After Aroumd up in the mountains we had a long drive to Essaouira on the coast, the most relaxed of the big Moroccan towns we went to. Here we had a day and a half to just chill out and explore or try some activities.
We went out for a seafood BBQ the night we arrived which was fine though unspectacular – fresh, but they just cooked it on the BBQ whereas I was expecting something more like the Balinese seafood BBQs where they add a bunch of local flavor.
Our tour guide took us to a touristy bar where we had an overpriced mojito (well, it's an Arabic country where they don't drink, so whatever) and we wanted to try the apple-flavoured shisha; not at all horrible like cigarettes, but still didn't really do much for me, and I certainly wouldn't want to use it more since it's still very carcinogenic even though it may not taste as awful. So, interesting, but I'm glad they're not popular here, and I wouldn't recommend people try it more than once.
After the original musicians playing Morccan music finished a trio of Egyptians started, and I found their music a lot more likable, though they were still using that noisy clacker thing which doesn't really add a lot. The bar was a bit incongruously done – they had a laser and a mirror ball while guys are playing Middle-Eastern music!
The next day was really nice, the sun was shining (as always in Morocco!) but there was a nice sea breeze and the waves were sparkling, and we had a tour around the port town from a friendly guide who told us about the history of the place – quite unusual in Morocco, settled in ancient times largely on the strength of its well-sheltered harbour, at one point in ancient history a Cartegenian trading port, and for a long time more recently a successful Portugese trading port (having been contested by several European powers).
It was also very friendly to Jews for long periods, whose significant presence in the community can be seen in bits of decoration over gates and up on walls – nice to see them still intact as in many places around the world that sort of thing got destroyed in devastating pogroms.
Now there's a bit of fishing as there always has been, but it's not a huge centre for it like some of the other ports along the coast, and there's not a big commercial trading port there either. The fish is sold at a market by the sea around the corner from the port entrance, and one you buy it you go over to the guys on the seafront who're gutting it – the cats who got the guts seemed pretty happy about the setup! We did see a couple of hungry, unwell young cats but also a lot of healthy happy adults which was nice.
Aside from tourism-related stuff – not just selling stuff like in most towns, but renting surf gear and taking us for horse rides – people there also do a lot of the same business they've always done, most notably fine ‘thuya’ wood inlaying and making intricate carved object or cleverly-constructed furniture, and making silver jewelry and so on.
It was a nice place to shop and the shopkeepers were much less harassing us than in the cities like Fez which was really nice!
The whole place had a pretty relaxed feel, a bit more towards the western beach culture. It's been popular for beach tourists for decades, famously including every from Orson Welles to Jimi Hendrix. We had a nice lunch at an organic cafe the town guide had pointed out to us, and in the afternoon I just went for a big walk and looked around. I loved the decorative and colored doorways around the city, and it was good just randomly wandering through the streets to see what was there.
I spent most of the afternoon trying and failing to find a geocache – as I mentioned in a previous blog, the iphone really struggles to get a GPS fix when it gets no help from the cellphone network, and I burned an entire battery charge failing to get a fix. After a half-recharge I finally got a fix, and then went for a big walk down the beach, ending up near a river mouth. As dusk started to fall I spent over an hour scrambling around in a prickly bush failing to find the cache… oh well, interesting walk, not-so-interesting walk back to base in the dark.
Dinner was a deeply meh restaurant selected by our tour guide – overpriced and inexpertly cooked. Several people braved a dish that included a side we had a big “is this off?” discussion about – given that one of the people asking then spent the night barfing, and another was feeling a bit crook, maybe it was… Moroccan food – amazingly tasty when it's good, sometimes contaminated when it's not!
I think my sister Melissa is a bit bemused by this as she ate all the local food (and drunk the local water) everywhere in her couple of months in Morocco and never got sick – clearly I do not share her robust stomach.
Anyway, after the crap restaurant, we let our tour guide lead us to a bar (closed), then a bar (closed), then a bar (sleazy as). Had a drink and a good chat to my tour-mates and then walked Melissa back to the hotel, being not at all sad to leave as the inappropriate-for-Morocco-guess-they-must-be-hookers women started turning up in the bar, encircling equally sleazy guys. Not my idea of Morocco happily – not that bars are in the first place.
Aaanyway, the next morning was another good time, we had it free to do more activities and a few of us from the group went out for a short horse trek along the beach. It was the first time I'd ridden a horse and it seemed fun. Not as comfortable as a camel, but you feel more secure as you have stirrups and are moving from side to side less.
However, the bouncing from trotting is pretty hard on the male vitals, if you don't sorta half-lift yourself up which isn't very comfy, so I'm thinking moving from walk up to canter as quickly as possible would probably be best :).
It was a bit disconcerting that the horses were trained to follow the lead guy and not what we were telling them to do – think it would be better to have a normally-trained horse where they follow your signals.
I was also thankful Romany from our tour group gave me a great two-sentence tutorial on how to ride a horse as the guys didn't give any instructions – knowing how to make the most of stirrups helps.
The ride along the beach went past the postcard-like ruined castle in the sand, an ancient Portuguese fortification that's very much crumbled and eroded in the sea.
(BTW this is popularly thought to be what inspired Jimi Hendrix's song, but although he did stay down the beach from Essaouira regularly, he first went there two years after publishing the song, so although it's possible he'd heard of it, he certainly hadn't seen it himself when he wrote the song.)
Melissa and had a great meal at a French-run restaurant – beetroot and goat cheese tart for me, great to get something different again. Good food in Essaouira, if you hunt it out.
So that was Essaouira – nice couple of days there, and just Marrakesh left to go before the tour wound up!