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Essaouira Medina, Morocco
Just name the main cities of Morocco and images immediately spring to mind. Casablanca, Marrakech, Fes. Perhaps you conjure up thoughts of a Hollywood movie, bustling souks and… well… hats.
But then there are the cities of Morocco that haven’t been able to gain the notoriety. You would be lucky to name them, let alone imagine what it’s like to be there.
The city of Essaouira is probably one of them. Yet it’s apparently important enough to be listed as a World Heritage Site. So I’ve decided to head there and find out why.
Essaouira is a coastal city, set at one tip of a long beach. The sandy stretch offers some of the touristy services you might expect – surfing, kiteboarding and windsurfing. It could be almost any beach until you see the camels being led across it.
It’s the first thing I see as I arrive and I notice the winds are also picking up and sand is blowing across the small dunes. I turn my head to look out the window on the other side of the bus and I catch glimpse of a desert that looks almost the same.
If there wasn’t a road and a collection of short buildings between them, I’m not sure I would be able to say where desert ended and beach started.
The bus stops at the walls of the old town, the medina. This is going to be my focus for a couple of days. Beaches I have seen enough of, but within these walls is the evidence of a perfect fortified city that took its influences from Europe but feels distinctly North African.
This is the ancient Medina of Essaouira, also known as Mogador (very Tolkien-esque!).
It was built in the 18th century as a defence for the port that was to be established here.
The location was chosen because it is one of the shortest direct lines from Marrakech to the water. Although it was designed to help take Morocco (and Africa) to Europe, funnily enough it actually also brought some Europe to Africa.
Essaouira was designed by a French architect and he used European styles heavily for the layout. For instance, it has more of a grid system than similar medinas across the African continent. The tall wall that encloses the city is based on the Vauban fortifications of France.
Foreign embassies were based here because of the large amount of international trade and a Jewish quarter was established to facilitate the business with the Europeans.
Morocco in the 1700s was not generally a country extremely open to the cultures from the landmass to its north. Essaouira was an exception and was necessary for the economy. But it was, in some ways, segregated from the rest of the country and so it developed a unique feel.
Today, it still has a unique feel and is still influenced somewhat by Western cultures. It is well off the usual tourist trail of Morocco and this, along with the beach and the relaxed atmosphere the sea salt air brings with it, has made it a popular destination for the more ‘alternative’ crowd.
There was a time when it was a popular destination for the ilk of Orson Welles, Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens and even Winston Churchill. Now it’s more likely the slow-travel tourists will be wearing pants fitting of the local workers – fishermen.
It’s easy to walk through the old city of Essaouira, unlike the maze of Marrakech where I got lost so quickly. The grid pattern helps and it’s also not nearly as big.
Several large avenues that cut through the whole medina can be used for orientation – just walk until you reach one and you’ll know where you are. I say ‘walk’ because in theory no traffic is allowed within the fortifications, although motorbike riders seem to think the rules do not apply to them.
You will get a lot more out of a guided tour than going alone, though. I would highly recommend the tour that starts in town, although I’ve also included a couple of recommendations that are day trips from Marrakech.
Essaouira is an interesting mix of elements. The beach, bohemia, good food, a bustling port, and historical buildings. I’m glad I came.