Travel Long Haul: Where castles made of sand slip into the sea
The Moroccan port of Essaouira has been a Portuguese colony, hippy hangout and inspiration for Jimi Hendrix.
Saturday 19 September 1998
It was here, during the summer of 1967, that Hendrix - doubtless smoking a little local "kif" (cannabis) - found inspiration for one of his most famous songs: "Castles Made Of Sand". If you walk along Essaouira's magnificent beach, past a mass of informal football matches and the new windsurfing rental shops, you will eventually come to Bordj El Berod; this fort, usually half-submerged at high tide, was part of Sultan Sidi Mohammed's defence system, and prompted Hendrix's song, recorded in October 1967.
Like Goa, Essaouira was formerly a Portuguese trading port. The original fortifications date from 1506, although they were rebuilt under Sidi Mohammed and his captive French architect in 1760. So the labyrinthine streets of the souk and medina combine with the grander squares and boulevards. One of those squares is even named after Orson Welles; he shot his 1952 Othello there, the town's famous ramparts used for most of the opening scenes.
Perfect for a visit in September, Essaouira has a growing reputation amongst windsurfers. It is also famous for its marquetry, boasting Morocco's finest (and cheapest) chess-sets and backgammon boards, made from the local thuya wood. Seafood by the harbour, whether from the posh Le Coquillage and Chez Sam's or the more normal street stalls, is unsurpassed, offering oversize bream and bass for little more than loose change. The town's other big attraction appeals to twitchers: to the south-west lie the "purple islands", a sanctuary for Eleanora's falcons which visit between May and October.
As with Hemingway and Madrid, everyone claims to have hosted Hendrix. The Hotel du Pasha, where he genuinely stayed, is in the medina - 9, Rue Attarine - and has now been restored to its 19th-century grandeur and renamed the Hotel Riad Al Madina (0021 24475727), whose central courtyard is covered with bright, patterned tiles, sculptured stone and plants; its 27 rooms cost between 544 and 864 dirham (about pounds 37-57, breakfast included).
The closest airport is Marrakech. Tobias Jones paid pounds 290 for a flight on KLM via Amsterdam. There are also direct flights on GB Airways from Gatwick. From Marrakech, the bus takes three or four hours, pounds 3. Morocco National Tourist Office: 205 Regent Street, London W1R 7DE (0171-437 0073)
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