The Final Countdown: Southern Comforts in Essaouira

Saturday, November 21, 2009 | Essaouira, Morocco

Above, the classic shot of Essaouira's medina walls, on Morocco's southern coast.
For my birthday weekend, Jacqueline and I planned to celebrate by escaping Rabat. But we were only two blocks from home, the clock still showing an hour until dawn, when the shit hit the fan.

Bound for Essaouira, Jacqueline and I had just left our apartment, blurry-eyed but with coffees in hand. At the first traffic light, Jacqueline's stick-shifting prowess gave out. We stalled once, twice, three times. Each time the rental car bucked like a rodeo steer, sloshing more hot coffee on us and the vehicle's interior. Soon Jacqueline and I mutually decided that I should drive the trip's first leg.

Solving the "who's driving" debate also solved the "which route to take" debate. As driver, I unilaterally decreed that we would take the scenic coastal route the whole way to Essaouira, 450km south of Rabat.

We skirted Casablanca (الدار البيضاء), and passed through El Jadida (الجديدة), where a cop pulled us over
for speeding. Unfortunately for him, ignorant tourists that we were, we didn't know how to speak a word of Arabic or French, or he might have had more luck communicating the fine to us. "You are American?" he finally struggled out in shaky English. We nodded eagerly. "I love Boston!" he exclaimed, suddenly gleeful. We loved Boston too, it turned out—what a fortunate coincidence. Soon we were on our way, the cop having settled for a mock-stern "Faut faire attention", followed immediately by a smile and thumbs up.

The sea crashing to our right, we continued past the coastal farms above Oualidia (الوالدية), then through Safi (آسفي), the largest port along this stretch. On the city's industrial outskirts, highlights included a fragrant drive through a mile-long gauntlet of sardine packing plants, and a scenic tour of the phosphate processing centers that lined the coast as far as we could see (which wasn't far, in some of the dustier sections).

But after several more hours of driving—most of it along a desolate, primordial coastline—we reached Essaouira early Friday afternoon.

* * *

The quirky Maison des Artistes, in Essaouira's old city, had a perfect room. We settled in, and explored the funky décor, artwork, and African carvings throughout the hotel.

Jacqueline had already visited Essaouira twice (once on her surf trip and once for the annual Gnaoua Music Festival), so she played tour guide that afternoon, leading me around the old city.

Essaouira's atmosphere was comfortable—happening, yes, but not overwhelming. The shopkeepers were of the pushy variety, but there were so many tourists that the hassling was spread fairly thin, and bothered us little. The city's look combined Marrakech's southern warmth and Asilah's crisp seaside charm. The air was cool, the wind intense and unrelenting.

Around sundown, we came to the large plaza by the beach, between the medina's walls and the port. Thousands of seagulls wheeled overhead, shrieking and swirling in the currents. The fish sellers were setting up for the dinner hour, arranging fresh shrimp, squid, panfish and rays on ice, and stoking their charcoal grills, all while waving menus in the faces of the evening's first tourists.

* * *

Later that evening, we huddled on the rooftop deck of Taros Cafe under the complimentary burnouses, scraping our chairs closer to the heat lamp to fight off the wind's chill.

The discovery I made at Taros more than compensated for that fleeting discomfort.

I've long sought a cocktail to call my own—something tasty, sophisticated perhaps, but definitely something that no one else ever orders. I love gin and tonics, but they're everyone else's standard "go-to" drink, too. So after years of searching, I finally discovered it, on a whim, on Taros's bar menu. Drumroll, please... the Negroni: one part gin, one part sweet vermouth ("sweet martini" according to the menu), and one part Campari, seasoned with slices of orange rind. Bitter, tangy, and wickedly strong, it's not for everyone. (Jacqueline: "It smells like my Uncle Herb.") But it's the one I've been looking for.

After more drinks over a round of chess (Jacqueline's first—and she still beat me!) at Riad al Khansaa, we finished the night on a high note with a fireside dinner at Dar Adul. Jacqueline has all the details here (scroll down a bit).

* * *

We spent Saturday playing tourist in the old city: poking our heads into clothing boutiques, slipper stores, artists' studios, carpenters' workshops, and knickknack outlets.

After more than a year in Morocco, we finally decided it was time to buy something for ourselves, and dove into carpet shopping.

Over the course of an hour or two, our new best friend, Mr. Hassan, ordered his assistant to unfold several hundred handwoven Berber carpets, one by one, for our consideration. We drank tea, we scratched our chins, we mulled the colors and the patterns. With Hassan, we chatted in English, then French, then Arabic.

Finally, Jacqueline having made up her mind on a striped brown runner and a basic rust-colored rectangle, I bartered. And I bartered hard, pulling out all my best phrases, perfected over months of haggling for everything from vegetables to furniture in the Fes medina. I finally knew I had him when Hassan muttered something to his assistant about me being a Berber. He settled. I had inched my price up only 100 dirhams (US$13), while Hassan's had plunged by 1,300 (US$170).

Though surprisingly tired from the experience, we left satisfied, our new carpets wrapped in brown paper, tucked beneath my arm.

* * *

We rounded off the afternoon with a drive to the Marjana argan oil cooperative and the Val d'Argan vineyards, makers of the Ile de Mogador and other local labels.

Not a bad weekend, to say the least. Now hoping we'll have time for a few more trips like that in the month we still have left!


Uncle Ted said...

Another great adventure Andrew !
Makes it seem really boring here.
I think we are going to your Mom's place on Sunday. Aunt Jen, Ashley, and her beau, Ian will be at our house for Thanksgiving.
Happy travels home next month!
Uncle Ted

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Thanks, Uncle Ted. Believe it or not, while these weekend trips have been a blast, I'm still looking forward to getting back to "boring old America" for a bit and having a chance to see everyone. Hope you all have a great Thanksgiving, and I will see you soon.
Thanks for reading!

Jim March said...

Andrew, is that a cat head in the top photo (as in "off with your head..."? :)
Liked your drink - Negroni. I added some tonic water to it and it's very refreshing! So thanks to you, we have another option now!

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