Exotic and soulful, serene and weather-beaten, Morocco’s historical coastal city, Essaouira, moves at its own relaxed pace. It’s the perfect destination to de-stress and immerse your senses in another world entirely, to sample colourful traditional culture and simple pleasures. It will soon be all the easier to access for UK tourists too, with new easyjet flights from London Luton, from May 2015, taking you there in under four hours.
Camel rides on the beach at Essaouira (Robert Harding/R. Wittek)
Tuareg Mohamed Jallali pouring peppermint tea into a glass, Essaouira (Jan Greune/Robert Harding)
Fishermen standing on the harbourside wall in the historic Medina quarter, Essaouira (Elan Fleisher/Robert Harding)
Essaouira (pronounced essaweera) is a maze of narrow streets seemingly made for aimless, relaxed wandering, with an old walled, Unesco listed citadel whose labyrinthine structure can be viewed wonderfully from the top of its wave-battered ramparts. The medina has provided a compelling film set for movies, most notably Orson Welles’ Othello of 1952.
Children running through the streets of Essaouira medina (Raquel Carbonell/Robert Harding)
Fortress on the coast, Essaouira (Hollis Bennett/Robert Harding)
Man knitting and selling typical colourful Berber woollen hats in the medina, Essaouira (Stefan Kiefer/Robert Harding)
Culture abounds in this agreeable city, where artisans carve wood and weave colourful textiles, and traders offer leather Berber shoes, ceramics and spices in the city’s lively souk, with none of the aggressive sales banter found in Marrakech. Art galleries showcase the region’s colourful naïve painting style and if you are lucky enough to visit in June, the Gnaoua Festival of World Music brings together artists from all over the world and showcases the local gnaoua music along with rock, reggae and jazz acts.
Street Musicians in Essaouira (Stuart Pearce/Robert Harding)
Babouches, souks in the Medina, Essaouira (Bruno Morandi/Robert Harding)
Young boys sitting on fort walls, Essaouira (William A. Bolton/Robert Harding)
Colourful ceramics for sale in the medina, Essaouira (R. Wittek/Robert Harding)
Essaouira’s port was one of the most important hubs for trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas until the early 19th Century, when Casablanca and nearby Agadir took over. Now the harbour is dominated by fishermen bringing in their catch on bright azur wooden boats and trawlers. Stands on the port sell their fish as fresh as can be, cooking it for you on the grill and serving it with bread and salad. The best fish market, however, can be found off the medina’s main street, with a communal eating area that is the favourite of locals and tourists alike.
Blue fishing boats in the harbour, Essaouira (Art Wolfe/Robert Harding)
Polaroid image of fish on sale in fish market, Essaouira (Lee Frost/Robert Harding)
Open air fish restaurants and stalls by the sea to grill fresh fish, Essaouira (Robert Harding Productions)
Restaurant at the fish market in the old town, Essaouira (Peter Erik Forsberg/Robert Harding)
Strong currents make Essaouira’s wide and windswept, sandy beach more suited to windsurfers than swimmers, but it is a great place for walking or taking a camel or horse ride. At low tide, cross the Ksob River to search out the ruins of the Borj el-Berod, an old fortress that’s partially covered in sand, which locals believe was the inspiration behind Jimi Hendrix’s classic ‘Castles Made of Sand’.
Camels on the sea front at Essaouira (Josu Altzelai/Robert Harding)
Beach of Essaouira (Melba/Robert Harding)
Camel on the beach, Essaouira (Robert Harding/R. Wittek)
Large, luxury hotels can be found on the sea front but you won’t do better than to stay in one of Essaouira’s charming riads, traditional Moroccan houses or palaces with an enclosed interior garden arranged according to Islamic architectural principles. Many have relaxed rooftop terraces where you can sit and enjoy the sea breeze, and others are also restaurants, offering some of the most luxurious, if laid back, dining options in town.
Riad Mimouna hotel, Essaouira (Marco Cristofori/Robert Harding)
More photos of Essaouira:
Pharmacy in the old medina, Essaouira (R. Wittek/Robert Harding)
Moroccan olives at a food street stall in Essaouira medina (Raquel Carbonell/Robert Harding)
Moroccan women husking nuts, Essaouira (Stuart Pearce/Robert Harding)
Colourful textiles for sale in Essaouira (R. Wittek/Robert Harding)
See all our photos of Essaouira here
See more photos of Morocco here