Essaouira, Morocco — This may be only city in the world where surfers hang out in souks, bohemian hippies rub shoulders with Arabs and Berbers, and dreadlocked buskers play Bob Marley in this UNESCO World Heritage-listed medina.
Inhabitants speak a mélange of French, Arabic and Darija (the local dialect), and many dress in hooded, cobble-sweeping robes that lend them a mysterious, other-worldly air.
Besotted filmmakers have featured Essaouira’s golden walls and ramparts in productions ranging from Game of Thrones — as the home of the stony-faced Unsullied — to Kingdom of Heaven, starring Orlando Bloom. On the beach just beyond the port, camels and prancing stallions leave distinctive hoof prints in the sand, while the colourful sails of windsurfers bob in the white-capped waves of the Atlantic.
Above: Riding horseback along the tranquil beach is a normal sight in Essaouira.
Essaouira, three hours west of Marrakesh, is without a doubt the most exotic place I’ve ever been. It can be a struggle to digest the small but richly-flavoured feast of its Moroccan medina, where shopkeepers in the crowded streets hawk everything from Aladdin-style lamps to bright woven rugs, baby clothes, toilet brushes, beach toys, antique books and sneeze-inducing spices.
For a bite-sized overview (and a beer), my husband and I retreat to the rooftop Taros bar, where we can savour this multi-cultural melting pot with a 180-degree swivel of the head. To the south, seagulls circle and swoop above the port, where fishermen sell their catch from umbrella-shaded stands. Just below and to the right of our perch, the great paved square of Place Moulay Hassan is a constant hive of activity. There’s nearly always a soccer game going on, with the arched stone gates of Bab Kasar serving as the goal. Cafés line the square, providing front row seats —and a captive audience — for a roving troupe of acrobats (lithe young men apparently made entirely of springs) and for wandering minstrels playing the rebab, a warbling one-stringed bowed instrument.
Above: Western hippies, right, hang out on street corners while women haggle over prices at the local market.
Directly across from Taros, in front of a row of postcard stands, a young bearded man, a cultural castaway from the U.S., strums an acoustic guitar. Within the time it takes to polish off a pint or two of cold Casablanca lager, it’s possible to hear John Lennon’s “Imagine,” the Eagles’ "Hotel California", Bob Marley’s "I Shot the Sheriff" and the haunting Muslim call to prayer — the last of which issues from tall towers all across the whitewashed city several times each day.
For a native’s insight into the city, our hotel — l’Heure Bleue, a gracious Relais & Chateaux riad built into the city walls — has arranged a walking tour with guide Rachida Hadimi. He explains that Essaouira, which locals pronounce as “Swayra,” can mean well-designed, protected, or little picture, all depending upon how you pronounce the “S.” But it could also be dubbed “the windy city,” because, well, it very often is.
“You’ll find sand in your ears, sand in your pockets … but it’s heaven for surfers,” Hadimi laughs.
While the sun, sand and surf remain constants, Hadimi has seen a multitude of changes in Essaouira over the decades. Its tiny international airport is welcoming more English speakers these days — not only as tourists, but also as property-buying foreign investors. And a short drive to the south in Diabet, a former hippie hangout has given way to a luxury resort with two Gary Player-designed golf courses.
Above: Old men tell stories while a playful guide hugs his camel.
“Our town is cosmopolitan. We used to have only smokers of herbs,” Hadimi says, referring to marijuana (which is now illegal here). “Now we have golfers.”
But Essaouira hasn’t gone entirely upscale. While you’ll find high-end art galleries and chic boutiques, there are also a handful of people begging in the streets. And in one rustic neighbourhood, where Hadimi says some houses have no electricity or running water, I see women washing their laundry in a fountain.
Mostly, though, I’m struck by a sense of restless energy and industriousness. Along the medina’s commercial streets, women bend over stone slabs, grinding argan nuts to make products ranging from soap to oil and goat feed. In workshops around the periphery of the walled city, sawdust-encrusted craftsmen create inlaid trays, puzzle boxes and other keepsakes from local thuya wood. At the port, fisherman painstakingly repair their nets and sell their fresh catch from umbrella-shaded stands.
Above: Bob Marley seems to be the patron saint of this idyllic fishing town.
Age is no barrier to work, apparently, as shopkeepers range from bent and wizened old men to children minding the store after school. If they want to close the shop for lunch, forget locking up. A cane or a mop across the entrance will do the trick.
The only living beings that get a free pass are felines. According to Hadimi, cats are credited with saving the city from bubonic plague centuries ago by hunting the rats which brought plague-infested fleas. Modern-day bewhiskered residents bask in the continued gratitude and affection of city-dwellers, who feed and dote on the multitude of semi-strays which roam the streets and blink, sleepy-eyed, from the cool shade of the shops.
One of the most unusual stores is Elizir Gallery, an antiques emporium where multiple levels are packed with such eclectic treasures as a child’s metal pedal car, a futuristic 1960s Japanese record player, and the sort of old overhead projector favoured by teachers in the 1980s, as students from those days may recall with an agonized roll of the eyes.
Abdellatif Rharbaoui, Elizir’s owner, professes a love of 20th-century technology and design. “You take care of these things and they will still have life for another 50 years,” he says, his eyes alight with genuine enthusiasm. “With the new stuff, no; it’s just for the moment.”
There is a certain parallel with life in Essaouira, as well, where the past seamlessly morphs with the present.
Above: Cats hang out at the town's bustling fish market hoping to get the "catch of the day."
“There are a lot of surfers, a lot of hippies,” Abdellatif says. “Moroccans also are hippies, because we have the sun, we like music, we like taking tea. It’s the kind of place where people will be smiling for another 50 years, and it’s from the heart.
“Some people may have nothing, but they have big happiness, that maybe the rich people, they don’t have. This is really the hope of life and humanity.”
JUST THE FACTS
• Getting there: Marrakesh Menara Airport is about 175 km east of Essaouira.
• Where to stay: Heure Bleue Palais is housed in an 18th-century riad (a traditional Moroccan home) just inside Essaouira’s medina walls. It epitomizes exotic elegance, from its lush central courtyard to the elaborately carved woodwork of the English Bar and the Oriental Salon, serving hearty Moroccan specialties. It has 33 rooms and suites featuring details like geometric tile floors and stained-glass accents, and premium suites offer a working fireplace. The rooftop terrace hosts a heated pool and a lunchtime restaurant. Other amenities include a billiards room, cinema and spa, which includes a hammam. www.heure-bleue.com/en/
• Horse and camel rides: https://www.equievasion.com
• Elizir Gallery, 22 Ave d’Istiqlal.