In this Insider guide to Essaouira, Michael Edwards heads to the lesser-trod paths of Essaouira to explore another side of Morrocco.
In this Insider Guide to Essaouira, there is a story about Jimmi Hendrix’s visit to Essaouira, way back in July 1969, that ought to be true, even if it isn’t. Hendrix loved the Moroccan lifestyle so much that he wanted to buy the nearby village of Diabet.
Although the origin and ending of the tale are lost in the hazy clouds of time, and possibly other substances, there’s no doubting that, in the 1960s and 1970s, Essaouira was a laid-back destination on the hippy trail. An aura of free-thinking independence lingers in. Perhaps this Guide to Essaouira will prove it.
Tempting though it is to label Essaouira as Marrakech-on-Sea, Essaouira is far calmer and less frenetic than Morocco’s bustling capital. Tradewinds blowing in make Essaouira much cooler in summer than the inferno of Marrakech that bakes on the shoulder of the Sahara.
In contrast to Fez and Marrakech’s labyrinthine djerbs, unnavigable alleys for tourists, Essaouira has Champs-Elysse’s straight roads running through its walled medina. For first-time Morocco visitors, breezy and chic Essaouira is Morocco Lite, a gentle introduction to the country. Far from in-your-face haggling traders, the city presents a distinctly European take on the medina.
It helps that Essaouira was a planned geometrical city, designed by the French as a stopover port en route to their colonies in the East Indies. Hence, the thick-walled fortifications guarding the harbour. Ingeniously, some of the gun emplacements were built over a cavernous chamber, so that the echoes of cannon shots made the city’s defences sound even more impregnable. Ironically, those cannons were turned on French ships in the war of 1844 when the French reacted angrily to Moroccan help for the leader of the Algerian resistance.
One story and Essaouira with its Arab and Berber heritage has plenty, is that the city gained its name from the French from the “little piece of paper” on which the French architects’ drawings were presented to the Moroccan King Mohammed lll back in 1765. Those wide, straight roads were built for defence, quickly moving ammunition, men and weapons around a besieged city. Today, the former barracks and tables are part of the souk selling carpets, ceramics, clothing, fish, fruit, leatherwork, and spices.
Take a city tour and you will begin with the harbour. Almost every fishing boat is blue, probably a tradition began by the French introducing Mediterranean colours to Essaouira’s palate.
Although fish is a key ingredient in the local diet, you can learn more about Moroccan flavours and ingredients at L’Atelier cookery school, a former almond warehouse. Here guests discover that in Moroccan society, the greater the height from which the mint tea is poured the greater the welcome. Guests can chop, peel, slice and infuse spices to create Moroccan favourites such as tajines and pastilla.
But there’s more to Essaouira than the charms of a walled medina where Orson Welles filmed his version of Othello. More than a wind-blown coastline for camel and horse riding along the beach. More than kitesurfing, surfing and a challenging round on the Gary Player-designed golf course.
Head eight miles inland to a sand-coloured kasbah, peeping through cypress and palm trees. Deceptively, this is another French-designed creation, the stylish boutique hotel, Le Jardin des Douars. Amongst the oasis-like 12 acres of botanical gardens, there are 19 rooms set in terracotta houses as well as six suites. In addition, there are six privately secluded villas each with its own swimming pool.
Occasionally, guests take a break from the peaceful adults-only pool – a family pool is down several terraces and out of earshot – to head for a hammam or treatment at the nearby spa. Idyllically located with views across a valley where goats nibble at the argan trees, Le Jardin runs regular shuttle buses back to Essaouira.
One of the city’s attractions is its music, not Hendrix’s guitar solos, but the rhythmic sound of Gnaoua developed by generations of African slaves. Whilst Essaouira’s main claim to global fame, The Gnaoua World Music Festival, looks to re-establish itself after a pandemic hiatus.
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RyanAir flies direct to Essaouira from London Stansted on Tuesday and Saturday.
Rooms at the Le Jardin Des Douars including breakfast, begin from around £140 per night. Villas start from £530 per villa, per night.
Investigate Moroccan cookery courses at Atelier Madada