Tag Archives: Essaouira

castles made of sand

The persistence of imagination.

Take a walk out of Essaouira along its flat, mostly clean beaches and you’ll have a fantastic view of the Isle of Mogador with it’s open-air prison and mosque across the bay.

Settled in the 6th century BCE by Phoenicians, one of the first permanent structure was the watchtower from which the island gained its name. Later the Romans would come to know the area as the Purple Islands due to the Murex seashells founds nearby which were processed to make the rich purple of the toga picta.

The prison itself is an imposing brutalist structure built in 1897 by Sultan Moulay Abdelaziz to house Terhala rebels. Nothing more than four fortified walls with only one way in or out and no roof. It would late become a place of quarantine for pilgrims headed to Mecca.

Further along the shore you’ll see what’s left of a watchtower, itself built upon the remains of the even more ancient Bourj el Baroud, as it crumbles ever further into the ocean. Even the locals can’t seem to set this one straight in their heads, referring to it as the Portuguese Castle. 

 The 'Portuguese Castle' and Mogador Island.
The ‘Portuguese Castle’ and Mogador Island.
What’s left of this fortification, much the same as what is now Essaouira, was built under the guidance of Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah in the 1700’s and used as a wood-burning lighthouse and watchtower. The current state of disrepair was caused by a disastrous flood of the nearby Oued Ksob in 1856.

Mohammed ben Abdallah, it turns out was a productive chap. Aside from his reviving of Essaouira with the assistance of many notable European architects, routing the French and conquering Mazagan much to the chagrin of the Portuguese he also found time to renovate Marrakech kasbah and build a palace the locals now know as Jimi Hendrix.

Before 1969 the sand-choked ruin would have been better known as Dar Soltane. Constructed by James Hoban, the very same man behind the other, famous White House, and gifted to the aforementioned sultan. This was a building that was left wanting for none of the most modern European design, everything from glass windows to gilded mirrors.

  The sand-choked remains of Dar Soltane.
The sand-choked remains of Dar Soltane.
In the late sixties this would all change. Now depending on who you believe, this is when the mighty Jimi Hendrix arrived following his love of horses or maybe local women and stayed for anything from three days to three months. The way it’s told ole Jim ate at every table and slept under ever roof.

This isn’t quite true of course, but it hasn’t stopped a whole micro tourist industry springing up around the tales. If you feel so inclined it is still possible to stop for a bite at the Cafe Jimi or rest up in the Jimi Hendrix hostel in nearby Diabat.

The reality, as is unfortunately too often the case, is far less romantic. Jimi did indeed visit Essaouira and is on record as loving Morocco but according to his travelling companion, Deering Howe; “like George Washington he slept in everyone’s house around the Moroccan countryside…

The palace itself has now seen better days. There was a time when it was protected by the local residents but time, much like the tides at the nearby Portuguese fort, has taken its toll. The walls are crumbling and sandstorms have long since buried all but the sturdiest of fortifications. 

Yet still, through some persistence of memory, you can find locals sat amongst the ruins with their acoustic guitars chasing the ghost of a man who may or may not even have been there.

If you fancy yourself as the next Jimi take a wander deep into the old Medina and you’ll find the tiny workshop of Ayoub Soudani. A fifth generation guembri craftsman and purportedly from one of the two main Gnawa families responsible for introducing the instrument into Morocco. 

Ayoub's workshop in Essaouira Medina.
Ayoub’s workshop in Essaouira Medina.
Irrespective, Ayoub is clearly a craftsman of no trifling ability. Lining the walls are some of the most handsome examples of this bass plucked lute I’ve seen whilst in the country. Inlaid with pearl and walnut each instrument can take up to a month and a half to make.

‘During the month of Ramadan I make special ones.’ He told me. ‘I need something to do with my hands. To take my mind off of eating.’

The drum part is made from the skin on the back of a camels neck and it’s three strings are made from goat gut. Ayoub has modified his own with mechanical tensioners and electrical pick-ups. The clubs apparently insist on him being able to plug into their PA systems.

‘Are you playing anywhere this week?’ I enquired.

‘Some weeks I play three, four times a week in bars and clubs. Just not this season.’ He paused. ‘Maybe I’ll find somewhere on New Year’s Eve though, you Europeans like to drink!’


a breath of fresh air

There’s no need to be salty.

Essaouira is a stunning city. This ancient port lies on the Atlantic coast and is frankly quite charming. It’s like Marrakech on tranquillisers, it must be something to do with the sea air. All the standard tourist traps are still here but none of it is being pile-driven down your throat.

For example I was approached the very first morning by a Moroccan fellow dressed as, in his very best approximation, a tourist. An American tourist albeit – cap, polo shirt, sandals and fanny-pack – but a tourist none the less.

‘Hello! Are you visiting?’ He smiled. ‘You’re from England? I have a cousin in Crystal Palace!’

In a cheery, charitable mood I decided to play along. ‘Ah, me myself also. I’m from the north.’ He continued. ‘Are you looking for the market?’

‘No, just looking to take some photos.’ I returned.

‘I can show you a wonderful place!’ My fellow traveller exclaimed. ‘For my charge…’

But the incredible part was that was it. A brief look over my glasses and a ‘non, merci’ was all it took. No following, no repeated offers, no heckling. He simply moved on to the next blatant out-of-towner. It would appear that even the guides have stepped up their game.

  Essaouira as viewed from the Genoese fort.
Essaouira as viewed from the Genoese fort.

This place seems to be home to a population of vertically challenged dogs, I’d like to think they are the remnants of some mongrel population explosion caused by an exceptionally randy corgi. Alas, their ears are tagged and they seem remarkably cheery little things so I guess all is good.

Blue, perhaps unsurprisingly, seems to be the adopted colour of the coastal city. The cabs that you begin to see in the outlying towns are a uniform light-to-baby shade, the store-front awnings are blue and high above the medinas streets and paths you’ll see the same vibrant colour adorning the window frames and shutters. It’s a good look and only adds to the feel of the most sophisticated place I visited in the country so far. 

The port is a visceral experience to say the least. For a country bumpkin and card-carrying landlubber like myself it’s another world. A world straight from the pages of Hemingway; the local blue-hulled fishing boats sway in the dock unloading their previous nights catch whilst other newer boats on stilts are the attention of arc-welders and painters in the dry docks.

Watching as nets are stretched out and checked for damage or sailors clamber around in preparation the evenings catch could easily give a man the impression he’s never done a real days work in his life. But, never fear, one glance down into the salt-rusted workings of any of the boats soon cures this. The are after all horses for courses and this isn’t yours. I’m a donkey. Perhaps even an ass.

 Fishing boats docked in the port.
Fishing boats docked in the port.
In the midday sun you don’t even need eyes to enjoy this cornucopia of Neptune. Everything from sharks to rays and swordfish and sea urchins are brought in from the Canary Current and laid out, the smell is overwhelming and the swarming gulls, visible from anywhere with an eyeline, scream incessantly.

The cat population, some of the healthiest I’ve seen Morocco, seems to know where it’s at too. I’ve started to notice docked ears on some of them, this is the sign of an Essaouira cat neutering program and you can colour me impressed.

If you ever happen upon the port in Essaouira, and you really should, be sure to climb the seawall like you see the locals doing and scare yourself shitless. There probably aren’t many things more bracing to do in this fine city than get soaked by the Atlantic swell as it dashes itself against the caltrop sea-defences. Or, even better, con someone else into doing.

If you find yourself with a particularly bad hangover from sampling the nightlife in such illustrious places as Bar Hefra, I can heartily recommend taking a friend and spending an hour goading locals into crossing the wall before, or preferably whilst, a wave hits.  

The Genoese-built fort with it’s green Danish cannons is worth a look too. From the top is where you’ll see the iconic view of what the Berbers refer to as “Taṣṣort” or the small fortress. A rather diminutive name when you consider it has repelled attacks from Spain to the Netherlands and many of the nations between. 

Phoenician pottery in the Mohammed bin Abdallah Museum.
Phoenician pottery in the Mohammed bin Abdallah Museum.
In the street below the Skala de la Ville you’ll find the main woodworking souks of Essaouira and whilst the fortifications are closed you could do worse than visit the Museum of Mohammed bin Abdallah. There you will find some lovely exhibits only slightly spoiled by a tremendous lack of information, but for 10 dirham I’m not about to complain. Well, much anyway.