Essaouira's main clock tower is a perfect landmark for navigating around the medina - if you need any help. The perfectly square, bright beige tower can be seen from all over Essaouira. You can also hear it striking the bells on its carillon every half an hour. It's an early 20th century design, built at the request of Marshal Lyautey and renovated in 2012.
Place Moulay El Hassan
Named after the Crown Prince of Morocco, or maybe Hasan I, Sultan of Morocco, or maybe, obscurely, Oscar Wilde on some maps, this is Essaouira's biggest square. It's a wide acre of concrete and loose stones - the gathering point for al fresco pizzerias, mendicants, hawkers and seagulls. At sunset everyone crushes against the sea wall to watch the hot sun pour into a cinnabar horizon, when the smell of rotten fish, now half a day old, floats across from the port.
The isle of Mogador is the largest in a chain of rocky islets off the coast of Essaouira called Iles Purpuraires. The islands take their name from the purple dye that was manufactured here by the Romans from the spiny dye-murex shellfish that live in the rocks that reveal themselves at low tide. This dye was highly sought after and extremely expensive, hence a manufacturing base so far away from the empire. It became known as Imperial Purple.
The islands were known even before the Romans. The Carthaginian explorer Hanno discovered the island in 5BC and established a trading post there. The Phoenicians even made it this far, and artifacts from Phoenician life have been found on the island. But today, despite the fortifications and the mosque, the island is abandoned and people are forbidden from visiting in order to protect the natural environment. You can only enjoy the view from the beach.
Borj el Baroud
The Castle in the Sand will soon be the rubble in the sea - rising tides are dragging its carcass down into the Atlantic's briny depths. It was once magnificent, now somewhat sad and easily overlooked, and soon it will be no more. It is said to have been built by the Portuguese and celebrated by Jimi Hendrix in his song "Castles Made of Sand", but it's not true. It was built by the Sultan of Marrakech in the 18th century, and Hendrix's song had been two years already written by the time he visited Essaouira.
You can find the wreck of a castle far south of the main beach. It's easy to locate - you can see its dark mass on the horizon. It's not so easy to reach, as you have to wade across a river delta to get to it (alternatively walk to Diabet and walk down to the beach from there). Check with the locals what time of the day is best to go. Being with a small child I didn't make the voyage and instead took pictures from afar.
Skala du Port
The port is guarded by a citadel that is more Mordor than Mogador. The defences plant a stone foot into the frothing waters to trip up enemy navies. The skala wall tucks the port into the crook of its arm - the citadel at its elbow. It's a great place to watch the busy port from a safe distance - fish aromas only when the wind blows seawards, and clandestine photographs of men working on their boats.
Entry is 20 dirhams - pay at the first door if you can find anyone to take your money.
Skala de la Ville
The main fortifications of Essaouira run along the sea front where the waves crash with the greatest ferocity - it's as much this huge Atlantic wash that the walls must endure as the fire from enemy canons. And should a foreign ship chance to show its broadside to the Skala, then a battery of canons would bring it down before the rocks or waves could.
When the French bombarded the city in 1844, there was not just one battery, but seven. There were 64 guns on the two Skalas, and another five batteries on the island of Mogador. But the French navy was too strong, and within three hours the guns were silenced and the city occupied. The Moroccans lost the war, and a series of humiliating defeats over the next century would lead ultimately to French occupation.
Today the guns are still silent, but not the waves. These breakers hurl themselves upon the rocks and stone sending up blasts of sea spray so powerful the ozone catches in your throat as you watch, awestruck at nature's majesty, from the crest of the Skala above. Viewing space is at a premium, especially at sunset, as visitors and locals gather for the never ending spectacle.
Sitting on Africa's western seaboard, Essaouira is in prime position for glorious Atlantic sunsets. Everywhere you stand in the town there are breathtaking panoramas awaiting their alchemy. As the sun approaches the horizon it drops behind the enigmatic island of Mogador, placed within the arc of sand as if a stage within an amphitheater, transforming the rock into a golden silhouette. The cracking, flaking fishing boats along the port turn into black ghost ships. The citadel on the Skala du Port turns into brooding mythological tower straight from the cover of a dark fantasy novel.
These are without doubt some of the best sunsets I have seen in all my travels.
Beach Park for Kids
Play parks are a rarity in Morocco so if you are a parent it's worth knowing where they are. In Essaouira there's a little privately maintained park halfway down the beach. It's a small selection of rides, perfect for kids under 8 years, and run by a young guy who is really good with kids. It costs only 50 dirhams to enter.
Borj Bab Marrakech
This bastion forms part of the landward fortifications of the medina. Built in the 19th century it is a solid, low obstacle, but not in active use today as a defence. Instead it hosts a gallery on its first floor, and on the roof there is a stage. The whole thing is a UNESCO protected sight and one of the cultural centres of Essaouira.
The port is a working place where photo opportunities are many, but tolerance of tourist snappers can be limited. I took my shots from the nearby Skala du Port. Another couple was more imaginative - a woman took pictures of men pulling their boat from the sea while her husband helped them pull. Photographs for labour - a fair exchange.
It's a photogenic place, from up close or afar, during the day or at sunset. The hulks of the fishing boats - still seagoing despite their cracked and ancient appearance - are worked on all the hours they aren't actually in the water. The boats made at this port are sought after all over the region. They are notably seaworthy, as you can tell when you see them bobbing through the choppy Atlantic waters.
It's also a place for the fishermen to unload their wares. You can buy or try fish at the port, or just watch others scramble through the fresh innards for the best deals.
Essaouira has several beaches, but the main one stretches south of the medina. It is an almost perfect beach. The sand forms a soft and yellow arc around the bay, partially sheltered by the Island of Mogador but still capable of casting up great surfing waves, while remaining calm enough for paddling in the shallows. The wind can be strong, but it's constant and easily checked by wind breaks. It's a boon to kiters and windsurfers too, but it can whip up the fine sand sometimes too.
The north end of the beach near the medina is flat and smooth and perfect for walking, sunbathing and playing football. The south end of the beach is more rugged and roughed up with sand dunes. It's ideal for activities like kiters and windsurfers (few sunbathers to annoy), as well as camel and horse rides.
The southern part of the Essaouira's main beach rolls with sand dunes. It's easy to forget you are on a beach and be stolen away to the Sahara. It makes an ideal photo opportunity for camel riding, and the camel herders know this very well. They are sly and expert negotiators. I was tricked into taking a ride down the beach. I didn't want to go for a trip. "Only up and down" he said, but once you are up there's no way down unless he orders the camel to sit. So off I went down the beach.
But you know what? It was a great experience and he took some excellent photographs of me which I will treasure. It only cost me only 50 dirhams. In the end I was glad he tricked me, because I would never have taken the ride otherwise. I think he knew I would be too.
Just remember though: If you really don't want to ride, don't get on!
The name Essaouira means "the beautifully designed". This name replaced the original, Mogador, which you will see referenced often about the town. The name was given to the city in the 18th century by King Mohammed III who had the entire Medina built by talented architects and engineers from all over Europe. The port was designed by an English architect, the streets laid out by a Frenchman, and the two defensive Skalas were designed by engineers from Genoa.
It mixes European and Arabic architecture, which can be seen as a reflection of the city's calm, multicultural mix. The grandeur of the city is a reflection of its historic importance - once one of the greatest sea ports on the Atlantic coast. It's a small but beautiful Medina, with a modern layout that makes for simple navigation compared to the alley mazes of other Moroccan cities, like Marrakech and Fes.
The medina is now a UNESCO protected site.
Wherever you go in Morocco, you may find all kind of handicrafts, generally without any mention of its origin and quality.
Thuya carvings and inlaid works are very appealing, by the delicacy of the work and soft smell of the wood.
If you go to Essaouira, then forget buying thuya works anywhere else. Here you may watch the carvers doing their pieces, and buy directly from the producers, practicing the favorite sport in Morocco - bargaining.
Door to door, in the narrow streets of the Medina, in the shades of the walls, comparing styles, shapes, prices, and smiles, you feel the real Morocco. And save money!
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- Arts and Culture
A view over Essaouira
Up on the hill on the road out of town towards Marrakech and north to Safi and El Jadida is a parking area with a viewpoint over Essaouira.
The roads in each direction are separated by a barrier so that traffic can no longer cross here in front of oncoming traffic so you need to continue on to the roundabout down at where the road turns left to head up the coast to Safi and El Jadida or stop here on your first approach into Essaouira.
I stopped here quite a few years ago but never made a tip - and previous visits we have usually arrived in the dark! This recent visit in May 2013 was early evening when the coast line tends to get a sea haze so my photos are not the best - but do take the opportunity if possible to have a morning visit here as it really is impressive in the right conditions!
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