The melting pot of Essaouira attracts Anglos and Moslems from throughout the western and African world. This week I met a Parisian couple, both professionals, whose parents immigrated from Tunisia and Algeria. Their gorgeous children captured my eye. The mom of these children, Saoud, speaks four languages fluently — French, Arabic, English and Spanish.
We are meeting people who have left France and the U.S. to find comfort and an easier lifestyle in Essaouira. Many have been here since the 60s and 70s when pop-rock stars like Jimi Hendrix and Cat Stevens visited. Stardom is not far.
I also found delicious Italian food prepared by a Moroccan who has a 10 seat restaurant called Vague Bleu. It’s on a little side street off the road to the Bab Marrakech (the Marrakech Gate) and recommended by ex-pats who have been living here for years — he from the U.K. and she from Long Island, NY. The gnocchi topped with a pesto spinach sauce was heaven. So was the aubergine (eggplant) rolls, tender melt-in-your mouth morsels of puree.
And, the fresh fish topped with curry spice couldn’t have been more tasty.
Our lunch companions included Parisian antiques collector Richard, local resident Rachid whose father was a silversmith, and a young woman with a great smile. Je ne parle pas francais, I say, and launch into Spanish only some understand.
Henna painting is a big thing here. Street corner artists set up shop to paint fantastical designs on any part of your body. Or, pick up a tagine clay cooker to bring home to prepare one of Morocco’s most famous pyramidical foodie dishes — veggies, seafood, chicken, lamb or goat — seasoned with cumin, coriander, cinnamon and peppers.
Along the early morning avenues before the shops open, the egg man pushes his cart to vend brown, fresh from the hen goodness as shopkeepers sweep the 17th century cobbled streets to prepare for the tourists who are the town’s economic lifeblood.
Our favorite morning past-time is to take a seat at a cafe, sip a rich cup of fresh ground and brewed Cafe Americano and people watch. Maybe accompanied by a croissant filled with chocolate, too!
About 70,000 people live in Essaouira and they need to eat. (Once, 40 percent of the population was Jewish.) There are thriving fruit, vegetable, fish and meat markets intermingled with tourist shops selling Berber jewelry, handwoven rugs, antiques, pottery, and organic argan oil. Everywhere is a hammam or spa.
On every corner there seems to be a patisserie or bakery offering delectable French and Middle Eastern treats made with figs, dates, honey and pistachios. The French influence is strong. You can’t go more than 20 feet without coming upon a creperie stand turning out handmade delicacies drizzled with chocolate.
The people are warm, friendly and helpful. We met Nora at the local coffee shop owned by her family. In addition to serving an incredible cup of cafe Americano, she led us to her favorite hammam where we made an appointment for the real deal — the traditional communal (same sex) experience with body scrub, sweat bath, masque, massage and hair wash for under $25 USD. My skin is now soooooo soft.
What’s a babouche? Pointy-toed shoes of course! The traditional style for Moroccan women and men. The original ones intended for outdoor wear are treaded with car or truck tires, I’m told, and last forever. The ones for inside the house are more like slippers. Then, of course, there’s the jewelry shopping and this happy salesman (above right) made the sale of a lovely Tuareg silver and carnelian pendant and was eager to show it off.
I’ve not succumbed to the many sweets yet, but the temptation is very strong. Now, I’m off for my morning cup of coffee. Only one or two required.