Sunday, January 1, 2012

Beauty by the sea. Essaouira.

Happy 2012! It may be a holiday back home but there is no rest for us here. Today we made a day trip from Marrakesh to the seaside town of Essaouira!

The plan was to leave the riad at 6:45am in the morning and catch a taxi to the place where we would meet up with the rest of the tour group. Yesterday, Soon and I had walked the path up to where Hassan told us we could find taxis waiting.

As the four of us walked out the door, it was barely daylight. I just hoped it wasn't too early for taxis to be at the wait.


A short walk later, we arrived into the parking lot area in front of the post office. Seemingly out of nowhere, a man clothed in djellaba approached me and simply asked, "Taxi?". I replied, "Oui" and handed him our tour voucher on which Hassan had written the name and location of our meeting place in Arabic. In French I asked him, "Combien dirhams pour quatre personnes?" (How many dirhams for four people?) He replied, "Cent dirhams." (Hundred dirhams which comes up to a bit more than $2 per person). I relayed that information to my travel mates and they agreed it was okay. As far as I was concerned, better to have a cab in hand than none so I would taken it and offered to pay for it even if they had said no.  He pointed us to his car which was actually a Petit taxi but since we didn't have any luggage, there was no problem squeezing in.  Memories of our road trip through the desert; Mildred in the front seat so she could stretch out our leg and me and the two guys squashed in the back.  Lucky, it was just a short ride.

The medina was pretty empty so our taxi driver was able to whizz through the streets and out one of the Babs.  We were headed towards Gueliz.   I kept my eyes out for a sign with the name Holiday Services on it.  That was the name of the local travel agency that would be touring with.  As the driver took a left turn off the main road, I began to wonder where the heck we were going.  Soon spotted the sign Holiday Services; he recognized the logo from the website.  The driver did a U-turn and deposited us a short distance away from the meeting.  Not sure why but I got out the taxi and paid him.  We had arrived barely 10 minutes after we had gotten into the cab. Better to be early than to have missed the trip!

We entered into the office of Holiday Services and a man greeted us.  We asked if were at the right place for the tour to Essaouira and he confirmed that we were.  I handed him our voucher so he knew we were legitimate passengers.  He introduced himself as Najib and we told him our names though I was certain he would not remember any of them except for mine because it was printed on the voucher.

Since we had arrived so early, we had to wait for the other passengers to arrive so we took seats in the waiting area.  It was cold inside the office so I decided to walk around and check out the marketing material posted up on the walls instead of just sitting down.  Eventually, I sat.

A short while later, a young Japanese couple arrived and then shortly after them, two young women from (I'm guessing) Italy. The two girls were a loud pair and Najib is a chatty one too. I'm not good with noisy early in the morning. Around 7:30-ish, other people started to arrive and Najib got us going.

We followed him around the corner to an awaiting tour bus....the large kind that holds at least 50 people. Looking around, there were barely 10 of us.


"To Essaouira! " We boarded the bus and it was cold inside. Brrr.....!! I think they had literally driven the bus out of its overnight parking spot and the heat had yet worked it's way through the interior.

Once the headcount was done, the driver pulled off. We made our way through the early morning traffic of Marrakesh. We had barely gotten on the road when Najib picked up the microphone and did the tap, tap, tap on top to make sure the sound was on. It was. He then began to launch into his explanations of this, that and the other. He never stopped talking....not even for a second....not even to take a breath. He just kept talking and talking and talking. It wouldn't have been so bad if he was actually saying something meaningful but it was just a lot of useless information.  Blah, blah, blah. The man needs to stop talking!!

He also kept saying the name of the town as "Ess-suuuh-weee-uh", painfully dragging out the four syllables like we wouldn't get the name if he said it faster.  Oy!

I was quickly getting annoyed so lucky for Najib we arrived into a roadside restaurant where we could use the facilities, get something to eat and stretch our legs.  Some of the folks in group actually sat down for a quick breakfast.  I wasn't hungry and so I decided to just walk around and soak in the heat of the sun.  Our break turned out to be longer than I had expected.  The good thing was that by the time we got back on the bus, it was toasty warm.

"Goats in trees? " Najib got back on the microphone and I dreaded the blah, blah, blah that I was expecting to fill the air.  Unexpectedly though, he did convey an interesting tidbit of information that caught my attention.  The region we were passing through was a UNESCO World Heritage site area that was established to protect about 2,560,000 hectares of endangered argan trees.  The nut of the argan tree (argania spinosa) is the source of the argan oil that Morocco is world famous for.

There was so much I wanted to write about the goats that we saw grazing in the trees and our visit to an argan oil cooperative, that is entirely owned and run by women, that I did a separate blog posting so click here to read.


"First views " After our brief visit to the argan oil cooperative, it was back on the road towards Essaouira.  Our next stop was at an overlook where we got a view of the ocean and our first glimpse of Essaouira.....which from the distance we were at, I could barely make out.  Wish I had brought along my binoculars; second best was my zoom lens :-)





According to Najib, Essaouira was the teeny, weeny, cluster of white buildings in the center of my view. 








"The sea at last " The road wound its way down towards the sea and it wasn't long before we driving alongside the beach.  It was so nice to see the waves!  But, since it's winter, there were no sunbathers out.  Just as well, no crowds to ruin the view :-)


The bus came to a stop and we got out.  The road ahead was about to come to a dead end or at least that's what it looked like.  Made sense to deposit us here.

As we waited for everyone to get off,  I caught a quick view of the beach.....it looked like it was low tide.


"The Port" We followed the road and it didn't end as I had thought.  Instead, it curved to the right and opened onto a small parking lot for the town's port.   Brightly colored blue wooden fishing boats, nets and other fishing related paraphernalia were laid here, there and everywhere.


The port area was shaped like a peninsula, jutting out into the water.   Larger boats, in various stages of construction, stood on one side.  It was cool to see the wooden skeleton of what would soon become a sailing vessel.  Someday, I would love to watch a boat being built.

 
On on side was a small inlet filled with more fishing boats.  I'm loving the blue color of the boats; reminds me of Marjorelle Blue :-)







From the parking lot, we walked through the arched gateway that links the port to the town. The gateway was built in the late 18th century by Sultan Sidi Muhammed ibn Abdallah.








"The Medina " On the other side of the gateway was a broad promenade; the ocean was on our left and the town on our right.  The promenade ended in the small plaza that fronted the medina which was where Najib was leading us.


We stepped foot inside the medina and immediately made a left turn down the narrow alleyways that are so typical of the medina.   During the first part of our walk, we strolled alongside the tall stone wall that rings the medina.  Oh  man.  I thought Najib talked a lot on the bus.  He was definitely in his element walking us through the medina.  Not only did he talk our ears off but he seemed to know everyone in town, shaking hands and talking with just about everybody who crossed our path.











Stores and other commercial establishments were open but this was a pretty quiet medina.  Not once during my walk did anyone come out and try to sell me anything.  It made the walk all that much more enjoyable.














Our path eventually opened up and ended up in a small plaza that was part of the woodcarvers souk.






"The Ramparts " We walked up a set of steps that hugged the wall and that took us to the ramparts.  From there, we could see the row of canons that once defended the town from marauding pirates.  I love the ocean and it was nice to take in views of the waves crashing on the rocks, the sight and sound of the seagulls and a smell of saltwater.  The warm sun on my face just made it a perfect moment.


"The Mellah" From the ramparts, we turned back around and strolled through the Mellah. Unlike the one in Casablanca which was nothing memorable, the Mellah in Essaouira was actually pretty.....at least the buildings were.   The doors, in particular, caught my attention.  The bright colors against the brilliant white walls of the buildings was wonderful.  You can't help but smile.


"The Baker " While we were walking through the Mellah, we had a chance to stop at a local bread baker....not a shop but actually where the wood burning oven is.  We weren't allowed to take photos inside so I have nothing to post up.  The oven was actually located just below ground level so we had to walk a few steps down to enter in to a room that had shelves of dough at the ready to be baked.  The oven was a large wood burning one and the baker was busy loading dough in and taking baked loaves out.  Fresh bread for Moroccans is a must and in the medina, women will bring their dough to the town baker for baking because they don't have ovens at home.  I have a feeling though that even if a family did have an oven at home, they would still bring the dough to the baker to cook up because nothing beats the taste and texture of bread baked in a wood fired oven.

Back outside the baker's shop, I was stopped dead in my tracks.  There were two carts and a boy, on his bicycle, trying to pass each other.  Of course, no one was about to give way and so of course, no one was moving.  Najib, with the help of another men, eventually got everyone untangled and happily went on their way.  Once everyone in the group got their turn to watch the baker at work, we also went on our way.


Through the Mellah we continued walking.  At one point, Najib took us inside a hotel to look at its ceiling.   Nothing memorable.  I rather see the rustic buildings outside so I took a quick peek and went back outside.

"The Market " From the Mellah, we entered the local market.  It was a Sunday and a holiday so the place was p-a-c-k-e-d!!  I had to dodge people as I walked.







No one stopped to buy anything so we continued to walk and eventually ended up at the plaza where we started.  We basically had done a loop.








"Lunch! "
The next thing on our agenda was lunch and Najib led us on a short walk along the promenade that ran along the beach.   We passed by a small playground.  It was heartwarming to see families out and enjoying themselves.  It was a beautiful winter's day in Essaouira.



"The Seafood Stalls " We stopped outside a very nice looking establishment that was located right on the beach.  I checked the menu and it looked fine - mainly seafood which of course, would be what I would eat in this seaside town.  My only thing was that when Soon and I ran into Yoshie at Marjorelle Garden, she had told us that near the center of town are small food vendors where you can pick out the seafood you want and the vendor will cook it for you.

Before we went on our way, Najib told us where our meeting spot us. We had to be back by 4:30p which gave us nearly three hours to have lunch and doing a bit more exploring.

On the way to the plaza, we had walked passed the area where the stalls were all located.  I told Soon I was going to head back there to get my my lunch and that he could stay with Aaron and Mildred if he wanted but he chose to come along with me instead.  Yay!!  More food to go around!



"The Bounty " It was a short walk back to the stalls.  Yoshie had said that they had eaten at stall #5.  A quick glance across the stalls and it looked like the pretty much all offered the same thing.  We walked by the first place we came across.  We never made it pass the second stall though :-)   I mean, look at the bounty of seafood.  Everything was super fresh and not surprisingly since the boats that haul in the catches are maybe a few hundred feet away.


The man, who we later found out was the owner, put our selections in a rattan basket.  We had baby squid, shrimp, scampi, sardines, a small rockfish and a whole lobster in our basket.  Yes, we were definitely being greedy but I just couldn't help myself.  I always get excited that I get to eat seafood this fresh because it's such a rarity for me.




The *dining* room part of the stall had four picnic benches.  There was already a small group of European tourists sitting at one.  Soon and I plopped ourselves down at another and enjoyed the view.  We sipped on bottles of Coke as we waited for our food to arrive.  





"The Greedy Tourists " Our meal started with a small tomato salad.  The grilled seafood arrived next and we just dove in!  So fresh.  The baby squid was divine as were the shrimp.  The scampi was sweet meat but a bit difficult to get of the shell.


The sardines were disappointing in that they had just way, way too many bones that were as thin as thread.  Soon had one fish and gave up after that.   I did my best to go through the rest but quickly lost patience too.   The rockfish was so good but unfortunately, the grilled lobster that came next was out of this world so that got devoured in a handful of minutes.   By then, there was no room in the tummy left for fish so we ended up barely finishing half of it. We both agreed had we known how good the lobster would be, we would have skipped the sardines and fish and gotten a second one.

"Back to the Ramparts, the Gulls and Some Amazing Views!"








After lunch, we headed back to the ramparts at the Sqala du Port.









 On our left was the port and on our right, the town.







We even had a view of the beach area we had walked by.










 



Flocks of seagulls drifted with the wind over our heads.  










From the lower level ramparts, we took the stairs and headed up to the next level.










On the upper level, we had a much better view of the port, the ocean, the town and the seagulls.  It was a spectacularly beautiful day and I enjoyed my time on the ramparts watching the waves come to shore and gulls soaring above us.


Yes,  I enjoyed being with the gulls.

Can you pick the one that's NOT the seagull? :-)

"How much for that fish? " From the upper level, we also had a better view of the port and the activity of the fisherman.  I watched a small of group of them ogling over a catch that had just been brought in.


"Back to the Medina " After we walked the ramparts, we headed back towards the medina.  I noticed a restaurant with a terrace overlooking the Sqala.  I figured the view from there would be a good one and since we still had a bit of time to kill, we decided to go there.  We found the entrance to the restaurant and headed up the stairs to the terrace.   I ordered lattes for both of us and we sat and enjoyed the late afternoon sun. 


"Back to Marrakesh " With time to spare, we walked back to the restaurant and waited for the bus and everyone else to arrive back.   I heard Mildred's laugh before I saw her.  It was good to hear that she and Aaron had enjoyed their visit to Essaouira.  I think Najib took good care of them and they seemed to enjoy being in his company.






Najib must have been all talked out because on the way back, it was a quiet ride.  I put on my headphones and enjoyed some tunes as the countryside rolled by outside my window.







It was a short 3 hour ride back to Marrakesh and by the time we arrived back, it was night.  We each gave Najib his tip and went on our way.   The bus had deposited us on a main street and it looked like Avenue Mohamed V but in the dark it was hard to tell.  A quick question to a person standing nearby and we got confirmation that we were indeed on Avenue Mohamed V.  The guy pointed us in the direction of Djemma el Fna.  Two steps into our walk and Soon and I immediately recognized that we were at the Cyber Park.....just a short walk from the square which was good because Mildred was still nursing her injured ankle.

Back at the square, Aaron and Mildred headed back to the riad while Soon and I ventured off in search of food.  None of the restaurants ringing the square appealed to us so we took off down a side alley.  We had no idea what we were looking for and then we saw it and smelled it at the same time..... a sandwich counter selling grilled meat sandwiches.  Oh....I love a simple grilled meat sandwich.


"Dinner for Two Greedy Tourists " The small crowd of people standing and waiting for their sandwiches told us this was the place to be.  As usual, I had to do the ordering and buying.  After watching a couple of customers make their purchases, I was prepared to make ours and I was even prepared to order in my best, rudimentary French.  But the guy behind the counter spoke perfect English so I was spared :-) .   The counter was ridiculously high up so I had to strain to see the guy and he had to lean over the counter to see me.  I was determined to get our meal so I stood on my tippy toes and placed my order.


I held up two fingers to indicate the number of sandwiches and when the guy asked, "Piquanté (spicy)?", I replied, "yes".   It was then just a matter of waiting and because the place was so popular, it was quite a wait but no matter, by the size of the crowd gathered around the place, I was sure it would be worth the wait.  As I waited, I saw one guy get a sandwich with a fried egg in it....oh, that looked good and I thought if I could catch the guy's attention, I would have him add eggs to our order too but we never connected.

I never left the side of the counter so when our sandwich was ready, the guy just signaled to me with his eyes.  Each sandwich only cost 13 dirhams which is about $1.80!    I handed over the money and in return, I got a plastic with two sandwiches wrapped in paper.  They smelled deeelicious!  There was no place to sit down and eat the sandwiches so we had to go back to the riad.  Soon was determined that his sandwich would still be warm by the time we got back so we had to scoot.  It's amazing how fast that guy can walk when he wants to :-)  By now, we had been to and from the square and riad enough times that we knew our way.  Normally, it would have been at least a 15 minute walk; I think we made it back in about 10.  We sat in the dining room and dug into our sandwiches.  I was still stuffed from lunch so I was only able to down a few bites.  Soon didn't leave a crumb behind :-)

After dinner, it was the nightly duties of shower, laundry and blog.  Tomorrow is our last day in Marrakesh and I have a very full day in mind so I am hitting the sack early.  It was short visit to Essaouira but I enjoyed every minute spent there.  Oh....and the goats in the argan trees....a sight I will remember for years to come.

Good bye Essaouira, goodnight Marrakesh!