Walking around the Medina and the Souks I got a sense that very little has changed here for several hundred years.
Like almost everyone I guess, I have always been fascinated by the possibility of time travel and in the heart of the old town it was possible to imagine stepping back to the Middle Ages but this, let me tell you, was just about as close to Medieval as I would probably want to get.
There is a tourist attraction in York (UK) which recreates a Viking village complete with sights, sounds and smells. This I thought was similar except it is for real. There are some curious odours, that’s for sure. In the butchers souk huge beef carcasses hang and release the aroma of slaughtered animals and blood soaked sawdust while close by fresh killed chickens dangle from hooks, in the fish souk there were more fish heads and guts and in the vegetable market mountains of rotting leaves were piled up behind the stalls. Everywhere rubbish is left in convenient doorways and alleys and it is going to stay there all day until cleared sometime in the night.
Beneath the street I could see that the inadequate drains were blocked with years of debris and lack of cleaning and must surely be completely unable to deal with whatever is down there. I reminded myself that this was January and wondered just what it might be like in the in August in the heat of summer!
Everywhere there is street food, bread, biscuits, pastries and fast food cafés on every corner. When I had visited Marrakech in 2009 I had a street-side snack which upset my stomach so I was nervous here but on one occasion could not resist the temptation of a chicken kebab wrap, a combination of meat, cheese, various salads and a secret sauce and it was delicious and thankfully without any unsettling consequences.
Away from the food market there were small shops selling spices, herbs and quack remedies from over a thousand years ago. We stopped and shared tea with a trader and then felt obliged to buy a bag of various spices and when I reckoned up later I was certain that we had been overcharged.
You need to be careful in Morocco because most of the traders in the souks want to separate tourists from their money as quickly as they can so it is important to have your wits about you and it is important to remember that most of them want to sell you something that you do not really need.
As a consequence of the fact that Morocco does not have a welfare payments system there is no financial safety net for those who fall on hard times and there are therefore a lot of beggars on the street. For me this creates a huge dilemma, do I give to one but not the other or, on the basis that I cannot give to everyone, do I give to none at all? This is like the film ‘Sophie’s Choice’. I choose the first option and put some money in my pocket and give a coin here and there based simply on who to me appears to be the most desperate.
There are hustlers too and these are the people to give a wide berth. They follow, they pester, they won’t take no for an answer and they cling on like Velcro. On several occasions I was offered hashish to smoke (a sort of marijuana) or cannabis ‘space cakes’ and had to be really firm in turning them down. And then I worry, ‘will they rob me’ and in quieter streets I was forever nervous of footsteps from behind of someone blocking the way ahead. I am sure I didn’t really need to worry at all, I am certain that there was never any real danger and generally speaking Essaouira was a lot more relaxed and less challenging than Marrakech or Fes.
Down one of these side streets we came across a small museum and stepped inside. It was quiet, there were more attendants than visitors and inside there were some interesting exhibits but mostly I could only guess what they were because the only European explanations were in French.
Outside of the old city walls there is a lot more of Essaouira and once through any of the four main gates there was a much more modern European feel about the place with more familiar shops and traffic and suddenly it was necessary to remember that we were no longer in a pedestrianised environment.
Moroccans are notoriously poor drivers and the accident and injury rates are scarily high. I don’t think there is a Highway Code in Morocco, I have looked and certainly can’t find one. Crossing a road is a very tricky process because, cars and lorries don’t give way to people in the same way that it is expected they will in the UK so this was a potentially death defying procedure.
There are zebra crossings marked out in the roads but they are there only for a bit of highway decoration and are not something a walker can rely upon so we watched the locals as they strayed into the carriageways and we stuck close to them because they appeared to have a sort of uncanny sixth sense about which vehicles would stop and which would simply mow a pedestrian down without a second thought. Crossing the road here is even more dangerous than juggling gelignite!
We didn’t stay long outside the town wall; as well as being dangerous it is also a lot less interesting so after we had satisfied our curiosity we returned via an area which has the potential to be an nice piece of park land but it is badly maintained and a hang out spot for beggars and homeless people so is an area where it is preferable not to linger. In the centre is a statue of Orson Welles who used Essaouira as a location for his film Othello but the local people don’t seem to especially appreciate that and the bust is damaged and covered in graffiti.
We were glad to return through the gate through the fortress walls and resume our Medieval time travel experience.