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Morocco in a Month (Part 2/6) - The Coast: Agadir, Essaouira, Tiznit & Mirleft

Updated: Mar 30, 2019

Agadir - limited appeal

We took a bus down to the coast after our mountain exertions, and decided to have a few days of relative laziness. Agadir, our first destination, took about five hours to get to from the High Atlas. I wasn't expecting too much from it, and so I wasn't disappointed in this respect. It's a largely post-war city, owing mainly to its almost complete destruction in a 1960 earthquake and subsequent rebuilding along eastern European lines - cheerless low concrete structures which are already beginning to crumble and flake, with just the odd hardy stone building dotted around here and there. No sights as such to delay you. Not inspiring in any way, but the main aim of going there was simple - a spot of r+r after three days braving the souqs and medina of sweaty, noisy Marrakesh and another three slogging through the High Atlas. with mules and a slave-driving guide. Agadir sported a long, sandy beach which was more then adequate, and I suppose it fulfilled its role in a sense. The long surf of the Atlantic was surprisingly warm, shallow and pleasant to bathe in, surrounded as it was by a protective bay and mountains to one side. It was chock full of mostly Moroccan holiday makers, making the most of the end of holiday season. By Moroccan standards, it was quite liberal - a few naked chests were proudly strutted by the men, and some of the less coy women were out and about in their bathers. Mostly though, Moroccans aren't particularly given to showing off their bodies in public. Even public shows of affection are frowned upon - kissing is a complete no no. Strangely though, hand-holding between men seems perfectly acceptable - even de rigeur - which is a bit unnerving for the average western man, me included, but you get used to it in Morocco. Actually, it seems quite normal in most Arabic countries I've visited since. Men can be oddly effeminate by European standards - but it's better than being threatening thugs I suppose.

Essaourria - pearl of the Atlantic

In general, Morocco is not a great beach country: the few resorts scattered down the long (and generally featureless) Atlantic coast have hardly attained international acclaim, and this leg of the trip in my mind wasn't going to throw up any particular gems. Still, we enjoyed a slothful couple of days in Agadir and then decided to move up the coast to possibly Morocco's premier beach resort, Essaouira, to see what else the coast had to offer. Owing to some cock-eyed planning, I knew we would have to back-track to Agadir again in order to see some places in the south - and having read the guidebook I wasn't really interested in pressing on further up the coast to the north; so this was to be the furthest we would get along the coast in this direction. The coach journey was longer than expected - four and a half hours instead of the advertised three - mainly owing to the coach being old and decrepit, but also because of a self-indulgent 45 minute break because the driver fancied a kebab. The system of purchase at these places is interesting. You have to first queue up at a roadside butcher who will sell you quarter of a pound of meat, then you join another queue and patiently wait whilst your pattie is cooked by the man in charge of the barbeque. An interesting system, not unlike some of the ideas used in Soviet times to keep people in full employment. The whole procedure takes a good ten to fifteen minutes at times of high demand like when a coachload of people are hungrily wating. Highly irritating, and the quality of meat and overall hygeine of the operation are open to question; but when you finally get your sandwich, you do appreciate it.

Arriving in Essaourria at dusk, we were attacked by a group of elderly (but rambunctious) ladies at the bus station, keen to get us to stay in their house. These situations can be stressful at the best of times; but when aggressively pushed, pulled and harried by them after along and uncomfortable bus journey, it is pretty hard to remain calm. Even after I selected someone who looked like they might have a house that may be presentable to some degree, several others trailed us down the road, expectantly, hoping we would change our minds. Which we emphatically didn't, although as we trudged down a road which smelt rather overpoweringly of raw sewage a few minutes later, we rather wished we had. It seems the local authorities had decided to choose holiday season to dig up the sewage and drainage system in half the city, and it made navigation not only difficult, but very smelly. We eventually got to the (thankfully reasonable) house, agreed some nominal price for the night and dumped our stuff before heading to the medina and beach before sunset. We escaped to a beachfront restaurant and enjoyed a nice fish soup and tagine before retiring to one of the few bars that sold beer. The Stork I bought was of pretty good quality and not that overpriced, so I let my hair down and had three. Well they were big (by Moroccan standards) - 330ml.

Bright and breezy, Essaouira is the laid-back alternative to frenetic Marrakesh, and it lacks the package tourist vibe of Agadir. It has a handsome medina, city walls and castle, and makes for a fantastically relaxing few days. It's hip, it's happening and it's very friendly. In fact, it was so pleasant that we felt like staying there for a week, rather than the couple of days we'd allotted it. This town is said to be the place that inspired Jimi Hendrix to pen Castles Made of Sand, and it's not hard to understand why. There are fortifications surrounding the Skala Kasbah, protecting the town from the pounding Atlantic on one side and overland invaders from the other, and its narrow lanes, containing pretty little blue and white-painted houses, ooze with atmosphere. You can happily spend days poking around souks, popping in and out of little art galleries, cafes, tea houses and artisans' shops, before you even get to the beach. We spent about hald a day doing each. Sunbathing left for the afternoon. Strolling around the port area around sunset was absolutely perfect for getting some pictures - it's a time when seagulls feed, and they are one of the symbols of Essaouria - you can't get a shot without a blanket of them even if you want to. They certainly add something to the place. Including a lot of droppings. The view out over Île de Mogador from the bastion was extremely pretty and a 'must see' in the town.

As the sun drifted towards the horizon, I looked at my arms and legs, which had gone a particularly fetching shade of lobster red; forgot the sunlotion again. The first half of September is still very hot in Morocco. We trotted along the promenade and, rounding a corner, came to the part of town where fishing boats put to and sold their wares to tourists. We warily approached one; I picked up a still-alive but quite tempting looking crab and asked "C'est combien?" (French being the lingua franca for tourists here), and the salesman picked up a few handfuls of fresh prawns, some large sardines and what looked like a red snapper, and said "150 Dirhams, with salad and drinks"; at about $12 between us, this represented good value, so we sat down as our guy roasted them on the barbeque. They arrived on several plates five minutes later, suitably charred but delicious. As I squeezed lemon and lime juice over the recently-expired sealife, I thought "This is how seafood should be eaten. Fresh, clean, straight out of the sea." Of course I was to regret these thoughts later that night. It wasn't long after a pleasant stroll along the pier, where I got some sunset pictures of the battlements surrounding the seaward side of the town, that I had to leg it to a hotel toilet to evacuate the recently consumed seafood in a rather forceful manner. I don't think my request to have a look at the hotel's rooms afterwards impressed the receptionist too much. A walk through the souks and central medina of the town revealed another labrynthine mass of streets going off in all directions, crowded with traders and tourists looking for bargains. It was rather less stressful than Marrakech's souk, and although from time to time someone would try to tempt us into their jewellery / carpet / clothes shop, they weren't too forceful and my wallet remained intact. I expected more serious battles ahead.