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bineba Essaouira - A travel report by Sabine
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Essaouira,  Morocco - flag Morocco -  Essaouira
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bineba's travel reports

Lazy Days in Essaouira

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We went to Essaouira on the Moroccan Atlantic coast before, on a day trip from Marrakech, and despite feeling very ill that day (something we ate!); we liked it very much and vowed to return one day to explore it properly. We weren’t disappointed.

The walled city of Essaouira
The walled city of Essaouira
Sick of the weather in the UK and with some holidays left over, we remembered our promise and decided to go to Essaouira for a week in March. It turned out to be the perfect time to go. The weather was hot, but not too hot, the town wasn’t overrun with tourists and the countryside around Essaouira was lush and green after recent rains and covered in 1000’s of wildflowers, transforming the fields and meadows into a carpet of white, yellow, orange, red, purple, pink and blue.

We hired a car for the week as we wanted to do some exploring, but it is possible to get by without one. You can fly to Marrakech and either go to Essaouira by bus (not sure about the price, but quite cheap) or grand taxi (£70-80) and once there, you can get around by bus, petit or grand taxis. There is also a daily flight from Paris to Essaouira itself with Royal Air Maroc.

Over the centuries, going back to the 6thC BC, Essaouira has had many names: the Berbers called it Amagdul (the well kept), then the Romans turned up calling it Tamusiga. When the Portuguese took over it became Mogdura (after a local saint), the French calling it Modgador. In the 17thC there was yet another name change, this time to Souira (small fortress) and finally it became Essaouira (the well-drawn).

But despite all this, the town has kept its unique identity and for the last 20 centuries the port has been the most important feature in town. It was an important trading port for the Greeks, Phoenicians and Carthargians and the Romans used it for their trade in Tyrian purple, a highly expensive dye used for ceremonial robes harvested from sea snails found on the Iles Purpuraires just outside Essaouira. It was also an important port for the spice trade for the whole of Africa and was nicknamed ‘Port of Timbuktu’. Nowadays, it might have lost out to the big commercial ports that were built elsewhere, but the harbour is still important to the town’s people and a hive of activity throughout the day.

Favourite spots:
Boats in the harbour
Boats in the harbour
I love walking around the harbour. Fishermen return with their catch of the day, which gets auctioned there on the spot and prepared and cooked in one of the little seafood grills. Watch them repairing their nets or just hanging out, taking a breather from their hard work. Then there are the boat builders further into the harbour and their wooden boats at various stages of completion.
It is worth paying the 10 dirhams (£1) to visit the Skala du Port, part of the sea bastion by the harbour, not because it is very interesting in itself (there are no exhibits), but for the fantastic views you get from the ramparts and the lookout tower of the city walls of Essaouira, the harbour and the islands. You can also take a cheesy photo through one of the port holes; they even provide wooden steps, so you can get the angle right!

Beware of the sea gulls! There are 100’s of them & though we were lucky, I imagine, it is only a question of time until you get hit by something nasty from above.

What's really great:
Woodcrafter's shop under the ramparts
Woodcrafter's shop under the ramparts
The craft Essaouira is famous for is woodcraft, especially from the aromatic, red Thuya wood, which has now become so rare, that it is protected, putting many craftsmen out of work. But you still find some workshops selling everything from little trinkets to furniture under the ramparts in the old munition stores.

Argan oil is Essaouiras other claim to fame. It is used in cooking and beauty products and it is one of the world’s rarest oils as the Argan trees now only grow in a very small area in Morocco. The traditional method to make this oil used to involve goats. You may have heard of the famous tree-climbing goats of Morocco. They eat the fruits of the tree, digest them and the kernels that come out at the other end were collected and then ground and turned into oil. Today the methods to make the oil are more hygienic. The other great story about Argan oil is, that is solely produced in cooperatives by local Berber women, with the proceeds going to women in their communities.

Carpet shop
Carpet shop
The medina, the old part of the town is relatively small, traffic free and easily negotiated. The layout of the streets is quite modern, but that is not to say that there are lots of little alleyways criss-crossing the streets. You’ll find you’ll get a lot less hassled than in Marrakech. Close to the Place Moulay Hassan you find all the shops geared towards tourists looking to by Moroccan crafts like carpets, leather ware, jewellery, pottery, basketwork and metal craft.

The fish & spice souk has a lot of atmosphere and doesn’t feel like a tourist attraction. It is between the av. Listiqlal and av. Mohamed Zerktouni near the Mellah, the former Jewish quarter. These streets are where locals do their daily shopping. Here you find a colourful mix of greengrocers, butchers, clothes shops and everything else you might be looking for. The slabs of meat and chickens hanging out in the sun all day made me briefly contemplate vegetarianism.

One of our next door 'neighbours'!
One of our next door 'neighbours'!
There are many places to stay in Essaouira: hotels, riads and hostels, but we opted to rent a studio flat in a small village called Ghazoua, 8km outside of Essouira which worked out to just over £10 pp/pn. The flat was a stand alone property in the grounds of the owner’s house. It was very nice with a comfortable bed, a sitting area, a kitchen and a bathroom with a shower. We had the use of the swimming pool and WiFi access on the terrace. Jane, the owner, is an English lady who has lived in the area for over 20 years and was able to give us tips of where to go and what to avoid. We also enjoyed the company of her dog, cat and several tortoises.

Ghazoua isn’t a village in the European sense, but a bunch of houses spread out over a large area. There's a small ‘village centre’, if you can call it that, with a couple of hole-in-the-wall style shops, a basic café and a table football game out in the street, which seemed to be the main entertainment for the local (male) teenagers.

Ganga Fusion at Taros
Ganga Fusion at Taros
Being in a Muslim country the city isn’t exactly overrun with pubs and clubs. The best place to go for a drink is the roof terrace at Taros at the weekend. It’s quite big, on two floors, candlelight, tasty cocktails and there is live music from local bands. We were lucky to catch a band called ‘Ganga Fusion’, who are fantastic, mixing Gnaoua music with modern sounds.

Every year in late June, the town is transformed by the Gnaoua & World Music Festival. Founded in 1998 (by the owner of our holiday flat! How cool is that?), the festival has grown from relatively small beginnings (2 stages, 58 artists, 20,000 visitors) to what is now called the ‘Woodstock of Morocco’ and 9 stages, 550 artists from all over the world and 500,000 visitors. Gnaoua are a Moroccan Sufi brotherhood and the music is supposed to have healing properties and can put people in a trance.

Essaouira also has a rich history in visiting musicians, going back to the 1960s including Jimi Hendrix and Cat Stevens.

Place Moulay Hassan
Place Moulay Hassan
The main square, Place Moulay Hassan, is the perfect place to hang out and watch the world go by. There are lots of cafes, but we liked the al Bachir, set slightly apart from the others, near the clock tower, which was a nice sun trap in the afternoon and charged 2 dirhams less for a cup of mint tea than the others. There is no food served, so pick up a delicious pastry from Patisserie Driss (I recommend the filo pastry with fresh fruit and custard) before you get here and enjoy!

The walk along the ramparts, where Orson Wells filmed scenes of ‘Othello’ is popular with tourists and locals alike, especially young couples who sit in the nooks where the bronze cannons point at the ocean. It is supposedly the place to go to watch the sun set, but we weren’t very lucky with that. Although we had fantastic weather, the sun always disappeared behind a cloak of haze about half an hour before it was supposed to hit the horizon. Only on our last day our luck changed.

Fish souk
Fish souk
Eating out in Essaouira is a joy. There are many places to choose from, it all depends on your funds and what you fancy.
Many restaurants serve Moroccan cuisine like tagines and couscous but also French dishes. Pizzas and Italian are also available. And fresh fish is always on the menu.

I will post the following recommendations as travel tips, when I will go into more detail, but these were our finds:
Sirocco: a cheerful Moroccan/French restaurant with nice décor and very good food.
Chez Sam: boat-like shack in the harbour, a local institution, serving the freshest fish.
Taros: restaurant, literary café, art gallery and rooftop bar. French/Moroccan food
Km8: 8 km outside of Essaouira on the Agadir Road, beautiful restaurant, beautiful food. French/Moroccan food
Patisserie Driss: the best baked goods in Essaouira since 1925
Ocean Vagabonde Café: on the beach, nice for breakfast or a light lunch
Café Ben Mostafa, Café France: street cafes on or near Place Moulay Hassan.

Other recommendations:
Sidi Kaouiki beach
Sidi Kaouiki beach
Essaouira is a seaside town and has some of the best beaches in North Africa and due to the (sometimes) strong winds, has become a favourite spot for surfing. The town beach is always busy and near the port there is always a football match going on. A bit further away, near the Vagabonde Ocean Café you can hire wind-surfing gear or rent a camel or horse for a ride or even a quad bike and destroy the dunes. Moulay Bouzerktoun, 20 km north of the city, hosted the Kite Surf World Cup in 2008, but facilities there are limited.
Sidi Kaouiki, 20 km south of the city, is very broad, long and very clean and here you find a few hotels and cafes, like the funky Surf Club, where we had a nice breakfast on the terrace overlooking the beach.
I’d also recommend going for a trip inland. From Tidzi, south of Essaouira, through the Mount Amsitten foothills to the Caid M’Barek Kasbah, Neknafa, Khmiss Meskala, El Hanchane and Ounaghga is a beautiful drive through an astonishingly diverse landscape.

Published on Sunday March 29th, 2009

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Sun, Nov 22 2009 - 09:06 AM rating by mistybleu

Sabine, this is an excellent report, full of great information; although I wasn't too impressed with the beach.

Fri, Apr 10 2009 - 04:25 AM rating by jorgesanchez

Wonderful report and pics! I was there just 3 months ago and loved the town and atmosphere. But there were too many tourists (including me!)

Wed, Apr 08 2009 - 06:54 PM rating by gloriajames

great report
cant wait to go there some day

Mon, Mar 30 2009 - 03:27 PM rating by aufgehts

This is a very inspiring report! Your descriptions make me feel like I am there and were chock-full of interesting tidbits. If we had gone to Morocco this year like we were supposed to, this was one of the towns we were going to visit. You've given me something to look forward to!

Sun, Mar 29 2009 - 03:56 PM rating by jacko1

A quite detailed and interesting report, I visited here over 30 years ago and alcohol was almost non existant except a morrocan beer, Flag, which was ok but you drowned before you got drunk! 2% abv or less,the deposit on the bottle was more than the cost of the beer inside. Well done for this report.

Sun, Mar 29 2009 - 12:53 PM rating by pesu

I liked to read this very interesting report, Sabine! Wonderful pics, too.

Sun, Mar 29 2009 - 12:26 PM rating by louis

I just had an interesting journey to Essaouira thanks to your report. It seems that you have had great time there. Again, brilliant report

Sun, Mar 29 2009 - 11:11 AM rating by krisek

Sabine, a great report! Nicely written and skillfully illustrated. I wonder if you tried anything cooked in argan oil and know how it tastes... Thank you for sharing your experience, giving us an inspiration.

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