Essaouira’s immense Atlantic panoramas were the perfect antidote to the oppressive hustle (and hustlers) of Marrakesh’s medina. The salt air, brisk wind and beautiful coast were invigorating after the tightly confined streets of both Fez and Marrakesh. To which you can also add the picture-postcard whitewashed buildings surrounded by high defensive walls and ramparts, a pretty harbour filled with small fishing boats, a fascinating medina, a splendid beach, and some great sleeping and eating options. Essaouira has it all.
It also has a new and glamorous association with the hit HBO series, Game of Thrones. Essaouira doubles as the city of Astapor in the series, where the doomed heroine Daenerys Targaryen, aka the Mother of Dragons, recruits an army of Unsullied – slaves trained to be fearsome warriors – who Daenerys, aka the Breaker of Chains, frees from slavery on her bloodsoaked way to claim the throne.
To be fair, Essaouira is the sort of place you’d be amazed to discover wasn’t a film set. So no surprise that the atmospheric streets of the ancient city also doubled as the less salubrious areas of another Game of Thrones setting, Kings Landing. Filming took place in the street outside the lovely Dar Al Bahar, the riad run by a French-Dutch couple where we stayed. These narrow lanes and alleys offer the perfect aesthetic for a fictional medieval city because they actually date back beyond the Middle Ages.
Maybe it’s the coastal location that gives Essaouira a way more relaxed vibe than Marrakesh, but it also has a very different history. In the 16th century, the Portuguese captured the city and built a fort here. A century later the French were attempting to colonise the city. Portugal used Essaouira as one of its bases for the colonisation of Brazil, and it was a safe haven for Portuguese ships returning from India and the Far East, which linked it to global trade and international events.
What you see today though is largely the creation of Moroccan King Mohammed III and dates from the 18th century. The King chose French, Genoese and English architects to design the fortifications, and equipped them with Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish canon. This though is a far more ancient city, with a history dating back to Antiquity. The city was home to Phoenician and Carthaginian traders, and was part of Ancient Rome’s trading empire. The valuable ‘imperial’ purple dye used for Roman togas was made from seashells in Essaouira.
Spend a few days relaxing here and this history seems to seep out of the walls. We’d arrived from Marrakesh by bus and the station was a good 30 minute walk from where we were staying in the old town. The walk gave us our first glimpse of the medina and the dramatic city walls. The Dar Al Bahar is built into the walls and, once we’d dropped our belongings in the room, we headed to the roof for panoramic views over the Atlantic and the town.
It was lunchtime when we emerged and we headed to the wide open space of Moulay Hassan Square. Here is where all life converges in Essaouira and it’s a prime people watching spot. People watching could wait while we ate freshly caught whole fish sourced from the fish market close to the harbour, grilled and served in sight of the fishing boats at a seafood place recommended by our hotel owners.
We almost went for a stroll on the wide arch of sand that stretches several kilometres south of Essaouira, but the lure of the medina got the better of us. The contrast between the brightly illuminated Moulay Hassan Square and the dark, occasionally dingy, lanes of the medina could not have been greater. We nosed around markets and shops, passed ubiquitous blue and white decorated houses and children playing in the street. Eventually we landed on the Scala, the former Portuguese fortifications, where we were greeted by an amazing sunset…