Morocco? Think Casablanca, feel Essaouira

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In a world that’s getting increasingly suspicious of “outsiders”, Essaouira had felt to the author the closest to home at a time when she was far away from it.

A public square in Essaouira, walled by ramparts, is absolutely idyllic within. | Ankita Anand

I had read about gulls in novels while growing up but it was only in the city of Essaouira in Morocco that I encountered their raucous bullying first-hand, as they tried to scare away all the other birds from the terraces close to the riad I was staying in. Their urgent calls characterise the city, their unapologetic shrieks adding to the salt in the coastal air.

 

A riad, rather than a modern hotel, is really the ideal abode for any traveller in Morocco. The traditional house built around an airy courtyard reflected the open friendliness of the Moroccans I met in Essaouira. It had all the comforts of a modern hotel, yet none of its clinical coldness. The earthenware, the brass fittings and the filigree lights typified the place’s exoticism.

A Moroccan riad offers the quaintest of interiors a tourist could hope to feel at home in. | Ankita Anand

 

Marrakech is well known as Morocco’s capital, and the city of Casablanca was immortalised by the motion picture of the same name. But Essaouira is still not as widely recognised as the jewel it is, despite being a Unesco world heritage site. It contains within its fort walls both the din and the repose so peculiar to sea cities. I was charmed by the walls that surround a city square where people lazed around and children played. While walls have an exclusionary image in the context of today’s politics, these seem to offer a welcome entrance to the city.

 

 

 

 

 

I had visited Essaouira in the month of February. It was windy — nothing a jacket couldn’t beat — but there was also lots of sun. The roads to the bazars, the seafront and the square were rather walker-friendly. When I did get lost in the gullies, someone or the other helped me find my place of accommodation. The markets did not have the roughness of a commercial area. There were cosily decorated shops on cobblestone streets, often set in the quadrangle style of the riads themselves. Carpets, plates, wooden artefacts, silver trinkets are common Morroccan items that would make even non-shopaholics stop and admire them for their rich colour, intricate designs and earthy textures. I particularly liked the thick, snug rugs; miniature wooden ships; and magic trick boxes. The way to unlock one was so unique — you had to move the slats in a certain order, and I felt so nervous about forgetting it that my friend, who was shopping with me, felt obliged to make a video of himself explaining the steps and send it to me.

Easy conversations offered by the traders and passers-by made me feel less out of place as I eagerly held on to the warmth on offer in a foreign place. The Hindi film industry, of course, had reached the place much before I did. Addressed both as Kajol and Aishwarya and requested for selfies, I tried to let myself get flattered and not think about how vastly different the two actors looked from me. While buying, I was reticent about bargaining because I felt I could not gauge the true worth of another person’s work. But one of the shopkeepers said that he saw bargaining as a way of striking up a conversation with the customer, where both parties establish a relationship with each other, however temporary. That made me rethink my own take on what I called “haggling”.

Gulls waft over an Essaouiran harbour, which looks like a location straight out of Game of Thrones.

 

 

A vegetarian like myself found no dearth of delectable fare in Essaouira. Mint tea shots were served free of charge at various places. A lot of these tea invites were freely floated by the ‘souk-keepers’ on the streets. Only once did the host look slightly offended by the suggested alteration to their traditional beverage when someone requested a sugar-free cup. Fish enthusiasts would of course love the little cafés around the harbour, giving a generous view of the painted boats. One can actually witness the journey of the fish being brought from the sea to the shop stalls to the frying pans and finally onto the anticipatory plates.

Despite opening itself up to tourists and travellers, Essaouira is known for having retained a lot of its traditional culture, and its eighteenth century architecture. The tourists too seem more into easy-going strolls and sunbaths than hectic sightseeing. Vendors, as all professionals must, are adept at sales pitches but can switch from hardselling to chatting according to the traveller’s mood. If weather truly plays a role in determining the joie de vivre of a populace, then the winter sun of Essaouira seemed to be keeping its inhabitants in good cheer. In a world that’s getting increasingly suspicious of “outsiders” and deliberately complicating visa procedures, Essaouira had felt to me the closest to home, at a time when I was far away from it.

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