Our next day trip with our guide Jalil was to visit the town of Essaouira on the Atlantic coast. This ancient port city, which prior to French colonial rule was called Mogador is some 2.5 hours directly west of Marrakech on the Atlantic coast.
The drive west to Essaouira was much drier than I anticipated, and also had something which I hadn’t expected… The French had planted thousands of Eucalyptus trees after they colonized Morocco figuring that these hearty trees could withstand severe heat and lack of water would flourish in the most inhospitable regions of Morocco just as they do in Australia. Not to mention provide some much needed soil stability from the constant wind so as not to add to the sands of the already immense Sahara.
It certainly seems to have worked, as the Eucalyptus trees have established themselves beautifully over the past 100+ years. In fact, what struck me were the physical similarities between Australia and Morocco.
As we neared the coast the micro-climate that supports the Argan forests (only found in Morocco and world renowned for its restorative oil used in cosmetics and beauty products) noticeably cooled, losing some 10-15C in a matter of kilometers.
Now of course we couldn’t drive through the Argan forest without stopping to check out a local organic farm.
This self sustaining women’s cooperative produces Argan products to sell . Our host explained the process of gathering, cracking, and grinding down the Argan nuts into a thick past and the derivative oil.
All of these processes are undertaken using traditional methods of a single person, cracking the nuts with rocks, another grinding down the nuts using a hand turning millstone to collect the paste.
From here the oil taken from the paste in a modern extraction process and packed to sell.
For a small 20 mm container of Argan oil in North America you would expect to pay somewhere between $60 – $70, whereas outside Essaouira at the cooperative it’s a mere 16 euros.
Essaouira has a beautiful old Medina (walled city) which includes a well cared for fort. After finding a parking spot we strolled through the town, basking in the glorious 25C weather under a cloudless azure sky. Just what you want on a vacation…right?! 🙂
Jalil explained that the town was a trading port and as such was divided into four quadrants. Historically there were a mix of foreign traders (predominately French, Spanish and Portuguese), as well as Arabs, Berbers and Jews. Each with their own quarter of the old Medina. All clearly marked and each with a fascinating history.
Many of the houses date from the 13th century as we walked the alleyways, as the dates of the buildings are carved into the stone over the doorways and entrances to many of the houses and shops.
We also were able to visit two of the oldest Synagogues in Morocco, barely bigger than a modern day kitchen, but with a regular and vibrant community supporting them. Awesome!
Lunch was the high point of our day as Jalil led us down to the docks and with the fishing boats were just arriving with the day’s catch we were in for a local treat!
He explained that the fishing boats, upon arrival always give away the first basket of fish to the poor, a tradition that has been part of the fabric of Essaouira for centuries. This allows them to sell some of the fish to support their families, as well as providing food for their table. Morocco has no safety net for the poor, if you don’t have an income you go hungry…the government does not provide.
The waterfront is a vibrant and colorful scene and today was no exception as we fought our way through the crowds down by the boats.
Jalil talked amiably to the various fisherman as he surveyed their catch and were in awe of the variety of fish on offer, as basket after basket of a wide variety of fish came off each boat.
As you get used to in Morocco, Jalil bargained for some fresh sardines, which he tested by asking the fisherman to prove they were caught that day.
I had no idea how you could tell if it were fresh caught by checking for fresh blood in the gills with your thumb…
After negotiating a fair price, he had to then buy a plastic bag for our catch from another vendor (yes, it’s a small cottage industry on the docks – not just the fisherman making money!)
After buying our sardines we continued on toward the grillman who was a little further down the dock. The grillman offers to grill your fresh catch over charcoal for a small sum. The hut adjacent provided a simple tomato and onion salad to go with our perfectly grilled sardines, which Jalil showed us how to eat without getting any bones.
We sat chatting in the warm sun, eating our lunch right on the dock amongst the crowd as the fishing boats continued to pull in with their catch. Around us the voices of Arab and Berbers fisherman and buyers all negotiating for the days catch. Others were cleaning and selling their catch in this vibrant and somewhat chaotic scene.
However, what surprised me most were the large refrigerated trucks full of fresh fish bound for Spain some 24 hours driving distance from Essaouira. I know the Spanish love their fish, but I didn’t know how much!
Another incredible day spent with Jalil who once again exposed us to the real Morocco, the one that few get to experience.
If you’re considering visiting Morocco and/or interested in having an authentic Moroccan experience please reach out to Jalil Benlabhili at Morocco Unplugged Tours and tell him Terence sent you! 🙂
Until next time