I'm a London-dwelling northern lass who swapped the East End for Far East on the trip of a lifetime. I blog about food, travel, yoga and spirituality. www.sophiesnotinkansas.com
Published February 19th 2016
Blow the cobwebs away with a break in the windy city
A mere three hours bus ride from the capital, Essaouria is a laid back coastal town that feels far from the madding crowds of Marrakech. Now that budget airlines have started to fly direct, it is even easier (and cheaper) to get there for a short, restorative break by the sea. Visit in winter time, when the sun is shining and the weather is temperate and the place is not crowded with Moroccan tourists.
Essaouria is famous for wind and as such attracts throngs of windsurfers and kite surfers every year. But for those less sportily inclined, here are some other top tips to get the best out of this beautiful city:
1. Visit the fish market at the harbour and eat fresh fish
Essaouria is a port nestled against the Atlantic coast and one of it's main attractions is the bustling, colourful fish market. Traditional, teak carved triangular boats have stood the test of time here and they float peacefully in the harbour, painted confectionery blue.
There are many stalls alongside the harbour, all serving fresh fish from the day's catch. One of the most enjoyable things to do in Essaouria is to choose your fish and haggle with the stall holder to get a good deal. They will then cook the fresh fish in front of you and it will be ready within minutes. We tried sea bass, scampi, dorado, king prawns, sardine and calamari.
2. Stay in a riad in the medina
Although the 'Villa Nouvelle' or the new town boasts luxurious hotels, there's nothing quite like staying in the old town, the medina, within the city walls, to feel like you're in Morocco proper. Riads are traditional Moroccan houses built around an interior courtyard and often come decorated beautifully with mosaics and trailing plants. We stayed in Dar Afram, a riad run by musicians, who have transformed their courtyard into a music room. Many nights were spent sitting up, jamming with former members of the band, after whom the house is named. Breakfast up on the sunny roof terrace comes as standard with most riads and it is a wonderful way to soak up the sea views. The only risk was the cheeky seagulls who kept a close eye on our croissants and had to be deflected with loud noises and the odd cube of sugar thrown at them.
3. Go shopping
In other parts of Morocco it is quite difficult to go shopping, or even look at wares without getting hassled to death. In Essaouria, however, the feel is quite different. Shop owners do, of course, peddle their wares and will bargain hard (so go in at twice what you're willing to pay), but they won't follow you down the street if you don't wish to buy. Essaouria is full of little labryinthine streets selling trinkets, leather, porcelain and clothing. We enjoyed a couple of afternoons shopping and came away with a haul of goods including hand woven rugs, a leather poof, porcelain tableware and a jalabiya (typical Moroccan dress).
4. Sink a sundowner at sunset overlooking the sea
Essaouria literally means 'the little rampart' and one of the city's most characteristic features is the 18th-century ramparts, or the Skala de la Kasbah, that protect the medina. The ramparts were designed by European engineers and have brass cannons which line the walls. We enjoyed wandering around the ramparts and having the obligatory photo opportunities sitting on top of the canons. The old walls are best viewed from one of the town's few bars (we liked Bar Taros) with a cool beer in hand, watching the sunset as the waves crashed atmospherically over the rocks surrounding the harbour. Most of the bars have early happy hours, where you can get three drinks for the price of two - but it does get cold quickly, so take something to wear.
5. Visit a local Hamam
Although spas offering harman treatments for around 250DH, these are the clinical and Westernised version of the great Moroccan bathing tradition, reserved for tourists. We preferred to seek out a local hamam, where we could get scrubbed, Moroccan style. Local hamams tend not to be signposted so we asked the chap at our riad to point us the way. When we got there one of my friends, who could speak a bit of Arabic, was able to read the sign that told us when women were allowed to go in (men bathe separately at a different time of the day). He negotiated with the rather fearsome woman and we got a wash and a massage for two ladies for the much reduced fee of 120DH (although this is undoubtedly more than locals pay).
Inside the ancient, tiled, curved rooms, we were washed and scrubbed down by the same fearsome lady, amongst other local Moroccan ladies and children who were all enjoying the ritual bath. It was a serene moment, watching the other women spend care and time over their hygiene. Being washed down and massaged with oil by the gargantuum woman, who also brushed my hair out, felt quite soothing. I highly recommend the full experience - although perhaps would urge you to take your own mitt - once having washed every part of my body with the pre used mitt, the lady began on my friend - with the same one!
Nevertheless it was a relaxing end to a wonderful break in the windy city of Essaouria.