Riad by the Sea

Westerners hold hands and sit in the cool shade drinking their café au lait.

Place Moulay el Hassan, the central square in Morocco’s blue coastal town of Essaouira, is so quiet you hear you own footfalls. All is silent and still in the old medina.

The Atlantic is deathly calm and the incessant Northwesterly that batters this coast and the protective Norfolk palms around Essaouira strand has vanished for awhile. The as it is called locally is a welcome breeze in the summer and a cold blistering wind in the winter. The air is hot and dry and it is time to sip a glass of syrupy Chinese gunpowder tea perfumed with mint sprigs from Meknes. Most business in Morocco is done over three glasses of this sickly but thirst-quenching brew. If the deal doesn’t work out, then there is always the sugar high.

Presumably they are more relaxed with the baraka blessing bestowed on them by the tattoo designs. The women has a hand of Fatima and the man just a perhaps their body paint is just for show.

The Medina of Essaouira is all whitewash and sky blue. Blue, the colour of truth, adorns shutters, windowframes and doors. Reflective light cools in the narrow alleyways that maze their way round in circles. You can get pleasantly lost in Essaouira, but it is a compact place and you will never lose the smell of the sea or lose sound of greedy gulls calling ‘mine, mine, mine, mine’ as they circle the fishermen’s catch and the fish grills in the marina.

Essaouira is on a different time clock to the rest of Morocco. The frenetic cities further north seem to constantly hussle there way through the day. Agadir and its shallow minded resort scene seems far away. This is the real Morocco but at a sedate pace.

The tide is crimson from the murex shellfish that surround the isle of Mogador. Murex have for millennia secreted a wonderful royal colour – the tyrian purple of popes, kings and Roman aristocracy. Ptolemy famously flaunted himself with pomp in a robe coloured with the snail secretions dye of Mogador in Nice and so dapper did he look that he induced the wrath of his uncle Caligula. This was the end of Ptolemy as his emperor uncle had him murdered. 

 At the turn of the 20th century it was also the location of a arms trading.

 The town of Essaouira is just that little bit more authentically Moroccan than Agadir even if it is built on a grid system that is distinctly European. It was the Portuguese ‘Mogador’ and a major trading stop during the Golden Age of Exploration, with slaves, tea, almonds, and olive oil all passing through on their way to European markets. The medina today is probably the cleanest in the country with its attractive whitewashed buildings and characteristic blue doors. An Alouite Sultan either impelled his French prisoner Theodore Cornut or hired him, depending on your view of history, to design a military town to protect him against insurgents from Agadir.

Cornut’s designs were influenced by the architects of towns like St Malo in Brittany, so Essaouira is a hybrid of traditional Moroccan architecture with European planning.

Orson Welles filmed Othello on the streets and ramparts of Essaouira and it starred Michael McLiammoir and Hilton Edwards who co-founded the Gate Theatre in Dublin. Welles self-funded the film, but he did not have much money and he had to run off to do various roles in Hollywood films in between shooting some of the scenes. There was famously one scene shot in a local baths where the costumes didn’t turn up and the actors had to borrow and use their hotel towels as costumes. The film won a prize at Cannes inspite of the low budget production, which is all down to the genius of Mr Welles.

Eleanora falcons, which are almost extinct, inhabit the islands just off the coast of Essaouira. They are called the Purple Isles because they are also the home of a very rare shellfish. The Murex shellfish is allegedly the original source of “Tyrian purple” (the royal colour), which is found in a small vein near the fish’s head. The Phoenicians are likely to have discovered this highly prized purple hue, which was expensive to produce. A lot of shellfish were killed to produce a little dye and the dye was produced as part of the shellfish’s death knell so it is not surprising they are now rare. In the past, purple was a treasured colour reserved for royalty, imperial popes and the Roman aristocracy and hero generals.

The Egyptian queen Cleopatra was a fan. Jesus Christ wore a royal purple garment (he was being mocked) when he was crucified. Nowadays the royal and papal purple is more likely to be produced from insects.

Sir Francis Drake stopped off on the Purple Isles for Christmas lunch in 1577 at the start of his great circumnavigation of the globe. It is not certain that he was served Murex on a plate, but whatever it was he didn’t like the look of, as he exclaimed that he couldn’t eat such an ugly looking fish. It was no turkey for sure. The fresh fish you can eat at the stalls near the harbour in Essaouira is delicious if a little pricey by local standards.

The best place to stay in Essaouira is in one of the family run hotels or riads in the centre of the medina. They are built in a distinctive style around a central shady courtyard or patio (called a riad). The one I stayed, the Riad al Medina, was once owned by sixties rock legend Jimi Hendrix who lived in the town on and off for a number of years. He wrote his famous classic “Castles Made of Sands” while seated on the beach at Essaouira according to local lore.


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