Essaouira: Magic of Morocco

By Philip Game

From Meknes to Marrakech, the ancient cities of Morocco each wear their signature colours. Philip Game explores the sleepy blue-and-white sea port of Essaouira.

The sleepy port of Essaouira is a huddle of white-washed and fading buildings. Photo / Supplied
The sleepy port of Essaouira is a huddle of white-washed and fading buildings. Photo / Supplied

From the fiery brick-red of Marrakech to the lemon tints of Meknes, Morocco's older cities seem almost to be colour-coded.

The sleepy Atlantic port of Essaouira is a huddle of whitewashed cubes, trimmed in Mediterranean blue, an arresting yet restful combination and reward enough for the two-hour journey from bustling Marrakech.

This was once the city of purple, as the dyes for the imperial robes of Rome were extracted from shellfish harvested on the rocky islands offshore.

From Phoenician times the city they called Mogador was the sea port for Timbuktu, trading European goods for gold, salt, ostrich feathers and slaves from Black Africa. Privateers such as Sir Francis Drake called by uninvited, until an 18th-century sultan commissioned a French architect to lay out a fortified city of rectangular avenues protected by imposing ramparts.

Even so, Bedouin raiders continued to swoop in from the desert, carrying off the merchants' wives for ransom.

These days the only event on a sleepy afternoon in Essaouira is the landing of the fishermen's catch. The flapping fins and fillets feast the eyes and stomachs of a growing number of tourists, typically well-heeled European couples. The underclass of touts and self-styled guides which plagues busier parts of Morocco has, thankfully, not yet appeared.

Stimulated by the influx, skilled hands create carvings of amber-coloured thuya, a native wood full of whorls and knots, from which emerge finely finished serving trays, jewel boxes, coffee tables, semi-abstract figurines and chessboards inlaid with bone.

The peeling blue doorways of the medina, the old city, are often enclosed within a lemon yellow arch or frame. A cumbersome padlock or bar, suitably rusty, often completes the picture.

Fine old villas or riads are being rescued from damp and decay by new owners who appreciate their potential as townhouses or boutique hotels.

In the Hotel Dar el Qdima, built around 1910, my immaculate room with private facilities cost 250 Dirhams or around $50. Amid the canyon-like lanes nearby, Casa di Carlo offered Mediterranean-style holiday apartments in another elegantly restored house. At mid-range restaurants such as Laayoune in Rue Hajjali, a tagine stew flavoured with cumin, almonds and prunes provides a welcome alternative to the traditional grilled mutton of provincial Morocco.

In the cafes of the Place Moulay Hassan many an afternoon is dissipated in a blur of sweet mint teas or espresso coffees.

Out on the pier, simple, open-air bistros serve up grilled John Dory, tuna, scampi and calamari, while metres away, fishermen tip their catches on to the quay, triggering vigorous haggling. The men cleaning the catch are almost enveloped by clouds of wheeling and squealing gulls, while scrawny cats crouch in readiness.

Beyond the imposing 18th-century Porte de la Marine, windswept sandy beaches provide perfect playing fields for scratch games of soccer. Windsurfers ride the breakers rolling steadily in off the Atlantic.

An inconspicuous door in an alley off Avenue de l'Istiqlal leads to Azzurrette, Pharmacopee Traditionelle, a dimly lit room filled from floor to ceiling with tall, bell-jars of mustard, ochre, green and grey powders and shavings labelled in cursive Arabic and copperplate French.

Traditional spices and balms also await buyers at a small open-air market nearby. Cakes of musk, mimosa and jasmine, are eagerly rubbed on your hand to release their subtle fragrances. Cones of fish spice mix, coriander, cumin and ground red pepper form tantalising geometric images. Tiny saffron stamens, however, are dispensed very carefully from a jar.

Much less subtle is the stallholder who gabbles on about "Touareg Viagra" pointing eagerly to twigs, dried roots and powders; try out the native toothbrushes and even lipsticks.

Each June a festival of world music in Essaouira focuses attention on the Gnaoua, a centuries-old fraternity of musicians and mystics. Descended from black-African slaves - or, as they believe, from the first Black followers of the Prophet Mohammad - the Gnaoua dress in tunics and tasselled caps, brocaded with cowrie shells.

Mesmerised by the castanets and the lute, the chanting of their comrades and the smouldering incense, the Gnaoua dancers release their hold on reality, entranced by the power of the spirits.

The city ramparts, with their rows of squat, cannon muzzles pointing out to sea, make a fine promenade for families or friends.

Nawal Hraid, Fatiha Darch and Fadwa Alioua, three schoolgirls boarding at the Lycee Mohammed V, agree to be photographed after much discussion. Photography is often a touchy issue with Moroccan women.

In a crumbling quarter of the Medina, I joined the urchins scrambling over the rubble to reach a battlement affording commanding views over the white-capped waves. As I retreated to safety, the enamelled blue and white "Rue Mellah" sign caught my eye. As elsewhere in Morocco, the Mellah or Jewish quarter was a sizeable community, now all but dissipated.

Here Orson Welles directed part of Shakespeare's Othello which won him the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1952, a fact recorded in marble above an otherwise obscure hammam, or bath house. Other creative souls entranced by Essaouira have included Jimi Hendrix and Maria Callas.

CHECKLIST

When to go: Morocco makes an ideal side-trip in the European winter, when fares are also lowest. March/April can be wet and miserable in northern Morocco; from July onwards Europeans flock south in search of the sun. See essaouiranet.com for details of the Gnaoua Festival, staged each June.

Getting there: Royal Air Maroc operates from London and Paris to Marrakech, and to Casablanca with connections (Fri, Sun) to Essaouira. Agadir, 190km south of Essaouira, also receives direct flights from Europe. Local and long-distance taxis are economical.

Getting around: Moroccan Railways, ONCF (website in French), operates comfortable services between Tangiers, Casablanca and Marrakech and the affiliated coach service. Supratours (website in French) provides connecting transport for the remaining 170km to Essaouira.

Where to stay: The Dar El Qdima riad is at 4 Rue Malek Ben Rahal (off Avenue de l'istiqlal).

Apartment rental agencies include Jack's Apartments & Suites at 1 Place Moulay Hassan.

Further information: See tourism-in-morocco.com.

- NZ Herald

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