The air is fresh in the morning and has the typical salty smell that is common to most ocean towns. Roads are still quiet, most shops still closed which allows for a lot more space as they usually spill over onto the road. The town is still asleep it seems.
Lucky for me, the crêpes stall is not and I can order my breakfast, crêpe avec amlou, only to eat it too quickly burning my mouth with the first big, greedy bite. I slow down and take my time with it while I stroll towards the harbor, which unlike the town is buzzing with activity. Seagulls everywhere and I know to hold on tight to my crêpe, they are known to be cheeky, fast and always hungry. I get an orange juice and unlike other places, even the to-go version comes in a real glass, the vendor knows I will return it on my way back.
A typical morning in Essaouira. Two & a half hours and a whole world away from the wonderful craziness of Marrakech. Compared to it and most places in Morocco during the summer, Essaouira always comes off as a literal breath of fresh air. Which means that even during August you are well-advised to take a jersey and a scarf and wear something not too billowy as there is always a wind blowing. An easy and inexpensive bus ride from Marrakech takes you just outside its medina walls which are majestic yet crumbling. White with accents of blue gives proper homage to its claim of a beachfront town.
Inside the medina streets are narrow yet compared to other medinas everything feels spacious, you can even some blue sky above. Vendors are less pushy, the ones clad in blue robes with a turban like to tell you of Aladdin’s treasures they are now selling you at an incredible price. I reckon the closest they have come to Aladdin’s cave was the Disney movie. Needless to say, their wares haven’t seen the inside of any cave either, but somehow manage to play the part by looking appropriately old and dusty.
I actually don’t mind their practices, some things just sell better with a good story. The bracelet I got many years ago and that I naively bought as a one of a kind, despite it having many look-alike brothers and sisters, is still very dear to me. Oh, and have I mentioned that they are not very pushy? One of the Aladdins looks a bit like Professor Snape and always greets friendly, never even asking me inside. I greet back and enjoy the relaxed sales approach, which always makes me spend more in the end.
And then there are the cats, I cannot speak of Morocco without mentioning the cats. In Essaouira, they are a pure joy to watch: fat cats everywhere with shiny, big furs. They fight only a little when fish heads and bones are put out for them and never beg, they know there is always an abundance, there is always more.
For my own abundance of fish and seafood, I head to the central fish market for lunch. Unlike the harbor market, you can not only buy but also eat your spoils here. Sometimes if the catch of the day is meager the displays will be as well – at least, you know that you are always getting fresh fish straight off the boat.
I buy some prawns and sardines and head towards one of the ‘restaurants’ surrounding the market. I hand my parcel to the chef and find a seat in the crowd, sharing tables with strangers is highly encouraged here. The waiter comes and clears the leftovers from the previous customers, I order fries, salad and a coke with my meal. Next to me a family of five all talking loudly and digging into their whole fish with gusto, the kids like the fried calamari best. Quickly plates empty, the table turnover is fast here. While it is an excellent place for people watching, it is not really a place to linger. I eat my hand-cut fries, no McCain in sight, and my seafood sprinkled with some lemon and salt, I realize again that sardines are not my favorite, but the prawns make for the best meal I have had in a while. Well, at least since the breakfast crêpe.
I head to the beach to walk off the fries. The promenade is just like in any other town is where locals and tourists alike mix and mingle. Families, skateboarders, young and old show-offs, vendors who sell little paper cones with warm chickpeas, giggling teenage girls and handsome boys in wetsuits. Essaouira is a paradise for kitesurfers because of its windy Atlantic location. I am however more interested in watching the camels that are here for tourist entertainment. Something seems odd about seeing a camel on the beach and while I stare in awe I almost get hit by a descending kite. The owner is lucky to look good enough in a wetsuit and that my French is not sufficient for me to yell at him properly.
Some girls are tanning in bikinis others are in long sleeves and headscarves, either way, nobody seems to mind. I am not quite ready to show my bikini body to the world, mainly because the wind is quite strong and while it is summer, the weather is too cold for my liking.
Instead, I head back into the medina, time for some spa treatments and warmth, time for a real hammam. My guesthouse landlady has shown me the way to her favorite public hammam though the word favorite doesn’t mean much once I enter through a crumbling archway. A real hammam is a real experience, but one you have to brave, especially with our European standards of propriety. However, nothing beats an after hammam nap, all cocooned, all nicely wrapped up. I cannot stop touching my own skin, it has never been softer.
I wake just in time for sunset, a spectacle not to be missed in Essaouira. Throngs of people make their way to the Scala of the kasbah. Some may recognize it – a popular movie location, it has been seen in Kingdom of Heaven and Game of Thrones. Sometimes its impressive cannons get in the way and clever set designers have to hide them. After all, Essaouira, meaning ‘the beautiful designed’ was only built in the 18th century and cannons can not time travel.
However, right now nobody cares about movie locations or whether the cannons were once used for actual defense. Right now it is the golden hour. While Essaouira’s walls might be old and derelict, the sidewalks best manageable in hiking boots, and the seagulls too cheeky, right now time stands still and the town drenched in gold is just that: beautiful.
Have you been to Essaouira?