This week we swapped van life for the luxury of an airbnb riad in Essaouira. It was Christmas after all.
My three children Ciara, Conor and Regan flew in on the Easyjet Luton flight to join us for the week and together we managed to get through most of the ‘Must Do’ list of any committed tourist visiting the town. Except the camel ride on the beach…that didn’t quite work out as planned. Nor did we get to a gnaoua music concert – that’s the local Saharan/Arab/Berber blend of music which features in an annual festival in the Essaouira every June. Maybe I will just have to buy the album ‘Gnaoua that’s what I call music’. (Sorry – had to get that one out of the way).
And we also made it to Marrakech for a day with Hicham, our friend from Zagora, as our guide. Stuart stayed behind and spent a fascinating few hours people watching at the port. His photos from the day ( like the one of the pensive fisherman above) are pretty special as you can see further below.
And the highlights of the week were:
Living in the Medina:
Our riad was in the heart of the walled medina, not accessible by cars. Asma who lives next door and looks after the house for the owner led us there through the narrow maze of streets. By day, the medina was a busy, bustling place. By night, until they got used to it, I think my three were a little fazed…
….but wifi turned on their life support machine (Facebook, Snapchat, Spotify in no particular order) so all was right with the world and we were set to tackle the tourist trail.
We went quad biking along the beach and over the dunes which was good fun though…
… the litter on large parts of the beach was pretty shocking.
On another day we went to a hamman for a full scrub down and massage….sorry I’m afraid there are no photos of that one.
We explored the medina and watched as some of the buildings were demolished…
…and enjoyed the graffiti. This one gives a feminist twist to the berber symbol for a free man.
And we were all definitely up for a camel ride along the beach.
Well who wouldn’t want to spend an hour with this cheerful soul?
We met Khalid and he introduced us to his camels but we weren’t ready. ‘Maybe tomorrow”, I said. (Those were my exact words M’lud – no contractual certainty there at all).
But then a bit later we met Yasin. He offered a cut price for four of us to take an hour long excursion along the beach to the castle made in the sand he said inspired Jimi Hendrix to write the song called – guess what – “Castles Made Of Sand”. The deal concluded, we agreed to meet him the next day on the beach.
But it didn’t go to plan. Regan was already on Yasin’s camel ready for the off and we were still choosing our mounts when Khalid turned up. He wasn’t happy we were going with a rival and made a vigorous argument that we had agreed a deal with him. He called in support for his cause, was joined by some mates and next thing we were caught in the middle of a heated and very, very angry shouting match with Regan caught in the middle. One guy was pulling her camel to the ground, the other was yanking the poor animal back to his feet.
Our offer to compromise and take two camels each was not good enough – this was a straight stand off between the two men and neither would back down. When Regan was finally able to dismount the camel, we left telling both sides we would now be walking.
And so we never got our camel ride and never saw the castle – unless that rock below happens to be it.
But turns out neither did Jimi as he wrote the song two years before he ever came to Essaouira.
All on board for Marrakech:
When we met Hicham in Zagora – he’s the one who took Stuart fishing in the Sahara Week 11 – M’hamid and the desert road to Amtoudi – I mentioned my plan to take a day trip to Marrakech over Christmas. He offered to travel up and be our guide to the city. I’d been a few years back – it’s a big, crazy city and didn’t really fancy doing the trip without some local knowledge so it was great to have him with us.
We went first to the beautiful Jardins Marjorelle restored by Yves St Laurent.
Then had mint tea on the terrace overlooking El Fna square.
Hicham took us to the restaurant in the market where his family goes. We had cous cous…
Then it was back to the square to watch dancing…
…and see the food stalls setting up. The one selling snail soup was already up and running…
…but it’s not to everyone’s taste.
It’s not quite decking the halls with boughs of holly but it was the best I could get at Essaouira’s Carrefour.
And as for the Christmas dinner, two chickens took the place of the turkey but the experience of buying them was novel. We went to the market and picked them out of the small flock huddled in a pen in the butcher’s shop. I’m afraid I balked at this bit but Stuart and Conor watched as the butcher held the chicken between his legs. He held the head with one hand. With the other, he drew a sharp knife across its throat.
A surprisingly small amount of blood drained to the floor. He then used a fiercely efficient rotary machine to pluck the feathers before chopping off its head and legs, gutting it and handed it to us. From clucking and pecking birds to ready-to-roast in a matter of minutes.
I think this is the point where I should say that it is a good thing that we see where our food comes from. I think Stuart and Conor felt that way. Actually I’m good with the notion that chicken comes nicely wrapped in cling film, ideally with a handy sachet of tasty sauce.
From the heart:
And here’s a memory I will take with me from Morocco. It’s a particular gesture Hicham did it as our coach pulled into the bus station at Marrakech where he had arranged to meet us. When he first saw us, he smiled and at the same time placed his right hand over his heart.
We saw it again on Christmas morning, We were up on the riad’s roof terrace where we would spend part of most days, enjoying the sunshine, listening to the call to prayer and usually watching two lads across on another terrace as they tended to their pigeons.
We would hear the sound of four short whistles and learnt this was the boy’s signal to the pigeons that he was going to open the coop door and it was their exercise time.
On Christmas Day, we were back on the roof. The young pigeon trainer heard us and looked over to watch as we exchanged gifts.
Then there it was again – the same gesture as Hicham’s – he gave us a big smile as he placed his right hand across his heart.
I like to think our young pigeon trainer was acknowledging our tradition and wishing us a ‘happy Christmas’. Or maybe he just liked Conor’s new jellaba from Marrakech.
Whatever he meant by it, it was a lovely shared moment across the rooftops of Essaouira.
Sardines- a serious business
posted by Stuart
Spending some time around the people working in the port of Essaouira I was struck by the intensity of the whole business.
The expressions on their faces as the sardines were moved from the boats and through the dockside showed the importance of these tiny fish.
They provide income to those who work at the port but also to so many locals hovering around the edges looking for their share.
As the crates are being lifted from the holds of the larger fishing boats, a pecking order became apparent. The captain is in charge but the fish were being sold, mainly to the same man, whilst still on the boat, with money changing hands very rapidly.
Much of this is then loaded into vans to leave the harbour but a number of crates are sold to individuals who then wheel them to off to sell from small tables around the harbour or in the medina.
At each stage, a number of those less fortunate take advantage of fish falling from the crates as they are moved around or indeed they help themselves as each crate passes close to them.
There are a number of ladies who collect these one or two at a time and then re-sell them further around the harbour.
Seemingly following an unwritten rule of sharing, none of the fishermen complains.
And then when the day’s business is done, it’s time to relax….
For others, there’s no rest from the task of watching for easy pickings.
Our trip is taking us from Morocco to Iceland and we’ve a sticker on the back of the van that says just that.
As we were packing up the van to leave Essaouira, our friend below passed by and hailed Stuart who was on the roof of the van. ‘What’s this about?’ he asked pointing to the sticker.
We thought he was showing a friendly interest but it was more than that. He was tickled by the remarkable coincidence that he and his wife and children have just travelled to Morocco from Iceland. He’s Moroccan. She’s Icelandic and they had just arrived after making the trip in their campervan in just 40 days – a tad quicker than us.
That’s him taking down our details. Hello! It was great to meet you and hopefully we will hear from you.
Christmas is over, Ciara, Conor and Regan are back in slightly and we are looking forward to when Stuart’s two Callum and Mary join us en route in the coming months.
Our road trip starts again next week…