Americas.
Everything this town ever was, is and will be is down to its strategic location along a sheltered bay, protected by a fortified island and facing out into the Atlantic Ocean. Mogador was the port of Timbuktu, transporting the goods of the camel trains across the oceans and in exchange for the spices and tea of the East. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was the base of Jewish merchants, European diplomats and Barbary corsairs. In modern times, the trade winds have brought water sports fanatics and traders of a different kind: Saharan tribesmen trading carpets and other artefacts to foreign tourists and residents looking for souvenirs and original décor for their homes.
The best time to visit Essaouira is September. The families have left, the kids are back at school but the weather is at its best. The winds drop and the sea is calm and warm. Nonetheless, its low season and you can bag a bargain in local maisons d’hotes (guesthouses, often in renovated medina riad-style houses).
The inside tip for a cheap meal is a BYO kitchen. Buy your fish, meat or veggies in the souks and take to one of the local kitchens to have them grill them or turn them into a delicious tagine. Don’t forget to pick up the right spice mix from one of the old djellaba’d guys at the entrance to the vegetable souk. A couple of dirhams’ worth will be more than enough. Pick up some bread from the young lads shouting “skoen! Skoen!” (“hot, hot!”) in the centre of the street.
If you want a cheap, filling snack, look for msimen (flaky pancakes) and harira (a meal-in-a-bowl soup) from late afternoon along Haddada (what the locals call the main shopping street, Avenue Istiqlal). A pancake spread with soft cheese or honey will set you back less than 5dh/ 40p.
Don’t be caught out when the sun goes down. Apart from in high summer, the evenings are significantly colder than the days and you’ll need an extra layer. Houses are tiled to be cool in summer and are not insulated, so make sure you bring a sweater!
Spend your hard-earned cash on local souvenirs. Skip the guys in the turbans beckoning you into their carpet shops and seek out locally turned thuya wood, cooperative-produced argan oil, mosaic table-tops and the ancient Jewish craft of silversmithing around the jewellery souk.
Do not miss the sunset over the Atlantic. Any sea-facing rooftop is a winner, but if you feel the need for a glass of wine or beer at the end of the day, head for the terrace at Taros Bar or Beach and Friends at the far end of the beach.
If you fancy making a night of it after sunset, dine at Umia or Caravane Café. If you want to drink after midnight, try Le Chrysalis outside the medina walls at Bab Sbaa.
To get away from it all, take a grand taxi to the village of Ouassane (under the wind farm) and scramble down to La Grotte (the cave). In summer it’s like a scene from The Beach (minus Leonardo di Caprio) and hippie traveller types often sleep there. In summer, take a dip, then make your way south to Sidi Kaouki (depending on the tide, you can walk along the beach or trek over the cliffs and dunes), where you can catch the bus back to Essaouira. Don’t ignore Essaouira’s surrounding countryside. If you fancy a guided tour of scenery, flora and fauna and a cuppa or lunch with a local Berber family, check out Ecotourisme et Randonnées – make a reservation at La Découverte (English-speaking guide also available).
Essaouira is best known for its Gnaoua Festival in June. A four-day free party of sufi and world music, it is a great open-air party. The more intimate concerts at the beautifully colonnaded Dar Souiri and on the rooftop of the Bastion Bab Marrakech are not to be missed. Where else can you watch gigs while lounging on pouffes listening to the crash of the waves and the cawing of the seagulls?
Famous visitors to Essaouira include Orson Welles, Jimmy Hendrix and Winston Churchill.
One phrase you need to know when you visit Essaouira is “salaamu alaikum”. It means “peace be upon you” and can be used as hello or goodbye. If you hear “balek, balek”, get out the way – there’s someone coming through!
On a Sunday, take a trip to Had Dra market. If you get there early enough you can see the auctions of camels, cattle, sheep and donkeys. This is the place to buy cheaper wicker baskets, fresh fruit and veg and maybe some second hand stuff you never knew you needed. Closer to town is the Sunday “joutiya” or flea market. It’s a great place to pick up a bargain antique or second hand clothing. If you aren’t in town at the weekend, on a Wednesday, there’s a smaller market at L’arbaâ Ida Ougerd.
To understand the history of this city, visit its cemeteries. Muslim cemeteries are out of bounds to non-Muslims but the Christian and Jewish cemeteries give a fascinating insight into the city’s founding fathers. The High Atlas Foundation has produced a useful guide.
The signature dish of Essaouira is sardines: grilled straight off the quayside or in “boulettes de sardines” tagine (stew of sardine balls steamed in the classic Moroccan conicial-hatted pot).
Make like a local and order a nouss-nouss in a café on the main square. It’s half coffee/half hot milk, served in a glass. It’s possibly even more popular than mint tea.
The most photogenic locals are the stray cats. Keep your eyes peeled and you’ll see them everywhere: in boxes, on rugs, in the water meter cupboards, and everywhere in between! Muslims don’t like their photos being taken, so don’t be surprised if your lens offends.
The most surprising aspect of Essaouira is the local vineyard. Situated about 25km outside town (towards Marrakech), Val d’Argan is an excursion easily combined with the Sunday souk at Had Dra or the artisan cheesery, La Fromagerie, at Douar L’Arabe.
The hidden view not to miss is from the roof of the Bastion Ouest art gallery, nestled in the first corner of the wall as you leave the main square and walk along the Skala. Or the sunset from the ruined Sultan’s Palace in Diabat (take a torch to find the way back).
The best place to see local art is at the Institut Francais or Dar Souiri (temporary exhibits) or at the workshops of local artists working the colourful naïve style in the old quartier industriel between the Jewish cemeteries and the Asswak Assalam supermarket.
Quintessential Essaouira architecture is best seen in the renovated homes of foreigners in the medina. If you aren’t staying in one that has been turned into a guest house or holiday let, visit Dar Souiri or take a drink at Dar L’Oussia to get an idea. Exciting renovation projects are beginning on the Simon Attia synagogue and the former Danish Consulate to revive key 18th century examples.
The song you’ll most often hear in Essaouira is by Bob Marley or Ali Farka Touré.
To satisfy your more spiritual side, the many Sufi brotherhoods (zawiyas) around town are also an opportunity to hear more spiritual music and rituals, including dance.
The best guide is The Best of Essaouira, available from maroc-o-phile.com!
The tweet: UNESCO-rated, understated, boho hang-out for hippies, stylists, surfers and artists seeking a chill-out in film-set location at the seaside.