Despite a slight evolution toward Western practices in terms of new hotels springing up outside the Medina, life inside the fortress still remains very much as it used to be in the small sleepy fishing village's heyday in the 1960s.
Surrounded by ramparts, some still boasting the original canons dating back to the 18th century during the reign of the sultan Mohammed III ben Abdallah who is the founder of the town of Essaouira. Together with the French town planner, Théodore Cornut, they designed a city in the desert, in the strong winds.
Due to its relaxed pace of life, a bubble of life within the walls of the Medina on the coastline, Essaouira is still a popular haven for the French hippie crowd, most of which who came over in the 60s are now part of the local fibre. There has been a fairly strong artistic scene ever since. A new generation of 'bohemian-bourgeois' young French entrepreneurs have also made Essaouira their home - the expatriate crowd here is a privileged elite.
The main draws of Essaouira are its relaxed lifestyle, excellent shopping for local handicrafts, art galleries, and surfing/wind surfing. A lovely place to explore for a long weekend, one where you will fall under its spell almost straight away.
Essaouira isn't the type of place you visit to especially learn all about Moroccan culture, but it's more the kind of place you visit to relax and let the stresses of everyday life give way while you visit argan oil cooperatives and wine producing estates.
Visitors must explore the port, which is a fascinating bubble of fishermen gutting their catch before selling it to the vendors at the fish market. Boats are also built here, which is worth stopping for.
Inside the Medina is a maze of uneven lanes and meandering cobbled streets lined by stalls selling anything from Thuja wood, the local wood, ceramics, silver jewellery, food and house hold items. Despite the popularity of the town with tourists, local life prevails, making up a large part of the charm of Essaouira.
Surfers will probably want to visit beaches around Essaouira, while sun seekers will be more comfortable baring all for the perfect tan at some of the beaches outside Essaouira, close to the Océan Vagabond Café.
If your are planning on visiting Essaouira in June, make sure you get involved with the incredible Gnaoua International Music Festival. Continuing on a festive streak, Morocco is also the biggest wine-producer in North Africa, and this, despite the local religion (Islam). But Moroccans tend to be on the whole a lot more lax than their neighbours when it comes to religion. A must-visit wine producer is the Val d'Argan, which has a restaurant open for lunch and dinner - it serves some of the best food we have ever had the privilege of trying. All vegetables used for the unending array of salads and dishes, are all grown on the property.
Azur Spa and Art Gallery in the Medina, close to the main Hassan square, is the best place to try a treatment at a reasonable price. You will be surprised at its stylish interiors and excellent treatments.
Essaouira is one of those unique gems that you will hear about from people who have been, but you won't quite be able to grasp its appeal until you visit. Essaouira has a story of its own, giving it its very distinctive identity comprising of Portuguese, Spanish and French influences as well as Arab. In many ways, Essaouira is the town that is symbolic of peace, especially as many populations originating from all over the world and of varying religious backgrounds, including a strong Jewish population, have cohabited without a problem.
Essaouira was made famous by Orson Welles, who filmed Othello here in the 1950s. Welles developed a very special bond with Essaouira, whose people actually helped fund the film when the director ran out of budget. A statue of Welles now immortalises the special relationship.
However, the surprising element of Essaouira is the authenticity it has retained despite the multitude of links with the West throughout its history and despite its strong French influence (which is in fact the second language of Morocco after Arabic).
The main sites in Essaouira comprise of its beaches, its UNESCO-listed Medina (the fortified city) and the bustling port.
In the markets make sure you bargain for goods as the shop-keepers tend to charge double the usual price.
Before booking a holiday to Essaouira, make sure you secure a room at riad, a typical Moroccan house based around an interior courtyard, within the Medina, as this is where you will be able to get the strongest feel for the local rhythm.
Be prepared to plan for a few days in Marrakesh or Agadir as there aren't any direct flights to Essaouira from the UK yet. From Marrakesh the drive is about 3-4 hours and from Agadir it is about 2 hours away.
If you want to feel at ease at the main beach just outside the Medina, make sure you are a little covered up, even while swimming as this is known as one of the main gawker-spots among local men. Women must make sure they are dressed appropriately when inside the Medina as the stares can be uncomfortable.
Avoid having sneaky peaks inside Hammams, which you will find all over the city in its deepest darkest basements - this is intimidating for the local; so if you want to experience a hammam, book yourself in.
Moroccan cuisine is excellent and offers a variety of dishes with subtle and varied tastes. The couscous is, of course, the typically Moroccan dish, but also taste the tajines of beef, chicken or lamb. Pastillas can be eatan sweet or salty or a mixture of the two. Fritters or chorba are appetizing starters. The mouth-watering pastries will deligt any sweet-toothed traveller. At the end of a meal, it is customary to have local mint tea.
For a romantic meal, we recommend the riad, L'Heure Bleue, inside the Medina. A Relais et Châteaux hotel, it serves Moroccan cuisine with a modern twist in beautiful classic European surroundings within a high-end riad structure.
Handicrafts in Essaouira are of very good quality and make great presents for friends and family back home. These include brightly-coloured ceramics from fruit bowls to tajine dishes. Thuja wood is also a speciality in the region, as is silver jewellery, spices, and of course, your token postcard of the port's blue boats!
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