Essaouira, the laid-back seaside and port city on Morocco‘s windswept Atlantic coast, is less hectic than big city neighbour Marrakech, and its medina is small and easily navigable. There’s no better way to get to really understand Essaouira than by getting to know Swiris (natives of Essaouira). Here are five different places to meet locals in Essaouira:
All Moroccan social interaction takes place over a cup of hot, sweet mint tea. At teatime, head to Chez Miloud, a hole-in-the-wall cafe on the main street (Ave. Istiqlal aka Haddada). It opens late afternoon for msimen (flaky crepes spread with the ubiquitous Vache Qui Rit cheese and/or honey) and harira (a vegetarian soup containing pulses, pasta, tomatoes and spices). And tea, of course. The clientele are local shopkeepers seeking a snack and single sex groups of youngsters, chattering over warbling Egyptian movie scores.
Flea market artists
Two very different local markets are held on Sundays. The joutiya flea market (outside the medina beyond Bab Doukkala) takes its name from the French verb, jeter (to throw away). A visit is not only a chance to pick up some quirky cast-offs or discover a gem among the dusty junk. Also, you can meet local self-trained artists who work in a naive style on found objects and flotsam, upcycling them into objets d’art, portraits of local characters and fantastical creatures. Look out for the workshops of artists Baki and Asmah as you browse.
Discover rural life
An early start is required to catch the action at the Had Draa market, around 30km outside Essaouira. Get there by local bus from outside the main bus station or by grand taxi. You won’t find tourist souvenirs here! In fact there isn’t much to spend your money on if you don’t need livestock, farm implements or a week’s worth of provisions. However, the camel auctions, handmade baskets, mountains of misshapen fruit and veg and spices by the sackload give a real insight into the lives of rural Moroccans. See if you can spot a Berber barber, plying his trade in a tent!
Eat with a Moroccan family
With ingredients fresh from the souk, the best Moroccan food is always made in the home. Swiris tend not to eat out and so restaurants cater mainly for tourists, offering an increasingly standardised menu. Khadija’s Kuzina, fills the hole in the market like it fills an empty stomach. Offering cookery courses, outside catering and cultural interchange to local expats and passing tourists.
Like most Moroccan homemakers, Khadija expertly makes traditional dishes such as tajine or couscous, but she is also keenly interested in other cuisines and lifestyles. Let her create for you a gluten free menu or teach you to make traditional local dishes not found in restaurants. Enjoy the fruits of your or her labour in an authentic and welcoming family setting, often alongside her charming husband Hussein and their son, Yassine.
Finally, you can’t say you’ve visited Essaouira until you’ve witnessed the stunning Atlantic sunset. Join the locals on the skala of the Kasbah. Fortifications built to protect the town and its traders from the sea and from invasion back in the 18th century. People say the circular area has special acoustics, enabling a look-out to transmit his urgent message back to the townsfolk. Often, street musicians gather here, demonstrating the amplification properties with their rhythms.
The ramparts, ornamented by nineteen bronze canons of Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese origin, are a favourite spot for locals to meet, watch the sun set and contemplate life. And if you are lucky, you might meet a well-known local character. The kaokao man (peanut seller), who will sell you a paper wrap of roasted nuts for a few dirham accompanied by his kaokao skat rap.
Moroccans are very friendly and super hospitable. Therefore, taking time to get to know them on their terms will help forge friendships for life and enable you to develop a deep appreciation of these people and their country.
© All photos via Lynn Sheppard