As Pretty as a Picture

9th November 2018

Essaouira, on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, means ‘little picture’ in Arabic. It’s a delightful beach town that lives up to its name. Jill Glenn invites you to go – but not too many of you, and not all at once.

Part of Essaouira’s charm lies in its manageable size and easy, laid back atmosphere. It’s been on the tourist trail for years, in an idle kind of way, since its 1960s popularity with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. In fact, the locals would like you to believe that Hendrix wrote Castles Made of Sand after visiting the place. It’s a myth, in all probability, but it really should be true. Music still underpins Essaouira, with events all year round, including the annual Gnaoua Festival in June; billed as ‘a North African extravaganza’, it’s a world music event like no other, filling the streets and squares and pop-up stages with traditional and contemporary jazz, pop, rock and soul rhythms. It’s exciting to be there when the town is buzzing but really, Essaouira comes into its own when it’s quiet. It’s the ideal location for a short getaway – browsing the souks, eating wonderful fresh food and feeling the breeze on your face.

In 2015, when I learned that Easyjet was introducing direct flights from Luton to Essaouira, I was, frankly, horrified. For one, I’d always rather enjoyed being driven from Marrakech through the desert for two or three hours – a perfect opportunity to wind down thoroughly in preparation for the relaxing few days ahead – and for another, making the journey too straightforward would make this little North African jewel far too accessible. The first year I even resisted the temptation… but then, after a particularly challenging M25-Gatwick-Marrakech-desert experience, I saw sense. The following spring I turned the car north, at a civilised hour of the day, passed through Luton with my eyes closed, and floated through little Essaouira airport without delay; I was being welcomed into my favourite riad in half the time. And the shorter journey, of course, being easier and far more civilised, delivers you to your destination feeling perfectly chilled-out before you’ve even smelled the sea air.

Essaouira offers plenty of B&Bs and hotels, ranging from cheap to chic. For the latter, I recommend the Villa Maroc, just inside the medina at the southern end, between Place Moulay Hassan and Place Orson Welles (named for the film director and actor who filmed several scenes from his 1952 classic version of Othello in the alleys of the old town). Villa Maroc is wonderfully convenient – just a pebble’s throw from the beach and the harbour, with all the delights of the old walled city on hand – and comfortably stylish: several old buildings reworked into one clever whole, with courtyards and staircases, salons and dining rooms, and a fabulous roof terrace for indulgent breakfasts in the morning sun. Warning: beware the seagulls, who will like the fresh breads as much as you do.

Because of its coastal position the town can be cool as soon as you step out of the sun, especially early in the year, so, when you head out to explore, take a light jacket or a scarf – or, better still, buy a djellaba (get a man’s: better made and much warmer) from one of the many souks that line the streets. Buy argan oil, too, for use in cookery and on the body; buy spice mixtures to bring a touch of North Africa back to your own kitchen; buy pretty, functional pottery or quirky contemporary art.

Food is good, with plenty of choice – from the simple rustic offerings at Chez Ali, a deceptively shabby establishment tucked away on a balcony between Rue Zayan and Rue Lalouj (order the Berber omelette: hot and delicious and full of flavour), to the far more glamorous surroundings of, say, La Table at Madada, in Rue Youssef El Fassi, where the young female head chef delivers a sophisticated, inventive menu in a beautifully converted carob warehouse. Great cocktails too.

The medina is a UNESCO World Heritage listed city – ‘an outstanding and well preserved example of a mid-18th century fortified seaport town, with a strong European influence translated to a North African context.’ When you walk along the ramparts, newly reopened after several years’ restoration work, you could be on the city walls of any small Italian or French town… or, indeed, in one of the Seven Kingdoms of Game of Thrones, several scenes of which were filmed here. Narrow your eyes against the morning sun and you might just see Daenerys meeting her Unsullied army for the first time. The seagulls’ mournful cry fills the air. Below you on one side the waves crash against the rocks; on the other, the shopkeepers are beginning to set out their wares for the day. As you come down from the ramparts into the souks, you couldn’t be more aware that you’re not in Europe.

You could easily pass a full few days in the narrow lanes of the medina, with its artists and craftsmen, its galleries and restaurants, without feeling the need to look further afield for entertainment or eating – but don’t miss a lunchtime stroll down to the open air ‘cafés’ near the harbour, to bargain with one of the stall holders for a plate of the freshest fish and seafood, newly brought in from the Atlantic; when the price is agreed, they’ll grill it at once, serving it to you at a ramshackle table with the sun beating down. Take a hat. You can do the same at the fish market inside the medina, perhaps a little more cheaply, but there’s something very splendid about being so close to the beach, with the blue-painted boats, emblematic of this part of the coast, bobbing nearby.

Afterwards, you might wander on down the long curved sandy bay, dabbling your feet in the water, or trying the waves for size. The swimming is lovely, and with a temperate coastal climate, year-round warm sea and strong summer thermals, the Essaouira surfing is apparently ideal for beginners and experts alike. Not being into watersports, the most adventurous thing I’ve tried on the beach is a gentle camel ride – gentle, that is, apart from the bucking bronco effect as the animal rises to its feet – that manages to be both relaxing and exhilarating. Our little camel train of three was joined by a fourth – a youngster in training. Called Happy, it nuzzled my leg tenderly for miles as it drifted along behind me. I was completely beguiled, completely happy, in fact… but there was no sentimentality among my fellow riders, who stroked the beasts tenderly before we left, then shrugged off their delight in the experience and – can you believe it? – ate camel tagine for supper that evening. Essaouira never fails to surprise…

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