More mountains and local life

Published: July 28th 2017
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Geo: 31.5093, -9.76345

I woke this morning to the strangled retching of Stacey hurling into the toilet. It seems that the tagine we are last night had not agreed with her, and she was feeling decidedly rotten. She managed to make it back to bed, where we both lay and tried to sleep. However, nature outside our window had a different idea indeed. Small birds, whose morning call sounded like squeaking shopping trolley wheels sang repeatedly, rousing us from our rest. The peacocks belonging to the riad called out to one another, their mating calls jarring with the bird calls, creating a cacophony of sound.

We made our way to the breakfast terrace and were met with relative tranquility and a continental feast - croissants, pain au chocolate, baguettes and preserves were laid out on Moroccan ceramics. Stacey sipped tentatively on a mint tea, enjoying the coolness of the shade. As we were enjoying breakfast, there was a flurry of air as a huge shadow launched itself from the tree adjacent to the breakfast table, and grazed the side of my shoulder. The huge peacock landed, glaring at me as though I had pushed it from its perch, ruffled its long tail feathers and strutted away into the shade of the orchard. As we wandered back to the room, we were greeted by 3 peahens picking fussily at the ground. With them, shimmering and swaying was the alpha male - his tail spread out in a vibrant display of purples, blues and emeralds. As we watched, he began to twitch his tail feathers like a drum roll, the trill of the quills clattering against one another, his downy undersides shaking to entice the females. As they repeatedly turned away from him, he angled his body around displaying his finery from every available viewpoint. They took no notice and we eventually left him, fruitlessly touting his performance to his disinterested audience.

We packed up, Stacey dosed up on medication and rehydration sachets, and left the stunning surroundings for another long day of travel. Our first stop, 40 kilometres away from our accommodation was the walled town of Taroudannt. Known locally as Little Marrakech, it's crenelated walls have stood the test of time. The town was a stronghold during the invasion of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century - its superb defences a huge contributing factor in the failure of the Ottomans to take Morocco. We stopped in a lay by and unfolded ourselves onto the pavement, the huge fortress walls rising above us. Their sandy faces were punched regularly by huge holes - this is where the scaffolding poles would have been placed. Once the wall had been completed, the poles were removed leaving deep ventilation holes to allow air through to the city beyond.

We climbed back aboard for yet another long drive, which continued to take us on a stunning journey through the ever-changing landscape of Morocco. This time, it was green mountains, the goats still nibbling on the argan nuts high in the branches of the trees, locals still going about their business. We drove past mules, ridden by children, teenagers, men and women, their panniers loaded up with firewood and farm produce. It was real life that we were witnessing, the day to day passing of time in small villages, still not touched by time or technology, and in many ways, so much better for it. The locals seemed unhurried and jovial, a stark contrast to the heaving streets of cities in the developed world - people rushing about their lives with their heads down, sporting frowns and stress lines, yet supposedly so much better off.

We soon found ourselves near the coastal city of Agadir, destroyed in the 1960s by a devastating earthquake, the majority of the city is now new: wide roads, modern, white washed buildings and huge out of town hypermarkets. We stopped at one of these to buy our makeshift lunch, ready for a picnic on the beach. The hypermarket was incredibly continental in its design, with small shops and boutiques clustered around the supermarket itself, selling everything from large appliances to apples. We found a ceramic section, selling beautiful decorated pottery, just like the pottery we had seen in the village two days before, for a fraction of the price and so weighed ourselves down with even more souvenirs to brighten up our home!

Lunch purchased, and Stacey still ill, we crawled through the traffic in the town, luxury five star hotels lining the wide streets, their balconies and facades mirroring those of Andalucia, a short journey away across the sea. By this point, a thick mist had formed, hanging over the coast like a blanket, distorting our view of the crashing waves. The Atlantic Ocean, we were informed, has this effect in this area of Morocco, and it can hang around for days. In all honesty, the cool sea breeze coupled with the damp spikes of the air were a welcome relief from the heat of the days we had experienced recently, and so we found a spot to enjoy our lunch.

It was not the most scenic or appealing of places we have eaten on our tour, but it was certainly a new environment for us. The coastline of Agadir, battered by the wild Atlantic, has become a Mecca for tourists, and a huge new development is taking shape there - with spas, hotels and a golf course. We found ourselves criss crossing a building site to get to a rocky outcrop overlooking the golden sand below. Even in these relatively cool temperatures, people were out in the beach in swimwear, diving into the crashing waves. A huge party of surfers were perched on their boards, trying to catch the perfect swell, riding precariously atop the white foam as it galloped towards the shore.

We sat and enjoyed the spectacle for a while, before boarding the bus again and winding back up into the high Atlas Mountains. The range is at its lowest towards this end of the country and so it made sense for us to try and transverse them here, rather than heading up for the high ground again. Due to the lower height of the mountains here, the snow of our earlier visit was replaced by steep, green slopes that cascaded down into the valley, argan trees covering their sides.

We stopped off in the midst of an argan orchard, the trees bunched together as far as we could see. Nestled in this surroundings was a small argan oil producer, where we were shown how the oil is extracted from the nut. Five ladies, dressed in the traditional coloured robes, sat on the floor, carrying out what looked like back breaking work. The argan nut is surrounded by a thick, green, fleshy pulp, which contains a kernel inside. They used two small rocks, pressing the two together like an anvil and hammer, cracking the nut until the exterior pulp came away from its silky lining. This pulp shell was taken to be fed to the goats (presumably as some form of bargaining tool to prevent them from stealing the produce!). The remaining kernel and its soft shell was then passed on to the next worker, also sitting in front of a large rock. This harder shell was then broken off and the remaining kernel was passed onto another worker, who sorted them out to be dried.

Once dried, the kernels were pushed into a large stone mill, turned by hand, which ground the nuts into a fine paste. During this process, oil seeped from between the millstones and into a large container. This was the pure pressed oil. The remaining pulp was moulded together with water to create a paste, used in the manufacture of cosmetics. Argan oil is reputedly an excellent masque for hair, skin and nails, but I did not know that it could also be used for cooking and eating. We were given three samples to try - pure oil which had a delicate nutty flavour, oil and honey (which disappointingly tasted like honey) and mixed with a chocolate paste which was a more rustic version of Nutella, and very delicious indeed.

From here, we descended the winding mountain road and passed by the wide sandy beach of our next destination, Essaouira. Despite the fog, the beach looked inviting and was backed by a huge exotic looking kasbah, the entrance to the old town. No traffic is allowed through the walls, except for emergency vehicles, so we hired a local with a handcart, who loaded in bags in and guided us through the vast city gates to our riad. The town was beautiful - the whitewashed brickwork concealed tiny shops and in ting restaurants, the streets winding around the edges of the city, alleyways inviting you to become lost in their mazes.

We reached our riad, three traditional houses that have been renovated into one hotel and were shown through the charming corridors to our room - a simple, narrow room decorated in traditional style with wooden shutters leading directly out into the balconies overlooking the interior courtyards. It wasn't the Ritz, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was cool, comfortable, and most of all, it had a end, in which Stacey could lie and get some rest. We spent the rest of the evening, catching up with civilisation and resting ready for a full day exploring this inviting city tomorrow.


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