Ah Essaouira, a peaceful and desperately needed escape from Marrakech….
The best things to do in this fair seaside haven?
4. Enjoy some mint tea
What can I say? I went there for one night, stayed for three, and could have easily stayed another week.
It was with great joy that I arrived in Essaouira after the constant hassle that is Marrakech. Although there were a few touts at the bus station, when I explained that I had a reservation [a lie, but I did know where I wanted to stay] they just replied with a ‘no worries!’ and left me alone! Even when I hailed a taxi, the driver didn’t bother trying to rip me off and asked for a huge 5 dirham [about 60 cents] to drop me off at Bab Marrakech, look at the map and give me directions from there to my hostel of choice. I very quickly found the hostel, and no one on the street even tried to ‘help’ me get to a ‘better’ or ‘cheaper’ place. Feeling lazy and looking to kick back and relax, I spent much of the morning in a hammock with a book. It would be hard to find a more laid-back place – brightly painted rooms that bear names such as Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Peace & Love, hammocks and a rooftop terrace, cheap beer and wine, guitars and drums to play with and casual offers of fat $2 spliffs. This particular hostel is hippie heaven, and makes a mean tagine.
I truly enjoyed exploring the little medina. Compared to Marrakech, it was fantastic. Sure, it’s full of shops, and the shopkeepers generally try to get you into their shop, but they don’t harass you if you don’t and a smile usually results in a ‘Have a nice day’ instead of a tirade of complaints and/or abuse. I’d class that as an improvement! Relaxed and peaceful, with minimal hassle and copious amounts of mint tea and conversation to be found in random little jewellery shops, there’s a deliciously cool breeze flowing through the medina. Mind you, this pleasant breeze will almost blow you off the fortress walls – but the blue sky, filled with seagulls flying around the port and the tower of the old castle make it just magical. Where the medina in Marrakech was a dusky rose-pink in colour, Essaouira’s medina was coastal and fresh in varying shades of peeling white, sprinkled with bright blue doors and windows and the occasional mustard yellow building.
I overindulged in tiny glasses of sweet tea and delectable almond pastries with a couple of Moroccans with incredible dreadlocks in a shoe shop just off the main strip. I must have spent almost two hours there – they were terribly excited when I said I was Australian, pulling out their passports to show fresh new Australian visas neatly stuck in. Apparently they have a friend in Sydney, and plan to couchsurf along the coast for a couple of months. They wanted to know just about anything and everything there is to know about Australia and are now looking forward to eating our national emblems.
Don’t, however, believe anyone who claims that everyone in Essaouira asks reasonable prices straight off. I spent another hour in a virtual Aladdin’s cave of treasures and/or junk [and it’s hard to tell the two apart at times] before deciding I liked a little silver thing that’s apparently a scarf weight. The opening price was 1500 dirhams – or about $150 – and I ended up paying a massive 50 dirhams and two cigarettes for the trinket. The owner, Mohammad, kept bringing out treasure chest upon treasure chest, each brimming with something new – Tuareg agate necklaces on plaited leather, ‘silver’ Bedouin bangles from the delicate and intricate to the cheap and chunky, brightly coloured strands of Berber beads, weighty wedding necklaces and engraved rings. From others appeared piles upon piles of khamsas [or Hands of Fatima] for protection against the evil eye and strings of blue beads for the same thing. It was exciting to see what would come out next, and if I was heading straight home I’d have tried to buy a few of the coffers themselves.
My attempts to locate the entrance to the ramparts failed, however I spent a good few hours wandering in and out of little artisan’s workshops and artist’s galleries, watching little old men paint the cliche medina archways with swaying women in jellabas and younger men working on more contemporary and vividly hued pieces. If only shipping didn’t cost an absolute fortune…
Cravings for something healthy led me to the fruit and vegetable souq, where for a grand total of five dirham I acquired three tomatoes, a cucumber, a capsicum and an onion; bread was located at a little stall down the road and a round of Happy Cow cheese – no refrigeration required – from a little window of a shop around the corner. A bench before the port, overlooking the ocean and the medina, provided the perfect location for people-watching as I chopped up my lunch on my lap. I fear that my pocketknife may feel that it’s not reaching its true potential, being used for such mundane tasks as slicing tomatoes and spreading cheese, but its efforts were certainly appreciated. After weeks of rice, couscous and greasy tagines as shwarmas, a crunchy homemade salad sandwich really hit the spot, and for sixteen dirhams I had four meals! How can you beat that?
A visit to the Skala de Port resulted in me almost being blown into the ocean to be crushed against the ancient stones, as the wind caught in my clothes and threatened to toss me over the wall. The ‘castle’ is tiny, just a small tower and a few cannons but the view is unbeatable. It’s the postcard-perfect image that you see of Essaouira, with seagulls swooping and gliding before the medina and the waves crashing into the rocks and the old fortress walls.
I wandered into the port and was chatting to a cute cat hiding in an upturned boat when a local fisherman called Aziz approached me. I didn’t really want a tour of the port because these things usually result in demands for an extortionate amount of money however he was very insistent on showing me ‘his view’ and I figured, why not? Aziz must have been in his mid-50s or so and had a gammy leg that caused him to walk quite strangely, and was constantly drooling as though part of his face had been paralysed. He took me inside the walls of the port, where it was pitch black, showing me all the storerooms for the fishermen and peeking inside a few to see people working. He showed me all the boats, the crab cages, the different nets used for different kinds of fishing and introduced me to some women selling sardines on the street.
We saw men hacking wriggling fish into chunks for bait, while others were stringing these chunks onto literally thousands of hooks at a phenomenal speed. And we walked along the walls of the port, walking slowly and carefully to avoid at times either an unpleasantly cold swim or an unpleasant bone-breaking trip onto rather sharp rocks as the wind continued its mission to kill me. He explained that the wind has been so fierce for the last ten days that only a few fishing boats are able to operate, as the waters are so rough that fishing is virtually impossible for all but the largest boats – and the fish have ‘moved out’ in the meantime [the next day, when the wind had died down, the harbour was almost empty].
Aziz showed me around for more than an hour, telling me stories about the town and making the usual misinformed claims about how Jimi Hendrix was inspired by a nearby ruined fortress when he wrote the song ‘Castles in the Sand’. It was well worth the ten dirham that he asked for at the end.
Thank you for restoring my faith in Morocco and showing me that outside the hellish confines of Marrakech can be found friendly, hospitable people who welcome a conversation over a cup of tea as much as a quick sale.
It’s appreciated, as my trip and budget can only take so much shopping. For that matter, so can my back, given I’ve got a long time to carry any new acquisitions around!