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It’s 9AM and I’m standing in the bustling port of Essaouira on Morocco’s Atlantic coast surrounded by hundreds of fishermen who are loading overflowing boxes of sardines into trucks. The port specialises in this small, oily fish, but the steady procession of trawler boats powering through the choppy sea are bringing in an array of seafood that will feed the city and beyond for the day.
Standing tall over the port gridlocked with fishermen and traders is the front rampart of the city’s medina, which gives Essaouira its name (little rampart). This is the scene that begins a day spent weaving through the medina and boulevard, from north to south, documenting Essaouira’s character.
After visiting the 18th century fortress, I follow the city walls which skirt the coast, along a stretch where Essaouira’s upmarket homeware boutiques such as Cote Orientale and Bazar Mehdi are opening for the day. I reach the top rampart, and have a coffee at Taraa café to prepare for the remainder of the day moving south.
Taraa provides me the first taste of the often spoken about hip side of ‘Essa’ – the city is famous for its laid back, hippy vibe, a reputation it lives up to. It’s an ashram compared to Marrakech, with chilled out salesmen and street art dotting the alleyways.
In part the vibe is owed to its surf hotspot status since the 1960s. Jimi Hendrix visited the city in the summer of 1969, and the legacy of that trip remains with cafés and hotels bearing the musician’s name.
Sitting on a step at the entrance of Taraa is a man who perfectly encapsulates the appearance of the young cosmopolitan locals, who have an almost uniform look of long, tightly curled hair with bleached ends. They stick out against the majority of locals that wear traditional Djellaba robes.
The pretty square Taraa sits on is the quietest part of the medina, cut off from the main tourist area by the hectic markets selling local produce. Even more jarring a contrast is the space adjacent to the square: the old Jewish Quarter. Abandoned decades ago, most of the buildings have been reduced to rubble that wild dogs clamber around in.
Leaving the wasteland through a small arch after the dogs get aggravated by my presence, I wind down the narrow streets and pass the most low-fi hamam I’ve ever seen, which I decide against giving a try (there are a selection of upmarket offerings for those that wish to give one a go).
I eventually come to the top of the main street where carcasses hang from arches outside butcher shops, and bakers and barbers also ply their trade. Many of the latter politely suggest I allow them to cut my hair.
Working down the main street, the local markets soon give way to tourist stores offering intricately decorated bowls, berber daggers and silver jewellery. I wander into a tiled arcade that is full of tiny jeweller shops, a space I recommend over the cramped market nearby that houses batteries of hens awaiting slaughter.
At a point I come across Mega Loft, a café/restaurant, making a note to head back there that evening after speaking with the young proprietor, a local artist who goes by the name of Othman and wears a fedora. That night is filled with live music, great food and thirst-quenching virgin mojitos (only a handful of bars and restaurants in the city serve alcohol).
A Gnawa musician who fuses the traditional Saharan sounds with contemporary influences is one of the main acts. He really brings the music to life, standing out against the numerous teens across the city that do a poor job of playing the music.
But before dinner comes a late lunch, which I perfectly time with reaching the large square marking the southern exit of the medina – the best place to have lunch in Essa are the fresh fish street food stalls you’ll find here. Slammed next to each other like ramshackle terrace houses, each have a squad of men fighting for my custom.
As I sidestep past each, looking for the most inviting space to sit, there’s an onslaught of fish being removed from each jigsaw puzzle-like display, piled onto trays and thrusted towards me. It’s possibly the most stressful experience of my time in the city, but once I sit down and my chosen catch is presented fresh off the grill, it’s well worth it.
To experience a calmer part of the city I wander across the square to the blue and white rooftop of Tarro, Essa’s most famous bar for an afternoon cocktail with some of the best views over the beach south of the medina, where I plan to head next.
Essa has a long stretch of clean coastline that’s popular with surfers and windsurfers – the Atlantic breeze both keeps the city cool and provides waves suitable for beginners and the more experienced.
After a peaceful stretch of coastline, broken up only by the odd football match, the bottom of the boulevard gets more lively. It all starts with Beach and Friends, a bar, where a live band is playing in the afternoon sun to people sipping beers and eating burgers on the front terrace. On the beach tens of camel pushers sell rides. It’s the clichéd tourist scene of Morocco, but somehow adds to the charm.
This is also where the surfing really gets going, with a string of surf schools standing next to the bar. I venture into one where a French guy stands behind the counter advising me on the best spot on the beach to head for. It’s 4PM, but there’s still plenty of time to catch the last of the tides, so I don my wetsuit, pick out a board and join the masses that are already on the waves.
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