Maybe it was the kebabs smoking on sidewalk grills, or the layer of fog that colored the afternoon sky a pale gray, but when I walked through a stone archway into the walled city of Essaouira, being in Morocco began to feel as mysterious and unfamiliar as I had hoped.
It was a feeling that had eluded me in better known Marrakech, where boutiques and luxury guesthouses are transforming the ancient medina into a chic resort town popular with European tourists.
Rougher around the edges but more authentic is Essaouira, a weathered and windy port city on the Atlantic coast, three hours by bus through the desert from Marrakech.
With its whitewashed ramparts and buildings set off by blue doors and shutters, Essaouira could be a seaside town in Greece or Brittany. Brittany probably makes more sense since it was a French architect who was hired by the sultan to lay out the town's 18th-century medina.
Rolling our suitcases along bumpy alleys, my husband, Tom, and I found our guesthouse, Les Matins Bleus, off a street lined with carpet shops, bakeries and small restaurants. The Maboul family --brothers Abdell and Samir and their cousin Youssef -- cater mostly to windsurfers who keep the atmosphere in Essaouira relaxed and prices low.
We paid about $50 a night, including breakfast, for a double room built in traditional Moroccan style around an open courtyard.
We wandered to the "fish souk," the fresh fish market that takes place each day inside the medina. Sardines are the specialty, grilled on the spot and served with olives, bread and salad for about $4.
The local fare
Dinner was at a little white-tablecloth restaurant called La Decouverte, where we found couscous with camel on the menu and a lentil salad sprinkled with oil from the argan-nut trees that thrive in this part of Morocco.
The restaurant's owners, Frederique Thevenet and Edouard Pottier, also run Ecotourisme et Randonnee, an ecotourism company that specializes in walking tours in the desert countryside.
Olive trees grow here, but it's the hearty and heat-resistant argan tree that's most treasured. Unique to southwestern Morocco, the trees produce a hard wood, called ironwood, used for fuel. The leaves provide food for goats that climb into the spiny branches. But the argan tree is most valued for its nuts, from which the oil is extracted by hand by women working in cooperatives.
Working with a government-run foundation promoting argan conservation, Ecotourisme et Randonnee developed walking tours through the argan forests and Berber villages where locals depend on the tree for their livelihoods.
Lingering in the countryside
Our tour started at a country market where villagers arrived by donkey. We joined a group of French tourists and an English-speaking guide, Todd Casson, a British expat living in Essaouira.
A snack of tea and bread dipped in oil fortified us for several miles of walking along flat, desert donkey paths. Eventually, we reached the Marijana Cooperative. There we talked with women working assembly-line style, cracking argan nuts between two stones, removing the seeds, roasting them and grinding them into a paste which they then squeeze to extract the oil.
Marketing the oil as a healthy source of vitamins and antioxidants has been an economic boost for desert dwellers such as Fadna Bella and her family, who hosted our group for lunch in their house surrounded by argan groves.
Fadna met us in her courtyard, and led us into a windowless room decorated with pillows and carpets. We sat cross-legged on the floor, sharing a tomato salad, chunks of bread and her homemade tagine, a traditional Moroccan stew made with potatoes, carrots and lamb.
When we finished, she passed around a bowl of pomegranates and glasses of mint tea. She smiled. We smiled. Our appetites make up for our lack of Arabic words to express what a treat it had been to experience authentic Moroccan hospitality. She knew no English or French, but it mattered little. When we left, she blew us a kiss goodbye.