Lesser known though it may be, the small fishing port of Essaouira provides a memorably stark contrast to the rest of Morocco. Far away from the fires of Marrakech, it’s often referred to as the Wind City: the dusty reds have given way to calming blue, exotic spices now waft through a damp sea air, and the echo of beating drums softened to the gentle crash of waves. An atypical idyll of North Africa, this is the place to bask in a more tranquil style of indulgence.
What makes Essaouira so distinctive is the diverse background of cultures that have converged in its identity. Aside from the pre-existing population of Berbers, Africans and Arabs, the city came to prosper after the arrival of Jewish traders during the 17th and 18th centuries. More crucially, it was also at this time that the sultan ordered the city to be designed and built by a Frenchman, who based his architectural plan on the town of St Malo in Brittany. The fortifications in particular adopt the style of European fortresses, giving Essaouira an unlikely Western aesthetic.
But while the city has retained all the flavour of a French coastline – with plenty of seagulls for added effect – it remains unmistakably Moroccan at heart. Behind the fortified walls of the Medina is a beautiful, atmospheric old town ever bustling with locals, workers and visitors, while colourful souks wind down whitewashed alleyways, utterly characteristic in their intoxicating hint of Arabic mystique.
Part of the attraction of Essaouira is that it is a city not entirely supplanted by tourism. The Medina is still a central point for locals, thriving with Thuya designers, silversmiths, and woodworkers. Amidst such understated craftsmanship, it’s no surprise that the city’s souks display a more sophisticated range of goods than elsewhere in the country.
The harbour is also remarkably active with working fisherman. In the morning, you can watch them set off from the harbour in bright blue fishing boats; upon their return in the afternoon, ocean-facing vendors grill the seafood straight from the nets. Sardines, red snapper, shrimps, calamari, sole, lobster – you could easily spend your whole time in Essaouira sampling the freshest catches. And with a sandy beach that stretches as far as the eye can see, the city’s reputation for blowier climes has also made its shore a popular destination for windsurfers.
I was told by a local that the word ‘Essaouira’ means ‘image’. As far as those go, Essaouira is the perfect postcard: not just one to look at, but one to make sure you’re there to send. It offers a unique insight into a different side of Morocco, rounding off perfectly any visits to the more mainstream destinations, and leaving you with a fuller appreciation of his wonderful country.