Essaouira touches the soul with its beauty. It’s azure harbour, surrounded by white houses and the ancient protective walls which reach around the medina like a warm ochre embrace. As a visitor it feels as if you are stepping into a watercolour painting where time has stood still allowing history to surround you and the culture to seep into your soul.
Essaouira’s historic medina is a beautifully preserved, fortified town. The impressive fortifications were constructed around the medina in the 18th century to protect the port from attack. The eye-catching, square watch tower, the Sqala Port, is an artillery platform which stretches dramatically from Bab el Marsa gate in the east towards the watchtower and then beyond to a circular bastion of Borj el-Barmil.
The tower itself can be scaled for a panoramic view of the ramparts and the port harbouring its bouquet of blue wooden boats. The blue and turquoise hues of the boats is not designed as a tourist attraction but reflects 3,000 years of history, since the gorgeous colour is actually derived from the shells harvested, since Roman times, from the ‘Iles Purpuraires’ close to the shores of the port.
A pleasant stroll along Essaouira’s ramparts delivers a fresh overview of the beauty of this city, with its magnificent Atlantic coast, golden sands, and rocky outcrops over which the seagulls squall as they swoop across the harbour from an offshore bird sanctuary. Entrance is free and offers a warm and gentle introduction to this peaceful city and the glory of its history and culture.
Essaouira is a real haven for seafood lovers with fresh fish being available daily directly from the fishermen at the harbour. The atmosphere is thrilling as you witness the fishing boats coming in with their haul, the hake, sardines, lobsters, conger eels, red snapper, octopus, sole, crab and other delicacies all being arranged market style on long wooden tables strewn with ice. This is a way of life that has dominated the area for hundreds of years and for the duration of your visit you will feel wrapped up in Essaouira’s history and culture. It is an absolute treat to be able to select your lunch and then to take it to a local portside restaurant where they will grill it over hot charcoals for you.
In Moulay Hassan Plaza, there is a definite European ambiance which tastefully contrasts with the ancient elements of the town. This lively square announces the entrance to the meandering souk and offers a panoramic view of the harbour area too. Local restaurants spill onto the square beneath the shade of the trees where street musicians and entertainers abound. It is a perfect place to sip a mint tea and watch the world go by. The French history of the town has also left its culinary mark on the medina, in the form of fantastic patisseries and creperies scattered throughout the medina. A wander along the beach front will lead you to an array of trendy beach bars, perfect after a day relaxing on the sand or enjoying the sea and all the sports available on this fresh and breezy coast. In fact, there are so many eateries in Essaouira, offering everything from the local fish and other dishes such as tagines or couscous to European delights that you will feel spoilt for choice!
As you enter the souk the architecture and decorative richness of the medina is astonishing. The main area of the souk is adorned exquisitely with handmade souvenirs such as beautifully crafted glass; delicate silver jewellery, gorgeous traditional lamps, colourful ceramics, and clothing which wraps the alleys in vibrant colour. Other alleys lead through this souk in a traditional manner, but being smaller than the souks in larger cities it is easier to navigate and has a less frenzied and calmer pace to it, inviting you to linger and allowing time to interact with the friendly local people. You will find an abundance of hidden treasures including freshly made bread, preserved lemons, nuts, olives and spices.
Essaouira’s culture is truly emphasised in the early summer months when it becomes an amazing musical venue. The traditional rhythms of Gnaoui music, drumming artists with their colourful costumes and dancing, have become well renowned and attract hundreds of visitors to this spectacular, mystical festival. If you are fortunate enough to be in Morocco at this time, this is an unmissable cultural experience.
A visit to Essaouira deserves to be made with a tour company which offers an experienced guide. Whilst the beauty of the town speaks for itself, the history and culture can truly be brought to life by someone who enthusiastically shares the nuances as well as the detail. Marrakesh Travel Service offer such a trip with local multi-lingual guides. The day trip offered includes a visit to an Argan cooperative which very much represents part of the local culture. Argan oil is harvested from thorny trees which are endemic to southwestern Morocco microclimate, growing predominantly in the UNESCO reserve in Essaouira. This exclusive product is handmade and labour intensive, the cooperative demonstrates the process, and a plethora of authentic products are available there. On the way you may even catch sight of a herd of goats precariously balanced throughout the branches of these trees, unable to resist the delicious argan fruit!