Essaouira is smelly. That’s probably the first thing that hits you. Pungent seafood and raw, un-refrigerated animal carcassas make up the main smells as you weave your way through the throngs of wagon-pushers, ware-sellers and old men on bicycles with the occasional raw sewage smell thrown in for good measure. Although this sounds unpleasant, and it really is, there are also some lovely smells which when they reach your nose, are even more intense and lovely due to their disagreeable counterpart. Freshly baked bread, just-squeezed orange juice, steamy tagines, and grilled meats tantalise your senses and force you to constantly consider where from and of what your next meal will consist of.
Essaouira is a small fishing port on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. It is characterised by old fortress walls with cannons overlooking the sea, the chaotic throng of fishing boats, nets, fisherman and men carrying seafood, and the whitewashed walls lining the maze of small alleyways. Oh and we can’t forget the seagulls that at 10pm at night make you feel like you’re in an Alfred Hitchcock film. Or the cats which seem to be loved and adored by all. There is also a beautiful big beach similar to that of San Sebastian in Spain but which no-one seems to use.
Like Morocco, Essaouira has an outside culture, which starts somewhat late in the day at 10am and doesn’t shut or quiet down until 10pm at night. During these 12 hours every day it seems like everyone in Essaouira is outside in the main streets, either hawking, buying, sitting, standing, chatting, observing, or just dozing. Women sit on small stools and invariably pour cupfuls of salt water over buckets of miniature mussels to stop them drying out, men take a comfortable posy inside their wagons waiting for the next tourist who might need or want their bags carted to their hotel for them. There are stingrays, sardines, huge crabs, and a wagon of the longest fish I’ve ever seen on display. The alleyways are lined with souks selling the usual moroccan souvenirs – spices, leather, hand painted pottery, dates, olives, and scarves.
We stayed at Atlantic Hostel which had an amazing roof-top terrace complete with bar which overlooked the entire city, and many lazy hours were spent on the terrace drinking beer and red wine, reading, dozing in the sun, and making new friends. On our last night we decided to eat-in at our hostel and were presented with a lovely 3-course meal by crazy chef Cous-Cous shared at a table seating 30 people and costing only 60 durhams (£4).
Because Essaouira is small and I’d been there six years earlier, I recommended we spend one out of our three full-days to take a six hour round bus trip to Marrakesh for a day trip to soak in the craziness of the Marrakesh central medina. Snake charmers, dancing monkey handlers, fortune tellers, henna artists, braiders and hawkers were aplenty, and as with the first time time I visited there it took all of my might not to let the mistreatment of animals ruin my experience of Marrakesh. Our first order of the day was a beautiful and wholesome 3-course meal with wine overlooking the eccentric medina, one of the only restaurants we later found out that offered alcohol. We then explored the souks and markets until exhaustion and weariness of being harassed took us to a comfortable sofa for pizza and beer.
With EasyJet now offering direct flights to Essaouira as of May last year for as little as £35 return, I can highly recommend this destination for a few days break from London. Sun, surf, sand and food await you here. You’ll be most impressed or at home if you are a surfer, a stoner, or a hippy but likewise will still enjoy it if you don’t fall into any of these categories, as we surely did.