Thursday, October 29, 2009

Camel Couscous and Berber villages in Essaouira

 Almost the minute we stepped off the bus from Marrakech and walked through a stone archway into the walled city of Essaouria, we knew we had finally found a sliver of the real Morocco we hoped to experience on this short trip. During the 60s, Essaouria was on the hippie trail (Jimi Hendrix stopped here). Today its beaches and sea air attract mostly French tourists. It's on the Atlantic coast, 110 miles west of Marrakech. With its stone buildings painted white and blue doors and shutters, it looks like a small town in Greece or Brittany. Brittany probably makes more sense since the Sultan hired a French architect to lay out of the medina.

We're staying at this small guesthouse called Les Matins Bleus. It was built in 1850 as a private school and later turned into the family home of the two brothers and cousin who now it run it as a hotel. It's down this alley, next door to a mosque, so not only do we wake up to the sound of seagulls, we hear a very musical and long Call to Prayer again every morning around 5 a.m.

It was foggy when we got here which made wandering around the medina fun and mysterious. Essaouria is a very friendly town, much more so than Marrakech. Many of the men dress in long, green robes and knit caps and many of the women wear brightly colored flowing robes. The air smells of sea salt, spices and grilled fish.

Carpet shops and little workshops are tucked into alleys where craftsmen use the local wood to make drums and inlaid boxes. There's a Cafe de France, of course, on the main square, where we spent a relaxing hour or so drinking mint tea and watching the local women walk arm in arm in the afternoon. The scene reminded me of the Italian passagiatta.

In the fish souk, you can pick out something from the day's catch (sardines are the local favorite) and have them grilled on the spot and served with olives, bread and salad for about $4. Unlike in Marrakech where most people don't want to be photographed, or want to be paid for a picture, people here don't seem to mind (We always ask, of course). We had dinner at a little restaurant called La Decoverte, run by a French couple from Lyon who also own an ecocotoursm company where we booked a day's walk in the countryside. On the menu was couscous with camel! Of course we had to try it. The camel tasted a little like liver. Don't know that I'd try it again, but I loved the preparation with raisins, onions and garbanzo beans.

The day we spent with Ecotourism et Randonnee was a fantastic glimpse into life outside Moroccan cities. The desert countryside around Essaouira is dotted with traditional Berber villages. (Berbers are ethnic Moroccans who were here before the Arabs invaded).  Our first stop was this market held once a week in a nearby village.

Everyone travels from their villages by donkey, so instead of a parking lot for cars, there's a "donkey park'' where hundreds of donkeys are tied up, waiting for their masters to load them up with purchases.

I asked these men if I could take their picture. I intended to buy a loaf of their bread, but then found out it was "day old'' bread'' they were selling to feed to animals.

This man was selling mint which grows like a weed here and is used in cooking and by huge handfuls to make mint tea. We had some at a little tea stall in the market where our guide, an Englishman named Todd Casson who lives in Essaouria, bought some "people'' bread for us to dip into a bowl of the local olive oil.

 After the market, we got in a van drove a few miles for the start of a 5-mile walk through a desert "Argan'' forest where we walked along donkey paths and ran into villagers on their way to and from the markets.

There were eight of us in our group, six French and the two of us plus English and French-speaking guides. The highpoint was a lunch stop in the home of a Berber family where we all sat on the floor on pillows and carpets and shared an excellent tangine, a traditional Moroccan stew, made with potatoes, carrots and lamb. Fadna Bella, above, our hostess and the matriarch of the family, ended the meal by making us mint tea. When we left, she blew us a kiss goodbye.

Olive trees grow abundantly here, but unique to the area is the hearty Argan tree, similar in appearance to the olive tree, but grown only in this part of Morroco. It bears a fruit from which a nutty-flavored oil is extracted by drying the fruit, splitting the pits to extract the seeds and then grinding the seeds to produce the oil. It's all done by hand by women working in cooperatives, owned and run by women. It was fascinating to watch these women at the Marijana Cooperative take a small nut and crack it open by pounding it with a stone against another stone. The process is very labor-intensive and the oil is expensive, but production and sales provide a livelihood for many poor villagers. There's a big conservation effort on to save the trees for oil production as opposed to firewood or goat grazing.  

We're off to Marrakech on the bus again today for one last night before flying back to Madrid. It will be Halloween when we get to Spain and the day before the Day of The Dead, so it will be an interesting time to be there!


Nancy said...

Wow! Essaouira sounds like a heavenly little slice of Morrocco. So glad you guys found it. Enjoy your end-of-trip days in Madrid!


La Modette said...

So magical!

Patricia said...

Having spent 2+ weeks in Morocco two years ago, I would have recommended you spend your short trip in Fez. We spent almost a week at the Hotel Batha just on the edge of the Medina in Fez and much preferred it to Marrakech! Only donkeys are allowed in the Medina so it's much quieter. The food of Morocco was wonderful!

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