The Atlantic port city of Essaouira, an 18th-century fortress and a UNESCO site, is not only an incredibly beautiful destination but, a cradle of the arts with a mystical and spiritual culture (the Gnawa) that originated out of Sub-Saharan Africa. For the past four years, I have attended the Gnaoua World Music Festival (every May/June depending on Ramadan) which is a celebration of the culture and the music, along with other musicians, that come from all over the world to play and experience the Gnawa. Together, the artists and the Gnawa musicians, create a musical fusion that’s a vibrant display of mesmerizing rhythms. (Locals also say that Jimi Hendrix came to Essaouira, back in the 70’s, to experience the Gnawa vibes and now I understand why.)
In addition to the sights and sounds of the festival, Essaouira, with its temperate climate all year round, is memorable in its own right. Between the constant wind from the sea (breezing through the maze-like whitewashed medina), the chirping chants of the seagulls, the Islamic call to prayer each day (called out by a muezzin), and the lingering scents of pastries, oils, spices, tagines, fresh seafood, and mint tea, everything around you ignites your senses and you truly feel like you are in another world. You can spend your days wandering through the medina (where there are no cars but, occasional hand pushed carts) shopping/bartering at the souks, admiring artisan’s work, climbing up on the ramparts and the port, listening to live music, sipping tea/coffee in cafes or the courtyards of the riads, or even kitesurfing/windsurfing on the beach. In the evening, you can dine at an outdoor cafe or rooftop, overlooking the ocean, or in a secluded restaurant on cushions and pillows, tucked into a quiet and intimate little setting. Something about this city, the Gnaoua culture, and the people draws you in, whispers secrets to you in the wind, and lures you back again and again.
Marrakesh, about a 2-1/2 to 3-hour drive from Essaouira, heading east towards the desert, is an easy and absolutely worthwhile destination to combine into one trip. The highways and rest stops are actually quite nice, and both cities are equally charming. Marrakesh has a very large and a “reddish clay” looking medina with a more bustling epicenter and a very large main square (Jemma El Fina) complete with snake charmers and monkey handlers. The medina is so large, it’s easy to get a little lost, especially if you want to. This year we opted to stay in a riad within the medina, a bit further from the main square and located through quite a few winding alleyways but, it was well worth the extra walk. Tucked away behind a small rounded door, was a spacious property with a beautiful courtyard, complete with palm trees, fountains, balconies, and a rooftop terrace. A little piece of paradise in one of the oldest medinas in the country.
The next time I go, I need to see the desert, camp with the Bedouins and then head to the north, and to mountains, to Fes, Tangier, Chefchaouan, and much more.
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