When I booked a tour to Essaouira in Morocco, I’m ashamed to say that I actually knew nothing about it or if there was anything special. Well, let me tell you there certainly is lots to see there.
Morocco is my 47th country, but actually my first country in Africa! After a long adventure flying into Rabat and getting a bus down to Marrakech, I was ready to start my first tour with the Trablin International Summit. Well, maybe I wasn’t fully ready since I didn’t get to bed until after 5 a.m. and the tour guide was at the hostel at 8 a.m. to pick me up. Luckily it was a three-hour ride to Essaouira and I was able to nap a bit on the bus.
The Road to Essaouira
When I say a bit, I mean a very wee bit. It’s hard to sleep when you’re experiencing a new country (and continent) for the first time, taking in the landscape and different architecture. Our first stop was about an hour outside of Marrakech. It was a roadside cafe where we could get some food and coffee, since most of us hadn’t had breakfast, and use the toilet. I went with a fresh-pressed orange juice and some bread and butter. Not much of a meal, but I was still too groggy to really eat anything.
An hour later, I awoke to the sound of other bloggers exclaiming in surprise at something on the side of the road. I quickly found what the excitement was about. On the side of the road was a large argan tree full of goats. Yep, the Argan tree is a staple of the Moroccan goat’s diet. They spent several hours of their day up in the trees eating the fruit and Argan nuts. I honestly thought the goatherders lifted the goats into the tree. Nope, they climb up themselves. However, the goatherders are there to collect money for your photographs, so bring some change with you. 10-20 Moroccan dirhams ($1-2) is acceptable. They’ll also try to put a baby goat in your arms, which I thought was adorable, but they’ll want more money for that.
Our last stop on the road to Essaouira was an argan oil facility. As we entered, there was a row of elderly women working at cracking open the Argan shells and grinding the nuts using hand-operated grinders. There are now processing plants with machinery doing this work, but you’ll still see these ladies all over the country operating their grinders. After some photos of the ladies, we were given a tour of the facility and all the different products they create from the Argan tree. Not only do they get the oil (both cooking and cosmetic), argan paste (think peanut butter) and fuel lumps from the nuts, they also harvest argan honey from the flowers. I would have loved to get some of the cosmetic oil or soaps, but my budget is tight and my baggage even tighter.
The History of Essaouira
Essaouira is a town on the Moroccan coast about two and a half hours west from Marrakech, and four and a half hours southwest of Casablanca. With a population of just under 80,000, it’s a beautiful town to visit. Unlike Marrakech, it’s mostly unaffected by mass tourism, or so it seemed on my trip in November.
The origin of Essaouira dates back into prehistoric times. Carthaginian traders set up a market there in the 6th century BC. It’s been controlled by several countries and empires over the years, including the Romans, Portuguese and French. The Jewish community was also very large in Essaouira, at one point comprising 40% of the total population.
The name Essaouira refers to the fortress wall surrounding the town, which is the town’s most prominent feature. A Medina is the walled Old Town in a North African city, but Essaouira has long since outgrown its Medina and now there’s a large new town spreading inland from the coast. It’s definitely the Medina where you’ll want to explore.
Exploring the Essaouira Medina
Our tour arrived at the edge of Essaouira’s Medina a little after noon. Expecting our tour to be an actual tour, we were all a little surprised when the driver had us get off the van and told us he would meet us back at the van at 5 p.m. It seems the tour only includes transportation, and the rest of the exploration was up to us. I was more than happy with that, turning town the locals who offered to give us a private tour of the town for $10 per person.
Our first spectacle was a large demonstration or protest that was going on in the main square. I asked a few of the cops and military men in the square what was happening, but their English wasn’t good and all I gathered was that it was some kind of peaceful protest regarding human rights. It was mostly in French, so we soon moved on and started to explore the souks.
A souk, for those who don’t know, is an Arabian market, similar to a bazaar. Unlike the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul which is a sprawling complex of shops within one venue, the souks in Morocco are endless alleyways filled shops and stands selling everything imaginable. Clothes, spices and artwork were most prominent. I was particularly impressed by the artwork and different sculptures, many of which were made from recycled motorcycle and bicycle chains.
We were all pretty hungry, and it wasn’t long before I led the group down a side alley in search of a local place to eat. We found one quickly. It wasn’t particularly clean and stray cats were everywhere (one jumped onto the lap of a fellow blogger) but the food was cheap and the place was full of locals, which is always a good sign for authentic cuisine. As this was my first real meal in Morocco, I went for one of my favorites – lamb couscous. There wasn’t as much lamb as I would have liked, but the food was delicious. More than once, I’d eaten at a Moroccan restaurant in Portland, Oregon. Ever since, I’ve dreamed of having the real stuff in Morocco. The restaurant in Portland had been really good, but our hole-in-the-wall cafe in Essaouira was better.
From there, we went our separate ways to explore the town. I branched off toward the new town to see the difference. It was startling! Ancient narrow alleys and buildings gave way to modern streets and architecture. It didn’t appeal to me, so I looped back toward the harbor and fortress walls.
The harbor is full of beautiful blue fishing boats. Larger vessels have been hauled out of the water and are displayed like museum pieces. Beneath the vessels are fishermen selling fresh fish and eels from their (hopefully) day’s catch. I followed the harbor around to the end of the breakwater and then jumped over the wall to where the water was crashing against the rocks, sending huge waves over the wall. There are several small islands a little way out to sea, protecting the harbor from the even rougher surf. On one of the islands was an (assumingly) ancient fortress. I was starting to wish I had a guide to actually tell me what I was looking at, how old things were and what to see next.
With little more than an hour left to explore, I went back into the Medina, intending to get as deep as I could. Within a few minutes, I ran into Luis, the official photographer of the Trablin event. We’d worked with each other at the Iceland conference, and he knew I was quite adept for finding good photo locations. As we continued to explore, the streets got less busy and the shops were fewer and more unique. One was an art workshop with an awesome sign created from different tools within the shop. Luis found a tailor that would make him custom suits for $20. And I found an alley beautifully decorated with blue paint, similar to the blue-painted town of Chefchaouen. I’ll have to get out to that place someday for sure!
Toward the back of the town, we found a hotel with a rooftop terrace. I walked right in, said hello to the desk clerk and climbed the stairs up to the terrace. From there, we had a great view of the town and the surrounding sea. We couldn’t actually see down into the narrow streets, but we got an idea of how the town was laid out, and we were transfixed by the waves breaking against the little islets.
From there, we found the far point of the wall where a fortification was built out toward the sea. We walked along the ramparts, getting photos of the dozens of cannons lining the wall. It was a beautiful, warm day and we were starting to lose track of time. By the time we had taken our fill of photos, it was nearly 5 p.m. and we had to hustle back to the van.
Booking with Time Out Marrakech Tours
Our tour (or rather transportation) was provided by Time Out Marrakech Tours. Tickets are $33 per person, which doesn’t include anything but the transport. Unless you eat at a fancy restaurant, pay for a guide and buy a bunch of souvenirs, you can get by on about $10 for the day. If you do want to get fancier, $30 will be more realistic.
Four and a half hours of exploration was enough, although I would have been just as happy spending a couple days there, sleeping at one of the gorgeous hotels. After all, this is where Orson Welles filmed his movie, Othello. Other greats like Winston Churchill and Jimi Hendrik also spent time walking through the alleys of Essaouira, taking in the fresh sea breeze and admiring the artwork and architecture of this ancient village. Oh, and this was also the filming location for Astapor in Game of Thrones! I didn’t actually realize that while I was there.
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