Fréjus, France

Fréjus, France
Aqueduc Romain

Monday, January 12, 2009

Driving Morocco and Essouira

I was slightly leery of driving the roads of Morocco. I read how high their accident rates are and knew we would be driving over the Atlas Mts. in winter so wondered about renting a “compact” car for this adventure. All turned out just fine, except for the speeding ticket on my last day, which in Morocco is paid on the spot! 400 dirhams, or about $50. We had been warned of being stopped at multiple check points, but were always waved through previously. I had learned that the speed limit was 60 km/hour in urban areas (unless otherwise noted) and 80-100 outside the cities. Not sure where the dividing line was but I got pulled over well outside the city doing 87. Oh well, just another part of the experience. I’m on a mission to see in how many countries I can get a speeding ticket :) That makes two.

Actually, after driving in and out of Marrakech’s medina, I figured I could handle anything. The roads were in decent condition and once outside of Marrakech the traffic thinned dramatically since we were heading toward the mountains. and the interior. Yes, there were still donkey’s pulling carts occasionally, old trucks loaded 10 stories high, plenty of scooters, bikes and pedestrians in the small villages through which we passed, as well, roadside vendors hawking fruits, gems and crystals, etc., and shepherds tending flocks of goats or sheep. However, it was not wet or icy so the drive through the Atlas was uneventful but striking.
The mountaintops were covered with snow, deep gorges cut into them creating steep drop-offs along the windy road, and earthen dwellings were forged into the sides of the red cliffs. It was all very stark, isolated and beautiful in its own way. After completing the mountain passes, we descended into the Draa Valley. The dryness of the countryside was now contrasted with this river valley and literally thousands of palm trees. We drove through this for hours even as the mountains became desert - on one side remained this long narrow oasis of fertile soil, plant life, and the palms. Here’s our photo gallery from driving Morocco.


After 8 hours on the road we arrived at Sahara Sky, our hotel, after dark so only got a glimpse of our surroundings. In the morning, we were fully surrounded by desert, but the rest of that is covered in our post Christmas in the Sahara. After our bivouac and reentry into civilization, we drove back through the Draa Valley, over the first set of mountains and stayed in Ouarzazate for the night. The next morning we hit the road again right away as we had a full day of driving ahead of us, going all the way to the Atlantic Coast and the town of Essouira. We did make a short stop at Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the site of many famous films including Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. Onward, we again had to drive through Marrakech (though not the medina) and from here to our destination traffic was mostly congested and busy. In fact, we had a one-hour wait at one point which turned out to be a nasty bus accident that involved multiple fatalities. This part of the drive was not nearly as pretty as the drive over the mountains and to the desert, but we did drive through a small sandstorm, some rain, and got a rainbow.

Upon arrival in Essouira we were faced with knowing the name of our Riad and that it was in the medina, but that was it. All my preparations and not even a phone # - I’ll blame it on not having a printer here. We figured it out and were told to park in the public parking down at the port and someone would meet us with a handcart for our luggage. We got a glimpse of Essouira’s busy medina, as we followed the cart handler, but it was dark and we were tired so we didn’t dawdle. Irie didn’t want to go back out after a long day in the car, so we joked about how they didn’t have delivery pizza in Morocco only to be proven wrong by the Riad manager. We ate in our suite, in front of the cheminée, as Irie ran around, glad to be back in a Riad haven again.

Lisa: The Riad Watier is owned by a Frenchman and has a helpful staff who brought us coffee or tea whenever requested, sent out our laundry, arranged for a medical housecall, and traipsed about town looking for an open pharmacy on a holiday. There is a massage room onsite and we all had a much needed massage after too much time in the car. Irie had her first massage which lasted about 15”. Our comfy riad rooms never had TVs (probably what makes them tranquil) but we had a great show outside our window. We could look into the alleyway and see stray cats feasting on entrails. On the Muslim New Year this was accompanied by children drumming through the streets. Another “delicious” draft to the senses came after the rain. We didn’t have much to dampen our shopping, strolling and dining during the day. But the morning after a rain we were treated to a large puddle at the end of our alley, caused by a bouchon (cork) plugging the drain. Workers were out there diligently sweeping the sluice back into said drain, which was slowly accepting it now that the rain stopped. I have some jeans that are too long and drag--yummy cuffs!! Given all that, Essouira is a lovely town.

Back to Rick: After the craziness of the Marrakech medina, the long drives to and from the desert, and the incredible Noël camel trek, Essouira’s coastal feel was a nice contrast. It was still very much Morocco - the walled medina, the busy Souks, the hawking salesmen, the cats, and the doors to more tranquil resting spots - but it was all tamped down to a slower, calmer, less aggressive version of Marrakech. We ate very well (wonderful rooftop breakfasts, more tajine and couscous and some great fish), took shopping strolls through the medina, walked the beach , got henna tattoos, and met some nice people. The medina was small enough that we kept running into the two American girls we met at dinner one night. We bought a painting from the actual artist at an artisanal market, and Irie just loved shopping for the Thuya wood products, which come from a tree that is indigenous and unique to a small region of Morocco.

One of our days looking in a Thuya wood shop, Lisa and I (mostly Lisa as it was in french) got into a conversation with a young man who worked there. He got very emotional about what was going on in Gaza and was clearly moved by Lisa’s compassion and take on the situation. Ayoub asked us if we’d like to have coffee later after he was done working and going to the gym, which we did. It was nice to meet someone who wasn’t trying to sell us something, who could share a bit of his life with us, give us an idea of what an ordinary Morrocan faces in their daily life, and who was just another genuine human being. Here’s our photo album from Essouira.

As it turned out, I feel really good about the way our trip was planned. We jumped into the fire in Marrakech, trekked into the world’s largest desert where we enjoyed a very unique Christmas together, relaxed in the coastal town of Essouira, then dove back into intensity of Marrakech with expertise and a very international New Year. It was a symbolic and joyful way to end a year that has seen us, in every sense of the phrase, travel great distances. Best of all, we were returning "home" to the south of France, with 6 months of adventure still before us.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Rick-

I love the henna on your wrist. I think you could sport that here and start a new trend-you trend setter you! Entrails...thanks for that. Blog is great-thanks for taking us all along!!

Love,

Athena

Anonymous said...

What was the best/most interesting food you ate?

Athena

Rick said...

Hi Athena! Where you been? Food is so good and soooo cheap, especially compared to France!

The breakfasts were so good (and healthy), and the homemade yogurt was the bomb. Fresh-squeezed OJ too, as it is that season.

The fish stall in Jemma el Fna Square was fun and quite good for a food stall in a square full of stalls.

The couscous dish we helped make in our cooking lesson at the Riad was très delicieux.

Only had a couple forgettable tajines, but the two that stick out as the best were the one we had in the desert xmas dinner, and the last dinner in Essouira. It was a room of low tables in two rows, intimate with Moroccan musicians. I had a beef tajine with olives and Lisa had the couscous (we always do split-splits that way we get to try more dishes) and they were both great. Funny thing I forgot to mention is that Irie usually ordered spaghetti.

Irony: we fell in love with the Moroccan cookies/pastries! So first Sunday back here, I go to the market and there is a new stand with Moroccan cookies.

William said...

Rick:

You are just a traffic cop magnet.

If you save all of the tickets you have gotten you can paper a wall with them.

Dad

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the pictures of the Atlas mountains. I always marvel at the terraced farms. To me its amazing how resourceful people can be.

I was saddened by all the plastic garbage alongside the motorway.

I'm glad you had the chance to connect with the merchant who was very concerned by what is going on in Gaza. Hopefully, after talking to you and Lisa he no longer thinks that all Americans are evil. Perhaps you instilled some hope in him that things are changing for the better.

Ken

Rick said...

Ayoub was actually the inspiration for my New Year's Eve Toast. I reminded him that all we really have are these one on one connections and that is our best hope for the world.
Lisa

bren said...

Wow, what a ride. (almost) feel like I was with you. Really really love all the time and energy you put into the blog. It keeps us all closer to you.
Love, Mom