Eventually there were camels, of course.
Beach towns, it would seem, share an essential beachiness, an island time sensibility originating probably somewhere in the Caribbean and spun across the Horse Latitudes, colonizing any place with a patch of sand. Even a place as madcap and frenetic as Morocco becomes a 78rpm set on 45 once you reach the ocean, a concept we considered at leisure with feet propped and cold drinks in front of us, looking out at the Atlantic from the end of Africa and watching the camels in the sand.
Essaouira, or simply ‘Essa’ as locals and those not wishing to use up all their vowels at once call it, is an old port town on the Western coast of Morocco, famous for windsurfing, alleged Jimi Hendrix visits in the 60’s, and an overall laid-back atmosphere. It was the last major stop on our trip earlier this year, a three-hour bus ride across the desert after days of head-on-a-swivel negotiation of labyrinthine Marrakech and Fez.
A porter from our Riad (the Moroccan equivalent of a bed and breakfast) met us at the bus station, flung our luggage into his push-cart, and led us through the medina to our destination. Riad Watier is the renovated residence of French expat Jean Michel Gabriel, who proved an invaluable guide to the town. Four stories surrounded a central courtyard garden with common areas on the ground floor and rooftop terraces where we breakfasted each morning.
Moroccan cuisine elsewhere is heavy on tagine, couscous, and sweet pastries, but Essa is a fisherman’s town, seafood is the thing here, and we were ready for a little change in diet. The extremely photogenic blue boats come in twice daily with their catch, and any fish you can imagine (and plenty you haven’t) is for sale up and down the dock. But Jean Michel clued us in on the secret that resulted in one of the most memorable meals I’ve had anywhere.
The fish market in the middle of the medina is as serene as every typical Moroccan market, which is to say not at all. The open-air square has a few prime central locations ringed by an array of stalls offering a catalog of seafood including sole, sardines, flounder, eel, snapper, and more, all of it just off the boats. The hurly-burly of the fish salesmen hawking their products and the young boys snaking around you like cats against your legs offering their services to wrap your selection could be overwhelming to some. After a week of advanced-placement bargaining classes across the rest of the country, it felt kind of normal.
After settling on a filet of sole, some calamari, and a few sardines, we took Jean Michel’s advice and crossed over to the adjoining square where we found a table in a little restaurant and let them cook our seafood for us. I followed our waiter away from the al fresco tables and up a little stairway into a tiny kitchen, where a woman was cooking everything that came in. After I returned, we sat in the sunshine, beneath perfect blue skies and surrounded by the whitewashed and weathered walls of the old medina, waiting for our food to arrive. We had tea and bread and olives (always olives in Morocco) and then plates of grilled and fried seafood, briny and fresh. The sole and calamari were delicious, but the sardines were perfect, brushed with olive oil, salt and pepper, tasting of the sea and capturing place and time they way great food can every once in a while. There were some great meals in Morocco, but I’m not sure any of them were better than that one.
The medina in Essa is tiny compared to those in the imperial cities we’d experienced earlier in the trip, and the (mostly) gridded street layout made it even easier to internalize. Rose and umber shades so characteristic of Fez and Marrakech here yield to whites and blues, the High Atlas background of central Morocco replaced with the deeper blue of the ocean to the west beyond the crenelated city walls still armed with cannon that once defended the port. Boys chased one another down the streets and alleys around street vendors rolling pushcarts stacked with fresh strawberries. Some of the women dressed in western style, and many others were in burquas ranging from the simplest black to surprisingly elaborate coordinated fashion statements.
We were in breathtaking Positano on the Amalfi Coast of Italy a few years ago, and everything there was almost too picture-perfect to believe, almost like a movie set. Essaouira, like the rest of Morocco, is nothing like that. Never for a moment do you forget that you’re wandering a real, functioning community, stepping past men laying brick in an alley, watching pairs of fishermen heading home after they’ve sold their catch, and hearing the five-times daily call to prayer.
Jean Michel also sent us on a long walk down the beach to the Ocean Vagabond, where we had our camel encounter. And we dined with him and some friends from France and Algeria around the common table in the Riad on our last night. Their English was not so good, and our French was much worse, but the food and company were marvelous. We left early the next morning the way we’d arrived: bags on a pushcart through the medina to the bus station where we headed back to Marrakech and hopped a train to Casablanca and Rabat.
Essa is a little spot, the quintessential out of the way place, and I doubt I’ll ever make it back there. But its perfect mix of mysterious Morocco and beachy laissez faire was fascinating and unforgettable.