Essaouira has plenty enough going for it already. Formerly known as Mogador, the city has a beautifully preserved medieval walled town crammed with souks, art and craft shops, cafes, riads and a maze of lanes in which to get blissfully lost. It is set on a perfect half-moon west-facing bay, carpeted in soft yellow sand. It is cooled by a sea breeze which takes the edge off the burning sub-Saharan sun.
Nevertheless, the local tourist board likes to add in to this heady mix a soupçon of myth and legend: Jimi Hendrix once visited briefly in the 60's and you would be forgiven for assuming that this is the most important incident to illuminate the settlement's two-thousand year history.
Arriving at the newly constructed airport was a relaxing treat compared to the dehumanising experience of low-budget departures crammed together in 10 minute slots at a Luton terminal undergoing a complete rebuild. Stress levels had subsided on the flight. Waiting in the brief passport control queues, Daughter No 2 spotted a pen-portrait of La Hendrix on a four-foot square tablet above the main door. It was in a series of pictures alongside Orson Welles, Bob Marley and the current Moroccan King, Mohammed VI. Interesting company.
In a few short minutes, we were on our way to the hotel. The taxi was a Merc saloon circa 1978 painted blue and white. This was no Cuban style classic car relic though. The badly fitting front doors were replacements for the originals and were painted a different shade of blue to the other battered bits of bodywork. I pulled the seat belt across my body, only to find the buckle was missing. I grinned at the driver and let it dribble back up the stanchion. He grinned back at me.
The hotel was a different matter though. If there was ever any benefit to be wrung from our girls taking GCSEs and A levels in the same angst-ridden Summer, jetting off to a posh gaff before the prices sky-rocketed in the school holidays was it. Sipping mint tea on comfy sofas and then offered hot towels whilst completing the check-in formalities was a small part of the 5-star experience I had unknowingly been craving all my travelling life.
Most of the other guests were either Moroccan or French and, notwithstanding a modest spike of visitors over the weekend, the hotel was pretty quiet. The resort is a popular with those who reside in the hotter, steamier inland areas of the country. We had access to a private beach: a rectangle of sand segregated from the main beach by a low, white picket fence which enclosed hotel branded beds, recliners and towels. It was policed by G4. Seriously. However uncomfortable I felt about this rampant commercial elitism, we were happy to avail ourselves of the facility.
The Medina, for all its crumbling charm and Portuguese, French and Berber architectural influences, was a bit of an eye-opener on the first night. We had all overestimated the percolation of western culture into this still isolated part of Morocco. The girls, with their fair hair, fair skin and a modest areas of bare flesh on display attracted plenty of unwelcome stares, winks and gestures. Daughter No 2 predictably met this behaviour with outrage. "I'm not a piece of meat! Stop looking at me! They can't behave like that!" Daughter No 1 was more circumspect and prepared to ignore the attentions, however uncomfortable.
We had many conversations about clash of cultures, respect for women, male dominated society, respect for other people's views, the significance of dress and so on. Both girls worked out ways of dealing with attentions, though for good reasons they were never happy. Humour helped. Daughter No 2’s boyfriend, via her messenger app, implored me not to sell her, even though I was offered diamonds. She had understood the going rate to be camels and was a little flattered. On another occasion when I was hagglingfor some trinkets, the trader complimented me:
“You have a lovely family. Lovely girls”. Implying that I alone was completely responsible for this perfection.
"Have you met my wife?" I tugged on Mrs A's arm. "She's for sale too."
Poking around the old town's narrow by-ways and snickets became a regular daily adventure.
Apart from eating breakfast, buying tat, scaling bastions and drinking, there was plenty of Jimi Hendrix spotting to do. We bagged a portrait in a cafe circa Band of Gypsies; and a pock-marked mural on an alleyway off the main drag.
Such a male dominated culture, in the odd moment, can throw up some surprising mutual understanding. The three women in my life were helping me to buy a souvenir t-shirt, my usual habit on holiday.
"That design is best"
"No, not that colour."
"Are you sure you don't need extra large?"
Mrs A was holding the shirt up against my back whilst the others were generally making fussy hay. The shopkeeper looked at me and smiled.
"Are you happy?"
The place played to the strengths of my five-word multilingualism. Though I did struggle pin down in which language I was trying to communicate.
“Hola!” I cried, passing a shop stuffed with wood carvings.
“Hola!. Are you Spanish?” replied the trader in English. For the life of me I have no idea why I said ‘Hola’.
“No, English!” I shrugged and moved on, leaving both his bemused expression and Daughter No1’s cringe/laugh, in my wake.
Down by the harbour, crammed with tiny fishing smacks and more substantial boats, all manner of fruits of the sea could be purchased from stalls set up right where they were landed.
We pottered along the massive ramparts built in the 18th century to protect the port. Moroccan youths posed for photos of each other next to cannons and on the battlements striking macho shapes in, frankly, homo-erotic behaviour. If you cupped your ears against the wind, you could almost hear them asking “Do you like gladiator movies?” So I struck a bold shape of my own, just to show we Westerners can go all butch too. Only mine didn’t seem to carry the same gravitas…
The enterprising Moroccans never missed an opportunity to maximize their tourist income. One afternoon, we thought we would take the ‘petit train Mogador’ around the harbour. This open four carriage convoy was hauled along by a tractor disguised as a loco. There were no other visitors on the train. I asked the ticket collector when we would be leaving. He made that now familiar non-commital shrug and said maybe five or ten minutes. Within a moment he added. “If you give me one-hundred, we leave now. And you have train to yourself! Spread out! You enjoy, yes?”
Deal! It was the best 100 Dirhum we spent all week. Not only did we get a tour round the harbour, but right along the seafront as well, as far as the end of the built up parts of the settlement. I thought about booking it for the trip back to the airport. We had walked past the tourist train every day at the Medina gates. It was always there. And now as we snaked through the streets behind the bay people waved at us like they had never seen it before. I wondered exactly how many times the train was used on an average day…
I never struggle to wind down on my breaks. People have said to me in all earnestness that they go away for a fortnight because it takes them the first week to get into holiday mode. I suspect this is a myth created by those weaving a web of self-importance about how busy and irreplaceable they are.
After a few days chilling in the sunshine, I was so laid back I became incapable of performing basic tasks. Like ordering lunch for instance. Anwar, our friendly pool bar waiter was on his day off. I didn’t strike the same bond with his replacement, although I felt reasonably confident that I’d accomplished the task reasonably well. I joined the family on the covered day-beds. As you do. The waiter came with five plates of heavily laden food. The four of us just smiled politely and I simply ate two lunches. We played it cool. He surely didn’t suspect a thing.
The food was pretty good on the whole, though variety wouldn’t be the area’s greatest selling point. I might not be tempted by tagine for a little time to come. We found a great spot for breakfast overlooking a square in the old Medina where we were serenaded by a gaggle of wandering troubadours. Much better than the saucepan-lid wielding racket that accompanied a terrible meal in one of the rooftop restaurants we found one evening. (John Dory like old boots, crepes like latex and boiled cous cous like, well, boiled cous cous).
Local food and local music weren’t always on the menu though. A fabulous Italian restaurant had a performer dishing out a jazz influenced ‘Purple Haze’ and on another evening there was a rendition of ‘Hey Joe’ by a decent band in another rooftop bar. It was almost as if Jimi Hendrix was there. In spirit at least.
All that lazing around made me restless for an expedition. We decided to visit Jimi’s dunes. At the far end of the bay, over the River Oued Ksob and close to the village of Diabat, a series of fescue and grassy sand dunes tumbled into the bay. Just beyond was Borj el Baroud, a ruined fortified watchtower that becomes visible and accessible at low tide. This, according to local folklore (well, a couple of travel websites anyway), was the inspiration for the Hendrix track ‘Castles Made of Sand’ on the Axis: Bold As Love album. As anyone who has the merest passing acquaintance with rock ‘n’ roll chronology knows, this album hit the racks in 1967. Jimi didn’t check in to the pink-walled city until 1969. The local tourist board surpassed themselves with this one.
Our adventure had intended to take in a pool/bar complex at the far end of the bay to cool off over lunch. We couldn’t find it (though later I realised we were very close to the Jimi Hendrix hotel in Diabat!) Instead we found ourselves on an unused track skirting around the back of the bay, past a few abandoned buildings. The immediate prospect did not look too promising. No matter. With my innate geographer’s skills, I instinctively took charge. We negotiated the dunes, rocks and water hazards with ease. Not without some dissent from the troops behind though.
“This is the Sahara. This is the actual Sahara! What are we even doing here?”
“That’s a skeleton. Like an animal’s died here from exhaustion. It’s a warning sign!” (It was a dead gull…)
“I’m hallucinating! I can see a lake!” (The shimmering vista was the River Oued Ksob)
“I’ll be alright. I have half a bottle of water. I’m not sharing though.”
And so it went on.
We crested reed-anchored dunes to see the entirety of the glorious bay laid out before us and the base of Jimi’s ruins lapped by gentle waves. “I have led my people to salvation!” I declared. More groans of derision. Daughter No 2 fell to her knees and looked skywards. Relief, thanks or exhaustion: we may never know. A croque monsieur and a bottle of pop in the nearby ‘Beach Friends’ bar seemed to restore spirits. Life on the edge.
Beach activities in Essaouira didn’t actually extend to sandcastle-making, despite Hendrix’s tenuous contribution to the subject. I saw a poor attempt at a boat carved in the packed sand with a stick, but that was about it. If this was Britain, there would be curtain walls with crenellations, motte and baileys, and moats filled with seawater every few yards. Maybe now we are in Brexit mode we should build real castles again to fortify against the dreaded continental invasion. That way I’d get even better value out of my English Heritage membership. I knew there would be a Brexit brightside if I looked hard enough.
And with that cheery thought, we headed back to dear old Europhobic Blighty.