Like any seaside town, Essaouira is brimming with picturesque places to sip a coffee and modern chill spaces for smoothies and ambience. The hidden gems are well worth the finding.
Essaouira – I love cafes; I always have. My mother says that even as a toddler I was the first to suggest a cafe trip and to make judgements on the qualities of the place. There is a certain freedom and joy in sitting alone in a cafe with a book, reading a little, and watching the world go by.
A favorite Sunday activity of mine is to take a book and sit for an hour or so in a cafe in Essaouira medina (old city) and just be. Obviously now I have a child, there is a lot less reading involved, but my son, at 6 months, is already an avid people watcher.
However, there is difficulty in choosing the right cafe.
Despite being married to a Moroccan man and having lived here for nearly three years, my obvious status as a non-Moroccan makes finding the right cafe a challenge. Tourist cafes which are comfortable and more European in style often lack authentic Moroccan charm, whereas the true Moroccan cafes are not necessarily the right place either.
When I have been to “authentic” Moroccan cafes, full of smoke emerging from behind newspapers held stiff in male hands, the response is always the same. Whether it stems from curiosity, disapproval, or consideration, there is always a moment of staring, an awkwardness with the waiter, and an uncomfortable silence across the space.
Meanwhile, the tourist traps, such as Essaouira’s famous Italian cafe in the main square, have a very different ambience. I suppose, more comforting to a European eye, but in reality less friendly. Women and men of all ages and nationalities sit at tables scattered across the picturesque square. Italian gelato, milkshakes, and speciality coffees adorn the menu.
But, despite having been there regularly for nearly three years, the waitresses still treat me, or indeed ignore me, with the same haughty, icy politeness that marks interactions with all their non-Moroccan customers. I try to greet them, say “How are you?” to no avail.
I would not mind so much if when I went to this cafe with my mother-in-law, husband (who several of them went to school with), or one of his sisters, they received the same treatment. No, this cold reserve is reserved for foreigners.
However, between the tourist traps and the traditional Moroccan “nous-nous” (meaning half coffee-half milk) cafes filled with men and cigarette smoke, I have found a happy medium.
Rabi, 31, runs a “nous-nous” cafe in Essaouira’s new town, known as Ghazoua. His dream is for the newly opened Cafe Tasnime to appeal to both the traditional older Moroccan customers who come to drink black coffee over a cigarette and chat with neighbors and the younger generation.
At this cafe, virgin cocktails and caramel lattes appear on the menu alongside the sugary black espresso. The balance between the modern and traditional is precarious, but it seems to work.
A middle aged man in flip-flops wanders over the zebra crossing, his grey tracksuit bottoms and disheveled hair betray the time of day. Eight a.m. He has just got up and is on his way to his local cafe for a “petit pain” (a pastry) and espresso.
As he sits down, a young woman leaves the cafe. Dressed in jeans and a t-shirt with her long black hair flowing down her back, the woman holds a vanilla latte in a take-away cup. She leaves the cafe, talking on the phone and slowly walking down the road in the direction of the university.
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As I settle into my usual seat on the front porch, far from looking askance at a woman and a baby sitting down in a men-only zone, the elderly man wearing a white jellaba and reading the paper at the table opposite warmly greets us. “Salam alaikum,” he calls over, to giggles from the baby.
At a neighboring table, the man in flip-flops looks over at the baby, smiles, and waves and then puts out his cigarette out of consideration, half-way through smoking it.
This is, without doubt, among my favorite cafes in Essaouira. Although its view is of a zebra crossing over the Essaouira-Agadir road, I only had to go once to feel comfortable there.
The grey walls and austere facade in no way reflect the warmth of the place. In front of the cafe is a small terrace space, protected from Essaouira’s wind. Upstairs is a spacious roof terrace, usually beset by groups of smoothie and coffee drinkers, Moroccan and tourists, chatting and escaping the cigarette smoke below.
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But, most importantly, both the cafe’s staff and its customers make one feel like a member of the “Cheers” cast, always polite, friendly, and natural, and always “glad you came.”
Close to Essaouira’s Bab Sebaa sits a little square within the medina’s ancient walls, and in the square, sits a cafe that time forgot.
Though this area of the medina is a tourist honey pot, the blue and white check clothed tables outside cafe l’Horloge often remain empty. Tourists survey the old-fashioned tables and the unclear menu with a critical eye, muttering to each other.
Those who do take a chance on the old-world cafe whose menu, like its decor, appears to be frozen around 1975, are in for a treat.
Run by two elderly brothers wearing brown woolen jumpers, knitted circa 1980, even in the height of summer, the cafe is an oasis of calm in the busy medina. My favorite table sits under a large tree which spreads over the tiny square, offering its shade to coffee drinkers.
The twisted roots of the ancient tree separate the cafe’s seating area from a sprawling carpet shop next door. The hand-woven Amazigh (Berber) carpets fill the space with color and charm.
This is a perfect place to people watch; tourists, Moroccans, and expats all parade by perusing the wares of the neighboring shops and peering suspiciously at the gloomy interior of Cafe l’Horloge.
Inside the cafe, smoke fills the Moroccan salon while one of the two brothers watches a black and white television and an elderly woman fusses in the kitchen that can be seen through a hatch. Popping inside to use the cafe’s always clean toilet facilities is like catching a glimpse into the cross section of an old-fashioned Moroccan home.
While I freely admit that the cafe’s menu is nothing special, the atmosphere of calm and familiarity makes up for the limited choice of beverage. The cafe offers traditional Moroccan lunches as well as basic soft drinks and coffee.
Going to cafe l’Horloge is like visiting an elderly, kindly uncle—there is no fuss, no great performance, but a simple and genuine welcome, and a sense of continuity and stillness.
Essaouira brims with chic, modern cafe spaces, high quality restaurants, fast-food eateries, and Moroccan “nous-nous” cafes, and each of them has a unique ambience and feeling.
As in any city in the world, it is up to us as visitors and residents to be adventurous and open, to search out the rough diamonds, authentic spaces, and, sometimes, a place to feel at home.