After a full on day in Marrakech it was time to venture out of this bit of chaos and head to the coast. And instead of catching a tour, we are the tour. David and Jude met a nice chap on the train a couple of days ago who has given us an offer we can't refuse. So it'll be interesting to see what he delivers.
Achmed our guide for the day decided to bring his son along for the ride. It is Sunday and when you're the boss you dictate what happens. But the bonus was that we got to see a different side of Marrakech, the new town. The city is divided into two distinct parts, the Medina, the old historical city where we are staying and this other side, the new European modern district called the Gueliz or Ville Nouvelle. It's quite different, with wide palm tree lined streets, large buildings with huge glass window frontages, modern restaurants, fast food chains and big department stores.
It's a three hour trip on almost a dead straight road with very little of any interest on the way. Other than the numerous solid walls built out in what seemed the middle of nowhere to either. Keep in the goats or sheep, or surround their small number of olive trees, or six rows of grapes vines, small areas of sparse crops like wheat or barley. I suppose that manpower is cheap and their is plenty available so keep them busy building walls.
Also just outside Marrakech there are numerous towns that have a large number of big empty buildings. We are told that these have all been funded by the state housing system and are for the lower socio economic group who can't afford good housing. They are being offered new houses for next to nothing. But there is such a vast number of these empty buildings, and it seems to be more like ghost towns, it hard to envisage them all been filled up and a ........-being created around them.
The land is very flat and where there is water available it is used for a variety of crops. Although we say crops but what we do see is very sparse and requires some pretty hardy root stock to even make it above ground. Achmed proudly talks of Morocco growing grapes and producing some good wine but although it certainly has the climate to produce the grapes the jury is out of the quality of wine made. Being an Islamic country, we haven't seen or been offered any alcohol as yet but are told if you ask around and go to the right places it is available.
As we drive through one of the towns there seems a huge amount of chaos as people and vehicles span most of the roadside. It looks like its market day or something has brought them out it can't be church can it? There are very few women and children just hundreds of men lurking around.
It turns out they are the main workforce from the local area who all turn up about 10am waiting for the farmers to come to town and collect them. It must be like is feeding frenzy when the employers arrive, as these guys all pile on to the back of the trucks, trailers, carts, etc and head out to place like the watermelon farms.
Further on we come across the Argan trees which grow well down nearer the coast and produce the rare and precious Argan oil sometimes known as just Morrocan Oil. And sure enough there are the goats up the tree. At first sight it looks as though they have been strategically place up there , with a cherry picker, out on the end of the branches, posing for the photographs. But sure enough with a bit of reading and having a little bit of history with goats, it is totally believable to see these native Tamri goats happily munching on whatever berries they can find. A traditional method of harvesting the trees was to allow the goats to get up, eat the berries, although tough and chewy the fruit does contain some goodness and the hard nut is soon left behind in the goat poop. So it's a win win!!
The nuts were then collected, usually by local Berber women(special job), the kernels removed and then ground up using a huge mortar and pestle into a paste. Here in Morocco they sometimes use it like a high end Olive oil, for dipping bread or with Cous Cous or pasta. If the oil is for culinary use the kernels are gently roasted first then ground and pressed. The brown coloured mash that is left behind once the oil is extracted is full of protein so is used as animal feed. If the oil is for cosmetic use then the kernels are not roasted and keep raw.
Over the years the aggressive goats have heavily grazed the trees, often damaging them and even killing the tree. From growing wild for hundreds of years and covering much of this dry desert like country with a touch of colour and providing some much needed shade. The Argan trees is now protected by UNESCO and some serious replanting and changing of grazing methods has had to take place.
Our destination is Essaouria, named 'Wind City of Africa' and we're about to understand why as we hop out of the van. In fact as we drive down towards the city it's this vast flat beach that we first see and it doesn't really look than enticing. Perhaps more the type of beach you'd prefer to ride your horse or run on and absolutely fabulous to wind and kitesurfing. The sun, sand and sea loving tourists are kept at bay, that is unless they enjoy that feeling of sand coming at you almost horizontally or a good rub down with sandpaper. But it now makes sense why the group of young fit looking Welsh Physio's we met on the aeroplane, were so fired up about heading over for a windsurfing holiday.
The city, formerly known as Mogador almost has a French Coastal town feel to it, actually quite similar to La Rochelle, with its fortified walls and fishing harbour. No surprise then to discover the city that we see today was designed and built in the eighteeth century by a French engineer with help from other foreigners.
For years Essaouira was the main port of Morocco being easily accessible from Marrakech the main trading hub.
But once inside those walls it certainly has a character of its own and happily it is not overflowing with tourists. It has the same lovely narrow alleyways and the medina is packed with masses of small businesses and traders selling a huge selection of wares. A much smaller and rather tired looking medina than in Marrakech and far less hassleing being done. We saw craftsmens producing wonderful woodwork (parquetry) from the local Thuja trees, metal work (lantern making), leathergoods and jewellery. Even some fascinating little art galleries with interesting local art and a Morroccan Cooking school really piqued Dave's interest.
As we wander into the town past a huge stage beng erected and we discover that this weekend will bring thousands of music fans from all around the world to Essaouira. Its the start of the Gnaoua World Music Festival, sometimes known as the Moroccan Woodstock, which is up to its 17th year and attracts over 450,000 visitors. I can imagine with the feeling in this place next week will be four days of continuous partying, pity we didn't come a couple of days later.
Considering it was a place that we weren't sure we'd even bother to visit I'm so glad we made out here to the coast and enjoyed a slightly different part of Morocco.