Thursday, May 13, 2010

Essaouira: Hippies and Cannons

Essaouira - The White City

The guidebooks call Marrakech the Red City. It’s an apt name, given the simmering intensity of Morocco’s southernmost Imperial City (and of course there’s the official red ochre palette that shades all the city’s buildings.) After Marrakech’s red, I was ready for Essaouira’s white and blue, and it couldn’t have felt more different. After a three-hour crossing of a bleak and rocky section of Moroccan desert, I’ve arrived in the White City, Essaouira, on Africa’s Atlantic coast. It’s a laid back fishing village, awash in white and blue, like an African version of the Greek post card villages that so many more of us are familiar with (without the hills to climb). It’s not just the colors that give it such a cool vibe. This is an artistic place, bursting with painters, writers, wood-carvers, and musicians, where the waves are owned by kite surfers and the less-energetic chill on patios to Ray Charles grooves blasted from tinny speakers.

Before Altamont crushed the hopes and dreams of the peace-loving hippy nation at the close of the sixties, Essaouira was a hot spot along the Hippie Trail. Droves of “Longhaired freaky people” left Greenwich Village, Yorkville and the Haight in search of enlightenment, and traveled to places like Goa, Katmandu and Essaouira. Judging from the dread-locked dudes who you’ll bump into in back alleys (“I’ve got the really good stuff”) it feels like a few of their grandchildren may still be here. Jimi Hendrix himself hung out in Essaouira a while.* This is my kind of town.

The African Sun on her way to the Americas

The city itself is only a few hundred years old (in its current form – it has been occupied by one conqueror or another since prehistoric times). It’s protected from the cool offshore winds and the invading hordes of days past, by huge fortified ramparts built during the Portuguese occupation in the early 1500s. The cannons still face out to sea.

Until the caravan trade died out in the latter part of the 20th century, Essaouira was a vital trading port and entryway to Africa from the west. As other less-isolated cities grew in importance and certain lines on the global map were re-drawn, the city’s 40%+ Jewish population began to abandon Essaouira, migrating to places like Israel and Quebec. Morocco was a French protectorate until the 50's so nearly every local you speak with will light up when you mention you’re from Canada. “Montreal? Quebec?” It’s so nice when you meet other people around the world who view Quebec and Canada so favorably (and so united.)

Off to learn how to cook Tajine and do some quad biking in the Sahara.

* The legend of Jimi's presence in Essaouira, and Morocco in general, may have outgrown the facts. Whether or not he actually owned a place there is disputed and it seems that many local hoteliers claim Jimi stayed at their place during his visit(s).


  1. Hope you enjoy learning to cook your Tajine.

  2. I like the cool picture through the hole in the wall. Very good

  3. Last night we were talking about the hole inthe wall picture. It really is spectacular! CJ

  4. Mmmm, can't wait to try a nice veggie tajine ;-)