Last week on Rue de la Soala in Essaouira, in a nameless bookshop near the main square, an albino kitten slept with her nose on Camus and her tail curling over Paroles d’un Soufi. Her mother dozed nearby, surrounded by a shelf of beat up beach reads while I browsed. If I were reincarnated as a cat, I’d definitely hitch a lift to this blustery Moroccan port town, where the air smells of sunshine, fish and salt.
Essaouira isn’t nearly ominous as Orson Welles makes it look in the opening scene of his Othello, where the Moor and Desdemona’s funeral march stretches bleakly across the sea bastion running along the northern cliffs of the town. Yet this is no easy beach town of plastic sun loungers and fried calamari – the strong winds that whip around the walls (alizee or taros in Berber) are reported to send people insane, and the sea is too shallow to swim in. Designed by a Frenchman but packed with narrow souks full of carpets and spices, it’s both oddly familiar and exotic.
In the mornings we stalked the woodwork shops underneath the town walls, buying boxes and miniature boats. In the afternoons we followed the slinking cats and an excited confetti-cloud of wheeling seagulls towards the port, avoiding puddles of fish guts and sea water, piles of mortified metallic eyes staring up from sliced heads at our feet.
Inside the town walls, merchants try to sell you anything (even the wild cats: “you like? You have as a present from me. Twenty dirham only”), so it was relieving to be ignored amongst battalions of blue boats and tables of fish at the port. Sardines on ice, giant spider crabs, sea bass, still-kicking lobsters, prices are shouted out while slippery creatures are gutted on the pavement. One fisherman saw me looking at his giant eels, which were as pretty as anything in the souks with their silver skins curled together – freshly polished swords, dangly earrings for a giantess – but he knew I wasn’t really a girl in need of meter long raw eel, so hardly blinked when I turned away.
The best lunch spot we found was fish stall 33, a little while away from the port but still outside the ramparts, where you choose your meal from a giant tray of the days catch and haggle over the size of your sea bream or the number of prawns for your dirhams. They grill it right there in front of you and bring you salad with big baskets of baguette while you sit at tables laid with bright blue plastic clothes, the same colour as the sky. Glossy cats roam over the hosed-down blue tiled floors, not even bothering to beg because it’s so obvious they’ll get fed at some point. A guy touts glossy argon cakes nearby, little domes of sugar-dusted pastries. He whispered to me that the chocolate brownies were “magic”, but I didn’t test him. This town was strange enough.
The best dinner spot was at the riad hotel we were staying, Villa Maroc, where they serve huge platters of meat or fish tagine by candlelight, at tables scattered all over the renovated private house. A fir tree grows right up through the middle of the riad and spills out over the red tiled rooftop amongst knobbly cacti and couples playing cards in the shade. It’s in a perfect location, right next to the town walls, so at breakfast you sit on the roof looking out on multi-coloured washing lines flapping inside the town, and seagulls screaming over the beach outside. We spent hours reading up there in the sky.
It’s rare that I go to places and think: I could spend time here and write. I mostly like to tap away in faintly unpleasant cafes – the less pretty the better – or amongst the extravagant mess of my trusty childhood desk. But the atmosphere of Essaouira has lingered in my mind. Hopefully I’ll go back there some time soon, even if I’m not reincarnated as a cat.