The coastal city of Essaouira - a relaxing spot in hectic Morocco
As I walked along the narrow alleys of the old medina, I thought back to my four days here in Essaouira. The time had gone by quickly. The walks along the beach and the stroll through the port area watching the local fisherman cleaning their morning catch and displaying them for prospective buyers seemed just a brief memory. The time on the roof deck of the Riad Perle d’Eau overlooking the crashing waves of the Atlantic was so relaxing. I really needed this kick back time. This was such a memorable stop for me on my tour of Morocco.
It was 5:30 a.m. as I walked briskly through the medina carrying my backpack. The old city was quiet. Dawn was just starting to break. I was observing a different side of this bustling little city. The shops that line the main walkway were closed. It was eerie. The normal sales chatter of the souks was gone. Occasionally, I passed one of the local residents as they headed to some unknown location – not really sure why they were out at this time of day. I didn’t have to dodge the bicyclists who normally weave in and out of the pedestrian traffic. I’m not a morning person; but I love it when I’m out early witnessing a different side of a city’s life. I felt safe, and alone in my thoughts, as I moved through this sleeping city.
What attracted me to the Riad Perle d’Eau, which I found through TripAdvisor, were the rooms that formed the seawall against which the waves pounded during high tides. The Riad was actually two buildings connected by a 2nd story walkway. Having breakfast on the roof deck overlooking the Atlantic Ocean sounded simply relaxing. I had e-mailed Ernest, the owner, about how to find the Riad. He suggested allowing one of the guys who greets the bus upon arrival, with a pushcart, to take my bag and guide me to their location. 20 dirhams (about two and a half USD) was the going rate.
The modern Supra Tours bus from Marrakech arrived in Essaouira after a two-hour forty-minute ride just before mid-day. Before even getting off the bus, I was greeted by one of “these guys”. I told him Riad Perle, showed him where my bag was underneath the bus and off we were. He was pushing this box cart with a long handle and weaved in and out of the medina’s pedestrian traffic. As I walked down the main thoroughfare with small shops on each side, I thought how happy I was to be here. It felt nice. It felt like a place I was going to get in some relaxation. In a short ten minutes, we were at the door of the Riad. I rang the bell and proceeded to give the guy the 20 dirhams (dh) that Ernest had suggested. You would think I had just committed a horrible error. How could I even consider giving this person such a meager wage for his incredible effort. The door opened and I went inside hearing the guy’s complaints all the way inside. One thing I found out is that the locals are never happy with the amount of money you pay or offer to them. As Ernest said, it’s the going rate. Their complaints are part of the game - complain and push the tourist to give more money. I wasn’t in the mood to play that game today.
Essaouira is not very large. It’s a small city, on the Atlantic Ocean, about halfway down the coast of Morocco. There’s not a lot to do; however, I just loved the place. The weather was perfect in the low 70s (F) – especially after the 100+ degree temps the first few days in Marrakech. Walking through the port area where the fishing boats were moored gave me a glimpse into the daily life of the town’s fishing business. Locals were busy cleaning their day’s catch – sardines, sea bass, prawns, crabs and even some squid and eel. After cleaning their fish, the fishermen set-up their little store – a board resting on a couple of rocks where they can display their daily specials for anyone wanting to buy. Sea gulls were hovering overhead just waiting for the right opportunity to grab the leftovers. Those selling the fish carried a long stick to keep the birds at bay. One of the many cats of Essaouira – this one a small kitten – grabbed a sardine just after it was knocked to the ground and carried it off in its mouth to a certain hiding spot. Wow, this must be a cat’s delight to live in this little coastal town. It was all so interesting to watch unfold before me. While walking through the temporary fishing market (where the fish were being cleaned to be later displayed and sold), I felt like an outsider. I wasn’t hounded by anyone to buy something. The locals know their customer is not the tourist – so they go about their routine tasks as if we weren’t even there. It was enjoyable to walk through this area, observe without being hassled, taking photos of the activities in play. Later in the day, I would return and watch a gorgeous sunset from the port area. Tourists and locals were enjoying this serene moment that happens daily.
The focal point of Essaouira is the medina – a pedestrian-only area that has a few bicycles and motorbikes zipping in and out just to keep you on your toes. In all seriousness, you have to be careful especially when approaching the intersections of the alleys that you don’t run into an oncoming bicyclist who took the turn a little too fast. The medina is set out on a grid, and with its small size, it’s easy to navigate. Shop and café owners sit outside their small place of business and encourage tourists to “come and take a look” into their fairly small space. It’s a soft sell approach – much more enjoyable than the harder sell atmosphere in the souks of Marrakech and Fes. It’s interesting watching the cats dart in and out of their little hiding places or just laying about appearing as if they’re taking a little siesta during the middle of the afternoon. They seem to garner a lot of the tourists’ attention and photo taking. Most of the shops sell souvenirs such as leather products (handbags and shoes), spices, oils, or rugs. Other shops sell daily consumables such as toiletry products, non-alcoholic beverages, snacks, etc. There’s even a little ice cream location with some tasty delights. ATMs abound throughout the medina, port and beach areas so you’re never very far from a re-supply of your dirhams – the local currency.
Another area of the town is the really large beach located right in front of the medina. It’s about a mile long and probably two hundred yards wide. The beach is gradually sloping which makes it very easy to walk along especially on the wet sand – a great place to jog when the tide is out. The first half-mile of the beach from the medina is primarily for sunbathers, swimmers, locals having a game of beach futbol, as its known locally, and those just wanting to go for a stroll. It’s clean and well kept. There’s a nice boardwalk just outside the beach to walk along if you’re not interested in the sand. Further down the beach are the town’s activities – camel riding, horseback riding and surfing. Approaching this area, you are greeted by the camel-riding touts (those who want to sell you their services). You might even be approached by someone riding a horse, who is ready to lasso you into a deal. It can be a little unnerving especially if business is slow. Just like anywhere else, people get aggressive to earn a living. I was not interested in any of these activities. I held my ground and continued walking through this circus-like atmosphere and continued on towards the surfing area.
Essaouira is known as the windy city. Hence, it has a big surfing business – regular surfing, kite surfing and wind surfing. If you have your own board, take it on out. If you don’t – no problem – just visit one of the booths at the top of the beach and they’ll rent you whatever equipment you need and even provide some lessons for their stated price.
My favorite activity, besides my walks, was chillin on the roof deck of the Riad Perle d’Eau just watching the waves crash against the many rocks and listening to the sea gulls bellowing as they hover above. I would get lost in my thoughts as I gazed out onto this scene. I just never seem to tire of a great view especially one that involves the ocean. Add a sunset to the mix and I am totally mesmerized.
The food opportunities were excellent and within a short walk of the Riad. In the port area is medina, with traditional fish and Moroccan dishes, and several makeshift outdoor cafes (tables, chairs, a grill area all covered by a tarp to keep the sun off) where you select your fish from the day’s local catches and they’ll grill it and serve it to you in about 10 to 15 minutes – all for about 7 to 8 USD. In addition, there are many outdoor cafes that serve Moroccan and fish dishes. There are nice restaurants throughout the medina inside a converted house and usually upstairs. Two that I really enjoyed were Elizir where I had a delicious lamb tagine with pears. With rather quirky decorations and some excellent wine, it was a great place to dine. Another restaurant I enjoyed was One Up, which opened about two weeks ago. With a French menu and relaxing jazz background music, my daughter and I had an appetizer of froi gras (three different kinds), a monkfish tagine, which was very tasty and a burger of duck confit. Since they had not received their liquor license yet, they served us a complimentary drink of ginger, pear, pineapple and lemon juices, which was good.
Before I knew it I had finished my 15-minute walk to the bus station in plenty of time for my 6 a.m. ride to Marrakech from where I would transfer to the train station heading to Fes for the day.