In Essaouira, a peaceful coastal town on the country's central Atlantic shores, Morocco still possesses an authentic gem, its dense mass of whitewashed houses shining brightly in contrast to the blue of sea and sky, and the blue and ochre colouring of door and window frames. The tranquility and traditional aspect of Essaouira belie its rich history and the many international influences that have surged through this ancient trading and fishing port at one time or another. Founded by Phoenician traders as far back as the 7th century BC, the town was settled permanently by Berber tribes in the first century AD. The view across the wild, untamed Atlantic, the 'Iles Purpuraires' and the score of blue fishing boats bobbing in the harbour is both panoramic and enchanting. In the 19th century, as the solitary free trade zone on the Moroccan coast, Essaouira was the only town in the country to have a Jewish community that outnumbered the Muslim one. Apart from its charming mix of Portuguese, Berber and French architecture, and its beautiful setting, it is this unique sense of tolerance, coupled with a laid-back atmosphere, which makes Essaouira so appealing.
Essaouira doesn’t have an international airport so you’ll need to put a little more effort into travelling here. This is a huge benefit in protecting it from the mass tourism many of us try to avoid. Even so, it’s readily accessible from Marrakech and Agadir. In only a couple of hours on the road you’ll land in this charming Moroccan town..
Down by the harbour, this bastion offers picturesque views over the fishing port and the Île de Mogador. Looking back at the walled medina from here, through a curtain of swirling seagulls, you’ll get the same evocative picture that is used on nearly all official literature.
Essaouira offers 10km of sweeping sands to the south of the town. For sun worshippers, there are sun loungers for hire nearer the town but if you’re seeking some solitude, head a short way south along the beach and you’re sure to find a quiet secluded spot for lazing away a day on your beach mat with a good book.
If you’re after something a little more active, there’s no shortage of beach activities. Take an exhilarating horse ride along the beach or for speed junkies, hire a quad bike for an hour. If that’s all a little too active, you can take a more leisurely camel ride, which is sure to loosen up your back after all that sunbathing.
Essaouira's large working port is noisy, pungent and hugely atmospheric. Along with the flurry of boats arriving and departing, nets being repaired and the day’s catch being landed, you can see traditional wooden boats being made. The boatbuilders supply fishing vessels for the entire Moroccan coast and even as far away as France, as the design is particularly seaworthy. It’s also worth visiting the fish auction, which takes place in the market hall just outside the port gates.
Essaouira’s walled medina dates from the late 18th century and was added to Unesco’s World Heritage list in 2001. It is an outstanding and well-preserved example of European military architecture in North Africa.For the visitor, the narrow streets, souqs, street vendors, leafy plazas and whitewashed houses with ornate wooden doors make it a wonderful place to stroll. Dramatic, wave-lashed ramparts surround the medina and were famously used in the opening scene of Orson Welles’ 1951 film Othello.