Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 14, 2017

© Sophie Lorenzo

The city’s small souks sell Berber rugs, crafts in thuja wood and colourful leather goods.

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Moroccan blues

Laidback Essaouira adds bohemian style to its seaside splendour

The light was magical every evening in Essaouira. Misty and lavender, its purply hue made everything — a lamppost, a palm tree, strolling couples — seem otherworldly. At the end of the day, I would get stuck outside my hotel, looking at a near empty street, unable to tear myself away from the light.

I arrived in Essaouira at sunset, after driving through the rolling hills two hours from Marrakech. I stood in the curve of the bay, watching seagulls speckle a vast strand of wet sand at the foot of a 16th-century fort, until everything faded into velvety blackness.

Essaouira (pronounced Essa-weera) is a small coastal city of 70,000 in southern Morocco, between Agadir and Casablanca. It has a well-preserved medina, a stately Portuguese fortress and a colourful fishing port. It has long been a magnet for travellers who want a place to simply soak up the atmosphere.

That was certainly the draw for me. Well, that and the fact that it’s known for perpetually warm sunny weather, even in January.

The city’s laidback vibe is bolstered by its popularity as a kite surfing destination. The near-waveless bay, sheltered by the island of Mogador, is constantly buffeted by trade winds making it an ideal place for the kiteboarding world cup circuit.

Another big draw for visitors is the annual Gnaoua World Music Festival (www.festival-gnaoua.net), which brings 450,000 visitors to town the last week of June. Dubbed the “Moroccan Woodstock,” the 12-year-old event brings together artists from around the world who blend rock, jazz and reggae with the plaintive sounds of local gnaoua music — a Sufi-inspired style practised by the descendants of Guinean slaves.

Part of Essaouira’s charm is that it’s compact and easy to get around on foot. I spent my days exploring the medina. Like most visitors, on the first day I made a beeline for the souk. Shops lined the narrow pedestrian streets, pinned between the high white walls of the surrounding homes. The light pulled off the trick of being blindingly bright and yet honeyed, pouring its way through the narrow passages.

It was nothing like the shopping arcades of Marrakech or Fez which are covered, dimly lit rabbit warrens straight out of the Arabian Nights. In Essaouira, it’s all very relaxed: there are no touts or taunts. But you can still do plenty of haggling, if you like. The selection is more limited than in larger cities, but also less overwhelming.

In fact, the medina here is unusual by Moroccan standards. It was built in the 18th century, when King Mohammed III chose this Atlantic port to help open his country to trade with Europe. He entrusted a captured French military engineer, Théodore Cornut, to design a fortress and city in the European style. Cornut’s modern plan was a squared city with a grid of streets behind fortifications modelled after St-Malo. It’s a long way from many medinas in Morocco which were built as confusing mazes to disorient invaders.

The king renamed the city Essaouira, meaning “well designed.” And recently, UNESCO agreed: the medina has been added to the World Heritage List for its unusual juxtaposition of European military architecture in a North African context.

Until the end of the 19th century, the city served as Morocco’s principal port — a logical choice given that it’s a straight line to Marrakech, and the end of the caravan trade. The city prospered from its status as a free port and attracted influential European merchants, wealthy Jewish traders, Arabs and Berbers and a small group of ex-slaves from sub-Saharan Africa.

The city still has a thriving cultural community, and the medina is home to small arts and crafts businesses, like cabinet makers and artisans who make boxes and carvings from thuja wood (using the scented and burled roots of the tetraclinis tree). There are several small art galleries, as well as a handful of trendy decoration shops with carefully curated local goods.

I shopped for colourful babouches (leather slippers), admired the rugs and silver jewellery, and bought some of the area’s famed argan oil (rich in linoleic acid and tocopherol) produced by a nearby women’s cooperative.

Peering up at bright rugs hung out to air from windows, I started snaking my way through the streets to the Portuguese fort. It’s a well-restored and massive structure with 270-degree views over the ocean from its crenellated tower and a long line of bronze cannons along its ramparts. This 16th-century stronghold dates back to the days the Portuguese secured Atlantic trade by building a series of fortified trading posts along Morocco’s coast. In that era, many European powers tried and failed to conquer the country. The Portuguese are the only ones to have left imposing constructions, but even they lost their foothold. They were ousted from this fort after only 5 years.

In the evening, I headed inside the walls of the medina for supper. I went to El Minzah (3 Avenue Oqba Ibn Nafia; tel: 011-212-24-475-308), a cosy restaurant nestled under 18th-century arches. The menu takes the best of the day’s catch and puts a European twist on things. The shrimp bisque, served with croutons and Parmesan, is a house specialty. The heady broth was fragrant and satisfying. The array of fresh seafood that followed — like fried calamari and rock lobster — was prepared with a light touch. I headed home under a full moon sated and happy.

I was staying at the Atlas Hotel & Spa (tel: 011-212-24-479-920; www.splendia.com; from $150), a two-year-old property right on the promenade that runs along the beach. The Atlas pulls off a kind of hip New York vibe in earthy seaside colours. The rooms have loft-style sitting areas and heavenly soaking tubs. Half its rooms face the crescent-shaped bay.

This four-kilometre stretch of golden sand is fronted by a smattering of modern hotels; even seaside development here is uncrowded and relaxed, another part of its appeal. The region benefits from its own micro-climate with over 300 days of sun a year, and temperatures around 20°C in either July or December. Because of the area’s steady winds, hotel parasols are more often used as protection from the breeze and blowing sand.

For those who prefer to go rustic, the medina offers plenty of B&Bs set in traditional courtyard homes, called riads (www.essaouiratourisme.com/hotels-riads.htm; from $80).

The next morning, I explored the fishing port. It’s easy to understand why this is a popular sight: the fleet of bright blue boats stand out against the sandstone of the fortifications. The bundled nets on the docks look like a strange red and peach art installation, dotted with buoys.

Outranked by larger cities, the port of Essaouira isn’t used for commercial traffic, and this has allowed it to hang on to its authenticity and charm. Tourists lingered, and I lingered with them, trying to photograph the action and the effortless beauty from different angles as fishermen shouted, pushed carts and hauled in their engines for the day while seagulls swooped for sardines.

In the afternoon, I took a spin for a view of the city from the neighbouring hills. Nestled on a ring of scrub-covered dunes is the new resort development of Mogador (www.mogadoressaouira.com). This eco-conscious project went through an exacting planning process. Two years were spent on extensive plantings to preserve the dunes and to prepare a grey-water treatment plant. A new Gary Player-designed golf course is already open, with a Sofitel set to launch next December. This is one of six Plan Azur cities — seaside developments launched with investments from the government. And if the richly crafted resort at Mazagan (www.mazaganbeachresort.com; from $210) near Casablanca is anything to go by, they’re set to put the country on the map for high-end visitors.

On my last afternoon, I met up with a group of French-speaking travellers in Le Seven, the Atlas Hotel’s restaurant right on the beach. The food was a light modern take on Moroccan fare, with plenty of incredibly fresh fish. We sat surrounded by the honeyed glow of afternoon light that filtered through the gauzy curtains.

We stretched the late lunch as long as we could, mesmerized by the light and the laughter, and that feeling of sheer luxury that comes from being in one of the most beautiful spots in the world and, while you’re there, taking it completely for granted.

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