In 1978, Essaouira’s colors and light were a revelation to filmmaker Cédric Klapisch. Returning to the city 40 years later, he shares with us his vision of this remote yet intimate destination.

If you take a compass and draw a circle to see what lies within a three-hour flight from Paris, you’ll come across Marrakech and Essaouira to the southwest. If you were looking for the most exotic change of scenery, this city would probably be ahead of Kiev and Istanbul, even though they both lie the same distance away.

For me, Essaouira represents this “invitation to the voyage” that Baudelaire spoke of. A place on the coast that feels like nowhere else, and yet where everyone soon feels at home. The only luxury here is the unadorned simplicity of the sunlight. The sense of calm is very real (when the wind isn’t blowing too hard), while voluptuousness appears in the food and in the way that people are always kind.

The first time I was in Essaouira I was 18, and, visually, it was love at first sight. I was already an amateur photographer, but working only in black and white. Essaouira was where I began to explore color.

Maybe I had already seen images by Harry Gruyaert, Alex Webb or Bruno Barbey? Morocco has always been a favorite destination for all the great photographers enamored with color. In any case, for me the discovery was highly intuitive. I quickly understood that black and white was not enough to describe what I was seeing. It is not a binary place. It is steeped in diversity and nuance.

That was in 1978. For me, Essaouira was like a gateway to the infinite world of colors. Some 40 years later, I took nearly the same photographs, unintentionally. It’s incredible to see just how much our way of looking is habitual, obsessive. A photograph of a place or a journey is never anything but the reflection of a personal inner experience.

I realize that my eye is always drawn to the same things. The houses and terraces are interlaced, packed into the medina like Cubist patterns. Colors have the ability to combine intensity and subtlety. The light is always magnificent, whether it’s raw (when the sun is shining brightly) or soft (when it’s diffused by the sea mist). This light gets in everywhere, into the narrow lanes, the terraces and the souk.

I admit that I was also charmed by the discretion displayed by the people, the veiled women and the men in djellabas. Now, as 40 years ago, residents still lean on the wall to contemplate the sea, while fishermen roll up their nets or repair their boats.

Every object, every house, every ingredient seems to add its own distinct color here: blue boats, yellow oilskins, red carpets, pink shrimp, ocher walls, turquoise ceramics. Everything is always intensely colorful. There are combinations here that no one would attempt in France, where everything is more restrained. Walking down the lanes of Essaouira, you’re struck by the juxtaposition of bold colors. The garish and the pastel mingle harmoniously.

In the souk, merchants sell pigments as well as spices. Madder, cobalt, the famous blue of Majorelle Garden, and any number of shades of ocher. It’s as if the walls of this city take on flavors when colors are added. And in this, too, it is a Baudelairian city. Taste and color “correspond.”

In Essaouira, you savor the color of walls like you feast your eyes on platefuls of fish, couscous, tagines, grilled sardines and salads, in expressions that vary with the spices used, as if the food was also created with a painter’s palette.

The medina is dense, yet feels peaceful. As in Venice, even if the city is much smaller, you get the same sense of narrow winding streets, which it’s a pleasure to explore without cars. As in Venice, as soon as you climb up to the roofs, you discover another world floating above the narrow lanes as they move through the shade in search of coolness.

Several hotels have rooftop cafés or restaurants offering magical views: the Palais des Remparts and the Riad Mimouna, for example. I could spend hours in these panoramic places. Up there, you can either look toward the city or toward the sea.

On the town side, it’s an exhilarating jumble of houses and terraces on different levels. On the other side, it’s the view of the infinite and the hypnotic effect of the incessantly moving waves.

You can feel this peaceful, contemplative freedom among the people; their unfailing friendliness and kindness a reminder of a gentle lifestyle that is rooted in the ancestral temperament of the place. Nothing here is aggressive, and this gives Essaouira the look of an oasis of peace protected by its walls from the violent waves and Atlantic wind.

This city open to the tempestuous sea issues a gentle call to daydreaming. It offers a genuine change of scenery, an elsewhere or far-off place that puts on quite a show. Yet there is an odd proximity with France and Brittany. All the tourist guides tell the same story, that one of Vauban’s students drew his inspiration from the fortifications of Saint-Malo to construct the walls of Essaouira, when the town was still called Mogador.

As the years pass, the city seems unwilling to age. Essaouira still has the same weathered look, with its cracked and textured walls. Here, as in Rome, what is old, even decrepit, is no less beautiful. The wear and tear adds an additional layer of richness. The past seems almost within reach.

Yes, Essaouira truly makes the remote seem very close.

Villa Maroc

Staying for a while at the Villa Maroc is an exceedingly agreeable experience. It is a timeless place that wakens the hedonist in each of us. In the 1990s, it was one of the first hotels in Essaouira to offer luxury amenities while preserving the local architectural style. Housed in a series of riads fairly typical of the medina, it recreates the warmth of the traditional Moroccan home. A downside perhaps (but not really): its excellent, varied cuisine, which provides precious little incentive to look elsewhere. 

Villa Maroc

10, rue Abdellah-Ben-Yassine. Tél. +212 52 447 3147.

www.villa-maroc.com

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Views from the top

Carnet d’adresses

Villa Maroc

10, rue Abdellah-Ben-Yassine. Tél. +212 52 447 3147.

www.villa-maroc.com
Address Book

Going There

www.airfrance.com

FLIGHT FRENQUENCY

TRANSAVIA has 4 weekly flights to Essaouira from Paris-Orly.

has 4 daily flights to Casablanca.

ARRIVAL AIRPORT

Aéroport d’Essaouira-Mogador.
À 18 km d’Essaouira
Tél. +212 52 447 6704 .

Aéroport Mohammed-V
À 30 km de Casablanca.
Tél. +212 22 539 040.

AIR FRANCE KLM OFFICES

À l’aéroport de Casablanca.

BOOKINGS

— Depuis la France : Tél. 3654.
— Depuis l’étranger :
Tél. +33 (0)892 70 26 54.

CAR RENT

Hertz, à l'aéroport de Casablanca..
Tél. +45 33 17 90 50.
www.aifrance.fr/cars

FURHTER READING

Maroc Gallimard
Coll. GEOGuides.


Maroc Lonely Planet
Maroc Michelin
coll. Voyager pratique.

 

© Parko Polo / Central Illustration Agency. Map for illustration purposes only