June 23 – July 1
From Marrakech we had a transfer to Essaouira, another driver named Yousef who was very friendly and dreamed of getting a visa to come to America to go rafting; he and his friend had already tried several times but their applications hadn’t been accepted yet. Needless to say, he and Martin had a lot to chat about in our three-hour car ride.
On our drive, Yousef told us about how goats will sometimes climb into argan trees to eat the leaves, and he pointed out some industrious locals on the side of the road who put a bunch of goats in trees and charged money the passing tourists money to take pictures. Yousef slowed the car down enough for us to snap a few photos free of charge.
We spent a relaxing week in Essaouira, in a comfortable apartment a bit outside of the old town with a pool and a lovely sun room. We were happy to have a slower pace and cooler coastal temperatures for a while. They call Essaouira the “Chicago of Morocco,” meaning that it is very windy; some days it was so windy that I felt like I might get blown away, and walks on the beach were reminiscent of our sand-blasted Saharan adventure. At least the winds kept temperatures down.
I visited Essaouira for a few days back in 2008 and really liked the feel of the medieval town so when we were thinking of where we could kill some time in Morocco, I thought it might be nice to go back. The town is definitely a tourist destination and is also home to many ex-pats from the UK and France. It has a kind of laid-back surfer / hippie vibe, especially during the music festival when tens of thousands of hippies descended on the city with their instruments and camping equipment. It’s also a bit of a surf town since the strong winds create some big waves. Orson Wells visited once to film his movie Othello—there is a bas relief statue of him in town—and he purportedly became friends with Winston Churchill who was staying at the same hotel. A popular local myth is it that Jimi Hendrix wrote his song “Castles Made of Sand” about the castles in Essaouira, but he actually didn’t visit the town until 1969, two years after he wrote the song.
Throughout the centuries, Essaouira has been an important port and maritime hub, for the Romans, the Phoenicians, the Portuguese, the French and Spanish, and the Berbers. It even used to have a large Jewish community—almost half of the city’s population was Jewish several centuries ago—but now that presence is mostly gone, as it is in most of Morocco, and some old synagogues and a Jewish cemetery are now all that are left. It used to be know by its Portuguese name, Mogador. There are remains of the old Roman walls as well as the protective ramparts built by the Portuguese. The medina of Essaouira is not quite as closed-in and claustrophobic as many of the other ones that we visited around the country. We felt much more relaxed and got to experience the area more.
We filled our days with dips in the pool, frequent walks along the beach and water front, cooking, working, and occasionally wandering into town. One of the best activities was watching the kite surfers; there were so many! The beginners learn by sitting in a harness in the sand and then trying to control the kite; we saw people being dragged down the beach by their kites. We watched the streets go from completely empty to full of life and noise when Ramadan ended. (Funny story: Apparently no one in Morocco knows when Ramadan will end, and somehow they are on a different schedule than the rest of the Muslim world… Every time we asked when it would end, we were met with the response, “We don’t know yet, could be could be Saturday or could be Sunday.” They have to wait until the imam sees the moon, which for some reason this year was a day later than the rest of the world started celebrating Eid.) There was also the Gnaoua Festival of African Music in town our last few days there so the town filled up with tons of musicians, street vendors, festivities, and visitors. We could hear some of the music from our apartment and wandered past the stages a few times, but we didn’t get tickets for the festival and weren’t really interested in joining the crowds anyway.
Martin was still having some stomach issues but he was able to fix it by picking up some super strong antibiotics over the counter at a pharmacy without a prescription. So at least we were in a country where we could deal with that without going to a doctor! (Don’t worry: Martin called a doctor back home to figure out what he should take, we didn’t just make it up!)
We found some cooking classes to take which were really fun! The classes were taught by a Moroccan woman, Mouna, and an British ex-pat, Alyson, who helped translate from French to English. These two women have been working together teaching cooking classes for a while and they have a great rapport which made the classes entertaining as well as informative. They had just moved into a newly redone workshop which was really nice!
In our first class we learned how to make zaalouk, which is an eggplant dish made with tomatoes and onions and spices, and lamb tajine with figs and apricots. While we chopped and sautéed, we learned about Moroccan food and traditions (dishes with almonds and/or dried fruit are only for special occasions as those ingredients are too expensive for every day), about local history and culture, how to pick out and purchase our own tajine cooking dish (make sure it doesn’t have a hole in the lid, make sure the lid fits the bottom, the painted ones are not for cooking), and about different spices and how to use them (you must use the specific type of spice blend for what you are making, be it poultry, red meat, vegetables, or couscous; the exact composition of the blends varies from shop to shop).
Mouna was a very precise and exacting teacher, and everything had to be done exactly just so or else she would make us redo it! I got her approval on a few things, but some things she had to help me with. I’m not sure that some of the things made a huge difference in the outcome of our meal, but it was definitely a good lesson on precision and technique.
While we waited for our tajines to cook (they take several hours on the stove top), Alyson took us to visit a shop in the spice market. She and the shopkeeper taught us about different herbs and spices and their culinary and health uses. We got to see and smell dozens of things, but it wasn’t even 1% of what was in the tiny shop: The floor to the ceiling and every nook and cranny were covered in shelves holding containers of different herbs, spices, teas, oils, perfumes, pigments, anything you can imagine; and hiding behind the ones we could see at the surface were even more jars and bottles.
In Morocco, the spice merchants are also like pharmacists: They learn all of the medicinal properties of the herbs and spices, a person can come to them with health questions or ailments, the spice merchant will listen to the person’s life story and assess what needs to be done, and then the merchant will put together a special blend of natural ingredients to address that person’s specific concerns. We learned how to spot fakes and imposters. He also showed us the dyes and pigments that are used in textile-making. The most interesting was this metallic-looking, iridescent green powder, but when he wet a small amount on paper it produced the most vibrant indigo color. He explained that it comes from the mucus gland of the murex sea snail! It was pretty cool to learn about all of these different substances and their properties.
Our tajines turned out deliciously and we decided to sign up for their Moroccan pastry workshop later in the week. In the pastry class, we learned how to make traditional cornes de gazelle (little crescent cookies filled with ground almonds and spices; “gazelle horns” in French, but literally translated from the Arabic they are “gazelle ankles”), sesame raisin cookies, and mint tea (but since Martin and I had already learned that in our previous lesson, Mouna quizzed us on the proportions!). This class wasn’t as hands-on as the first one (we were relieved to not have to do as much minute chopping!); Mouna just made the doughs and filing and then we shaped them. It was fun to watch her cook, though, because everything was by feel and nothing was measured. Although, before adding the butter every time, she would look at us all and ask with a wink and a smile, “Quelqu’un fait la régime??” (“is anyone on a diet?”). The cookies of course all required a meticulous hand and none of ours looked as good as Mouna’s, but they were still delicious and we (again!) ended up with two too-big boxes of cookies.
I also really enjoyed hearing Alyson’s story. She had studied forestry at university in the UK and had received her PhD. She came to Morocco after university to work and do research, but she met someone, fell in love, and never went home. She told us about making the leap of faith to uproot her entire life and move to a different continent, and passed along some advice her mother had given her: That if it doesn’t work out, don’t dwell on how things could have been different; just tell yourself that next time, you’ll do it all differently and leave it at that. This struck a chord with me and Martin, and it has comforted us when we start to get down on ourselves about little choices we’ve made on this adventure. Next time, we’ll just do it differently!
Morocco was a mixed bag for both of us, but Essaouira was a great place for us to finish out that part of our trip. We were able to find some equilibrium and relax, get back into our routines and feel more grounded, all while getting to experience a special corner of the world with a rich cultural heritage.
Check out more photos from our time in Essaouira here.
Next up: Back to Europe and the lands of pork and wine!