The drive from Kasbah du Toubkal to Essaouira took nearly 4 hours with only one stop. When we left the Kasbah, we did not ride the donkeys down. We did follow the same path, but on foot. One donkey carried our luggage. It took us about half an hour to make the walk. As we went we had to keep our eyes open because people were up in the walnut trees knocking down nuts and some fell on us. We met our driver where we had been dropped off a couple of days before.
Mohamet took us down the road that is next to the river. You will remember that the road is narrow and winding. In contrast to Adil, who always drove with both hands on the wheel, Mohamet made the drive a little more “interesting” because he drove with one hand on the wheel and spent a lot of time looking at us over his shoulder. But he had plenty of things to tell us and we [mostly] enjoyed the drive down. At one point we were talking about the walnuts and Patricia asked if we could stop and get two or three because people were gathering them alongside and in the middle of the road. We saw a young boy in the middle of the road and Mohamet asked him for 2 or 3 of the nuts he had picked. [Remember that they are picking these to store and sell.] But 2 or 3 would not do. We quickly had a plastic bag full of a couple of pounds of nuts and were on our way again.
We drove around the outskirts of Marrakech rather than straight through. It seemed to take a long time. We saw a lot of new housing going up. There is a subsidized program to get people into small apartments so they will own something. Mohamet was pleased to tell us that he thought that by the end of this year he would have enough for a down payment [about $4,000, I think] to get into an apartment like the ones we saw. Then, he said, he would start to look for a wife.
We took a long swing west towards Essaouira and drove on one of the new toll roads. The speed limit is 120km/hr (about 80mph) which Mohamet took to mean between 130 and 140. The countryside changed many times on our journey: first the High Atlas foothills, then the flat plain of Marrakesh, then some near-desert territory, to some fertile farmland where there were acres of grapes and olive and fruit trees. Finally we entered the area near Essaouira which was covered with argan trees and thuya trees. Products made from thuya and argan oil are very important to the local economy as is fish.
We stopped at a lookout above the city to get a panoramic view and take pictures. There is a nice harbor that is much larger now than when the Phoenicians were here in the 7th century B.C. or (B.C.E. if you want to be politically correct). Because this is a good location people have been here for a long time using the resources from the prehistoric times to the Phoenicians to the Carthaginians, to the Romans, to the Berbers, to the Portuguese and back to the Berbers. The Portuguese built a castle here and parts of it still exist, along with most of the city walls and gates.
We are staying at the Villa Maroc which is sort of a riad. It is just inside the walls of the medina and is a good starting point for short walks. The walks are short for a couple of reasons. Things are close by (we have walked the circumference of the walls already) and it has been raining on and off for most of the day although it is brightening up this evening. Our room last night had a view of the sea, but that was about its only redeeming feature. We moved to a more agreeable room this afternoon. The staff could not have been more accommodating when we asked to move.
When we first arrived we met Rashida, a guide Kensington had arranged to give us a half-day tour. She helped us learn our way around and we visited the port, where the fishermen were finishing for the day and giving a portion of their catch to poor people, walked around the castle and climbed up on to its battlements (it could not have been much of a castle since it fell 4 years after being built), and explored the medina. As with our other guides and drivers she was very knowledgeable and eager to help us learn about the people, the economy, and the history. We enjoyed spending a few hours with her.
Side note: our guides have all wanted us to be very clear that Morocco is not like other Arab countries. They are very tolerant and inclusive. They have been long-time allies of the U.S. Their king (Mohammed VI) is very important to them and they believe he is doing much good work for the country. Mostly I agree.
It began raining last night as we returned from dinner in the medina and gelato in the nearby square. It rained through the night and left a couple of puddles in our room.
We went out this morning to take another pass through the shopping areas—we needed a bag to pack some of our purchase—and were pleased to find we could navigate pretty well. Every time it would rain we would head back to the hotel to dry off and wait for the squall to pass. The streets in the medina are laid out in something like a grid pattern so if you can figure out where you are, you can move from point to point. Of course, most of the street signs, where they do exist, are in Arabic. And the street names are prone to changing every few blocks, too. In general the streets are much wider in the medina than they are in Fes or Marrakech and—hooray—there are not any donkeys trying to run you over. Bicycles and mopeds and pushcarts are still a hazard. But after the rain the streets were running with water that we would rather not step in.
Just as we headed indoors when the rain began to fall, many of the merchants with outdoors displays had to keep moving them indoors. I got caught in a real squall this afternoon and came back pretty damp.
Our first full day in Essaouira has been fun despite the spotty weather. The forecast for tomorrow is better and we look forward to exploring the beach and harbor more than we have so far.