Essaouira: A Quick, Dramatic Trip Out of Marrakech
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes “far out” is an actual place in space.
By Kevin Brass
Under normal circumstances, seeing goats in trees means your day has taken a turn for the chemically strange. But making the miles from Marrakech to Essaouira, you might see actual goats in actual trees. Local goats climb the argan trees to eat the fruit, and so if you happen to come across a goat eating fruit in a tree, it makes for a damn fine picture and is as close as you’re going to get to business-as-usual in the ancient walled city of Essaouira.
From its origins as a fishing town dating to the 5th century B.C., Essaouira in the 1960s ran thick with artists, hippies and a swirl of wealthy Eurotrash. Jimi Hendrix famously hung out there, and Orson Welles used the moody streets for scenes in his 1951 version of Othello.
But like many travelers in Morocco, I was simply looking for a quick trip out of Marrakech, a diversion from the drumbeat of snake shows and rug hawkers. The best way to get to Essaouira is in a cushy, air-conditioned motor coach with free Wi-Fi that leaves from the Marrakech train station. Halfway through the three-hour drive, the bus stops at a roadside restaurant and gift shop — the Stuckey’s of Morocco — where you walk up creaky stairs to relieve yourself into a rust-colored toilet and buy overpriced T-shirts.
Essaouira, though, is where the Moroccan desert meets the Atlantic Ocean. Once ruled by nomadic Berber tribes, today it’s ruled by kite surfers who flock there to enjoy the stiff winds that whip across the wide bay. Camels lounge on the beach, idling between rides. The streets of the old souk are filled with camera-toting tourists searching for that perfect Moroccan basket or handmade wooden box.
In other words, Essaouira is no “hidden jewel,” no matter what the guidebooks might say. EasyJet launched direct flights from the U.K. in 2015, opening the floodgates for a new generation of budget-minded Europeans eager to discover the North African experience.
At night, the narrow stone streets invoke the shadowy film noir images of nefarious characters with odd accents gathering to pass secrets and sell stolen goods.
I stayed at the simple Riad Ben Atar, in the heart of the old medina, where rooms start at about $32, including breakfast. There was a rooftop terrace, with views of the city and the stone walls. For centuries, different cultures coveted the port, which is why this Arab city is guarded by a Portuguese fort, built in the 16th century.
The setting is dramatic. Make that Seven Kingdoms dramatic: Game of Thrones used the city ramparts for those of Astapor, where Daenerys Targaryen recruited her army of Unsullied. Essaouira has the aura of an ancient and mysterious place. At night, the narrow stone streets invoke the shadowy film noir images of nefarious characters with odd accents gathering to pass secrets and sell stolen goods.
The souk is a wonderland of inexpensive Moroccan rugs and leather bags, and of galleries displaying the work of artists from around the region. Tour shops offer guided surfing adventures and desert quad biking. Essaouira, where Carthaginian traders once bargained for spices, “really has that laid-back beach-town vibe” and hasn’t been overdeveloped with “resorty hotels,” says a former colleague, a world traveler based in Mumbai, when I ask what she likes about the place.
At its heart, Essaouira is a UNESCO World Heritage Site doubling as a cheap tourist beach town. I boogie-boarded there in the chilly water, lounged on the beach and talked surfing with a Moroccan beach rat. On a quiet side street, I haggled with a calligrapher who was sitting in a tiny shed drawing symbols on goatskin. Essaouira is still a working fishing town, and in the evening I sat on the rocks and watched the last of the stragglers return to port, as the sun set over the Atlantic.
Essaouira is a city that for centuries represented a clash of cultures from around the world. It’s no different today, as Arab history meets hordes of modern European travelers.