If Marrakech is a city of sounds then Morocco may easily be described as a country of colours — Marrakech an expanse of reddish ochre, Essaouira a picture postcard of white and blue, Fes all golden and green.
The contrast between Essaouira’s crystal clear azure sky and the white-washed city is a photographer’s dream. The sound of seagulls and the smell of salt water is everywhere. Powerful trade winds blow constantly and the multitude of hooded Berber cloaks suit the elements perfectly. The ramparts and the fishing harbor are a central feature of the city.
Essaouira’s medina is quite different than Marrakech’s — far less confusing and narrow, and again, a color contrast of blue and white versus the blend of earth tones in Marrakech. We found a nice quiet courtyard one evening for dinner at a restaurant run by a couple of Brits where Oscar and Stella enjoyed running around and playing with some local kids and while we enjoyed tea and scones for dessert.
Sometimes the most primitive locations end up providing the nicest moments. Tagenza Beach proved to be just such a place. Thirty minutes outside of Essaouira, a rocky outcrop on the shore of the Atlantic with a few basic stone dwellings and one small simple fish restaurant. Abdullah, the owner, barbecues a tasty array of seafood and best of all — he has beer. Morocco being relatively “dry”, finding a restaurant that opens before 7:30 p.m. which serves alcohol is definitely a treat. When we first arrived the weather was cold and drizzling and the beer was warm. But the clouds parted and as the day got warmer, the beer got colder. We fully took advantage of it and spent the afternoon by the seaside watching Oscar and Stella playing in the rock pools as Stella balanced one of many puppies on her continuously throughout our visit. It was a great break from the usual labyrinth of the medina (how arrogant are we! the ‘usual’ medina — we will be scolding ourselves for such thoughts before we know what hit us).
Closer to Essaouira we found camel riding on the beach, which naturally Stella was extremely excited about and Oscar was decidedly reticent. So Stella enjoyed a 30 minute ride along the beach with mom while Oscar and dad kicked back on lounge chairs with a beverage.
All told, we spent a lazy week in Essaouira in the modern comforts of 5-Columns, a chicly renovated riad which perfectly mixed traditional Moroccan fixtures with both modern and antique elements spliced with cool posters of 60’s music icons, reminding you of the days when Morocco was part of the hippie tour. The riad was beautiful and makes us long for a house of our own.
The main attraction in Fes is it’s tanneries. The process of tanning hides here has remained unchanged for centuries: poppies make the red; pomegranate seeds for yellow; wild mint (not just any mint, wild mint, we were repeatedly told) for the green; and something else for the brown (we forget). The white pits are filled with bird excrement and lime, a corrosive cocktail, requiring the need for gloves. We were given mint sprigs to mask the smell, but despite reading about the horrid odor, it really wasn’t bad at all (perhaps we were upwind).
The principal means of transporting the hides to and from the tanneries within the medina are by donkey or mule, but Stella still managed to steal a ride.
Staying in traditional Moroccan riads within the various medinas was definitely interesting. Shuttered rooms opened onto a central light filled atrium, the outside walls windowless on lower flowers to provide privacy, a key design feature for women in a largely Islamic country. Tadelakt plaster and zellige tiles adorned every surface, a kaleidoscope of jewel-toned colour and elaborate patterns.
Interesting, however, didn’t always mean incredibly comfortable and by the end of Morocco we needed a “vacation” from the travels and checked ourself out of Pasha Baghdad Massirya early and into the Sofitel Palais Jamai for four days of heavenly bliss! Down duvets and pillows, Egyptian cotton sheets, a garden to run through, a heated pool and best of all, room service – absolutely no need to go anywhere for anything.
Truth be told, we botched the scheduling of Morocco, staying far too long in each place. Traveling with kids, it’s a fine line between moving to fast (wearing them out), and moving too slow (boring them to death). Morocco is a fascinating country, but our itinerary was fairly repetitive, really only consisting of medina life, apart from our one day trip into the Ourika Valley. Even without kids, we’d had enough of the medina before we had even got to Fes, leaving little reason to be there after you’d seen the tanneries (which took all of 30 minutes). With interest waning and tempers boiling, we moved into Palais Jamai, blowing the budget but saving the trip. Money well spent, we are recharged and ready for Spain.