Essaouira is a nice town on the coast of Morocco
. I've spent some days there at the end of a three-week trip through Morocco. Although it's not the most beautiful or exciting place to be found in Morocco, of all the places I've visited Essaouira had by far the most relaxed atmosphere.
Essaouira's history goes back a long way: the first people to settle there were the Phoenicians in the seventh century BC. The reason for their settlement was probably the harbour, which is protected from the violence of the Atlantic ocean by the island Mogador lying just before the coast. After the Phoenicians, the place was inhabited by Cretans, Greeks and Romans.
In the sixteenth century Mogador was briefly occupied by the Portuguese. They built a fort and a small harbour, but left again after a few years.
The town as it is now, with ramparts facing the sea and protected by walls, was built from 1765 on during the reign of sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah. The architect was in fact French. For years Esaouira prospered as a trading post for Marrakech. It also traded with the south and the Sahara, which earned it the name of "Port of Timbuktu".
After the occupation of Morocco by the French, trade slowly came to a halt and Essaouira went into decline. Casablanca took over its task as an international port.
The last few years Essaouira has become popular as a tourist attraction. Its long beaches makes it a good place to surf. It has a nice medina and a growing number of hotels, restaurants and shops selling arts and crafts. There are some beautiful gates in the town walls. You can walk along the ramparts where there is a spectacular view of the ocean, or visit the fishing port where fresh fish is sold and where you can see the ships being built and repared.
Probably due to the surfing public, or perhaps because of other reasons, the atmosphere in Essaouira is remarkably more laid-back than in other places. There is almost no hassle from people trying to get you into their shops or men hissing at the female tourists.
Fun facts about Essaouira: Orson Welles filmed parts of his Othello there and was quite taken with the place, and apparently Jim Morrison also spent some time there. (Thanks, gnarl.)
If you happen to be in Essaouira, try to visit restaurant Dar Baba in Rue Marrakech. It's an Italian restaurant run by Italians, and is housed in a very nice building. The food is good and a welcome variation on the ubiquitous couscous and tagine. You can recognize it by the sign, which shows a camel in a fez eating spaghetti.
See http://i-cias.com/morocco/essaouira.htm or http://www.essaouira-online.com for more information as well as photos.