Just a couple hours drive from Morocco’s tourist central Marrakech, the windy coastal town of Essaouira is an enchanting, laid-back alternative to the bustling city life.
Drawn by the beautiful pictures of Essaouira’s iconic blue fishing boats and its surrounding 18th-century port, we made the small coastal town a mandatory stop on our 17-day trip in Morocco. A quick, two-hour bus ride flew by as we observed the modest village life on the way to Essaouira, followed by a couple curious encounters of goats balancing themselves on argan trees. After arrival, we settled into our guest house before venturing out for a day exploring city.
The old Medina of the city is relatively small, with only one main road that takes no more than 15 mins to walk through. The main road is lined with merchants selling anything from traditional Moroccan sweets to produce, meats, local delicacies and souvenirs. Tiny cross streets intertwine with the main street, leading us into a labyrinth of narrow roads with colourful storefronts selling hand-woven rugs, restaurants, guest houses and art galleries. The charm of the city takes after its blue and white theme, from the blue cobalt window trims to the blue doorways, to the fishing boats and turquoise petite taxis outside the gates of the Medina.
At the end of the main road, we were greeted by a salty, Atlantic breeze as the street turns into a seaside promenade along the city’s infamous old ports. The 18th-century port is called the Skala de la Kasbah, a seafront rampart constructed by European engineers to hold a line of brass cannons that aim outward towards the ocean. The old canons have since become photo props for the countless tourists strolling through the picturesque promenade. Seagulls flock in and out of the harbour scavenging for food scraps left behind by the fishermen who reel in fresh catch from the sea every morning. After a stroll through the promenade and a long picture session with the iconic blue boats and Kaspah in the background, we walked back to the Main Street and settled in a European style cafe to rest with a pot of mint tea.
A whiff of grilled fish with lemon and paprika was all it took for us to make an abrupt stop for lunch. The city’s alleyways are typically filled with the smoke of charcoal grilled sardines during lunch time, a common meal option for the locals to take advantage of their daily catch. We picked out a comfortable looking stall that offered a balcony view of the streets below and enjoyed six sizeable grilled sardines for only a couple bucks. Fish tagines are also popular options for people looking for a more substantial Moroccan meal, consisting of sardines and other seafood mixed with an assortment of spices like cumin and paprika braised in a traditional clay pot.
We were also advised to try the ‘grill your own seafood’ option where you can purchase your own seafood from the large outdoor fish market just off the promenade to bring to the numerous ‘grill by the pound’ seafood stalls nearby. The stalls also offer fresh catch that are typically on display, all promising to have the biggest, freshest catch compared to their nearby competitors. We skipped the trouble of looking for our own catch at the local seafood market and picked out a fresh dorade, a crab, and some shellfish from the grill shop’s display. Five minutes later, we were served a delicious seafood feast on a nominal budget.
While roaming the town, we noticed that locals tends to veer away from the more touristy areas of the city. As we venture deeper into the small alleyways, we discovered another world where the locals visit, including souks, fish markets, spice shops and general stores. The streets here are raw, grimmer, but full of energy.
At night, the Main Street transforms into a local hangout. The daytime stalls catering to tourists disappear and are replaced by local trolleys selling anything from fish, to toys, to meat and olives. The locals seem to prefer coming out later at night to avoid the peak tourism hours of the day. The smell of exotic spices used in traditional snail soup filled the streets, each stall surrounded by people enjoying this authentic delicacy while chatting away with their friends and family. As much as we enjoyed the daytime charm of Essaouira, evenings in the city are a different experience altogether. To immerse in the lives of the people in Essaouira, we highly recommend taking a night stroll in the city after dinner.
After spending a day in the quaint coastal town, we were thoroughly relaxed and were ready to go back to Marrakech for our next destination to the Sahara desert. Although small, Essaouira’s unique quirks definitely make in a worthy visit if you have a couple extra days to spend in Morocco. Not to mention, the town is a true heaven for seafood lovers. For us, that alone is worth the visit.
Photos by SL Photography