CITY GUIDE: 5 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT ESSAOUIRA (THE ANTI-MARRAKECH)
‘Oh you’ve been to Marrakech?’ every stall holder asked us. ‘You’ll like it much better here. The people in Essaouira are much nicer.’
‘We are more friendly than the people in Marrakech.’
‘We are much more relaxed here in Essaouira.’
It was true. After spending a few days in Marrakech being yelled at or resisting the hands that were pushing us into seats at the food markets or watching locals fight with each other (physically and verbally), the whole atmosphere of Essaouira was significantly more relaxed, more friendly, and much less aggressive. What’s more, the people evidently prided themselves on this fact: every Essaouira local we spoke to was eager to separate themselves from Marrakech and present their city as the ‘laid-back alternative’. In a way it is, but it’s also more than that. It’s true, also, that it doesn’t have the gritty city bustle of Marrakech, or the rich colour palette of copper and terracotta that makes just LOOKING at Marrakech appealing, or the hidden morsels of luxury behind hidden doors - but here’s 5 things you should know it has instead:
1. Blue and White
Essaouira is like a blue and white Venice. The same winding streets, hidden alleys, crumbling doorways and rough cobbles - except within its sand-coloured crenellations everything is whitewashed and accented with blue. Every turn you take is beautiful in its decrepit mediterranean glory. You can admire the blinding white buildings from a rooftop terrace, or view them from the shoreline while hundreds of gulls glide into the blue expanse of a saltwater sky.
Morocco is the largest sardine exporter in the world, but you can get far more than sardines in Essaouira. It’s a coastal town through and through, and walking along the docks is an experience in itself. This is where the fishermen lay out their catch for the day on trestles or carts or upturned buckets for you to peruse and choose. Some of the fishermen specialise in a certain type of seafood (like oysters as big as your hand), while for others, their livelihood clearly depends on whatever they could find on that day (eg. eels, crabs, snails, squid). It’s smelly and slippery and probably not for the weak of stomach, but you won’t want to miss it. If you decide to make a purchase, you can then take it to a range of places in the city to have it cooked to your liking for a few dollars. Locals told us to avoid the restaurants with the blue and white striped awnings just as you leave the docks, though, and go to the fish market in the middle of the city for cooking (you can also buy your seafood here instead of at the docks).
Leather, carpets, lanterns, babouches: pretty much anything you can get in Marrakech, you can also get in Essaouira, and for a similar price. They aren’t as aggressive with their sales tactics either (though we personally had no problem in Marrakech) and will generally let you browse at your leisure.
If you’re more into food shopping, Avenue Oqba Ibn Nafiaa to Avenue de l’İstiklal has you covered - this is where you can find cart-loads of Khobz (traditional Moroccan loaves of bread), mountains of fresh fruit, pyramids of spices, and great sacks of walnuts and almonds. The scent of mint permeates everything here with the occasional tickle of cinnamon, ginger or paprika. Most spice stalls have a signature tea blend which is also worth checking out if you like your green tea.
You can stand and watch the water rolling into Essaouira for hours. Climb up the ramparts and watch the great waves of the North Atlantic Ocean smash into the huge rocky outcrops, the whipped foam of the waves exploding like fireworks. On a sunny day it’s the perfect spot to lie under the sun and listen to the roar of the water and inhale the briny taste of the sea.
The beach nearby is a perfect spot for windsurfing, kitesurfing, paddle boarding, and normal surfing, of course. This is also where camel and quad bike excursions depart from. In the evening, watch the sun make silver fish on the ripples of the water as it casts the ruins on Mogador Island into silhouette.
Back in the 60s, Essaouira attracted popular musicians the most notable of which include Cat Stevens, Frank Zappa, and Jimi Hendrix. You will find that Hendrix has left the strongest legacy, and legends. He spend 11 days in the summer of 1969 in Essaouira and the town has never forgotten it. Cafes and hotels claiming to have hosted him and inspired him (the most famous of which is the aptly named ‘Cafe Jimi Hendrix’ in Diabot), and chronology doesn’t get in the way of the claim that ‘Castles Made of Sand’ (released 2 years prior to his recorded visit) was inspired by the city - because of course, ‘he must have visited earlier… in secret…’.
In any case, the flavour of the 60s/70s music scene is still strong in the old medina of Essaouira. There is no shortage of men and women sporting dreadlocks, brightly woven beanies and ponchos as they carry their guitars on their backs. Musicians set up in the streets to play their guitars or sing, and meanwhile a range of friendly locals stroll peacefully around with a platter of baked goods: ‘Space cake?’ they’ll say. ‘Hash cookie?’
All in all, Essaouira is the perfect place to spend a few days really absorbing some of the best culture this country has to offer. It isn’t tainted with the frenetic hunger for tourist dollars that Marrakech is, and you’ll have more opportunity to meet the beautiful people of Morocco.