Nov 8, 2021
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip in Essaouira during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I’m one of those people who still call Mumbai: Bombay; Ho Chi Minh City: Saigon; and Manhattan’s Avenue of the Americas: Sixth Avenue. And to me, the Moroccan port city of Essaouira will always be, as it was first known in 1506, Mogador. Perhaps it’s because as a child in England, I heard endless tales of my great grandfather, Aaron Afriat, who came of age in a Mogador palazzo, before moving to England in the 1860’s, expanding the family’s fortune, and dying in London in 1923 leaving a vast estate.
Just last week I was in Mogador, and in this report I’m going to be using the M-word for Essaouira, as, to me anyway, Mogador has a far more romantic sound. And, after all, Essaouira’s airport (when there isn’t a pandemic, you can fly there nonstop from Paris, Bordeaux, Marseilles and London) is called Essaouira-Mogador Airport (code ESU).
In addition to the ancient medina, there is a more modern Essaouira that stretches along a wide sandy Atlantic beach, ideal for surfers, and for swimmers who can deal with an ocean that is frigid even in August. Mogador has a delicious climate – and even when it’s at the height of summer’s heat, the town is cooled by ever-present Atlantic winds.
I was driven from Marrakech to Mogador in just under three hours. It’s a flat journey, through desert, through olives groves, through orange orchards, through vineyards. Part of the ride is on an expressway, other parts through picturesque townships which always seem to be plunged into market day. The highlight of the journey comes about twenty miles from Mogador, where, incredibly, live goats are arranged on the branches of quite tall, spreading trees. It’s a tableau-vivant candelabra of goat. They just stand there, a bit dumbfounded, while cars stop and their passengers photograph them. The first few times I saw this, I assumed it was some kind of climbing rite the goats of Mogador like to perform in order to reach the juiciest leaves. Only later did I learn that it’s Essaouira’s entrepreneurial goatherds who actually lift up the goats and plunk them onto the branches so tourists can give them baksheesh for permission to snap photos.
Suddenly, there’s a curve in the road and cars park for the panorama of Mogador. It’s a city of 70,000 people and its heart is the ancient medina surrounded by walls built by the Portuguese. Every single building in the old town is white stucco with blue doors. In 2001, the medina of Essaouira-Mogador was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The terracotta Scala, and the Portuguese battlements built in the 16th-century, still sport rows of ancient cannons, and they have protected Mogador for five centuries from pirates and marauders. In the 19th. Century, Tangier and Mogador were the chief ports of Morocco – overshadowed only in the 1910’s after the French transformed the more northerly port of Dar El Beida into a metropolis they named Casablanca.
Well into the 20th-century the majority of Mogador’s population was Jewish, and the town went into a coma every Friday sunset to Saturday sundown. The exodus of most of the Jews in the 1950’s to Israel, France, Canada and the U.S. changed Mogador forever. But the new Beit Dahira Jewish Museum, opened in 2021 by His Majesty King Mohammed VI in one of the town’s synagogues (and curated, coincidentally, by my cousin Sidney Corcos), has revived a unique part of Mogador’s heritage.
“Modern” Mogador’s first exit from its torpor came in 1951 when Orson Welles used its Portuguese fortress as the setting for his portrayal of “Othello” in the movie he directed. Welles’ “Othello” won the Grand Prix at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival. In 1969, Jimi Hendrix spent eleven days in Mogador, and for decades the town was considered a hippie destination, with a kind of psychedelic buzz amid the smoke of weed. I first visited Mogador in 1980 when the only place for we “spoiled” Americans to stay was the ‘art moderne’ Hotel des Iles. In 1995, the town’s first boutique hotel, the Villa Maroc, opened in the former home of some of my Afriat cousins. There are now some two dozen boutique hotels in the old medina, as well as a glitzy Sofitel close to the beach, near the city’s golf course.
My Mogador home is Relais & Châteaux’s L’Heure Bleue Palais. Opened in the 21st-century by distant cousins in what once the 18th-century palace of the Caïd – the city’s Muslim administrator, L’Heure Bleue has three floors of guest suites, for the simple reason that each floor was originally occupied by one of the Caïd’s three wives and her children. Some of today’s suites are in English style, some Berber, some French, some African. Some have fireplaces. All have gorgeous bathrooms. Atop the hotel, lunch is served next to the pool and an array of chaise longues and cactuses in pale blue clay pots. L’Heure Bleue Palais’ restaurant is arguably the best in town, and the English bar – mahogany paneling, roaring fire, grand piano, safari trophies – is ideal for pre-dinner cocktails. Breakfast is served in the central courtyard amid masses of palms and towering plants.
I have visited Mogador twice in the Time of Corona – in May and November 2021. Masks are ubiquitous – although many seem to be slung beneath the nose. To enter a hotel or a restaurant – including the wonderful beachfront Chalet de la Plage – you have to show proof of vaccination.
One of the great advantages of staying in Mogador/Essaouira is that it maintains the homey, untouristy quality that the ever-burgeoning Marrakech has sadly lost -with its conversion into a city of more than a million inhabitants and a hundred hotels. Mogador is the home of the burled tuyia wood that is sold throughout Morocco; most of it is fashioned in the tiny factories of Mogador. And the wood and pottery and fabric and spice merchants here are less aggressive than in some other parts of the country – making a stay here relaxing and yet totally Moroccan.
I spent three days here last week – eating delicious fresh-caught fish, ambling through the bazaars, searching for my roots in the museum, downing mounds of couscous and lamb, and sitting in the outdoor cafes that are emblematic of the 75-year-long French protectorate of Morocco. Almost every Moroccan speaks excellent French and very little English. They day before departure for home, I ambled from L’Heure Bleue to a very upmarket laboratory for my PCR-test (a simple antigen test is no longer sufficient for re-entry to the U.S.). My nostrils were quickly swabbed – and an envelope containing the negative result, printed out on embossed stationery, and bearing official-looking stamps and squiggly signatures, was slid under the door suite the same afternoon.
It’s a painless four-hour drive from Mogador to Casablanca Airport. I headed for the Royal Air Maroc ticket office, and quickly upgraded to the same-day discounted Business Class fare. Seven hours, two movies and a delicious lunch later, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner touched down at JFK. It all seems so exotic, so daring, so Arabian Nights, so Paul Bowles, so Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains. But it’s truly as effortless as a jaunt to London.