By Antonio Malara
After “Casablanca” and “Marrakech”, Essaouira was the third Moroccan city I visited during a trip made together with my sister and a group in January 2019. We visited Essaouira during our stay in Marrakech and it was actually not a scheduled visit. It was a proposal made by our guide who advised us to visit this city, since we had already seen the most important things in Marrakech. To tell the truth, reaching the minimum number to make the daily trip was not easy and I also was in doubt both because I had become familiar with Marrakech and because going to Essaouira would meant never rest during the whole trip to Morocco. However after a long "negotiation" in the end almost all the members of the group joined, so on the established date together with the guide and our driver we headed from Marrakech to Essaouira, the journey lasted almost three hours and it was an opportunity to see other nuances and characteristic things of Morocco.
During the journey we passed through a village that seemed to be placed in another era. We crossed the main road where there was a very characteristic market that day. At the side of the road there were street vendors who had transformed their old cars into small bazaars, it was something that took me back to the eighties. They sold everything from fruit to clothing and almost everyone had set up an umbrella near the cars to shelter from the sun. In general the conditions of the village and all that surrounded it were extremely poor with old cars that looked like carcasses, houses and shops with improvised doors and many dirt roads. But the singular thing was when we saw a person walking by carrying a live chicken, he was holding by his neck. When we asked the guide about it, he explained that the village was so old that there were still people who did the bartering. Basically that morning, that man went to give his chicken to a trader who in return gave him something else, probably clothing. It was a scene that really took you back in time, something dramatic but poetic at the same time.
About two hours into the ride, I noticed that suddenly many of the group started to get up from their seats and started looking out the windows pointing at something in amazement. What they had seen were trees with sheep standing on the branches. As the bus proceeded I saw some of them too and honestly it was a surreal scene. Our guide said we would stop a little further where there were more such trees. So we did and getting off the bus we had the opportunity to approach what seemed to me a fake thing. I have to tell the truth; until I was right under one of those trees and until I saw that the sheep were actually moving and breathing, I believed that scene was a hoax for tourists. I don't know why the sheep climbed like that, but in fact after finding each one their position, they only made micro movements and nothing more. The really singular and inexplicable thing was the visual effect that the scene produced. In fact, many branches of the trees were small compared to the size of the sheep. The scene was unnatural like something that was painted, something static and two dimensional. I still don't understand how some branches could support the weight of the sheep. In any case, the stop there gave everyone moments of euphoria and fun, people watched the scene, laughed and took pictures. I was probably the only one who enjoyed the scene using a somewhat critical observation.
The last stop before arrival was on a very nice viewpoint overlooking the ocean and part of the city of Essaouira. Up until that moment we had traveled internal roads where the scenery was desert, but there was the sea and the vegetation was green. The view was very interesting because it made us perceive the location of the city with respect to its surroundings and then that day it was a sunny with no clouds and a perfect temperature.
The bus left us near the sea, in front of a very old tower built in stone, it looked like a watchtower from who knows what time. Walking we discovered that the tower was part of a more complex structure that included a wall, a sort of port and an entrance gate to the city (named BaB El Marsa). Essaouira was a fishing town and this was immediately understood by seeing the many boats of all sizes scattered here and there outside the walls. Just behind them there were an infinity of large boulders where the fishermen prepared their fishing tools or lazed in the sun. Essaouira immediately struck me not only for its shape but above all for its colors. The walls were of a light sand color and the fishermen scattered over the boulders were packing stuff into their nets and covering them with colored blankets. Besides that, I noticed the boats freshly painted in bright colors. But the colors didn't stop there because there were wooden fences, umbrellas and tarps from street vendors which for some reason were all bright like blue or red.
The gate to the city was a monument in itself, reminiscent of a Greek temple with an arched architecture, two columns on the sides and a triangular frame above them. If it hadn't been for the small guard turrets on the sides and the walls, that gate looked like a miniature temple. But the most impressive thing was to go through the gate and literally enter the city. It was like entering a real amusement park and from a different era. Essaouira was just inside the walls and beyond that entrance gate. I mean that one really had the perception of entering a new world protected from the outside, as in the animated film "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi" by Hayao Miyazaki. Beyond the gate was a large square, with the sea on the left and the houses extending in front and on the right. There was lots of people walking around, both local and tourists but once again the colors struck. The houses were white with gold and blue decorations and on the left there was another sort of sand-colored wall.
Following the guide's directions, together with my sister and some of the group, we took a road that took us to what used to be the Medina of Essaouira, a narrow street full of shops. There, too, it was the colors that impressed and gave the city its own personality. In addition to the sand color of the walls, the white and blue of the houses, there were goods that for some reason were of infinite colors; orange, red shades of brown, the objects for sale and displayed outside the shops were part of the city's colors, fascinating and unique. Walking through the narrow streets of Essaouira was a journey through time and a true Medina experience. Perhaps it was more us tourists than the locals who made a mess in those streets so much so that I could not concentrate properly to take the original photos I wanted.
But the best surprise in Essaouira was the sight of a very original place whose view opens up after passing through an arched structure. It was the northernmost point of the Medina, where a stone ramp with more recent paving rose to another stone structure that looked like a watchtower from below. Parallel to the ramp was the high boundary wall, also in stone, so that the whole area automatically became a timeless element in its own right. In fact that was one of the observation points as protection of the city and the fact that it was in a certain way isolated from the rest, gave the feeling of being transported to another era. Even from a strictly objective and architectural point of view, the bastion was a fascinating and solid-looking work. Immediately after the ramp, a terrace was accessed after crossing another arch. This was probably the most suggestive point where the openings that housed the cannons overlooked the sea. In fact, the openings were very large as structures designed for defense, so large that two people could stand in each of these "windows". But beyond the original use they had, it was very nice to admire the panorama from those perspectives, a panorama that changed according to the position of each opening. The views were varied, both of the sea and of the surrounding cliffs. The place certainly deserved to be seen more calmly and in fact while I was there I immediately had the feeling that I had seen what I considered the peak of Essaouira. After leaving that place we walked back towards the main square because we had an appointment for lunch. Along the way, the city always offered new glimpses of ancient charm such as the beautiful wooden doors, all of different colors and with multiple decorations. Another thing that struck me about the city were the various gates, as if by magic after having crossed them the atmosphere changed, sometimes we passed from small streets to parts with wider streets but being marked by a gate, this gave a magical connotation . It was an atmosphere also given by the thousand indirect colors given by the city in the form of its buildings and the merchandise on sale in the shops.
After lunch we still had about two hours left and my sister and I decided to go to the beach. This part of the city was immense, the beach was not only wide but deep, to get to the sea we had to walk a lot. In those moments spent there, the sun was low on the water and reflected on it giving off an unreal light. This particular atmosphere accompanied us to the beach where we went to take more photos looking for original angles. On the beach there were people carrying out various activities but it was so big that it seemed we were alone. There were people who did sky surfing, others riding quad-bikes, camel tours or those who simply walked. After more than half an hour we returned to the main square to make some purchases and I saw that there might be the possibility of doing another particular "excursion". I saw that there were people on the strange rock formation by the sea, however to get there we had to climb the protective stone wall and then go down the other side. My sister accepted my proposal so that we headed towards a very interesting and different part than the rest. This rock formation that looked more like lava stone in giant format, was right next to the boundary wall. It was an alien landscape augmented by the green color of the moss that was growing sparsely on the rocks. Up close these rocks were much bigger than they looked from a distance and I must say that I really enjoyed climbing on them or jumping from one to another while my sister took pictures of me. As happened during my trip to Jordan, once again the fun was given not only by the natural beauty of the place, but by the absence of prohibitions and controls. I believe that common sense is sufficient to avoid accidents but today the rules lead the human being to lose one of his main characteristics. The fact is that if the area had been forbidden and manned for security reasons, I, like others, would not have enjoyed that place. The last thing we did in that area was to go right under one of the towers of the city wall. That structure had fascinated me seeing it from afar and I also wanted to admire it up close. Made up of stones of various sizes and various shades of yellow, up close it was much more imposing and beautiful, however it was also more dangerous. A large part of the plaster had very visible erosions, I don't know if there was a risk that it could detach, however I was only down there for a few photos. The last moments in Essaouira there we spent in another commercial street discovering other glimpses and other arched gates and immersed in that raw reality made of open-air shops where the so-called civilization made of safety certifications fortunately had not yet arrived.
I liked Essaouira a bit like all of Morocco also for this reason, the naturalness of things, the lack of those unnatural rules to which our civilization is not used to. We are instinctive and wild people despite what they want us to believe and western society tries every day to transform us into robots and to do things automatically. Essaouira was the opposite, immersed in colors that did not follow a logic but were born from the soul, it was the expression of wild freedom in the noble sense of the term. Probably this was also due to the concept of Medina, a place where human beings reigned and not the perverse inventions that they had created such as cars for example. We are made to interact with each other, mentally and physically without connecting mediums and Essaouira excelled in this. From the fishermen lounging on the rocks upon our arrival, to the vendors where we bought souvenirs, everything was indirect and direct interaction with human beings. In Essaouira, people expressed their creativity with the colors with which they painted boats, gates or houses. They expressed themselves by imitating the forms of nature, not with unnatural, boring and pathetic things like derivatives of technology can be.
Pictures: Antonio Malara
Camera: Fujifilm XT-3