Where Marrakesh is pink, Essaouira is blue and white. And just any blue. The hue that shines from doors and window shutters is cobalt blue. Even the fishing boats are painted that vibrant shade.
Where is Essaouira?
Essaouira is located on the Atlantic coast in western Morocco. Across the wide, sandy Mogador Bay, are the Iles Purpuraires, so called because the Phoenicians installed production facility for indigo dye to serve the Roman market. However, these small islands offer scant protection against the strong trade winds. Swimming and sunning can become rather uncomfortable when the wind blows.
Essaouira, UNESCO World Heritage Site
Although the area has been inhabited since prehistoric times, the town of Essaouira was founded by Sultan Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah in the 18th century. He wanted to open Morocco to the world, and the port of Essaouira was its gateway. Essaouira was Morocco’s largest commercial port until Casablanca and Agadir ports dwarfed it with their deeper waters.
UNESCO chose Essaouira because it’s “an exceptional example of a late 18th century fortified town built according to the principles of contemporary European military architecture”. The French architect who designed the medina was inspired by the works of another French architect, Vauban, who designed the fortified citadel of Saint-Malo in Brittany, France.
Essaouira or Mogador?
It’s complicated. The placename Mogador derives from the Phoenician name Migdal. When the Portuguese tried to invade and built a fortress, they called it Castelo Reial de Mogador, which was destroyed in the 18th century. When Sultan Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah founded the town, he called it Essaouira, which means “the little rampart” in Moroccan Arabic. During the French protectorate (1912-1956), it was known as Mogador, and it regained its name when Morocco declared its independence from France in 1956.
What to do in Essaouira
Essaouira is rather small and it’s easy to walk around the historic bit.
The medina, built with a local stone called manjour, still preserves its original configuration. The Mellah, or Jewish quarter, is the exception because the houses are mostly in ruins. What happened was that most Jews emigrated en masse to Israel in the mid-20th century, abandoning their homes to their fate. You can still see inscriptions in Hebrew or stars of David on the lintels.
The medina, or walled city, is a labyrinth if narrow streets, although it’s much easier to navigate than, say, the Marrakech medina. Vendor bring out their wares into the streets and you can have a browse without suffering the harassment so common in other markets. We made a couple of purchases and the experience was very similar to that in the Western world. However, we were told that the bed covers were a certain size. When I measured them at home, they were shorter by many, many inches. I’ll have to find another use for them.
In general, the facades are painted white or light colours, and the shutters and doors are cobalt blue, a wonderful contrast. The street that runs from the port all the way to the north gate bisects the medina and makes navigation pretty easy. The Place Moulay Hassan, located between the port and the medina, is the heart of the town. That’s where you’ll find the majority of cafes and restaurants. Do find a table outside and bask in the atmosphere.
The Skala du Port is a stone fortress from 1769, built on the site of the former Castelo Reial de Mogador. Its main function was to protect the citadel from naval attacks. You can still see bronze cannons strewn along the top of the ramparts. Game of Throne fans will recognise the fortress, as it was used as the location of the city of Astapor in Season 3.
The port is, for me, Essaouira’s biggest attraction. The sea on one side and the Skala du Port, guardian of the citadel on the other. It’s very interesting to see the fishermen repair the nets o getting the boat ready for fishing. The seagulls swirl and swirl above the boats hoping to catch the fishermen unawares and steal a fish or two. The sight of the blue fishing boats is unforgettable. The smell of freshly caught fish and the cries of the gulls are a permanent fixture.
The fishing fleet returns in the afternoon and there a flurry of activity, including fish auctions.
The Skala de la Ville is a part of the ramparts and protects the citadel from the crash of the waves from the Atlantic Ocean. When we visited, it was closed for restoration, but I understand you can walk along the top. The souk starts at the foot of the walls.
How to get there
We hired a private car, but I understand thaa there are public buses that run between Essaouira and Marrakech. Or you can rent a car.
Where to eat
There are many cafes y restaurants, but we chose Taro’s. We had a wonderful lunch of fresh fish with spectacular views of the square and the port beyond.
Read it in Spanish here.