Essaouira, Morocco: A City of Colours and Contrasts

After winding through the High Atlas mountains – which was nowhere near as fun by bus as by rental car, using the N9 as my personal race track – we headed to Essaouira for a few nights by the sea. While the sun was shining when we arrived in the late afternoon, the next morning was dreary and damp, angry clouds and a flurry of seagulls at the port’s edge when we wandered by.

A little about Essaouira

Formerly known as Mogador, the city was a trading post for centuries, rebuilt in its current form by Mohammed III in 1764. With one eye on Europe and a need for a port close to Marrakesh, Mohammed III centred shipping on Essaouira. Spices and goods were funnelled from sub-Saharan Africa to Morocco, over the Atlas Mountains and into Marrakesh, then onward by sea from the ports of the city. Fishing figured prominently, all handled by what was then known as the Port of Timbuktu.

Stormy port in Essouira, Morocco
Stormy port in Essouira, Morocco

By the afternoon, the sun broke through and we all returned to the port for a seafood lunch, freshly grilled after the morning’s catch. I noticed an older man with a trendy pair of Ray-Bans, the same ones I was wearing (purchased in Bangkok for a whole $2). Joking with him that I ought to eat at his restaurant because we had matching shades, he asked for a photo. Just as the shutter was about to close, his waiter stuffed a lobster into the frame.  The last photo in the series has him foisting the lobster my way, as if to say “No, really – you ought to just take it.” We sat down for freshly grilled squid, a plate of pink shrimp, all tiny eyes and soft tails and of course a Moroccan salad. No lunch is complete without the telltale contrast of red on green, ripe tomatoes against crispy peppers, all coated in fresh lemon juice to blend the flavours together.

Fresh lobster in Essaouira, Morocco
Fresh lobster, matching shades & a good laugh in Essaouira
Moroccan salad, the perfect lunch accessory
Moroccan salad, the perfect lunch accessory.
Grilled squid in Essaouira, Morocco
Grilled squid, seaside in Essaouira

Meandering the Medina in Essaouira

With the sun in full force, I wandered away from the group and into the tiny, spiderweb-like alleyways of the old medina, radiating outward from the main gates. While even the less touristed sections of the old city were crammed with butchers and jalaba vendors, mint-laden wooden carts and constant shouting, these back alleys were completely silent. Only the echoes of my footsteps and the occasional (surprised) Moroccan coming toward me broke the cycle of my thoughts.

I tried, at first, to keep an eye on my twists and turns, to retrace my steps out of the maze and toward the main gates. But after twenty minutes of looping curves and empty doorways, the rumbling of fruit carts in the distance, I gave up and gave in to my sense of direction and adventure.

Quiet back alleys of Essaouira
Quiet back alleys of Essaouira
Doorways of Essaouira, Morocco
A doorway in the old media of Essaouira
Tiny birds in a bright shop, Essaouira, Morocco
Tiny birds in a bright shop.
Fresh orange juice in Essaouira
Fresh orange juice in the middle of the medina.
Kitten in Essaouira, Morocco
Tiny kitten in an Essaouira doorway.
Old doorways in Essaouria
Old doorways, a study of colour and contrast.
Hammam in Essaouria's old city
Hammam in Essaouira’s old city

An hour in, I walked into a Frenchman by accident. Turned against the sun, I was trying to photograph the old, faded doorway above and spinning around to continue on my walk, I smacked straight into his torso. Brief hellos turned into a historical account of our respective lives, and an invitation to his wife’s restaurant. It turns out that he came to Morocco on vacation in the late 1980s, only to fall in love with a chef near his hotel. After returning to Montpellier to gather belongings, he came back to Morocco to woo the woman he knew ‘at first glance’ was the one for him.

He brought me through the twisted old city to his wife’s restaurant, introducing me to the staff. We sat and talked about life in Morocco and how Essaouira had changed since they arrived. Over tea, another small snapshot into a life so unlike mine: worries on one hand incredibly universal, but so foreign at the macro level. They pointed me back toward the main archways of the old city once we were done, and I emerged blinking in the long- forgotten afternoon sun, only to see this staring at me:

Pablo the Chameleon
Pablo the Chameleon

Nothing like a chameleon to punctuate two separate halves of your afternoon.

* * *

With the evening approaching, I met up with others in the group, sitting for a coffee and watching the light change. Part of what made Morocco so fascinating was the dual ability to feel completely outside my comfort zone on paper, but yet understand what people were saying. Being a French speaker added a very interesting angle to my travels in the country, since the day-to-day was wholly different but I could ask all the questions I wanted to, filling in between the usual lines of my assumptions. More importantly, it enabled me to learn about the people I met in the country, from the Frenchman above to the man who walked up to the donut bakery while I was sipping my late afternoon coffee, several dogs at his side.

Waiting for donuts in Essaouira
Waiting for donuts in Essaouira.

I crossed the street to see the dogs up close and learned that he was also from France, having settled twenty years prior when the town was a much sleepier place. “They love the donuts, they wait for me in the afternoon with their tails up high and eyes hopeful” he said with a smile. The afternoon donut run, a tradition he started with his wife, survived past her death.

And donuts in hand, dogs in tow, he left for the rest of his day.

Donuts for the whole family
Donuts for the whole family.

Despite the fact that I found Essaouira’s touts to be the most aggressive of the country overall, coming up and trying to grab my scarf  to start conversation -“Can I see this? Where did you get it?” – my irritation melted away quickly when I left the main streets. While brief, my time in Essaouira was coloured by stories of love and loss, and what lingered wasn’t the touts but rather the bright doorways and dead ends in the quiet cubbyholes of the old city, where its best stories remain for safekeeping.

-Jodi

A reminder that I was sent to India to document my journey as part of G Adventures’ Wanderers in Residence Programme. Flights and tour costs were thus absorbed by them.

54 thoughts on “Essaouira, Morocco: A City of Colours and Contrasts”

  1. Your photos are beautiful! I especially love all the bright colours. I’ve been to Tunisia but I’ve never been to Morocco. I’d love to to go someday.

    1. Tunisia is high up on my list too, especially given recent elections – it must be fascinating at this point in time. Morocco was easy to travel through and delicious all around – highly recommended.

  2. Love your writing and your photos, as always. Essaouria is somewhere I’ve been wanting to go for a long time now, and you just fueled my desire!

  3. i so love this post! beautiful place! the doors and walls – oh so colourful!

    love the dogs that love donuts! my my… never knew dogs would have donuts as meal! :)

    may i know what camera are you using? the pics are so fab!

  4. This post is another that strengthens my resolve to get to Morocco soon!! What amazing shots you got!! *love*

    I have to admit, inexplicably, I stopped moving when I saw the photo of the chameleon until I scrolled past him…it was like he was looking straight at me…I love/hate that shot… ;-)

  5. Those doorways are gorgeous – I would love to get lost in some of those back streets. And your face in the lobster photo is priceless!

  6. Beautiful photos! I love all of the blues, and that kitten looks so sad! breaks my heart I would of tried to take him home! haha
    Glad you are having great experiences and great food on your travels. :)

  7. I had the best time in Essaouira! I actually found it quieter and less aggressive than the Marrakesh market.

    I have fond memories maybe because I was invited in for lunch by a shop-keeper. I met his wife and child and spent the whole afternoon with her, getting henna done and chatting about love and marriage.

    Like you said, being able to speak French makes it so much easier to make a real connection with people.

  8. Wow this is so beautiful. It almost doesn’t look real. The colors are so vibrant. Wow! I have to add this to my list of places to visit… :-)

  9. Wow, those photos are fantastic. Obviously, I’m completely stunned by the beautiful colours coming through, but I think the nicest thing here is the kind of angle you got on the city. Your photos of things so often taken for granted (a bowl of oranges, some flecks of paint peeling off an old wall) all add so well to this post. I feel I can really get a sense of the place. So simple, and yet so artistic and just stunning to look at. Do you mind me asking how you got the colours that bright? Is it just colour adjustment on photoshop? Would love to do something like that with mine.

    1. Thank you Natalie. I don’t use photoshop for my photos, actually. I do occasionally crop or lighten the background/shadows in Google’s picasa but I did not add any colour to the photos you see here – on a sunny day, the colours do pop this much. Sold throughout town is the pigment they use to get that color in the paint, added separately for brightness. The dyes look like iths: – really beautiful in their own right! Glad you enjoyed the post.

    1. No sir! Mr. “Johnny Vagabond” tried to teach me how to use Lightroom but it was a big fail because I love Picasa and don’t tend to heavily edit photos anyhow. Don’t have LR or Photoshop on my travel computer. But I’ll take the compliment, thank you!

  10. Beautiful post. I also enjoyed wandering in Essaouira. I actually found the touts to be less aggressive than they were in Marrakesh, but I also wasn’t wearing a scarf that they could grab onto ;) The untold part of this story is of course the seagull that crapped all over you. Come on Jodi, fess up. I want my money.

  11. Great article! You’re making me miss Essaouira more now that I’m sitting here facing my PC in my tiny little office. It’s such a lovely place and I wish I had the chance to stay longer. Looking forward to the rest of your Moroccan articles. Cheers! ;)

  12. You know, it’s interesting that all the doorways there are coloured blue. If I’m not mistaken, a blue door is supposed to repel evil spirits from entering the home.

    1. Hi Anthony, yes that is part of it – look to Turkey and their nezar (blue evil eyes) that are present on buildings and in homes around the city. There are also other, related explanations. For example, in Chefchaouen, the blue colour is present throughout the buildings not just doors, and that has to do with the history of the Jewish settlers who fled persecution (blue is a holy colour in Judaism). I’ll be posting more on this when I write about Chefchaouen, too.

  13. I’ve looked at dozens and dozens of photos of the matching blue boats floating side by side in Essaouira and always wondered what it must be like to see it in person.

  14. Loved this post, beautiful photography. In Israel some of the Arabs also paint their doorways blue, against the evil eye. Jews sometimes do to, but to a lesser extent.

  15. This is one of my favorite posts yet (despite the kitten and dog photos – wtf?), so rich and colorful and evocative. You keep getting better at this. Thank you for continuing to share such wonderful images and stories!

    1. Thank you Daniel. Unfortunately, I do find the cats adorable and you’re just going to have to suffer through what is likely another photoessay full of them in the coming months. Turkey, you see? It’s ALSO full of cats. And I’ve got many photos of them. I’ll be sure to warn you in advance so you skip that day’s RSS feed. ;)

      Thanks for reading and for the tweet!

  16. Pingback: What to see, do and eat in Marrakesh, Morocco | Legal Nomads

  17. fantastic photos! If I do finally visit Morocco one day then Essaouira would definitely be in the itinerary. Have been thinking of visiting this town for awhile now and looking at your photos had inspired me to do so even more.

  18. Cuisine Marocaine

    Essaouira is my favorite place in Morocco, it is so peaceful (hippies running around). Your article is great about this city, but Essaouira is a place with lots of history for the Jews. I hope you got to experience seeing those things as well since Morocco holds a lot of history for both Jews and Arabs.

    1. Yes, I did look at many of the cities from a historical perspective. Chefchaouen, too, has a lot of its history intertwined with the Jewish religion, from the color of its buildings to the immigration there during the Spanish Inquisition. I agree that Morocco is a country with many different stories, all braided into one. Fascinating place.

  19. this personal report of Essaouira was a joy to read, and similar to the way we travelled in 1971-72. after purchasing a car in Amsterdam, we made our way down to Morocco, “discovering” Essaouira by chance. we stayed 4 months there, renting a large room from a family, on the western wall, above the sea. the culture, people, food, and experiencing Ramadan were all amazing. I’ve not returned, for fear it had changed dramatically, but at least it seems the side streets are the same…. -thank you for your posts!

  20. How sad with such wealth, the tiny kitten is starving. Too bad you didn’t take the time to help this poor innocent life. How could you just walk away from that. You must have no heart.

  21. Hi Jodi, your awesome photos and well-written stories are helping me plan my first solo trip to Morocco this coming March 14 to April 2. I’ll be visiting Casablanca (4 days) and Rabat (3 days). As I’m still planning my itinerary+Airbnb, may I ask how many days do you recommend I stay in Chefchaouen? Marrakech? Southern Sahara? Essaouira?

    1. Hi Gabriel, it was a few years ago but I’d roughly recommend 2 nights in Essaouira, 2 or 3 in Chefchauoen, 3 in Marrakesh and for the Sahara it depends on how you’re getting there / how much time you need to recover from the bus rides :-) I’m basing this on a shorter trip, not for someone who has long-term travel abilities as there could be plenty more time in each place if you’ve got it to spend!

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