Inside the medina of Essaouira, it’s tempting to get up as soon as the muezzin sounds. Dawn is breaking and there will soon be a few fishing boats unloading in the 18th-century port, sending seagulls into a noisy frenzy in the grey winter sky. The sun peeks late over the Atlas Mountains at this time of year but, when sunlight reaches Essaouira, it picks out a neat whitewashed town with honey-coloured fortifications, and a port guarded by a little stone castle with ramparts.
The smell of bread being baked is rising across the medina. I can hear carossas trundling through narrow streets to the harbour. Deliveries in Essaouira are made by men pushing these small blue-painted carts. In warmer weather, the carossa serves as a space for its driver to curl up for a siesta.
My room in Villa Maroc is on one of the rooftops in the city, so it’s many steps down to street level. There’s plenty of time to stroll down to the port before breakfast.
Getting out of the fortified medina is surprisingly easy. Essaouira is unique among old Moroccan cities in that its centre was planned. There are none of the confusing, dead-end alleyways you find in Fez or Marrakech. In the 1760s, Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah decided to develop a naval base on this stretch of the Atlantic next to an abandoned Portuguese fort. He employed a Frenchman to design the fortifications, harbour and town. This was done so well that locals referred to it as Es-Saouira, which translates to the beautifully designed fortress.
My route takes me across Place Moulay Hassan, an open square facing the Atlantic. Here, locals congregate in the evening to chat and watch the sunset, while their children chase pigeons. This morning, however, men in dark overcoats and black baseball caps are already heading silently to work.
Along the series of shacks selling poissons grilles (cooked fish), I’m hailed by Mehmet, one of the most entrepreneurial of the chefs-des-shacks. He is bringing in a plastic box of fish from the port. “Hey my friend, you come and eat with us today?”
The shacks are an Essaouiran institution, something you have to try once, and you get to feed the tiniest of kittens that importune below your table. Mehmet waves a lobster at me. “Maybe tomorrow,” I call back.
Down at the port, I pass under the splendid Baroque gateway built in 1770 by an Englishman called Ahmed el Inglizi. He had converted from Christianity to Islam, so he was also known as Ahmed the Renegade.
Beyond this gate, fishermen are unloading the catch from their blue-painted boats and the seagulls are getting impatient. One of the distinctive sounds of Essaouira is the constant call of gulls over the fortified harbour. Sometimes, there are so many wheeling above you they blot out the sky. I have my camera ready in case there’s a drama like yesterday, when a gull made off with a fish almost as big as itself.
On my way back to the medina, I stop at a cafe at Place Chefchaouni, a small square in the city. The owner wears a djellaba (robe) with a pointed hood, and we speak basic French to each other. I sit in a comfortable chair on a stretch of carpet, and I’m even offered a French-language newspaper.
An unhurried pace
Essaouira is a much more relaxed place to visit than Marrakech, and tourists who come here end up living at its gentle pace. There is no hard-sell after breakfast as I walk down Avenue Mohamed Zerktouni, one part of the broad main street that bisects the town. On Avenue de l’Istiqlal, the man who sold me linen shirts yesterday nods when our eyes meet, but he doesn’t urge me to return to his tiny shop. When I stop to photograph piles of olives for sale in an equally small shop near the Doukkala Gate, the owner offers me some to taste with no obligation to buy. And outside a store selling baggy trousers on Avenue Mohamed Zerktouni, a little European boy with blonde ringlets pounds on a drum that’s for sale, and no one seems to mind that either.
On Rue Ch’banat, the street where beautiful little boxes are made out of aromatic thuya wood, the craftsmen in their ancient studios barely have room to stand up. Still, they smile at me as I pass by and we agree their work is “formidable” (great).
After lunch at Il Mare (43 Rue Scala, Tel: 212 524 476 417), a cheery pizzeria overlooking the ramparts, my wife goes horse-riding (above) along the beach in the direction of Cafe-Restaurant Jimi Hendrix (Chez Hoceine, Diabat). Julie el Ouali, who runs Equi Evasion, promises her their stables are close to the cafe where the musician visited in 1969. “We can ride past the palace of the sultan,” she tells us. “It was built in 1717 and inspired Jimi to write the song Castles Made of Sand.”
By the sea
In the meantime, I contemplate a kite-surfing lesson on the beach, but decide against it. Essaouira is a very windy city, with a gently shelving beach. It’s an ideal place for any kind of surfing, but I prefer listening to the band of Gnawa musicians in white robes (below) who make their way along the beach, playing for anyone who will listen. Gnawas combine music with healing, practising traditions that are rooted in African animism. The sounds can be quite hypnotic.
In the evening, my wife and I meet to watch the sun set over the Atlantic from La Skala de la Ville, the section of ramparts lined with 18th-century cannons (below) where Orson Welles filmed Othello. Sunset always brings out the hippie contingent visiting Essaouira, as well as the tourists with their massive lenses. It’s a wonderful free show every evening as the red sun disappears in the direction of America, and waves smash below the fortifications.
A local juice seller hails me to ask if I would give him dirhams for the two-euro coin he was paid this afternoon. “Do you like the sunset?” he asks in French as I hand him 20 dirhams (US$1.98) in notes. “English people like the sunset.” “It’s magnificent,” says my wife. “You like orange juice too?” he asks. We tell him, “Maybe tomorrow.”
That night, we have dinner at Taros, on one of the rooftops of the medina, where local musicians play a kind of Moroccan reggae, and the gris, a local rose wine, is beautifully chilled. Waiters hand out thick woolly ponchos.
Soon, it will be time to go back to the warm fire in our room. A day passes very quickly in Essaouira, particularly in winter. What do we do all day here but shop, chat, eat and drink along the wild Atlantic coastline? In short, we live at the same pace as the people of Essaouira, and it truly is relaxing.
– TEXT BY ADRIAN MOURBY
PHOTOS: 123RF.COM, INMAGINE, KATE TADMAN-MOURBY
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.