Lost somewhere on the south coast of Morocco, caught between the High Atlas mountains, the Sahara sands and the sea, lies Essaouira, a crossroads for Arab, African and European culture. The wild sands, islands and curious blend of traditions make it the ideal location for the now annual Gnaoua and World Music festival. What started as an event to showcase the musical tradition of Morocco, the Gnaoua, has become an international musical inspiration.
This is hardly surprising given its reputation for being a place that drew Jimi Hendrix to live and compose here. Orson Welles, Maria Callas and Mick Jagger also spent a lot of time in Essaouira gathering inspiration and musical knowledge. Like the Berbers, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Portuguese, Arab and Jewish people who have lived here over the centuries, they too found Essaouira's mysterious wilderness irresistible.
These days more than 300,000 visitors, looking more like pilgrims than tourists, come to Essaouira in June each year. Fortunately I arrived five days before the fifth annual festival was due to start, so there was the chance to explore the perennial charm of the mystical village before the descending hordes arrived.
Essaouira is laced with traces of its eclectic past everywhere you look. An ancient, but well-preserved Portuguese Rampart wall, with its battlements and canons, surrounds the Old Town. The typically Arab Medina (which in the south of Morocco often gives the appearance of being underground due to compensation for the heat) is a maze of shady alleyways and passages.
Within the Medina is a crumbling Mellah, the Old Jewish quarter--evidence of a wealthy Jewish merchant class who once lived here. However, it is the Berber and Saharawi traditions that dominate modern ways of life, alongside those of the French and European migrants, who are rapidly buying up and gentrifying some wonderful Riads in the Old Town.
Down in the port, the boat-builders are labouring over hulking frames that look like pirate ships. The fishermen, who provide the ample daily ration of fresh fish, shrimps, calamari and crayfish to the townspeople, are already peddling their produce. The port was once an important link between Africa, South America and Europe. Ostrich feathers, salt, spices, gold powder, slaves, grains and fabric have been traded here for centuries.
Essaouira, or Mogador as it was then known, emerged as a...