Under Agadir Suns

The arid Southern Atlantic coast of Morocco is baked in soothing heat and sunshine for most of the year. Agadir is the centre of holiday activity and one of the largest resorts in the whole of North Africa. Here along the beachfront is a stretch of hotels with sufficiently starred luxury to suit every weight of wallet and cater for your whims as well as your needs.

The resort at Agadir is the most European side of Morocco, even more so than the very North of the country, only a mere 14 Km from Spain. Agadir was reconstructed as a tailored tourist resort to cater for European holidaymakers in the 1960s. History had just dealt the town a cruel blow when it was completely flattened by an earthquake on 29th of February 1960 just before midnight. The earth shook for 15 seconds and although the earthquake was only 5.7 on the Richter scale, by all accounts a minor one, the results were devastating as the buildings of the town were old and unstable. Many thousands of local Moroccans died. The new Agadir is built several kilometers south of the old town and away from the epicentre of the quake. Perhaps the soul of Agadir has been destroyed with the old medina, the traditional heart of any Moroccan town, gone. The town built in its place is 1960s populist architecture and looks dire. Most buildings are ugly minimalist concrete blocks even if they are seismically retrofitted to withstand any potential future earthquake. The wide boulevards, the beachfront promenade and small blooming gardens show some sensible town planning even if they are pleasant rather than luxurious.

The sweeping beachfront at Agadir is the major attraction and if fills brimful with sunworshippers during the middle of the day. You can lounge in one spot on your own little patch, or ride a dishevelled looking camel across some dunes, or paraglide across the whitetopped waves if you are feeling hyper-energetic. The latter two just seem too strenuous in the midday heat. For beachbums there is everything you might need within easy reach with a string of small cafes and restaurants on the beachfront. A recent new law has cut down on the hassle bathers used to receive from hawkers peddling their wares.

On Sunday mornings early, the beach fills up with hundreds of young footballers playing on makeshift sandy pitches. You can’t help but feel this would be a good place for a Man U scout to take a holiday – one of these youngsters could be discovered. African football has flattered to deceive to date, but Morocco is definitely one of the teams on the up and they reached the final of the recent African Nations Cup. Checking out some young Berber play would not be too bad a move as Zinedane Zidane, albeit French Algerian, was of Berber stock and some of it is in the genes or so they say. As well as Zidane the young wannabes playing on the beach wear shirts with Beckham, Henry, Figo and Ronaldo written on the back. A few have shirts with Arabic script on them (obviously just local heroes), but there is no doubt a Moroccan superstar will eventually come.

Agadir was a major port in its early days and after being founded by the crusading and exploring Portuguese was ruled by the Saadian Berbers who maritime traded in sugar cane, spices, olive oil and gold. The port was further developed when Morocco was under French protectorate. A colonial squabble sparked by the German gunboat Panther’s firing in the bay at Agadir was the major impetus for the French to take over the country as per the Treaty of Fes in 1912 and they didn’t leave until independence in 1956. After the 1960 earthquake Agadir fell into decline but now it is the major Moroccan port again with sardines and light metals being the major exports – presumably as tins of sardines. You can go and see the fish market down in the port in the mornings and it is marketed as the major local attraction. You might even spot the odd Donegalman wandering around the port of Agadir, as the Atlantic Dawn, the largest fishing vessel in the world, out of Killybegs offloads its produce in Agadir after months fishing in the seas off Mauritania.

As well as being popular with sunseekers, Agadir is also popular for surfing and the conditions are world class. Just south of the town in the small village of Tamrhakht is where most of the surfies hang out. You can spot them on the roads in their combie vans with their Antipodean haircuts and trendy surfie fashion attire. From September to April light winds and the swell from the North Atlantic depressions make for ideal conditions for those human seals.

If you buy souvenirs in the modern souk (market area) in Agadir, you will undoubtedly pay inflated tourist prices for your purchase. The better bargains are undoubtedly in places like Taroudant and Essaouira, so if you stay exclusively in Agadir you will have to bargain hard. Haggling is the way to business and whether you buy a camel (a toy one), a carpet or small bag of spices, the deal should be done with a courteous smile over a cup of sweet mint tea.

The Agadir traders may lay claim to being Berbers but not many are. The real Berbers, not the ones that own the carpet shop in the Agadir souk, have many traditional remedies and cure-alls. Some of their potions seem a bit dubious like the twiggy plant they claim has properties of viagra and goes for a song at about the equivalent of ten euro. One real remedy though is argan oil, which is a bit like sesame oil. Argan oil is used as a reliever of rheumatic joint pain and for skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. If you make a trip towards Essaouira you might spot the argan tree on the side of the road. It is not too dissimilar to an olive tree. It is the fact that there will usually have about ten goats hanging out of the branches that is likely to catch your eye. The goats, which obviously think they are some kind of arboreal primates, scale the trees for the argan fruits and they will launch into an acrobatic lep groundwards when they are sated.

The town of Essaouira is just that little bit more authentically Moroccan than Agadir even if it is built on a grid system that is distinctly European. It was the Portuguese ‘Mogador’ and a major trading stop during the Golden Age of Exploration, with slaves, tea, almonds, and olive oil all passing through on their way to European markets. The medina today is probably the cleanest in the country with its attractive whitewashed buildings and characteristic blue doors. An Alouite Sultan either impelled his French prisoner Theodore Cornut or hired him, depending on your view of history, to design a military town to protect him against insurgents from Agadir. Cornut’s designs were influenced by the architects of towns like St Malo in Brittany, so Essaouira is a hybrid of traditional Moroccan architecture with European planning.

Orson Welles filmed Othello on the streets and ramparts of Essaouira and it starred Michael McLiammoir and Hilton Edwards who co-founded the Gate Theatre in Dublin. Welles self-funded the film, but he did not have much money and he had to run off to do various roles in Hollywood films in between shooting some of the scenes. There was famously one scene shot in a local baths where the costumes didn’t turn up and the actors had to borrow and use their hotel towels as costumes. The film won a prize at Cannes inspite of the low budget production, which is all down to the genius of Mr Welles.

Eleanora falcons, which are almost extinct, inhabit the islands just off the coast of Essaouira. They are called the Purple Isles because they are also the home of a very rare shellfish. The Murex shellfish is allegedly the original source of “Tyrian purple” (the royal colour), which is found in a small vein near the fish’s head. The Phoenicians are likely to have discovered this highly prized purple hue, which was expensive to produce. A lot of shellfish were killed to produce a little dye and the dye was produced as part of the shellfish’s death knell so it is not surprising they are now rare. In the past, purple was a treasured colour reserved for royalty, imperial popes and the Roman aristocracy and hero generals. The Egyptian queen Cleopatra was a fan. Jesus Christ wore a royal purple garment (he was being mocked) when he was crucified. Nowadays the royal and papal purple is more likely to be produced from insects.

Sir Francis Drake stopped off on the Purple Isles for Christmas lunch in 1577 at the start of his great circumnavigation of the globe. It is not certain that he was served Murex on a plate, but whatever it was he didn’t like the look of, as he exclaimed that he couldn’t eat such an ugly looking fish. It was no turkey for sure. The fresh fish you can eat at the stalls near the harbour in Essaouira is delicious if a little pricey by local standards.

The best place to stay in Essaouira is in one of the family run hotels or riads in the centre of the medina. They are built in a distinctive style around a central shady courtyard or patio (called a riad). The one I stayed, the Riad al Medina, was once owned by sixties rock legend Jimi Hendrix who lived in the town on and off for a number of years. He wrote his famous classic “Castles Made of Sands” while seated on the beach at Essaouira according to local lore.


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