Friday, July 11, 2014

Dr. Plotnick's Moroccan Cat Adventure - Day 4 - Essaouira

Morocco Day 4 (Day 1 Day 2 Day 3

Day trip!  Our destination: the beautiful coastal fishing town of Essaouira

Essaouira has an interesting history. Today, it’s a favorite destination for the picturesque fishing harbor, the twisting little alleyways, and the sand, sea and surf.  It used to be a hippie hangout for surfers and expat artists, and though the city now hosts a broader range of visitors, you can still see and hear the hippie/artist vibe in many places in town. 

The three hour bus ride was not very thrilling.  Mile after mile of dirt, dust and weeks, really.  Occasionally we’d spot a shepherd with a few sheep, or a few Muslim women, fully covered in the blazing heat, gathering up crops in little baskets, or maybe a wild donkey grazing on some hay in the distance.  Peaceful? Yes. Boring? Kinda.  And then, while sitting in my seat at the front of the bus, I noticed a cluster of people ahead on the right side of the road.  A break in the monotony.  But I had no idea what they were gathered around.  I had my camera in hand, and as we got closer, I saw what everyone was looking at.  The bus was moving at a decent pace, and I only had one or two seconds to fire off a photo, through the big front window of the bus.  Not much time to compose the photo or check the exposure.  So I set up and aimed away.  Presto!  The coolest shot of the entire trip. 

Yes! Those are goats in the tree! What the heck is the deal with that?!   I’ll tell you.

The argan tree is found in Morocco and Algeria.  The tree bears a fruit that contains a hard nut in the center.  The nut contains one (occasionally two or three) small, oil-rich seeds. Argan oil is produced in the southwestern part of Morocco.  It is made by roasting the seeds (which gives the oil its distinctive nutty flavor), and then grinding the seeds to a paste.  The paste is then squeezed by hand to extract the oil.

It so happens that goats love the leaves and fruit of the argan tree. The fruit of the tree takes a year to ripen, so goats are kept away from the trees until that time.  After that, the trees are a goat free-for-all, which is what this picture is showing.

Our bus pulled into the station in Essaouira at about noon.  This gave us almost five hours to explore Essaouira.  The main entry to the medina is Bab Marrakech.  The walk to the gate is just a few minutes from the bus station. On the walk, you pass the south bastion, which currently houses the Ensemble Artisanal.

We didn’t pay to enter the south bastion (not much to see), but I did stop to admire a very cute kitten at the entry. 

It looks like cats aren’t confined to Marrakech only.  As you’ll see, there are plenty in the other cities, too.

            We arrived at Bab Marrakech and entered the main attraction: the medina itself.

The medina is the very essence of Essaouira, where every body eats, shops, and wanders.  When you enter, you walk up a long busy street, the Rue Mohammed al Qorry.  

This street eventually intersects with Avenue de l’Istiqlal.  At the intersection of these two streets, you’ll find the souks.  There is a souk for fish, a souk for spices and grain, and a little square called Joutia where second hand items are auctioned.  While strolling through the souks, I noticed there was no shortage of cats, like this one resting in the shade of a cabinet,

and this one beside a bicycle, drinking water from a bowl left out for him.

 The items for sale in these souks were every bit as colorful as those in Marrakech. 

 In the food souk, we saw dates and figs, nuts and cookies, guys selling tons of mint,

 lots of beans,

live chickens,

and a variety of spices and potions.  

The winding streets were peaceful and pretty, and it reminded me a lot of Mykonos in some ways,

with the blue doors and window shutters.  While strolling through the picturesque streets, I saw another makeshift bowl of water deliberately left out for the cats, which I thought was nice.

The cats here in Essaouira seems more relaxed and in better shape than those in Marrakech.

This cat had a crusty nose and ear tip, but wow, check out the eyes!

We made our way to the north bastion.

The bastion once held emergency supplies of freshwater, and the large circle of stones in the center is what was called a “call point”, an alarm system to warn of approaching invaders.  Guards would warn of danger by stomping on the circle, which causes the sound to echo loudly.  This is something I couldn’t try, because the circle was occupied by a bunch of free-spirited young kids playing music and dancing.

Everyone was chanting to the music and having a great time.   From the north bastion, we headed down a little to the ramparts.   Essaouira’s current layout is traced back to 1765. That year, the town’s local ruler captured a French ship and hired one of the passengers to rebuild his port. He had the city surrounded with a heavy defensive wall, and most of it still stands.  The most impressive stretch of wall is the cannon-lined Skala de la Ville.

The cutouts in the wall frame the waves nicely, and I enjoyed just sitting up there and enjoying the view.

From the ramparts, you also get a nice view of the quaint street below. 

At the end of the rampart was an old wooden fence, and I got this very cool picture of a cat peering down at the street through one of the slats.

We descended from the rampart and strolled through the Kasbah area, eventually finding our way to Plaza Moulay Hassan.  This is the focal point of Essaouira, where you find most of the restaurants and cafés.

We ended up grabbing lunch at Chez Ben Mostafa,

and took a respite from the blazing sun. 

After lunch, it was onto the port. The port was pretty, but I swear, I felt like Tippi Hedron in Hitchcock’s “The Birds”.  Seagulls are cool looking birds,

but en masse, they’re scary!  

As for bastions, Essaouira has three of them – the southern one, which we saw at the entry; the northern one, with the cannons; and this third one, the port bastion, which overlooks a little quay filled with striking blue boats.  It makes for a picture-postcard view, as you can see

The port was built in 1769 by an Englishman who had converted to Islam. Trawlers and other boats bob along the quay,

and sailors sell the daily catch of sardines, calamari, and skate from small dockside tables.

There’s a beach at Essaouira, and I wanted to check it out.  The stroll from the port to the beach is a brief one.  On the way, just outside the medina, is a small park-like square that goes by the name Place Orson Welles, in honor of the filmmaker who came here in 1949 to film Othello. 

The park, sadly, was an ugly little patch of dirt, and they didn’t treat the great Mr. Welles with much respect, I’m afraid.

The beach was okay.  Not especially pretty, and not much sunbathing was going on.  Sunbathing involves showing skin, and Moroccans, being Muslim, aren’t particularly keen on showing it.  Instead, you’ll find kids playing soccer.

Our bus was heading back for Marrakech soon, so we made our way back to the entry gate.  The walk back was nice, as we passed colorful rug shops and other cute stores.

There were lots of cats during this stretch, like this little orange boy by the rug shop,

this one posing next to a few tagines,

this tortie on a metal stand,

and this pregnant orange tabby.  

I also recorded yet another act of kindness toward cats in Morocco, namely, this gentleman about to put a handful of dry food down for these cats. 

They ate, as you can see,

and then the little cream colored tabby scratched at some dirt on the curb, and tinkled.  

I suppose it was rude of me to watch.  Sorry.  We finally got to the exit gate (Bab Marrakech, the same gate we came in), where this cute cat was posing next to a cannon.

Three long hours on the road later (again, the ride never got more interesting than this) 

we were back in Marrakech. 

For our last night in Marrakech, we wanted to eat the street food at the food stalls in the Djemma el Fna. Every night we saw the smoke rising from the grills.

You can’t come to Marrakech and not partake. 

So, we found a food stall that seemed
popular with the locals,

and we feasted.

Bread, olives, assorted dips, skewers of meat, and an order of couscous on the way.   Definitely worth it.  

That’s it for Marrakech.  Tomorrow we say goodbye, and hop on the train for Fes.  If you think Marrakech was wild, trust me, you ain’t seen nothing yet until you see Fes.

Day 5

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