Monday, 2 June 2014

Essaouira: a tale of white and blue

If I had to name my single favourite place in Morocco, I could easily say Essaouira. This seaside town is not even in the top-20 experiences on my Lonely Planet. Tant pis, as the French say, I'll keep it for me!

Streets of Essaouira
Beautiful Essaouira

I  had heard that Essaouira was an ideal place to recover from the hustle and bustle of Marrakesh, so even before leaving for Morocco I decided that I would be spending a day there. And Essaouira definitely lived up to the hype: I had a very relaxing day in this gorgeous town, away from hustlers and touts. I just enjoyed the charm of the (mostly) quiet streets, observed everything around me, and marvelled at unexpected things, like a shop of natural colours for painting or a back alley with carpets hung everywhere. 

Walking in essaouira
A charming corner of Essaouira

Selling painting colours in Essaouira

What made me appreciate Essaouira even more is the seaside air and the presence of the ocean, that Atlantic ocean I had glimpsed before in Ireland and in the south-western tip of Spain. In antiquity, Essaouira was famous because the purple of the Imperial Roman togas was processed here. The dye came from a mollusc and it was extremely valuable. Because I am Italian, I'm always amazed to see how far away the Romans established their influence. Later on, in the sixteenth century, the Portuguese built a fortress in Essaouira. This imprint is still evident in the architecture of the town: the light brown stone of the fortifications, the blue of the windows and doors that create a frame for the whitewashed walls all make me think of Portugal or Greece! Definitely an encounter between North Africa and Europe. 

White and blue are the dominant colours in Essaouira: the blue of the ocean and of the sky, versus the white seagulls, and the candid walls of the houses. I love when a city is so closely associated to a colour like this. Marrakesh is all pink, for instance, even in the Ville Nouvelle, the new part of the town. Here this is taken seriously! Just have a look at this picture I snapped in a cute square: not only are the tablecloths and the chairs of the café white and blue, but the pharmacy sign also is!

Pharmacie, Essaouira
Gorgeous Essaouira and its blue and white patterns

The town is also famous because Jimi Hendrix stopped here during his holiday in Morocco. There are many legends concerning his stay in Essaouira, but most of them are false. He did not buy a house or a restaurant, and the song "Castles Made of Sand" was written years before he visited, so it can't be about this place. The town also hosted a colony of naïf painters, and as a proof you have all the art galleries selling canvas in bright colours.

Art galery, Essaouira
Selling paintings in Essaouira

If Marrakesh is home to countless mangy cats and kittens, Essaouira's cat population looks considerably healthier. I wonder if the seaside has something to do with this!

Cat in Essaouira, Morocco
A cat in Essaouira

The town definitely has a young and alternative vibe. It is unlike any other place I have been in Morocco: there are cool Western-style bars, and I even spotted a Thai restaurant! The atmosphere was relaxed, and young men weren't too flirty.

Man selling pots, Essaouira
Selling pots in Essaouira

The harbour is really worth taking a look at, because it's what Essaouira is famous for. There are countless blue boats, every one with a name, a number, and at least one star. The latter is also featured in the Moroccan flag, so I wonder if it's a sort of sign of nationality for the boat.

Boats and fortifications
Blue boat in Essaouira and the fortifications in the background

Men still go after their fishing business in the old ways: while we were exploring the area we saw some men pulling a boat by hand.
Pulling the boat, Essaouira
Pulling a boat

It was fascinating: the rhythms are still those of hundreds of years ago, dictated by the sea that has favoured the town. I am not referring only to the fresh catch of the day, but also to the trade routes between Europe and the Sahara desert, and to Timbuktu in particular.

Boats in Essaouira
The blue boats and the fortifications in Essaouira

It was so peaceful to look out at the ocean, listening to the seagulls and to the waves crashing on the rocks in front of the harbour.

Harbour, essaouira
Seagulls in Essaouira

Man in Essaouira
Looking out at the ocean

I'm not saying you won't get lost in the medina of Essaouira. At a certain point, we could not find our way back to a cute piazza we had spotted, but nobody bothered us or tried to lead us anywhere for money. Getting lost was seriously funny, because we kept finding hidden corners of the town, with everything from bookshops to craftsmen at work.

Quiet street in Essaouira

Essaouira also has a beautiful sandy beach. I read in my guidebook that it is often too windy to sunbathe, but when I was there the weather was just perfect. There was just one windsurfer who wasn't being very lucky with the wind.

The beach front in Essaouira

Of the fresh fish I have already written. I will only add that there are dozens of cute small restaurants offering a fish tajine, or grilled fish.

How to get to Essaouira from Marrakesh? For this day trip I had teamed up with a Portorican American girl I had met on the Sahara tour. Early in the morning we made our way to Marrakesh bus station. We were meant to take a taxi, but when we arrived in front of the Koutabia mosque there was none, so we ended up taking a bus, which was very cheap and in just a few minutes took us to our destination. The bus station of Marrakesh is full of touts, but we simply ignored them. If you are unsure where your bus is, don't worry, because probably there will be a Moroccan man shouting "'Saouira, 'Saouira" for everybody to know! The trip cost us 40-45 dirhams one way (2,80€-3€), but the price changes according to the company. After about 3 hours in a comfortable bus - not unlike one that you could take in Italy to travel from town to town - we arrived in Essaouira, on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. From the bus station of Essaouira it's a five or ten minutes walk to the medina.

ats in essaouira
Some other cats in Essaouira

Did you enjoy reading about Essaouira? Is there place for this town in your bucket list?


  1. Essaouira looks very charming (and I especially love the kitties!)

  2. Essaouira definitely looks like my kind of place since I love seaside cities. I love your photos of the port and of all the blue and white. It definitely looks like this place has a very relaxed vibe.

  3. Looking at you article and photos, I realize that you really kept the Essaouira's spirit... Amazing!


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