After our hike in the mountains, what better than a few lazy days by the coast.
by Slug on October 9, 2012
I guess that many travellers arrive in Marrakech for their journey to Essaouira. Our High Atlas hike was arranged by KE Adventure in the UK and was based around Marrakech. We fancied a few "chill" days after our hard work and they offered a 4 day extension trip to Essaouira for approximately £200 a person. Given that Morocco shouldn't be an expensive country, my personal challenge was to do it for cheaper. My beloved's additional challenge was to do the trip without hassle. Checking on a travel booking website, the hotel the tour company used was £46 a night for a room so I booked a similarly priced Riad more to my liking, which meant I had approximately £260 to cover the two way journey from Marrakech to Essaouira. The distance between the two cities is approximately 110 miles or 170 km so it is a fair way to travel. Unfortunately there are no trains between the two cities although the train company runs a rather handy "Western Style" coach/bus between the two places, which takes about 4 hours with a stop in the middle. This costs approximately £6 ($10) a person each way, and so is a very reasonable way to go. Or, it would be "reasonable" if you had a partner willing to take the coach. One little issue is that ideally you should book your tickets in advance and as the web site wasn't being very user friendly, that would have meant visiting the train station the afternoon before to get the tickets. OK, even I am a bit too old to spend my time messing around organising things. So, it had to be a taxi and I searched in vain for a reasonably priced taxi firm on the internet to be booked from the UK. Unfortunately the prices that were coming up on the internet were in excess of £90 each way meaning that I hardly beat the tour operators price overall. Tip to some enterprising soul: collate a network of local, cheap and good taxi firms across the world add a 10% premium to the prices, set up a website and you will be clover. Instead, I contacted the Riad we had booked in Essaouira and arranged two taxi trips with them. Price 65 Euros each way (or approximately £110 in total). Bingo, that meant I had saved £150 on the tour company price and booked something with similar door to door luxury; the result was that both my beloved and my wallet were happy bunnies. Our trip went very smoothly and I looked out of the window in anticipation as the guide books I had read advised that you could ask the guide to stop for photo opportunities enroute between the two cities. First, the sprawl of Marrakech seemed to go on for miles, with a lot of half finished new apartments, and space being converted to luxury golf hotels miles from the city centre. After that, we spotted a lot of very arid and poor farmland and then plantations of argon trees, before reaching another town with another load of those unfinished housing apartments. Perhaps we had been spoiled by the High Atlas but my finger didn't twitch once over the camera on/off switch. After a stop at a roadside cafe for a glass of refreshing Tango Orange, we drove on and just at the point where the taxi couldn't stop we suddenly spotted something worth taking a photo of; a herd of goats atop an Argon tree eating shoots and buds! On our way back, we hoped to see more of these nimble goats, but it wasn't to be. If you book a hotel in the Medina area of either Marrakech or Essaouira then be prepared for a final twist to your journey; your taxi driver will arrange for a porter and trailer to deliver your baggage to your hotel door. Believe you me in that heat and busy conditions it is well worth paying 10-20 Dirham (£1.50 maximum) for your porter to both carry your heavy luggage and to take you through the maze of streets to the front door of your Riad.
by Slug on October 7, 2012
Although Essaouira is quite a large Moroccan city of 70,000, the tourist part of town is really quite small and divided broadly into "Beach" and "Medina". We are fortunate in that in Morocco the French colonists tended to build their modern part of the city alongside the traditional medina and Kasbah parts, and many Moroccan cities now have both. I will cover the Medina elsewhere, but I have to say while the surfing is obviously an attraction in this windy Atlantic Coastal city the beach part of town is fairly nondescript. I particularly didn't like the unfinished look to the place with lumps of concrete sticking out on an abandoned strip of land between the beach, road and strip of restaurants. While there are some lively looking places to eat and drink, again it is a pretty undistinguished selection and the local Muslim sensibilities means that the town doesn't feel like it has a particularly stunning night life. Between the Medina and the Beach is the sea port and fort area which looks out to a rockier aspect and a couple of islands just off shore. The fishing area is a bustling place in particular, and while the place smelt of badly rotted fish (the strong sun doesn't do the catch any favours), it is a fascinating place to have a wander and watch the fishing boats and fish chefs at work (there are some open air booths where locals buy cooked fish). Obviously, the trick is to not get in the way of these busy hard working folks. From a distance the boats looked pretty, but as we got closer we could see that many of them were coming to the end of their useful life, and I appreciated what a risk these fisherman were taking going out into the rather boisterous and windy waters of the Atlantic. It was nice to see that despite their apparently hard life the fishermen had time to toss the local cats a fish or two from their catch.While we didn't spend too much time wandering down the beach, we did appreciate it was a long and wide stretch with plenty of sporty activities such as wind surfing, camel and quad bike riding and beach volleyball. There were also a full share of "surfer bums" wandering along the beach with skin like elephant hide, necks like tree trunks and hair of straw with grey highlights; many of them looked like they had been in town a couple of seasons too long. Still if you need an experienced hand to help teach you surfing then I don't doubt it is available.Although we found the narrow streets of the Medina much more to our liking, it was worth taking a different aspect (and a less hindered breeze off the sea) by strolling down to the beach area, and in particular taking time out to explore the fishing port.
The sea front of the Medina and port area of Essaouira is surrounded by European built fortifications built by the Portuguese in the early 1500s. While it didn't do the Portuguese many favours (they lost the city after only a few short years), the fortifications and Ramparts are still here (although heavily updated in the late 1700s) and lend a surreal air to the city surrounded by sand. It was said that Jimi Hendrix's Castle Made of Sand was inspired by his stay in the city, but alas he wrote the lyrics some two years before visiting Essaouira. The remains of the fort are very near the fishing port and costs 10 Dirham (approximately 70p ($1) to enter. To be fair of the fort there are only a few wide walls, a cannon or two and a tower to explore but you do get a great vantage point over the busy fishing port below you, and it is a good place to linger away from the crowds for an hour. There is a clean public toilet in the base of the tower which also rather adds to the attraction.You can also get onto the ramparts from the main Essaouria Medina from Rue La Skala; where there is opportunity to wander along the very thick wall separating Medina from seafront. Again there are cannons to sit on and a wonderful view across the rocky coastline and the near offshore islands of Iles Purpuraire where in Roman times they used to collect the shells of a sea snail to produce the purple dye used in the cloth of the Roman Emperor. I liked sitting here and at the old Fort reflecting that the imperial purple came from this place 2,000 years ago. Today the more popular places to visit are in rooms built into the wall beneath the Ramparts where some of the more upmarket stores of the Souk and Medina are located. It is worth wandering along the whole street at the shopping as many of the more independent and artsy painters, jewellers and craft makers in the city are based here.I liked the effect of emerging above the Medina into the bright sunlight and open space over the sea front so can recommend visiting both pieces of original Rampart during your visit.
Our Riad hosts recommended Cafe Bar Taros for its great views over the city, and while it was an obvious choice we weren't disappointed by our visits to the place. The bar is at the end of the Medina area between the sea and the beach area. The main attraction is the rooftop bar up three flights of stairs, where you enter into a very large Greek looking roof top bar (think bright blue and white). There are plenty of staff around and service was very good on the two occasions we visited. There is quite a choice of seating from tables in direct sunlight to recliners in shade, so take your time looking for that perfect spot.The riad owners where we were staying recommended we didn't eat here and to be fair the food looked pretty nondescript so we were pleased to have that advice. However, the views are fabulous and the furnishings in the bar also nice quality and modern, so a couple of drinks are certainly a good idea. There was a pretty mixed crowd at the Cafe Bar Taros at the times we visited and mid week at least, it didn't seem to have too much of a late night vibe. Given we were in a Muslim country, I didn't feel particularly comfortable wobbling around the streets of the Medina in any case, so a quiet couple of beers was fine for me. My beloved had a glass of local wine and said it was good quality. We have drunk Moroccan Red before (think gutsy Spanish), but we were also surprised at how reasonable the white was too.Prices weren't too daft as long as you chose your brew fairly carefully (the local lager brew Flag was 35 Dirham or £2.50 ($3.50) a bottle), and a glass of wine was just a little more. There is also a range of cocktails if you want a splurge and these were fairly pricy (perhaps £7) but not too silly if you aren't drinking them all evening. The only downside came with the choice of music at Cafe Bar Taros. There is some fantastic haunting or lively Moroccan music, so I felt it something of a crime for the bar to play a jazz version of Radiohead's Creep, followed by a Jazz version of an Oasis track before going on to murder U2. Later a young singer came on doing live cover versions. He seemed a nice lad, but boy he couldn’t really sing and it was all very bland. There must be little more soul destroying than being in a bar singing other people's music for your supper while people ignore you. I was kind and gave him a clap or two, but honestly preferred the interlude in the music while the local Mosque called people to prayer. The Imam, bless him sounded about 108 and wheezed his way through the call. At one point he audibly dropped some papers and his microphone crackled and thumped as he bent over to pick them up muttering to himself. It did make me wonder how many years his voice has reverberated over this city. Much longer than our young singer will, I suspect. To sum up, Cafe Taros was a great place to stop for a drink or two although there are probably better places to dine. Relax, enjoy the views and wear ear plugs.
Flushed with success at the rooftop bar of Cafe Taros and with my beloved feeling the worse for wear with a stomach bug, we decided to stop at another rooftop bar Il Mare overlooking the ramparts in the Medina area of Essaouira. The outside didn't look too inspiring in the narrow streets of the souk, but an elderly woman gestured to us that the place was open late afternoon, so we decided to see what it was like, and if the worst came to the worst sneak out after an Orange Tango after my beloved had caught her breath. Our climb up the narrow stairs felt like we were visiting someone's impoverished aged aunt in her apartment but the steps opened up into the restaurant area and the open air terrace beyond. Upstairs, the restaurant area looked clean and reasonably upscale so we decided to try pot luck on the roof terrace. This area looked like someone had tried a little too hard to make the place look plush on a budget, and we didn't like the overall effect anywhere as much as the simpler Bar Taros. However, the place was reasonable nevertheless, the view was stunning and we decided to stop and as my beloved was unlikely to be dining that evening, I thought I'd grab a quick pizza. Prices were fairly keen with a beer being around 35 Dirham and the Pizza perhaps 80 Dirham, or around £10 ($13) for both. After we arrived a couple of flashy Russian gentlemen with their much younger girlfriends sat at the next table, and I noticed they seemed to receive much slower service than us. While our order and drinks arrived fairly promptly, we had quite a wait for our pizza, and by which time the Russians had only just been able to order. The place was very quiet, so I don't think there was any excuse, beyond the staff perhaps preparing for a busier evening spell. My pizza was OK, but nothing stunning; my spicy mince turned out to be a bolognaise style pizza and while it was tasty seemed a little lacking in herbs. I must confess that from my experience Moroccans don't seem to make the best pizza in the world so perhaps I just ordered the wrong thing. Unfortunately the seafood I wanted to order was off the list as my beloved would have probably been sick on sight given her stomach was so queasy. We had to go downstairs to get the bill as by that point it seemed our server had given up on us completely. However, it wasn't a problem and our bill was correctly presented. On my experience, Il Mare seemed to me to be a reasonable place for a drink and to sit and watch the sunset, but the food was about as average as the service.
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