Essaouira Part One – Cool History, Surreal Events and Wrong Attire

The coastal town of Essaouira (pronounced esso-wear-a) is a not-to-be-missed stop when visiting Morocco. It has a very rich history dating back to prehistoric times. The Romans had a large presence here, and interestingly, around the end of the first century BC, a factory was established to make purple dye from murex and purpura shells found in the tide pools, which was used for the purple stripe on the togas of Roman Senators. This factory was started by the Berber king Juba II, who was married to the daughter of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. (I think that is so awesome!)

Island of Mogador with the ruins of a Portuguese fortress built in 1506.

A few hundred years later the Portuguese seized and then lost control to a local Berber tribe. Then Spain, England, the Netherlands and France all tried in vain to conquer this tribe, although eventually France did sign a treaty with the sultan. That’s several hundreds years worth of history in two sentences. You’re welcome.

The present city was built by the Moroccan king, Mohamed III in the mid-eighteenth century. He hired a French engineer to design the city, which was originally called Souira meaning “small fortress” but the name changed to Es-Saouira meaning “beautifully designed”. This was our first experience in a medina, so I didn’t fully appreciate how organized, methodical, and yes, beautifully designed, it was. With its straight byways and alleys, large square and calm atmosphere, you feel completely at ease, unlike in the medinas of Marrakesh and Fez, which we had yet to experience.

Another interesting fact is that 200 years ago, the majority of Essaouira was Jewish, and there were as many as 40 synagogues. Due to economic reasons, they have all moved away, however there is one synagogue left, the Chaim Pinto that Jews still pilgrimage to each year the week before Rosh Shoshana. Guess when we happened to be there? We were fortunate enough to visit it, and it figured prominently in the surrealism of the day.

The weather was warm and I contacted our guide to ask if it would be disrespectful if I wore a sleeveless shirt. I had tried to find the answer online and no one seemed to agree; about half said it was okay and the other half said don’t do it. Our guide said it was perfectly fine. I threw on my sleeveless shirt, a skirt and a pair of flip-flops for a day at the beach and we were off. These choices had unforeseen consequences.

On the road to Essaouira there are large argan groves. Morocco is the only place in the world where these trees are native. They produce nuts which are turned into a variety of products; both for consumption and for skin care. And guess what? Goats climb the trees to eat the leaves. It is one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen. American goats can learn a thing or two from their Moroccan brethren.

How do they get up there???

Having grown up in Southern California, I have been to beach cities countless times, and thought I knew what to expect. We met up with our guide, Rachid, and immediately hit it off.

Rachid and me

We strolled down to the seaside fish market and this is when I realized that I had not made a wise choice in foot wear. I also realized that I have never walked through an outdoor fish market. The paths were covered with a (quite thick in spots) black muck. I guessed that its main component was blood and fish guts. “I’ve worn the wrong shoes,” I said, trying to quell my semi-germophobic panic. “We can skip the fish market, if you’d like,” Rachid kindly offered. Not a chance.

As carefully as I tried to walk, my confounded flip-flops kept blasting black muck onto the backs of my legs. Brett kept cleaning me up with tissues and a bottle of water. I was very grateful, and I’m also glad I didn’t miss the fish market. It was fascinating.

Next we headed over to an ancient wall. There was a great view from up there, but first we had to shimmy around a fence at the top, which involved hanging onto the edge of it and swinging to the other side. “I’ve worn the wrong bottoms,” I said as I flashed everyone below me.

The wall I had to skirt in my skirt.

Being Game of Thrones fans, it was exciting when we reached the rampart where Daenerys Targaryen met her army of Unsullied for the first time.

The rampart. Fun fact: Those cannons can not be removed, so when filming GoT, they had to build covers to hide them.
Game of Thrones scene with hidden cannons. Image courtesy of HBO.

Here’s a side note: there is a phenomenon that is happening around the world that I experienced for the first time on this trip. Lots of young people take a MILLION photos of themselves and their friends from every conceivable angle and position in interesting locations and you have to wait forever for them to get out of the way so you can take your five second photo. Perhaps my age is showing here, but it is a bit unsettling how many self-absorbed “social media stars” there are out there. I digress…

Our five second photo.

After getting our five second shot on the rampart, we headed into the medina. We passed a turkey and Rachid asked, “Is the English word for that “rooster?”

“No, that’s a turkey. Roosters are smaller, like that!” I pointed to a rooster who happened to be walking by.

“Rooster is my favorite song by Alice in Chains,” Rachid informed us. I was not expecting that and I liked him even more.

When we discovered Rachid was an Alice in Chains fan.

Up to this point, the day had been full of surprises and there were more in store.

Up next: My attire becomes an issue again; outrunning the Jewish pilgrims, an exuberant master silversmith, and the lunch that stared.

22 Comments on “Essaouira Part One – Cool History, Surreal Events and Wrong Attire

  1. Your 5 second photo looks good! I agree with you on the selfie thing, certainly narcissistic. So much rich history in that area, wow. ❤️

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Loved seeing your photos of Morocco (and I share your irritation with the “social media stars”). Friends of ours visited last summer, and it is at the very top of our list now, too. Wardrobe tips are good too. Note to self: no skirts if ramparts are involved! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much, Laurie! You will absolutely love it. I have a lot of recommendations, so when you start planning your trip, let me know if you’d like them. The guides we had were absolutely wonderful! Very knowledgeable, personable and fun to spend the day with. And yes…no skirts or flip-flops is a good rule of thumb. 😁 Have a great weekend!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thank you so much! we are thinking about next fall. we don’t usually take guided tours, but I think in Morocco, I would feel better with a guide and get more out of the trip.

        Liked by 2 people

      • These were all private guided tours, and yes, you will get so much more out of the trip walking around with a local who knows the history and also who will keep you out of the iffy areas. The medinas in Marrakesh and Fez would be terrifying without a guide. We discovered a few years ago that we are not group tour people, but having the guide all to yourself is pretty awesome. We became friends with them all and still keep in contact.

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  3. Wow! There really is nothing like travel to make history and culture come alive. I’m always so amazed to become part of a whole different way of life. I can’t wait to read the next chapter…

    Liked by 2 people

    • I totally agree, Aixa. Reading books and seeing photos is good, but meeting the people and visiting a place in person is the only way to make it come alive, like you say. Second chapter is coming soon. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Richa! You are so right!! Experiencing other cultures is so important. It really highlights how we are more the same than different, but the differences are what makes the world so interesting!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Pingback: Essaouira Part Two – The Surreal Day Continues – Empty Nest Adventures

  5. I was recently on a trip to Santa Fe, NM which is lovely and I made myself stop taking a zillion photos and just enjoy the experience. That was interesting what you said about how in our current culture we seem to need to photograph every moment. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • I take a million photos too, but I guess the difference is that I don’t have to be in them all, and I quickly get out of other people’s way. There are a lot of very self-absorbed young people out there.

      Liked by 2 people

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