On the road from Marrakech to the coastal village of Essaouira one can encounter a most astounding spectacle, yep, goats in a tree...lots of them! No, I’m not mad, it’s true, I’ve seen it with my own eyes! Okay let me backtrack a bit. One of the best things about Morocco, if you’ve never been there before,is that it’s full of surprises. One is immediately compelled to throw out all of the preconceived notion that one has. If you think it’s a land only of deserts and sand, get rid of that image from your mind. If you conceive of it as some quasi backward medieval country, put that notion out of your mind, and if you expect to have your prejudices tested, then get ready for Morocco!
I’m not sure what we were expecting to see on the long drive from Marrakech to Essaouira (about three to four hours). But it wasn’t goats in trees! And we weren’t expecting that for a long portion of this trip we would drive through forests/orchards of majestic Argan trees. In reality, this amazing forest stretches from Essaouira down past the seaside resort city of Agidar and along the Souss to the Anti Atlas. And get this, they don’t grow anywhere else in the world or even Morocco! Argan oil, according to the Moroccan government, which has spent considerable money on its marketing, is great to cook with and makes dandy cosmetics. But they don’t talk too much about how it’s harvested, and that’s where the goats come in! Herders bring them to the trees, they eat the Argan nut, excrete the “almond”, and the oil is refined from this...Yeah, you can see why they they don’t talk so much about this part! Anyway, when we came upon this almost comical site, we yelled “stop the car!”. The guy driving us laughed and took our pictures: he had seen it all before.
Essaouira is one of those places that actually lives up in most ways, to the hype. But first be warned, it’s not famous for wind surfing for nothing! The wind never stopped the three days we were there. The good news is that once you enter the old city, with its narrow streets and high buildings, the wind is thankfully cut off.
I don’t know about all the the other places in Essaoira, but the Heure Bleue Palais is just a great place to stay. In fact it was our favorite place in all of Morocco for lodging. Everywhere we stayed in Morocco had amazing style and atmosphere, what set this place apart, “separated the men from the boys” if you will, was the gracious and truly welcoming staff. From the moment we arrived we felt the warmth and professionalism of the group of people here that made our stay so special. The Heure Bleue is located just inside the gates of the old city so it’s very easy to get to. Special parking is reserved and porters wait for your arrival. The building itself is an old courtyard structure that was lovingly restored for several years by a team of local craftsmen. The bar alone is worth a stay; with is cracklings fire, gorgeous baronial paneling and old leather sofas, it is the perfect place for a martini before and a cognac after. On your first night, if you’re tired after a long day of goats in the tree watching, opt as we did to eat in. A stroll across the courtyard took us to the Riad’s elegant dining room. The food and service were both excellent.
Since it is windy and cold in this neck of the woods in January we had chosen a room with a wood burning fireplace. It’s definitely worth the splurge! On our second night we had cocktails in our room and called the “fire expert” who showed up in minutes to lay the perfect romantic cozy fire. Yes, again this is Morocco, not what your were expecting maybe? There is a rooftop pool and bar area which is unfortunately but understandably closed during the winter months. One drawback for those who like to stay active is the lack of a fitness center. We were sent around the corner by the ever accommodating staff to what had been a Sofitel for a workout. Unfortunately this is a tired place and so is the sad little gym. Heure Bleue Palais does have a small pleasant spa which we thoroughly enjoyed after a day of walking. You may choose to skip the hamman(traditional baths) as we did,since they are “traditional” and therefore kept a “chatting” temperature.
Okay, enough about the place to stay: how about the town you say? Well, first off, unlike the Medina in Marrakech or Fez, it’s a cinch to navigate as it was all laid out essentially on a grid. In fact the Medina here was designed by a French architect in the 18th century, at the behest of the ruler Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdullah, who wanted a modern port to rival all others. There’s plenty of atmosphere, street life, markets and all the rest with the huge bonus that you can find your way about and rarely feel lost. Outside of the Medina and south of town is Diabat beach. Running along this beach is a handsome corniche flanked by great Art Deco homes. Running itself along this beach is great for Olympic training, as we found due to the fierce wind. But even in winter the area has a great Hitchcock like feel.
Returning to the Medina after been pummeled with sand, we found it to be a great place to ramble and watch the world go by. As is traditional, the food market is concentrated in one area outside. The plethora of color in spices, fruits and everything else from butchers to confectioners is pretty dazzling. Spread out throughout the town you will stumble across pretty impressive galleries. Some are obviously grinding the greatest hits out, but others are of unique and outstanding quality. A number of French artists as well as internationally recognized Moroccan artists have galleries here. Prices on big ticket items as well as small are negotiable but go slow on the haggling, there is always time for more Moroccan “whiskey” (tea) and a “we will think about it”, often brings results. Essaouira is also justly famed for its elegant wooden inlay and marquetry done in the local thuya wood. From boxes to spectacular furniture the work here will make you want to redecorate the house. The prices too are amazingly reasonable and the more one buys the more the prices go down. After all this shopping we found a cafe in the center of town where great espresso was served and watched the cavalcade of locals, crazy hipster expats, artists and an international mix of travelers walk by.
The food scene in Essaouira is pretty fun too. On our second night in the town we went to the hip La Table by Madada. This isn’t your locals hangout, but there is a mixture of well heeled locals, expats and visitors. The atmosphere is sexy and designed and a great local band was planning new wave Moroccan music, which was definitely outstanding. This is a seafood restaurant with clever riffs on Moroccan classics. We felt like we were in a cool Essaouiran restaurant in New York. On the harbor you can pick your own fish from the spectacular displays and have it grilled to perfection. This experience wasn’t anything like our evening repast but it sure was a blast. We also enjoyed a rather more classy lunch experience at Restaurant Le Magadorien near the harbor. The selection of seafood was again amazing and the Sole I had was sautéed to perfection and served by an elegant older gentleman who made us feel like honored guests in his home. For dinner on our last night, we were pointed in the direction of the Restaurant Bleue. This tiny Riad home is the creation of the French expat proprietor. The tiny dining room with its tiny fireplace couldn’t be more intimate and cozy if a hobbit decorated it. The food is classic French with some creative Moroccan and nouvelle twists and is expertly prepared. The Chef is also charming and was fun to talk with after a sumptuous repast.
In short, Essaouira is pretty much a great way to start in Morocco ! Don’t miss it.