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.
Tiznit - isn't it?
We left on a bus that evening from a crowded, noisy bus station for a town called Tiznit, 250km south and past Agadir to the south. The bus journey was awful. Hot, sweaty and cramped, also in pitch darkness with no reading light option, I had nothing to do but sit and wait (not even an mp3 player to alleviate the boredom), which I did for six hours. I find it impossible to sleep on buses or trains, or even to relax in certain situations. We eventually pulled up at a bus stop clearly out of the town centre but right next to a hotel which, grotty and uninviting though it was, had a bed on which we could get some much-needed sleep. My girlfriend was confined to bed for the day - she also had had a reaction to the food - so I set off exploring on my own. I soon discovered that Tiznit was an annoying place. I had to rid myself of a particularly trying local who was determined to show me all of Tiznit's sights, including his cousin's silver jewellery shop (Tiznit being a big silver-producing area and therefore renowned for the quality and abundance of its jewellery), I took a 'Grand Taxi' the 16km to 'Aglou Plage', the local beach. Grand Taxis are actually just normal Mercedes, which are only big when compared to the average taxi in Morocco, the Fiat Uno. They are, however, an embodiment of the national urge not to waste anything, so they cram six passengers into them - two in the front with the driver and four in the back, and they are charged roughly 20 percent more for any such journey than the bus equivalent. On short journeys, buses are usually preferable, but they come into their own on longer ones, especially through mountains, which they whizz through and half journey times. Of course, on the negative side is the comfort factor. We were crushed like sardines in the back of that twenty year old Merc and it was quite a relief to get out.
Aglou Plage looked like Whitley Bay beach on a bad day (my home town in the north east of the UK). As we had neared the coast from Tiznit, the fog had enveloped us, and as I stepped out of the car into a stiff cool breeze and the smell of salt and seaweed, I was taken back to cold, wet summers trudging along English promenades, 'making the most of it' as us English are forced to do. Forlornly, I took a picture from the prom which could for all the world have been holidaying by the North Sea. I was considering taking the first taxi back to Tiznit when I spotted a doughnut stall and filled up on several tasty doughnuts before braving the beach again. I determined to stroll along the beach until I got bored, and grimly headed off into ther fog and gale. After a few minutes, I came to some quite dramatic rocks which the sea was battering against quite fiercely. I sat down and started experimenting with my new digital camera, and as I did so the fog retreated and the sun played with the dark clouds - making some great photographic opportunities. The hills behind the beach appeared out of the gloom, and the beach took on a quite picturesque aspect suddenly. I don't think this stretch of coast is ever going to win any awards, and the weather can be unpredictable, but I realised that it had some character. But I was glad to get out of Tiznit. It is the only place in Morocco I went where I didn't feel comfortable - everyone seemed spookily to know who we were within a couple of hours of arriving - and the evening had been atrociously difficult, just trying to find a restaurant proved an impossible task as several 'friendly' guys offered their services to help us. We had accepted the help of one, who then proceeded to trail us for the rest of the evening, literally. Not much fun. All in all, Tiznit isn't it.
Next on the agenda was Mirleft, a little hippy coastal town which we cruised into via Grand Taxi. We were considering just spending the morning there, but as soon as we arrived, it felt so relaxed and chilled out compared to Tiznit that we immediately decided to stay. Mirleft is everything that Tiznit isn't: laid-back, friendly, welcoming, cosmopolitan - there were plenty of backpackers there, many returning from overland trips from the Sahara, and plenty of surfers. There also seemed to be a fair smattering of artists and musicians. The town had a Spanish vibe - there is plenty of evidence of the Spanish occupation along the Moroccan coastline, and colonial reminders are dotted everywhere. They tend to give towns a slightly yesteryear feel, and of better days gone by - but the buildings are noticably smarter than in other parts of the coast we saw. There were no chain hotels or package tourists here - just little independent operations and small businesses. Perfect. We found a lovely quiet whitewashed hotel with terrace and patio to relax on, and spent the rest of the day pottering around the town, which was set below a hill with a ruined Spanish Bastion on it. There's not a huge amount to do there if you're not a surfer other than stroll around, but there were some lovely cafes and bars, and one or two very good seafood restaurants. We also had time for a spot of sunbathing, as the weather had improved dramatically since the day before and Mirleft is blessed with some fantastic beaches and coves. From there I contemplated the next few days, which would take us 900km east and to the edge of the Sahara. We wouldn't see the coast again for nearly three weeks.
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This blog is part of a series. To see the previous part, on Marrakesh and the Atlas Mountains, go here:
And to see the next part, on the Anti-Atlas region, including Tafraoute and Ait Benhaddou, go here: