We had just spent 3 days on a tight schedule rushing over the Atlas Mountains to spend an unforgettable night in the Sahara, followed by a couple of days being harangued by the hustle and bustle of the crowded, cobbled streets of Marrakech’s Medina. It was safe to say that we needed to get out of the city and find somewhere that we could find a little R&R, focusing primarily on the relaxation side of things. That is where Essaouira comes in.
Pronounced es-Sweera, or just Sweera by the locals, Essaouira is picturesquely perched on the county’s Atlantic coast resembling the cross between a medieval fortified town, a North African city and the white washed buildings of a Mediterranean village. This blend of differing architectural styles betrays the mixed cultural history of the town; Originally built as a fortress for the Portuguese, the town was then colonised by the French in the early 17th century before being built in it’s current form by Mohammed III in the 18th Century in order to provide a port to export goods from Marrakech to Europe.
With over 300 days of sunshine a year along with the town’s laid back attitude, wide sandy beach and contant breeze (it is known as Morocco’s ‘windy city’) Essaouira has become a hub for backpackers, hippies, surfers and Kite surfers alike. The locals will regale you with embellished tales of the times that Jimi Hendrix and Cat Stevens spent here, with the majority of them claiming that Hendrix’s ‘Castles made of sand’ was written about the crumbling ramparts half way along the beach that are being slowly dissolved by the salty Atlantic waves. However false the claims, this hasn’t stopped Sweera from becoming a firm fixture on the hippy trail ever since the 1960’s and is now somewhat of a haven for artists with boutique galleries and cafes popping up throughout the Medina.
We caught the local bus to Essaouira rather than the Supratour ‘tourist’ bus completely by accident. We had gone to what we thought was the station to buy our tickets earlier in the day; It was only when a taxi driver dropped us at the Supratour station later that day that we realised we had purchased the wrong tickets. It didn’t matter though, we arrived faster than the tourist bus as we didn’t stop for a meal and as long as you don’t mind sitting next to a man holding a carrier bag of raw meat for 3 hours, then the cheaper local bus can only be a good thing.
We stayed at the fantastic Riad Zahra during our time in Essaouira. It’s not really a Riad in the sense of the ones we saw in Marrakech but more a budget hotel. For the price it was an absolute bargain and even came complete with a pool so that we could finally get some relaxing done.
Things to do In Essaouira
In terms of sights and attractions, the city doesn’t have a great deal to see. However, between the beach, town and Medina we managed to easily fill a few days and could have happily filled a few more.
Explore the Ramparts
The dusty coloured fortifications of Essaouira date back to the days when the City was known as Mogador and the Portuguese king, D. Manuel I, ordered a fortress to be built there. Eagle-eyed film fans may be able to recognise the walls from the 1952 Orson Welles film Othello (Essaouira now has a square named after Welles) or more recently the city walls doubled as Astapor in Game of Thrones. At each end of the sea walls are the Skala du Ville and Skala du pont; impressive bastions book ending the cannon lined ramparts. From here you get a great view of both the port and City as well as it being the perfect place to watch the sunset over the Atlantic.
Get Active on the Beach
Although this is Morocco, the temperatures in Essaouira plataeu at around the mid-20s due to the gusts of wind blasting in from the sea (It is the windy city after all). It’s possible to sunbathe in Essaouira if you don’t mind being sandblasted but most people opt for more active beach pursuits. We didn’t give the surfing or kite surfing a go as the waves were looking a little small whilst we were there but there’s plenty of other things to do with horse and camel rides on the beach as well as quad biking safaris which we decided to have a go at.
Watch the Fisherman Unload the Catch of the Day
Although Essaouira is not quite the trading port it was back in the 17th and 18th centuries, the small harbour still has its busy moments. At around 6am each morning Essaouira’s blue fishing boats return filled with fish – and I mean filled. you cannot even see the bottom of the boat as the sardines are piled around the fishermen’s feet.
Becky seemed to think I was crazy for waking up at 5.45 to wander down to the marina, camera in hand, to watch the fisherman bring in their early morning catch but it was worth it. The blue rowing boats emerged from the morning mist, anchored in the harbour and began to unload while bartering and bargaining from the waiting hoardes began.
Eat Some of the Freshest Fish You Will Ever Find
While you’re hanging around the harbour you might as well get involved and haggle for your own seafood! There are a number of food stalls at the port that serve the mornings catch and if you have bought your own seafood, they will cook it for you for a small fee. However, be warned that I went later in the day and the shrimp that I ate may not have been the freshest- I won’t get any more graphic than that.
Wander the Medina
Unlike the labyrinthine Medinas of Marrakech and Fez, the old town of Essaouira is pretty easy to navigate. As it is of French design, the streets are arranged in a simple grid pattern (Essaouira means ‘beautifully designed’) meaning that it is almost impossible to get lost. The Souks are a little less intense than Marrakech thanks to Essaouira’s laid back attitude so you can shop without the hassle in the flea market of La Joutia square or browse the aromatic spices and jewellery of the covered souks in peace. It’s worth wandering through the tiny alleys between the Medina walls and the buildings for some great shops and cafes. Thanks to it’s hippy past, the Medina is teaming with small galleries and art shops so you’ll be sure to find the perfect souvenir.
Where to Eat
Cafe des Artes – We wandered in to here completely by accident and was pleasantly surprised. The lighting is low and the atmosphere is cosy, plus they do a great mint tea. After the waiters have finishing serving they pick up their musical instruments and put on a performance for the customers, often getting them to join in. We loved the place so much we visited 3 times!
Ocean Vagabond – This was the first beach front bat to open in Essaouira and has now evolved from a small shack serving sandwiches to a cool hotel and cafe.
Taros – The food is not the best in town but the roof terrace is the perfect place to hang out on an evening sipping drinks and watching the sun set over the harbour.
What do you think? Have any tips for Essaouira? Let me know in the comments below.