Bathed by the Atlantic Ocean, some 170 kilometres from Marrakech, opposite the Purple Islands, is Essaouira, also known by the old Portuguese name of Mogador. Away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities, it is one of the most peaceful and charming cities in Morocco. Its medina was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2001.
Behind Essaouira there is an eventful history; Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans all passed through here. It was a Portuguese city in the 15th century and reconquered by Sidi Mohamed Ben Abadallah in the 18th century who commissioned a French architect to rebuild it, designing it with a logical, straight layout and wide streets to facilitate its defence if necessary. It became the main port of Morocco in the 19th century, with Christian and Jewish communities settling there.
Its economy is based on fishing, crafts and, in recent years, thanks to the continuous scourge of the trade winds, so persecuted by water sports lovers, tourism has become a major source of income for the city.
In spite of not having great monuments of interest, it is a city that radiates: its simple and friendly people with the visitors, the tranquility, its warm light, the color, the continuous squawk of the seagulls, the marine smell, the air that is breathed…
Probably, all this, together with the beautiful natural decoration of the city, made Orson Wells choose it to shoot some scenes of the film Othello, that begins with a magnificent panoramic taking of the walls. In gratitude, a square with his name and a statue remember the director’s memory.
Later it became, so to speak, a paradise for hippies, a source of inspiration for artists and a fashionable destination for pop and rock stars like Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa or Cat Stevens, now Yusuf Islam. Needless to say, therefore, Essaouira was, and still is, a rather cosmopolitan and bohemian city.
The walled city has three parts: the mellah, the medina and the kasbah, and can be accessed through three gates, Bab Dukala to the north, Bab Marrakech to the east and along the Bab Sebaa promenade.
The Medina of Essaouira, with its orderly and straight layout and its perpendicular crosses (although there is also the typical network of alleyways), is different from any other in Morocco, and allows visitors to find their way around and walk around peacefully without fear of getting lost. The first thing that attracts your attention is the white of its whitewashed houses and the blue of its doors and windows. Besides, there are no motor vehicles, everything is transported in carts.
In the streets adjacent to the wall there are many painters and woodwork workshops. From here you can access the Skala of the Kasbah, a crenellated platform of about 200 meters long, with a considerable collection of European cannons, which was built for the defense of the city. With great views of the sea, it is the only place where you can walk over the walls and from where you can see the strong waves of the Atlantic sea.
In Moulay Hassan square there are many restaurants and cafes being a good place to eat or drink mint tea watching the comings and goings of passers-by. To eat…, the best thing is to ask for fish as the one offered is fresh and of good quality.
Fishing port of Essaouira
The door of the Marina leads us to the busy port. An interesting visit is to the Skala del Puerto, a defensive bastion that protects the port facilities (costs about 10 Dh), which has original artillery pieces, almost all from Spain and Portugal. But the best thing is the wonderful views of the walls, the port and the Purple Islands.
Its fishing port, currently one of the most important in the south of the country, was fortified by the Portuguese for their defence and can pride itself on having such a busy activity that surprises visitors. It is one of the most lively places in the city and, logically, a visit is a must. It is full of fishing boats and numerous fish stalls where you can choose what you want to eat. Of course, we are in Morocco and it is important to negotiate the price first.
Another of the city’s charms is undoubtedly its beach, which is located to the left of the marina’s door. Extensive, with fine sand and views of the bay, it is a very popular place with the locals, both for joggers, or playing football or volleyball, and for families.
The strong and constant winds and its bay protected from the Atlantic waves have made Essaouira a paradise for windsurfing and kitesurfing fans. Along the bay there are some schools and shops where you can rent equipment for these sports.
For the rest, it is possible to ride camels in the dunes or sail in a tourist boat around the Purple Islands, which have a protected bird reserve of Eleonora’s falcon. And when the trade winds don’t allow you to stay quietly on the beach, there are cafés with sea views in the vicinity that are sheltered from the wind.
Handicrafts and The Culture of Essaouira
One of the Moroccan cities with more tradition in cabinetmaking is Essaouira. Famous are the pieces carved in tuya wood, sometimes with inlays of lemon tree wood, mother-of-pearl or ebony, such as boxes, jewelry boxes, chests, figures or trays among others. The silver jewellery of Essaouira is known for its quality and finesse, and owes its development and notoriety to the Jewish goldsmiths of the 18th century.
We must also highlight the master craftsmen in the manufacture of stringed musical instruments such as the lute or gumbri. Raffia slippers and bags, sometimes combined with leather, wool hats and dyed leather lamps are also part of the most indigenous craftsmanship of Essaouira.
We cannot forget about painting. Essaouira has always attracted artists from all over the world, but there are many local artists. There are different art galleries scattered around the city where you can buy or just look at them.
Essaouira is also known internationally for its Gnaoua and World Music Festival, which is held annually in June and attracts thousands of visitors.
I think it goes without saying that Essaouira and the surrounding area offer an interesting range of services for tourists, water sport enthusiasts and culture lovers alike. It is also a great combination with a trip to Marrakech.