first things first–it’s pronounced ess-ah-weer-ah. despite speaking elementary french and being reasonably good with phonetics, that was a tough one for me.
when i was finalizing our plans for our trip to morocco, i debated whether we should visit essaouira or ouarzazate. after reading a few fodors and tripadvisor forums, i went with my gut and the majority’s opinion and chose essaouira. we love coastal towns, and we figured a day overlooking the atlantic ocean would nicely break up our time between marrakech and fès. since essaouira is a three hour bus ride from marrakech, i decided it was a feasible destination for a one day trip and booked our accommodations and the one activity i knew we couldn’t leave morocco without doing: a camel ride. i decided against any further planning or research, instead leaving that day mostly open for exploring and relaxing.
a few weeks later and the time had already come to leave marrakech for essaouira. our bus ride was easy and felt quick (see my general post on morocco for the logistical side of things), and we arrived in essaouira around 11:00am. we liked the city from the moment we saw its sun-bleached white walls and accent colors of ocean blues and sandy pinks and beiges, obviously drawing from the natural environment; it beautifully blends old european and arabesque design, and, therefore, it offers the most-pleasing aesthetic. once we checked in at the riad baladin, we set out exploring the fortified town. the medina is an easy one to navigate, and we enjoyed meandering the slower, wider pedestrian streets in a way we hadn’t been able to do in marrakech. i think it may be an unwritten law that coastal cities, regardless of where they are, have to be more relaxed than landlocked cities.
our first stop was the fish market, still busy in the early afternoon with vendors showing off the day’s catch and bantering with one another as passersby watched. the area around the fish market was a filming location for game of thrones, and i did my best khaleesi impression (it’s not good) as we geeked out over the scenery. We walked to the nearby place moulay el hassan for pre-lunch gelato, coffee, and people-watching. there was also a decent bit of animal-watching to be done, as the city is a sort of open shelter for dogs and cats. there was even mention of it on the map our riad provided us, asking that tourists be respectful of the animals of essaouira. they all seem to be well cared for and friendly, and they didn’t act like the stray animals i’ve encountered in many cities; there was no begging in sight–they were all just playing together, free-roaming and trotting around in little cliques, living their best lives in the breezy, late autumn sunshine.
next we wandered down smaller streets, eventually ending up in a little square called the place taraa. there were a few restaurants to choose from, and we opted for the most inviting, an outdoor table at the tara café. shortly after sitting, a cat jumped over my husband’s lap and curled up next to him, directly on top of my purse. a dog then made himself at home under my side of the bench, and he napped there for the duration of our meal. it was kind of magical. we started, of course, with lemonade with fresh mint, bread, and tapenade. jonathan ordered a couscous dish, and i had a kefta tagine (again, read about that experience in my overview on morocco). after lunch, we walked and shopped a bit before heading back to the riad to await our camel ride.
abdul, our guide, met us at the riad at 4:00pm and led us outside the medina to a taxi. it was a quick ride to the beach, maybe five minutes, then a short walk to the camel caravan. i tried to contain my squeals of excitement when i saw them–forrest gump, mandela, and sultan–in their fuzzy, gangly, long-eyelashed glory, but a girl can only do so much. i instantly professed my love for them, and i kept petting them while abdul gave us a rundown on how the hour-long ride would work. they offered the opportunity to wear traditional berber attire, and we agreed to rock some headscarves because it was windy and slightly chilly (it got colder as the ride progressed and the sun set, so i’m glad we wore the scarves) and because if you’re going to go on a camel ride, you might as well be extra. we mounted our camels (side note: abdul told us they are actually dromedaries because they only have one hump, and normal camels have two; i’ll still call them camels, though) and started traveling down the beach. i couldn’t tell you how far we went or the names of the things abdul pointed out, but i can say that it was fun and surprisingly comfortable. the camels were sweet, and i feel like the saddles were designed for both their and the riders’ comfort. once we made it to some sand dunes, abdul dismounted and used my phone to channel his inner annie leibovitz, snapping photos of us like it was the last day of the month and rent was due asap. while his artistic direction was questionable at points–he kept telling us to put our arms in an “o” over our heads–the golden hour lighting led to some of my favorite photos we’ve ever taken on a vacation. i do feel like he went a bit overboard with the photos and videos, spending about twenty minutes off the camels while encouraging jonathan to lead the caravan from his seat, but i appreciate how committed he was to making sure we had keepsakes of the experience. by the time we got back to the starting point on the beach and drove back to the medina walls, it had been more than two hours; this made me extremely glad i hadn’t booked a two-hour ride, otherwise we might’ve ended up spending the whole night on the beach. overall, though, the experience was one for the books, i would recommend it to anyone visiting essaouira.
our dinner that night was forgettable, but we explored more after we ate, surprised at how busy the medina became at night. perhaps it’s because essaouira is more of a playground for tourists, but the seemingly lazy city transformed after dark into a vibrant, crowded, noisy cluster of shops, street food stalls, and people. we got more gelato (purely because we could) and watched the city come to life before turning in for the night. jonathan and i agreed that we would have liked more time in essaouira, a good, albeit bittersweet, feeling to have when traveling somewhere new.
after a comfortable night’s sleep and another feast of a breakfast, we walked through the once again quiet streets of the medina, towing our luggage (including the vintage leather duffle bag we bought the day before) with us. We had to hire a taxi to drive us back to Marrakech since a bus wasn’t available as early as we needed; our driver was waiting, and we looked back fondly at the charming city as we drove away, ready to head to our final destination in Morocco.