Relieved to be by the seaside (Essaouira)

Published: July 6th 2011
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As the Grand Taxi drops us back in Marrakech from our hiking trip in the High Atlas we agree that our first priority should be to buy bus tickets for the next leg of our journey - a couple of days in the coastal city of Essaouira. Two years ago when we were here, a transport strike thwarted our plans to travel to the Atlantic Coast, so this time we were sure not to miss out.

Supratours buses operate quite a few services a day between Marrakech and Essaouira so we had assumed we had a pretty good chance of choosing when we wanted to leave. At the counter we find out that first two buses of the day are fully booked; there are only five seats left on the 2:30pm bus; and for reasons beyond our comprehension we can’t buy tickets for the return leg of our trip until we arrive in Essaouira!

We’re not in a position to argue, so we grab a pair of one way tickets and in our dusty clothes, mud covered hiking boots and heavy backpacks, we trundle up the street to check in to our hotel. Normally we’d be unhappy about staying at a generic chain hotel, but at the moment it is just what we want. It has a pool, it has showers with unlimited hot water and best of all it is only a short walk to loads of restaurants in the Marrakech new town! After our three day hike through the Atlas we’re not in any hurry to do much more than lounge by the pool and grab a meal nearby. It’s just what we need.

The next morning we wake up deliberately late for the first time in weeks and after packing up, head downstairs at a casual 11:55 (just before checkout time). At the same time (and unbeknown to us) a bomb explodes at the Argana cafe on the edge of the Djemaa el-Fna square.

Oblivious, we head out for lunch/breakfast at a funky modern Moroccan restaurant in the new town before grabbing our backpacks and heading to the bus station to catch our bus to the coast.

Sure enough the bus is full but it has air conditioning and is a comfortable journey. In stark contrast to our last visit to Morocco this bus is full of tourists and while we’re a little surprised when the it is stopped in the outskirts of the city by road spikes and a police officer, who boards the bus for a quick inspection, but we soon go back to sleep as we continue on way towards Essaouira.

A ripple of excitement flows through the bus, as we catch our first glimpse of the ocean and a bit later we arrive at the bus station on the edge of the walled old town and medina. Ariana’s quick to disembark, jumps straight to the front of the ticket line and secures us some return tickets for two day’s time.

With that sorted we avoid the baggage and riad touts, and follow our street map as best we can up and down, in and out of the streets and alleyways of Essaouira’s medina. It’s a real challenge with people all around us wanting to either sell us something or charge us to show us the way, and at one point an American lady even stops us to convince us to stay at her riad. Unbelievable!

A bit further on we think we’ve found the right street but there aren’t any numbers on the doors and just when we think we’re completely lost, a German couple point us towards to Riad Mogodor - thank goodness....directions! With no number on the door or sign indicating that it’s a riad we could have easily spent another hour searching. Stepping inside we’re given a huge warm welcome and sweet mint tea.

We’re given a lovely room with our own balcony and we quickly leave our luggage behind and head out to get our bearings. We decide to find the marina and the quintessential image of the city walls being circled by seagulls and crashing waves. In the late afternoon sun it’s just as fabulous as the pictures we’ve seen so many times and we’re thoroughly entertained by the fishermen sorting out their catch nearby.

We soak up the atmosphere and love breathing in the fresh salty sea air. When we start to get hungry, we follow our map to one of the back alley restaurants recommended in the Lonely Planet. It’s dark and slightly intimidating but we follow our instincts and are shown to a lovely little table, where we order some traditional tagines and enjoy our mint tea while we wait for our mains to get cooked. When they arrive they are absolutely delicious, especially Ariana’s goat tagine with dates - a real treat. While enjoying our meals we overhear some fellow tourists talking about the bomb that exploded in Marrakech earlier in the day and notice some messages left on our phones from concerned friends. We feel incredibly fortunate that circumstance meant we were nowhere near the centre of town when it happened and after dinner we quickly call home to reassure our families that we’re safe and well.

It’s raining when we wake up the next morning and we seek out an internet cafe to find out what the latest security guidance is from DFAT. We decide to stay in the country but vow to go nowhere near the square when we get back to Marrakech.

Back on the streets of Essaouria all is quiet so we’re intent on exploring as much as we can. To start things off we start by following the medina walls. It feels like an old fortress and as we potter about we really enjoy the slower, more laid back pace of things.

One of the highlights of the town is the fresh seafood being sold straight off the boats and the row of outdoor grills cooking it up a few minutes later. So we agree that sounds like a good idea for lunch. We walk the full length of the stalls enjoying some light banter with the touts until we settle on a favourite. From the huge selection of scampi, prawns, squid, lobsters, octopus and fish, we choose a lovely fresh snapper which is promptly cleaned, gutted and grilled on the open flames for us. To our delight it tastes incredible- it’s been a long time since we last had such fresh fish.

Morocco is, perhaps surprisingly, great at making traditional pastries and Essaouira has one of the best patisseries at which to try them. It’s a tiny cafe which could be easily missed if it weren’t for the array of tiny delicacies displayed in the window. Luckily, of the few tables, there is one free and after lunch we choose some treats and order an arabic coffee and a mint tea. Over the next hour we watch as dozens of locals flow in and out while the staff chat merrily with the regulars. The whole experience is a delight.

Later, after dinner, we enjoy a stroll along the market streets checking out the wares.

It’s our last day in Essaouria so we spend it bartering for some hand painted plates from the Atlas and traditional tea cups we’d been eyeing off, enjoy another seafood meal by the sea, wait out a squally downpour enjoying more coffee and pastries at our favourite cafe before heading back to the bus station. What a town!

Back in Marrakech, we catch a cab (whose first quoted price is nothing short of exorbitant) from Supratours to the north eastern edge of the medina, a part of town we haven’t visited before. Jumping out of the cab, now used to the windy streets, we potter off in search of our accommodation. Lachlan’s gotten very good at having some light hearted chatter with the local kids trying to show us the way and before long we find our riad.

It’s another beautiful setting, tucked away behind one of the many doors on a dusty back street. The whole area is full of life and with not another tourist in sight we feel strangely safe, despite the tragic explosion a few days earlier. We’re not too sure whether the city actually feels different, or whether we just feel a little different about the city, but rather than eat in the old town we stroll across into villa nouveau for our last dinner of the trip. In the morning it is back to the UK.

Having now seen the old cities, mountains, deserts and coastline of Morocco we feel like we’ve experienced a real slice of what the country’s all about. We can only hope it remains a safe, stable place for its people and future visitors because we’ve loved both our trips here.


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