The seagulls hovered in mid-air, ready to swoop on fish guts at random, or drop a payload of creamy white droppings on our unsuspecting head. The fish market was literally right off the boats and the gulls loved it. Locals inspected, haggled for and bagged up the for fish.
Essaouira is a small Atlantic Coast town on the shores of Morocco. The name is derived from the small ramparts that surround the Medina. However, it was more commonly known as Mogador until abut fifty years ago.
Getting to Essaouira was a lot easier than all the travel guides and blogs suggested. Despite arriving at the bus terminal to find the 2:30pm bus was full, we promptly found several men, keen to impress on us the idea of a Grand Taxi. These large Mercedes stallions were lined up in the parking lot and made the 3 hour journey for a haggled 800 Dirham (about 80 Euro). The best part was, the more people you crammed in, the cheaper it got as the fare was shared. We heard of others cramming up to 7 in the back and 4 in the front, but we were content to share with a couple of French guys from Lyon.
Once out of the taxi stands we wandered into the Medina. Mitch was using his GPS to find the accommodation, but broke the first rule of being a tourist in Morocco – don’t look lost. One friendly chap asked us if we were lost and before we knew it, we were “engaged” and obliged to follow him on a long and windy journey. In this time he mentioned that his girlfriend was a Kiwi, from Takaka in fact (highly doubted this)! After about 800m we arrived at our accommodation, about 40m from where we first met him. We were greeted by the matron and started the awkward process of paying the man. Tam fumbled around with the wallet – he earnestly peered at the notes we had unbroken and after a short exchange Tam offered him 20 dirhams. He looked hurt and offended and proceeded to walk away, only to come back moments later and ask for it. We found later that the average wage in these areas was close to 50 dirhams a day.
Our first experience out of the way, we had the opportunity to explore the Riad where we were staying, an open atrium designed hotel common in Morocco and enjoy the mint tea – a common gesture of welcome a bit similar to the English cuppa.
In Essaouira we had ample opportunity to relax and get some long missed sun. Enough to get us burnt pink. The beach, normally frequent with surfers had bad conditions and instead was crowded with beach soccer and camel treks. A few intrepid tourists even chanced high paced canters down the wash and into the dunes.
The markets were a hagglers delight. We were told a lot more relaxed than the hustle of Marrakech. We welcomed this opportunity to buy several bowls, which we would proceed to lug around with us for the next 8 days!
One friendly salesman, invited us into his accommodation asking for assistance in his English and used our spelling and grammar skills to help write a sign – surely an old trick. Tam got a pair of earrings to win him over – at least for a while. He played a very good routine and sure enough, the next day, the sign was up. It was much better than the standard – Hey You! or, Where you from?! that we were getting used to hearing. The standard language in Morocco is Arabic, but when it comes to tourists, everybody gets by in broken French. English is typically reserved for those with better speaking skills – and there are plenty who have mastered that.
Then there was the port. As mentioned, the place was chaos. Walking through formations of seagulls, ready to dive. Some fisherman took great glee in throwing fish guts at your feet, only to have them battled over by garrulous gulls. An experience all in itself every evening. The place also had a cat explosion, mostly due to the abundance of fish and unchecked population control.
On our final day we opted to take a cooking course. Thinking ahead, we had booked the bus tickets well in advance. Our course at L’Atelier Madada was in the vein of gourmet French cusine, just applied to the Moroccan tagine – a ceramic pressure cooker. Mona, our sous chef was from a long line of culinary artists, having cooked for royalty and very demanding of us. We had to cut our onions into pieces so small, we were bawling like little babes.
We learned all about the locale, the argan trees and their exotic oil, the spice traders as apothecaries and natural aphrodisiacs. Apparently, the Spanish Fly is a dried beetle that when crushed acts as a stimulant and if in excess quantities, a deadly poison… We were shown these in a jar beside various mixes of more common cumin, cinnamon, tumeric and coriander.
Back at our tagines, we took great care in not releasing the pressure and stirring the sauces. Once served, our masterpiece starter of Zalouk (an aubergine and tomato mash complemented the main of beef with blanched almond stuffed dates. Best meal we had in Morocco and we made it ourselves – with a lot of guidance from Mona!
We enjoyed it all so much we lost track of time. A fellow cook informed us it was 3pm. Crap! Our bus leaves in 15 minutes! Mitch took off in a rush, sprinting in his jandals to the Riad to pick up the bags – leaving Tam to pay the bill. What would have been a 30 minute walk, was done in a 10 minute sprint. He arrived at the bus with seconds to spare, shoved the bags in the hold and we boarded, sweaty and exhausted for our journey to Marrakech.