“I really admire how you can walk in heels on these streets”, I say to Isabelle while I try to catch up to her on the crumbling sidewalks of Essaouira. Isabelle is the owner of La Maison des Artistes, the riad I am staying at, and is wearing chic Chloé pumps while I am in Havaianas. She turns to me with a somewhat confused look, “Excuse me, I’m from Paris.” As if that explains it. But well, actually for any woman who has been to Paris, it does. I just shut up and shuffle behind her a little embarrassed now, because not only are my shoes flat, there are also tiny pieces of fish stuck to the bottom of them after my morning excursion to the harbor. Pieces of fish stuck on shoes do not happen to Parisians regardless of where they live.

Most seaside towns have a certain charm; it’s of course the ocean, the sound of seagulls that we deem all of a sudden romantic and not noisy, and there is always some fresh fish to be found, if we get lucky oysters too. We find those places charming, but sometimes without noticing they are hip and happening and “boom!” down they go where too many places have gone and they end up looking like Pleasantville on the beach.

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Luckily that hasn’t happened here. Essaouira doesn’t try at all. If anything, the opposite holds true with its hazardous sidewalks, its high medina walls that barely let you see a glimpse of sky, and its ocean swell that is really, really loud. Cue hashtag #holidayproblems alright… But like it goes with all relationships that you never saw coming, they can hit you really hard and you know that once you have to leave, part of your heart will stay there and in the moments you long to be elsewhere… well, this will be the place your mind will wonder.

I first came to Essaouira, formerly known as Mogador, two years ago on round trip through Morocco. After spending a few nights in the desert, surrounded by the typical brown mud houses of the country side, and of course scorching August temperatures, Essaouira was quite literally a breath of fresh air. Love at first sight. Love at first sound. Love at first grilled calamari. There was no question that I would return one day and when I decided after two lengthy trips to South East Asia, that Morocco must feel neglected by now, I knew that would also have to come back here as well.

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From Marrakech it is a short 2.5 hours and very easy bus ride away. The Supratours bus station is just behind the central train station and so is the ticket office. Just buy your ticket a few days in advance to make sure you get on your desired coach. Some people hire a private driver, but honestly with € 7 per way, something that resembles aircon and a seat, I am more than happy to share my ride. Especially as my seat neighbor comes in form of Medhi, a young art student/ surfer/kite boarding instructor that has lashes any woman would kill for. After a very entertaining ride, he is kind enough to show me to my guest house once we have arrived. If you aren’t as lucky just find any of the porters who usually flock the bus station upon arrival and have them take you and your luggage into the medina. While the Essaouira medina has nothing on Marrakech in terms of size or maze-likeness, I would still recommend a porter till you get a map and a walk around sans suitcase to acclimatize.

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The city Essaouira as it is now was first built in the 18th century as a trading post with Europe and chosen due to its proximity to Marrakech. Designed by European engineers it was originally called ‘souira’ meaning ‘the small fortress’ and then it became ‘E-Saouira’ – ‘the beautifully designed’. While the walls and streets of the medina are old that beautiful design can still be seen everywhere.

La Maison des Artistes is right by the Scala of the Kasbah and thanks to a room upgrade I am not only overlooking the ocean but also some pretty impressive canons. If you have watched Orson Welles’ ‘Othello’ or more recently ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ or ‘Game of Thrones’, you will know what that looks like. What was once the city’s fortification against sea attacks is now basically a promenade and highly frequented during sunset. Trying to get a canon for yourself long enough to take a picture is one of the tasks at hand. Right below the old weapon storages have been converted into little shops or as the vendors want to make you believe – Aladdin’s cave.

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All around the medina just like anywhere else in Morocco you see cats as many as your inner cat lady desires. Only here they are fat with shiny fur, no surprise if you consider their diet of left-over fish and seafood. My fur hair is shiny too by now thanks to my newly purchased argan oil and lunch at the fish market every day. Oh, fish market, how do I miss you already! Find it nestled in the middle of the souks, next to the chicken market, right off the stalls that sell Moroccan viagra for both sexes. Depending on how successful the morning catch was, you will find sardines, tuna, prawns, lobster, squid amongst eel like fish with huge eyes and some funny looking little ones with leopard spots that I am a bit scared of and don’t care to add to my lunch order.

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On the first day I treat myself to some beautiful king prawns and take them to one of the little restaurants that surround the market. A young teenage boy takes my prawn parcel and shows me my to my seat. What am I having? Well, of course frites, chunky and homemade, salade, des olives, some of them so hot I start coughing which makes the boy laugh, and of course une coke! I only like coke when on holiday.

The fries are some of the best I’ve ever had and with an orderly, intricate system in place my prawns are returned from the grill to my plate a few minutes later. Have I mentioned how much I love eating with my fingers? So when I’m offered a fork by my “waiter”, I shoot him a dirty look and he gives me a proud grin; it seems I have passed the how-to-eat-properly-at-the-fish-market test.

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In the evening I eat more seafood, only this time a bit fancier. While many locals don’t approve, the medina has gotten some recent modern additions in its restaurant scene for those a bit tired of tagine & co. Lucky for me the adjacent Italian restaurant, Silvestro, not only serves a seafood pizza that holds up to my very high pizza standards, but also wine in glasses of epic proportions.

You would assume that I cannot possibly be hungry again the next day, but when in Essaouira a crêpe with amlou, an argan nut spread with honey, is really the only viable breakfast option while walking on the beach.

Essaouira is a windy city and so it is no surprise that the beach is crowded by surfers and kite boarders. And then there are camels, lots of them. And while I know they are purely there for tourist entertainment I can’t help but stare. Even after seeing lots of wildlife when I lived in South Africa, camels still hold a novelty factor for me and I find them more interesting than the surfers, especially after a kite crashes onto the beach a meter behind me. I decide I need a second breakfast crêpe to calm my nerves.

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Overall Essaouira is a place of contradictions, of old meets new, contemporaneity meets tradition. The call to prayer sounds over the medina walls five times a day, but all to often it is overpowered by the cry of seagulls or someone’s hiphop music blasting. The local bakery, a dark room in a side alley, you would never notice from the outside, is adjacent to a new restaurant that was just featured in Vogue. On the beach women wear a baseball cap on top their veils to protect from the sun, while Medhi and his friends are filming themselves, GoPro attached to the surf board. A little juice shop with chill out music lives in the middle of the souks next to the mint and onion carts. The contrasts are everywhere and sometimes they are stark, but to me at least they seem harmonious and play together nicely in this little town.

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At the port I get my daily dose of fresh orange juice. Just like in Marrakech the vendors shout for my attention, with a set price of 5 dirham the competition is big, but as per usual I go to the one who shouts the least. The vendor doesn’t have to-go cups, but lets me take the glass on my stroll, he trusts that I will return it.

I shoot 1001 picture of seagulls who pose like wannabe supermodels – don’t go to the port if you were scared of ‘The Birds’! – and then return back to my hotel. On my way I run into Isabelle who offers to show me to her hammam. After spending a little fortune in Marrakech on a fancy spa/ hammam that left me relaxed, but not very clean in hammam terms, I am now looking for the real deal. When we get there I actually have to work up my courage, because while I like a real and local experience, this hammam looks dingy at best. But after all I have already bought my very own black olive soap and my own scrubbing glove and so I dare myself to go in.

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I cannot tell you the whole hammam experience, you just have to go and do it yourself, I promise that it’s worth it. Just know that modesty has no place there and neither has dirt. The lady who scrubs me points at my body and keeps laughing. “Spaghetti, spaghetti!”, she says and is talking about the dirt that comes off my body in black spaghetti like strings. And yes, that will happen to you too. Mind you, I don’t think she was offended by my mass of spaghetti, but more delighted by just how much she managed to scrub me squeaky clean.

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I return back through the souks to my hotel to rest as it is recommended after a hamman and what excuse do I need to take a nap? All over the souks faux vintage jewelry vendors easily recognized by their blue wrap turbans are trying to stop me and come into their shops to buy some ‘real’ treasures. They are by far the most persistent and thus annoying ones in an otherwise mellow city. After seeing the bracelet, which was sold to me as a one-of-a-kind last time I was here, everywhere, I try to avoid them at all costs. The guy from my neighborhood shop in Rue Laalouj is different though. He looks so much like Professor Snape that I’m tempted to buy something just so I can take a picture of him. But I don’t. Him and I have a rapport and I like it. Every time I walk past he never tries to usher me into his shop, but just politely says “bonjour, madame!” and I reply in kind. That little ritual makes me feel recognized and sort of at home in this foreign place. And that after all is better than all the celebrity look alike pictures or all the jewelry I could possibly have.

All photos by Annika Ziehen.

This post was written by Annika Ziehen who was a Travelette until 2019. Originally from Germany, Annika has lived in New York and Cape Town and now travels the world full time. She considers herself a very hungry mermaid and writes about her adventures, scuba diving and food on her blog The Midnight Blue Elephant. You can also find her on Instagram here!