Morocco 3 – Swinging 'Sweera' (Essaouaira)

Published: June 3rd 2016
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On the way to exchanging the High Atlas Mountains for sea level and the coast at Essaouira – shortened to 'S'weera' by the locals – we took a detour to a winery. Now perhaps most people are more aware than I but, for much of my life, I have enjoyed a quiet drop of wine from time to time and I can't recall ever having Moroccan wine. I had put wine (and other alcohol) to one side for our time in Morocco figuring that there wouldn't be much, if any about. And, for the most part, I was right to do so.

There are establishments that sell alcohol in Morocco. Some of the large cities have what we might call a 'grog shop' and others might call an 'offy'. We had visited one in Meknes, I think, to try to find a few samples. Some of the more ubiquitous beers are on sale but I ignored those here – as I normally would anywhere else – and focused on the wine. We purchased one that seemed to be at an average sort of price and then bought the most highly priced in the shop. It wasn't that expensive but should
Breakfast is onBreakfast is onBreakfast is on

The fishing boats have come in
have been a better than average wine. We only had price to go on. There was very little other information on the bottle.

I don't hold myself out as any type of expert – experienced maybe – but the 'average' bottle was decidedly thus and the better than average bottle was better. Not that much better but enough to demonstrate that price was reasonable as a determinant.

With this analysis firmly in mind we entered the Val d'Argan Winery about 20 km from Essaouira. Wine production is in Morocco is a growing industry. It seems that much of this wine is consumed in Morocco but that a good percentage is exported, mainly to France. The wine at Val d'Argan was definitely a step above the couple of bottles we had purchased earlier. We left with a couple of bottles to stow in the back pack for a suitable occasion.

We also stopped at a women's argan oil co-op – one of many, it turned out – on the way to Essaouira. Here we were told about argan oil and saw how the oil is extracted from the nuts. The inevitable next step was the store where various
Gnaoua stageGnaoua stageGnaoua stage

One of the five stages set up for the festival
argan oil products were for sale. Some of our fellow travellers saw the same products (labels and all) in the medinas of Essaouira and Fes for considerably less dirham.

Morocco has a number of larger coastal towns and they all attract tourists. Essaouira is no exception and there were more people here than might normally be the case because a music festival was on for the next few days.

The medina in Essaouira isn't really in the league of Casablanca, Meknes or Fes. It was built in the 18th Century on a plan developed by a French planner. Nice straight lines and wide avenues. Still no vehicles but not such a large place either.

There is, of course, a perfectly acceptable beach that is wide and sandy but, while we were there, without much in the way of waves.

Fortifications of the town overlooking the port are a product of the rampant piracy that was occurring in this part of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean at the time. The Frenchman who built it had cannons set on the walls: he had also been a prisoner of pirates at one stage. The port itself is busy with
Gnaoua Parade 1Gnaoua Parade 1Gnaoua Parade 1

The sound matched the colour and movement
fishing vessels and in the morning the place is alive with fish, fishers and birds. Many go out overnight in quite small boats to catch the sardines and top feeders that are high on the list as popular eating fish for people in this area. Some larger boats go out for longer looking for the bottom feeders.

There is plenty of opportunity to buy fresh fish pretty much straight off the boat and that was an excellent idea for lunch. We went to a place for lunch that had cooks, tables, chairs and wait staff but no food. The deal is that you buy what you want to eat for lunch and bring it along here. They prepare and cook it for you. While we were there people were dropping off bags of fresh food and heading off to work or shop. They would then come back apparently at an appointed time and have their meal all nicely cooked and served. Nice idea.

Thanks to Tarik's excellent purchases at the boats and the market, our meal was a series of fish dishes. John Dory, sea bream, prawns, a type of school prawn, squid, octopus and sardines along with a couple of salads and, of course, bread. The sea bream probably had a few too many small bones for some, the John Dory was excellent as were the squid and octopus. The large prawns were ok but the small school type prawns weren't to everyone's taste. Interestingly, the sardines were cooked whole and hadn't been gutted. It seems that there was nothing abnormal about this but they weren't as enjoyable as the might have been. No one left hungry and very few were looking for dinner that night.

Essaouira is known for its silversmiths. There are more jewellery shops than any town would reasonably need. Again we didn't miss out although we apparently didn't find all that we might have been looking for.

The Gnaoua Music du Monde (World Music Festival) started while we were in town. This 4 day festival is held annually to provide a platform for collaboration and sharing of music by the Gnaoua artists and a variety of jazz and other world music artists. Some of the impetus for the festival comes from the movement through this area of slaves from further south, around Guinea, who were brought through here on their way
Sardines for saleSardines for saleSardines for sale

All you have to do is put them on the heat - no preparation needed!
for distribution to the various countries that took slaves not that long ago. The captives developed their own musical style as they moved through the desert and the countryside.

The Festival started with a parade through the main street of the medina. Some of us watched most of it from the comfort of the roof top of the Riad Naklas – our accommodation which was just a little off the main street of the medina – but after a while we decided to get a closer look. The parade was a series of groups representing the tribes and groups that make up Moroccan society. People were dressed in traditional clothes and many were wearing the shoes of celebration – which are apparently yellow. It was all noisy, confusing and fascinating up close. It also became something that was a little difficult to move out of as you were swept along the street. All good.

The main dancers were those who put on a show for people on a dais, obviously dignitaries. The dance wasn't all that complex. More of a rhythmic spectacle with each participant taking the lead in turn and executing the same steps and actions. Some
Fishing boatsFishing boatsFishing boats

and trawlers
of these people were apparently not Moroccans and were more the representatives of the countries from which slaves had come and from which some of the music would come.

There are claims that the festival attracts 500,000 people to Essaouira every year and we have no reason not to believe it although it is hard to see where they would all fit. There is no doubt that there were plenty of people much younger and much older than us with very decent sets of dreads, dressed as we might have dressed not all that long ago – possibly 40 or 50 years?

The Festival is just a little different to those we have attended. Some of the main stages were in large public areas. The smaller venues took entry fees but I would imagine that the major headline acts would be likely to perform on the main stage and thus be free. World music is easy to listen to. You can sit there and just zone out and enjoy yourself. A great way to spend time. There were plenty of people offering substances that would assist you in zoning out should you wish to avail yourself. We didn't

A local tourist attraction near Essaouira
and remained standing.

During the afternoon up on the roof of the Riad, some of the group became concerned about carrying bottles of wine from Val d'Argan around – the extra weight is a nuisance – so we decided that it might be best to deal with it. It was an enjoyable few hours. There were a number of bottles and a somewhat smaller number of people.

We could hear that the public stage of the Festival was underway so we headed off there to see how it was going and I am pleased to report that it was going well. The music wasn't completely to my taste. I am not so much into jazz and this was either jazz or jazz-based. I had hoped it might move into blues or perhaps some reggae but that didn't happen while we were there. There were some acts on the program that looked like they might move into other genres but we had to leave in the morning. Pity that.

As happens, when you are standing around at night listening to music in a large crowd you can develop a thirst and, the wine having being dealt with, we

If you need a book in English (or French or Arabic) or a postage stamp, try this shop - very helpful
decided that we would check and see if there might be a place about that could satisfy. There was one immediately above us in a large terrace restaurant/bar but it turned out that there was a private party on there for most of the night. Someone had heard that there could be a place near the beach so moved off in that direction. Nothing doing there. Then we remembered a place near the jewellery store that we had been in earlier. There is sometimes a silver lining to shopping expeditions!

The bar we found was different and yet the same as most other such bars. One of our number had become hungry and had purchased a couple of cobs of corn from a street seller. She is Canadian and likes corn. The bouncers wouldn't let her in with the by then half-eaten corn cobs. She handed them over after a discussion in which she had clearly expressed her need for food. We entered the bar.

Late at night the drinks will often cost more and this was so for Morocco. Two of us ordered a Havana Club dark rum on the rocks. When the drink arrived some time
Decisions decisionsDecisions decisionsDecisions decisions

At the silver shop
later the rocks were there but the drink sloshing around them wasn't dark rum. It might have been rum but I am not totally convinced. When this was pointed out to the waiter, he raced off and returned with a bottle of cola. No problem – add that and you have dark rum! Drinkable though not really that enjoyable.

We did better than some others though. A couple of people had a planters punch which they did not recognise. The Canadian ordered a cocktail with a mint base. They may have run out of crème de menthe, as they appeared to have with Havana Club Dark Rum, but in this drink I suspect that they substituted mouthwash. Not really drinkable at all. But one of the bouncers came in and handed back the half eaten corn cob that she had been handed over earlier, so all was not lost.

Other people were having a good time at the bar. The live band was good until the female vocalist started but were again good when she stopped. A group of possibly visiting ladies out for a good time were enjoying themselves on the dance floor and there were a
Have stove, will cookHave stove, will cookHave stove, will cook

This man will cook what you bring in and you can eat it at one of his tables
few local lads providing assistance where they could. And there was a family there, complete with small children. They left after a while and so did we.

We left Essaouira on a public bus bound for Marrakesh the next morning. A nice, quiet, easy morning.

Additional photos below
Photos: 24, Displayed: 24


Stone villageStone village
Stone village

east of Essaouira
Winery tour activitiesWinery tour activities
Winery tour activities

Smelling, sipping, quaffing
New vines (with white posts)New vines (with white posts)
New vines (with white posts)

at Val d'Argan. None of the olive grove was removed and the vines were planted in spaces.
Argan oil first stepArgan oil first step
Argan oil first step

Women cracking the argan nuts, using stone on stone
Ganoua Parade againGanoua Parade again
Ganoua Parade again

"Mogador" is an old name for Essaouira and is used a lot, especially in signs and other marketing
And finally againAnd finally again
And finally again

Could come up with a caption or two for the two onlookers in the foreground, though.
Roadhouse gardenRoadhouse garden
Roadhouse garden

On road between Marrakesh and the Essaouira turnoff
Big teapotBig teapot
Big teapot

Outside another roadhouse. Not mentioned it in the posts yet but the Moroccan version if mint tea - green tea with fresh mint leaves added after the tea is made - with reduced/no sugar, can get addictive, even for people who don't like the peppermint tea we get in the West .

3rd June 2016
Gnaoua Parade 1

Essaouira surprises
How lucky that you were there for a music festival--love those traditional outfits. Congrats on finding wine--the riad rooftop party sounds perfect! I was unfortunately bone dry my four months in Morocco. Really, how much mint tea can one drink?
12th June 2016
Gnaoua Parade 1

Yes, we were lucky
Though we've had that sort of luck a number of times and now believe there is just a lot more going on in the world than we had ever appreciated before. The audience at the festival was just as interesting as the acts, especially the exuberance of the young fellas hurling each other into the air in between their twirls and leaps.
4th June 2016
Big teapot

Mint Tea?
Wouldn't want to go under a bridge would it? Wouldn't want to blow the lid off the kettle so to speak!
12th June 2016
Big teapot

Magic teapot?
We've seen lots of 'big' things but this is the first 'big teapot'. Not that any place in Moroccoa would need to advertise they have mint tea, we would have thought.
8th June 2016

A quiet drop of wine from time to time
Wine is a growing industry. Loved our time in Essaouaira....thanks for those memories.Loved all the seafood. Loved all the argon oils and brought a stash back with us. We would have loved the music festival today.

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