Dedicated to my dear Tante Christa in Hannover and to Ex Baku resident Meera Afghani Dahl, now in Dar Es Salaam, both of whom have specifically requested this article, and to Gwen from Baku who will be visiting in July, and to Annika and George who are going this weekend and to my sister from another mother, Carolina in Venezuela, for August. Essaouira and Dar Qawi – Riad by the Sea welcome you warmly!
Ten years ago, I bought a house in Morocco. Just like that, for no good reason. As you do. Okay, well let’s qualify that just a little bit, so that I don’t sound madder than I actually am which is plenty mad enough. During my extremely hard-up times pre Marriage No.2, I was determined that if I achieved nothing else, at least I wanted my two children to see the world and get a grassroots taste of different cultures, so they wouldn’t turn into one dimensional little Brit brats. They were in their very early teens then and I’d just read ‘Hideous Kinky’, an engaging novel by Esther Freud, painter Lucien Freud’s daughter and Sigmund Freud’s great-granddaughter, about her years as a hippy child in Morocco. So we scraped together our pennies and one Easter holiday, some 17 years ago, took a three hour flight to Marrakech, the Morocco Lonely Planet guide under my arm.
Initially, we holed up in a cute B&B, The Gallia Hotel, in the medina of Marrakech. Only once we were there, did I realise that the reasonable pricing was down to the fact that not so long ago it had been a brothel. Hey ho. Thankfully it wasn’t anymore and now, with the formidable Madame Gaillard at its small helm, it offered a comfortable and pretty family room for the three of us and scrumptious French breakfasts. From here we roamed the fascinating old souk, the winding maze of the medina, Le Jardin Majorelle, which once belonged to Yves Saint Laurent, with its small museum, and the many louche cafes. We ate pigeon pastilla, a kind of sweet waffle with pigeon meat inside, tagines, cous cous, drank sweet peppermint tea, were fascinated by the storytellers, snake charmers and water sellers on the Djemaa El Fna at dusk and watched belly dancers gyrating to mesmerizing music. The red haze of Marrakech, the dry heat, the storks in their big nests atop the roofs, the melodic call to prayer five times a day, the food stalls with their sheeps’ heads, the bargaining and the market place hustle and bustle transported us straight into 1001 Arabian Nights. We had stepped into a thrilling, slightly terrifying, completely different world and it was magical!
After three days in Marrakech, we rented a car and made our way to the seaside, to the little fishing port of Essaouira. In stark contrast to Marrakech, it was cooler with fresh winds blowing off the Atlantic, tiny and all blue and white, with a long, long golden beach. We treated ourselves to a stay at the Villa Maroc, then the only decent hotel in town, and well documented for its pretty, very typical Moroccan interior design, which, at the time, was featured in many design magazines. Originally ‘discovered’ in the good old hippy trail days by the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, who allegedly wrote his song ‘Castles in the Sand’ here, Essaouira has quite a fascinating history.
People have lived in Mogador, as it was once known, since pre-historic times, it’s bay offering one of the best anchorages in Morocco with rich fishing waters. In the 16th Century, it was conquered by the Portuguese and remained in their hands for almost two decades. Until the end of the nineteenth century, Essaouira served as Morocco’s principal port, an important stop on the caravan routes which brought goods from sub Saharan Africa to Timbuktu, through the desert and to Marrakech and Essaouira, from where they were shipped out to the rest of the world. Interestingly, Safi, just a couple of hours drive north along the same coastline, was the main African market hub for white slavery following Arab raids on Western Europe in the 16th and 17th Centuries, when around one million people, many from Brittany, Devon and Cornwall were abducted, never to be seen again. (I strongly recommend the book ‘White Gold’ by Giles Milton on this subject!) Moroccan Jews, some as a result of the Spanish Expulsion in the Middle Ages, were encouraged to settle in Essaouira. The many synagogues in the Mellah bear witness to a thriving Jewish community here in years gone by. At one point, 40% of Essaouira’s population were Jewish but numbers dwindled in the 1950s and 60s with most emigrating. From 1912 to 1956, Essaouira was part of the French Protectorate of Morocco. These days, the fortified medina of the little town is a Unesco World Heritage site and famous mostly for it’s pretty boho ambience, the annual Gnaoua World Music Festival and as a film location for Orson Wells’ ‘Othello’ and more recently, ‘Game of Thrones’.
We fell head over heels in love with Essaouira. So close to Europe and yet so different, so relaxed and easygoing after the hectic pace of London or Marrakech, so pretty too, and the food fresh and delicious, the little cobbled alleyways, small shops, cafes and restaurants, the friendly people and the fabulous beach, a perfect escape, a sleepy little Franco/ Arabic paradise with Atlantic breezes. Back then, owning a property here, though cheap to acquire, was nothing but a pipe dream but I swore I’d return one day. Fast forward five years or so, and indeed I made good my promise and returned with my then future husband after a wonderful and memorable two week road trip through parts of Southern Morocco.
We’d started off in Marrakech, once again staying at the quaint little Hotel Gallia (www.ilove-marrakesh.com/hotelgallia), then made our way South East through the High Atlas along the Kasbah route to Ouarzazate and from there through the lush Draa Valley to remote, lovely little Zagora on the edge of the Sahara desert, where we stayed in what might possibly be my favourite B&B of all times, Villa Zagora (www.mavillaausahara.com). This gorgeous little hideaway retreat such a long way from anywhere has a small pool, an excellent local chef and grows its own produce. At dusk we were taken by camel into the desert to watch the sunset, a simply unforgettable experience. After a couple of days of enjoying the desert solitude, we carried on through an otherworldly moonscape, eventually reaching our next stop close to Taroudant in the Anti Atlas, the famous Hotel Gazelle d’Or (www.boutiquehotelgazelledor.com) which is all about out and out classic French luxury with prices to reflect this. These days, there is another idyllic place to stay in the area, Falcons’ Tower (http://www.homeaway.com/vacation-rental/p6655199#summary), owned by a German ex financier and his partner and filled to the rafters with fabulous art and artefacts.
Finally: Essaouira! Having told the then future lovely husband what a sleepy little place this was, we were surprised to find ourselves arriving in the middle of the World Gnaoua Festival (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gnaoua_World_Music_Festival) and the little alleyways were heaving with people! Around 500.000 music aficionados from all over the world descend on Essaouira during the four day period of the festival and the entire atmosphere changes. Members of the Marley family have been spotted, as have Annie Lennox, Sting and various other well-known musos, the hypnotic sounds of the hajhuj and the smell of hashish pervading the town. In the midst of all this, and on the spur of the moment, we decided to look at some riads for sale. The third one we saw, we liked, completely unmodernised as it was. It was located in a very nice quiet part of the medina and only five minutes walk to the beach, not too big but with sufficient space to accommodate our family and friends, should they decide to visit, once it was renovated. A deal was done and all of a sudden, we were proud owners of a Moroccan ‘Dar’.
Did I just naively say ‘once it was renovated’? Ha! Bless our little cotton socks! Other, more competent authors have filled books on the trials and tribulations of renovating a house in Morocco. May I point you to Anglo-Afghan author Tahir Shah and his account of renovating his property in Casablanca, ‘The Caliph’s House’? Or to ‘Cinnamon City’ by British writer and journalist, Miranda Innes, which is all about her riad in Marrakech. These books are not only seriously good reads but they will make you cry with laughter and amusement. Hahaha, go right ahead and give in to your Schadenfreude, why don’t you! It took us a good two years to realize that only the most foolhardy, optimistic, patient Non Moroccan idiot would take on such a project…..But eventually, after our hair had gone grey and we’d lost the will to live on more than just a few occasions, Dar Qawi – Riad by the Sea (www.riadbythesea.com), was habitable and comfortable, and ready to throw open its doors. Since then it has become our beloved retreat from London and has been lovingly filled with many happy memories, with family and friends and with laughter and fun. To keep it from being covered in dustsheets and losing its sparkle, we sometimes holiday let it to visitors but it always remains a home from home rather than a ‘quick buck rental’. Our wonderful local housekeeper and cook, Zara, who has been with us from the beginning, makes tagines to die for and our English house manager, Sandra, a long-term Essaouira expat who looks like a beautiful African princess but is, in fact, from Stoke, keeps things running smoothly with the help of charming Moroccan law student, Redoin. We are truly blessed.
Essaouira is known as the Windy City of Africa. And sure in enough, in June and July it certainly gets blowy, making this an ideal destination for surfers, windsurfers and kite surfers. The rest of the time, the temperature is mild all year round, usually somewhere between 17 and 30 degrees C, though it can get chilly at night and in January and February rain storms can blow in from the Atlantic. Apart from meandering around the medina, bargaining for wonderful goods such as decorative items and furniture made of thuya wood, the famed argan oil, fragrant rose water, smart Moroccan leather goods and pretty ceramics, Essaouira has a lot to offer visitors. There’s quad biking in the dunes, camel or horse trekking, music, cinema, hammam visits, Thalasso spa treatments, fishing, boating and hiking in the countryside, not to mention plenty of opportunity to catch the rays, either on the beach or on one of the many roof terraces. And then there are all those wonderful restaurants and cafes, for every taste and every budget, and many of them quite outstanding, from the stalls right by the port where they will prepare the day’s freshly landed catch for you there and then, via chilled out beach bars, to top of the range gourmet experiences that can hold their own even by London or New York standards (See list below).
Almost directly 170 km west of Marrakech and an equal distance north of Agadir, it takes about 2.5 hours by car, taxi or coach to get to Essaouira. It also has an International airport with direct flights from London (3 hours), Marseilles and Paris arriving several times a week and others flying in via the hub of Casablanca.
Children and teenagers have a great time in Essaouira, not only are the Moroccans extremely child friendly and the medina very safe indeed but there’s plenty to do, from sandcastle building for the tinies to playing football with the locals on the many ball pitches along the seafront for older children. The Atlantic however is cold and often pretty wavy, so you have to be quite hardy to go for a dip in the sea!
Essaouira has a relaxed, arty vibe. Alcohol is freely available pretty much everywhere and while topless sunbathing is illegal, there is no sense of restriction on Western beach clothing. Do leave you high heels at home though and bring your flip-flops instead! A warm fleece is also advisable for those rare occasions when the storms blow in from the Atlantic.
We often happen to arrive late afternoon, with the summer heat just fading and right on time for the spectacular sunsets. With the sand between my toes, a long cool drink in my hand and the call to prayer ringing from the mosques, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be!
Some Favourite Restaurants in Essaouira
The Fish Stalls by the Harbour will cook up freshly caught fish for your delectation.
La Table at Madada, associated with a cooking school of the same name, is a chic restaurant with a warm and inviting ambience, a good looking menu and supremely delicious food and wine. We paid around €80 for dinner for two, including wine, water and coffee.
Elizir is a top notch restaurant in a funky retro style. It’s spread over several small rooms, all with interesting art work and one with a cosy fire place. Expect to pay around €45 for an excellent dinner for two including two glasses of wine.
Silvestro’s, a cheap and cheerful super popular Italian restaurant with possibly the best Italian food I have ever eaten anywhere! Two main courses and one desert plus water, local wine and a soft drink was around €40.
Le Patio serves excellent fish dishes in their main, very Moroccan looking restaurant but it’s the small but very moreish tapas selection at the little mirrored bar which makes it an easygoing evening hang-out. Olives, vegetable brochettes, fish croquettes, onion tart and warm orange tart were around €30 including coffee and half a litre of local Semillant.
Taros: The top floor terrace overlooking the harbour and the wide expanse of sea is where the beautiful people go for their lunch time snacks and evening sun downers. It has live music and a very chilled atmosphere.
Ferdaous, small and with slightly drab interior design, this restaurant serves wonderful traditional Moroccan dishes at extremely good value. Dinner for two without alcohol but with avocado and orange juice was around €20.
One Up, owned and run by John Quinn, a hairdresser and super talented interior designer from Glasgow, this bar/lounge/restaurant has a tempting menu in an enchanting environment. As yet, there is no alcohol licence but the great mocktails make up for that.
Villa Maroc, the first smart hotel in Essaouira has beautifully presented dining areas and a small cosy bar with a big crackling fireplace.
Cafe Bab Lachour right on the main square initially looks like a men only kind of tea house but climb the stairs up to the terrace and you will have a perfect view of all the comings and goings and a very good value lunch! We paid approx. €10 for a light lunch for two including coffee and water.
Ocean Vagabond is a pretty beach club a good 15 minutes walk along the promenade from the medina, directly on the beach. With a boho Francophile vibe, it offers sheltered sun lounging, a small childrens’ play area, a view to the kitesurfing, quad biking and camel riding activities and a pizza/burger/salad type menu to assuage daytime appetite.
There are many other inviting eateries, cafes and bars, service is generally very good and prices range from super cheap to eyewateringly expensive. There is a large Carrefour supermarket for provisions but for fresh food the fruit and veg market in the souk is unbeatable. Our housekeeper is an excellent cook and like other riad ‘femmes de menage’, is happy to prepare evening meals for guests in the riad. Her beef and apricot tagine is legendary!
Back then, after our adventurous road trip and our spontaneous property buying spree, we made our way back through the Atlas Mountains via the Tizi ‘n Test mountain pass to Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in Morocco. It was, without any exaggeration whatsoever, the most hair raising experience of my life. Imagine a two hour drive along a winding narrow unsecured single lane road, on one side against a sheer rock face, on the other, falling off sharply to a deep, deep abyss, in the middle of nowhere, and a large juggernaut lorry coming towards you from the opposite direction once in a while, forcing you to go backwards for half a kilometre or so, to find a little nook in a rock to allow the lorry to pass. I had a low expectation of survival and could only stop myself from screaming by peering at the barren landscape through the lens of a video camera, giving me at least a very mild sense of detachment from reality. The lovely husband remained calm throughout but I was in shreds when we eventually arrived at the final destination of our trip, the spectacular Kasbah du Toubkal (www.kasbahtoubkal.com), perched like an eagle’s eyrie atop the mountain and overlooking the snowy peaks all around. Just above the artisan village of Imlil, it is a bare 45 minutes drive (on a different, far safer road!) from scorching Marrakech and quite unforgettable in its beauty.
Morocco is a beautiful, fascinating and very safe and stable country with a great deal to offer the visitor, different landscapes from lush oases to barren moonscapes, from fertile river valleys to the long seaboard, and with charming and hospitable people who are always open to the opportunity for a chat, a bargaining session or a sweet mint tea. We have yet to visit ancient Fez, the garden city of Meknes, the capital Rabat or modern Casablanca which apparently is rather more industrialised than you might expect from the iconic film of the same name, and many other places but we have enjoyed Tangiers with its old diplomatic quarter and historically home and inspiration to many European and American writers and artists such as Paul Bowles, Truman Capote, Ira Cohen, Henri Matisse, Yves Saint Laurent and Jack Kerouac, to name just a few. Not too far from Tangiers is the picturesque Rif Mountain town Chefchouen, painted all blue, including some of the streets themselves, and very much worth visiting.
No matter what time of year or whether you are a sun worshipper, a hiker, a culture vulture or a collector of amazing travel experiences, Morocco, and especially Essaouira, will satisfy and enthral all your senses. Marhaba!