Nov 21, 2022
Eager traveler Geoffrey Weill walks us through his time in Morocco.
Ask anyone in Marrakech how long it takes to drive to Essaouira, and they’ll tell you: two hours. Ask anyone in Essaouira how long it takes to drive to Marrakech, and they’ll tell you: two hours. Trust me, it always takes three. But it doesn’t really matter. It’s an interesting drive from Marrakech to the port city on the Atlantic coast that was Morocco’s chief port from the 17th- to the 20th-centuries. First, through the suburbs of Marrakech (the first time I visited Marrakech forty-two years ago, it wasn’t large enough to have suburbs). Then through farmland and villages. Then through the small towns of Chichaoua and Sidi Mokhtar. In one of them, it always seems to be market day, with trailer trucks loaded with sheep or oranges or carpets clogging the highway. Next comes scrubby desert where goatherds lift agreeable goats into the branches for tourists to stop and photograph. I’ve heard tales that the goats consider this torture, or that their feet are nailed to the branches – but I’ve seen no evidence of it.
Lastly, the highway hits a sweeping curve where cars are parked next to a camel and a souvenir seller. This is the place where you pause to see it: a mass of white houses, a fortress, and the Atlantic Ocean glistening in the sunshine. Welcome to Essaouira.
And let’s hold it right there. Four consecutive vowels always tend to make life complicated, especially to ears accustomed to English. And let’s agree that Bombay and Rangoon and Sixth Avenue seem to roll off the tongue far more easily than Mumbai, Yangon and the Avenue of the Americas. So, let's not forget that from the 16th-century until about 1960, Essaouira was known as Mogador, named for the Castelo Real de Mogador, a fortress built by the Portuguese in 1506. It’s hard to dispute that “Mogador” has an earthier, sexier sound than “Essaouira.” The inauguration of Paris’ massive “Théatre Mogador” was attended by President Woodrow Wilson, in Paris for the post WW1 Versailles peace conference. The Mogador went on to be a showcase for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, Mistinguett, “'Allo Dolly.” and the blockbuster “Les Misérables.” “Mogador cigarettes” were quite in vogue in Europe before World War II. I mean, imagine saying “gimme a pack of Essaouiras?” Happily, the city’s earlier name is enshrined in “Essaouira Mogador International Airport,” to which budget airlines fly from London, Paris, Marseille, and more.
My great-grandfather, Aaron Afriat, grew up in Mogador. He was born in 1845 in Oufran in Morocco’s deep south, a village straddling the caravan route from Timbucto to Mogador. His family were merchants made wealthy by the trans-Saharan trade in ostrich feathers, ivory and gold dust. It was the sophistication of the kingdom’s chief port that drew the Afriats to Mogador, and by 1870 Aaron had moved on to the even greater sophistication of London, where his wealth was transformed into a fortune as he developed the 19th-century's largest Anglo-Moroccan trading house. (At the turn of the 20th-century, about 50% of Mogador’s population was Jewish. To this day, half the neighborhoods of the old town have the word “Mellah” in their name: “mellah” is Arabic for “Jewish quarter.”) Eighty years later, I was born in London, so whenever I return from my home in New York to either London or Mogador, there is a sense of homecoming.
My most recent visit to Morocco came just 48-hours after the death of the Queen and the accession of King Charles III. So, in addition to attending a travel convention, the visit to both Marrakech and Essaouira by this Moroccan-German-Irish-Australian-British American was repeatedly interrupted by leaps to the BBC on my hotel television or my cellphone, to watch the doings in London as the only monarch I have known was memorialized and mourned.
It takes not more than ten minutes from that panoramic rest-stop on the highway to descend into Mogador. Its outskirts are abustle with the building of fancy villas. The long Atlantic promenade overlooking the deep sandy beach is lined with moderne houses and the art deco Hotel des Iles. But the real Mogador begins a little further on. Great walls started by the Portuguese surround the ancient town. Within, a thousand buildings are an orgasm of white paint with blue shutters and blue doors. And my goal was the first mansions one sees on passing through Mogador’s ancient southern gate, once the palace of the Caïd (governor). But now, it’s Relais & Châteaux’s chic Hotel L’Heure Bleue Palais. The hotel has a ground floor and three storeys of guestrooms, recalling the time when the Caïd’s three wives and their children each occupied their own floor. The palace was eventually abandoned, became an orphanage, and in the early 21st century was brought back to life by distant cousins of mine. Their father owned a series of cafes and bars in the Mogador of the 1930’s and 1940’s, and dusk – l'Heure Bleue – was the moment when le-tout-Mogador would come for cocktails as the sun set over the Atlantic. The interior was gutted, rebuilt, a pool was installed on the tiled rooftop, and the 33 guestrooms decorated in a variety of styles evoking “Morocco,” “Africa,” and, yes, “England.”
All the rooms at L’Heure Bleue are entered from balconies that overlook the palm trees of the interior courtyard. My suite was all brown and beige and remarkably gracious. The bathrooms all have marble lined showers and big tubs. The sitting area has a couch arranged in a bay window, armchairs, heavy drapes and a fireplace. Everything has been beautifully thought out – with light switches that can be operated without a PhD in electrical engineering.
I unloaded the contents of my suitcase into closets with enough space for a month-long stay for two, and set out to explore. Within the old walled town, the streets are basically designed in a grid, so, unlike in Marrakech, it’s very hard to get lost as you pad through the souk. The town is close to completing a years-long restoration of its many buildings, adding beige colored rooftop pediments and making everything spick and span, white and blue. Exploring the souks in Mogador is much less frenetic than in Marrakech where shopkeepers make efforts to drag you inside if you’ve made so much as fleeting eye-contact with a brass lamp. Here they seem much more laid back. Yet the bounty of the souk in Essaouira is no less extravagant than in Marrakech. Indeed, there is one craft evident throughout Morocco that is actually based in Mogador – the gorgeous wood trays, chessboards, hinged boxes, cups, backgammon sets and, if you have the space, dining tables for ten, that are fashioned here in town from Thuya wood. Thuya is a very hard Moroccan species of mahogany that, when polished with vegetable oil and a rag, has a brilliant shine. Many of the pieces are delicately inlaid with shafts of ebony, walnut and, my favorite, creamy yellow lemon tree wood. Gorgeous inlaid wooden cocktail trays go for $3 apiece – so it’s ridiculous to even think of bargaining. I’ve visited vast storehouses where craftsmen hunch over their work. And you can too.
I strode through town to Bab Kasbah, where my family’s one-time mansion is sandwiched between two more ancient mansions (riads) that once housed the 19th-century British and Spanish consulates. Here the street widens into a pedestrian avenue with shops more elegant than the usual souk stall. I pass the lane that leads up to the synagogue where, forty-two years ago, when there were still about 60 Jews left in Mogador, I attended Sabbath services. The synagogue is now part of the Beit Dakla Jewish Museum inaugurated in 2021 by His Majesty King Mohammed.
This avenue leads to the Scala, the giant fortress-like battlements built by the Portuguese five-hundred years ago. Atop the walls, ancient cannons sit atop ancient dollies and prepare to blast seafaring intruders into smithereens. Mogadoriens and visitors pose for pictures backed by the Atlantic breakers that have been smashing onto the rocks below for eternity. The Scala’s architecture is stunning and forbidding. Which explains why Orson Welles chose these battlements as the setting for his 1950 movie, Othello. In the arches beneath the battlements are some of the town’s best craft stores – shiny ceramics, a thousand cushions, a trillion carpets, and treasures carved from Thuya wood. A stroll within the high battlement walls leads to a vast open plaza with open-air cafes (ideal for watching sunsets over the Atlantic), that leads to yet more Portuguese walls and gates into the fishing port. It’s smelly, fishy, slimy, crammed with squads of serenely fish-filled cats, and totally wonderful.
Ancient Mogador, and the beach promenade, are dotted with restaurants, snack stands, cafes, buffets and little rooftop bars, one of which is named for Jimi Hendrix, who lived here in the 1960’s. But I’m a traveler who, more often than not, prefers the antediluvian rite of dinner at my hotel. At L’Heure Bleue, the oak paneled dining room with its roaring fireplace, crimson velvet banquettes, white linen-cloaked tables and gracious service is just ideal. The kitchen is overseen by the young, handsome and enormously shy Ahmed Handour, and it’s a winner. Handour blends traditional Moroccan recipes with modern French touches, and everything is delicious, served in a leisurely and gracious atmosphere.
I was due to return to Marrakech Airport from Mogador on a Monday morning and to fly that afternoon to Lisbon. However, the nabobs in London, unaware of my schedule, chose to mount the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II that very Monday morning. And there was no way I was going to miss watching it. So, on Sunday afternoon, it was the two-hour-no-three-hour drive back to Marrakech, and overnight at La Mamounia. After more than a week in Morocco, a dinner of pasta and arugula was just the ticket. And the following morning, after a giant breakfast by the pool, I sat, moist-eyed, at the end of my bed, clutching wads of Kleenex, gazing at the giant screen, as King Charles III and his family accompanied the late queen’s coffin to Westminster Abbey, and ultimately, onward to Windsor.
Morocco, shmorocco. You can take the boy out of England. But you can’t take England out of the boy.