"Once, everyone was here. There were 13 consulates. The French, the British, the Portuguese, the Dutch, even the Brazilians, half the city was Jewish, there were synagogues as well as mosques and we all got along. The Muslims and the Jews would exchange gifts at the end of Ramadan. Now I am the only Jew left." I am getting a history lesson from Joseph Sebag, an antique dealer in the city of Essaouira, his home on Morocco's windswept Atlantic coast.
Hard to believe it these days but this sleepy, time-warped city was once Morocco's major trading port. Built by European architects and engineers in the mid-18th century at the behest of Morocco's king, Essaouira is unlike anywhere else in Morocco. Encircled by walls of golden stone and washed by the Atlantic waves, within Essaouira's medina, the old city, is a cubist arrangement of squares and streets lined with whitewashed facades. Unlike the blank, featureless walls typical of a traditional Moroccan medina there are balconies and shuttered windows that overhang the streets and ornate doorways that hint at the city's past as a rich trading port. Since the streets of the medina are too narrow for traffic the loudest sound is seagulls, interspersed with the call to prayer from the city's minarets. It's also compact. Small enough, they used to say, that you could perfume the whole city for just a few dirhams' worth of incense.
Today Essaouira has become the dessert experience in the Moroccan playbook, a bite-sized city with a chilled vibe, a beach tailor made for windsurfing and a shopping scene as good as the famed souks of Marrakech, minus the hustle. Access is easy thanks to an international airport, and budget flights from the UK and Germany have made it a prime choice for winter sun holidays for pale Europeans, even those with just a long weekend to spare.
Idleness comes naturally. After a leisurely breakfast on the rooftop of your hotel, saunter down to the crab-claw harbour, packed with tiny, dancing blue fishing boats and bustling with men in big sea boots unloading their catches. Admire the citadel on the way back then head through the gateway into the medina and past the jewellers, carpet merchants, bakers and cafes along Avenue Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah. One of the local specialties is argan oil. The trees that produce the oil grow extensively just inland and a common sight in the medina is a woman turning a grindstone and feeding in the bitter nuts with a thin filament of amber oil trickling into a flask.
Essaouira is a great food town with seafood at the forefront. This is one place where the fish comes straight off the back of the boat, and seafood central is the food stalls along Place Moulay Hassan, where Essaouira tapers towards its harbour, with squadrons of kite-sized gulls overhead. Specialties include sardines, red mullet and octopus, grilled over hot coals and served with a lemony chermoula sauce, a mix of cumin, garlic, coriander, paprika and olive oil.
Essaouira is also renown as the home of Gnaoua music, a haunting synthesis of tribal African rhythms and Arabic songs. The descendants of former sub-Saharan African slaves, the Gnaoua are the musical wizards of Morocco. In mid-year Essaouira celebrates its rich musical tradition in the three-day Gnaoua Festival that marshals the grand masters of the genre plus musicians from the wider world who come to pay tribute to the bedrock power and influence of black African music.
The roll call of Essaouira's musical maestros includes one Jimi Hendrix, who visited way back in 1969, stayed for just 11 days and spawned a colourful collage of myths, but in Essaouira you don't need myths. The reality of Essaouira has more than enough poetry to strum imagination's chords.
Michael Gebicki travelled to and around Morocco at his own expense.
Qatar Airways operates direct flights from Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide and Canberra to Marrakech via Doha. The drive from Marrakech to Essaouira takes around three hours. See qatarairways.com
Roaming Camels Morocco specialises in individual itineraries for discerning travellers looking to experience the full flavours of Morocco, including Essaouira. See roamingcamelsmorocco.com
Just inside the walls of the medina, Villa Maroc consists of several interconnected traditional townhouses, with rooms running off central courtyards. The best rooms are those on the upper levels, number 18 in particular. The mostly white décor is accented with splashes of turquoise and bright blue. Staff are calm and professional. A highlight is the rooftop terrace for breakfast is served. From about $300 for two.