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.
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.”
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Essaouira-Mogador Airport is only 10 miles southeast of the old walled city, but it’s served by a limited number of airlines. Alternatively, Marrakesh Menara Airport is about 114 miles east of Essaouira.
Stay: Heure Bleue Palais is housed in an 18th-century riad (a traditional Moroccan home) just inside Essaouira’s medina walls. It exudes timeless elegance in every detail, from its lush, shady central courtyard to the intricately carved woodwork of the English Bar and the Oriental Salon, serving hearty Moroccan specialties. Its 33 rooms and suites feature details like geometric tile floors and stained-glass accents that provide a sense of place. Premium suites offer a working fireplace. A rooftop terrace, with far-reaching views across the city, features a heated pool and a lunchtime restaurant. Other amenities include a billiards room, a cinema and a spa, where you can indulge in a variety of treatments, including a hammam, massage or facial. Beyond the hotel’s physical properties, its greatest asset is the staff, who greet guests with genuine smiles and touch their hearts — a reflexive gesture that is completely endearing — every time they wish you a good day. Doubles from 180 euro. heure-bleue.com/en.
Do: Heure Bleue Palais can arrange a variety of activities, including a guided walking tour of the medina. Wine lovers should consider a visit to Val d’Argan (valdargan.com), where the vineyards are ploughed by a camel named Goliath; winemaker Charles Melia first made his name at Chateauneuf du Pape. The hotel can also organize a horse or camel ride along the beach (equievasion.com/en) and private cooking classes with the hotel chef. Sporty guests can opt for surfing, kitesurfing, windsurfing or golf.
Wear: While some tourists opt for tank tops and shorts, both men and women might feel more comfortable with covered shoulders and longer trousers. The beach is probably not the place for your itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow-polka-dot bikini, either. Consider packing a one-piece instead.
Tourism info: muchmorocco.com/locations/essaouira