8 Enriching Enticements To Visit Essaouira
Morocco is like a tagine, its national dish. It is hot, spicy, colourful, delightful and bursting with flavour. It is a carnival of colours and senses overload buzzing with vibrant tribal culture. Its stunning arid landscape is dramatic from the dunes of the Sahara to lofty snow-covered mountains of the Altas sweeping down into deep valleys of paprika red. The Berbers are the dominant tribes of the region and they have their own language distinct from Arabic. This ancient tribe was once warriors known as the Moors who conquered Spain and Portugal.
Such wondrous beauty lends itself to be one of the favourite film locations in the movie industry including some episodes of Games of Thrones, which was filmed in Essaouira, a hidden gem tucked away along the Atlantic coast in western Morocco.
Essaouira – UNESCO World Heritage Site
Essaouira is an ancient citadel town and was the first seaport of Morocco. Its natural bay made it an excellent harbour and it became an important port during the reign of Sultan Mohammed III (1757 – 1790). He commissioned the French military architect Theodore Cornut to design a fortress known as the Skala de la Kasbah to defend against the various marauding foreign powers. Today the seafront rampart and fortress stood the march of time with remnants of war of 19 bronze cannons of Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch now redundant but added to the sense of historic importance to the town which is a UNESCO World Heritage listed site.
Essoauria – The Fishing Port
It is also a thriving fishing port. Rows of indigo-blue fishing boats were berthed by the fortress. The harbour scene was a hive of activities. Fishermen busy gutting the fish were harassed by hundreds of seagulls squawking and circling over them reminiscent of the Alfred Hitchcock’s horror film, “Birds”. The locals were out in full force on market day to haggle with the fishermen while restaurants by the harbour touted for business from passing tourists.
Essaouria – Medina Marvel
Essaouira is ensconced inside an ancient medina trapped in a time warp where life goes on like it did centuries ago. Many inhabitants still wear traditional costumes as their daily attire while donkeys and wooden wheelbarrows are used to transport goods. The town is a maze of narrow streets lined with shops selling arts and crafts, fabulous colourful fabrics for wall hangings, bedspread and throws. The aroma of spices and the fragrance from perfumes and blocks of scented amber and lavender permeate the air.
Argan oil products were the most common commodities on sale here where elderly ladies sat outside the shops grinding argan nuts on mini millstone to extract the oil as a tourist attraction to lure them into the shops. We were amused by the variety of so-called Viagra herbs to boost virility for men and women including ones labelled “Viagra Turbo For Women” and “Viagra Express For Men”.
Essaouria – Savour The Souk
Traditional markets known as souks are in every city in Morocco. The souk here was a shoppers’ paradise and we were like children in a candy store mesmerised by the Aladdin cave of weird and wonderful things. Despite initial resistance, we succumbed to temptation and came away with gorgeous weaved fabrics, tagine spices, mini- tagine pots, fridge magnets in the shape of Moroccan babouche slippers and delicious local sweet treats. There were some seriously skilled artisans and artists whose works were truly amazing. If not for the restriction of luggage allowance, I would be tempted to buy some of their works.
Essaouria – Market Mayhem
In the cool of the early evening, market traders were out in full force to begin their trade. It was a great time to mingle with the locals and savour the bustling atmosphere. We strolled through the local food markets where carts laden with fruits and vegetables thronged the streets. Preserved olives and spices beautifully arranged in conical shapes were displayed on counters. Housewives were out in droves haggling with the vendors while a few men in sinister-looking hooded robes stood in street corner flogging cigarettes. Smoky stalls selling crispy pancakes, freshly baked round bread and grilled kebabs wheted our appetite. Sweet treats and dried fruits of all shapes and colours were very tempting.
Essaouria – Tree-Climbing Goats
This region is famous for its tree-climbing goats. Yes, you heard me! Goats are not really built to climb trees but this special breed of goats can shin up the argan trees as nimble as cats albeit not so graceful. We visited an argan plantation where a friendly shepherd kindly allowed us to marvel at the skill of the goats to climb the argan trees.
The argan trees are indigenous to this part of southwest Morocco, which is the centre of argan oil production of the country. The kernels of the argan nuts produce valuable oil for cooking, beauty products, shampoo and other uses. The goats have evolved into skilled tree climbers to eat the young leaves and the argan nuts, which they passed through their system intact and are harvested by farmers for processing. When ripened the nuts also fall to the ground where they are gathered. I have seen many amazing things in my travel but goats climbing trees really top them all.
Relax And Rejuvenate At Rebali Riads
For me, the main ingredients of a great holiday are the accommodation, service and food, aside from the destination; and Rebali Riads fit the bill. We were delighted with our gorgeous villa with spacious open plan kitchen and living room with a fireplace and a private pool in the garden. The décor of the villa is Moroccan chic with a modern touch. Beautiful Moroccan lamps, mirrors and artefacts adorn the rooms. The rose petal-strewn beds in the stylish bedrooms with swans crafted from bath towels were dreamy and restful.
The service was par excellence with helpful and friendly staff helmed by the brilliant resort manager Mohamed who could arrange everything for us to make our stay more enjoyable. And there was a great chef to boot who could really cooked up a storm. The day of our arrival, we touched down on Marrakech late evening and travelled through the night to our resort in the village of Sidi Kaouki. After three hours’ drive we arrived at our destination famished and tired but was cheered up by a warm welcome by Mohamed and a hot meal of chicken tagine and fresh bread was waiting for us. That’s the hallmark of a great and thoughtful service. For dinner the next day, the chef cooked us a feast of delicious lamb tagine infused with the flavour of authentic Berber cuisine. It was a hat trick for breakfast when she made yummy tagine omelette for us served in a sizzling tagine pot with conical cover.
The beach was a stone’s throw away where drool-laden Dromedary camels and their handlers waited for tourists to hire them for camel ride along the sand. The powerful trade wind makes this area the perfect place for kite and wind windsurfing.
Lunch With The Berbers
You cannot go to Morocco and not experience a proper Berber hospitality. Hussain the pool boy at Rebali Riads took us to his village a short drive away to have lunch prepared by his mother. The whole family and neighbours were out in full force to welcome us and greeted us like old friends. Their warmth and friendliness really touched us as they made us feel at home ushering us to their small dining room to have lunch. Hussain’s mother, a remarkable and maternal woman, cooked an amazing chicken tagine for us served with freshly baked bread followed by Berber biscuits as dessert baked by her own fair hands.
The tagine was set in the middle of the table for us to share and the Berber custom was to eat with your fingers straight from the tagine without any plates or cutlery. It was a treasured moment for us to have this precious experience with truly wonderful people. We spent a lovely afternoon with them taking their photographs and having giggles with them even though we could not speak a word of their language. We bade them fond farewell with hugs like we have known them for ages. In fact all the Moroccans we met on our journey were very friendly, helpful and had a keen sense of humour.
The next day, we left our fabulous villa and the lovely staff at Rebali Riads with a heavy heart to go to the Atlas Mountains and Marrakech for our next adventure in Morocco. Watch this space.
The second Blog Post on this trip to Morocco is Make Marrakech and High Atlas Mountain Your Next Adventure