It was seventeen years ago when I got the flavour of Morocco. The first wave of interior design featuring ethnic styles was becoming increasingly more recognised, leaving behind the eighties fashions for Laura Ashley and pastel shades. I went with my friend to celebrate my fortieth and to see first hand the beautifully decorated china, coloured tea glasses and richly coloured textiles.
I have yearned to return ever since, so when the Creative Writing teacher Claire Steele came onto my radar with her Magical Journeys to far off lands like Kerala, Thailand and yes, yes, to Essaouira. Serendipity waved her wand and I was to discover that we would also be staying in the same Riad that had enchanted me nearly two decades ago. The Villa Maroc is a haven in a paradise, exquisitely decorated and staffed with the most caring and attentive ladies and gentlemen. Like all Riad houses, the exterior bare walls gives nothing away of what will wow you once you venture down its corridors.
|so many ramshackle doors in walls that lead to who knows where|
You will probably know by now, that I am crazy about cats, nutty about squirrels and simply stupid about anything with a fur coat. I had forgotten how many cats were here and suddenly got a jolt that I may get upset if I saw too many poorly ones needing attention. Thankfully this isn't the case, on the whole, the cats are friendly and cared for, the odd one is a bit scraggy, but the majority of sun bathers, fish snatchers and scrap hoovers can be stroked and picked up. Often found asleep on the seat next to you in the outdoor cafe, or just ambling down the cobbles, Essaouira is all about the cat.
I have never tried any kind of class in creative writing before, or studied anything further than exams in English, so it was a complete and utter surprise to find out how Claire unlocks the words and imagination in our heads. She cleverly weaves her wisdom and kindness to encourage and stimulate every level of writer. The group practise became like a therapy for me, as we unlocked memories and life experiences to enrich our words.
Afternoons we wandered, shopped, sat in cafes being entertained by slightly toothless and tuneless street musicians, and we smiled and laughed, loudly and often.
Within a day we had found our way around, sticking to the outside walls will often take your round in a circle, the more we wandered the more we became brave to exploring the narrow alleys. Often we would wander alone and there was never any problems or unwanted attention to anyone, sure they like to sell to you, the banter is fairly full on, so if you want to shop be prepared to haggle and spend some considerable time doing so.
The sellers will often take ages before they quote you a price and then when you have your starting point expect to get them down to half the amount they started with. So when they ask 'what do you want to pay' say under half what they first said. They will act horrified, but if you start to walk away they will do anything to meet you somewhere in the middle, the banter can be quite hilarious. Be firm, don't feel obliged, if they are being ridiculous then walk away.
The beach is large, made of fine sand and windy. Popular with wind surfers but certainly not too overcrowded. Here you can get camel rides, but I have no idea what it's like to swim, I'm sure the locals will advise you.
I had no idea that in the seventeen years that had passed, the shops would now have enlarged their range of wares and you can now buy great clothes, suitable for the climate and modest enough for the culture. I would suggest packing as little as possible, loose trousers, linen tops and light cotton layers can all be found, as can straw hats, lovely scarves and sandals of all kinds.
The streets are uneven and full of holes, so make sure you have some sensible shoes with you that won't rub when you do lots of walking in heat, perhaps save the sandals for a walk on the beach.
The fancy restaurants will cost about 20 t0 25 euros for three courses without alcohol. Lunch can be found for under 5 euros, the berber tagine is an omelette with flavours, a brochette is a skewer of meat, the grilled chicken is great. Vegetarians have lots of choices cooked and salads. Buy some hand sanitiser gel when you get there, in case you can't resist stroking a few cats or have handled some dirty junk. Some cafes may not have toilet tissue so a few wet wipes might also be handy to carry.
If, like me you find yourself divided by your own and your partners wishes on holiday then this could cover all bases. Mine likes to sunbathe, so while he roasts on the terrace or braves the sea, I will be seeking the shade in some antique jewellery store, trying on the treasures previously owned by some bedouin, berber tuareg nomad.
The tribal jewellery is stunning, but if your tastes are more european then there are equally the same amount of new jewellery shops. Rugs are also a speciality and a modest sized one can fold up smaller to squeeze in that empty suitcase. Have in mind your colour scheme before you go.
Lunch cafes I liked were Safran in a square surrounded by shops just off a main shopping street(Avenue Mohammed Zerktouni), also the Cafe Sahakfe which has healthy food and is on the Place de L'horage. Next door the shop selling clothes has lovely tops for men. Just round the corner is the Villa Maroc where you can book for an evening meal. Chez Ali doesn't look much but they serve a great Berber Omelette.
Other great eateries are ; The Unicord (La Licorn) Rue Skala (where there are also some lovely craft shops selling wooden boxes), Le Table de Madada, I didn't like Taros, it's very noisy,and the atmospheric and beautiful The Patio (fish).
If your budget doesn't extend to the Villa Maroc I would suggest that you try and stay within the old city walls, in the Medina or Kasbah where your experience will be enhanced by the hundred year old houses, medieval walls and carless streets. Here you can walk everywhere easily and drop back to your room when you need a rest.
I have already booked to go back as I want to do more and share in detail more individual shops. I am definitely taking empty suitcases with bubble wrap inside so I can wrap the breakables better.
Love from along the watchtower ... x