Like so many seaside towns, Essaouira has something reassuringly solid about it. This tiny little place juts out into the Atlantic like an island about to break free. In fact, people here describe it as not like Morocco at all, but rather a place dancing to its own languid rhythm: open-minded, free-spirited and curiously separate from the rest of the country.
Here on the coast, the only crowds are of seagulls, whipping and turning above the harbour like the kite-surfers’ sails that flock further down the broad, biscuit-coloured beach. The air, straight-off-the-ocean salty, is made headier by the smoky scent of fish rubbed in charmoula – a lemony mix of paprika, cumin, garlic and coriander – grilling on hot coals at the stalls around the harbour, with its jumble of blue-tailed fishing boats. Everything is blue here, from the cobalt trim of the window shutters and doorways that dot the Medina’s narrow lanes, to the turquoise petits taxis that bob around the Bab Marrakech, one of several gateways into the Medina. And over the clamour of gulls, church bells toll every day at noon, underscoring the call to prayer.
The old town is thriving, with bars, galleries and smart boutiques dotted through the three distinct districts wedged within its rampart walls: the Kasbah La Scala with its tangle of narrow alleyways; the teeming souks of the Medina; and the Mellah (the Jewish quarter), considered unsafe for foreigners, but now flourishing with a lively café culture among the shady plazas. At the weekend, folk gather to brunch on huevos rancheros at La Cantina (66 rue Boutouil) on the Mellah’s Place Taraa, or stroll down the main Rue du Rif with a latte from Bruno at Juice, who came on holiday here two years ago and never left. ‘There was no work in Biarritz,’ he says, ‘and Essaouira was a good alternative. It’s so laid-back and easy.’ And sitting out in the sun with a tea glass of nous-nous (half espresso, half steamed milk) from one of the cafés on the Place Marché aux Grains.
This is a town made for pottering, for ambling, for idling – and a morning spent poking around its many galleries is très Souiri (as the locals are known). One of the best things to do though is to simply walk and empty your head.