Trail of the unexpected: Essaouira, Morocco

This relaxed port city is full of rhythm. Linda Cookson heard it ... all along the watchtower

Its fairy-tale battlements the colour of honey, its miles of sandy beaches and a bustling blue-and-white medina straight out of a picture book have made this laid-back little port on Morocco's Atlantic coast a magnet for musicians since its hippie heyday in the Sixties.

Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens and Frank Zappa all visited Essaouira, and locals stick happily to the story that Hendrix's "Castles Made of Sand" was inspired by the ruins of the Borj El-Berod watchtower, a crumbling former fortress on the water's edge to the south. That the song was recorded two years before Hendrix is known to have visited Essaouira is only a minor inconvenience. "Well, it's obvious, isn't it," says our new friend, Hassan, with a commendably straight face. "He came much earlier. In secret."

Fortunately, Essaouira has no need to rely on dodgy legends for its musical fame. The town hosts an array of music festivals – a classically based Alizés festival every April, an exuberant jazz and world music festival in late June, and a gypsy and flamenco-based Festival of the Atlantic Andalusias in October. But even outside of festival time you'll find eager performers in full swing in venues ranging from the cosmopolitan cool of the town's trendy Caravane Café (2bis Rue Qadi Ayad; 00 212 524 783111) to the ramshackle restaurants of the alleyway Rue El Khabbazine (near the jewellery souk), where local musicians take cheap tagine suppers.

On our first night, Hassan has brought us to one of his favourite music haunts, the Il Mare restaurant (43 Rue Yamen; 00 212 524 476417). Its funkily furnished terraces look directly over the cannon-lined ramparts of Skala de la Ville, the 18th-century sea bastion that runs along the northern cliffs. Sharing a dish of baked oysters and a bottle of local Val d'Argan red wine, we've watched a breathtaking marmalade sunset spilling like shot silk across sea and stones, and now a local gnaoua band is tuning up. This music is Essaouira's hypnotic pulse and living history. Played on traditional instruments – bass drums, iron castanets and the lute-like guimbri – its mesmeric rhythms and chants were first developed by slaves brought to Morocco from sub-Saharan Africa.

More recently, gnaoua players have blended their own distinctive sound with other musical traditions, and tonight, to our delight, is no exception. Alongside an exquisitely inlaid guimbri, carved from local thuya wood by artisans in the archways below Skala de la Ville, a battered electric guitar suddenly strikes up, and Il Mare starts to rock.

We wake up next morning with sore heads but happy hearts – and in the most comfortable bed ever. Essaouira has retained the colour, friendliness and easy charm that first attracted hippie travellers, but there's no longer any need for visitors to rough it. Boutique hotels and chic riads abound, and we're in the most glamorous of all.

Housed in a sumptuously restored former palace, Heure Bleue Palais sits within the medina just inside the Bab Marrakech gate. It's fantastically stylish, with marble pillars, carved cedar panelling and Essaouira's only rooftop swimming pool. Breakfast is served on silver salvers, in a palm-filled courtyard brimming with birdsong and the tinkling of a fountain. Replete with fruits, honey pancakes and sticky cakes, we head down cobbled streets into the heart of the medina. Essaouira's lively souks, clustered around where Avenue Mohamed Zerktouni and Avenue Mohammed El Qouri meet, are just as colourful as the labyrinths of Marrakech but more manageable, less manic.

The main drags are awash with the fumes of new leather from stalls crammed with conker-coloured satchels, belts coiled like sleeping snakes and neat rows of sequinned babouche slippers. But for more authentically exotic shopping, we follow the locals into the specialist markets that pack the adjacent alleyways. In the spice market, Berber women gather shyly to sell siwark (walnut-tree bark), used to redden lips.

Time for a jug of eye-wateringly thick coffee at Dar Tata (202 Marché aux Grains; 00 212 661 774676), one of the friendly open-air cafés that line the arcades of the grain market. Later, we take an atmospheric stroll around the nearby Mellah area, a quiet maze of decaying mansions left by the town's now largely departed Jewish population.

Several of the houses have the town's emblem, the six-petal Rose of Mogador (Essaouira's former name), carved over their entrances, and in one little backstreet filtered by shadows we stumble on the Hammam Babsi steam baths, where Orson Welles filmed for Othello in 1949.

We retire to Place Moulay Hassan, the main town square near the waterfront, to watch the action unfold from the upper terrace of the Bab Laachour café (Place Moulay Hassan; 00 212 524 473102) over a cold Flag beer. It's only noon, but the buskers are already out in force. In the café, a young man, dressed in the traditional multi-coloured robes of gnaoua performers, passes among the tables. He's distributing leaflets for the band that's due to play this evening at the Restaurant Café des Arts (56 Avenue de l'Istiqal; 00 212 666 314221).

You're never far from music in Essaouira.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Linda Cookson travelled with Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 2213; abercrombiekent.co.uk), which offers four nights' B&B at Heure Bleue Palais in Essaouira plus three nights' B&B at Les Jardins de la Medina in Marrakech from £1,285pp, including return flights from Gatwick to Marrakech and private transfers. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies to Marrakech from Heathrow and Gatwick; easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) flies from Gatwick and Manchester.

Staying there

Heure Bleue Palais at 2 Rue Ibn Batouta, Bab Marrakech, Essaouira (00 212 524 783434; heure-bleue.com), has double rooms from €200 per night, B&B.

More information

visitmorocco.com

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?