I’m not usually one to keep an eye out for omens, but as our bus neared the Moroccan beach town of Essaouira I couldn’t help wondering what the scene might portend: Standing like cardboard cut-outs in the upper branches of a large argan tree were no less than seven goats. Yes, goats. In a tree. I pressed my face to the glass and convinced myself that such a thing could exist. It must. Certainly the goats seemed unimpressed to be 15 feet in the air, munching leaves in the full blast of midday heat.
Our bus pulled into a dusty station on the outskirts of Essaouira (say, “Essa-weera”). The guide books had promised a picturesque town full of souks, ancient buildings, and dramatic seascapes. Judging by the view from the bus staion, however, we’d be lucky to find a clean place to sit down. With bags slung over our shoulders, my travel partner, Kim, and I trudged through an unremarkable district: small whitewashed houses, palm trees in a dirt yard by the dirt road, electrical lines strung haphazardly between crooked poles, and ramshackle cars careening down streets or abandoned in yards and alleyways.
Tree climbing goats, Jimi Hendrix and crumbling seaside castles. Essaouira, Morocco is as strange as it is beautiful.
But just as I was beginning to think that reports of Essaouira’s beauty had been greatly exaggerated, we reached the main gate of the old city: a deep, bricked archway crowned with triangular capped battlements. Beyond this arch no more cars were allowed, and as we passed through several succeeding arches, time seemed to peel away until we were part of a crush of hooded men and veiled women milling through streets overflowing with wood carvings, textiles, stonework and leather goods. Overhead, tall white buildings with vibrant blue shutters obscured all but the very tops of palm trees which grew at the centres of hidden courtyards. We wandered through the pedestrian filled streets in a kind of dazed wonder, as though carried by the current of a slow moving river, drifting deep into the medina, or old town, where most of the hotels can be found.
As an up and coming resort town, Essaouira is full of four- and five-star accommodations, but it is precisely because of its growing popularity that getting a room in these hotels requires a reservation, at least during high season. After a few attempts, we settled into comfortable, unpretentious lodgings near the 16th century Portuguese ramparts that line the western edge of town. On my way down from the room I asked Ali, the 16-year-old son of the hotel’s owner, what he thought was best about Essaouira. Ali straightened up from the mop he’d been leaning over.