I have food allergies.Where can I eat in Essaouira?

Food allergies and intolerances can be a challenge to manage on holiday, but it is possible.

Wheat is seen as a big issue,as the Moroccan staple is bread or couscous (made with wheat semolina) but if those two items are avoided, tajines and couscous toppings can be eaten hassle-free. For information on gluten-free eating in Morocco, read my post here.

For those allergic to nuts,these are normally only used in sweet dishes and cakes, so you’ll need to avoid all the delicious Moroccan pastries. Sorry!

The best thing to do when managing allergies is to frequent restaurants where the chef is present and you can communicate with them in a language you both understand. This means avoiding the tourist-trap tajine restaurants where waiters can be are less well-informed about the menu and cooks are often local women who do not have any contact with customers.

I suggest you try the following restaurants:

La Découverte – owner Frederique is always present, has designed the menu herself and is very aware of allergy and intolerance issues.She strives to work to a slow food, sustainable development philosophy.
– La Triskala – offers a short menu of simple veggie and fish dishes,and it should be easy to figure out the ingredients.
Umia – a popular and more upmarket restaurant, chef Bibi designs the changing menu herself and is always on hand to advise
– Vague Bleue – owner Brahim makes a very simple Italian-based menu which is cheap and delicious and he is usually on hand to recommend a suitable dish

Of the above, if you turned up and they didn’t have something suitable, I am sure that all (except potentially La Triskala) could offer to make something specific for the following day on request.

Some of the crepe restaurants in the medina offer non-wheat options. 

As for a bakery, that’s a harder ask for the wheat-intolerant and gluten-free. I know Patachou in the new town make rye bread (seigle in French) and they might be open to a special order. I don’t suppose they could guarantee that it would be made in a nut and wheat-free environment though….

Learning French or Arabic in Essaouira

A great way to learn languages is through immersion and many people come to Morocco to learn Darija (the Moroccan dialect of Arabic) or French. Essaouira is a small city and there are not many formal language schools, but these two offer lessons:

  • Institut Français, Derb Laâlouj – 9 Rue Mohammed Diouri, Essaouira Médina. Tel : 05 24 47 61 97 / 62 14

It is also possible to find teachers offering private tuition, usually for around 60-100dh per hour. If you would like contact details, please mail maroc-o-phile for further information.

Relocating to Essaouira

Essaouira is an increasingly attractive destination for those seeking a simpler, cheaper, sunnier or alternative lifestyle and is attracting younger travellers as well as older retirees. It is an inspirational and artistic place and the bohemian lifestyle and incredible light attract many creatives. Read the overview I write for Retirement and Good Living.

I recommend that anyone considering moving to Essaouira come here for an extended period first. Living somewhere is not like being on holiday and you’ll want to ensure that the lifestyle is for you. Although you can find all the mod cons of life elsewhere, basic errands and services take longer to get done in Morocco and the quality of goods and services might not be what you are used to. Life is significantly cheaper in Morocco than in Europe or the US, but you will need to live simply like a local to reduce your living costs. If you seek out foreign foods, entertainment and travel, your cost of living will closely resemble that at home…

Furnished rental accommodation (one or two bedrooms) is available from around 3000 dh (€270 / US$ 360 / £210) per month. Larger properties are more expensive and newcomers will want to consider the benefits of medina (old city), new town or countryside living for their lifestyle. There are plenty of people offering apartments and villas and you will want to weigh up the advantages of using an official estate agent (contract, deposit, guarantee, fees, online selection) over a local “smsar” or intermediary (informal, can be cheaper, but no comeback, fees are not set and there are no guarantees).

Living abroad can be lonely. There are expats of several nationalities in Essaouira (although only a small proportion live here full-time) and while you will probably want to build a network of Moroccans and foreigners, this will be determined by your language skills and you are likely to need either French or Moroccan Arabic language ability to really integrate and make contacts and friends. Get in touch if you want recommendations on language teachers. Wifi, 3G and satellite TV services are widely available and mobile coverage is cheap and widespread, making it easy to keep in touch with news, family and friends from home.

Many people take on staff to help them deal with the day-to-day. The minimum wage in Morocco is around 2,500 dh/month. Responsible employers declare their staff and pay them their worth as well as their taxes and social security contributions. Most people don’t bother for domestic staff.

The French are the largest expat community in Morocco as the legal system, language and general set-up are very familiar to them. There are several schools in Essaouira teaching in French, for example, but currently none which teaches in English (although all schools offer English language tuition at some stage).

You will also need to take the decision about whether to continue officially residing in your own country (in which case you will need to leave Morocco every 3-6 months to renew the tourist stamp in your passport) or to apply for residency in Morocco. You should consider the tax implications of either. The residency application process (for the “carte de séjour”) is relatively straightforward, but you will need to prove your means of supporting yourself in Morocco, eg financially, with property or a business or by marriage to a Moroccan.

Finally, the climate in Essaouira is very particular. It suits some, but not others. For those of us from the north, over 300 days of sunshine a year are a big attraction. However, some people (including many Souiris) find the almost-constant wind unbearable and others find the humidity (particularly in the medina) aggravates joint and muscular conditions such as arthritis. Consider how you will cover any medical emergencies: GPs and dentists are widely available (although few speak English), but if you require hospitalisation, you will probably prefer to use a private clinic in Marrakech or Casablanca. Without insurance, this could be costly.

For more of my story as an “Expat” in Essaouira, read my interviews with expat.comExpatfinder Expat Focus and Expat Arrivals.

Read about people who have made it work, in this article by Doreen Caraval for the New York Times: A Powerful Lure: Owning a Guesthouse in Morocco.

If you have further questions, feel free to get in touch.

Internet cafes in Essaouira

Want to check your e-mails while you are in Essaouira? Your airline insists you print off your boarding pass but you don’t know where to?

Don’t worry – there are internet cafes all over town! Many people here still don’t have their own printer or scanner at home, so there is a supply of cyber cafes, copy shops and tele-boutiques to meet that demand. Many of them can also fax, scan and word process for you, or even do simple design jobs while-you-wait.

In the medina, there is a cyber café with a printer in the street that runs in from Bab Marrakech. Once you cross over the main souk street (Souk Jdid or Khodara), and pass the back of the fish market, it’s on the right before you get to the tourist shopping street (Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdullah). It’s a bit pricey (5dh per sheet as opposed to 1dh elsewhere), but it’s handy for tourists staying in the medina. There is another in a parallel street in the Mellah Kdim nearer the port – the street is called Abdelsmih.

Outside the medina, cyber cafes and copy shops are plentiful – just ask someone in the street. I often take documents on a USB stick to Said Copy – every taxi driver knows him and he is in a whole street of copy shops and service boutiques.

Near the bus station, El Baze (down the street at the side of the cafe across from where the buses enter the station) is reliable and also has a shop selling computer accessories, cables, chargers etc.

If you only need to print off your boarding pass, your hotel reception will often oblige.

Essaouira – when to come

The time of year when you choose to come to Essaouira will depend largely on what you want to do there. Essaouira is generally breezy but pretty much always sunny and seldom above 30 degrees C (or below about 18 degrees in the daytime) all year round. If it rains, it really goes for it, but this is generally only in the winter months and probably for less than 10 days a year. It seldom rains and seldom for more than a day.

Some of the more luxurious hotels and guest houses offer air conditioning, but it is hardly necessary – open a window and you’ll get the same effect! At times, it can be downright windy – in winter, in poorly insulated homes, you may need an extra blanket or an electric heater at night. In the day, even in winter the wind is not really cold, but it is sometimes strong (usually from the north) and often carries a lot of dust, so bring a scarf (to put over your mouth on really bad days) and large-framed sunglasses (against sun and sand!).

Watersports fanatics tend to come when they know the wind is in the right direction and the waves are right for their sport. (Wind Guru is the favourite wind, wave and weather website). Golfers often come in spring and autumn, avoiding the heat of the summer, when European golfing destinations are still a bit cool and the famous Essaouira tradewinds have reduced to a breeze.

If you come for cultural events, you may time your visit to coincide with one of Essaouira’s many festivals, such as the Gnaoua World Music Festival (June), the Printemps Musical des Alizés (April) or the Festival des Andalousies Atlantiques (Oct/Nov).

If you are coming just to check the place out, to chill out and soak up the vibe and you are not tied to school holidays, my suggestion would be to come in April/May/June or September/October to get the best weather. Spring and autumn are also ideal times of year to combine your trip to Essaouira with time in Marrakech or the desert, both of which are extremely hot (above 40 degrees C) in the summer months (July/Aug). If you come in early Spring, you can also make an excursion into the foothills of the Atlas mountains or the Ourika Valley, where fruit and nut trees scatter their beautiful blossom with the slightest breeze.

For the next few years Ramadan falls in summer, which can pose certain challenges for travellers to Muslim countries (read about travelling in Ramadan here).

What’s on in Essaouira?

If you are planning a longer stay in Essaouira and want to find out what is on, to make contact with other expats or to seek tips from the locals, the Essaouira Expats and Friends Facebook group was created just for this purpose.

You may also find the Expat Blog of interest, where maroc-o-phile also has a listing.

There are a number of Essaouira information sites in English and French which are mainly run by PR and marketing agencies and are funded through advertising. The best of the bunch is the Essaouira site of the Made in Medina series.

Essaouira: travel during Ramadan

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan follows the lunar calendar and starts 12 days earlier each year. In 2018, it will begin around 15-17 May and finish around 14-16 June. (The precise dates are determined by holy men and based on the siting of the moon. The start of Ramadan in Essaouira is announced by a siren at sunset the evening before).

So, for a few years now, Ramadan has fallen during peak tourist season and naturally some travellers are concerned about the implications, particularly as practising Muslims fast from dawn until dusk during Ramadan.

In Essaouira, the tourist cafes will serve food and drink. It would be respectful to avoid eating and drinking in plain view of people, eg in the street. Contrary to what might be expected, the local cafes are full during Ramadan days – of non-consumers reading their newspapers and catching up with friends. It seems that cafe culture is possible sans café!

Visitors should be aware that there are restrictions on the sale of alcohol (bottle shops are closed, as are most nightclubs). However, licensed bars and restaurants will still serve non-Muslims if they choose to stay open at this time.

One of the biggest challenges when traveling during Ramadan is that drivers and other tourism industry professionals are fasting. Muslims are used to this annual observance, but it can can cause short-tempers and a lack of concentration. Plan your journeys accordingly, and anticipate a stop to break the fast if you are travelling at the end of the day. It can be hard to find urban taxis at this moment as everyone dashes home to eat!

Although many foreign residents leave during Ramadan, it can be a nice time to be in Essaouira as there is always a lot of life in the medina in the evenings after ftour (the meal to break the fast) and a festive kind of atmosphere.

A word of caution: Streets are empty for around an hour either side of ftour in most places. Some unscrupulous people use this opportunity to conduct petty crime when they know they won’t be seen. As always when travelling, exercise caution with your bags and pockets, and ensure your accommodation is secure. As the end of Ramadan approaches, people’s thoughts turn to Eid and this is a time when many feel a social and family pressure to be able to finance a big feast. If you are aware and careful, you can ensure that someone else’s festivities are not at your expense.

Is Essaouira safe for female travellers?

A common concern for women travelling to North African countries is whether they will feel and be safe travelling alone.

The good news is that – as long as you take the precautions you would when travelling anywhere – it generally is. Essaouira is not only safe, but it is more relaxed and laid-back than larger Moroccan cities.

In general, Moroccans are welcoming and very respectful people and – unlike some other countries – you will see a lot of local women out and about getting on with their daily lives. Morocco is also a very tolerant country, and visitors will notice women in the cities dressed in all manner of costume – from the very conservative (complete haik or burqa covering) to the brands and styles common in a European city. Most commonly, though, Moroccan women wear a djellaba (loose-fitting, ankle length, hooded robe) and a headscarf.

Tourism brings Moroccans into contact with foreigners in ever increasing numbers. And it pulls ever-increasing numbers of poorly-educated, under-skilled men into the cities to seek work. The result is what some tourists see as the “hassle” of the souks, the taxi drivers and the street touts, who are trying just to make enough money to survive. Surviving in the big city, away from the support networks of family and religion in their home villages is all some of these men – and they are mainly men – can hope for. The canny few will improve their skills, learn from their contact with foreigners and improve their lot. Many – possibly most – will continue to scrape an ever-desperate existence.

It is not surprising, then, that this situation leads to a clash of cultures, customs and expectations. And – for male and female travellers – some unwanted attention. For women, this is sometimes of a sexual nature. Bear in mind: young Moroccan men and women have relatively little contact – particularly in the more conservative villages. Arranged marriages, often at a very young age (for the girls), are still common. So, for a young, emotionally immature man to arrive in a tourism centre like Marrakech where foreign shoulders and ankles (which he’s only hitherto seen in pirate DVDs or Mexican telenovellas) are in full view is like a candy shop for a kid!

My word of advice: if you are not interested, don’t appear interested. This applies to shopping as it does to transactions of another nature. Keep a good sense of humour and your wits about you.

A challenging part of travelling (alone or with others) – especially if time is limited – can be in getting from A to B. Whichever airport you fly into for your trip to Essaouira, if your budget allows, I recommend organising a transfer in advance to avoid time-wasting and negotiating with taxi drivers. Contact maroc-o-phile for information on reliable drivers.