Think of Morocco and you may think of the mosques and minarets, towering over souks where seasoned hagglers promise carpets that fly and lamps complete with genies. Or perhaps you imagine the sweeping Sahara, traversed by camels led by nomadic tribesmen. For an increasing number of European tourists, expats and retirees, however, Morocco means fast, modern cities and relaxed seaside resorts, such as Essaouira.
By far the majority of Europeans living in Morocco are French, followed by Spanish and Italians. Due to political, linguistic, personal and cultural connections, there are particular benefits for French nationals resident in Morocco. However, due to easier flight connections, improvements in the investment environment, the stability compared to its Arab neighbors and practically year-round sunshine, Morocco has become an important tourist, second home and retirement location for northern Europeans, including from the UK.
Essaouira – formerly known as Mogador – is being marketed as Marrakesh’s seaside. Although , just 2.5 hours apart by modern toll road or via the old ‘national’ road which winds its way through market towns interspersed with olive and argan fields, the two cities could hardly be more different. If Marrakesh is the former imperial capital of Berber dynasties and the current playground of stars, celebrities and stylists, Essaouira is its laid-back, low octane, slightly bohemian cousin.
You may not have heard of it yet, but Essaouira has had its moments of fame. In the 18th century, the town of Mogador handled the export of goods from the camel trains of the Sahara to Europe and beyond. Jewish merchants developed the trade and soon diplomats and negociants followed suit, connections were built and business boomed. British traders brought green tea from China to Morocco through Essaouira and sterling silver teapots flowed straight out of Manchester to serve it in.
As the French Protectorate came to an end and Jewish residents left, Essaouira took on the name it has today, its fortunes as a trading centre ebbed, and its fame came through other means. In the 1950s, Orson Welles started a trend which continues of directors and photographers attracted by the town’s impressive fortifications and narrow, shaded alleyways (you most recently saw Essaouira in season 3 of Game of Thrones). The hippies hopped off the Marrakech Express here – Jimmy Hendrix and Cat Stevens floated through. More recently, international water sportsmen and women have flocked here for the wind and waves. Deep in the medina, though, craftsmen keep crafting, artists keep painting and in the port, there are still sardines landed in the same way they have been for centuries – from little blue boats known locally as flouka.
The big attractions of Essaouira are the laid-back lifestyle, the low cost of living, the market-fresh daily produce, the easy-breezy climate and the welcoming, hospitable nature of local Moroccans. If you enjoy the European Mediterranean slow food and café culture, Morocco’s Atlantic coast is cheaper, just as warm but more rugged and with so much to explore!