Discovering the breezy Moroccan beach town of Essaouira


Highlights

While the sun, sand and surf remain constant, Essaouira has changed over the years.

Baked by the North African sun and buffeted by a persistent ocean breeze, the Moroccan coastal city of Essaouira lies about three hours west of Marrakesh. But its wave-lashed walled medina, wedged between the wild and windy Atlantic and an arc of modern suburbs, seems to exist in a parallel universe that transcends geographical boundaries.

Essaouira is an improbable mishmash of ancient Arabic and Berber culture, groovy surfer dude vibes and 21st-century Boho chic. It’s a mix of bustling souks and high-end art galleries, fishing shacks and sushi bars, traditional hammams and detox yoga retreats. The sort of place where you can take a camel ride on the beach in the morning and visit the organic Val d’Argan winery in the afternoon.

The city once welcomed musical legends Jimi Hendrix (definitely) and Bob Marley (maybe), and every summer it hosts a huge Gnaoua World Music Festival, known as the “Moroccan Woodstock.” Hence its hippie street cred.

Yet its medina is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site with golden walls and ramparts that are as fantastically picturesque as a fairytale kingdom. In fact, it doubled as Astapor, home of the Unsullied, in season three of “Game of Thrones.” Even the inhabitants, many of whom dress in traditional pointy-hooded, cobble-sweeping robes called djellabas, wouldn’t look out of place as characters in the fantasy series or, indeed, as Jedi Knights in “Star Wars.”

Stir all those crazily conflicting images into a cosmic frying pan. Salt with a liberal mélange of languages — the local dialect, classical Arabic, French and English — and the haunting call to prayer, which issues from tall towers across this city each day.

Then season with the sizzling energy of crowds clogging shop-lined pedestrian arteries where you can buy virtually anything you need — and a lot that you definitely don’t need but now realize you cannot live without. Aladdin-style lamps and intricate lacework. Rugs and bolts of brightly colored fabric. Beach toys and antique books. Herbs and spices. Fish and fresh meat that bear a disturbing resemblance to the animals as they looked in life. Rolling carts selling roasted corn, mint tea and — Morocco being a former French colony — even cupfuls of escargot, devoured on the spot.

ALSO IN TRAVEL: Big Bend: A much needed dose of desert solitude

For a more in-depth understanding of the city, my hotel — the Heure Bleue Palais, a luxurious Relais & Chateaux property located just inside the city walls — has arranged a walking tour with local guide Rachida Hadimi.

“Essaouira means ‘well designed’ or ‘protected’ or ‘little picture,’ depending on how you pronounce the S,” she explains. It could also be called “the windy city,” because, well, it very often is. “You’ll find sand in your ears, sand in your pockets … but it’s heaven for surfers,” Hadimi laughs.

While the sun, sand and surf remain constant, Hadimi has seen a lot of changes in Essaouira over the years. Thanks to its tiny international airport, which began welcoming direct flights from London in 2015, more English speakers have arrived, not only as tourists, but also as foreign investors buying property. And 3 miles south, in Diabet, a former hippie hangout has yielded to a luxury resort with two golf courses designed by Gary Player.

But Essaouira hasn’t gone all upscale and posh. Not by a long shot. In fact, some homes have no electricity or even running water, so their inhabitants resort to washing their laundry in a fountain in the street.

All along the medina’s commercial streets, women are bent over stone slabs, endlessly grinding argan nuts to make products ranging from soap to oil and goat feed. In workshops around the periphery of the walled city, sawdust-coated men produce intricately inlaid trays, puzzle boxes and other keepsakes from local thuya wood. And at the port, fishermen patiently repair their fishing nets and sell their catch from umbrella-shaded stands.

The only beings that seem to get a free pass are cats, of which there are many roaming the streets. Hadimi says they — or rather, their very distant ancestors — are credited with having saved the city from bubonic plague centuries ago, by hunting the rats that brought plague-infested fleas. Today, these bewhiskered regal residents are, by and large, among the most well-fed and doted upon animals I’ve seen in any city anywhere.

“The closer you get to the port, the fatter they get,” jokes Paolo Barbieri, an Italian native (and feline fan) who first came to Essaouira 13 years ago. Barbieri now runs a trio of guest apartments and local art gallery and shop called Mashi Mushki (translation: “no problem”) on Derb Chbanat within the medina.

“There are more and more boutiques and more and more shops,” he says of his adopted city, “but it has got a long way to go before it becomes one of those touristy places, full stop. People still live in the medina. On my street I see people going about their day-to-day life, not really aware of tourism. It’s the people that make the place, and this place is alive.”



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Travel

Cargo Harrison went on a 14,000-mile hike to figure out what to do with his life

In May 2015, Holly Harrison - known as "Cargo" to most of his buddies - was hiking along the Appalachian Trail and taking stock of his situation. "You know, trying to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life," he said.  He was 55 years old at the time and had always dreamed big. He wanted to do something no...
Keep Oslo weird

Against the bright sky of an Oslo, Norway, summer evening, three bodies twirled and popped in unison beneath towering Roman columns. Another passer-by, likely drunk, motioned that I should approach very quietly, very carefully. “They are a big, big dance group,” he whispered. “They were on American TV. They are my heroes!” ...
Cave-diving experts feel the ripples of the Thailand rescue - a rise in demand

Summer is usually the slow season for scuba diving at Bonne Terre Mine in Missouri, about an hour south of St. Louis. But not this year. Not since 12 young soccer players and their coach were rescued from a flooded cave in Mae Sai, Thailand, captivating the world and thrusting diving into the spotlight.  "My gosh our phone's been blowing...
San Antonio’s summer homage to Spain

San Antonio is famous for its Mexican heritage including its Tex-Mex cuisine and the 1836 Battle of the Alamo.  But the city’s connection to Spain does not get the same recognition even though this metropolis of about 1.5 million residents, one of Texas’ oldest cities, was founded by Spaniards in 1718 on the banks of the San Antonio...
Your trip, starring Greece

Movies set in beautiful destinations often inspire viewers to travel. And “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” set in a fictional Greek isle, will most likely do the same.  Lila Fox, a Greece specialist with the travel company SmartFlyer, said she has had a growing number of inquiries for trips to the Greek islands. (Spoiler alert: The movie...
More Stories