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Our journey to Essaouira was unbelievably bad. We made the mistake of taking an older, funkier bus that seemed to be on its last voyage, cracked windshield and all! They really cram people into these old buses, with no air-conditioning, and people standing in the aisle. We were early, and luckily enough got seats, right by the back door. The seats had bare rusty metal arms, broken springs and the most disgusting upholstery you ever saw! Quite charming indeed. I didn't even want to think about what the dried scum on the floor was... Before we could leave, about 20 touts had to come through the bus selling bottled water, cigarettes, candy, etc. The bus was so crowded it was a major accomplishment for these guys to even get on, let alone force their way through to the back door.
If you like the beach, Essaouira is THE PLACE!
The ride was supposed to take two hours, max. Well, the road to Essaouira that day was the route of some big Moroccan Bicycle Race and traffic was backed up for miles! Race officials were keeping vehicles from passing the bicyclists. How absurd! And when the bus finally got to be just behind the leading racers, the driver refused to pass them. Thus the two hour drive turned into five hours of hell, with sweaty Moroccans leaning on the people in the aisle seats, the people trapped in the window seats frying in the sun – and no windows open, because to the Moroccans it seemed cool! In fact an argument nearly broke out as we approached Essaouira over who controlled the fresh air in there. I was ready to kill someone - a woman- who insisted it was too cold to leave the window open. We took turns. I would open it, she would close it. Over and over. Until some guy came to her defense. Then it was him against me. He was just trying to impress her. Thank God we got to town just in time to avoid war!
We stumbled up the stairs and into our ocean-front room at the Hotel Tafoukt with an incredible sense of relief; and immediately scoured ourselves in the nicest bathroom we had seen since Fez. We piled the laundry into a stinking mass by the door, and then toked the sipsi to rid the memory of the day’s trip from our poor brains. The sound of the sea soon calmed us, as the surf was crashing on the shore right across the street. At dusk the street lights came on, a string of modernistic lampposts along the waterfront resembling invaders from Mars. We began to feel as if we were in the right place, at the right time, for a change.
The ancient port of Essaouira is centuries old, and its battlements still have cannons mounted along the crenellations atop the walls facing the sea and the port. It’s a walled city, of course, and the beach stretches south from the town for about two miles to an even older, and completely ruined, fortification dating from the Portuguese occupation. From ancient times to the present Essaouira has been an important port and fishing center for this stretch of the coast. The bay was scoured for murex shells in the past – the Romans used them to make a purple dye for their robes.
The forests around Essaouira are mostly Thuya woods, and the local craftsmen have made a name (and living) for themselves with the quality in-laid woodwork they do. Thuya wood has a distinctive dark burled grain, and a fragrant aroma. It’s rather soft, and they make things ranging from furniture to decorative boxes. The tourists flock there by the thousands to snap it up. When you see the Thuya wood boxes elsewhere in Morocco, remember that this is where they come from.
We discovered a row of woodworkers along the old battlements of the ancient walled town, on a street called Rue Skala. The shops are in the old barrel-vaulted, low-ceilinged munitions and supply chambers built into the city's walls, right below the rows of cannons. The craftsmanship varies somewhat, but the variety is great; ranging from little tiny pill boxes to chests with drawers, desks, tables, and other furniture items. The majority of pieces are smaller items for the tourists. The skilled craftsmen decorate the wooden objects with inlay of silver wire, lemon wood, mother-of-pearl and other items in attractive geometric patterns based on traditional Islamic motifs.
The other claim to fame of Essaouira is as a hippy hang-out dating back to the sixties, when Jimi Hendrix lived here on-and-off for a few years. He also owned a hotel in town (see above), an attractive old palace with traditional Arabic architecture. It has been restored recently, and is open to the public with guest rooms and a restaurant.
Out in the bay off Essaouira is a small island (see photo below), with ruins dating from the time of the Phoenicians. It’s a bit difficult to visit there, as it is now a wildlife sanctuary – you need a government permit to take a boat over there. The island makes a great backdrop for the view out to sea, especially at sunset as the bay faces west, out across the Atlantic.
Camel on the Beach
There are several seafood restaurants in the port of Essaouira, but the best of them all is Chez Sam. We ate there several times and really enjoyed the calamari, the John Dory baked with garlic, and the seafood gratin with its incredibly rich and creamy garlic sauce. The unique atmosphere in Sam’s is great, they really do make you feel welcome, and feed you well. To get to Sam’s you must brave your way past an army of fresh fish vendors offering their catch freshly cooked on the spot for you. Around the area are open grills belching clouds of smoke as they cook the fish, and their displays of the catch of the day are tempting. The sight is incredible, with picnic tables loaded with tourists gobbling up seafood, and washing it down with beer. Of course the port is always bustling, and you can buy all sorts of fresh fish. What a great spot!
There are several other seafood places in the port, and along the waterfront. Le Chalet de la Plage has a great location, but don’t get too excited about the food. Their claims to fame on their fancy color brochure are just that, claims to fame. For a decent meal of couscous, tagine or an omelet try the Café Restaurant Essalam on the Place Moulay Hassan inside the old city walls.
The Fish Stalls at the port will cook up your choice, cheap!
The Hotel Tafoukt proved to be quite all right, with its location right across from the beautiful beach. We had a private balcony on our third floor room facing the ocean. Downstairs, the TV room had CNN and NBC. The dining room is on the ground floor, looking out at the sea, and was very pleasant. A very good Continental breakfast comes with the room, providing a opportunity to mingle with the other guests.
We met a couple who were staying only a few rooms down the hall from us over breakfast one morning. He’s Canadian, she’s Swiss and they’re probably in their fifties and doing well as traveling merchants. They're importers of exotic, unusual art, native crafts and clothing from all over the world. They sell their merchandise to Europeans via exclusive catalogs. They were fascinating people to chat with about their travels. It was a relief to have a conversation with people who spoke excellent English!
Our traveling friends were in Essaouira having a local tailor sew some vests, and a woodworker was making buttons for the vests. They were leaving in a few days for Marrakech, where they were having some wool dyed in the souk there for the vests. They introduced us to another level of Moroccan society, the craftsmen. We talked extensively to the artisans about their craft. There are also several cooperatives in town, that offer a large selection of merchandise produced for the tourists in the bus tours that come through Essaouira, and their wares are all offered at fixed prices. Fixed prices are cool since they’re usually good value and you don’t have the anguish of an hour’s bargaining over one little item.
Our traveling friends were quite fun, and we ended up on our balcony many times passing the Sipsi around, as they were avid hash smokers. He resembled Mr. Natural from the comics, and her braids atop her head belied her Swiss heritage. We insisted they join us for dinner at Chez Sam’s on the dock, and it was fun to spend the evening with them, but the food wasn’t up to snuff, it was an off night (yeah, Sam wasn't around…) The Moroccans have a hard time doing anything consistently. We still felt that it was the best place in town, and ate there again before leaving the paradise of Essaouira.
Walking up and down the strand is the thing to do in Essaouira. Everyone does it. At night the entire town turns out in their best clothes and walks up and down the broad oceanfront plaza with its modern street lamps, the “look at me” street. Anyone with a car also cruises up and down, along with all the motor scooters with their insanely loud mufflers. During the day the camel people are out along the beach to ensnare the tourists, and kids are playing soccer everywhere.
One day we were treated to the sounds of a skeet shooting contest just down the beach from our hotel, so we took a long walk to the other end of the bay – to see the ancient Portuguese ruins, and get away from the noise of gunfire.
What a walk, along about two
miles of the most beautiful beach! If only it was a few degrees warmer
I would have gone swimming. After passing the estuary of a stream and weaving
through a herd of cows that were sunbathing on the beach, we got to the
ruins. Looking like a gigantic section of some giant’s lower denture, the
stone battlements appeared in sections as if blown apart by some ancient
cataclysm. The sea washed up right around it when the tide was high,
but it was high and dry when we were there. A group of Moroccan youths
was playing soccer, and some others were sunning on the rocks of the ruin.
I was told later that you can get the best hashish from those guys! If
you don’t want to walk down there, you can get a camel guy to give you
a ride. Be sure to negotiate the price in advance! Our next
stop is Taroudant.
This laid back town by the sea is a great place to spend a few days or a week. There's not a lot to do nor places to visit so just unwind and absorb the mellow scene.
Things to Do: The main attraction here is the wonderful beach. It's long, wide and crowded in the summer. You can get away from the masses by walking south past the stream, but remember when the tide comes in it becomes impassible. Bring lots of drinks if you're going to the beach for a few hours.
Shopping: Essaouira is renown for its Thuya wood products. You can visit the workshops and find a great selection of bowls, boxes, knick-knacks and furniture. You can even custom order items.
Sights: The port is very colorful with a lot going on any time of day. It's fun to watch the catch unloading. The nearby Portuguese Fort has a nice view of the port, the sea and the town. The medina is very clean and small enough to enjoy shopping.
Food: You must eat seafood in Essaouira. Some of the best, and certainly the freshest in Morocco. The tiny shrimp are sweet and tasty. The John Dory, calamari, and other seafood are a real treat. Highly recommended is Chez Sam's for a unique sorta French atmosphere and great food.
Accommodation: There are just a few hotels in Essaouira and the range is not extensive as in other places. The Hotel Tafoukt where we stayed has a great view of the beach, but is right on the busy street so it's noisy day and night. It was also a bit stuffy and smelly. If your budget can handle it, I recommend Jimi Hendrix's old place, the Hotel Riad al Madina. The place is beautifully restored, and the staff is very friendly. It's also the only place to cash a traveler's check or change money when the banks are closed. If you really dig Essaouira, ask around for some inexpensive apartments to rent.