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Published: September 16th 2020
On Thursday, October 17th, we arrived in the coastal city of Essaouira from the vibrant city of Marrakesh. As much as I enjoyed that great city, and even earlier visiting the red sand desert climes of the Sahara, I could't wait to be near the ocean again. Visiting Essaouira and reveling along her Atlantic shores is a panacea for anyone who, like me, cannot resist the siren call of the sea.
Surprisingly, the strong draw I always feel for being near the ocean was nearly eclipsed by the charms of Essaouira’s terra firma. I knew then I would be forever under the spell of Essaouira. It combined all the features I find most interesting about any town – geographical beauty, history, architecture, culture, and most definitely a friendly disposition. Essaouira had all of these. Its medina, ramparts, bastions, babs, and port are a sound affirmation of its historical importance. It’s no wonder that UNESCO chose this medina to be a World Heritage Site – already the 7th UNESCO site we had seen so far on this trip.
You can enjoy the long, crescent-shaped sandy beach and yet in a matter of minutes find yourself within the historic heart of
the medina with its jumble of narrow streets, colorful shop displays, side-walk tables and snug candle-lit cafes, listening to calls to prayer or hearing exotic languages being spoken all the while being surrounded by remnants of ancient history.
Long known by the Portuguese given name of "Mogador,' the name was officially changed to Essaouira when Morocco gained its independence in 1956. Essaouira was once a major port through which gold, slaves and other valuable commodities were transported, arriving there via caravan and exported via overseas shipping trade routes to Europe and the Americas. Mogador was so valuable as a port and trade center that it became the object of desire of European nations who sometimes successfully and over varying lengths of time gained power over it; its advantages were not overlooked by enterprising pirates as well who used it as a safe haven. Ironically, today Essaouira's port has been overshadowed by those ports with deeper harbors and modern facilities and now handles no commercial exports, but is now used only as a fishing port and for boat repair.
Just off the coast of Essaouira are Mogador Island and/or the Iles de Purpuraires which were famous for producing purple
dye (Tyrian purple) made from a mollusk, the Murex, as far back as Roman times and was used for dying the garments of the emperor. This purple color is still associated with nobility.
Like some other major Moroccan cities, Essaouira’s modern sprawl can be seen when entering the city. The old center and its medina and its historical character are now completely encased within the lovely preserved walls. The medina has low-rise, white-washed buildings and mosque minarets peaking out just above the sand-colored walls which cut in and out at sharp angles. The walls are punctuated by more than just a few gates, or ‘babs,’ and the high clock tower which can be seen in many photos because of its height is just next to Bab Magana.
Our first order of business after arriving in Essaouira was walking the short distance toward the 19th-century gate, Bab Sbaa, or Porte Royal which was the entrance to the ‘new’ kasbah section near the Rue Mohamed Ben Messaoud where our riad for the next 2 nights was located. The open-ended street had an unnamed portal leading out to the Jardin Orson Welles and beyond you could see a bit of the
ocean. Because of this, the often very chilly ocean breeze invaded the rue spreading its icy fingers late at night and in the early morning.
Stepping through a huge blue painted, brass-studded door into the Riad Dar L’Ouissa
(“Story House”) was literally like taking a breath of fresh air. Though you wouldn’t know it now, this building began life as storage for grain and spices. Today, the reception lobby leads into a blue & white tiled, airy 5-story atrium courtyard open to the skies above. The 5th floor is an open terrace with chaise lounges, tables, a bar and an ocean and medina view.
We were assigned Room 22, up a winding staircase on the third floor. Our room was large, airy and attractively furnished with pieces of lovely dark wood Moroccan furniture. With windows on both sides of our room, light streamed in all day which was in contrast to a few of the other rooms we'd had on this trip.
With only time enough to splash water on our faces before meeting in the lobby again, Larbi intended to hand out maps of the medina before giving our group an orientation walk including showing us
where the nearest ATM machine was located, and offering restaurant suggestions after which he would leave us to wander at will for the evening. It seemed like in no time we felt confident enough to delve deeper into the heart of the medina which was very busy with tourists shopping and looking for a place to have dinner.
The lovely evening light was quickly waning, and as shadows began to fall, tiny lights began to appear in cafes, little shops, and in the medina’s small lanes. It seemed we walked forever before our tired feet actually led us to a small restaurant, the Dar al Houma
, at 9 Rue Hajjali in the medina. The menu board outside listed the night’s specials and having been deprived of Italian food for almost 2 weeks, the Spaghetti Bolognese they listed sounded appealing with a price to match. Our candlelit table for two was perfect and faced the entry way allowing us to soak in the décor of the small café, and watch the passing crowds just outside of the entry as well.
A small plate of bread and olives was placed on our table before our tasty entrée arrived. What looked
to be a small portion of pasta actually was far more than we could eat. Our appetites totally satisfied, we lingered just a bit to enjoy the unhurried atmosphere here before reluctantly leaving this cozy place. Back at our comfortable riad for the night, I literally scribbled a few travel notes before succumbing to sleep.
Friday, October 18th
dawned bright – light streaming into our room and into the riad’s atrium courtyard. From our room we stepped out onto the beautiful 3rd
floor gallery with its herringbone-patterned brick paver floor, elegant balustrades, abundance of potted plants, stepped niches displaying green ceramic vases, and ornamental pendant lightening. There was little if anything to dislike about this beautiful riad, even though it varied greatly from the much loved Riad Salam Fez we had stayed in earlier on this trip.
An included buffet breakfast was served in the large dining room just off the first floor courtyard, and here I had my first cup of good black tea. With this start to the day, we began our more in depth walking tour with Larbi on the ocean side of the medina where we were met with an unexpectedly cold and very
strong wind. A few of the women in our group were ill-prepared for this kind of morning chill, but the day grew warmer closer to noon.
We were in the square gardens named for the American actor and known as Jardin Orson Welles.
I wondered what the connection between the Orson Welles and this garden square was.
As it turns out, Welles had stayed in Essaouira sometime between 1949 – 1951 while filming the screen version of “Othello” in the city’s medina. This film went on to win the Palm d’Or
at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival. Some say that Welles and Winston Churchill stayed in the same riad in Essaouira at that time. In the past, Essaouira has not only drawn creative talents in the form of actors, musicians, skilled craftsmen, artists but even the hippie crowd of the '60s.
Rather than walk on toward the fishing port which is enclosed in one of the rampart sections, Larbi ventured into the medina itself. But the eye immediately is drawn to what is known as the Scala du Port. Rick and I would later in the day visit port for a closer look on our own. But for
now, Larbi veered right to the Place Moulay Hassan where the Casa Vera Restaurant, identified by the fancy script letters on its façade, takes center stage with its navy blue and yellow umbrellas topping tables arranged on the stone plaza.
We walked through mostly quiet lanes headed for the Derb Scala where sea walls topped by ramparts and bastions once formed the city’s formidable military fortifications used to defend attacks by sea. In total there are 5 bastions (the North, South, West, Bab Doukkala and Port)
at different points of the city’s walls.
We walked up an incline to the 650+ ft. long Artillery Platform where crenellations in the wall were built to accommodate the many Spanish canons still pointing out to sea. At the end of the Artillery Platform was the imposing North Bastion which offers the most magnificent view of the Atlantic crashing on the rocks below, jutting into the ocean. Though a stiff breeze was blowing, these sun-drenched walls seem to be a favorite place for tourists, locals, and felines looking for warmth.
Leaving the upper section through another gate, we then explored the lower part of the North Bastion where warehouses under the
ramparts once held weapons and ammunition behind solid wooden doors, but they now house quaint shops of craftsmen who specialize in nearly anything made of wood. This area and a bit beyond in the Skala de la Ville are known as the wood souk.
Rounding out our time with Larbi this morning, we visited a silver shop just outside of the medina walls to learn about and watch women doing the painstaking job of making fine silver filigree jewelry at the Centre de la Bijouterie Artisanale (Mâalem ali 1908). I can’t imagine I would have the nimblest fingers, patience or eyesight to do this type of work for very long. Of course, this was a shopping opportunity as well and here they had a large showroom filled with case upon case of all types of silver jewelry with and without semi-precious stones. I bought myself a set of silver and lapis lazuli earrings, but also some silver chains with Moroccan pendants for gifts for family members. These were carefully put into little drawstring bags and then boxed. I’d recommend this shop for the products as well as the service. Now waving goodbye to the group and Larbi, we were
on our own.
With our purchases safely stored back in our room, we seized the chance to spend the afternoon exploring. My first thought was of the beach of course. We walked on a long stretch of flat, hardpacked sand beach where the breeze was invigorating. This has been a favorite activity of mine since childhood and I like being near the water wherever I happen to be. Essaouira's waterfront is famous for a variety of surfing sports, and sometimes camel or horseback rides are offered here. The walkable part of this beach ended at a long jetty.
Not to be deterred we retraced our early morning steps back to the Blvd. Mohammed V and walked toward the fishing port next which was a beehive of activity at this time of day. The unique architecture may give a clue to the port’s origins. Very early in the 16th
century, the Portuguese built the original fortress here called 'Castelo Real de Mogador' and the French added their own touch later.
The pungent, briny smell left no doubt that the fishing skiffs and trawlers were back in port with their daily catch. All kinds of fresh fish, many types
of which I’d never seen before, were displayed and offered to the public at any one of several stands that had been setup for this purpose and buyers scoured these to find just the right choice. The air above the port was filled with screeching seagulls circling and swooping, hoping for discarded remnants of the day’s catch.
It seemed the entire fleet of blue and red fishing skiffs were now idle and tied to each other looking much like a patchwork quilt. You have to wonder how the owners know which boat is theirs since they all look nearly alike. Nearby, with the day’s catch now hauled in, other men were sorting their catches, or working on their boats and multi-color nets while taking no extra notice of the important historical setting they were in.
Just as picturesque was the Scala du Port with its Bab el-Marsa, and the ramparts here with numerous canons strategically placed for defense linking the fortress, Borj el-Barmil,
identified by its Spanish-style cupola lookouts at each corner.
This area was chock full of interesting sites if you took the time to look. We got a somewhat closer look at the ornamented 18th
century stone gate known as Bab el-Marsa or “Navy’s Gate” but no good photos for one reason or another. In the gate's triangular pediment there is a beveled medallion with an Arabic inscription which reads, “PRAISE TO ALLAH, “This door, ordered by the glorious one of the kings, Sidi Mohammed, was built by its servetor Ahmed el Aalj” (1184H/AD1770)
. If you look closely, beneath the pediment are symbols which are said to represent Islam, Judaism and Christianity. This gate connects the medina to the port itself.
We passed through the Bab el-Marsa on our way to the medina. Along the way, a sea wall divided the promenade from a rocky portion of shoreline. There was a makeshift but fairly stable way to climb over the seawall. I wanted to see just what if anything the sea had left behind besides lots of seaweed so we scrambled over the wall – scouring this beach reminded me of the many times I shared a similar adventure with my Father. Happily, the effort was worth it and I found more than enough to fill my pockets – shards of crockery, tiles, newer shards of stained glass, shells, and sea glass. Others also
scoured the rocky beach including old men collecting snails or barnacles.
I would have been happy just to spend the afternoon sitting on the sea wall and gazing out to sea – Essaouira has that unhurried atmosphere about it. But we were very hungry by this point. We easily found the Café France not far from Place Moulay Hassan and grabbed one of the sidewalk tables. It turned out not only to be a good place for excellent, inexpensive pizza, but also a prime spot for watching the passing parade of people.
We had just ordered when we heard the muezzin’s ‘call to prayer’ (adhan) beckoning followers of Islam to the mid-18th
century Kasbah Mosque (also known as the Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah Mosque) which was only about a 100 or so ft. away from where we were sitting. We watched as men, young and old, heeded the call. Many could not find space inside inside the mosque so formed a line outside to pray.
Our final stop was in the medina where we visited a shop called “L’Art du Bois” on the Rue Skala Nejarine. Larbi had told us that the shopping in Essaouira was worth
waiting for and he was right. The L’ Art du Bois shop was appealing because of the eclectic mix of handcrafted wood pieces, any of which would make a great souvenir or gift. These were not ordinary by any means. Handmade wooden boxes of all sizes were unique as well as beautiful. I bought 2 or 3 thinking these would make very unique gift boxes to hold the silver jewelry I’d purchased as gifts earlier in the morning.
Along with the unique fossil rock in Erfoud, Argan oils from the Marjana Cooperative, and souvenirs gathered during this trip, I had gotten holiday presents enough for everyone and then some! One thing you immediately notice in Essaouira is that very few, if any, of the shopkeepers in the medina or souks harangue you like those of Fez and Marrakesh. In addition, at every place that I can remember shopping, prices were fixed -- no haggling; I generally do not like to haggle, so for me, not being pressured to buy anything and knowing exactly what the prices were was a relief. These 2 factors enticed me to do the bulk of my shopping here. I believe the sellers wanted fair
prices for their goods and I was willing to pay their price. I never felt cheated here, nor did I feel like a cheapskate.
I wished now that I would have bought one of the colorful flat rugs which can be found in many shops here. They are small and easy to pack. At the time I couldn't think of where I would use it, but it would have made a lovely souvenir to remind me of Morocco.
Our time in Essaouira went much too quickly. But to end our time in Essaouira on a high note, Larbi planned something special for our final night. Firstly, we had a light meal served informally in our riad’s lovely courtyard where wine and beer were available from the bar. After dinner, some mesmerizing Gnaoua (Gnawa) music was our evening's entertainment. The 3 Gnaoua musicians who played for us on this evening were the best I’d heard during the trip. I could tell that not everyone in our group found this type of music to their liking, but by this point I had come to like it quite a lot.
The Gnaoua are descendants of the slave populations brought to
Morocco from Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly Ghana. Each time we saw a performance, the Gnaoua musicians wore colorful caftans, pointed leather slippers, and fez hats topped with tassels and cowrie-shells sewed on for decoration which make them particularly distinctive. While singing and dancing, the men continuously twirl their heads and consequently the tassels which becomes almost hypnotic to watch. Two men play the metal, castanet-like instruments called krekebs (or Qraqebs, etc.) and dance, while the third one plays a string instrument called a gimbri or sinter.
Essaouira is home to the International Gnaoua and World Music Festival. Like a Moroccan Woodstock festival of sorts, the main acts perform in Place Moulay Hassan and at Bab Marrakesh while others do so at additional stage venues in the medina. Held annually since 1998, this late June festival includes fusion music rather than purely Gnaoua music. Apparently an insanely popular event normally, it unfortunately had to be cancelled for 2020 due to the Covid – 19 virus pandemic.
Near the end of the evening, I had been looking forward to the henna artist which had been engaged as a special surprise for the women of our group. The artist, a lovely young
Moroccan woman, patiently attended to the long line waiting. I was very happy with the intricate henna design she drew on my hand. Larbi said, in his kind and humorous way, there was no charge for this artist, but “it wouldn’t be a sin if we wished to tip her,” and we all gladly did so. I know I enjoyed every aspect of the night and I wished we didn’t have to say goodbye to Essaouira and leave for Casablanca the following morning – not only because Essaouira was my favorite Moroccan city but also because the next day in Casablanca would be the final full day of our trip, a bittersweet event. So, only one more Morocco blog to follow.
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