ESCAPE PLAN: ESSAOUIRA
Attention, Travel Aficionados: This is one place you'll want to memorize - A Travel Guide to Essaouira
It glistens, twitches and practically winks at you from the plate. Essaouira is brought alive by the food that practically walks itself to your plate. A hands-on foodie scene that invites you to get out to the countryside and amble through the vineyards and pat the cheese-goats. It’s not a “pulse” like the big cities such as Marrakech or Casablanca, it’s more like a twitch; subtle, seductive, and super chill-laxed.
Locals and tourists alike trickle out of the Raids at around 10am and the fort-village wakes up with Arabic coffee and localised versions of your favourite French patisseries. Once caffeinated, it’s time to explore, and Essouira is not the place you just sit and be served; you get yourself a taxi and a local expert to take you the twitching epicentre of the region. You see, Essaouira is a network of cooperative of farmers and pastoralists, and the best way to taste the delights is to go to the smallholdings and organisations, and watch it be plucked or milked directly into your glass. There’s enough towns in this world to be served on a silver platter, and only a few where you get to tuck that plate under your arm to slice and pour your own delight. Apart from being hip and happening in the 16th and 18th centuries, it’s been the whispered secret of hipsters for the last years, just 2.5 hours drive west of maddening Marrakech on the Atlantic Coast.
Out of town adventures:
Cheese – Cooperative Feminie Ajbane Meskala / Fromage de chevre Mogad’or
15 ladies started a working cooperative making fresh goats cheese in the mountains behind Essaouira. A Dutch lady in northern Morocco set them up with a Barbie-doll sized cheese making kit taught them how to produce “en masse” for revenue. The ladies received a government grant to buy some goats and found a small production facility (about 60sq m) where they rotate working shifts among themselves to each work 1-2 days a week, and all receive an equal wage. Two ladies look after the goats every day, and three work in the cheese production. While working, their children stay with the colleagues who are not working at the cooperative that day. It’s a beautifully strong organisation, impeccably clean and full of heart and smiles. While shy, and demonstrating the culture of modest Moroccan women, they peer out from their white aprons and headwear with proud eyes and stand strong; knowing they are providing for their families, enjoying working together and are ambitious of the future. Their next steps involve learning skills in yoghurt making, and buying some goats for sisters in a neighbour village to start their own cheese coop. After visiting the goats, clucking at the chickens and being barked at by the not-very-fierce puppy guard dogs, you can enjoy a lovely walk down the hillside to the production site and step with cleaned feet to see the micro vats and sieves. Your visit will be punctuated by a sweet pairing of their fresh goats cheese and local honey, being watched for your remarks and obvious delight at their creations. It's about a 45 min drive and a little offroad from Essaouira and you need a translator if you don’t speak Berber/French mix.
You can ask your Riad or hotel to find a guide to take you to the ‘out of town’ produce markets where you’ll feel the twitch of Essouira and the region really flicker. Apart from the standard vegetable, pulse and spice trade, the “abattoir” is most interesting. Depending on the day, and the amount of ‘customers’ that appear, only one or two heads will be slaughtered to be sold. One cow gets slaughtered at a time, and everyone vies for part of it. By the time I got there, I had a choice of a twitching heart or hoof. They don’t oversupply, dealing just in legs and shoulders, they don’t just cut for what’s popular; they live the word ‘sustainable’ because they know that tomorrow will always come, and prepare and sell all the carcass until sacrificing another head. Sustainable practices is how this region survived every alpha-male who rode or sailed into town claiming a part of history, and feasting from the bosom of the Atlas spine. There are many produce markets within 1 hour drive from the Medina everyday and you have to ask a local on which location you find the travelling circus. I was told to be up and there at 7am, however things really kicked off at 10, so feel free to wake up on typical beach-town timing.
Close to the Medina:
Take your morning coffee at Pâtisserie Driss
Monsieur Driss is a proud third generation baker/pattissier/chocolatier (he names himself as all three, and has 3 businesses to support his claim to fame). You can watch his team kneed and grind through a small open door in his café as the morning lingers on and the locals and tourists gather for a café noir and croissant. This café well embodies the deep cultural roots, and pride in European heritage. In fact Monsieur Driss himself is a perfect example of this Moroccan/European blend. His French grandfather was a pastry chef, working at the bakery and had the chance to buy it from the owner in 1928. It became Patisserie Driss and his son, who married a German lady, kept the tradition going and introduced a jewish sweet flair to the range. Grandson Driss studied in Germany for some years and returned to take over the family business, secure as many organic suppliers as he could find locally, and bakes a roaring trade daily. He runs the place like a tight ship (German family roots) yet greets everyone with flair (French family roots) and stands outside sometimes to watch the passersby and shoot the breeze with his friends (a Moroccan at heart). If you’re staying at a fancy hotel, you’ll find Driss creations as half his trade is business, and the other half local at his café.
Contact: 10 rue El Hajjali, Essaouira +212 524 472 793
Choose your lunch from the Fish Markets
A third of the media is ‘walled’ by the Atlantic ocean, with ramparts built on what feels like cliffs. Major fish auctions are held on Saturday, however every morning you can cruise along the port and pick up lunch to cook back at the communal kitchen of your Riad. Also there are small stalls set up between the harbour and main promenade with tables and forks, to dig-in directly from the ocean.
The big surprise in these fish markets is, that the catch isn’t as “cheap” as you’d expect, but still very well priced for a holiday away from Europe, and ultra ‘twitching’ fresh. Fishermen haul their loads up to the docks from identically blue painted boats after collecting with mid-range nets from early morning trawling. I didn’t see any bottom-trawling vessels, yet a fishing expert from Slow Food UK did inform me the net hole sizes were a bit small for euro standards of sustainable fishing practices. Prices are defined by weight or per piece, depending if you’re on the street side choosing from fish laid out on a plastic square on the ground, or over at the small markets where they have scales and some ice. Fresh sardines, harira, fasade, shrimp and conger eels are found daily with curb-side haggling ending around lunch time, or until the last fish slips into the souk for soup. The harbour is small compared to it’s competition in Agadir and Safi, yet well sustained by a southward ocean swell called the Canary Current (which boarders on the archaeological ruin, the Bordj El Berod). Given it’s quaint size, and strong fleet of matching azure-tinted crafts, it’s considered strong and prosperous. The fish markets are directly at the harbour just 2 mins walk from the main square.
Spice up your life in the Souk
As per the cosy feeling of the town, Essouira’s Medina and Souks are unhurried. You can take your time, browsing tajine and scarves, and not feel pressure to immediately buy (although of course, it would be nice if you would like to Madame, I give you special price). The Medina is kept free of cars, guarded by 5 key gates (which given the maze of the Medina, feel like they are moving, but I’m assured, are fixed). Souks are safe and you’re only worry is figuring out if you turn left at the lamp-stand and right at the olive-stacks, or walk past the wooden tomato-cart to weave behind the outdoor hanging-butcher to find your way home. The Medina of Essaouira, formally known of as ‘Mogador, is a UNESCO World Heritage Listed city, as an example of a late 18th century fortified town.
Kite surfers are a wonder to watch along the beach that spans about 10km, which is noted for consistent winds (specifically Essaouira Bay, Sidi Kaouki, Cape Sim and Mouley Bouzertoune). Kitesurfing here is great if you’re good, but tough if you’re a beginner because the winds howl like a wolf all year around. You can join the local kids playing football or let the kids doggie-paddle around on a knee-deep sand bank without too much worry. There is a strong under current once out in the ocean, and it’s recommended that only stronger swimmers venture out past the break.
Hammans are a raw experience when you stay within the Media walls and you can step into many of the corner or cavern-located wash-rooms. Greeted with big smiles and ample body, you’re scrubbed in traditional fashion and left silky smooth, and at least 1kg less skin. Generally the less you pay, the more “rapid scrubbing” session you can receive and speed massage still on the floor of the public bath, however even in the deepest part of the Medina you can find some relaxing locations taking time to ‘more gently’ black-soap exfoliate and argan-oil a tourist body. At some small Hammans, that serve two people at a time, couples can go together and it’s a good way for men to also receive treatment that’s usually reserved for the fairer sex.
It’s as varied as the souk and everyone at one stage, had a turn at enjoying the windy coastline. Recent history saw Muhammad III rebuild the Media in the 1800s and establish Essaouira as Morocco's main port, linking sub-Saharan Africa to Timbuktu, through the desert and Atlas peaks to Marrakech. It’s an arrow-straight line from Marrakech to Essoauira which is why it was chosen as key port. French activities (administrative, military and commercial) was strong during the1900s and due to local Franco-Moroccan schools you’ll find most locals speaking French as a second language. It’s part of the economic region Marrakech-Tensift-Al Haouz and sometimes still referred to by it’s Porguese name of Mogador. Archaeological research shows that Essaouira was enjoyed since prehistoric times.
Claim to fame:
Orson Welles filmed ‘Othello’, Jimi Hendrix smoked a joint, Cat Stevens strummed a 12-string, and Oliver Stone rebuilt ‘Alexander’ with Angelina Jolie and Colin Farrel, before Ridley Scott and Orlando Bloom shot ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ in the region. These days the village hosts the Festival of Gnaoua and World Music in early summer www.festival.gnaoua.co.ma) which brings a steady stream of hippies to balance out the hipsters.
What to buy
The Medina is as spicy as it has spices, with some traditional skills, like silversmithing and lamp building is outsourced to factories and peddled by small stall holders. Cabinet making, lacquerware and 'thuya' wood-carving (using roots of the Tetraclinis tree) are traditional to the region but difficult to judge sustainably. Over three nights I watched a man through a window carefully press wooden shapes into inlaid boxes and chessboards, and after research was told that although these crafts can be purchased for good prices, extensive deforestation is taking place in the area as trees are not being replanted. Of course you can buy a tajine and small basket to hold it on the plane home, and soft blue leather slippers for grandpa, but just be sure he’s ready for his feet to discolour for the first few wearings.
Where to stay:
Within the Media you stay in a Riad or Dar, privately owned and in various states of renovation to suit every budget. Online bookings are reliable and prices are as promised. For those with stars in the eyes, modern purpose built hotels by the major chains are carve out along the sea front.
My two top picks are:
Hotel Sofitel Essouira Mogador Golf and Spa, Domaine Mogador , 44000 Essouira. It’s perfect for a perfect stay. Everyone is greeted with a mint tea and local pastry delights from a very attendant team of staff who exude modern hospitality and hotel standards. Hallmarks to traditional architecture and design elegantly pay homage to the host village while a luscious pool area and bar soothe the soul after a souk adventure. Spa and gastronomy par non, and an excellent choice for families and couples seeking the ‘away from home luxuries’. www.sofitel.com
It’s most comfortable to fly in and out of Marrakech, taking a Grande Taxi or bus to Essouira in about 2.5 hours (although my rally driver did it in 1:45).
If you overnight in Marrakesh on the way in or out, you have to stay at Riad Anyela.
It’s a Riad that holds onto it’s soul, so much so, it’s even printed in Arabic poetry across the walls in chronological order. AnaYela is the ‘way’ you survive Marrakech, because it’s whole soul is a sanctuary for cherishing people. Over 300 years old and passed through the family, Riad AnaYela is the bed of the modern change instigator Club of Marrakech and a couple of German free thinkers. As Kadisha prepares her grandmother’s bread recipe for your morning sustenance, it’s proudly renovated rooms hold a softly lit mirror up to the Riad’s grandiose past and grounded present. AnaYela, and the current founders Andrea and Bernd Kolb, are an essential visit on your way to or from Essouaira in Marrakech.
Contact: Derb Zerwl No 28, Marrakesch 4000.
When to go:
Essaouira’s weather is mild yet moody, from summer to winter; it’s more like wet and dry season. There's almost no rainfall in Essaouira from March to October, so it makes sense that in November, I arrived in torrential downpour. Sun worshiper’s travel down for solar recharge in from June to August and you’ll find more tourists than locals during this time.
Drinks and things:
Sweetened fresh leaf mint tea is the custom, and be sure to ask sins sucre if you’re not fond of a sugar bomb. Enjoy the elaborate pouring process, and be sure to compliment the dear-heart who puts on a nice tea pouring ceremony for you. Some hotels have licensed bars, or the rooftop terrace Taros (2 Rue de la Skala) will serve you a glass of wine or cocktail any time of day. And if you’re alone, sit down for a chat. There is one off-license outside Bab Doukkala on the Boulevard al Massira to acquire a Casablanca brew or whatever you can find, or you can daringly ask your local Tajine stand if he’s got a guy who can run down to the off-license and pick up a bottle of “anything” to go with your meal. Please don't ask for this to be done, but wait to see if they offer it. It will happen in the first 5 mins or not at all. If you’re downwind (or even upwind) you’ll catch a whiff of spliff as in any typical beach town, however it is highly illegal by local laws and a custom generally to be respected by visitors.
Getting to and from:
Essaouira connects to Safi to the north and to Agadir to the south via the N1 road and to Marrakech to the east via the R 207 road. Or, in the way I like to describe it, unless you’re facing the beach, it’s the desert and sandy.
You can either take with Grande Taxi (about 75 euro, 2.5 hours) or bus from Marrakesch (2.5 hrs, twice a day) or Casablanca (6hrs). The main bus station in Marrakech is Bab Doukkala and CTM is the biggest and most reliable bus company. From Marrakech you trains connect to Casablanca, Rabat and Fes. Personally, I didn’t meet a hitchhiker, nor see to many backpacks per travelling head, compared to Samsonite.
Getting around Essouira is mostly by foot or hoof (inside and outside the Medina respectively), and certainly best enjoyed so. With the old city centre closed to cars (yet scooters and bikes still zoom past at rocket pace) it’s possible to get around with Petit Taxis outside the 5 main gates if you’re seeking an automotive solution to farmers markets and cooperative or wine visits. Within the Medina, there is a network of carts that wheel luggage around the naturally preserved (dirt) streets (lanes). Excellently networked with Riads and hotels, and unless you have 4wd suspension luggage, you’ll need a luggage cart and expert pusher. I even managed to have one at 4am; a chirpy toothless type, who proceeded to not only push my luggage, but encouraged me to princess-like atop my suitcase for a hurrah-exit through the sleepy souks.
Go now, before more people start recommending Essouira to their friends. It’s in danger of becoming like Ubud if we all tell our friends.
Impressions of Essouira:
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—by Alyssa Jade McDonald, Founder of BLYSS Chocolate
Photos: by Sophia Schillik