N.B. This lengthy, 3-part account of Festivals of both the distant & recent past plus comments on the vagaries of travelling in Morocco should probably be read in conjunction with Maggie Knutson’s account(s) of the 2009 Essaouira Gnawa Festival which are available on her blog here: http://maggieknutson.blogspot.com
Pt. 2 of 3 – Morocco 2002 – ‘Don’t you know we’re riding on the Marrakech Express?’
We had first been to Essaouira in 2002. It was the most minimalist of our family holidays and in some ways the best. We flew to Malaga without even a hotel booked for our first night. We simply arrived at about 10 pm, jumped in a cab and asked the driver to find us a decent hotel on the coast. He drove us to Fuengirola and we checked into a hotel across the road from the beach.
We’d only gone to the coast so the Princess could get into the sea, but the beach and the sea at Fuengirola were horrible, so we hired a car and drove up to Granada, where we had a fantastic few days exploring the town and the Alhambra palace with its wonderful gardens. When we dropped the car back to Fuengirola, the idea was to head down the coast, maybe stop in at Gibraltar (out of curiosity) and then go on to Tarifa and some better beaches.
The partner dropped the Princess & I at the Bus Station, then set off to return the car to the hire firm. We sat outside at a café, surrounded by luggage, at which point a young guy in a Barcelona football shirt came up behind me and asked for a light. It was only a few minutes later that I realised he’d absconded with my small ‘day bag’ in which I kept passport, camera, credit cards, traveller’s cheques et al.
I won’t dwell too long on the process by which a local cop I spoke to at the bus station before running down the road to the Guardia Civil station actually turned up at the station clutching my bag which he’d found dumped in a huge rubbish bin behind a hotel. Astonishingly, whilst the camera & traveller’s cheques had gone, the thief had missed the credit cards and ignored the passport. I left Fuengirola somehow feeling that I’d got off lightly.
The Princess had been somewhat traumatised by all of this, so Gibraltar and a vaguely familiar environment with double-decker buses, red pillar boxes and branches of Tesco seemed like good idea for a few days. I cancelled my traveller’s cheques and picked up new ones 24 hours later, then took a stroll down the main street before buying a Canon SLR camera at a stupid price in a sale in one of Gibraltar’s many duty-free shops. The Princess had been mollified with a bit of wildlife – the Apes up on the Rock and a Dolphin trip in Algeciras Bay…we were recovering and grew rather fond of Gibraltar with its scruffy backstreets and docks.
It then became a case of ‘now what?’ which is when we discovered the hydrofoil service to Tangier from Gibraltar and decided to have an adventure in Morocco. Getting information about Gibraltar whilst in Spain is really difficult because the Spanish really resent the Gibraltarians and getting information about Morocco whilst in Gibraltar is similarly difficult because the Gibraltarians, having got you there, don’t want to see you leave. Finding out the existence of a Moroccan hydrofoil service to Tangier, then finding out where the boats went from, where we could buy tickets and how often the service operated were rather like the convoluted plot details of a ‘Sherlock Holmes’ novel.
In the end, we took the late afternoon boat across the straits to Tangier. It was virtually empty as most people go in the morning for a day-trip. Once ashore in Tangier, we negotiated our way through immigration, rather unwillingly took on a Guide who got us through the scrum at the dock-gates but who clearly had his own agenda in terms of dragging us off to various emporia to get his commission and whom we battled in order to get him to adhere to our agenda so that we were booked on the overnight train to Marrakech. Tangier was a bit edgy, but I was probably just a bit over-sensitised as this was the Princess’ first foray outside of ‘Western’ culture.
I think by the time the guide dropped us at the station on the outskirts of the city at about 10pm, honour had been satisfied on both sides, but I didn’t really relax until we were aboard the train. First-class on Moroccan rail was comfortable if a little dog-eared, but the ‘facilities’ were something else. About half an hour out of Tangier, the Princess asked me if I would stand guard for her whilst she checked out the toilet at the end of our car. The toilet was basic and filthy in a dry way, thankfully, but it stank to high heaven of ingrained faecal matter and old urine. I knew that we would be on this train until we got to Casablanca at 5 the next morning, so I suggested to the Princess that either she would have to keep her legs crossed or take a deep breath and go for it. It’s at points like this that you find out what your kids are actually like. She took several huge breaths, marched into the toilet and shut the door, emerging a couple of minutes later with a look of grim satisfaction on her face. Welcome to Morocco….
Main routes in Morocco; the railway links are marked in red
We had to turf out of our ‘Marrakech Express’ at Casablanca station the following morning and eventually a much more modern and basic train appeared and took us the remaining few hours down to Marrakech.
We found Marrakech very hot & humid – there was so much heat haze that we couldn’t even see the Atlas Mountains. We got a hotel near Djemaa el Fnaa which had an air-conditioner in the room that sounded like a Lancaster taking off, but was otherwise fine. Djemaa el Fnaa was also fine – especially at night; very atmospheric, great fresh-squeezed orange juice and the souks were interesting once you blew off the persistent guides. However it was just too hot there and we decided to splash out about £30 on a ‘grand taxi’ down to the Atlantic coast at Essaouira, some three and a half hours due west. I rang ahead and booked us into the Hotel des Îles – it was an inspired choice.
To get to Essaouira from Marrakech, you travel west on an almost dead straight road across a bleak plain that is at times semi-desert. Once you start to descend towards the coast, the temperature begins to drop as you pick up the onshore breeze, you come into Essaouira at the south end of its vast bay, then drive the length of the esplanade/promenade as you head into town.
Hotel des Îles is named for the offshore islands that protect Essaouira’s bay and harbour from the open Atlantic. These island are also famous for other reasons as well; they are called Les Îles Purpuraires and were colonised by Phoenicians from the port of Tyre who collected the shells of a sea snail which produced a rich purple (hence the islands’ name) dye that the Tyrians sold to ancient Rome as the dye they used for their famous imperial togas.
Or so the story goes, anyway – there’s a really interesting article about the Islands and the whole dye story here:
Anyway, we noticed immediate changes once we’d arrived in Essaouira – for one thing the temperature was much more bearable and the atmosphere of the town was also similarly chilled after uptight Marrakech.
The hotel also was a fabulous retreat, just 50 yards from the Bab Es Sebaa gate leading into the walled Medina. We explored the Medina and the Skala fortifications during the 4 or 5 days we spent in Essaouira, but we also luxuriated in the hotel – the swimming pool was fabulous and we were intrigued by the association between the hotel and the 1952 Orson Welles movie, ‘Othello’; apparently, much of the movie was shot on the Skala and most of the cast and crew stayed at the Hotel des Îles, at that juncture only four years old.
Nowadays, one of the hotel’s bars has been converted into the Bar Orson Welles and the art-deco overtones of the hotel’s design seem fit for a Hollywood location themselves.
The staff were friendly and obliging, overcoming my limited French and organising a huge chocolate gateau to celebrate the Princess’ 12th birthday on our third day there. We celebrated that event with a camel ride along the beach to the ruined Portuguese fort at the southern extremity of the bay – this was a deeply uncomfortable experience for me and brought an abrupt end to any ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ aspirations I might have had.
The ruined Portuguese fort at the southern entrance to Essaouira Bay. Rumour had it that the Jimi Hendrix songs ‘Spanish Castle Magic’ and ‘Castles made of sand’ were based on this location, but in fact their composition pre-dated Hendrix’ visit to Essaouira in 1967.
We ate well at the fish stalls down near the harbour and came home with an ornate iron-and-sheepskin lampshade and one or two other local specialities. We also discovered ‘gnawa’ music in a restaurant in the Medina one night (‘La Petite Perle d’Essaouira’) when a trio of itinerant Berber musicians came in and ran through a set of about 5 songs before passing the hat. One of them had glasses with lenses like the bottom of Coke bottles and was playing a three-string rebec. Whilst the music he was playing was 100% Berber, the raunchy moves he’d developed to accompany his singing & playing seemed to have more in common with Elvis Presley, circa 1957 – it was, unintentionally, quite hilarious.
All too soon, we had to contemplate our return to the UK, an epic 6-legged journey that took us (1) back to Marrakech in another ‘grand taxi’, on to (2) Tangier via the overnight train (no change this time), then a cab (3) from Tangier Morora Station on the south-eastern outskirts of the city to the ferry-port, a 90-minute ferry (4) crossing back to mainland Spain and then a two hour coach (5) journey from Algeciras to Malaga and finally (6) an airport shuttle from central Malaga to the airport.
One of the things that made this holiday so deeply satisfying was that we sorted all these travel & accommodation arrangements ourselves ‘on the ground’ and still got back to Malaga Airport in good time for our return flight. The negative aspects of the trip in Fuengirola seemed so distant as to be negligible – dealing with insurance claims regarding my stolen camera when I got home all seemed like ancient history. Morocco had gone well and Essaouira in particular had been a huge success. I knew that I would want to return one day……
To be continued……