A long weekend of spices, culture and sand dunes!
Post written by Laura
I most likely have stated this in previous January posts but winter in the UK is a cold dark and lengthy affair. The stretch between January to early March can be particularly depressing so to break the dreariness it was time for a little escape in search of some sun and adventure…
I scanned through EasyJet and Ryanair websites for inspiration with the criteria being somewhere new (to get the excitement and anticipation buzz), somewhere with a maximum flight time of 4 hours (to make a long weekend ‘doable’) and somewhere warm. Or at least warmer than home.
Hurrah – Essaouira ticked these boxes! I’ve been to Morocco several times before but not to Essaouira so the new and therefore exciting box was ticked. And a 3.5 hour flight directly south meant warmer temperatures and hopefully some sunshine!
Chris decided this wasn’t for him, and at short notice he had work commitments so for me, this was a solo adventure.
I spent 3 nights in Essaouira (pronounced Eh-soo-euh-ruh), having left Stansted Airport on a Saturday lunchtime and arrived back late on Tuesday night.
My short break itinerary:
- Saturday: arrive in the evening at accommodation and an initial self-guided orientation walk
- Sunday: visit the weekly market at Had Draa for the morning and explore Essaouira in the afternoon
- Monday: day long coastal hike
- Tuesday: more Essaouira exploring
Situated on the Atlantic coast Essaouira is Morocco’s windy city although the wind was not as extreme as that Chris and I contended with in Mykonos last October! It had rained on the Friday before I arrived and apparently when this happens, there is less wind for a couple of days afterwards. I was fortunate to have had 2 days of full sunshine and clear blue skies and while the 3rd day was cloudier, it didn’t rain. The temperature reached a maximum of 17 degrees each day which the locals were complaining about it being cold! This was almost tropical compared with the recent frosty UK temperatures which barely got above freezing each day.
There are 5 gates (called ‘babs’) from which to enter the medina, the old walled town of Essaouira. The closest one to my accommodation was the Bab Marrakesh. All of the tiny streets of the medina are pedestrian and Bab Marrakesh was where I first arrived when my transfer from the airport dropped me off. This was also the meeting point for my two trips.
Morocco still has a closed currency system which means you are not permitted to take Moroccan Dirhams (MAD) into or out of the country. Thankfully there are several ATMs in Essaouira so I was able to withdraw currency during the first evening when I arrived.
Having experienced dodgy ATMs in the past where there is a risk they will eat your card or scam you, I have a Monzo currency card which is ideal for withdrawing cash abroad. Firstly you pre-load it with as much or as little cash as you wish and secondly there is no currency conversion charge. And thirdly, as soon as you use it for either withdrawing cash or buying something, you get an immediate notification from the Monzo app on your mobile.
Entry to Essaouira
During the winter Morocco is one hour ahead of the UK. One tip for entry… I had read on the FCO website that Morocco requires a completed health locator form on arrival. I had completed this and printed it to take with me which paid off! Most of my fellow passengers were not aware of this and as we entered the airport terminal just after landing, people were given blank forms to be completed. While they were doing this, I had handed over my pre-completed form and sauntered off to immigration where I was near to the front of the queue! This was the main formality and thankfully no covid certificates were needed. With hand luggage only I was through the airport within about 20 minutes of landing!
The fishing port is lively, atmospheric and authentic. The first time I walked past there were literally thousands of seagulls screeching and flying overhead so I gave it a miss on that occasion. Also I was with Ariana (someone I had met on the Had Draa market tour) and she was even less keen having been in the firing line of a seagull on the previous day… she wasn’t convinced this was supposed to be good luck (hehe).
However on my last day in Essaouira and with no trips planned I had an early morning wander and as less gulls were present I ventured further to see the fishing boats. This was well worth a visit with fishermen hauling their catches of mackerel and sardines ready for sale. People buy fresh fish from here and take it to open air restaurants to be cooked which seems a good idea until you consider the gulls circling expectantly above…
Essaouira means ‘little picture’ in Arabic and its quaint characterful medina and location near the sea make it an attractive place to visit. Part of the charm of the town is the ramparts which were built in the 1760’s to protect the port.
The ramparts were another Game of Thrones film location, although I’ve never seen Game of Thrones so couldn’t really relate! Canons line the towering wall pointing out to sea.
From the ramparts you can see the waves crashing on the rugged Atlantic coastline.
A tip for another day is to visit the Poodle Bar at the top of the Shimla Hostel. This has panoramic vistas overlooking the ramparts and is recommended for amazing and uninterrupted sunset views. I didn’t find this tip until my last day when a sunset opportunity was too late, however I went to the roof of this hostel in the morning to investigate.
An abundance of colourful paintings, colourful bowls and colourful hats line the narrow streets of the medina and the ramparts. The store owners were not too intense and didn’t try to force you to look at their goods unless you showed an interest. If this was the case they persuaded you inside to try and sell you something.
Many shops have almond butter machines churning away outside. Fresh almonds are loaded into the top and almond butter comes out and drops down into a container. The output did look slightly off-putting until I established what it was 🙂
Argan oil is made from locally grown argan berries, where growing conditions in this part of Morocco are perfect. Having ventured into a shop and being given a spray on my wrists I considered buying some as it smelt amazing until I remembered my tiny liquid allowance for my hand luggage.
Essaouira has a daily market located inside the medina which sells fruit and vegetables, nuts, spices, clothes, slippers etc. This was incredibly ‘tame’ compared with the rural Had Draa market!
There is a huge cat population in Essaouira… there are hundreds of them either wandering around the streets or mostly sleeping all over the place! In doorways, on steps and often lounging on the rugs, cushions and handicrafts for sale in the shops! They all seem in good shape probably because they have a healthy diet of fresh fish left over from scraps in the port and possibly from surplus food from the restaurants.
Had Draa Market
I spent Sunday morning visiting Had Draa market. Had Draa is a small town about 30 km from Essaouira on the road towards Marrakech however every Sunday it is host to the largest rural market in the region where for hundreds of years produce and livestock have been traded.
I met Naima my local guide at Bab Marrakesh at 10:00 and was driven the short distance to the market along with 2 other guests, Kathryn from Canada and Ariana from the US. As we arrived, Naima suggested it would be best to leave any valuables in the car with the driver and in any case to keep our bags in front of us while we walked around the market.
With this in mind, I took these photos quickly and in places where it felt relatively safe to do so, i.e. where I was fairly sure there was nobody behind about to snatch my mobile from my hands. In the past, when Chris and I travelled around the world in 2016, I would take my small camera with its wrist strap to these kind of places… which was a sensible decision. But I didn’t have it with me on this trip.
Naima explained that virtually no local women ever go to the market. It is a male domain and the only women would be either those who were widowed or western women such as us. We saw one local woman who was dressed completely in white which was a sign the woman was in mourning where white is worn for 4 months and 1 week.
There were very few tourists and this was one of the rare occasions to be taken on a truly authentic tour and not one that had been created and enhanced for tourists.
I wasn’t keen on the next section where Naima led us to the animals. This part was grim where we could see hundreds of sheep, donkeys and goats with their front legs tied together so stop them from wandering off. Apparently donkeys sell for around 25 euros and are cheap as there is not much you can do with them.
The starting price for camels is around 800 euros and cows are the most expensive. We watched as a truckload of cows began their 3 hour journey to Marrakech, all loaded up and squashed in together. Kids as well as adults beat the animals with sticks and those that had fallen over struggled to get up with their legs tied together.
Naima took us to the above stall where we tasted some of the produce including baked chickpeas! These actually tasted quite good, more like nuts than chick peas. She brought some which were added to our little forthcoming feast.
At one point Naima stopped at a stall selling locally produced olive oil. With his grubby hands, the stall holder retrieved some bread from a plastic bag and offered us all a piece to dip in the oil for a taste.
All manner of baskets and containers made from reeds were for sale on this stall. Included above are camel baskets which sit either side of the hump. We also saw a ‘rubber tyre’ stall where old tyres are recycled into products such as animal feeders, grain holders etc.
As someone who hardly ever eats meat with animal welfare being the main driver, the next part of our market tour was quite alarming! We were taken through the meat market where you had to dodge carcasses dangling at head height, bunches of various animal parts hanging up and animal heads perched on the stalls. We stopped at one and Naima explained the large lump of white gunky stuff hanging up was camel hump fat. The stall holder carved it in the manner of carving a kebab and sliced off wedges. Even more gross was one of the locals, an old man with no teeth, who stood next to us eating chunks of fresh raw fat.
Interspersed with the raw meat stalls were several grills and the idea was that you buy your meat and have it cooked on the barbeque there and then. Naima had purchased some raw camel meat and we sat at a dirty rickerty table amongst a few locals while it was cooked nearby. As we waited we were served mint tea. A snake charmer carrying his basket approached us but explained to Naima that the snake was dead. After about 30 minutes, the plate of cooked camel arrived.
Following our lunchtime ‘treats’ we were about to leave when things took a major turn for the worst. Kathryn who had been clutching her bag tightly about her person throughout our time in the market suddenly exclaimed that it was gone! At some point within the last few minutes, someone had managed to steal her bag from her lap which she said contained her passport, mobile, credit cards and driving licence. None of us saw anything and all that could be done was to find a police officer to report it. The police officer explained that Kathryn was the 5th bag snatching victim of that day. From that point on, I took no more photos and kept my own bag hidden underneath my jacket.
Back to Essaouira
We were dropped back in Essaouira at around 2 pm and later in the afternoon as I was exploring the ramparts I had bumped into Ariana. She was heading towards the beach in search of a restaurant which served wine. I was heading there too, primarily to look at the beach but I was tempted by the prospect of dinner and wine so we agreed to do this together. With a passion for travel and similar careers we had lots to talk about. Ariana works for a global IT company and is in the fortunate position of being a digital nomad and being able to work anywhere in the world. She had arrived in Essaouira from Thailand and was planning to rent an apartment for a few weeks while she worked.
Glad to have some company, Ariana and I walked from the ramparts, past the fishing port and out half way along the huge sandy beach.
Food and drink
Having wandered along and checked a couple of menus we found a restaurant overlooking the beach which served wine. Most Moroccans don’t drink alcohol and many of the restaurants located inside the medina don’t serve wine. Ariana and I shared a bottle of crisp chilled and delicious local wine from Essaouira. Perfect!
We drank some of the wine while we waited for our food. On this occasion I ordered fish tagine. Tagine is a traditional Moroccan cooking dish which had a round base (as shown above) and during the cooking process it is covered with a cone-shaped lid. This was delicious and we appreciated our lovely and comfortable surroundings which were a big contrast from the lunch we had participated in at Had Draa earlier in the day!
On my last day I tried a local beer, which was called ‘Flag’. Flag is one of 3 Moroccan beers and it was quite pleasant especially as I sat in another beach bar people watching and reflecting on the 3 days I had just had in Essaouira.
Jumping around a bit, I popped into the above quirky cafe on my first night! It was fairly empty when I arrived but shortly after, as I ordered mint tea and local sweets, a band started to set up.
Mint tea is an important part of Moroccan culture and most Moroccans drink it several times a day. It is a symbol of hospitality and when poured, it is poured from a height. Mint tea is served with sugar which of course is optional.
The band started to play traditional Moroccan music! This was loud, fun and entertaining and attracted more visitors to the cafe – it was packed by the time I left!
Vegans are well catered for in Essaouira and I came across several vegan restaurants. The one above, Le Corail has good reviews although I didn’t go there.
Rue Agadir is the narrow street which led from my accommodation to the main street of the medina.
I spent my 3 nights staying in the Riad Dar Awil. A riad is the Moroccan term for guest house and for under £45 per night I had a comfortable room with a hot powerful shower and very fast and consistent wifi. The riad was centrally located inside the the medina and just 2 minutes walk from the Bab Marrakech (Marrakech gate).
One of the best things about this riad was the most fabulous breakfast which I enjoyed each morning. This consisted of freshly squeezed orange juice, proper filtered coffee, delicious fresh Moroccan bread, a fresh chocolate croissant, a pancake and some fruit each day. This was all served to your table and as well of all of this, each morning a sizzling small tagine was served to me which consisted of an egg on a bed of vegetables, for example, aubergine, tomato, onions and lots of black pepper!
Apart from the unfortunate bag snatching incident I felt safe as a solo woman traveller in Essaouira however on my own, 3 days was enough for me and if I was there any longer I would have wanted to move somewhere else.
I prefer to be busy and active every day and in hindsight should have planned something for the Tuesday as I had all day and got a bit bored of wandering around on my own particularly as I’m not keen on shops and the museum was closed. On the Sunday morning, Kathryn had mentioned she would be interested in visiting a local vineyard which I was going to suggest we do together until she lost her bag and had more pressing concerns.
I sat pondering solo travel while drinking beer on the last afternoon and came to the conclusion that while I’m perfectly happy to travel on my own, the best times have been when I’ve booked local excursions or been travelling as part of a group, perhaps with Intrepid or Explore. When I’ve been totally independent and taken local transport in the past rather than an organised tour, it is much more difficult to meet and chat with people.
Overall, this was an ideal low cost little break. The flights were £42 return, 3 nights in the riad was £132 and with the 2 trips, food, airport car park and airport transfers I spent around £400 in total.