Morocco’s Essaouira inspires artists, draws tourists and foreign retirees
ESSAOUIRA - The minute visitors enter the Moroccan city of Essaouira, near Marrakech, they experience a sense of having stepped into a unique place. It’s a place that carries visitors back into childhood memories and dreams of fantastic and imaginary cities.
It’s a quiet and happy city where the past mingles nicely with the present. The simplicity of its inhabitants and the beauty of its winding narrow streets, its ramparts, its fortress, its gardens, its doors and every inch of ground give the impression of being transported into a medieval city.
Bounded on three sides by the Atlantic Ocean, the city invokes images from the legend of Sinbad the Sailor and pirate stories. Looking from the top of the ancient wall of its harbour, each wave that laps the rocky shores reminds of shipwrecked sea captains and drowned sailors since the time of the Phoenicians before the sixth century, when the city was founded.
However, Essaouira is also a modern city with its up-to-date hotels, streets, parks, beaches and painting studios.
There are archaeological sites in the city that remind visitors of the tales of “One Thousand and One Nights.” Visitors often sense that this location has been seen before, especially when looking at the city walls and the gates
of the old Portuguese fortress of Sqala. It’s not surprising because the city has appeared in many films, including Oliver Stone’s 2004 movie “Alexander,” and Essaouira’s narrow streets and markets have appeared in many paintings by Moroccan and foreign artists.
It takes two hours by car to reach Essaouira from Marrakech. The 170km separating the two cities can be covered by a taxi van for ten passengers or by booking a tour with one of the many operators in the area.
In addition to luxury hotels and resorts, visitors can choose to stay in individual apartments. All modern amenities such as health clubs, tennis courts, swimming pools, restaurants and shops are available in practically all tourist accommodations in Essaouira.
Should a traveller prefer independent accommodations that remind of home, there are independent brokers and real estate agents at any of the cafes in downtown Essaouira who rent tastefully furnished apartments at much lower prices compared to a hotel or resort.
Essaouira is a vibrant, warm and beautiful city. It can be visited during any season because it enjoys a mild climate all year round. Whether in summer or in winter, temperatures in Essaouira hover in the 20s degrees Celsius.
In this beautiful weather, visitors can engage in many outdoor sports and activities, including windsurfing, sailing, horseback and camelback riding. Essaouira’s beaches are a favourite destination for Moroccan and foreign visitors. Accommodation prices are reasonable and the moderately priced restaurant menus, especially in the old section of town, will entice visitors to extend their stays.
Visitors flock to Essaouira’s markets, especially on Sundays, for the traditional Moroccan gold and silver jewellery, brightly coloured pottery, hand-woven carpets, mementoes and furniture carved of expensive juniper wood and other amazing hand-decorated arts and crafts.
Shaya al-Ghafli, a 27-year-old visitor from the United Arab Emirates, said this was not his first time in Essaouira. “If you visit Essaouira once, you’ll come back a thousand times,” he said.
He and his travelling companion, Rashed, said they love the city and its tranquillity. They go to Essaouira to practise their favourite sport, hang gliding, because the area is swept by favourable winds all year long.
Food lovers will take to the deliciously spiced sardines grilled near the port. It’s a local delicatessen. The city boasts of more than 60 restaurants serving delicious dishes prepared with freshly caught fish, straight to the table from the Atlantic.
Services in Essaouira are inexpensive and this has encouraged many foreigners, especially retirees, to move to the city permanently. Frenchman Emmanuel, 80, and his son Emile, 50, are among those who have been living in Essaouira for years.
Emile opened a pharmacy in the city and quickly learned the Moroccan dialect, even though he said he still finds difficulties in pronouncing certain sounds. “As soon as my father visited Essaouira in 1990, he fell in love with it and decided to live here permanently,” said Emile.
Essaouira was listed among UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in 2001. Data from a publication of the Moroccan Tourism National Office stated that 500,000 visitors went to Essaouira in 2018.