Day trip to Essaouira…

Because so much happened during our Marrakech trip, I decided to split this post into two separate ones, and tell you about how we ended up having a day trip to Essaouira. If you’ve read my earlier Marrakech post, you’ll have read that Andrew and I came up with a grand plan, that wasn’t quite sound so feasible once we’d worked out the logistics…once the two of us had got over the fact that we wouldn’t be making the 12-hour round trip to Chefchaouen and Nipon had rolled his eyes at us – yeah, I know, we got way too excited with our idea – we settled on having a day to Essaouira. And, it was so much fun.

We found ourselves with an easy-going driver, Abdul and in his willingness to drive us, he also got our humour, chatted away to us and even laughed at our jokes. The drive was around 2 ½ - 3 hours, so it was just as well he found us funny, it was going to be a long drive otherwise, we chat a lot!

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Our drive took us through so many little villages and towns, and we saw so many interesting snippets of local life, and so many photo opportunities. Lorries packed so high with hay or some form of fruit. We even saw a guy riding his motorcycle with a crate of fresh eggs balanced on his head. Like, how did he do that without breaking one?

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I’ve always wanted to shout ‘stop, the car’ and that’s exactly what the three of us said to Abdul as we passed tree goats in Argan trees. I never entirely believed this to be true, even though I’ve seen photos of this rare sight, but it’s real alright. These are not your normal, pasture-grazing goats. These animals climb on top of the Argan trees that can measure 26 to 33 feet high to graze on the fruit. Amazing, right? these trees are also where Moroccan Argan oil comes from.

After the goat excitement and more giggles with Abdul, we arrived in Essaouira. Abdul gave us our pick up point and off we went.

We headed straight to the fishing port. I love a good fish market, but wow, nothing prepared me for the thousands and thousands of squawking seagulls swooping down on the fishermen. I’ve never seen anything like it, and it wasn’t an opportunity that I was going to miss capturing with my camera…even if it meant I might get seagull pooped on. And, yes, I did get pooped on, three times!

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We had a quick wander of the fishing port itself watching the fishermen shouting to each other, gutting their fish in their haste to offload their catches. The smell of fish permeated the air as cats sniffed around. It’s where you’ll find locals mending fishing nets and constructing traditional boasts, and where you’ll be able to snap a view of the fortified city from afar. We had a little incident where Andrew got chased by a fisherman wielding a knife, a reminder that not everyone likes their photo taken, and then we met a lovely friendly guy who happily let us snap him, so you really do have to be aware and be open to the locals.

We then headed into the city walls to explore the cobbled streets. I’m not a Games of Thrones fan, but Essaouira’s claim to fame is having been a filming location for series 3.

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I think the three of us just loved walking through the streets stopping when something caught our eye. The main street was a great people watching experience. Old and young men alike just chilling in carts or sipping Moroccan tea. We made friends with a couple of shop sellers who offered Andrew and Nipon some camels to keep me and then stopped to rest at a cute café for mint tea and biscuits. I’ve never drunk more mint tea than I had whilst in Marrakech. In a country where ‘having a beer’ is not a thing, locals substitute pot of mint tea. There’s a fine art to pouring mint tea too; the higher the teapot, the better.

Essaouira is pronounced ‘es-sweera’ and it is considerably more relaxed and unhurried in comparison to the maze-like streets and madness of Marrakech. It doesn’t have the same visitor numbers or quite the same souks or streets. A total difference and it made for a beautiful wander. It offered up a refreshing and somewhat bohemian escape. Houses are painted a fresh white and blue, there’s a cool sea which makes sense as it’s known as ‘the windy city of Africa. The beaches here are a mecca for surfer and windsurfers. The medina – a Unesco World Heritage Site – is pedestrianised, and the souks are a joy to explore. Nipon and Andrew decided to both try on djellabas which they’d both been exclaiming looked cool and comfortable, and we didn’t feel harassed into buying. Everything just felt chilled!

People seemed more content here. They’re not hustling, and they’re happy to talk to you. Maybe it’s the seaside vibe, or the cultural influence (Portuguese, Berber, Jewish, Dutch and French), or the romantic artsy-hippy vibe - whatever it is, it’s as chilled as it is unique and we loved it. You can’t help but feel a sense of peace.

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We lingered until the sunset, deciding to grab some freshly baked Moroccan bread, olives, cheese and I’d been addicted to Moroccan dates since arriving – and we sat watching the sunset, waves crashing against the ramparts, people-watching and eating before heading back to the hustle and bustle of Marrakech. 

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Marrakech in May...

It was inevitable that one day my travels would take me to Marrakech. Having worked in the travel industry, I spent a fair bit of time writing about Morocco, but had never actually visited it. Having spoken to people who had, I got the impression that you either fell in love with the city and you’d go back in a heartbeat, or, you wouldn’t! I’m one of the ‘falling in love and would go back in a heartbeat’ travellers.

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I remember reading before I visited that the city was eclectic, full of colour, hustle, bustle and you’d 100% get lost in the streets…Fast forward and Marrakech was everything I’d read and more. It’s a mix of Moroccan and international culture; the food is delicious; the pace of life chaotic and the people forever on the move….and yes, you will most definitely ‘get lost’ in the city streets – I’d liken it to a never-ending maze of alleyways all leading off into different alleyways - but that’s half its charm. And, there are quiet spots where you walk through a doorway to find yourself somewhere where you can sit and drink delicious mint tea.

I usually travel alone, but for this trip I had two travel buddies – Andrew (@andreweggy) and Nipon (@slipongravel). I’ve known Andrew for six years. We worked together and he’s like another brother, and Nipon, I’ve known for three years. We met at one of my very first instameets. We all get on pretty well, which is important when you’re travelling. If there’s one thing to learn in life, it’s to pay attention to the dynamics in a group, and what everyone is into and wants. Another thing when you’re travelling with others is the excitement. The excitement of travel buddies is that holiday enthusiasm rubs off on each other, and by the time you’re due to fly, excitement is at a high and you’re ready to burst!

Nipon was in charge of booking our Airbnb, and Riad Chorfa didn’t disappoint. Our Riad had a separate Douiria which is where we would be staying.  This is essentially a private annexe with separate bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen and a rooftop, and it was perfect. And, we still had access to the main Riad, which amongst its residents had a couple of cute tortoises. We pretty much took a quick tour around our home for the next couple of days and headed out eager to explore.

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First impressions were wow. The three of us were wide eyed and raring to go with our cameras. We were so excited to be standing in Jemaa el Fnaa that we didn’t know what to do first. Explore or eat. We opted to refuel and headed to one of the restaurants on the square, Café Zeitoun – this became our meetup spot if any of us wandered off for alone time, or if we got separated from each other. It was a perfect people watching spot and the food was so delicious we returned a few times.

In my mind, I pictured Jemaa el Fnaa as a tightly packed ‘square’. However, it’s more a huge sprawling square with alleyways and streets leading off from it, and the Koutoubia mosque overlooking it all. But, it is just like everyone describes – a large chaotic – I guess you could say…mess! But it’s a mysterious and magical mess with hundreds of people always on the go; shopping, chatting, getting henna tattoos, talking loudly and generally just gathering to pass the time away. You could also describe it as an open-air cinema, food festival and living museum!

The three of us loved strolling through the square. Despite being hectic, loud and fast paced, it’s absolutely fascinating. It’s probably one of the most fascinating people-watching places in the country. We were mind blown, and in my head, I was thinking ‘how do I go about capturing this on my camera?’

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One thing I should mention is that you do have to keep your wits about you. I never felt unsafe, but Marrakech as a whole is very busy. You have to remember it’s cultural different – not everyone welcomed having a camera pointed at them. It’s also ridiculously easy to get lost and disorientated in the alleyways. By the end of our few days in the city, we worked out that it’s fairly easy to find an alleyway, walk down a street and at the end you’ll find the minaret, and then you’ll hear and see the square!

As the sky starts setting, the square takes on a different feel. It gets even busier during the evening. The Koutoubia minaret is silhouetted against the setting sun, and the crowds gather even thicker than during the day. You’ll see street entertainment at its best. Berber musicians, dancers, fire-eaters, sword-swallowers, people gather to listen to bands and storytellers, smoke billows from fires as groups gather to settle down for the evening. Performers lead their monkeys and lizards past stalls selling fresh juices, peanuts, kebabs, snails and tajines. And, around the edges of the square are scribes, travelling dentists, doctors with potions and barbers wielding their razors. The atmosphere is electrifying. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It’s crazy and intense, but it’s also hypnotic and I relive the scene whenever I look at one of the photos I captured.

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We had so many favourite moments, but here’s a few to mention. Oh, and I’ve added a funny story I just had to share with you…  

Place des Epices is vibrant and colourful. This ancient square characterizes Marrakech in a fusion of Africa and Arabia. Come here to buy all sorts of mysterious lotions, potions and spices. From magic spell potions, live chameleons, roots, bark, herbs, leaves, horns, tusks, cures for everything imaginable from herbal remedies to cure a broken heart to essential oils. You name it, they had it! We made friends with a stallholder here wearing a hat with ‘Happy’ embroidered on the front – he was indeed a happy chap, so we named him ‘Mr Happy’.

This is where you’ll find one of Marrakech’s famous restaurants, Nomad. We’d read great reviews about the food here, but we opted to go to ‘Café des Epices’. Here you can sit at tables watching market life or head up to the little roof. We came here a couple of times, but I remember having lunch on the roof terrace and then hearing the call to prayer bellow across the rooftops and market. I think there’s something beautifully melodic about hearing the call to prayer. Seeing people flock to mosques in their prayer clothes was quite a unique cultural experience for the three of us. It’s also the best alarm clock at 5am. It’s something I missed hearing once I’d returned home to London.

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After the rough-edged chaos, noise and heat of the hurly-burly bustle outside, stepping into the Ben Yousef Madrassa is like stepping into an elegant refined sanctuary. It’s also very beautiful. Marrakech is known for also having its fair share of western glamour – luxury hotels, spas, shops and restaurants, but it’s still very much an Islamic city and holy pilgrimage site. This college which was one of the largest theological colleges of its time is most definitely one of the most dazzling examples of Moorish architecture, reminiscent to Alhambra in Granada.

We stayed a fair while in the school. We could have got around faster, but because the three of us found different things to photograph or we were waiting for people to pass, we didn’t hurry.

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What we quickly worked out was that it’s fun to have banter with the locals and stall holders. A polite hello or bonjour went a long way. It costs nothing to be friendly and it brightened up their day and ours. Quite often it felt like many of the stall holders needed that friendly hello to perk them up from what’s probably a long day. It became a fun thing for us to do, the locals got accustomed to us and some even remembered us the next day. They probably thought we were a trio of three strange English people, but it didn’t stop us from ambling along the streets saying hello to anyone that crossed our path. It’s something we remembered to do on our next Moroccan adventure. I think we got hassled less because of our friendliness too.

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The souks of Marrakech are some of the largest in Morocco and famous for being exotic places to shop. Each souk is named after the products being sold, and asides from the allowances for modern tastes, they sell products as they would have a thousand years ago. The best time to take a wander around the souks is in the cool of morning, or in the evening when the sun seeps through slatted roof shades, illuminating a million golden dust motes. It’s quite beautiful.

Andrew is great at pre-holiday planning, while I’m more of a wanderer and if I bump into a cute restaurant, I’m a pop-in and try type of person. However, I’m thankful Andrew found the Earth Café when he was pre-planning. It was a little adventure locating the place, but the Earth Café was a delicious find, and so friendly. The food is all vegetarian and because we didn’t know what to order – the mouth-watering smells hit us as we arrived, we wanted everything – I think we ordered a few dishes on the menu. Safe to say, we left with full and happy tummies that evening.

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