Hello Essaouira, a relaxed oasis In the intensity of Morocco where psychedelic hippy art coexists alongside Islamic Sufis carrying out traditional Gnaoua festivals. Mellow is the word that best sums it up: even its climate is moderate. Beauty treatments, shopping for jewelry, eating seafood, and enjoying the hip beach life: this is the ideal place to spend the end of summer.
Her name is Rachida, and she is armed with a kind of fire-hose with which she could sweep away a squadron of anti- riot police, should she so wish. I am standing in front of her in a small, tiled torture chamber. There is no escape. She points the hose at me and I feel a violent jet of sea water on my neck, back, buttocks, and thighs.
Five minutes later the ritual is over. I have survived. In fact, I feel pretty great! This was the last stage of my thalassotherapy. Rachida and her colleagues have spent the last three hours smearing, pealing, kneading, and ’water-jetting’ my weary flesh. My skin is as soft as a baby’s bottom. I feel reborn and completely relaxed. Exactly what I need on this trip. Now it’s off to the beach to relax Moroccan style: French and American designers who have come here for inspiration (Morocco = hip), and cool dudes who have known for years that this is an outstanding place for wind- and kitesurfing, lounge on bright cushions among the young Souiries (local Moroccans).
Essaouira is without doubt the most cosmopolitan place in Morocco. For thousands of years it has been a small seaport and trading post for Phoenicians, Romans, Berbers, and the Portuguese and French, and an important location on the trading route to Timbuktu. Pirates often stopped off here to catch their breath after they had divided up their loot. Salt, spices, sugar, ostrich feathers and textiles have all passed through the town, and more besides. People of different nationality, skin color, and belief met here and learnt to understand each other.
At the beginning of the 20th century the port went into decline, but half a century later Essaouira was discovered by hippies and artists. Cat Stevens often hung out here, and was so taken with the culture that he eventually converted to the Islam. Jimi Hendrix lived here on and off for years and even owned a hotel... Not. This persistent rumor, which appears in every story about Essaouira, is not true. Hendrix traveled through Morocco only once. In Essaouira he stayed in the upmarket Les Iles hotel, and not in the Riad al Madina, which he was supposed to own. Essaouira is now a refuge for the modern Moroccan, for artists and for individual tourists, who sometimes stay for months or even years on end. According to local authorities, at least 800 foreigners have settled in Essaouira.
Atmosphere is what sets Essaouira apart. The number of ‘must-sees’ can be counted on one hand. The main reason to go to this Unesco-protected spot is for its eastern charm and its fantastic beach. As you walk along the warm-colored town walls you’ll pass exotic women dressed in brightly colored fabrics: the white-plastered buildings with their blue windows, the superb riads (town houses) with their lavish enclosed gardens, absolutely everything is exotic.
The town never become a tourist trap
Essaouira’s climate is just like its residents: hot, but not too hot. The whole year through it is hardly ever colder than 20ºC or hotter than 30ºC. Anyone who insists on being active can make his way to the beach for a kite-surfing lesson, the Sofitel for an affordable thalasso therapeutic treatment or massage or to the souk to stock up on hip Moroccan knick-knacks.
What makes Essaouira so attractive is the relaxed attitude the locals have towards visitors. This is totally in contrast with the intimidating and pushy residents of Marrakesh, Fez, and Agadir. The people of Essaouira are a blessing. They have been used to visitors for centuries, but fortunately, the town never become a tourist trap. With the exception of the odd over-zealous camel-hirer, no one will bother you. Even the biggest macho will respectfully leave you alone if you say he must respect your privacy.
Getting up early pays off. Around sunrise each morning a centuries-old spectacle takes place at the harbor. Zillions of screeching seagulls fly above, stray cats meow themselves hoarse, men in brown djellabas wait next to their ice-filled barrows. The fishing fleet is returning from a night on the Atlantic Ocean. Weather-beaten heads with stubbly beards call to the lined faces along the quay who are, in fact, their fathers and uncles. Fishing is a family business. The old men haul in the nets and sort the fish. The catch is quickly put on ice, sold, and cleaned. The cats and seagulls blissfully finish up the waste. Half an hour later, the first sardines are on the grill. Anyone who doesn’t fancy fish this early in the day can have the traditional breakfast: bread dipped in a mixture of honey and oil from the argan tree, which has a kind of hazelnut taste and is only found in the Essaouira countryside.
Early in the morning it is still quiet in town which also makes it a perfect time to shop. There are no pushy snake charmers, street traders, or wheezing shopkeepers putting you off buying something before you have even looked at it. The most varied products imaginable are displayed for kilometers on end in the souk: herbs, goats’ heads, mirrors of polished camel bone, and beautifully worked silver jewelry. Veiled women jostle each other at the fish stalls, bearded men smoke hookahs in the tea houses.
An hour negotiating over a small object
In the medina, the old walled town, there are many small shops specializing in furniture and utensils made of inlaid thuja wood. Connoisseurs say you can find the best value for money in the world here. They are made in the dusty workshops of local artisans in the backstreets of the souk, like Abdel Nasser Boumzzourh, who sells designer thuja-wood furniture to Yves Saint-Laurent and Valentino.You are welcome to wander in and watch them while they are at work. Some of them will sell things to you directly; it’s cheaper and more fun than buying from a souvenir shop. For those who are not so keen to haggle, there are woodworking cooperatives, where the prices are fixed, which is just as easy if you don’t want to spend an hour negotiating over a small object.
Tired and burdened after a full morning of shopping, I head back to my hotel. It seems unavoidable that my house back home is going to have a new, eastern impetus. I tell myself that Ikea is more expensive.
The lenient cultural climate of Essaouira has an enormous appeal for young Moroccan artists, who do not get much recognition anywhere else in this conservative, Islamic land. The art of painting has attracted international attention to this small town. In the numerous galleries you will find an unusual, colorful mix of primitive African and psychedelic hippy art: a tangible culture shock. The spiritual father of local artists is a Dane, Frederik Damgard who has lived in the town for 30 years. In his gallery you will see masterly works by, for example, Abdellah Elatrach, Mohamed Sanoussi,and Mohammed Tabal, who exhibited in Paris and New York. In recent years many places have popped up out of the woodworks where cheap works by promising artists can be displayed. It’s not a bad place to find ‘a little something’ for your new house.
I think I am on the edge of the Sahara
Everyone’s favorite place in Essaouira is the impressive, ten-kilometer-long sandy beach. It begins at the harbor as a narrow, dingy strip, but a little further up it is already hundreds of meters wide. A long row of dunes borders the beach outside of the town. I think I am on the edge of the Sahara, particularly when a couple of camels come shuffling through the shifting sand. Apart from a few sun- worshippers, who mostly stay on the stretch of beach nearer the town, this is the territory of the kite- and wind surfers.
Boys and girls with long, blond hair, polished sunglasses, browned bodies who spend most of their time in the sea. Because, besides the sun and the sea, Essaouira has another attraction: wind. Each year surfing competitions are held here, which count towards rankings in the World Cup. In the evening, when the sun has lost its intensity, the Souiries come to the beach to enjoy their favorite pastime: parading. Young men fanatically play football; groups of girls manage to flirt with them from underneath their veils. Parents spread out small mats and sit drinking sweet tea from a thermos flask while their children play along the tide mark.
I have never seen such big seagulls. “And they’re lazy, too,” says Abrahim, who, together with his son, runs a stall selling fish on the beach. Together we conclude Essaouira is a paradise for seagulls. In the evening the harbor turns into an enormous open-air restaurant. The day’s catch is prepared on countless barbecues. Sardines cooked in 101 different ways, tajine (a steamed dish) of conger eel, couscous with mussels, quiche with sea urchins, or ‘ordinary’ lobster. The restaurants on the seafront, such as the celebrated Chez Sam, mainly serve seafood.
People are busy playing football, flirting and parading
My favorite restaurant, Taros, is on the most beautiful square in Morocco, Place Moulay Hassan. The square opens out onto the sea so here too people are busy playing football, flirting and parading. The superb, authentic Taros is a kind of cultural center for the town. Music performances, book-signings, and exhibitions are held here. While sipping a cup of tea you can immerse yourself in North African art, as the café has a small library, and talk with some of the many interesting regular clients. But that is something for the hot afternoons.
Now it is time for Moroccan tapas on the blue and white roof terrace which looks out over the square, the kasbah and the sea, into which the sun is setting. In the distance I hear a rhythmic drumming: gnaoua music. This relatively unknown music form was brought, with the caravans, from black Africa. Thanks to the hippy community who started a yearly festival in which gnaoua is mixed with other musical styles, Essaouira is now the gnaoua capital of the world. Today is Thursday, the day on which Muslims marry. Follow the music!
Fortunately, the family of the bridal couple are very hospitable and I am allowed to join the celebrations. The dancers spin relentlessly in a trance in which they let themselves be carried away by the stirring rhythms of the drummers. For the first time this week it is a late night in the most likeable town in Morocco. Very late.