One of the main reasons for visiting Essaouira is to see the fishing port.
It was once the most important ports in West Africa where there was a monopoly in trade with Europe for spices, precious metals, sugar and molasses and in the slave trade to the Americas. Later it was overtaken in importance by Casablanca and Agadir but today it remains a lively, thriving fishing port and the local centre of the boat building industry.
After breakfast at the Riad Chakira we left the Medina and walked directly to the port, passing through the impressive entry gate and through the sturdy battlements and very quickly we were part of the everyday life of the port.
First we passed through the outer port where rows and rows of fishing boats were moored in anticipation of a fishing adventure. All painted a vivid shade of blue and I asked about that but no one seemed to be able to provide an adequate explanation why. The desk clerk at the Riad simply said that Mogador (Essaouira) is the blue city and he left it at that as though that was all that I really needed to know.
There are almost constant prevailing winds charging in from the Atlantic Ocean bringing high waves and strong currents and as well as being called the blue city it competes with Chicago for a nickname and is also known locally as the windy city and I mention this because looking at these small fragile looking boats I couldn’t help being thankful that I am not a fisherman in Essaouira because I certainly wouldn’t want to put out to sea in one of these.
At the edge of the water there were stacks of nets and lobster pots and resting boats back from an overnight voyage where weather-beaten fishermen on deck carried out all of the on-board jobs that need to be attended to upon return to land with a catch to sort and prepare for sale and nets to repair and stack.
Walking further into the port we came across the market stalls where fish was laid out on wooden trestle tables and animated sales were being negotiated. Now, I always thought that fish was in short or declining supply but you wouldn’t have thought so here. The agreed fishing quotas must be very generous indeed because this fish market looked as though someone had sucked up the entire seabed and delivered it right here at this spot – and they do this every day!
On closer examination of the produce however it soon becomes clear why we have to put up with stock shortages whilst in Morocco there is such an abundance of choice, we are just far too fussy and our preference for fish is restricted to two or three species that we have fished into a crisis of extinction whilst elsewhere people will eat a much greater variety of sea food. We like to buy our fish in little blue polystyrene trays, trimmed and gutted and without heads or tails and ready for the frying pan but here the slabs were brimming with fish so fresh some of it was still alive and flapping about and winking at us as we inspected it. There were some ugly critters here I have to say that really wouldn’t have tempted me that’s for sure!
This was a commercial port and market and there weren’t many tourists down here and perhaps what was putting them off was the smell. This was not a place for anyone with a weak stomach. It was horrific as we carefully picked our way across a muddy surface strewn with blood and guts that smelled quite appalling, luckily neither of us are especially squeamish about aquatic offal and the stink of the discarded parts of the fish that no one would be prepared to eat. The squealing seagulls of course are not nearly so fussy and they wandered around helping themselves to the severed fish heads and pulled guts.
Once you get used to the smell the port is a fascinating place and a centre of commercial activity. I wrote recently about living in Grimsby which was once the busiest fishing port in the World. It has all gone now in Grimsby but as we wandered around I liked to think that once it might have been just a little bit like this.
And I was glad that I saw it like this because things are changing here too. Adjacent to the port earth movers were busy developing a new breakwater and a jetty and a sign by the city wall proudly showed a new design for the area which seemed to suggest that sometime soon the working fishing port will be moved along the shore to a more discreet location and the existing one will become a marina for swanky yachts and pleasure boats. I hope they don’t try and turn it into a sort of resort that can be found in the nearby Canary Islands but I suspect that this is the intention.
The stink of the port stays with you even after you leave. Thirty minutes after we had left I could still smell it as though it was following me around and as it turned out it was. I was wearing a pair of linen trousers an inch too long for my short legs and I had dragged the bottoms through all of the seafood debris of the fish market and the ocean aroma seemed to me to be getting worse and I was sure that people were crossing the road just to avoid me.
I suppose people who live here get used to it, most of the men working in the fish dock didn’t look as though they had changed their clothes for several months and there were faces that were completely unfamiliar with a soap and flannel.
We visited the battlements with an especially good view of the honey coloured walls of the city but I was convinced that was becoming more and more interesting to the thousands of seagulls so after we climbed back down from the towers and the ramparts we went straight back to the Riad where my first job was to get changed and wash the trousers in a very strong soap solution.