After the long, uncomfortable journey that ran two hours longer than expected, there was something so refreshing and invigorating about the gust of warm ocean air that greeted us as we clambered off the bus in Essaouira. The bus station wasn’t in the city centre, where the UNESCO World Heritage site-deemed medina is located, but with the smell of the salty air and the clear petering out of the earth-toned, monochrome rooftops in the distance, it was obvious that the ocean was tantalizingly close.
It was early evening, the blue sky was sparsely painted with greying clouds, and sunset was near. A fifteen minute walk later and we entered the medina for the first time and made our way through the narrow streets, dodging vendors, locals, and the occasional donkey and stray cat. As if the ocean breeze wasn’t inviting enough, the early sunset views from the terrace above our hostel, the Hotel Beaurivage, were idyllic.
Like Chefchaouen, almost every bit of the Essaouira medina is photogenic. Throughout the next day there, we perused nearly every street and alleyway, from the standard street-food and artisan stands and shops, the jewelry souqs or covered, open-air marketplaces and alleys, the quiet, less crowded residential streets, to the oceanfront kasbah or fortress and its stunning views of the ocean and nearby coastal towns.
On the water, seagulls crowd the air and flock to the fishing boats, and the smell of fresh fish is pungent amongst the street food stands just outside the oceanside entrance. Men and donkeys hauling carts make for some dense traffic at midday and in the evenings inside the medina walls, and vendors easily scope out the tourists and know just how to charm them when they approach their stands and shops.
As opposed to the eager and somewhat more annoying sales pitches of the Marrakech vendors, Essaouira’s are more cautious and prior to their sales pitch offer a bonjour or a thickly accented “hello, how are you,” or our personal favorite, “you’re welcome,” as their way of expressing their enthusiastic welcome to their city.
They ask you where you’re from, whether this is your first time in Morocco, whether or not you like the city, and where else in Morocco you’ve been. And if you don’t feel like looking further at their products, or inquiring more about prices, they respond with a “no problem, you’re welcome, welcome to Morocco” and you can continue on your way.
However, in the event you do want to look through their products, from the usual scarves, purses, clothing, and jewelry, they eagerly invite you into their shops, emphasizing that “looking is free,” intending not to pressure tourists into buying until they’re ready. Bartering is somewhat easier as the vendors are more laid-back than the profit- or scam-seeking Marrakech salesmen, and I was even offered to hang out and share a fresh-made tajine in the scarf shop where I successfully and fairly bargained with the young, amicable salesman, who ended our transaction with a friendly hug goodbye.
Whereas on our first Morocco visit in Casablanca we were somewhat hesitant, guarded, and unsure of what to expect from its people, the hospitality and friendliness of the people of Essaouira was obvious, and we were instantly comfortable conversing with, ordering from, and bargaining with the waiters, hotel staff, vendors, and other locals. The quintessential, laid-back and stress-free atmosphere of a typical beach town was complemented perfectly with the approachable and genial populace. We had nothing but positive experiences with every local we encountered.
I loved everything about Essaouira, from the moment I stepped off that bus. Our time there was unfortunately the shortest among our five city visits, but nevertheless it was a fulfilling, gratifying visit, a city I will most definitely return to in the future when finance and circumstance permit it.