It stormed all day on Thursday, which was supposed to be our first day walking around Essaouira’s port and medina. We decided to remain in the fabulous Sofitel hotel for the day, because it didn’t seem very enjoyable to get soaked while trying to sightsee! A couple of times during the day, it looked like it was going to clear up, and we would be able to go after all, but then it just clouded over again and started to rain once more.
We spent the day having a leisurely lunch, writing, and relaxing.
It finally did begin to clear late in the afternoon, after 4:30pm, but by then we didn’t see much point in going for only an hour or so before it got dark.
We had another delicious dinner in the Sofitel, and we’re resolved to go Friday, rain or shine. And despite the forecast of rain throughout the day, we did leave with our anoraks and an umbrella to see Essaouira Friday morning. The Sofitel is located just a few minutes away by car, so we soon arrived and found a place to park at the port.
The port of Essaouira is the most striking sight to see in this town, and I was grateful to see it first, while there were blue skies to enjoy its colorful boats, fishing nets, and dry docks, all bordered by stone battlements and walls. Because of the stormy weather yesterday, many of the fishing boats were still in port when we arrived, allowing us even more striking views, of the big boats tied up in the harbor, and the small, bright blue dinghies pulled onshore. There is also an active shipyard business in the port, so we got to see several large fishing boats in dry dock, being repaired by craftsmen, as well as a new fishing boat or two under construction.
Right in the port are a line of shacks with the day’s catch on ice and a charcoal grill in front of each one, and behind, a bunch of simple wooden tables and benches. You can pick out your lunch or dinner, either fish, crabs or shrimp, whatever was brought in by the boats that morning, which are then weighed and charcoal grilled for you on the spot. Because of how wet everything was from all the rain, these shacks were quiet when we passed them, but if the weather holds, I’m sure they’ll get much busier later on!
We left the port, and climbed up to the walls and battlements that border it, called the Skala de la Ville, to have a look at the ferocious ocean waves, breaking against the rocks that extend out from the walls. It seemed a certainty that anyone trying to attack Essaouira by sea (it has had forts here since at least the fifteenth century) would surely not be able to get by the ocean currents, or the rocks, let alone scale the high fortress walls, but just in case, there was also a line of mighty cannons all along the walls, ready to wreak certain destruction on anyone foolhardy enough to make the attempt. But actually, these mighty cannon, from all over Europe, were a gift from prosperous merchants to the ruling Sultan in the nineteenth century, who then had them displayed along the walls. I don’t know whether they ever saw the heat of battle here in Essaouira!
Along one street that runs next to the ramparts, and built into the ramparts themselves, are a series of stalls where marquetry (wood inlay), wood sculpture, and small pieces of wood furniture have been crafted and sold for hundreds of years. The best work is a delicate and precise art of combining different colored native woods into a single piece, like a chessboard, for example, which is then oiled and rubbed to a high sheen.
Not far away, I spotted a few babouche makers who worked in a style of leather embroidered with small, shiny threads and beads of different colors, that I haven’t seen anywhere else here in Morocco. In many of the cities and towns we’ve visited, I’ve seen one craft that the residents in that particular place have made their specialty for centuries, like the marquetry and embroidered babouches here, the leather babouche making in Tafraoute, and beautiful woven models of stables and animals in the High Atlas. These specialities are not found anywhere else but in their places of origin. Of course, there are also for sale many, many items intended for the tourist trade, which look just the same no matter where I’ve seen them.
We stopped into a small French cafe, La Cle de Voute, whose owners seemed to take a craftsman’s care in the food they served, even the simple brunch set menus that we ordered. Suitably refreshed, we continued our tour of the medina – we walked over to the Mellah, now many crumbling buildings with two small signs for synagogues. Once, Jews made up almost half of the population of Essaouira, and they were especially active in the jewelry business…signs of their past community here are now as ephemeral as the flutter of the seagulls’ wings.
The beaches around Essaouira, because of their frequent strong winds, are well known as havens for windsurfers and kite surfers, and we saw many small beachfront cafes that looked like they catered to the surfing crowd in season.
As the afternoon progressed, the weather turned again…first cloudy, then sunny again…then sprinkles of rain, then back to just cloudy…finally in the late afternoon, it really started to pour again. Unfortunately, it was still a few hours before the restaurants serving dinner would re-open, and we really had no place to go to wait out the storm.
I felt very lucky to have had a chance to see most of Essaouira while the weather was still fine, but it seemed to make sense now to head back to our hotel and have dinner there. It was a great day of sightseeing here – it’s easy to see why this is a UNESCO World Heritage site, as the port area is still very much alive and economically robust, providing much of Morocco with its daily supply of fresh fish, transported by refrigerated truck every morning right from the port area where the boats come in.