On a recent visit to Marrakesh, I had the opportunity to experience a day trip to the nearby coastal town of Essaoura. I was surprised to find that Essaouira was so much more relaxed and laid back than Marrakesh. Even with a short day in Essaouira, I discovered that its beach vibe felt more akin to being in the Caribbean than on the African coast.
As a result of its good natural protected bay, Essaouira has a very long seafaring history, going as far back as the 5th century BC and into Roman times. The fortress walls that we see today are a little more modern though, having been built in the 16th century by the Portuguese. The city itself and the Medina (old town) area is also a little newer, and was built in the mid eighteenth century by the Moroccan King Mohammed III. Through the king’s efforts, the port of Essaouira became an important final stop on the caravan trade route that brought goods from sub-Saharan Africa over the Atlas Mountains to Marrakesh and then finally to Essaouira where the goods were loaded onto ships headed to Europe. It is this rich history that has contributed to the UNESCO designation of Essaouira’s Medina area.
Essaouira is about a three hour drive from Marrakesh which makes it a doable day trip from Marrakesh. I had a morning pick up at my hotel by the tour driver and we arrived at Essaouira by lunchtime. Our small group chose one of the many beach-side restaurants for lunch. Not surprising, the menu offered up a selection of seafood dishes. Even though it was mid November, the temperature was moderate, the sun was shining, and the ocean breeze was warm, so I enjoyed my seafood tagine al-fresco with views of palm trees lining the broad sandy beach.
After lunch, I explored the historic Medina area and the rampart walls that protect it. With so many cannons pointing out toward the sea, and rough waved crashing against the high walls, I understood why potential invaders were unsuccessful in taking the city and why pirates sought refuge here. In that setting, I don’t think I would have been surprised to see a tall masted ship appear on the horizon – it certainly would have felt appropriate.
Exploring the Medina in Essaouira was a joy. It’s smaller and felt much less chaotic than the Medina in Marrakesh. The predominantly white buildings trimmed in blue left no doubt that I was in a sea side setting. I liked that I could wander the lanes without being bothered by the shop merchants-it certainly made me more inclined to browse. And there weren’t nearly as many motorcycles whizzing by in the narrow lanes as I had to deal with in Marrakesh.
As I poked my head into the shops and looked at window displays, the artistic side of Essaouira was evident. Sure, there were all the usual touristy offerings, but there were also higher end shops displaying art, jewelry and delicately carved and inlayed wood crafts. The area is especially known for the Thuya wood carvings. I found a number of small local artistinal shops at the base of the rampart walls that seemed to have more distinctive pieces.
Before I knew it, the afternoon had slipped away, and it was time for the three hour drive back to Marrakesh. I had gotten a small taste of Essaouira which left me wanting more. Next time, I will spend a night or two in this charming little sea side town so that I can really take in its ambiance.
I did at least get to stick my toes in the Atlantic on the African continent.
Please note that my visit to Essaouira was hosted by Time Out Marrakesh. All content is my own.
Thanks for visiting.