Swapping souks for the surf

An article about travelling in Morocco for Business Destinations magazine.

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Marrakech is certainly a tantalising location for business, but you might want to follow Nathan May’s advice and escape to a more relaxed way of life after a hectic few days.

The dichotomy of Marrakech, Morocco’s second largest city and capital of the mid-south western economic region, is startlingly apparent. You would be forgiven for attending a business meeting in the modern city, known as Gueliz by the locals, and never even happening upon the old fortified city called the medina.

Making the short trip by ‘petit taxi’ – or horse- drawn carriage if you are feeling a little more extravagant – is a must though. The modern city of Marrakech may well have everything you need for a brief visit: luxury hotels, high street shopping, even a McDonald’s, but it lacks the unique charm of the medina. Step over the threshold of the ancient city ramparts and you are transported into another world. Gone are the tree-lined pavements, expensive cars and high-rise apartment blocks.

The medina is an intricate network of alleyways, each one lined with market stalls overflowing onto the street with their produce. The souk here pays homage to commerce, and is the largest in Morocco. Over the years it has gradually divided itself into different sections offering everything from woollen jumpers and zebra skin carpets to brass tea sets and colourful crockery. Of particular interest will be the leather souk, where, with only a basic understanding of the bartering system required, almost any leather item you can think of can be purchased for a snip of the price it would be back home.

The pace of life in the souk appears to move at a hundred miles an hour from daybreak until well after nightfall. The alleyways act as the arteries of the medina, sending bicycles, motorbikes, an occasional donkey and even the odd mini-van, up and down impossibly narrow passages, with over a million locals on foot going about their daily business, skipping in and out of the traffic.

If the souk alleyways are the city’s arteries, then the heart of Marrakech is the central square, the Djemaa el-Fna. Recognised for its cultural significance as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the square is said to be one of the busiest in the world. Whether you are a tourist or a local, it seems no one’s day in Marrakech is complete without traversing the square for a cursory glance at the goings on. The intrigue and mystique of the square are due in part to its ability to evolve each day, like a blossoming flower, from a transport crossroads and key access point to the medina by day, into Marrakech’s principle source of night life when the sun goes down. The snake charmers and potion sellers disperse to make way for a hundred small restaurants that set up in impossibly quick time and offer one of the freshest and most reasonably priced dining experiences in the city.

After a bite to eat, it is essential you wander the square and experience the variety of entertainment on offer in exchange for only a few Dirhams. Storytellers draw large excitable groups of young men, while cross-dressing belly dancers and dentist’s booths displaying jars of teeth will draw the gaze of even the most reserved traveller. The Djemaa el-Fna remains an extraordinary open-air theatre long into the night, eventually recoiling in the early hours, ready to blossom again in the morning.

Essaouira
If you have a few extra days to kill before you need to rush back to the office, you might want to escape the mania of Marrakech that can prove a little overpowering after a day or two. A good way to achieve this is to book a four-hour coach trip to Essaouira on the Atlantic coast.

In a similar vein to Marrakech, the best of this coastal fishing town can be found within the fortified city walls, where the hustle and bustle of the medina is reminiscent of, but far less oppressive than, Marrakech. In fact, after a few days of shopping the souks of Marrakech, Essaouira’s streets will feel positively quiet in comparison. Nonetheless, the option to escape from it all and take in the awesome expanse of the Atlantic Ocean is always a stone’s throw away here. The impressive sea bastion Skala de la Ville is the best place to get a lung full of fresh sea air. On a stormy day one could sit for hours and watch the powerful waves crash against the rocky cliffs, safe in the knowledge that the imperious city ramparts, complete with a collection of 18th and 19th century European brass cannons, have you well protected.

No trip to Essaouira is complete without venturing to its fishing port, which remains a hive of activity throughout the day. Dusk is the best time for tourists to take a glimpse, as traders frantically complete deals to sell the last of their daily haul. The fishermen seem happy to share their boat yard, as they cheerfully invite you to muck-in and help push the last of the boats up the port ramps for the night. At this time, the port becomes a photographer’s paradise, as row upon row of vividly coloured boats line up alongside each other, proudly displaying their individual names in bright yellow paint. After getting creative with your camera, you will no doubt want to refuel and unsurprisingly, some of the finest restaurants in Essaouira are seafood establishments. Make sure you choose wisely however, as the restaurants that line the entrance to the port are more expensive, and often serve smaller portions than their less conspicuous neighbours.

Tagazout
After experiencing two of Morocco’s most culturally immersive cities, the last thing on your mind will be cutting short your trip and returning home. Continue your Moroccan adventure further south, at the surfing mecca of Tagazout. A world away from manic medinas, this quaint fishing village is very laid-back indeed. The locals are the antithesis of the frantic folk in Marrakech, and a few days spent here will wash away any of the stresses associated with busy city life.

The village can be reached from Essaouira by public bus, but be warned that the trip takes longer than it should on paper, and a grand taxi could be a better choice for the time-conscious traveller. Due to its location further south of Essaouira, Tagazout leaves behind the sometimes-unbearable winds and benefits from a few extra degrees in temperature. The beaches that run up and down the coast either side of the village are truly stunning and rarely busy. For the most part, the sand is a pleasant golden brown and the seawater clean. Be warned though, litter on the beaches is a problem here, and can be off-putting to travellers used to the comparatively spotless beaches of Europe.

The passing surf trade provides the main income for the villagers; Tagazout’s main street is lined with a string of restaurants offering a remarkably similar menu. The village itself can provide simple amenities, but if you are looking to stock up on supplies for a weeklong stay, or even just an ATM machine, a journey to Agadir further south is essential.

Accommodation is also quite basic for the most part. Other than a number of hostel-like surf houses that offer full board and surf safaris during the day, the only other option is a self-catered apartment. The traditional riads of Essaouira and Marrakech are not in evidence in this sleepy coastal village, and based on the extensive development work being undertaken, it seems that the all-encompassing luxury hotel complexes are only a few years off completion.

The principal reason to come to this part of Morocco is for the great surfing available, and the waves really are remarkable at times. Renowned surf breaks such as Killer Point, La Source and Anka Point continue to attract some of the best surfers from around the world during the autumn months. Lessons for the less experienced are available in abundance, and surf trips leave the village every day in search of the right swell.

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