Perception is a powerful thing. The loudest voice in the room can tarnish even the best reputation.
As is the case with the west against the Arabic world. Yes, atrocities have occurred whilst screaming “Allah u Akbar”, but that doesn’t make it in the name of Islam. There are books of the same story in both the Qu’ran & Bible. There are bad people in both Islam and Christianity. In both cases, the loudest voice in the room is tarnishing reputations.
Morocco had never even made my list of places to visit until recently. Memories of growing up in the Canary Islands and being hassled and harassed by Moroccans who had moved there, legally or otherwise, played on my mind. That and warnings in the media of what a dangerous place the Arab world is. Even people at work announcing that North Africa (I’m visiting west Africa) is dangerous.
Slowly over the course of the year my mind was turning to wanting to visit. I had no idea where I wanted to go; pushing in souks and people placing necklaces around my neck as gifts then demanding hundreds of dirhams for said gift plagued my mind. Then came the idea of surf camp in tagazhout but the cost would have left me in ruin.
Finally Essaouira appeared in my peripheral vision. A small town with a lively fishing port, surf and an old medina to boot. Known for being the chilled out hippy town, it sounded like it would be everything I was looking for.
Then Holiday Pirates text me with flights for £42 return. So I booked it.
Essaouira’s medina is small, walled and easy to navigate. You may recognise the north bastion as where Danerys Targaryen freed the army of the unsullied. Easy to navigate, that is, if you’re used to medinas. Which I was not. It took me a couple of days to remember how to find my hostel, which I ended up recognising by the flashing pharmacy sign and the large drain in the street we turned into. I regularly lost my way into the towns gorgeous long beach.
In the markets of essaouira people say hello, but they don’t hassle you. Haggling happens, but life is much slower and some stalls have a fixed price. You walk away, sometimes, and strike up a better deal the following day. I even found a small bookstore lurking in the medina & bought books about Morocco which I inhaled whilst laid on the beach, or on the rooftop of my hostel each evening. My favourite area was the food markets towards Bab Doukala, less touristy and more Moroccans haggling over the price of fish or goat or chicken. At night time the streets lit by a crude wire with naked bulbs hanging in a line. And filled with more people walking around with their families. Some wearing burqas, others dressed in more western attire with hijabs, both men and women wearing jellabas.
Food, another of my worries, was surprisingly good, too. Tagines until the cows come home, or cous cous or fresh fish. In Essaouira my favourite restaurant would have to be Des Arcades. Looks a little divey from the outside, but inside there are checked table cloths, fish and desserts du jour. I had the tuna, it was the most expensive meal I had; it cost £7.50. Café Brixi hidden in a square at the other end of the road was great for breakfast and lunch. We had a big breakfast each with juice, mint tea, an omelette, bread, a variety of Moroccan pancakes with amlou, jam and honey and goats cheese, too. The whole lot cost a mere £4 & I didn’t eat for the rest of the day. Their goats cheese salad is also to die for at lunch time. Plus they do a variety of fresh healthy juices, the beetroot and carrot is yummy.
I didn’t get the chance to go to the grillades along the harbour. We walked along them on the last evening. Their plastic tables & chairs, mthe string of bulbs lighting the place I knew that was as authentic as it got. Lines of sea bream, dog fish, spider crabs, sea urchins (how do you eat a sea urchin).
Days were lazy, woken by the first minarets at 5.30am (they sound five times a day) we’d roll back to sleep for a few hours. We’d then spend our mornings eating breakfasts and going to the beach and swapping in and out of swimming, surfing or sunbathing. We took a camel ride, well Jacob did and I rode a horse named Atlas.
Our biggest trip tho’ was quad biking. We had a bit of a false start; it turns out that with RSI in your wrist you can’t press an accelerator & hold the handlebars at the same time. Two miles down the road & we swapped onto a double bike so Jacob did all the driving whilst I sat on the back & screamed at the sheer drops before propelling myself off the side and sliding down the sand.
Our ride took us out of town into a village nearby, and back along the beach. We passed the ruins of an old mosque and circled a bidonville. We went up and down sand dunes and into wooded oases, eventually we came to a cliff and sat watching surfers catch waves from a secret beach, before turning back towards the dunes. It was terrifying, exhilarating, and the best fun I’ve had ever. The girls in the office who booked the trip were so helpful, they responded to all my emails & knew exactly who I was when I walked into the office. The guide took photos for us all the way around & they sent them to us via WhatsApp. They even refunded us the price difference because we only used one quad bike “How could we improve our service?” they asked us at the end. “You can’t, it was perfect” was our reply.
Bravery set in & we decided to spend the weekend in Marrakech. I put a cheeky wish list into hostelworld, good WiFi, free breakfast & a swimming pool. Enter hostel Dia Riad. For a mere £7 per night my wish list was met & more they served alcohol (it’s like finding gold dust here) & they had a beautiful roof terrace. I have to say it is my second favourite hostel in the world so far (Makuto Backpackers in Granada will always have my heart). We were welcomed with mint tea, a map and given a thousand ideas of what to do and see and take in.
We got lost in the markets, told squares were closed by Moroccans trying to entice us into their shops, we bartered, haggled and walked away laden down with metallic goods, lamps, tea sets, genie lamps, hands that ward off evil. Attempted to be ripped off by a Berber tannery guide! We took in that touristy sunset from the rooftops of Jemaa el Fna. That was all in a couple of hours. We were saddened by monkeys in clothes, tortoises for sell as food, and chameleons as pets (altho I am now desperate for a chameleon). We found the best tagine I’d eaten in Morocco in the one place I was warned off eating it.
The following day we visited the palaces, first the Moorish palace and secondly the Berber ruins, the Moorish palace reminded me a great deal of La Alhambra. We made friends with a British girl who had been and made the same comparison I did. We’d stayed in the same hostel in Granada. We were bumped, pushed, crushed, hit by mopeds, and startled by a Mercedes that seemed to be larger than the road it came down. Whilst I loved the hostel, and was glad we’d braved the big city, I sure was glad to return to essaouira!
Essaouira with its iconic old port and blue boats dancing on the ripples of waves that come into the harbour. It’s small, easy to navigate medina without huge Mercedes trying to squeeze down its lanes. It’s gorgeous long beach dotted with surf shacks & the faint alizee keeping even the warmest day cool.
Morocco changes the fibre of your soul, our flight back everyone was chattering to each other. You’d never catch that in London or on flights back from other places. Everyone was struggling to force their hand luggage to close after having spent too much time bartering in medinas. Our flight back had chairs with wooden boats strapped in and a luggage compartment taken up with a large square plate. “Who doesn’t come back from Morocco with excess luggage?” remarked the girl behind us. Every single person was super chilled and happy.
Did I feel unsafe here? I was prepared to feel unsafe, to worry about leaving my bag on the beach when I went for a swim or surf. I was prepared to be hassled and harassed. I was prepared to worry about the threats the western media speaks of. Did any of that happen? No, not once. I never felt uneasy or harassed. I never felt unsafe. The west’s obsession to sensationalise everything proves it’s still a child who needs to learn to read, “it has enormous potential in its hands, enormous energy and the chance to learn from a thousand generations that came before. But it can’t really benefit from the wisdom it holds until its learned to read” and stopped being the loud voice in the corner tarnishing reputations.
Do I recommend Morocco? Absolutely. Do I recommend Essaouira? Hell, yeah.