Essaouira is becoming a Moroccan hotspot, celebrated for its chilled-out atmosphere and bohemian culture. But it’s easy to overlook the true nucleus of this idyllic city: it’s historic and effortlessly characteristic fishing port.
It’s daybreak at Essaouira’s fishing port and there’s not a tourist in sight. Hordes of fresh fish, the occasional stray dog, fishermen, traders, restaurateurs and locals dressed in flowing djellaba’s - which ease around them in the calm but persistent Atlantic breeze - are the only ones to wander through these parts at this hour. They fill the gaps of the passage between the port’s wind break and its adjacent waters, which houses boats in rusting, sea-beaten blues. Stationary carts are set-up for trade displaying sea bream, stingrays and the coastline’s abundant Conger eel; others are being pushed down the puddled-track in a constant flow of traffic. Crowds of locals form occasionally around newly docked arrivals; hounding, haggling and (quite often) quarrelling over the catch and its prices - this is Morocco after all. Large women with hair wrapped in bright scarves that stand starkly against this primitive backdrop, set up for the day along the water’s edge; soon it becomes clear with their plates, portable stoves and tubs of soapy water that they are here to feed the fishermen who cannot delve too far from their duties. Here is the central hub of Essaouira - it’s ticking clock. While the rest of the town slips through the day at its famously care-free pace, stoned by the consistent sun and mysteriously soothing air, the port remains tirelessly at work.
That’s not to say that Essaouira’s port is a ‘locals-only’ zone. By midday, it becomes a melting pot of locals and tourists, all looking to experience the bustle and take in the sea air while filling up on some caught-that-morning lunch that’s grilled on the spot, alongside plates of french fries and tomato and onion salads - all of which are to be devoured by hand right there and then. The modern day attraction of the port is a unique mix of a fast-food lunch paired with the grotesque elements of a fully functioning fish market. In a hyper-sterilised world, visitors marvel at the oddly alien sight of bartering and the beheaded fish before them, as they step wearily through small pools of shark entrails and sardine skeletons. The port remains one of the few spots that can claim to be untouched by modernisation’s heavy hand; its everyday functionality is almost medieval in its character, and a far cry from the 21st century’s affixation with cleanliness and sanitation.
For centuries the port has been feeding the town, but since 1770 when it was first established, it has been a site of paramount importance for Morocco as a whole. Leaving this quaintly rustic city - which has been occupied since prehistoric times – without so much of a whiff of its rich and influential history - would be an easy mistake to make. It was the first seaport of Morocco, the slave port for Timbuktu, a main trading ports between Europe, Africa and the Americas, and a way-in for the French, Portuguese and Spanish colonialists, yet as Essaouira remains a hidden secret of Morocco’s western coast, many tales of bombardment and besiegement go unheard.
Despite this rough-and-ready attitude of the port, holiday-makers are waking up to the magic of Essaouira, and perhaps for the very reason that a taste of traditional Morocco is being salvaged here, while simultaneously offered up alongside a contrastingly sleepy city of white and blues and sandy fortress walls. For decades it remained a well-kept secret of nomad travellers and was footnoted as a musical haven for artists like Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix, who have been claimed to once pass through Essaouira during the halcyon days of the sixties. Now, with the recent building of its own airport on the outskirts of town, travellers who look for an authentic Moroccan experience, bountiful in its own independent history and doused in a majestically peaceful air, need look no further.