Essaouira seems to be giving Marrakech a run for it’s money.
Savvy travellers have cottoned on that we don’t need to go all the way to Agadir for some ocean breeze and a calmer pace, when a three and half hour drive from Marrakech will promptly tick those boxes.
Jimmy Hendrix used to live in Essaouira for a while, and it used to be a very popular choice for hippy types – it still has a bit of a hippy, chilled vibe today and has featured in Game of Thrones.
Why is no one talking about Essaouira?
There’s a lot of hype around Marrakech, it’s usually the first place you think of when talk turns to Morocco yet it’s not even the capital.
Everyone, their friend, neighbour and granny seem to have been or are planning to go to Marrakech these days. To be fair, Marrakech has surged in the ranks of popular tourist destinations, particularly in the UK as it’s a short flight, warm weather and distinctly different culturally speaking.
I think it’s nice to try and experience two contrasts when you visit somewhere – the fast and the slow, the city and the hills, the beach and the village, you catch my drift.
Give yourself a mix and then suss out which you prefer, maybe you’ll love them all.
I’d heard a few things about Essaouira before visiting and decided to spend some time there before exploring Marrakech.
Day one was dedicated to shopping, since rumour has it, you get things a lot cheaper in Essaouira than you do in Marrakech – in fact there are quite a few things that set Essaouira apart from Marrakech.
So what’s the difference then?
You’ll get rugs for a fraction of the price quoted in Marrakech
There are more fixed prices and a gentler approach from sellers. In fact ‘you’ find yourself bothering the sellers for their attention in some shops.
Haggling in Essaouira
Negotiating with sellers was pretty pleasent
One seller gave me a price for some cushion covers:
Me: your price is too high for me
Seller: Well give me your price
Me: My price is low, I don’t want to insult you
Seller: Well give me your ‘dream’ price (laughter)
Long story short, I pretty much got my dream price, but you do have to go through this back and forth verbal dance of prices before the sale can conclude – no matter what you’re buying – unless it’s a bottle of water.
It’s still hard work.
Wandering around the Medina
The medina in Essaouira is smaller and easier to explore without the fear of disappearing into Aladdin’s abyss; it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It’s a scenic, coastal, fishing community
There’s a strong grecian vibe
There’s a whole different vibe altogether
It’s quite artsy too
It’s very windy – cooler than Marrakech all year round and the coastal views from the fort are pretty impressive. Beach front kite flying and kite surfing are on trend, but be warned – the water is freezing.
There were no snake charmers in sight – not one, and no monkeys either.
The blue and white buildings have earned Essaouira a reputation as the Santorini of Morocco
The Real Deal: Essaouira Locals Speak
Day two started with a guided tour of Essaouira’s centre, then more time to explore.
The fishing community is strong in Essaouira, and due to the weather at sea being a bit rough on day two, all the local fishermen had docked their blue boats and gathered together for what looked like a bit of a social gathering.
One of them got talking to us and showed us a fabulous perspective of the boats for some photographs before telling us about some of the frustrations he was facing with his fellow fishermen.
The government wants to build a new marina where they currently keep all their boats and gather together – this fisherman told us that local fishermen were protesting against this plan.
Our little friend went on to explain how his father and forefathers before him had all earned their living from fishing in the area, and is a historic gem for that very reason – a slice of the real Morocco, which they believe should be preserved rather than covered over for the sake of tourism.
If you’ve ever been to Morocco then you’ll know that death by collision with a bike is imminent at all hours of the day and night in Marrakech.
The same is also true in Essaouira I’m afraid. You have to watch and listen out for cycles, scooters, trucks, you name it…they creep up from nowhere at high speed when you’re wandering around aimlessly with your head in the air taking in all the lovely sights. Sometimes it’s best to stay still or maintain your pace and direction then they’ll swerve around you, other moments call for a quick dive to the left or right.
Some things never change
Despite it’s more laid back vibe, you still get people trying to hustle you in Essaouira by showing you they way – sing it: “let me show you, let me show you where to go, follow me my friend……by The Jacksons”.
One seller, completely clad in big screaming designer slogans was all up for a chat – said he loved the American vibe, American style. We talked about fashion for a while before the conversation took a predictable turn; he started to tell me about his uncle’s spice shop just up the way and was ready to lead me there.
Note: I never once mentioned wanting to buy any spices….we were talking about designer clothes for goodness sake! Here we go again round the “no thank you” merry-go-round.
“No thank you, it’s ok, I’m not in a hurry, I’m taking my time, I don’t need a guide, I don’t want to go, no thanks, I’m fine (HONESTLY), you just relax, no no no, thank you, yes maybe tomorrow” and so it goes on….every single time.
I wonder what they’d make of us in the UK, ignoring each other as we walk down the street, avoiding eye contact and not asking people for money when they ask for directions. Or being ignored by sales assistants most of the time lol. No bargaining, no ‘good price’ just fixed prices, no need to speak to anyone – a cold and socially frozen shopping experience perhaps!
Another charming seller suggested we should get married and declared that we’ll have five children!!!! (He’d probably sell me for a hundred camels after that lol, too risky).
Time for Lunch and a bit more shopping
Lunch at ‘Fanatics Cafe’ interesting choice of business name – great service, seafront views.
If you’ve got room in your Morocco itinerary for a visit to Essaouira, it’s well worth the effort, not just for a breather, but to experience yet another one of Morocco’s unique cultural contrasts.