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Against Time: Essaouira
House & Garden, October 2006


Do you know the dirge of the ancient traveller? Like Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner” they grab hold of you and hiss, “Ruined, totally ruined, you should have seen it in my youth” at any romantic destination you express an interest in. Even so I was alarmed to hear that Essaouria is now burdened with an airport with plans for a yacht marina and forty beach hotels. So I went back to check for myself lest I join the number of grey-beard loons that depress prospective travellers.

My route, via a friend who has just moved into a courtyard palace surrounded by bidonville slums in Casablanca and the festival of sacred music at Fez, was idiosyncratic but yet worked out beautifully. For I approached Essaouria (a crescent of white houses enfolded by dunes, forest and the sea) having travelled all day across the Arcadian simplicity of the Moroccan countryside bustling with all the intense activity of harvest. Arriving this way you could appreciate the bright lights of this port-resort-town for what they are – an oasis of urban civilization stuck on the edge of a vast agricultural continent.

The town is quite simply an eighteenth century masterpiece, the result of a brilliant double act of committed patron and dedicated architect. It is as if Wren and Charles II had decided to build Brighton, though in Essaouira’s case it was Sultan Sidi Mohammad and el-Aleuj (the Frenchman Theodore Cournut). But what gives it a double enchantment is that the elegance of public squares, arcades and bastions co-exists with the traditional pattern of subterranean passages, vaulted alleys and courtyard houses. The latter were built when Essaouria was a boom town, the gateway into the Sahara, packed full of European consuls, Jewish traders, West African soldier-slaves, and Berbers. This multi-cultural sophistication has seemingly never left the town, which has a new eminence as a centre for Morocco’s sub-Saharan inspired Gnawa music and its derivative – a whole new artistic school of trance inspired art. This has been married to an old expertise in carpentry, so that the streets are filled with the bold colours of carpets and nieve art and scented with thuja wood. The other abiding aroma is fish. The harbour remains packed full of fishing boats and boat builders while outside the handsome custom gates you are assailed with wafts of grilled fish and glittering displays of shellfish.

The whole concept of a Moroccan house hotel – the so-called Riad phenomena - was first invented in Essaouira. It has provided the resources to restore dozens of 18th century courtyard houses to new life while the inflow of well-heeled guests has given a breath of life to the small traders as opposed to the habitual Moroccan conspiracy of guides and commission-paying bazaars. The two Riads I tried out on this recent visit offered a perfect contrast, for one was white-washed and intimate (and does a good trade in family bookings) while the other is a chic hotel, with pool and bar on its roof, elegant doormen, clove-scented bedrooms filled with gifts of fruit and a candle-lit dining room all fitted into a gorgeous old courtyard house.

The Atlantic coast of Morocco may one day be covered in hotels and apartments so that the route between Agadir to Casablanca is like another Costa Brava. For the moment it remains a vision of untouched sandy bays, empty headlands with a scattering of tiny fishing villages ornamented with the odd surfers shack café. Go now so that in future years you can also boast of the time when Eleanoras falcon nested on the isles of Mogador and the old Sultan's seaside palace was still covered in sand.

Barnaby Rogerson travelled as a guest of Abercrombie & Kent, reservations number 0845 0700612, website www.abercrombiekent.co.uk and stayed at Dar Loulema and L’Heure Bleue. They can arrange transfers and a considerably simpler and quicker route to Essaouira than that chosen by Barnaby.

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