Purple haze on the horizon

Jimi Hendrix was inspired there. Orson Welles filmed there. So how come Essaouira has stayed off the beaten track? By Rick Williams
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The Independent Travel
The sun dropped below the horizon, sky and sea bathed in a haze of reds and purples. The wind died and the waves fell silent, the ebbing Atlantic exposing the collapsed Bordj El Berod fortress. I sat on a rock before its jagged silhouette, and tried to remember the words to the song.

It was the same drunken ruins and, for all I know, the same rock, which inspired Jimi Hendrix 30 years ago to write the soulful "Castles Made of Sand". That and Morocco's finest cash crop. The guitarist's visit to Essaouira is now the stuff of legend.

I was about to go when a toothless, middle-aged man appeared. Meloud was a musician and local historian. Yes, he remembered Hendrix coming. No, he only stayed l0 days. Too busy with concerts and recordings. But Essaouira has changed little since then, he added. "They wanted to make a big glass hotel," he said, "but the people stopped it." It now stands crumbling like the ruins, a reminder to property developers that Essaouira is saying "no" to package tourism.

Getting in that morning, I was surprised by the absence of hustlers. Morocco has a large entry in any traveller's encyclopaedia of rip-off anecdotes, the locals' zest for dealing and haggling coming as a Force 10 culture shock. But as I searched for a hotel in Essaouira's maze of narrow streets, the only reaction I got was a polite smile and I almost felt neglected. Low doorways led into gloomy interiors, and a heady perfume of fish, seaweed and resinous smoke clung to the blue and white houses. Seagulls squawked and soared in the sky above while children played hopscotch with ocean-polished pebbles.

My hotel room overlooked the ramparts, where an 18th-century cannon pointed out to a returning fleet of fishing trawlers. It was with a moody, panning shot of these Gothic walls that Orson Welles opened his 1952 version of Othello.

Hendrix and Welles; for a provincial town miles from anywhere, Essaouira has impressive celebrity connections. But it's the truly laid-back atmosphere that has made it a must for the independent traveller. And the surf.

Stretching south in a glorious three-mile curve of golden sand, the beach was irresistible, the town end a melee of football matches and gymnastics. Dodging tackles and uninhibited displays of press-ups and squat thrusts, I made my way down to the shore. A young boy sold me a fresh piece of coconut and a nomad in a blue turban offered me a ride on his camel. I declined, the animal baring its teeth and snorting with glee. It was a circus which ended half a mile on, sun blazing down on a scattering of sunbathers as I strolled through the waves.

The ruins of the Bordj El Berod mark the end of the bay, but the beach continues for another 15 miles to Sidi Kaouki, a Mecca for surfers and a 20-minute bus ride away. Behind the ruins is the Berber village of Diabat where Hendrix stayed. Despite an official clampdown, it's still possible to rent houses there.

A mile out in the bay is the le de Mogador. Once a prison for political exiles, it is now a nature reserve and the only non-Mediterranean breeding ground for the majestic Eleanora's falcon. It is possible to visit by boat but the best place to observe the birds is on the beach at sunset when they glide over the sea in search of insects. I witnessed one in breathtaking aerial combat. Launching itself off the sea, it bore down on a smaller bird who ducked and dived. lt looked like the game was up when the falcon suddenly tired, the smaller bird escaped and I and several others applauded a memorable dogfight.

The Place Prince Moulay Hassan was the place to hang out in the evening, drinking mint tea and watching the crowds. The flow of people was endless, women in traditional djellabas and their hands hennaed, mixing with younger girls in Western dress. Men stood chatting in groups and the shoeshine boys tried to convince me that they could do wonders for my canvas shoes. I ate fish tajine and went shopping.

Thuya is an indigenous conifer whose hardwood and root possesses an exquisite grain. It has created a woodcarving and marquetry tradition in Essaouira whose craftsmanship is second to none. From tiny workshops built into the sea walls, artisans painstakingly create boxes, bowls, furniture and chessboards. There is little need to haggle. Prices start embarrassingly low and I staggered back to my hotel laden with gifts.

A week later, I flew back from Agadir, a Costa clone resort three hours down the coast. At the airport, the newspapers were full of articles about the 25th anniversary of Hendrix's death. The song finally came back to me. "And castles made of sand slip in the sea eventually". But Essaouira continues to defy the seas of change.

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