Essaouria: “Bride of the Atlantic”

We stand looking out to sea at the edge of the Gulf of Grief, at Slaver’s Bay, on the very spot where Daenerys Targaryen freed an army of eunuch slaves to help her invade Westeros in order to destroy the evil boy-King, Joffery.
If you are not a GoT (Game of Thrones) fan, you will have no idea what I’m talking about.

Essaouira (pronounced sah-weh-rah) is a port city of about 80,000 people on Morocco’s west coast. This romantic place also embodies the fantasy world described by George R.R Martin in his epic series “Songs of Ice and Fire.” 

Known by the name of Mogador until the 60’s, when the name changed to the Arabic for ‘beautiful picture’, today Essaouira is a UNESCO World Heritage site and an exceptional example of a late 18th-century fortified town. Old Essaouira is a walled fortress overlooking a harbour that was once favoured by pirates. The Muslim Barbary pirates preyed on Christian and other non-Islamic shipping in the western Mediterranean Sea beginning with the Crusades, and well into the early 19th century. 

A scene from S3 of Game of Thrones, and on the LHS - our photograph

Surrounded by the 18th-century ramparts, the old Medina of Essaouira looks like something out of a storybook. Always buzzing with activity, we were able to observe the real life and culture of Morocco. Getting lost in the narrow labyrinth of streets with tiny shops and fragrant stalls is one of the best things to do in Essaouira. The narrow passageways that snake through its medina maze-like are confusing, but after Fès, it was literally child’s play. (Essaouira really does look exactly like what you would imagine Astapor to be in real life, minus the ‘Unsullied’.)

We parked our car in a garage outside the city wall and headed through one of the big gates in the fortified walls, following the helpful porter from our Riad who was hauling our bags in his trolley. Riad Chbanate was an excellent choice for our stay as it is located in a quieter area, inside and close to the city walls. This luxurious guesthouse was originally a traditional Moroccan residence in the 18th century, the former property of the Caïd of Essaouira.

The Riad has been beautifully renovated, transforming itself into a relaxed and welcoming home with comfortable and opulent soft furnishings. We were offered delicious mint tea and delicate pastries before being taken to our spacious room, the “Berber” suite.

The roof of the Riad is open to the elements. I imagined that if it rained it would spoil the gorgeous couches, carpets and cushions unless everything got swiftly moved, but I was assured that “it never rains.”🤔

We headed out immediately to explore. Unlike the Medina of Marrakech, where you can’t take two steps without being pressured to buy something, the more relaxed atmosphere in Essaouira allows you to stroll around in a far more casual fashion.

We marvelled at the trucks squeezing through the narrow alleyways, literally forcing pedestrians to take refuge in door frames. We admired the beautiful doors, both ancient and decrepit and modernly restored. The doors give no hint as to what might lie beyond.

TEssaouria stole our hearts right from the start! The dramatic Atlantic coastline and bustling fishing port were an exciting highlight. It is easy to move in and out through the gates in the city walls, so it feels somehow freer. As I experienced in Fès, I had the sensation of stepping back in time as we watched, mesmerized, the hundreds of blue fishing boats laden with sardines, bobbing around in the harbour, while the non-mechanised activities of off-loading fish, packaging fish, scaling fish, filleting fish, mending nets and coiling ropes, took place by hard working men, beneath the watchful eyes of shrieking fat seagulls and shrewd, opportunistic cats.

The blue colour of the fishing boats comes from the nearby Mogador Island where the colour is harvested from the rare Murex sea snail shell that can be found there.  

Sunset and sunrise are an artist’s dream, a photographer’s paradise. We sloshed carefully through the strongly pungent residual puddles, trying not to slip on cast-aside entrails, or slimy, discarded scales. We dodged trucks hauling colourful cartons of the daily catch. We avoided tripping over the heavy lines tethering trawlers and dinghies. We ducked as baskets of shimmering sardines were expertly tossed from person to person. All the excitement played out against the stunning backdrop of the ancient fortress walls.

Back inside the walled Medina we sought out the local filled pie known as pastilla. Traditionally made with pigeon, but also often with chicken and almonds – we opted for a tasty seafood filling. We strolled through the colourful bazaars, noting the displays of Argan products, past striking art galleries and tiny restaurants. We watched a man roast cashews and coat them in sticky cinnamon sugar. We saw people selling the freshly caught eels, seafood and sardines of the day – as is – directly from the sea, or delicately roasted on an open fire.

One of the first things that drew us deeply into Essaouira is the Skala du Port fortification, a military platform built to defend the city against invasions. The fort was also used to store weapons and ammunition. The entrance to Essaouira’s Ramparts is found at the top of Rue Skala (which is lined with interesting artisan shops) You enter through a stone arch, walk up a steep slope to the top of the ramparts. At the top are dramatic views to the north with a rocky wild ocean below.

Perched on the ramparts you can still see the centuries old cannons pointing out to sea. The cannons in Essaouira were a gift of the European merchants to the Sultan Mohammed Ben Abdallah of Morocco.

There are plenty of lookout points up on the city walls, and it was a lovely clear day to make the most of the panoramic views of the Bay of Essaouira. In the distance we could make out the island of Mogador. 

We found ourselves wandering along a line of canons, which we recognized from GoT scenes. We waited our turn and climbed up on top of a canon and onto the wall. It’s a lovely place to sit looking out onto the Atlantic Ocean, watching the world go by, especially at sunset..

The fortifications and walls that surround Essaouira today were built by Mohammed III in 1767. The sultan wished to turn this small Atlantic town into a royal port and international commercial center. And Mogador remained the most important port of the Moroccan kingdom until the 19th century, when Casablanca and Agadir developed into better ports for modern ships.

Right next to the fishing harbor is another of Essaouira’s most colorful (and smelly!) attractions: the fish market. Early in the morning, this place bustles with local fish lovers and buyers. stands are piled high with everything from fish, shrimp and lobster, to eel, squid and octopus. Also  fairly stinky, mucky and slippery from fish residue. We had to leave our shoes outside our room overnight until they could be cleaned!

Moulay Hassan Square is Essaouira’s the most lively and vibrant square. Formerly known as Place du Chayla, the square now bears the name of the current crown prince of Morocco. Located between the port and the entrance to the Medina, the square offers scenic view of the ocean as well as a number of cafés and restaurants.All around the square, you can see children playing, musicians performing, seagulls flying, cyclists and tourists.

Essaouira is known as a gathering place of art and artists. So not surprisingly, you’ll find art galore everywhere you turn in this city. From beautifully painted walls and doors, to street art vendors and art shops, there is plenty of art to admire here.

There comes a point when you’ve had enough of rich Morrocan-flavoured food and you crave a well-prepared, Italian meal in a relaxed ambiance. Our Riad recommended Taverna Maurizio. It was perfect. Great service, reasonably priced, and delicious pizza! We even indulged in a carafe of red wine, an unusual spoil in Morocco.

We enjoyed the Medina in the early mornings the most. We were up early, cameras at the ready, to catch the first golden light as it reflected off the city walls. It’s refreshing to see shuttered stalls and closed doors. The absence of commercial branding or ubiquitous Coca Cola signs allows you to focus on the many impressive doors in the walls of the Medina. We observed the stalls slowly coming to life – shutters folded back, merchandise once again on display. The owners’ slowly chat over mugs of mint tea, while getting organized for the day. Homeless people share their scraps with the cats. There is a peaceful rhythm that is so welcoming after frenetic Marrakesh.

We decided to take a quad bike trip along the beaches and dunes and selected a company recommended by our Riad, who fetched us and drive us to their ranch. It was a beautiful set up, also very focused on horse riding excursions. We were warmly welcomed and taken through the safety instructions regarding the ATVs, fitted for helmets and briefed on handling the quad bike and being instructed to stay in the tracks if the guide.

We drove along the beautiful and endless beach in a southerly direction, intermittently passing a group of horse riders, then a man on his donkey. We turned east and began navigating the large Omar dunes. We came across a caravan of wild camels, which was something special to see! 

I was enjoying myself thoroughly careering up and down the slopes, until we suddenly got to a crest with a near vertical drop that seemed a mile down. Our guide encouraged us to simply lean back and follow him down. OMG!😱 I had such stage fright and had to be gently talked down by Geoff to effectively hurl myself and the heap of metal I was sitting on, over the edge. Of course, like hundreds before me, I was perfectly fine. 😝

RHS: Geoff shows us how its done…

We paused to admire the meeting of two “seas”, one made of high sand dunes and the other of waves – real magic. It reminded me of Namibia.

We finally climbed the immense dunes of Cap Sim, where we skirted the old lighthouse that guides the fishing boats back to the port of Essaouira after dark, from the immense Atlantic Ocean.

The other challenging part of the quad bike excursion is heading up a steep dune. Our guide would issue the “rev” command and you’d have to go full throttle to make the crest or risk sliding down, becoming completely stuck, and having to be rescued. My hands were cramping badly and I regretted selecting a 3-hour excursion 🥺


Our guide took us to an excellent vantage point, with a breathtaking view of the ocean and a natural formed cave. We had a brief rest before heading back through the mimosa and eucalyptus trees, and along a small road sheltered from the wind and behind the dunes, until we came across the ruins of the Sultan’s Palace, Moulay Ben Abdallah, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Then it was a fast ride back along the beach, my favourite part, along the the wet sand, close to the waves breaking onto the rocky coastline, past enormous flocks of breeding birds, some unusual eco-friendly nomadic huts and the constant feeling of the cool ocean breeze. A bit sunburnt, hands cramped into claws, but what a super afternoon!

We spent our last evening soaking up the quiet streets and taking photographs, as the sun set on the end of our Moroccan adventure.

On the outskirts of Essouira we came across and amazing sight: Goats in trees!

Traditionally, the local Berber people used the goats as part of the argan oil producing process. Waiting for the animals to eat the ripe fruit and then excrete the nut, effectively performing part of the oil-extraction process for them. After the goats finish eating the fruit and nuts off the tree, they pass valuable clumps of seeds which are then pressed to create the sought-after Argan oil. This practice has, thankfully, been overtaken by more modern argan oil-producing methods today.

Yet whilst the local people may not need the goats to aid their argan oil industry anymore, they sure come in handy for the tourism industry where groups of local men sit beneath the argan trees, waiting to charge passing tourists for taking a picture of ‘their’ goats. I did worry whether it was true that out of fruit season, the goats are tied to the branches to ensure a continuous stream of tourists. But the little fellow that I held in my arms seemed very strong and healthy.



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