Essaouira to hit the right note

A turtle gets out of a swimming pool in Essaouira, Morocco.
A turtle gets out of a swimming pool in Essaouira, Morocco. AAP

ITS fairy-tale battlements the colour of honey, its miles of sandy beaches and a bustling blue-and-white medina straight out of a picture book have made this laid-back little port on Morocco's Atlantic coast a magnet for musicians since its hippie heyday in the Sixties.

Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens and Frank Zappa all visited Essaouira, and locals stick happily to the story that Hendrix's "Castles Made of Sand" was inspired by the ruins of the Borj El-Berod watchtower, a crumbling former fortress on the water's edge to the south.

That the song was recorded two years before Hendrix is known to have visited Essaouira is only a minor inconvenience.

Fortunately, Essaouira has no need to rely on dodgy legends for its musical fame.

The town hosts an array of music festivals - a classically based AlizEs festival every April, an exuberant jazz and world music festival in late June, and a gypsy and flamenco-based Festival of the Atlantic Andalusias in October.

But even outside of festival time you'll find eager performers in full swing in venues ranging from the cosmopolitan cool of the town's trendy Caravane Cafe to the ramshackle restaurants of the alleyway Rue El Khabbazine (near the jewellery souk), where local musicians take cheap tagine suppers.

The music is Essaouira's hypnotic pulse and living history.

Played on traditional instruments - bass drums, iron castanets and the lute-like guimbri - its mesmeric rhythms and chants were first developed by slaves brought to Morocco from sub-Saharan Africa.

We wake up next morning with sore heads but happy hearts.

Essaouira has retained the colour, friendliness and easy charm that first attracted hippie travellers, but there's no longer any need for visitors to rough it.

Boutique hotels and chic riads abound, and we're in the most glamorous of all.

Housed in a sumptuously restored former palace, Heure Bleue Palais sits within the medina just inside the Bab Marrakech gate.

It's fantastically stylish, with marble pillars, carved cedar panelling and Essaouira's only rooftop swimming pool.

Breakfast is served on silver salvers, in a palm-filled courtyard brimming with birdsong and the tinkling of a fountain.

Replete with fruits, honey pancakes and sticky cakes, we head down cobbled streets into the heart of the medina.

Essaouira's lively souks, clustered around where Avenue Mohamed Zerktouni and Avenue Mohammed El Qouri meet, are just as colourful as the labyrinths of Marrakech but more manageable, less manic.


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Topics:  destinations morocco tourism travel

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