Readers will have to respect the fact that this is not a report but a diary written contemperaneously with the events on the trip. So there will be some repetition and in fact as I type there might be the odd sentence thrown in when events did not give me the time to include in the written diary. So here goe
Bien venue au Maroc. Well here we are only 45 minutes late in Agadir in Central Morocco on the Atlantic coast with Madeira nearly 400 miles out to the west and the Canary Islands about 250 miles to the south west, emptied into Africa for the very first time courtesy of Aer Lingus. Agadir, the scene almost of the start of the Great War in 1912, only stymied by diplomacy after the French and Germans squared up to each other as to who should be the liege lord of this strategically positioned country. A triumph for Churchill as First Sea Lord, who then persuaded the French to defend the Mediterranean whilst he looked after the defence of the western seaboard of Europe. This bottled up the mighty German fleet in their ports for the duration of the oncoming war except for one breakout in 1916 which resulted in the Battle of Jutland. Here the German navy had the upper hand but the inexperience of the German admirals made them run for port where they remained until ordered to Scapa Flow at the end of the war.
We came off the plane to be met by a surly chap in immigration control who was smoking some big fat weed that looked like a cigarette, a man certainly not happy in his job, but in this country a job without doubt is a job worth hanging onto. Wages are poor with most of the population earning less than 80 dirhams a day (1 euro = 10 dirhams).
Our taxi man was waiting, a youth of not more than 20 and an old man to carry our bags to the taxi. I gave the old man 1.5 euros, I had no dirhams, he was not happy, so I gave him another euro, he moaned and I told him to piss off, at which he gratefully accepted.
Our taxi ride of 220kms to Essaouira was an experience I will never forget. The car was a Mercedes of about 1970 vintage, with a good engine but only two gears, 3rd and 4th and seeing we had the back end of the Atlas Mountains to traverse, it was only the skill of the driver and his excellent timing of brake and accelerator got us to our destination in three and half hours of steep slopes, hairpin bends and the occasional wild dog and wandering camel to negotiate. The driver, who must have been driving since he came out of nappies, was an ace, not only did he deal with the above but also with a telephone call or a text every two minutes. This was not so bad as we chugged up the hills in 3rd gear doing about 15kms per hour but coming down the other side in 4th gear doing 100kms per hour around hairpin bends whilst answering his texts and fiddling with his radio which played non-stop Moroccan diddley diddlies was a work of art. The fee for this masterful performance was 700 dirhams, 70 euros to transport four people 130 miles was unbelievably good value.
The taxi man dropped us off outside the Medina where we were met by daughter and son in law and another old man with a cart who transported our bags to our riad. The Medina is the original town encircled by high walls dating back to the 17th century and the riads are the modernised houses of merchants and officials who ran the place back then. Our riad, the Riad de la Mer was in the Kasbah, the oldest part of the town. No vehicles except official vehicles are allowed in the Medina, the roads anyway are to narrow so these men with carts transport everything, winding their way down the alley ways and tunnels all for 20 or 30 dirhams per trip. The riad was approached down a long tunnel until we reached a cobalt blue door in the tunnel wall. The tunnel walls were lined with workshops and doors all now closed at this late hour. We all spilled into a huge hallway and straight into a chicken tagine prepared by our maid and a lovely bottle of gris, a rose type wine, almost opaque in colour made by removing the skins of the red grapes very early on in the wine making process. My daughter had raided a supermarket in Marrakesh earlier in the day and had stocked up well on the alcohol front. We eventually got to bed about 2.00am and by then we were ready for sleep.
Awoke early on Day 2 and explored the riad. It is a seven bedroomed house on five floors built around a central hallway or roofless atrium. The hallway itself could accommodate 100 people for a dance and still have room for the band and off it was a small lounge, a store and a kitchen and toilet, on the first floor were two large bedrooms and a bathroom and toilet, the bath was huge, you could put all the five kids who were with us in it and still have room for more. The second floor was similar and in one corner was this winding staircase which served all floors, the 3rd floor opened onto a patio with another two bedrooms, a kitchen and a laundry, up a few more steps to a rooftop patio/dining area where you could view the Medina and the fishing port just outside the walls. Another flight of stairs took you to the last bedroom. The maid provides breakfast every-day and although it is a carb explosion the coffee is well worth climbing the stairs for. All floors and walls are tiled with exquisitely designed hand-made tiles and the furniture and colour smacks of the Sahara. It sleeps 14 people in total but I understand you can rent off a floor at a time as each floor is self- contained. The rental is 100 euros per person per week.
From the street you would not know the place existed except for the cobalt blue door, neighbouring buildings tie it in on all sides, there are no windows and the only light is that which floods in through the open atrium. Our neighbours in adjoining riads are only yards away from us as we breakfast, perched on their own terraces, polite and non-inquisitive.
After an hour’s relaxation we set off for a tour of the Medina, ie., the old town within the 17th century walls. It is a warren of passageways selling everything from themselves to elephants and attended by the most courteous of shopkeepers, who might sell nothing all week but they are there and if not selling they are chatting to each other or making trinkets or objets d’art. This was my second unmissable experience in 24 hours, an absolute delight, charmed by snake charmers and wandering troubadors chanting arab type songs whilst playing one string fiddles and expecting a few dirhams for their deeds. As I said before a job is a job. They portray their skills, they are not a nuisance, if you do not pay them attention they just walk on by.
Lunch was down by the harbour, where a collection of covered stalls sold the catch of the day and cook it for you while you sit and eat it in the sun. We had prawns, sardines, shrimp, red snapper, bream, crab and calamari and a plateful of chips and bread and all washed down with bottled water for 5 euros each, then it was back to the riad for some much needed R & R whilst the women pampered themselves in a local hammam. These are Moroccan bath houses cum beauty parlours varying from the expensive to the very cheap, mainly for women but some take men. They get scrubbed, covered in mud, washed off and scrubbed down again and then massaged with argon oil. I understand it leaves you cleansed and relaxed. The hammam women do both sexes and while the women are naked for the process, the men have to wear their jocks. All who went thought highly of the experience. By the way there are eleven of us in the party, six adults and five children.
It has been decided that tonight we eat out in shifts after feeding the kids. We will eat first then the younger ones can eat later. I certainly need a good sleep, so should be in bed for 9 o’clock to make up for yesterday’s marathon. Myself, spouse and youngest son went out at 6.15 on the early shift, the streets re crowded with locals. Eventually we found a restaurant we fancied, it was one of not many that served wine. I had salade du pays, which was onion, tomatoes, cucumber, mint, and hot peppers, all finely diced and drenched in argon oil to bind it and placed in a mould so that the presentation on the plate was a circle about 12mm thick and about 100mm in diameter. It was delicious with the nutty flavour of the argon oil standing out. My main course was a Vietnamese dish of beef and shrimp served with brown rice. The restaurant was mainly Moroccan but the chef had worked in France and Vietnam. We washed the food down with a wine that was to become my main attraction Domaine de Sahari gris. Ma femme et fils had a sea food dish held together with a Moroccan pastry , little like filo pastry only finer which was cooked over steam and the pastry applied with a brush in thin layers. I had a small piece and that was equally delicious. With wine and cocktails the bill was 600 dirhams, 20 euro each.
Day 3 dawned and I was up first at 7.30am to a cold dawn. As Essaouira is on the same line of longitude as the west coast of Ireland the days are the same with dawn coming at about 8.00am and dusk at about 5.00pm. Between the hours of 7.00am to 9.00am when the sun is out in all its glory, the temperature rises quickly from about 7C – 18C in a short time and by 11.00am it is over the 20C. Breakfast on the terrace was crepes and strawberry jam and the lovely coffee then some of the chosen few went out shopping for food. We are eating in tonight, it should be good, we set off to forage at 10.00am and another fantastic experience.
And what an experience it was. In the centre of the Medina are the souks or food markets. One for fish, one for vegetables, one for volaille (fowl) and surrounding them were lots of little butchers and spice stalls. English is only spoken as a fourth or fifth language, if you don’t have a modicum of French you would feel slightly lost. Most Essaouiran English is as good as my French and that ain’t good, but if you are confident enough, you can just about get by. I’m lucky, my daughter is fluent which helps considerably with the task of buying. I did not send her to Bede’s for nothing.
In the vegetable souk you can hardly move for people buying, arguing, joking and just passing through and everything so cheap, you would have a job spending 10 dirhams. Everybody goes shopping every day. They only buy for that day’s meals which ensures freshness even though the displays do not contain the shiny, all one size look of the European supermarket. When you get your vegetables home and clean them for the pot, they taste so good. With a fruit like an orange, you peel the discoloured skin but you will never taste an orange so good. The taste sensation here seems magnified. In the Souk des Volailles, the birds are running round at the back of each stall, you just pick out which bird pleases you the most, the man picks it up by a wing, breaks its neck, slits its throat and bangs the poor bird into a cone shaped dish while the blood runs off and with its feet kicking merrily in the air for several minutes. It reminded me of being on my granddad’s farm as a kid, only there they did not save the blood; here they must sell the blood on. The carcase is then thrown to a man attending a small machine, who cuts the head off and plucks the bird in a matter of seconds. It’s like being at an old time battlefield with blood, guts and feathers flying everywhere and the pens of chickens, like soldiers of old just standing there glumly awaiting their fate.
At the small butchers shops beef and lamb is the choice. There is no art to the butchery just the brutal waving of a large axe, you have to take bone and meat together all for 80 dirhams per kilo, which makes it expensive and you can understand why the Moroccan diet is mainly vegetarian with the addition of bits of chicken. There are other souks that sell grains of hundreds of different varieties, others that sell spices and herbs with mint, coriander and tarragon being the most popular herbs. You would be baffled by the range of spices sold but ground cumin is the most used, it seems to go in everything. Today’s purchases are lamb onions, tomatoes and garlic for a tagine with couscous tonight along with a beetroot salad and merguez sausages for breakfast tomorrow.
This afternoon they have all gone off for a camel ride along the beach, a massive sweep of sand about five miles long. I did not bother for fear of breaking the camel’s back and went for a salade nicoise at the restaurant a few yards from the riad and am now busy writing up what you are now reading. A quiet afternoon for me, time for a read, my book of choice is Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time For Gifts which tells of his walk from Amsterdam to Istanbul in 1934 at the age of 18. A remarkable book written in such a fantastic style, like no other writer I have read. His descriptions of art, architecture and life generally in a newly Nazified corner of Europe, as he carried out this amazing stroll along the Rhine and the Danube, are not to be missed. I recommend the book to everybody. It is 23C outside but lovely and cool in the riad. The development of architecture in these hot countries is amazing: no need at all for air conditioning.
I prepared the lamb tagine, the art of this type of cooking is to cook the onions, tomatoes and garlic to a pulp, then throw on the lamb and spices and leave and all done on top of the stove on the lowest heat possible. This process takes hours and leaves time for one or two aperos either round the table or more relaxingly at a nearby rooftop bar. My apero of choice was Ricard, the amount very generous. I do not think it was Ricard but certainly pastis. I put about half a pint of water in mine but it was still as strong as hell. There was a manic atmosphere in the place even at 6.30pm. We found out later when the young ones went out that Absolut, the vodka people, were doing a promotion. They came home at midnight and I believe they were washing the glasses in the stuff. However in between the sessions the tagine was delicious and thankfully I retired early after a few slugs of wine