Once Upon a Time in Essaouria, Morocco.
Once Upon a Time in Essaouria, Morocco.
Cover photo courtesy of Klim Levene.
I’m unlikely to ever forget my chaotic arrival in the Moroccan city of Essaouira. The rain started during our bus trip from Marrakesh, coming down harder and harder as the trip progressed. By the time we’d arrived the situation had deteriorated from concerning to full-on crappy.
In fact, it was absolutely belting down, accompanied by a fierce wind. Standing outside the bus station with our luggage, we had no appetite for negotiating the taxi fare, happily jumping into the first one available. We just wanted to reach our guesthouse as quickly (and dry) as possible.
It was a hairy ride. With many of the roads into the city flooded, our driver had to come up with not two but three alternative routes. Still, he did it with grace and even had the good humour to entertain us with an off-key rendition of Singin’ in the Rain. As amusing as he was, I don’t think Gene Kelly’s legacy has anything to worry about.
Eventually, he pulled up in a nondescript road. The rain was positively pissing against the window, thus we couldn’t see anything. “Down there!” urged the driver, stabbing a finger towards a narrow, arched alley. So I paid him and out we jumped, my right leg dropping straight into an ankle-deep puddle. “Ah, bollocks”.
Halfway down the alley we met a young boy sitting on the edge of a wheelbarrow. Hugely entertained by the sight of us, he laughed and kicked his legs with glee. “Riad Lalla?” he asked, grinning. “Yes!” cried S and up he jumped, leading us further down the alley towards our Essaouria home.
Once Upon a Time in Essaouria.
I was so happy to see that pretty blue door with its stone arch and nameplate. “Please… dear lord… let this place not be a dump” I remember thinking, as we knocked and waited for someone to open up.
I needn’t have been so anxious. The owner, Mr. Rashid, personally apologised on behalf of Mother Nature and quickly set about preparing a pot of mint tea. He then showed us to our room, a warm, cosy, dimly-lit space decorated with local art. Set well away from the road, it was always silent at Riad Lalla and I slept soundly each night. Unfortunately, the place has since closed, its last TripAdvisor review dating back to 2014.
The next morning we awoke to glorious sunshine and an unblemished blue sky. Seriously, it was like the entire events of the previous evening had been nothing but an unpleasant dream. Making quick work of the riad breakfast (fruit, coffee, toast and cheese), we wasted no time in heading out for some exploring.
Occupied since prehistoric times, Essaouria was originally called Mogador. Historians reckon this relates to the local burial of the Muslim saint Sidi Mogdoul in the Middle Ages. In the early 1500s the Portuguese captured western Morocco, after which King Manuel I ordered the construction of a grand fortress, Castelo Real.
Castelo Real of Mogador.
Sadly, nothing remains of the fort, which Sultan Mohammed III demolished in the 18th century as part of his campaign to build a grand new fortress-port city. Indeed it is Mohammed’s legacy that remains very much alive today for visitors to Essaouria. Because it was he who oversaw the construction of a new fortress, which he initially named Souria (the small fortress). Later, it became known as Es-Saouira, which means “the beautifully designed”.
The sultan employed the services of some of the world’s best architects. A French engineer, Theodore Cornut, in collaboration with a group of Italian architects from Genoa, built the citadel.
Today’s remains are small but well-preserved, while the fee to explore was a negligible 10 Dirhams. That’s roughly $1. From what I gather that fee hasn’t increased in the fifteen years since my visit. In any case it’s an unmissable Essaouria experience thanks to its stunning views. In one direction over the port and city….
… in the other across the expanse of water leading out into the North Atlantic Ocean. Legend has it that the great Jimi Hendrix spent some time jamming up on the fort during his visit to Essaouria in 1969. Moreover, the fort and its surrounds have served as a filming location for several episodes of Game of Thrones.
Once Upon a Time in Essaouria.
However, Essaouria’s biggest claim to fame is that Hollywood maestro Orson Welles came here to shoot scenes for his award-winning movie Othello in 1950. The shoot was a famously troubled one, as detailed in the book Put Money in Thy Purse.
Welles ended up coming to Essaouria due to the fact that it was significantly cheaper than Cyprus, where he’d originally planned to shoot. He also described the Moroccan city as “uncontaminated and historically closer to Italy”.
It was cool to see the row of Dutch cannons ordered by the Sultan, which arrived at the fort in 1744. According to several online articles, an engineer by the name of Adrianus Crans made the cannons in The Hague. There is little to no information about Crans, which is disappointing considering he was clearly a great man of his time.
The cannons were made in around 1734, about a decade prior to their arrival in Essaouria. Constructed from bronze, they bear the arms of the Province of Holland.
Another big name on the Sultan’s payroll was the English renegade architect Ahmed el Inglizi. Abandoning Christianity for Islam, Inglizi became a close confidante of Sultan Mohammed, building several parts of the port, including the harbour entrance.
From the fort we made our way down to the sleepy harbour, where it is strange to think that this was once one of Europe’s most strategic trading posts. Keen to get into bed with the major European powers, the sultan cut his deals and transformed Essaouria into Morocco’s primary port. That afternoon it almost felt as if I could see the ghosts of the past with the discoloured, forlorn looking huddle of boats neatly packed together like skeletons.
Closer up at least, I enjoyed an explosion of blue as we approached a huge mass of fishing boats. Beautiful but also a bit sad, as these days little happens here beyond fishing. That’s due to the waters being too shallow for most modern ships.
Unencumbered by any actual sights to see, we were free to absorb the drowsiness and breathe in the salty air. The blue boats bobbed gently from side to side. A fisherman, recently returned from sea, set down his net and began unloading a haul of giant crabs.
All the while seagulls squawked overhead, while one I had my eye on eventually swooped down and landed on a wall right in front of me.
Once Upon a Time in Essaouria.
Shifting on its webbed feet, it focused its beady eyes on a group of local men laying out their daily catch. Vendors tend to set up shop around lunchtime and mainly cater to locals. Indeed they paid us little attention and certainly made no effort whatsoever to reel us in. That’s just the way I like it.
Consequently, it was easy to observe and photograph from a polite distance. The chatter and smoking between the men. The way they laid out their fish on wooden crates or even directly onto the stone walls. And of course the brief but excitable haggling that went on with their customers.
It was also fun to see the cats of Essaouria squeeze themselves into these scenes. Of course they knew precisely when fish time kicked off at the port. Amusingly, one or two felines managed to steal a fish whenever someone dropped their guard. Though to be fair to the fishermen they often simply gifted a fish to a needy kitty.
I came across a couple of poky restaurants near the fish market. The whole process was delightfully low-key. We just pointed at the fish we wanted, an old man nodded in reply and proceeded to fry it up in front of us. We were the only customers, so the restaurant staff took this as an opportunity to take care of their own lunch, devouring it on the table next to ours.
The Fish Market.
On our second day we explored the Medina. After the delightful souks of Casablanca and Marrakesh, I was starting to get a feel for Moroccan markets. I’d say this one was my favourite, a particularly handsome part of Sultan Mohammed’s grand vision and a UNESCO World Heritage Site to boot.
Inside, it is a whole different world to the fort and the harbour. In fact, it felt as if the whole of the city had come to the medina. There were people striding down the main street in all directions. Ducking in and out of pungent pharmacies, browsing wares at the clothes stalls and drinking tea outside cafes. Following my nose, I found myself drawn to a bartering butcher under one of the stone archways.
Here, there and everywhere, deliveries arrived for the various stalls, stores and mini markets. Crates of apples to a cupboard-sized cafe. A van of overflowing soft drinks to a popular eatery. A bicycle stacked with boxes of freshly baked bread rolls.
I loved watching the medina delivery guys running around the place making their assorted drop-offs. Hired for specific jobs, they scampered from point to point on their bikes, carts and wheelbarrows. If there was a lull, it would be the perfect opportunity to stop for a chat, a smoke, maybe even a quick nap.
Once Upon a Time in Essaouria.
Naturally you can find all manner of Moroccan handicrafts in the medina. But there is an entire side street dedicated to rugs, with store after store running down this narrow alley as far as the eye can see.
Happily, prices are more reasonable than in Marrakesh and I was able to negotiate a fair price for a lovely small rug that caught my eye. For anything grander, you’ll need to have your negotiating hat on. Check out this useful article by Marocmama which gives useful tips on buying a rug in Morocco.
On our final day we spent some time hanging out on Essaouria Beach. Extending out from the harbour south of the city, it’s a wonderfully peaceful spot for a stroll and people-watching. However, it was a touch windy that day, which is pretty much par for the course in Essaouria.
Known across the country as The Windy City, this is Morocco’s premier spot for kite-flying and wind surfing. That day though there wasn’t much happening, just some joggers, couples picnicking and a man playing fetch with his exuberant dog.
The zenith of the excitement came when I stumbled upon a football match among a group of locals. One of them, a mechanic called Hassan, invited me over to play. I had a blast, the keenly contested match full of whipped crosses, driving shots and thumping tackles. In the end though, the game finished 9-8 in favour of the wind.
It was the last night of our Morocco trip. What an adventure it had been, a cross-country journey that had taken in the capital, Casablanca, the cultural powerhouse of Marrakesh, the Atlas Mountain village of Setti Fatma and the alluring coastal community of Essaouria.
To toast it all, we went for dinner and cocktails at Le Patio, a hip bar-restaurant that served Moroccan fusion dishes on wooden tables bathed in candlelight. There, we met a pair of Australian friends and an English couple. Chatting amongst ourselves, we exchanged life stories and drank into the night, six strangers destined to meet for just one evening. I’m happy to say that Le Patio is still going strong, check here for the latest reviews.
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Essaouira makes for a fantastic introduction to Morocco, especially for first-time travellers! I loved its fortified old Medina, amazing cuisine, and fun and hip energy that was very distinct from other Moroccan cities.
Reading your post about Essaouira I can’t help but compare it to our arrival in the windy city. Initially, we were supposed to land at Essaouira Mogador Airport, but due to the stormy weather conditions and after three failed landing attempts that made half of the passengers on board sick, our plane was diverted to Agadir – Al Massira Airport where we waited five hours for the transfer. Due to a heavy downpour, what followed was a very long and painful bus journey to Essaouira. They say that the coastal road from Agadir to Essaouira is one of the most beautiful drives in the country and well worth the journey, but as we were travelling during the night, we couldn’t even enjoy the views. Although we arrived completely drenched and tired, at least we walked away with a good story to tell. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva
Wow Aiva, it sounds like you win the award for “crappiest Essaouria arrival”. Still, I’m glad that, like me, you ultimately loved this charming Moroccan city. Thanks for reading and for sharing your own arrival story.
What a wonderful ending to your time in Morocco. I was surprised to hear that your visit began with rain; I guess I (mistakenly) assumed that Morocco was in the desert and wouldn’t really see much rain. Amazing how it just cleared right up the next day and remained so the rest of your trip.
Hey Diana, thanks for checking out my experience in Essaouria. The city is about 9-10 hours away from the Sahara region. Unfortunately for us we had arrived in the rainy season (October to April), though luckily the only rain we had to suffer was on that first day. It was a great end to the trip, maybe even my favourite of the three cities we took in.
Nothing worse than a pissing down rain introduction to a place, but you think, Hey, it can’t get any worse. Glad the next days were blue sky. So much to see in this place and the blue colours and people watching were real highlights for me. I always like to find a spot, off to the side and watch the action. The market porters look like real characters. Thanks for taking us to Morocco Leighton. It was a very enjoyable trip. Allan
Thanks Allan, I’m so glad that the rain didn’t bother us again after that first day. Essaouria is a really characterful place, so I’m glad that came across. Definitely more manageable and less chaotic than Marrakesh. While it might not have the colourful architecture, the fort overlooking the sea and the impressive medina makes it a must-see when in the region.
this place has real charm. you got some good people shots love the choice of black and white for the restaurant guys. the next time i watch othello i’ll be looking out for essaouria, seems like the perfect choice. the medina looks fun but exhausting. reckon i’d end up in one of those wheelbarrows for a nap before too long
Hey Stan, thanks for the encouragement. I think from all the places I visited in Morocco Essaouria is one that Sladja and I could make work for a spell of digital nomad living. It is that little bit more peaceful than Marrakesh and easier on the eye than Casablanca. Being near the sea always helps too. I suspect we’d end up adopting one of those fish market cats.
In addition to your evocative writing, the photographs in this piece are exceptional providing a wonderful glimpse of the everyday atmosphere in the port, souks and around medina. Essaouira looks very picturesque with the blue boats, chilled fishermen and thieving cats. I love the nostalgic tones that often permeate your writing, and pulsate strongly in the last paragraph here. I love these passing chance encounters with strangers in far away lands.
Hey Anoush! You are too kind really. Sometimes I feel my writing is too nostalgic, which can come across as ingenue perhaps to some people. So glad that’s not the case with you, I appreciate you having followed all these Moroccan adventures of mine. I’m going to take a week off blogging now before starting a new series from a new country 🙂
Essaouria looks like the perfect place to end your Moroccan adventure, Leighton. That first picture of you at Riad Lalla made me wonder if the post was going to be as sad as you looked! But then I was so glad to see that big smile on your face at the fort the next day! I enjoyed hearing about the history of the fort, and I would’ve loved spending a lot of time in the medina. I find it strange that the waters of the port have become so shallow. Maybe I will Google that.
Hey Kellye, I’m glad Essaouria appeals to you. I loved the overall vibe and that there was a sleepiness to the city. I wonder why it is that I’m so often drawn to quieter places that have a somewhat sad feel to them in place of former glories.
I am the epitome of an introvert. I do love people and I’m not shy, but I also love solitude and peacefulness – so I totally get it!
Your pictures and stories make Essaouria look like less touristy city where you could see a good example of daily like in Morocco. I love the pictures of the old blue boats bobbing in the sea. Hard to picture it as the busiest port in the country. Maggie
I’m guessing Essaouria is much the same today as it was when I left it fifteen years ago. Can’t imagine COVID was too merciful on the place, especially with the decimation of what passing tourism they had. Thanks for visiting, Maggie.
Fascinating portrait of a premodern city. It has a feel of “days gone by” to it. Sorry to enjoy your discomfort, but it was nice to know that not all of Leighton’s days are blue skies. But then it’s the bad days that make the good all that much better. Great use of ambiance shots, the gull, the cat with a fish, the dog playing fetch. You capture the atmosphere beautifully. Now I have to find a copy of Othello. I think I struggled with it originally because he did it in blackface. I’ll appreciate it more this time because of your post.
Thanks, Memo. Othello is on our watchlist too. I think I saw bits of it in college, but wasn’t all that drawn in. I’m sure, like you, I’d get more out of it this time. Leighton’s day are definitely not all blue sky days. Not even, it turns out, when you go to live on a Greek island!
Very well written piece about your extensive experience in Essaouria. Lovely photos too; I love the blue boats, crabs (they look like Alaskan Kings), the exuberant dog, and there are some great photos of you too. Meeting other travelers is always an added bonus, and made for a memorable end to your Moroccan adventure. Thanks for sharing, Leighton!
I bow in awe of your crab knowledge. Seriously, I wouldn’t be able to tell an Alaskan King from a… er… other kind of crab. Glad you enjoyed the details, the blueness of the port helps add a bit of cheer to the general rundown feel. Thanks for reading, Tricia.
Great stuff. Essaouria sounds like another great – and typical- Moroccan location. The atmosphere in these places is unique to that country. Love it. What a terrifically sensory country it is.
Thanks for dropping by!
Essaouira looks such an interesting place with its old fort and bustling market. I would have associated Morocco as being pretty dry, but I guess it must rain sometimes as it did for us in Doha.
Hey Marion, this part of the country has a rainy season that runs from October to April. We had arrived right at the beginning of that and I remember being really thankful that we only had one such downpour during our stay. Thanks for reading!
Looks like a beautiful place to visit, I love all your pictures! That blue of the sky is really unique. You got the best of both worlds with a quiet fort to explore and lively market.
Thanks for dropping by Lyssy! Yeah, I liked how all of Essaouria’s busyness is concentrated mainly in one place. Outside of the medina, everything moves slowly.
Another beautiful place in Morocco! A lovely read as always Leighton!
Thanks for reading my piece on Essaouria Anna! Hope you and the family are well 🙂
We are well thanks! Just booked our Tokyo Disney tickets for our April trip so I have a super happy excited ten year old here! Cheers!
The Medina market looks like a very neat place to explore, and an awesome way to support the local artisans.
Thanks for dropping in, Allie!
How exciting to visit Morocco, your post is very interesting! I’m sure the food was amazing and visiting the Moroccan markets and drinking tea in the middle of the day is something I would like to do!
Hey, I’m glad you like the look of Essaouria. Appreciate you stopping by to read and comment!
It sounds like you had so much fun in Morocco! It’s one of the places I would love to visit in North Africa. My husband has been there before, and he’s been urging me to go there together. I hope to do it one day!
I’m sure you’d have no regrets about a Morocco trip, Bahanur. Thanks for swinging by and reading about my time in Essaouria!
Like Casablanca, Essaouira has also managed to elude me during my visit to Morocco nearly six(!) years ago…gorgeous city, though! I know it’s a bit ignorant, but I still find it hard that Morocco, which is primarily known for being right by the Sahara Desert, can experience rainfall, not to forget downpours! But the geography of the country is more varied than what one might expect, so I guess it oughtn’t be a surprise! Thanks for taking us on your whirlwind of a time in Morocco, and here’s to the next adventure you share with us!
Thanks so much Rebecca. I wish I had a bit more Morocco stuff to post about, but these were my pre-digital-nomad-days when time was of the essence. A one-week blogging break now before switching countries and finishing a series that I really should have polished off already. Hope you’re well!
Fantastic place and turned out our fav place in Morocco
Thanks for reading Gary!
You really drove in a river … and hard to believe how quickly it changed the next day! (It’s almost a copy of our day in Cairo 🙂.) I like how you describe your time at the harbour … enough time to see what’s going on (and take pictures) without someone haggling you. And the Medina looks like yet another lovely place to wander – love the colourful rugs! It looks like a great visit to Morocco that will stay with you for years to come I’m sure.
Oh and btw, you’ve now awakened a long time memory mentioning Othello – it was my English prescribed book in my last year at school 😉.
It’s great to have you back, Corna. Othello in school, eh? I think our Shakespeare focus in college was ‘King Lear’, which bored 16 year old me to tears. How did you get on with Othello?
After our class showed minimal interest in the book, our teacher organised a trip to Cape Town to see Othello in theater (probably hoping we would understand it better). But all I remember from that trip is that we had unlimited soft drinks and popcorn at the play. So, I can honestly say Othello didn’t do it for me (or my other 30 classmates) 😉.
Ha ha, classic. Shakespeare has never moved me much to be honest, either in print form or on the big screen. And this is coming from someone who loves reading and cinema.
Sounds like a rough start to your time in Essaouira with all that rain! Your pictures of the flooded road look insane. Thankfully the place you were staying at was not a dump and that you got to enjoy some blue skies and sun the next day. Your pictures look beautiful. I love all the blue boats huddled in the port. And what a great picture of you sitting in the circular window in the wall.
Thanks Linda. I think Essaouria is a good place for posy photos 😉 I’m sure the selfie and Instagram set pieces crowds are all over that these days.
Loved the bike and the Pullman individual sleeping trailer!
Wow that rain is crazy – mad how the weather can change so rapidly in some countries from flooding to glorious heat. Essaouira looks like a really interesting place, and there was even a photo of you full on smiling 🙂
Ha ha, the smile thing. Well, you’re right Han, I’ve never been one for showing teeth or switching on full on glee for a photo. It’s just my way. Here though I must have been caught in a particularly good mood, or off guard at least. Thanks for taking a look at my post on Essaouria.
I’m so glad the rain cleared up so you could see this beautiful city! I love the ruins overlooking the city. Anywhere that can claim the presence of Jimi Hendrix, Game of Thrones, and Othello must be worth a visit 🙂 The port with the rows and rows of empty boats looks a little sad and forgotten. I have loved following along through Morocco with you.
Thanks Meg, I agree that those are three pretty solid claims to fame considering most people have not heard of Essaouria. Thanks as always for checking in, hope your February is going well!
Looks like a really beautiful place. Would love to go there once I grow up
Thanks for reading and commenting! You’ll get there, one day. 🙂
Greer work, you have a way with words.
Thanks for the kind words, much appreciated.
This sounds like you had a great time. I love this city, it’s so peaceful and beautiful! I wanted to stay there longer when I visited. Thanks for writing this wonderful story.
Hey! Thanks for reading and leaving a comment, it’s much appreciated. Essaouria is indeed a beautiful city, though I think that beauty can take time to reveal itself. I hope you enjoy some of my other articles, have a great day!
Great post about Essaouira, you really took the time to observe its different districts and to get in touch with the locals. The heavy rains must be a typical local feature, I experienced the same thing between Essaouira and Marrakech while driving at night, I still don’t know how I survived.
Thank you kindly. I am impressed by your ability (and indeed willingness) to drive in another country. Just the thought sends a shiver down my spine, especially the idea of driving in Morocco during one of its rainstorms. Appreciate you stopping by!
Sure, Morocco was one of the hardest places to drive at the time, but the feeling of being able to decide where to go and where to stop is worth it.
Excellent writing, you paint a picture of a place in the moment.
Thanks a lot for your kind words!
Gosh, I can’t believe how drastically the weather changed in such a short amount of time. That’s crazy! Essaouria looks a really interesting place, especially the fort – the canons are beautiful. And your photos from your time there are superb, I love all the photos of people going about their daily lives.
Thanks so much for taking a look at my experiences in Essaouria. It is a brilliant place for people watching, I don’t think I’d have captured so many everyday moments in Marrakesh where someone always seems to have their eyes on you.
what a fascinating place Leighton, beautifully presented
I enjoyed reading this post. It must have been scary going through the heavy rain there. Aside from that, you’re adventure seem to be awesome! We’re always looking for places to go. This post gave me an idea of Morocco and I hope to find myself visiting the place in the near future.
Hey, thanks for reading and getting tin touch. This post was actually the last in my Morocco series, so there are plenty more pieces to hopefully further inspire your wanderlust for the country. Thanks for following Leighton Travels!
You were fortunate to have the storm pass quickly. Essaouria was a favorite visit for me, although I only had one day, with a long drive before and after from Marrakech. The port with it’s little blue boats and the medina captured my heart. Enjoyed reliving this place in this post.
Yes, I think persistent bad weather would have ruined the Essaouria experience. I wonder if old Orson Welles had to deal with anything like that while he was filming here. Thanks for checking in Ruth, I remember your Essaouria post well.