My new friend Abdul interrupts my scrutiny of one of Essaouira’s graceful wooden-hulled trawlers and points to a village on the other side of the bay. ”That’s where Jimi Hendrix came.”
”Oh really?” I study the middle-aged man’s twisted nose and weatherbeaten skin. ”Did you meet him?”
He smiles. ”Write that Abdul, friend of Jimi Hendrix, showed you the fishing boats.”
Moroccans are masterful story-tellers and I somehow doubt that my self-appointed guide ever made it onto the iconic guitar-player’s Christmas card list. Nevertheless, I cannot help but like him. Short of stature and wearing jeans and working man’s boots, he puts a lot into the 15-20 minute tour of this resort town’s picturesque port which he entices me into. After negotiating his 40 dirham fee away from prying eyes under the side of a 40-foot vessel being built out of what he says is eucalyptus and mahogany, I do not feel short-changed - though I suspect I have paid over the odds. Our brief encounter will be a lasting memory of my short stay in this enchanting Atlantic-coast resort.
If you are looking for a traditional family seaside holiday with a dash of exoticism, Essaouira takes a lot of beating. A wide range of attractions - a long sandy beach, the little port and ramparts and enough cannon to enthral any 10 year-old - are crammed into a surprisingly small area.
The habitually stiff breeze, meanwhile, has made it a windsurfing centre.
With the local wildlife including bold-as-brass herring gulls, hyperactive swifts and plenty of mackerel, I was surprised how similar in feel and appearance it was to parts of the British coastline. Cornwall with kaftans, you might say - particularly in the late afternoon, when the Atlantic waves came crashing in and a belt of rain sent visitors scurrying for the cafes.
These days, there is plenty of high-calibre accommodation, while the souk strikes a good balance for foreign tourists, being well stocked but compact and less bewilderingly frenetic than its counterpart in Marrakesh, which remains perhaps one of the retailing wonders of the world. This relatively laid-back approach does not preclude the deployment of the odd imaginative marketing gambit. I noticed that several herbalists had labelled one particular concoction ”African Viagra”.
Yes, you do get hassled by local youths, seeking to guide you to your destination or to convince you of the merits of certain restaurants, which presumably incentivise them for each customer delivered. And you do sometimes feel that these young men would tell you anything to extract a dirham or 20. But it is mostly good natured, especially if you enter into the spirit of the thing. As in Marrakesh, I never felt intimidated or threatened.
For my one evening meal in Essaouira, I would have liked to have tried the semi-circle of beach-hut-style seafood grills at the exit to the port. Painted blue and white, like the town as a whole, these set out their freshly-caught ingredients - creamy white turbot, huge crabs and shrimp, sinister mottled black lobsters - in eye-catching displays beside the path taken by prospective diners. Prices, displayed on a prominent white board, ranged from 10 dirhams for sardines to 400 dirhams a kilogramme for langouste or ”spiny lobster”.
Sadly, they looked too exposed for the inclement weather. Instead I sought out an elegant Franco-Moroccan fish restaurant, Passage 24, in a sheltered riad in the medina, dining contentedly on red mullet followed by sweet tuile biscuits flavoured with thyme.
Hendrix came here on holiday and the town has a connection with another giant of the western arts, Orson Welles, who shot part of his classic 1952 film
Othello in Essaouira and now has a square named after him for his troubles.
In common with other Moroccan tourist centres, growing numbers of foreigners are becoming sufficiently emboldened to look into establishing a permanent base here. I was astonished to be told by Youssef Sefrani, director of Kawtar Immobilier, an estate agent situated in the heart of the medina, that 90 per cent of the company’s sales were to foreign buyers.
The French, he indicated, were the most common buyers, with the greatest interest shown in riads and apartments. In the shop window, one riad in need of renovation was advertised at E200,000, another with the work already done at E280,000. While these prices will not seem dear to those acquainted with European property markets, Mr Sefrani says prices have ”almost tripled” in three years.
For those whose first port of call, like mine, was Marrakesh, Essaouira is linked to the ”Pink City” by an efficient coach service. The seat price was 65 dirhams each way plus 5 dirhams per stowed bag. And the journey time through the austere Moroccan countryside was the best part of three hours. Alternatively, you can just as easily hail a taxi that will happily take you to your door.