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Things to do in Essaouira
Essaouira is an ancient port on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. Some have called it a windy city, and others describe it as a laid-back version of Marrakesh. We stayed there a week and had a great time there, so read on to learn about things to do in Essaouira.
Essaouira – the Name
With all those vowels together, we found ourselves mumbling random noises in the middle of the word. Then Nick rationalised it from a French angle – “oui” in French is pronounced “we” so he announced that Essaouira must be pronounced Essa – wee – rah. As it turned out, this was about right though the real root of the word is completely different being a Moroccan-ised version of Arabic al-Suwayrah.
Depending on where you look, the name means “small city wall” or “beautifully designed”. Both definitions suit Essaouira well. The medina is easy to navigate but with enough interest to hold us captivated for several days. It is surrounded by defensive walls and runs though to the old fortified port with its famous citadel. Tired of browsing the souq and admiring antiquities? There is a long beach and a nature reserve park too.
The cultural richness of Essaouira springs from a long and lively history. First occupied in prehistoric times, it is a natural harbour, sheltered behind a string of tiny islands. These islands held another treasure for the Romans worth much more than its weight in gold. The snails which clng to the rocks were processed for the unique purple dye used for Roman imperial togas. At the start of the XVI Century Essaouira was taken by the Portuguese, who held it only four years, though this was long enough for them to build a castle and to give the city the name Mogador which you still see frequently in hotel and shop names.
The Moroccans themselves developed the Medina you can see today in in the XVIII century as a port serving Marrakesh in competition against Agadir. As one of the best natural harbours on the African Atlantic coast, Essaouira also linked the Sahara and Sub Saharan Africa to Europe and the rest of the World.
A glance at the map shows the modern city as a town without suburbs. The edge of the new town is demarcated sharply by an outer wall and fence – the only construction outside this new city rampart it is a small shopping mall at the south end containing Carrefour. Otherwise you feel as if you are in a strange science fiction movie as you walk along a city street with houses and commercial city blocks on one side and a high fence protecting a wild forest on the other.
Stroll Through the Medina
Essaouira Medina is listed by Unesco as a World Heritage cultural site of outstanding universal value, as a walled city and major historic trading port.
As we entered the Doukalla Gate – locations, with the afternoon sun silhouetting handcarts and fruit setters, I felt that we had drifted back in time. We were in a wide bustling street without any motor vehicles, flanked by old buildings and with almost no sign of modern civilisation. The djellabas worn by both stallholders and many of their customers is one of my favourite pieces of clothing – a full length heavy robe with a long pointed hood, it may be dull coloured or with wide vertical stripes. Men often wear them with the hood up in hot sunshine so they cast a sharp shadow over the face – djellabas seem to represent a timeless evocation of magic and mystery.
Unlike Marrakesh, Essaouira’s medina is set out on open streets in a simple gridiron pattern between several main gates. You can always check your sense of direction here by seeing where the sun is. Between these streets are random tangles of tiny alleys between tall riads, which cast slanting shadows across adobe walls and ancient doorways.
Locals and tourists throng the streets. On both sides there are stalls and shops, hotels, places to eat, mosques, and covered openings into larger market courts. The stalls seem to be divided into zones with clothes, foods and tourists souvenirs, but with a random butcher every now and then. Or maybe there is more of a mix, but the sight of vast cow carcasses hanging between clothes just stays in my memory more sharply.
Shopping for Souvenirs in Essaouira Medina
We were advised that it is better to shop for souvenirs in Essaouira than Marrakesh Souq because there are more fixed prices here and the vendors give less hassle. It was said that fixed prices in Essaouira are about half of the prices in Marrakesh even after you haggle. Having been to both, we can say that’s all about right but there are other differences too.
Yes, people are much more laid back here. They will spend a long time chatting about their stuff without hassle. Prices are good here. And with less risk of getting lost it is also easier on the nerves.
Essaouira is better than Marrakesh for carved and inlaid wood. – beautifully crafted boxes, ornaments furniture and everything in between are on display in lots of tiny stalls and larger bazaars. Beautiful things are so common here that you almost forget how special the craftsmanship is, with its precision-crafted and polished thuja root, inlaid with acacia and lemon woods, aluminium wire and mother of pearl. Even more interesting than the stalls, here is a workshop where you can see and hear about every stage of the making process, and there is an enormous bazaar (Centre Artisanal) next door.
Other things which seemed to us to be better (or at east as good) here rather than in Marrakesh were leather bags, Berber jewellery and carpets.
The best place for carpets we found is not in the souq, but nearby: just here: It is in a rather dilapidated and unlovely modern “Complexe Commercial” but the stock is magnificent and the proprietor very business-like and easy to talk to. He or his family also has at least one shop in the Medina, just at the back of the Place Marché aux Grains.
Another specialty here which we didn’t see elsewhere are three or four different stalls offering humorous sculptures welded from scrap metal, bits of engines, cutlery etc
Herbs and spices are everywhere here, as they are in every Moroccan souq, enjoy the colour and buzz of spice markets, I was charmed by the Polish-speaking guy at one stall and we bought four huge bagfuls of turmeric (called curcuma here) and different mixed spices, Later we discovered that Carrefour also sell spices in bulk at about a tenth of the price. Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all!
The one thing which you don’t get much of a choice of in Essaouira is metal or glass ware – especially lamps. If you see some beautiful pierced metal or glass lamp in Marrakesh, don’t think that you will get the same for a cheaper price later in Essaouira – you almost certainly won’t find such a good one.
Food and Drink in Essaouira
Turning to food, there are lots of places where you can eat and drink in the Medina and along the beachfront. The meat is mostly chicken whether on a skewer or in a Tagine. Read about our thoughts on Moroccan food generally.
We had tagines in different places in Essaouira and they were all delicious. The meat is slow cooked and tender, but don’t expect very much of it. Moroccan chickens seem to be pretty small and bony. However the slow-cooked meat juices with flavoursome vegetables (courgette, pumpkin, potatoes and carrots) with oils, spices and the flavour of lemon zest and olives always hit the spot for us. I wouldn’t advise taking a fish tagine. Nick loves fish and ordered one, but the flavour of the fish was rather lost in the mix – and he seemed to spend most of the mealtime picking bones out of his mouth. Expect to pay about 40 Dhs for a Tagine. Note that most of the nicer restaurants close at 3 and reopen again at 7pm. Google maps is quite good for telling you opening times.
The coolest places to sit in a pavement cafe in Essaouira is under the shade of a tree in the Place Moulaiy Hassan at the end of the medina near the citadel and harbour. A little farther out immediately before the citadel itself is a row of tiny stalls pressing fruit and serving the best orange juice we have tasted anywhere. You can drink it sitting on the sea wall opposite watch the waves crashing over the rocks and dream of purple snails.
In the new town outside the medina there are daily fruit and vegetable markets. We stayed in a riad just east of the main street, and would walk each day to buy kilos of lovely fresh produce for less money that we would pay for a small sanitised cellophane pillow of stuff at home. The stallholders were friendly and though they were amused to see us there, our French and Arabic is good enough to know that they never took advantage of our foreign status in the prices they charged.
Visit the Ramparts
The city’s defensive walls are most impressive where they face the ocean. If you watch Game of Thrones you may remember the moment when Daenerys Targaryen acquired the Unsullied Army. (We think she cheated a bit – but that’s another story) That was here. To get into the citadel itself you can pay 70 Dhs or you can climb up a ramp onto the top of the walls at a different point a little farther to the North for free. Here is a whole row of magnificent Portuguese bronze cannon and a very picturesque little round tower where you can lean out through the battlements and imagine defending the city or watching the traders come and go through antiquity.
You can get a great view of the city walls from below on the beaches north of the Doukkala gate, though the ways to get down to these beaches are pretty grim and smelly.
Visit the Port and the Fish Market.
Come here in the late afternoon, when Essaouira port is a place of chaos. Blue boats return from fishing. Customers clamour for the cheapest and freshest fish. Merchants strut about showing sample fish and calling prices to anyone who doesn’t want to join the throng of queues at the boats.. Vendors stand or crouch next to temporary tables on which they sell and clean fish. Fat and scruffy cats wait for heads and tails and unnumbered seagulls swoop in to catch fish guts sometimes thrown to them by the fishmongers.
This is no place for the faint hearted or those in flip flops! The harbour is a slimy mudbath of saltwater and fish blood. The scene is magnificent and lively both for the buyer and for the spectator. It couldn’t be more different from the antiseptic fish markets of Europe. And for sure, you cannot get fresher fish than from here.
When you have bought your fish, just 300 meters away near the fruit juice vendors, you will find a kiosk where you can have your fish will cleaned and prepared for you to eat.
Visit Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah Museum
This Museum is on the Rue Laalouj, location
The Museum came highly recommended by other bloggers when the entrance cost 10 dhs. Now admission is 70 Dhs per adult and 30 per child, but we went anyway to see what others had enjoyed.
The museum is quite small and simple. It has some significant historic items but the descriptions are pretty sparse, and written in French and Arabic only. For example a particularly distinctive piece of jewellery was labelled “fibule” in several places, but we couldn’t find what it signified, at least not from the information posted in this museum. (It’s a kind of brooch-cum-safety pin to hold garments in place)
Our general impression was that the displays were interesting, and no doubt the pieces were historically important, but if one was searching for craftsmanship and antiquity, then both were hugely available for free outside the museum door.
Admission: 70 Dhs for foreign adults and 30 Dhs for children. Photography is not allowed in the museum.
Visit Essaouira Beach
The main beach is to the south of the port. It’s long, the water is warm and the waves gentle, there is a wide flat margin to build sandcastles when the tide is out. The sun is shining and you can see windsurfers in the distance.
Here you can hire a sunbed, get a ride on a horse, visit a restaurant, or a public toilet, or buy sunglasses or space cakes from passing vendors. Careful about that cannabis though, although it is said that Morocco supplies up to 80% of the hashish consumed in Europe, the punishment for being caught with drugs here is 10 years in prison.
There is another beach to the north but it is quite difficult to get to and parts of it are polluted with rubbish and smelly with rubbish and sewer water. No doubt an international hotel will spring up here in a few years and it will all become clean and tidy.
Things to do in Essaouira – Go to a Hammam
What the Brits call a “Turkish Bath” is available everywhere in Morocco. In Essaouira Medina there must be twenty or thirty of them, so I booked an time with a pretty little one in a tiny alley at a reasonable price and with very good reviews. We were staying in a lovely riad but it was winter and without any heating in the place we were feeling cold. I was looking forward to a deep heat fix.
The next day Nick took the girls to the beach and I headed for my treatment. To my disappointment even the steam rooms were cold. Later I was told that steam is forced inside through pipes and the fire which was supposed to warm the place up was not working. Maybe it never did, and this place may be wonderful in summer.
So I lay on the bench and a woman rubbed gooey soap all over, front and back. When she finished, she told me to relax and left me for a few minutes. It was kind of hard to relax lying naked in a cold room but I did my best. Then she came back and washed me – a very peculiar feeling being washed by someone else while lying down on a bench. Then she took a rough black glove and kept rubbing until I felt like a snake losing layer after layer. I think my whole skin must have peeled off three times over. I felt almost ashamed that I must be so dirty that she had had to take so much of me off, but then I told myself that there are other much grubbier people than me and tried to relax. This skin shedding process took about 10-15 minutes and she poured hot water over me, applied moisturizer and left me to relax.
The whole experience was interesting and ultimately good, but I knew that it wasn’t what a real Hammam should have been. I had to wait until I got to Marrakesh for that one.
Take a Walk in the Park
Walk east from the Medina to the main road and then another four or five city blocks and you suddenly come to a high fence. This fence runs the entire length of the city from north to south and is the edge of the town. On the other side of the fence is a forest of eucalyptus and other trees and between them you can glimpse sand dunes and a lake.
This feels surreal. Towns don’t usually stop so suddenly like this, why is there a forest and lakes in a desert landscape, and why gum trees – aren’t they supposed to be in Australia?
The fence is made to a design where children can climb through it easily, but luckily for me there are also gates every half kilometer or so and a noticeboard at one of these informed me that I was looking at a natural park. It also confirmed that they really were eucalyptus trees which a little research tells me account for 40% of all planted trees in the country.
Sadly the first meter or so of this park beyond the fence, and for a 20m radius from each gate is a public dumping ground, nothing big just dirty rubbish, however get past this and there are trails to wander, hills to climb. It is such a strange and surreal border to the town that I almost wonder now whether I imagined it. I tried to search it on the web and my first result promised me “The best ten parks in Essaouira” but it was lying, none of the things listed was a park and nor was this place mentioned.
Essaouira – Conclusion
Essaouira was the second place we visited in Morocco and remains one of our favourites. It is fascinating, calm, beautiful, friendly easy to navigate and a good place to go shopping whether for souvenirs or fresh food.
Do you want to learn more about Morocco – read Morocco Facts