Travel: Souking up the sunshine in Morocco
In a break from his usual all-action, energetic getaways, Darragh McCullough stretched and chilled out on a yoga week which was run by an Irish couple in stunning Morocco
I am standing precariously on my right leg, desperately trying to ignore the excruciating pain that's shooting briskly down my left leg as I extend it while holding onto my other foot.
I know that I'm about to topple over any minute. But still the woman in front of me calmly invites me to breathe deeply and "relax the face". I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
My notion of holiday bliss is in many ways poles apart from my other half. Usually, I like the idea of scaling snow-clad peaks, cycling for days on end and back- packing in hostels that are completely off the radar, never mind the beaten track. She, meanwhile, likes the idea of a pool, cool cocktails and "nice" walks.
A warped halfway house between these two extremes brought us to a week-long yoga retreat in the coastal Moroccan town of Essaouira.
Despite the dire warnings from family and friends of dirty, unhygenic streets and urchins hanging out on every corner hassling us for cash, Essaouira turned out to be nothing like we expected and everything we hoped for in this part of northwest Africa.
Despite this part of the country heating up to a sizzling 50C during the summer months, a constant Atlantic breeze makes Essaouira the destination of choice for both Moroccans and Westerners looking for comfort in the sun.
While the country is mainly Muslim, at no point during our stay did we feel at odds with the locals as we strolled around in shorts, flip-flops and T-shirts.
Indeed, for every woman we passed in full burkha, there was usually another walking along in a stringy vest.
Neither heckled nor hassled, we felt more comfortable strolling through the town every night after our evening meal than we might have in many other European cities.
This may be linked to the custom of Moroccan families appearing en masse on the streets of every town after sunset when the temperatures drop. It adds a real community feel to the locale.
The warren-like market stalls (or souks, as the locals call them) stay open until after 11 every single night, with sellers eagerly looking to engage any half-willing customer in a hugely theatrical and elaborate display of the age-old art of haggling. It's quite the sight.
These markets are located in the oldest, walled-in sections of towns called the Medina.
Everything and anything is for sale here, including a mind-boggling array of the classic rugs, bags and spices (albeit with a modern twist – one spice trader's call was "Argan oil, spices, Viagra!").
Essaouira combines an old port town's charm with an endless beach that plays host to picnicking families, interspersed with old Berber herdsmen offering rides on one of their incredibly laidback camels, and endless impromptu games of football.
With this huge 5km horseshoe bay set against the backdrop of the ancient walled town with its minarets punctuating a skyline of cafe terraces, it's no wonder Essaouira has consistently drawn artists and tourists in since the days that Jimi Hendrix first put down roots in the town.
But back to the yoga.
The brainchild of Irish couple Michelle and Michael Moroney, Yoga Traveller organises week-long retreats with experienced teachers and small groups in beautiful locations around the world.
Crucially, the classes cater to all levels of skill and stretchiness, so there's no good reason to be afraid!
We stayed in the Dar L'Oussia hotel in a quiet part of the old Medina. It is an old riad (which translates as mansion) and it has all the classic elements that make this an iconic design in northern Africa.
A big central open atrium surrounded by cut-stone horse-shoe arches, shady palm trees and itinerant birds provides the perfect sanctuary from the hot Moroccan sun.
Meanwhile, breakfast and lunches were served on top of the roof where an uncrowded terrace offered stunning views across the bay. It was tempting to just sit there most mornings.
Every day began with a two-hour yoga and meditation session with our patient instructor for the week, Laila.
While initially daunted by the length of the sessions (there was another 90 minutes every evening), I was pleasantly surprised that I never found myself checking my watch to see how much more time was left.
I never really considered how female-dominated the group might have been until I sat down to our evening meal on the first night in the hotel. Suddenly, as I looked around the table, I realised that there was just one other bloke in the group, there with his girlfriend. Otherwise, the posse comprised mums and professionals from throughout Europe, but mainly Brits. >>>
However, I quickly realised that the gender imbalance didn't matter a whit, because, most evenings, some or all of the group met up to go out to eat and sample the local entertainment.
The huge, sweeping beach at Essaouira provides a great base for a number of activities that are all well catered for in the local area.
Surfing, and increasingly kite-surfing, are very popular around the town, with outfitters providing all the necessary gear. Camel and horse riding are also available along the beach.
For those with more relaxing activities in mind, a trip to the Argan oil co-op a few miles out of the town is an interesting way to while away an hour or two.
The Argan tree is particular to southern Morocco and locals use the oil for everything from cooking to moisturising. The co-op we visited was one of a number of women-only cooperatives that made for good photo-ops when they broke into a dance and sing-song. A trip to the local hammam baths is another great cultural experience.
Because many locals traditionally had no baths or showers in their homes, they paid a visit to the local baths with their friends and family, who in turn gave them a scrub down and exchanged all the news.
They are basically dimly lit, over-ground cellars, with polished, heated marble slabs set into the floor. Fires burn silently under the marble and, between countless showers, you are scrubbed, soaped and massaged to within an inch of your life by a local in a similar state of undress as yourself. While I found it slightly unnerving how familiar the chap was with 95pc of my body, it was a sure-fire way of cleansing the pores and muscles of any nasty stuff. It cost about €25 but much fancier establishments are available throughout the town.
The detox vibe continues apace at night. Initially, I was taken aback at the absence of alcohol. Booze isn't cheap in Morocco, most likely because of the Islamic culture. It's still available in every restaurant, but there isn't really a bar or pub culture to speak of. Still, at night, the streets and plazas were full of all sorts of people. And because of the absence of booze, we always felt safe.
Despite the legacy left behind by the French colonisers, the call to prayer that rings out from the minarets dotted around every town is a constant reminder we were experiencing a different culture. And what a culture it was too.
Yoga Traveller has weeks running in Morocco each month. Prices range from €820-€1,120. They also offer week-long holidays during the summer to Gozo, Malta, Turkey and a new purpose-built yoga facility in Liscannor: the Cliffs of Moher Retreat; yogatraveller.com
Aer Lingus has flights from Dublin to Agadir, except during the summer months; aerlingus.com / Ryanair has flights from Dublin to Marrakech on Wednesday and Sunday; ryanair.com
Marrakech and beyond
48 Hours in Marrakech
We flew into Marrakech to get a flavour of Morocco's cultural capital and a peek of the Atlas mountains before we headed for the sea and yoga in Essaouira. Once you exit the air-conditioned confines of arrivals, you are straight into the cultural adventure that is northern Africa.
When we arrived at the Dar Les Cigognes hotel (lescigognes.com), the charming manager, Pierre, informed us that there was a "little issue with the electricity". Basically, a power cut had left them with no air-con. Welcome to Africa.
To be fair, Pierre had another room lined up for us in a sister hotel just 10 minutes' walk away. We visited the local souk stalls the first morning, guided by the ever keen-to-please Pierre.
He had organised a cooking class with the hotel's cook, Fousi, with the proceeds from our morning haul.
I spent possibly the two most enjoyable hours of the trip cooking up lamb tagine, pigeon pastilla and an array of Moroccan salads. The free-flowing white wine may have helped.
In the evening, we headed for the sprawling Jemma El Fna square where snake charmers, tooth pullers, tarot card readers, local musicians, and date sellers all vie for attention and business.
We ate in the Marrachi restaurant, which has an enclosed and air-conditioned terrace overlooking the square. The food was just ok.
In the old town every street seems to have its own speciality. The hot, dry climate means that everything, from eating, greeting and manufacturing happens out on the street.
48 Hours in the atlas mountains
We also spent two nights away from the bustle of Marrakech in the Atlas mountains.
It only takes just over an hour by taxi to get to towns such as Ouirgane and Imlil at the foothills of the rugged peaks that reach over 4,000m in height. They are well worth a visit.
We stayed in a lovely luxury hotel Domaine Malika (domaine-malika.com), where a pool with Ella Fitzgerald's greatest hits wafting through the still air provided the perfect chill out zone.
I took a hike with a local Berber guide, Mohammed, who skipped his way through the surrounding valleys up to his home village, where he treated me to the local staples of heavily-sweetened mint tea, flat bread and almond biscuits. Mohammed was a rare creature in that he could converse in French, English, Arabic and Berber, despite being raised and continuing to live on a small farm high in the Atlas.