With its harbourfront restaurants, unspoilt sands and wonderfully relaxed pace of life, Morocco’s coastal town of Essaouira is a breath of fresh air for William Cook.
We’d been driving from Marrakech for two hours when the scenery around us softened and the landscape changed from arid grey to vivid green. Ahead of us, still some way off, a blue stripe rose above the olive groves on the horizon. It took me a little while to realise that it was the ocean. Below us, spread out like a map, was Essaouira – a brilliant splash of white between the sea and sky. I felt a stab of adrenalin looking down on this whitewashed city: I knew the next few days would be an adventure.
If you love Morocco but are exhausted by the bustle of its bigger cities, Essaouira will come as a relief. On the Atlantic coast between Agadir and Casablanca, it feels remote and undiscovered; yet Marrakech is less than three hours away. This windswept seaport has few must-see sights and not many things to spend your money on; instead it has a subtle beauty that puts brasher resorts in the shade. I was here for four days; I wish it had been longer. Wandering the rat runs of the Medina, you’re liable to lose your way and end up in a maze of blind alleys, but there’s nothing sinister about these crowded cul-de-sacs, none of the uneasy tension of Tangier. Battered by the ocean, bleached by the sun and worn smooth by the tides of history, Essaouira is an archaic curio, somewhere strange and spectacular.
The background to Essaouira
For centuries, Essaouira was a working port, and that’s what gives it its rugged charm. The Romans came here for the precious purple dye which they used to stain their imperial togas (it comes from the molluscs that live on an island in the bay), but it was the Portuguese who put this place on the map, as a marketplace for gold and ivory, slaves and spices.
The spice trade lives on in the colourful stalls in the ancient souks. Sightseeing visitors sip cool drinks in the cobbled square where slaves were sold after their long march across the Sahara. This was their last sight of Africa before the grim voyage to the New World.
After the Portuguese left, Essaouira became a free port in the 18th century – Morocco’s window on the world. Foreigners flooded in, especially Jews, who transformed it into a boom town; in the 19th century there were more Jews than Muslims living here. During the 20th century most of them left for Israel, but there’s still a synagogue in the Mellah, the decrepit Jewish quarter where countless houses bear the Star of David carved above the door.
Essaouira’s tourist trade
The greatest relics of those boom years are Essaouira’s stark battlements, built to guard the city against pirates and invaders. Orson Welles filmed his Othelloon these robust walls more than half a century ago. Tall towers festooned with cannons still define the borders of the old town. Beyond these battlements, the new town, the ville nouvelle, peters out into countryside. Despite the hubbub of the city centre, less than 100,000 people live here.
Thanks to its magnificent fortifications, Essaouira is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the number of foreign visitors is growing every year. Most come from France (French is the lingua franca here, as it is in most Moroccan cities, and Royal Air Maroc flies directly between Paris and Essaouira), but there are a fair few Brits, hunting for bargains amid the native hijabs and jellabas. Consequently, the alleyways around the Kasbah are becoming increasingly uniform, full of souvenir shops aimed squarely at the tourist trade. But Essaouira is still a market town, where rural Berbers come to hawk their wares to the artisans who live and work here.