Essaouira owes its existence to fishing. But to me its appeal is the colour. Buildings, doors, shops, people, clothing and food all are bright, clear and beguiling. The light at sunset turns the building walls into opalescent pinks, creams and soft oranges, whilst the bright sky and blue sea set up a contrasting background.
Its walls encircle the medina, with the ocean pounding up against the sea wall. The medina, where we stayed, is a series of alleyways, with largely nondescript doorways opening on to them. The doorways lead into Riads, which are private houses or guesthouses, designed around a central open atrium, so perhaps three or four floors, with rooms leading off hallways that all open onto the centre opening, which is often open to the sky. If you are lucky you have a rooftop terrace (we were). The alleyways are often built over creating worrying dark tunnels to traverse, until you are used to them they are somewhat forbidding.
The city is entered through one of a number of gateways, and the outskirts of these are not particularly pretty, peopled by the down and outs, and used, quite unashamedly as toilets, by those hanging around them, and I don’t mean simply for a wee. Porters – usually old men, with their wagons, hang around to pick up a few dirham by transporting bags for the tourists, when they are waiting for work they climb in the wagons for a quick kip. Each gateway is flanked by two cannons, and each cannon has a cannon monitor in the form of some bloke who sits there all day, not doing anything in particular. In fact blokes not doing anything in particular seem to be in plague proportions.
Various films have been shot here, including Game of thrones, and Orson Welles version of Othello, which gave rise to the large and barren town square being named imaginatively “Orson Welles Square”…can’t argue with that.
Now the town is inhabited, not only by local Moroccans, but a large population of drum playing African folk, looking kind of Senegalese-y. It is also a mecca for hippy types, roving acrobats and lots of French folk, french being the second language spoken, however everyone we spoke with spoke English as well. English tourists are plentiful as well. You can tell they are English as they are wearing wildly summery clothing even though it is only 18 degrees. DAMN IT GERALD, WE ARE HAVING A HOLIDAY IN THE SUN IN MOROCCO AND YOU WILL WEAR SHORTS I DON’T CARE HOW COLD IT IS, NOW WHERE ARE MY YELLOW CAPRI PANTS. To me it had a Nimbin vibe to it, with a sense of live and let live amongst those there, and plenty of tie-dyed clothing, guitars slung over shoulders, fishermens pants and dreadlocks. Steve swore one guy had the dreadlocks attached to his hat, rather than them growing on his head.
The call to prayer sounds at various times throughout the day and evening, and the various muezzins seem to compete with each other … these are not recorded, as we heard one guy interrupted the call with a spluttering cough, which was quite funny. The various qualities of the pa systems may come into play here as well. In tandem, they sounded more like an air raid siren, but there was one I could not decide if he sounded more like a cow, or a motorbike. I’ll put the video on facebook, as I can’t upload it here.
Evenings everyone is out and about, usually down at the port, watching the sunset and the fish catch get gutted. To say there was the odd cat and a million birds would be an understatement. The design of the fishing boats are very distinctive, all coloured blue/green, with a high bow shape for negotiating the Atlantique swell. The fishing is still plentiful, using long lines with hooks, 900 or so on one line – no trawling. One guy, not knowing Steven’s notoriously fragile stomach, offered to take him out fishing that night….we laughed at the memory of previous attempts by Steve to survive a fishing trip.
The entire time we were there, I did not see any meat or fish refrigerated, in fact nothing seemed to be refrigerated at all. All the little shops had coke fridges, all fully stocked, but not plugged in. They were decorative only. The strange thing was that there was absolutely no smell, nor any flies on any of the meat or fish. Female hairdressers sport a shower curtain at the door, so no passing male can cop an eyeful, and even though you’ve just had a great blowave, a headscarf (if you are one who wears them) will need to be put on over it. One endearing feature are the guys who wander around with trays of delicious baked goods for sale, in case you may feel like a little something to sustain you.
As we were in Essaouira as part of our tour, we thought it would be convenient to drop half our luggage off to our next accommodation – avoiding the need to transport it back to Marrakech and then again to Essaouira. We had located our booked digs, and knocked on the door, but there was no answer. We asked our tour guide to call them for us, and were told that our digs were being refurbished, and they had transferred our stay to another of their establishments. Wonderful, it is ALWAYS great to be informed of these things, I can only imagine returning by bus the following weekend, lugging our bags, only to find no one home. A lesson we have learned along the way is to always call to confirm. Our alternative accommodation was beautiful, with décor straight out of a magazine, so we were very happy both with it, and that we had averted a potentially stressful situation. Accomodation and breakfast was for the princely sum of $37 AUD a night. So, we dropped our bags off and did not need to worry again.
Food was cheap – we found our favourite stall, run by brothers, where half a rotisserie chicken, french fries, massive plate of salad, bowl of olives and bread set us back 65 dirham, – nearly 10 bucks for both of us. Falafels and salad were 30 dirham….about $4.50. Flatbreads (roti bread) were being made all the time and were 4 dirham (50 cents). The wagon loads of strawberries were irresistible, you know what a good punnet of strawberries smells like, now imagine a wagon with about 20 kilos of them piled up.
A massive problem for the whole country (and many countries) is the bottled water. There is no choice but to buy them, and no chance to refill them and let me tell you, they were EVERYWHERE. We tried to lighten our footprint by buying a 5lt bottle and refilling our day bottles, but it is such a serious concern.
It was torture not shopping up a storm, as the wares were colourful and beautiful, with the added charm of shopkeepers who, whilst they were skilled sellers, were not aggressive, although I did have the odd unplanned conversation with a shopkeeper who all claim to be from the Sahara whilst he showed me his wares which I didn’t want. The wood inlay work done here is incredible. We checked out a workshop with the most intricate patterns, all inlaid. Wow.
My favourite was the pigment powders for mixing up paints, and these stalls also had solid perfumes and all manner of potions, including the ubiquitous herbal viagras, including one variety of “Turbo viagra”. We did buy a cd, as the Gnawa music playing everywhere was fantastic. When I was buying the pigment powders, Steve was coughing up a storm outside, and the shop owner gave him some menthol crystals….these act like Fishermans’ Friends on crack. In fact it also looks like crack. Maybe it is. If you hear of an Australian in jail over drug importation, it may be us with Steve’s little plastic bag of menthol crystals. Not sus at all.,
The city charges a tourist tax, which seemed to me to be largely being spent on ripping up perfectly good pavers and replacing them. The main thoroughfare, lined with restaurants -and our food stall, was, on our last day, ripped up, requiring us to negotiate piles of loose pavers, and sit at our table in the brickie sand. As the afternoon wore on, the enthusiastic work of the ripping up crew reduced the walkable area to little more than a two foot wide track, to the great consternation of the restaurant owners across the way and the travelling acrobat crew, whose income, derived from tips after they had performed a triple somersault into your soup, was somewhat curtailed.. There was much disapproving harrumphing and standing with crossed arms and head shaking. There was no sign of the replacement crew however, and the ripping up crew continued with gusto. Alas, we had to leave at that stage, so did not see the climax of this domestic drama. Steve commenced an impromptu art installation by stacking the pavers, jenga-like, until they were as tall as him, fending off small boys intent on destruction. We should have charged for this, as a crowd gathered and took photos, it may have paid for our lunch.
So, onto the bus stop for the 3 hour ride to Agadir. It is a strange phenomena that when you have an allocated seat, there will be a 100% chance that someone else will be sitting in it. There will be consternation and confusion as they consult their ticket which clearly says seats 12 & 13, they will look up to see the seats they are actually sitting in are 3 & 4. They will want to consult your ticket, which says Seats 3 & 4. They will roll their eyes, throw you a surly look and with bad grace shift themselves, their bags and the caged chicken down to Seats 12 & 13, where someone else is sitting.
As there was potential for the bus to almost pass our digs, we skilfully arranged for our bags to be placed in an easily accessible spot under the bus, and showed the driver the princely tip he would receive for dropping us close by. As it turned out however, the driver took a left which then took us miles out of the way, so bugger him, no tip. Here is a pic of our bus and the scenic route we took, along with the other bus, which although uncomfortable, may have dropped us in closer. Again, it was peak hour on Friday.