Escape the maddening crowds and head to Essaouira, Patrick McConnachie recommends.
My first trip to Morocco ended almost prematurely after a visit to Ouarzazate (on the edge of the Sahara) went pear-shaped and my girlfriend and I split up, never to see each other again. I needed some space and R&R, and Marrakech was just a bit too much, so I hopped on a bus to Essaouira.
Fifteen years later, I’m back for another look and this seaside town is as chilled and charming as it ever was but I’m sensing it has become a bit more fashionable (and more expensive) since my last visit. It also became a Unesco World Heritage Site (in 2001).
There is a distinct air of creeping gentrification, and that’s OK, but let’s hope the restaurateurs, designers and hotel chains don’t taint this wonderful, white-washed town’s special atmosphere, which has been enjoyed by legends such as Orson Welles, Jimi Hendrix and Maria Callas. Essaouira typifies what multicultural Morocco is all about: the flavours of Africa, the sophistication of France from the days of the Protectorate, and the legacy of the Berber tribes.
Being a port, the sheer array of fish stalls and cheap-and-cheerful fish restaurants can’t be missed. You can choose any you like from an ice cart and take a seat while it’s being cooked on hot coals in front of you. And it’s a delight to watch the catch of the day come in, as well-worn baskets bursting with squirming sardines and squid are lugged off the hulls of some pretty ancient sloops by some of the toughest guys around.
There also hundreds of the smaller operators’ delightful dinghies; all blue but in varying degrees of gloss paint. This is also the land of haggling, where NOT to indulge in some friendly bargaining banter is almost bad manners.
Chances are you’ll be invited in, beckoned to sit on some lush pile of carpet and offered the meanest of mint teas. After such treatment, how can you not strike a deal? April is the perfect time to visit, with the weather pleasantly warm. The breeze of the Atlantic Ocean ensures you stay chilled, which is the whole point of coming.
My favourite place: The Skala du Port (a fortress) consists of the fort (really, a tower), the ramparts and the harbour. The actor/director Orson Welles chose to film his version of Othello here, and its fortifications were built by Sultan Mohammed III in the 18th century. Strolling along the ramparts towards the Atlantic is a great way of sampling that tangy sea breeze as your thoughts soar. You will come across an array of Dutch cannons pointing to the Atlantic, and they look like they could still do the business today. Continuing on will bring you to the harbour, from which you can see the medina (old town). Whether Jimi Hendrix was inspired to record Bob Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower after visiting is debateable but the town’s grateful fathers put up a statue of Welles in a nearby square, and there is now a hotel named after him.
Highlights: Motor vehicles are not allowed in the medina, which lends it an almost medieval feel, where carts pulled by mules rule. Unlike Marrakech, the medina is a relatively well-organised “grid” system and by not being far from the city wall you can always find your way out. The beach has always been popular to Northern Africa’s surfer dudes as the sea is shallow, making it relatively easier for the beginner. This pristine expanse of sand stretches for miles, and you can enjoy it without being hassled by vendors. Its promenade is also peppered with plenty of places to eat and drink. The ever-present camel owners may talk you into taking a ride on one. Actually, this is not a bad idea; it’s a decent trial run if you’re thinking of going farther afield (into the desert or the High Atlas Mountains) where the only mode of transport is the “ship of the desert”. Beach .
Lowlights None, but I’m not too keen on seeing people riding quad bikes on the beach.
Souvenirs Without the stress of getting lost in the medina, you can simply enjoy a spot of shopping (and bargaining): that’s boxes made from traditional Thuya wood, artefacts, ceramics, jewellery, fresh mint, spices and, of course, rugs: every colour, pattern and stripe you can think of. With tassles, without; whatever. Getting there Fly from Muscat to Marrakech, and take a bus there. They are regular and the journey takes about two-and-a-half hours.
Where to stay While some of the better-known hotel chains are beginning to have a presence here, why not rest up in a riad? These are traditional guesthouses with their own inner courtyards, the walls of which are resplendent with the type of tiles you won’t find in B&Q. Some riads now have compact but functional pools, and neat and unfussy patios that are just perfect for getting a bit of a tan.