Discover Essaouira, Morocco's coastal beauty and a must-see destination to add to your bucket list
Driving through Morocco’s arid interior, a sign directs weary travellers away from the hustle and bustle of Marrakech towards the magnificent coastal city of Essaouira. Essaouira, Morocco's Windy City, is many things, a melting pot of cultures, a haven for artisans and creative folks, and a hub for thrill and chill seekers.
As you head away from the baked interior through arid scrub land, on smaller and smaller roads, through dusty villages, the temperature slowly starts to cool. Six kilometres out from the seaside town, you go over a rise and the ocean finally comes into view, a sight for sore eyes. Calling Essaouira a city is a bit of stretch, and it doesn’t take long to cruise past the city’s newer suburbs before you arrive at the ancient walled UNESCO heritage listed medina, which is the beating heart of the city since the mid-eighteenth century.
Essaouira’s medina is full of charm, and unlike the better known cities of Fez and Marrakech, everything is on a much more human scale. It is small enough to feel at home but cosmopolitan enough to keep the creativity flowing. And there are still plenty of tiny alleyways, littered with colourful doorways and children playing football for you to get lost in. But it doesn’t take long to get your bearings and start to easily navigate from your favourite msemen (Moroccan crepes) stand to that funky sculpture artist’s workshop or crazy carpet shop piled high with hand-woven treasures. What’s better, is if you do ever get lost you can just follow the sound of the waves crashing against la skala – or fortifications, originally built to protect the city from sea, and from there easily find your way back to a cute riad, or classy design hotel like the Heure Bleue Palais.
But as the saying goes, first coffee! The perfect spot to get your first taste of the Windy City, is safely tucked away from the morning breeze at Mandala Brunch Society. This small café is the design and culinary embodiment of the converging cultures at play in Essaouira, and seamlessly combines elements of Moroccan design and local produce, with influences drawn from Iceland and New York. The upstairs terrace looks out onto a busy street and is the perfect spot for secluded people-watching. It also provides a great view on surrounding buildings – some swankily renovated, others in ruins.
The longer you sit, the more details you notice. Every piece of furniture, and art has been carefully chosen and fit seamlessly together – from the tea-cup live table plants to the captivating painting of an Amazigh woman that adorns the wall adjacent to the entry. The combination of authentic, original design, delicious food and friendly service is clearly a winning one and worth a visit. The commitment to authentic modern produce and design elements, combined with a breezy modern touch is also quintessentially Essaouira.
It’s hard to put a finger on why Essaouira, formerly known as Mogador, has turned into such a vibrant, artistic city that draws creatives - sculptors, painters, chefs, interior designers, and more - from around Morocco and the world. Perhaps it’s the calming sea breeze that blows them in and keeps them there, or the authentic buzz of the busy medina streets. Perhaps it is Essaouira’s position as an international trading port connecting Morocco with its Saharan hinterland, Europe and the world that has turned it into a cultural melting pot. Whatever the reason, Essaouira is home to magnificent artisans who keep crafts like jewelry making, weaving blankets and raffia alive.
Tourism has given the medina and its craftsmen a new lease on life, and it would be remiss not to note that COVID-19 has been especially rough on them, as on the city’s many hospitality establishments. Domestic tourism has slowly restarted, and it is great to see the small streets full with people trying their best to socially distance in place that was actually made for communal living.
The manager at the popular night-spot Dar Baba tells us the bookings run out at the end of summer and from there, no one really knows what they’ll do next. The night we visited at least, it was full, the cocktails flowed, and the chicken tagine and preserved lemon croquettes were to die for. The whole establishment is a triumph – food, service, décor and drinks menu all on point, it’s really not to be missed when visiting the Windy City.
Despite the COVID-19 measures, and the lack of international tourists, Essaouira maintains its international bohemian vibe. Spending an afternoon at beach club and water sports hot-spot Ocean Vagabond you can hear French, Italian and English smattered in amongst animated conversations in Darija (Moroccan Arabic). By day, beachgoers sip coffees, and eat burgers underneath shady trees on shabby-chic wooden benches, sheltered from the famous winds. The brave ones make the quick dash across the dunes to cool off the glacial waters of the Atlantic, before returning to the haven of chill that Ocean Vagabond has created. As the sun goes down behind the every shifting sands, and the cameleers head off into the sunset, coffee’s turn to beer and the evening menu proffers perfectly cooked steaks, and outstanding tuna brochettes that you can wash down with a glass of local wine, another commodity that has helped the Windy City make a name for itself.
If you’ve had enough sun, sea and sand, Salut Maroc is the perfect place to catch the sunset over the city’s famous Ramparts while also taking a collision course in Moroccan colour and design. The deco is a riot of conflicting colors and patterns that is so outrageous that it works to create a unique place to stay or simply enjoy a quiet beverage while you take in the seagulls, ramparts and outstanding sea views. You can also visit them for yourself (outside of COVID times) and brave the wind to enjoy a stroll along the walls which feature in Game of Thrones.
Essaouira is the perfect place to slow down, chill out and enjoy the passing parade of characters from the terrace of a charming riad or an artsy little café. Shop the medina for a one of a kind pair of raffia shoes, pompom blankets, stripy linen pants and Amazigh jewellery. Eat fresh fish, drink endless cups of tea and, lounge on the beach or meander through the city streets until your heart is content. However you choose to enjoy the Windy City, make sure to bring a warm jumper and a half empty suitcase.
Written by : Jane Cornish for The Nopo