Incredible though our time in Marrakech had been, we felt a certain amount of relief as our coach departed for the picturesque coastal town of Essaouira. Its complete bombardment of the senses did get rather overwhelming after a while and beyond the excitement of Jemaa El Fnar and the souks, there was not actually a whole lot else for the casual tourist to see. Thankfully, Essaouira, with its bewitching cocktail of sun, sea and sand, proved to be the perfect tonic to Marrakech’s urban maelstrom and our two day stay there was one of the highlights of our entire trip.
Immortalised (so the not-necessarily-accurate legend has it) by the Jimi Hendrix song that shares this blog’s title, Essaouira is no more than three hours’ coach ride from Marrakech but is definitely worth more than a day trip. After a pleasant, air-conditioned drive through parched, craggy landscapes punctuated by the occasional cluster of dwellings and souks, the sight of Essaouira came upon us suddenly as we emerged over the top of a hill. A mid-sized settlement stretching for two or three miles along the Atlantic coast, its most striking characteristic is its near-universal white and blue colour palette. The pink stone that dominates almost everywhere else in Morocco seemed to be outlawed here, though that’s not to say it doesn’t feel part of the same country – the hawkish taxi drivers and “tour guides” who tried to bully us into staying at their riads were testament to that.
Our own riad, Caverne D’Ali Baba, turned out to be a fine choice with everything from the jovial, bespectacled manager (Monsieur Ali Baba, presumably) to our elegantly decorated, split-level bedroom combining to make us feel completely at home. The only downer was a scuttling, late night cameo by an unfathomably large cockroach that (look away now, vegetarians) I ended up combating with my recently acquired jandals – but I don’t think it’s really fair to take off points for that. (For those of you who aren’t blessed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Kiwi slang, “jandal” is the NZ term for flip-flop – I’m fully aware of how ridiculous I sound saying it and even more so wearing a pair, but I think I should at least be appauded for trying to embrace my soon-to-be home country’s fashions…)
Like Marrakech, Essaouira is somewhat lacking in traditional tourist sites but one could spend days exploring the intricate network of souk-laden streets and hidden squares. Here, the stall holders were far less pushy than their counterparts in the big city and we felt comfortable browsing and taking our time to consider purchases rather than being forced into snap decisions and tiresome haggling. The long pathway that follows the outer wall of the town – once heavily fortified – provided a particularly atmospheric walk with its abundance of local artists’ hideouts and stray, though seemingly tame, cats and kittens. The central square, though less bustling than Jemaa El Fnar, nevertheless acted as a fine focal point for our explorations and offered a welcome respite to our weary feet with its vibrant cafes and rooftop terrace bars.
What really sets Essaouira apart, though, is the sea. While temperatures in excess of 40 degrees had made much of our stay in Marrakech distinctly uncomfortable, the ocean breeze here made for a far more hospitable environment. It also provided some fantastic views out across the Atlantic, studied best from the old fortress tower that was more than worth the modest entry fee. As we watched the daily 3pm ritual of weary fisherman unloading their morning catch at the harbour and handing over to the market stall holders buckets-full of fish and seafood to cook and serve up fresh to locals and tourists alike, we quickly came to appreciate that the sea is Essaouira’s lifeblood: for the artists who sit on the medina walls painting it; for the seagulls who soar above it, waiting to swoop down and steal its fish; for the local school children who dive into and swim in its rocky inlets; for the tourists who windsurf on and sunbathe next to it; and, apparently, for Sherlock Holmes actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who we swear we saw wet-suited on the beach preparing for a kite surf on it…
Like all great towns, Essaouria boasts a surfeit of excellent drinking and dining establishments. The restaurant Taros was a definite highlight, with its rooftop terrace providing a great atmosphere for our last night meal, even if we did feel rather ridiculous wearing the ponchos that they provided to protect us from the chilly evening breeze. We also stumbled across a delightful Mexican-themed café called La Cantina, where we struck up a conversation with a fellow travelling couple from the Netherlands and which turned out to be run by a husband and wife team from Yorkshire. Adorned with a chalk board offering “tea and scones”, it momentarily transported me back to the homeland, spontaneously engendering feverish (though entirely private) thoughts of fry-ups, pasties and saveloy sausages…