Breathing…in Essaouira

My first view of Essaouira was from on top of a camel. I looked out over the Moroccan landscape toward the sea, and it was dotted with white and blue. Following a couple photos and payment of the required dirham for the “experience,” I was down off that camel’s hump and back in the vehicle as our driver led us on…..destination: Essaouira. All I really knew about this town is that Jimi Hendrix had spent some time there.

Essaouira is a small village on the western coast of Morocco. It is known for its breezy, laid back atmosphere with an artsy vibe where you can stop just breath a bit deeper for a moment. As a weekend overnight trip on A Curated World’s launch trip to Morocco, the Essaouira portion was a small break from artisan hunting, and more a moment to seek out some fabulous accommodations, eat at well renowned restaurants and markets, and taste a bit of the nightlife and seaside activity. While in Marrakech, we were constantly navigating its endless medina and jumping in and out of vehicles while being led by locals to out-of-the-way designer destinations. In Essaouira we were left to explore on our own, at our own pace.

Upon our arrival we checked in at Villa Maroc, nestled into the old city. Villa Maroc was one of the first riads to open here and has a well established and reputable presence in the town. With several levels [floors…either way they don’t seem like straightforward floors in my memory….] moving seamlessly from courtyard, to indoors, to the rooftop terrace all in blue and white and classic Moroccan tile, it is a delight just finding your room. We stayed in a suite with two adjoining bedrooms and comfortable sitting area in between. Once there we dropped our belongings and headed straight out for what we were told was the best lunch in town, at the fish market.

The fish market is located deep within the medina of Essaouira and along our leisurely way to find it we made several stops to purchase things like clementines (peak of the season in December) and olives, and haggle over some fabric that we would return for. We walked along the main drag of the walled city knowing at some point we needed to turn left to get deeper in, where we’d find the fish. Taking in the scenery and not paying too close attention, we took a few wrong turns ending up down streets with nothing but us, a few open doors, and scraggly looking cats. Nothing wrong with that, but soon hunger got the best of us and we focused on where we needed to go.

It was obvious we had approached the fish market when the chaos and noise escalated a bit, as often happens at a mercantile center in an ancient town. There were several vendors all selling a variety of species of mostly whole fish, presumably caught a few hours before just off the shores. Behind the vendors we founds what seemed to be a make-shift restaurant with a couple of large grills frying up nothing but fish. We sat down in some plastic chairs and flicked away the scraps of desiccated fish bones left on the table for the market cats to nibble on. I don’t quite remember what we ordered, if we ordered, or how we made that decision, but soon enough plate after plate of fried fish appeared on our table. Sardines, calamari, larger whole white fish, and…. french fries. We dove right in, eating with our hands and creating slightly more of a mess on the floor and the table than was already there. The fish was beautifully salty and fried, just enough to cut the entirely fishy sensation. Some of the whole fish took a little work to get through and required a fine tuned technique of boning and slicing to get at the good stuff. As we finished a group of lively musician-looking men came barreling into the market in song and dance. They had the look of rock stars about them, and we assumed them to be Moroccan celebrities but later found out they were locals, in fact musicians, just enjoying the weekend vibe of their town.

Another slow walk through the medina with stops to look at jewelry, crafts, and mostly more food led us back to Villa Maroc. In early December the sun was setting early, so I meandered to the rooftop terrace to watch it go down behind the North African horizon, a first for me. Showered, massaged (full spa services) and caught up on some work (free wifi), A Curated World was ready for their night on the town in Essaouira. We gathered in the room adjoining the bar at the riad for a glass of wine and some olives by the fireplace, sitting on chairs made of beautiful Moroccan kilims. Dinner reservations had been made at Taros, one of Essaouira’s most notable upscale restaurants. We entered and climbed a set of stairs, passed an art gallery, and were seating in the main dining room at large corner table. The walls were colored deep red and halfway down were covered in a mosaic of yellow and blue tiles which reflected the candlelight coming from the table. We ordered a bottle of local wine bottled specifically for the restaurant and settled into sampling classic Moroccan pastilla, lamb tagine and yes, some more sardines. In the end I was a bit underwhelmed by the food but it was made up for in the service and the restaurant’s magician who spent quality time at our table leaving us bewildered. Somehow he managed to take a $10 bill from my wallet, wave it around in his hand, then make it appear INSIDE a whole lemon. Seriously, this guy was amazing.

Although it was getting on in winter, Taro’s rooftop terrace was open and still going strong even though the band had stopped for the evening. We decided to stay for another drink and look out of the Pacific. It wasn’t exactly warm but the staff came around and gave us all blankets to wrap ourselves in. A little Moroccan amaro, a brilliant view, great friends, and we were quite alright. As I find often happens when traveling with other American woman, the local men quickly flocked to our table and had us on the dance floor convincing us to stay for another round. My friends departed for bed but I took the invitation of our lovely waiter to go dancing at another spot, wanting a sense of where the locals hang out. He took me to a club with two levels and a live band, lots of smoke and dancing. The band seemed to alternate between covers of rock tunes and traditional African music. No matter what the song, the locals were into it and I got the sense again that this town knows how to party. The Jimi Hendrix thing was starting to make sense.

Sunday morning was another brilliantly sunny North African day, and I spent it wandering by the port and through the myriad of fishing activity along the harbor. I watched old men mend fishing line, fishermen bring in their catch, and children scramble in and out of boats as the mellow morning took hold on this town. An older man stopped to chat with me as I stood by the sea wall looking out over the view. He spoke some English and was proud to tell me about his worldly travels and how he eventually settled back in Essaouira happier than ever because “What more would you need than this?” As he said this, he motioned across the ocean, the town square, and the medina behind. “All you need to do is breathe.”

Photo Credit: 1. & 4. Kay McGowan 2. 3. & 5. Leah Vincola

1 Comment

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