Essaouira by Anna Stothard

Novelist Anna Stothard travelled to Essaouira with Lawrence of Morocco in August 2012, writing for the Observer Magazine.


Essaouira isn’t nearly ominous as Orson Welles makes it look in the opening scene of his Othello, where the Moor and Desdemona’s funeral march stretches bleakly across the sea bastion running along the northern cliffs of the town. Yet this is no easy beach town of plastic sun loungers and fried calamari – the strong winds that whip around the walls (alizee or taros in Berber) are reported to send people insane, and the sea is too shallow to swim in. Designed by a Frenchman but packed with narrow souks full of carpets and spices, it’s both oddly familiar and exotic.

“In the mornings we stalked the woodwork shops underneath the town walls, buying boxes and miniature boats. In the afternoons we followed the slinking cats and an excited confetti-cloud of wheeling seagulls towards the port, avoiding puddles of fish guts and sea water, piles of mortified metallic eyes staring up from sliced heads at our feet.”

“The best dinner spot was at the riad hotel we were staying, Villa Maroc, where they serve huge platters of meat or fish tagine by candlelight, at tables scattered all over the renovated private house. A fir tree grows right up through the middle of the riad and spills out over the red tiled rooftop amongst knobbly cacti and couples playing cards in the shade. It’s in a perfect location, right next to the town walls, so at breakfast you sit on the roof looking out on multi-coloured washing lines flapping inside the town, and seagulls screaming over the beach outside. We spent hours reading up there in the sky.

“It’s rare that I go to places and think: I could spend time here and write. I mostly like to tap away in faintly unpleasant cafes – the less pretty the better – or amongst the extravagant mess of my trusty childhood desk. But the atmosphere of Essaouira has lingered in my mind.