Pop culture travels: In Essaouira with Orson Welles’ Othello

Essaouira, on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, is still gaining a profile as a travel destination. It’s very popular with Moroccans seeking sea and sand, but for Western travelers, the bulk of their time is still spent in Marrakech, the imperial cities of Fes and Meknes and wandering the dunes in the Sahara.

Way back in 1949, however, Orson Welles discovered Essaouira and found it captured the mood for Othello, his film based on Shakespeare’s story of the ill-fated Moor of Venice. The film itself had its problems. It took three years to shoot because they kept running out of money. In the end, Welles achieved his vision and, submitted under the flag of Morocco, went on to win the Palme d’Or at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival.

Over time, three versions of the film have emerged, the most recent one being available – in eight 10-minute installments – on YouTube. Having never seen it, I browsed through one snowy Sunday and discovered Welles had made use of my favourite part of Essaouira, La Skala de la Ville, the artillery posts which sits on top of the ramparts, the walls containing the town.

Essaouira Morocco ramparts

La Skala de la Ville

Rising up over the compact town, La Skala de la Ville gives residents and visitors to Essaouira a stunning view of the water surrounding the town. At one time, a strategic artillery post, today, La Skala is a lovely, quiet walk. I visited twice, early in the morning, before the town woke up, and at mid-day, when the area was bustling with visitors and merchants. Like the Rue de la Skala, where Essaouira’s famous woodworkers sell their wares.

Walking up the wide ramps, the view along the top is spectacular. Watching the film, in chunks on Youtube, I was struck by the timelessness of Essaouira, which is one of the many things that drew me to Morocco in the first place.

A walk along the ramparts not only gives a stunning view of the town and ocean, but has lots of little nooks and alcoves where secrets can be shared.

Essaouira Morocco ramparts Skala de la Ville

No visit to Essaouira is complete without a walk along the ramparts. Before you go, add a quick viewing of Othello to your preparation and for an historic perspective on the town. One that will give you a greater appreciation for the town’s timelessness and mystery.

Remembering Orson Welles in Essaouira

Walking around Essaouira, there are a couple of additional points to include in your itinerary. Orson Welles Square, just outside of the walls of the town, was opened in 1992 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Othello. In researching this post, I found the monument at the centre of the square has gone through several phases of vandalism, or “embellishment.” When I was there in 2010, Welles was blue:

Essaouira Morocco Orson Welles Square

While exploring the old Jewish quarter, the Mellah, my group discovered an old hammam (almost 700 years!) with a plaque detailing its role in the film.

Essaouira Morocco Hammam Pabst

This will be the last pop culture travel post for a little while, but we’ll revisit this topic whenever the opportunity presents itself or I stumble across something interesting. If you have pop culture travels you’d like to share, let me know in the comments and we’ll get it sorted out. Thanks for following along on these journeys and we’ll get back to regular programming on Wednesday!



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