Escape to Essaouira

As you walk across the Place Moulay Hassan to grab a scoop of ice cream or croissant from the Patisserie Driss, you’d never know this town center, or any part of Essaouira experienced a rich influx of culture and history. Travelers have scuttled their feet in the sands of this timeless coastal city well before the seventh century when the Phoenicians constructed their farthest outpost here. Even the Portuguese built sarcophagus walls around the harbor and Mogador Island. And as recent as 1765, Sultan Sidi Abdellah captured a French architect from a French vessel to redesign the city to make it open to foreign traders. In the 1900s, Jewish settlers and families were welcomed. However, In the 1950s, as the French built Casablanca into its commercial center, Essaouira slipped into stagnation until the hippie and tourist boom of present.

Though always historically popular with traders, laborers, travelers and well-to-do families, Essaouira has been ignored by Morocco until recently. Since there is no rail-line stopping in Essaouira, the only way to get here is by bus, taxi, or car rental (conveniently 2.5 hours from Marrakech). If you walk towards the beach, you’ll soon see plastered posters detailing conceptions of an operational tourist airstrip. Perhaps the peaceful twinge of the ocean breeze cooling the city will soon give way to the hustle and bustle of grand hotels and casinos.

Or, maybe they won’t. Inside the medina walls, the white- and blue-washed buildings and arches lock in a timeless glimpse of yesteryear: Berbers and Arabs alike sipping mint tea; donkey’s pulling hoary carts; and tourists and locals smoking outside the cafés. It’s no wonder that Essaouira now holds annual art, music, and craft festivals, even amongst the 50 mph winds arousing world-class wind- and kite-surfing. “Wind City Afrika” bumper stickers on locals and European cars lament loudly.

If you’re not into the ruff and rowdy, not to fret, as plenty eateries and shops lurk around each Kasbah corner. Throughout place Moulay Hassan (city’s center), the medina and port, you’ll spy numerous cafes, pizzerias and fish restaurants. If your craving shopping, head to Galerie Aida, Bazaar Mehdi, Musee des Arts et Traditions Populaires, Dabili Art and the Galerie Jama. If you need a map or information, the tourist information office is on the left after the main archway, Bab Sbaa.

If you need a place to stay, there are hotels and Riads abundant, though booking through a travel or tourist agency guarantees the best accommodations during the high season of March through September. Though it seems you’ve entered a wormhole back through time, Essaouira offers glimpses of the past with services and fun of the present. It’s no wonder why far-off countries, Vikings, and even sultans have been transfixed on capturing a piece of Essaouira for themselves.