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March 7, 2017

Today we boarded the bus for a side trip to Essaouira, once Morocco’s main trading port and a stronghold of the Jewish culture.  I really loved this day trip, and I would highly recommend visiting this windy port town home to a picturesque fishing harbor, a medina, a beach with surf, and the world famous Gnaoua Music Festival which takes place in June.

Along the way, we passed by large fruit farms located closer Marrakesh due to the underground rivers, as well as wheat and barley farms which were located in the drier areas near Essaouira.  The reddish dirt was rich with iron which also provided a perfect growing area for the argan trees, where we made our first stop along the main road to see goats in a tree.

I wish I could say in this instance these goats were in the tree naturally, but I unfortunately must admit that a shepherd has trained his goats to pose in the tree for all the tourists.  In exchange for a small fee, we could snap photos.  I didn’t have any change on me, and I was also opposed to paying a fee for something manufactured with animals, so I snapped photos from afar with a zoom lens until I was able to amble up a bit closer.  I had already seen goats climb the trees in the High Atlas Mountains naturally, so at least this wasn’t completely unorthodox, as they do climb trees to eat the foliage.  Though with far more goats in a much larger tree, this sight was far more extraordinary than anything we witnessed on our hike!

After visiting the argan tree forest, we stopped at an argan oil cooperative, Assouss Argane.  The argan oil comes from a nut which falls from the tree and is harvested in the early summer months.  The cooperatives created by the government have given many Berber women job opportunities.  We watched them crack the nut and extract and grind the seed into oil before we picked through shelves of product.  Argan oil is rich with vitamin E, so I bought some oil for my face.  Hopefully with a little use, my skin will be soft and silky smooth!  I learned later from my travel book that while more expensive, it is best to buy from members of the UCFA (http://www.cooperative-argane.com/nos-membres/) in order to support the rural women.  I’m not sure we succeeded at this, but hopefully our purchases still helped some ladies.

We continued past a variety of towns with markets and eventually arrived at Essaouira, home to 6,000 people far smaller than the bustling city of Marrakesh with a population of 1.5 million.  Essaouira is known for its windsurfing, silversmithing, painting, and woodworking.  The wooden articles are made from the thuya tree, an unassuming conifer whose scrubby foliage and knotty trunks are nothing to write home about.  Its root, however, are full of beauty, and the Berbers pass down from generation to generation the skills needed to select, harvest and work the wood.  The best pricing for these crafts is in Essaouira.

Our first stop in this picturesque village was for lunch at Le Seven.  The restaurant’s floor to ceiling windows provided a lovely view of the beach and boardwalk from the main street.  Waves broke on the sandy beach as we were served a three-course lunch.  We started with a cold salad and then had fish for an entrée.  Given we were at a fishing port, it seemed like the fish would have been fresh, but it tasted frozen.  The best course was the dessert with a local beer.

From Le Seven, we were shuttled just a bit farther into the city to the outskirts of the medina.  Before we weaved through the souks of the medina, we visited a jewelry store, Centre de la Bijouterie Artisanale.  I’ve never seen so much silver jewelry in one place!  The cases were loaded with charms, bracelets, rings and more.  The sales people swept in from nowhere as soon as a piece was touched, but otherwise quietly left us alone as we browsed.  Moroccans interpret a pointing gesture as a sign of want, so I’m sure touching demonstrated the same meeting.

From the silver store, we passed by the square and park named for Orson Welles who stayed in Essaouira while filming Othello as we headed toward the fishing port which I just loved.  I loved the old wooden boats lined up on the pier with one currently being restored.  I loved the piles of fishing nets and buoys that lined the harbor.  I loved the seagulls feasting on fish guts.  I loved seeing the fishermen prepare for their next day out at sea as they sliced up fish and baited hooks at wooden stands around the port. I probably could have spent hours here searching out different photos to take, but we had more places to explore.

We moved on to the medina located against the coast where we stumbled upon an alley way of artists. We wandered through the wending derbs lined with blue and white buildings and stores featuring a variety of local artists’ paintings.  Soon we reached a street of antiques and wood carvings.  We tried not to make eye contact or point so we could walk in peace, but then we realized how calm the market in Essaouira was as compared to that of Marrakesh.  We could meander and talk to the friendly store vendors without having to tersely answer “no”.  If I were shopping, I’d shop here.

We had to be back to the bus by 4.  As such, Jimmi and Margit went back to the silver shop to pick up a bracelet she brought with her to be fixed.  I was so impressed by that.  I would have never thought to bring broken jewelry with me to a foreign country, but Margit knew Essaouira was known for its silverwork and that it would be cheaper to get fixed in Morocco!  Suman and I continued to stroll through the market.  Suman opted on some street food.  It looked much more savory and filling than the frozen fish we had for lunch.  Eventually, we found our way out of the medina, though the exit wasn’t that close to the bus.  We hurried around the city wall and joined the group for our two-hour drive back to Marrakesh.  Nina and Brien liked Essaouira so much that they suggested, “We should have stayed here and just taken a day trip to Marrakesh.”  Don’t miss this small port town while traveling to Morocco!

We didn’t leave for dinner until around 8:15 as it is common to eat late in Morocco.  We drove outside of town to Chez Ali which felt like a Moroccan Vegas.  We were greeted by men mounted on horses.  Then we entered into a courtyard of fountains decorated with a giant cobra as a musician played his flute.

Next, we were escorted beneath a walkway of tents set up alongside a horse arena.  The walkway was lined by Moroccan dancers and musicians of all types who displayed the traditions they followed.  Soon we were seated for dinner indoors on the other side of the arena.   Each group of dancers and musicians circled through the restaurant by our tables as we were served our meal.  As usual, it was very hard to order a drink…the food came first!  Though now we were seasoned enough to try to round up the drink orders and ask for them all at once.

Our first course was soup.  The second course, which we thought was the entrée were lamb kabobs, and they were fantastic.  That might have been our favorite dish thus far.  Who knew we’d be served another dish for dinner…a tajine of chicken.  Of course, we were provided fruit for dessert, before we were encouraged to go outside and grab a seat by the arena to watch the horse show.

We were a little late in finding our seats on the cement stairs, so we sat very close to the railing.  We soon found out, while we had a good view, this was not an ideal location for staying clean as dirt and horse slobber flew in our faces as they galloped by us!  I think several unseasoned horse visitors enjoyed the twirling tricks the horsemen performed, but as a one-time equestrian competitor and horse enthusiast, it was a little hard for me to appreciate the horses being spurred into action as the cross-cantered around the corners.

We had a debate about the gentleman who fell off while trying to grab an item off the ground.  We felt it was staged so when the next rider galloped by and snagged the item off the sandy surface, he received a handsome applause!  In addition to the “circus” acts, horses were ridden to the end of the arena where the horsemen would all fire a gun at once.  If they didn’t fire simultaneously, we weren’t supposed to clap, but the audience did anyway.  Overall, it was a fun night of entertainment, though I can’t say I’d do it again despite it being the #1 show out of 5 on TripAdvisor.  Another good day on this Deamtrips Tour!  ETB

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