Morocco, for many, is little more than a chic destination; always a short ferry ride, or an even tinier flight on Ryanair, or any other budget carrier from nearby Europe. The country however, is a lot farther socially and culturally.
The difference is much more stark after a long, straight and dusty two-hour drive from Marrakesh – Essaouira; the difference is a stare-at-your-face one. But as positive as it gets. The place comes as a breath of fresh air. And quite literally too. Apart from the brilliant breeze and the almost fictional temperature practically in the middle of a desert (not to mention the preoccupation that it is in Africa), the thing that welcomes upon first sight is the abrupt change in the locale’s color palette. One of the small towns and cities that dot Morocco’s Atlantic coast, Essaouira stuns in refreshing whites and lovely blues. And the rather rare sandy pink.
Siting atop a roof along the western ramparts of the walled city, the gaze is easily stolen by the fascinating show over the Atlantic – a brilliantly blue sky, sun still up and casting its rays over the sparkling ocean with the rising crescent moon as a backdrop. And just like that, twilight comes and goes, bringing up a starry night. Indeed, the perfect midsummer night’s dream.
Of purple dog noses, fish markets and herbal aphrodisiacs
Essaouira is a peculiar city, with tales of purple dog noses. A local fisherman’s dog returned home with a purple nose. Curious, he followed his furry friend to the shores to find the source. Much later, Phoenician and Carthaginian traders settled around the seventh century B.C. and harvested the purple substance in large scale that gave the good dog his coloured nose. A die, along with salt and fish, that went on to become one of the city’s prime exports.
Along the shores is a promenade, and a rather flat concrete dock area. Tables and grills are often littered on it, specially in the lunch and evening times. The fishermen can be seen prepping up their nets, baiting their hooks, and repairing the boats. In fact, Essaouira fishermen are curious folk. Unlike their professional kin across the world, whatever time they are not in the sea fishing is not spent in the tavern. Once the rather lazy afternoon passes, the fishermen venture out for the catch and come back late night or early morning when the same area becomes a raucous fish market.
Not very far away, is the spice souq. What can be found here is nothing short of astounding. The stalls are often small, only sometimes dusty (this no indication of slow business) and variously coloured. The richness of textures, aromas, and a sense of exotic magic makes me think of Diagon Alley. Brahim pulls out jar after jar from shelves reaching right to the ceiling. They are innocent tea leaves, sweet tobacco, herbal Viagra, baldness cure, and many other that is very difficult to pronounce and even more so to remember their use.
All about the food and the trinkets
If the markets of Marrakech are to be compared to the ones found here, the multiple lanes lined with shops come across a little more sober, but by no means any less vibrant or rich. Essaouira instead offers a small but terrific range and, in fact, some travelers prefer it to the more crowded Marrakech. Woodwork is a craft deeply etched here. Almost as much as fishing itself. Near the Skala de la Ville is an amazing maze of woodcarving workshops. The marquetry work is often made in the same complex where they are put on sale, and it is lovely to watch men of all ages bring out such work of art. The produce is made from the local fragrant thuya wood. While it is enchanting to watch the intricacy of the carvings, buying one is strongly discouraged. The tree species is now endangered. However, at the same shops, made equally beautifully are products from regular wood.
Rafia is one of Essaouira’s most esteemed handcraft – trinkets as well as sprawling products made delicately from doum palm fibers. The Tilal des Arts Plastiques sell works by local painters. And out of nowhere, maintained by a former New York resident, is Galerie Aida, a shop stock full of a rather good selection of English books, and some interesting junk.
Good shopping and fantastic walking comes along with great food. And like everything else, haggling is not an irritation, but quite a mild, smile punctuated, and enjoyable addition to it. Another Essaouira uniqueness is a semi-restaurant. It is a name fashioned by me, for lack of a better term. You do the shopping, at any place you like, but most likely at the market by the shore. Then give it to the expert cooks here, and they will cook up the most delightful course, right in front of you, on open fire. And sometimes even in earthen vessels to accentuate the taste. There are, of course, the regular eateries too. Classic restaurants are seldom fun and it is best to keep off them. Food in Morocco tastes so much better in the open. Choose which of the blokes declaring “best price” you want to go for, participate in a spirited negotiation, dust off a section of the bench, choose from tanks full of fresh seafood, and you are good to go.
There’s something about “Rock the Casbah”
There’s something about the Moroccan music which is not easily defined or described. Picture a music form with all the goodness of the innumerable genres, let’s throw in the Californian Saw for good measure – we will perhaps begin to describe the first few notes of the form. It is truly enchanting listening to the men singing in the evenings at the dock. When the 1982 song by “The Clash” hit the Billboard Hot 100 chart, little did anyone know that the song which was sung in various Arabic, Turkish, and Sanskrit loan-words like sharif, sheikh and casbah, would be sung by artists in a tiny port town in Africa. The song features quite commonly in the annual Gnawa and World Music Festival, which proves to be a transforming experience.
Taros is a popular watering hole here (surprisingly so, even with the very liberal muslim locals) and sitting on its rooftop is arguably one the best ways to be engaged in the festival, if you are not a musician yourself.
Now the festival is mighty different from any other event with a similar name. For one, it is not held in an auditoriam, sweaty foodball field, or Central Park. It is held in the entire city; every lane, every square and every open space. It is common to see musicians put down their instruments and groove to the music of the others. There is no genre boundary – jazz, rock, hip-hop, classical, anything. As long as it sounds good to one, it is performed, and cheered.
One other thing that almost skipped my mind was the importance of the hippie populace of old. A part of the legendary hippie trail, this place reveled in all the good that came off that era. Loy Ehrlich, a celebrated French guitarist, was a 19 year old hippie when he came here; that was in 1971. Now, he is the artistic director of the Gnawa Festival.
This out-of-the-way, off the beaten path town, which was for ages called by its Portugese name of Mogador, comes with only a handful of hotels, average to sometimes bad roads, and no fancy resorts or malls. It is a place where one can really just let the hair down.