Travel Report: Essaouira, Morocco.
October 2008. I’m not likely to ever forget my arrival in the Moroccan city of Essaouira. The rain had started coming down hard during our bus trip from Marrakech. By the time we’d arrived the situation had upgraded itself from crappy to full-blown-evil storm. I’d heard that Essaouira’s nickname is The Windy City, but come on, this was something else! As a result, we barely even bothered negotiating the taxi driver down from his first quote. We just wanted to get to our guesthouse as quickly as possible.
I was not best impressed when I stepped out of the taxi directly into a brown, ankle-deep puddle. “Down here!” urged the driver, stabbing a finger towards a narrow, arched alley. So off we went, glad to be out of the rain. About halfway down we met a young boy sitting on the edge of a wheelbarrow. He seemed to be hugely entertained by the sight of us. Furthermore, he appeared to understand exactly what we were looking for. “Riad Lalla Mogador?” he asked.
“Yes!” cried S and I, in unison. Our guesthouse was indeed Riad Lalla Mogador and all we had to do was walk a little further to reach its discreet, blue entrance door.
Damp, wet, tired and a little grumpy, I remember making a silent prayer to myself that please… oh lord… don’t let Riad Lalla Mogador be shit. Thankfully, it turned out to be lovely and we swiftly installed ourselves in its cosy, dimly-lit quarters. Even more pleasing, the owner Mr. Rashid brought us a tray of Moroccan mint tea and switched on the heaters. The guesthouse turned out to be an excellent Essaouira base, located right on the edge of The Old Medina. For the latest availability, check here with Expedia.
The next morning we awoke to glorious sunshine and an unblemished blue sky. Seriously, it was like we’d dreamt the whole storm thing. Consequently, we made quick work of breakfast and headed straight out to the The Old Medina. The Portuguese built this amazing walled market district in the 18th century. The entire area has remained so wonderfully intact that UNESCO added it to their World Heritage List in 2001.
I was thoroughly charmed by the bustling Old Medina and its rows of stores set under stone arches in the walls. Exploring, we passed pungent pharmacies, countless clothes stores and buzzing cafes. Finally, a little overwhelmed, we stopped to get our bearings in front of a pocket-sized butcher’s and its rails of hanging carcasses.
Further on, a team of local men unloaded giant crates of fruit and veg from a grubby old van. “Delicious apples!” called one of them, delivering his goods into the storefront of a greengrocers. However, S and I found ourselves more interested in a nearby bicycle loaded with boxes of freshly baked bread.
The bike served as the official entrance sign to a little bakery. So we moved in for a closer look and before we knew what had happened, we’d come away with a bag of Moroccan aniseed cookies.
The Old Medina.
The Old Medina also has several rug markets. In fact, this is a much better place to do your rug shopping than Marrakech. The prices are lower, general foot traffic is greatly decreased and the vendors themselves are much more chilled. Nevertheless, make sure you’ve got your negotiating hat on. Marocmama has written this helpful guide packed with tips on how to buy a rug in Morocco.
I loved the social aspect to The Old Medina. There were kids darting across the street playing tag. Elsewhere, groups of huddled women gossiped conspiratorially in their black burqas. I had to have a giggle at these two old guys chatting away, not a care in the world. The toothy dude in the funky hat actually made that rusty trailer look really comfortable. I remember thinking how the whole place looked like something out of a movie. And then, later that night, I read that Orson Welles actually did shoot a movie here when he filmed scenes for Othello in 1948! For more on that, check out this insightful article about Welles’ time in Essaouira.
Just as essential as a tour of the markets is a walk out to Essaouira Fort. Towering over the port and harbour, it’d be criminal to come here and not pay the negligible 10MAD to climb the ramparts.
There’s not much up here, it’s simply a beautiful vantage point from which to look out across town, with choice views over the port and harbour. Legend has it that the great Jimi Hendrix spent some time up on Essaouira Fort during his visit to the city in 1969. Even more impressive, depending on your persuasion, is that several scenes from the 3rd season of Game of Thrones were also filmed in and around the fortress.
Once upon a time Essaouira was a major international port and a key trading post between Africa, Asia and the Americas. However, these days there are few signs of its former glories. In contrast, large chunks of today’s port are little more than ghostly graveyards of forlorn-looking trawlers.
That’s not to say Essaouira Port is without its charms. In fact, a walk through here is highly atmospheric and beautifully blue. Just drink in that fresh sea air, squint up at the squawking seagulls and admire the almost hypnotic nature of its bobbing boats. Along the way, I even found a tiny two-table cafe playing Eric Clapton. Groovy.
Essaouira Port is also the place to come for fresh fish. If you’re disciplined enough to drag yourself down here for the crack of dawn, you’ll see the fishermen returning from sea armed with their daily hauls. The haggling gets going around lunch time and it can be quite the spectator’s sport.
In all the commotion it’s easy for the fish vendor’s to get distracted. Hence the reason this cool customer was able to sneak in around the back of a stall undetected and grab something for himself.
Essaouria Beach meanwhile is a pretty if not spectacular affair. Due to the region’s famous winds, local men like to wind surf and kite flying is a popular hobby with families. Consequently, there are a few kite shops in the Old Medina.
I cannot even begin to tell you how excited I was when I got invited to join a local football match right there on Essaouira Beach. I certainly had a blast joining my invitee Hassan and his school friends against a team made up of his cousin’s family. These guys were pretty good and despite all the flying tackles, whipped crosses and volleyed shots, it was the wind that eventually won the game 1-0.
Le Patio Bar.
Finally, a word on Essaouria’s excellent restaurant scene. Obviously you’re well covered with fish and just about every kind of Moroccan dish you could wish to try. For something hip, cosy and, dare I say, a little fancy, I highly recommend Le Patio Bar. Bathed in a glow of candlelight, come here for fusion Moroccan, French and western dishes. They also have live music nights. Check here for the latest TripAdvisor reviews.
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