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Essaouira, Morocco

Neil Sowerby is blown away on the hippie trail in the original Windy City

Written by . Published on May 27th 2010.


Essaouira, Morocco

Camels are patient beasts, handling life’s burdens with phlegm. Sometimes, literally. Spitting when they get the hump. At the end of Essaouira’s vast main beach, a herd of them are staked out for rides among the dunes. Prepare for hassle from their handlers. Morocco is Africa, however northerly.

This is a Muslim country but lots of covert boozing goes on, sourced from the bottle shops outside the Medina (old town) walls. We particularly liked the simply titled (and extremely basic) Bar attached to the seafront Chalet des Plages restaurant.

We found one camel lying down, getting some shut-eye. We quite understood his position. As the vicious north westerlies whipped across from the sea, pebbledashing the backs of our legs with sand, it had been hard to stay upright.

Perfect weather for the wet-suited kitesurfers, sails shimmering in the powerful sunlight, but this pair of strollers was happy to hit the shelter of the surf boys’ hang-out, Ocean Vagabond. Equipment can be hired there. We settled for a couple of Flag beers behind a bamboo shelter.

The winds, known as the Alizes are the reason Essaouira has never developed as a standard beach resort, like its much bigger Atlantic rival further south, Agadir. Its many fans would say that’s a good thing. One golf course built, another on the way, suggests that might be about to change.

Of course, there are days when you can lay out the beach towels but it’s unpredictable. There are other ways to tan, though. After even a couple of hours’ beachcombing we could feel the weatherbeaten burn on our skins.

Extra sunscreen would have been called for had we ventured further south past the ruined fort of Borj El Berod to Diabat, whose Cafe Hendrix celebrates the area’s link to Sixties icon Jimi. He stayed briefly at Essaouira’s Hotel des Iles. The Stones and others followed.

An earlier artistic claim to fame had been Orson Welles filming his alarmingly low-budget movie of Shakespeare’s Othello here on the town’s hulking 15th century ramparts, complete with original cannon. It’s the major sightseeing photo opportunity, along with the fishermen’s quays.

The picturesque port has never really shaken off its hippie legacy as a place to chill, rather than be active. The beach trip was the most strenuous thing we managed. Mostly we ate fish and sheltered on our hotel rooftops with a book and a glass of wine.

This is a Muslim country but lots of covert boozing goes on, sourced from the bottle shops outside the Medina (old town) walls. We particularly liked the simply titled (and extremely basic) Bar attached to the seafront Chalet des Plages restaurant.

Essauouira is much more laid-back than magnificent but manic Marrakech. Its souks or markets are on a miniscule scale compared with big brother three hours’ drive away and we found the traders and the haggling easier to deal with. And it is impossible to get lost in the grid of traffic-free streets.

The exchange rate for the local currency, the dirham is advantageous at the moment but we settled for buying a couple of small rugs in the cloistered Joujiya square, home to a ramshackle daily auction after afternoon prayers.

Other temptations were fine silver jewellery, intricately carved boxes from the local (and increasingly scarce) thuya wood and argon oil. It comes in cosmetic and culinary versions. Easily adulterated, it’s best to buy straight from co-ops in the countryside.

We weren’t tempted to splash out on any of the colourful near hallucinogenic paintings, full of folksy symbolism, that have sprung up almost as a school of Essaouira around the Galerie Damgaard. The local music style is the trance-like Gnawa, centred on a huge world music festival attracting 200,000 folk every June. Are you sensing the hippie vibe here?

Yet the town, as you’d expect, is built on solid mercantile foundations as an important trading port with a strong Jewish community in the 19th century. A small synagogue is all that remains, lost in the unspoilt backstreets that have won the town World Heritage Status and also led to an influx of foreign house buyers, undeterred by (or not fore-warned of) the pervasive damp around the seafront.

Fortunately our two lodgings were well out of the damp zone. Contrasting scales and styles of accommodation but each among the best in town.

L’Heure Bleue, just inside the old town by the Bab Marrakech gate, is an upmarket (Relais et Chateaux) conversion of a private mansion. It retains original feature such as the sumptuous tiling on the ground floor but its public rooms and 33 bedrooms and suites are themed in ‘African’ (expect zebra skin patterns and dark wood) and British Colonial styles. Antlers and leather furniture abound.

Underlying all this is a remarkable level of comfort and service – at a price. I particularly like the lush courtyard patio with its fountain centrepiece and – reached by lift – the large, sumptuously appointed top floor terrace, which boasts a bar and the town’s only rooftop swimming pool (heated). Unfortunately, whenever we fancied a dip the Alizes was rippling it too much for comfort.

We stayed in a senior suite with a large marble bathroom and fireplace and an amazingly comfortable bed. Only downside, it was a bit on the dark side but we did, unusually, have a widow opening onto the square outside the gate.

The Heure Bleue’s atmospheric restaurant offers French and Moroccan cuisine from chef Ahmed Handour and light meals are served on the terrace. There’s also an in-house hammam, a luxurious take on the traditional bath house. Highly recommended.

Our second place to stay was in complete contrast yet utterly delightful. Stuart Malone, from Manchester, and his partner Tracy fell in love with Essaouira over four years ago and, having discovered Remmy (named after their baby) down a warren of passages in the medina, spent 15 months renovating it in traditional style.

They’ve created a relaxed chilling out space on the ground floor (only marred by United fan Stuart’s collections of Reds biographies) with the five guest bedrooms, all en-suite, on the floors above around the typical riad (guesthouse) courtyard.

The couple’s friend, Sandra Cripps, who runs it for them, lives in rooms on the roof. She was a marvellous, informal help in finding our way around town (and finding the riad, which is well hidden), while introducing us to a few Brit expats and Essaouira’s rather sedate nightlife.

Breakfast aside, Riad Remmy doesn’t do food but it is within easy reach of a fabulous, eclectic, art-filled eaterie called Elizir on the Rue d’Agadir serving Italian-influenced but individual food. The cuttlefish risotto is to die for.

For good-value traditional authentic Moroccan food in comfortable surroundings it has to be Ferdaouss in the Rue Abdessalaam Lebadi (BOB wine a plus): for seafood, especially oysters, try Chez Sam in a ship-shaped shack by the port.

Or you could do what we did twice for lunch and tackle the ultra-competitive, less than hygienic row of fresh fish charcoal grills just back from the harbour near the main Moulay Hassan Square. Make sure you arrange the price for your mixed fish grill in advance. Stick to sardines and squid rather than lobster. Water, salad and bread are included. On the second occasion a spat with waiters over tips soured the experience somewhat and henceforth we opted for the water-lapped charms of Chez Sam.

Essaouira is a charming destination, in its own right, not just as a day trip from Marrakech or Agadir. Downside is the long drive out. Flights from its small airport don’t go to Britain – yet. Maybe those galeswept golf courses will change all that. I expect the hippie old medina will survive.

FACTBOX

Heure Bleue, 2 Rue Ibn Batouta, Essaouira. Tel +212 524 78 34 34. www.heure-bleue.com. Classic room 300 euros, junior suite 430 euros, senior suite, 530 euros, including breakfast. Hammam, traditional exfoliation and massage, 1hr 30mins, 80 euros.

Riad Remmy, 29 Daoud Ben Aicha (near the Bab Doukala gate), Essaouira. Ring Stuart +212 676 080955 or Sandra +212 653 236912. www.riadremmy.co.uk. Five rooms, single room 35 euro, doubles from 45 euros to 63 euros. Contact Riad Remmy for special seasonal offers. The whole riad can be booked for exclusive use.

easyJet currently operates a 3 x weekly (Tues, Thurs & Sat) service from Manchester to Marrakech from as little as £35.99 (one-way including taxes) visit www.easyJet.com to book or for more information.

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