Essaouira is fantastic. A surfer paradise come summer and a step down from the madness of Marrakech. The people down there were friendly and the old harbour is a pleasure to mill around. I have travelled through Morocco a few times now, and it never fails to deliver: the amazing Ait Benhaddou, the film set town of Ouarzazate or driving up across the Atlas mountains to get there. Aït Benhaddou is an ighrem (fortified village in English, ksar in Arabic), along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech. Most locals, attracted by the tourist trade, live in rather more ugly modern dwellings in a village on the other side of the river, although there are a few families still living in the ancient site. Inside the walls of the ksar are half a dozen Kasbahs or merchants houses and Aït Benhaddou is touted as “a great example of Moroccan earthen clay architecture”. It has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1987. The Ouarzazate area is famed as a film-making location, with Morocco’s biggest studios enticing many international companies to work here. Films such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Living Daylights (1987), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Mummy (1999), Gladiator (2000), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Kundun (1997), Legionnaire (1998), Hanna (2011), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen(2011) were shot here, as was part of the TV series Game of Thrones.
Once when we had hired a car to drive to these places my brother was arrested before we had even left Marrakech. He was given a fine for not stopping to give way at a roundabout, and another for driving onto a roundabout without giving way. Confusing? The same “offence”, but doubly so. Nevertheless my French came in handy and after enquiring of the arresting officer whether or not he had any children (he did) and whether or not I may give a small monetary “gift” to his children, all fines were swiftly forgotten. It was a tactic that was successful twice more on that trip. Not that we drove like Bonny and Clyde or anything (although all three times it was my brother at the wheel), just that a hire car was easy pickings for poorly-paid, invariably polite and affable traffic cops. Every time we stepped out of our cheap hotel in Marrakech the local Madame tried to sell us one of her girls. Two middle-aged blokes in a cheap hotel – it had to work didn’t it? We got to the stage of looking out of our window to make sure she was not there before making a run for it to get out into town.
On another occasion a cousin of our friend Fabrice had a house in Morocco, Essouira to be precise and we all thought it would be lovely to meet up there after Christmas travelling from our homes in Slovakia. Catch some winter sun and so forth. A nice break from the seriously-double-digit-minus temperatures and snow. We thought. But it was not to be. Essaouira, the windy city, was not cold, but not overly warm either; the nights were very chilly. T-shirt weather days, but breezy, and moisture-laden nights.
When we arrived, a contact of the cousin, also a taxi driver and hashish salesman picked us up. We had spent the previous night in Marrakech in a beautiful guesthouse with a central courtyard and a rooftop terrace for breakfasts. Then the long drive to Essaouira. Here we loved the camel rides along the beach, strolling down to the harbour and getting lost in the souq. The hammams were fabulous. It was a lot less frenetic than Marrakech. We collected pebbles, stones of various sizes, shells and other sea-debris along the seafront to use as poker chips to play of an evening. Polly, Fabrice and Karen’s teenage daughter, cleaned us out, despite her tendency to make a curious sort of squealing noise when she saw her hand. Bluffing was not her strong point, but she did have some fantastic hands that night. And had similar things most nights. But it was fun to work out the value of shells, pebbles and other sea-treasures we had collected on the beach. We all put in an amount of currency which was the pot from this smorgasbord of “chips”. Fabrice wrote poetry in a mixture of French and English which went in every direction, and quite randomly, on a cafe menu he had picked up. My daughter rode a camel for the first time in her life: along the beach.
Music teacher Diana and chef Matt, our dear friends, loved the market down there (see post Colle di Tora – An Italian Wedding). They came back generously laden with presents for everyone, lovely people that they are. People who had been to Morocco before were not convinced of the “bargains” they had secured in the souq from the friends of the friends of the cousin of Fabrice. But why pour water on somebody’s fire of friendship? The house was glistening, even dripping with wet paint when we arrived. We soon found out why. In fact this was because it had literally just been decorated. Minutes before. They had to do that regularly in the winter. Within two days the mildew type mould was starting to grow back and the walls were dripping with condensation. It was a beautiful top story property with rooftop views above a charming little square on one side and a small, rocky bay on the other; however the winter climate there obviously caused a fair amount of problems. Of a night-time it became very cold and very damp. The brine carried on the Atlantic sea breeze simply ripped through the windows as if they were not there at all. We could hear the waves crashing below onto the nearby cove as we were drifting off to sleep.
There are many interesting and beautiful places to discover in this country. Essaouira is just one of them and holds a special memory because of the friends we shared it with. Morocco is yet another country I love.