Essaouira is located on the Atlantic coast, 176km west of Marrakech and 360km south of Casablanca. This beautiful and mystic town is of great historical importance. Formerly Amogdul (meaning well protected in Berber) but better known as Mogador in French, Essaouira is the embodiment of Moroccan history. Its medina is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Essaouira has attracted numerous artists from around the globe. Orson Welles filmed Othello here and Jimmy Hendrix stayed while the city was hippy central. Today, Essaouira hosts annual music festivals.
Essaouira is built on a peninsula that is swept by the Trade Winds, which gives it a temperate climate through the year. Locals profess to wear the same clothes throughout the year as the sea breeze keeps the summer heat at bay, yet 3km inland it’s a different story. Strong winds characterise January and February, but kite surfers and wind surfers are here year round, revelling in the broad, shallow sandy bay.
The city draws its character from two things: the cannon-topped ramparts and the tightly packed streets within. The former are a sign of the city’s rich trading history when goods from Europe travelled south to be exchanged with the riches from Africa coming north. Essaouira has always been cosmopolitan, but the traders of the past have been replaced by visitors of all nationalities, most of whom are very happy to accept the town’s laid back atmosphere and shop in the cloistered markets or just sit in the squares and watch the world go by.
One of the best times of the day is the morning when the fishermen bring in their catch and take it to the fish stalls just outside the harbour by Place Moulay Hassan (the seafront square). The fish is obviously fabulously fresh, but if you want a wider choice there are two excellent sea food restaurants in the harbour, La Cocquillage and Sam’s. There are restaurants and bars throughout the medina to suit all budgets from the excellent Taros and El Mar, to reassuringly clean and well run local cafes.
There are numerous excursions possible from Essaouira, including vists to the pottery capital of Safi, the Argan valley where the impossibly enriching oil derives from, quad biking, camel riding, sailing, windsurfing and walking – all of which can be arranged before you arrive or while you are there. Golfers are well catered for at the Mogador Golf Club. Designed by Gary Player, it opened in Autumn 2009. The course juts out into the Bay of Mogador and features wide beautifully groomed fairways and seriously challenging bunkers.
Essaouira is the home of music festivals. The Alizes Springtime Chamber Musicale is in early May. The world famous Gnaoua Music Festival in is late June, which is a wonderful family event, and in late October there is the Andlousies Atlantiques Festival which features Judeo-Moroccan music.
Essaouira has a relaxed feeling that is totally different to Marrakech. Shopkeepers let you browse in peace and more importantly leave their shop without persuasion to stay.
You can either take an internal flight to Essaouira or go by road. This takes three hours from Marrakech, but is set to have half an hour or more shaved from that by the completion of a dual carriageway to much of the route early in 2011. Essaouira is a three hour drive from Agadir.
If Marrakech is to be combined with only one other destination, it’s a tough contest between the High Atlas and Essaouira, perhaps one to talk through with us.