A turn around town with Orson Welles
For all the wide-screen magic of Morocco, look no further than Essaouira, advises Simon Courtauld
THE most memorable thing about Orson Welles’s film (he gave one of his hammier performances as the Moor, Micheal MacLiammoir played Iago as an old queen and Desdemona was completely lifeless even before her death) was the ramparts of Essaouira and the sea pounding below.
Welles shot much of the film on the Atlantic coast of Morocco and the town of Essaouira (then called Mogador under the French protectorate) showed its gratitude by naming a square after him. It is a scruffy piece of garden just outside the medina walls, with a wooden carving of his face, recognisably Welles but the nameplate on the plinth has disappeared. The ramparts are much more impressive, in particular the cannons that, I saw from their inscriptions, were made in Barcelona at the end of the 18th century.
Within the fortified walls is the medina, easily walkable in 15 minutes from one end to the other. The old town is a delight: a mass of white buildings with Touareg-blue shutters and doors, women shrouded in white haiks, exhibitions of naive paintings and beautifully carved thuya wood for sale in the alleys and marquetry workshops. You may come across the ruins of an old synagogue (the Jewish quarter is long gone but the cemetery remains) or a Portuguese church.
And if you listen carefully on a Sunday morning, the bells of the Catholic church outside the medina can be heard.
I marvelled at the variety and splendour of the doorways in Essaouira: some with Moorish arches, heavy wooden doors and ancient locks and bolts, others conventionally arched and colonnaded, with rounded pediments. There are intricately carved stone porticos, some of them surmounted by colourful mosaic.
By reason of its size, its architecture and its position on the coast, where a cooling breeze usually blows, Essaouira is more appealing than Marrakech. There is less hassle in the streets and the prices in the souks are lower. And then, perhaps most appealing of all, there is the wealth of fresh fish to be had.
Beyond the smaller, open boats, all painted in the town’s trademark blue, the trawlers wait in the harbour for their next fishing foray. One evening we watched a boat unloading boxes of highly coloured and sharptoothed moray eels, also conger eels and the similarly snake-like and appropriately named sabre fish. Netfuls of spider crabs were laid out carefully on the quay. In the souk hundreds of baby whiting were attractively stacked with their stomachs to the fore, looking for a moment like a display of white asparagus.
As a passionate fish-eater, I resolved to have nothing else for a day and a half. On the first evening we dined on the roof terrace at Taros, overlooking the square and
Back to the wall: Essaouira, on Morocco’s west coast, is protected from the Atlantic by steep ramparts the port, and enjoyed clams, sardines and a fish called mostelle, of the cod family though not as good as its better-known relation. The first floor of this restaurant is a dining room cum library, with rug-covered banquettes and bookshelves lining the walls.
The following day we found the fish stalls next to the port irresistible. Once you have chosen your fish, it is charcoal-grilled and served with bread, lemons and paper napkins. We decided to stick to shellfish at lunchtime — two varieties of prawns, scampi and a memorable spider crab, plus a plate of minuscule squid — leaving the white fish for dinner. This we ate at a restaurant, Chez Sam, which has acquired a reputation over the years as much for the people who have been there and left their signed photographs for the walls as for the fish that comes straight from the boats tied up only a few metres away.
We started with a friture of small fish — sole, whiting, rascasse, smelts — and went on to a sea bass cooked in rock salt. Back inside the medina, we agreed we could do without the tajine of shark and conger eel advertised at a restaurant next to a shop devoted to the Gnaoua music of Morocco.
Jimi Hendrix is among those who apparently visited Chez Sam but, contrary to the hippie lore of the time, almost certainly did not sit and gaze at the forts on the Iles Purpuraires in the bay while writing
These uninhabited islets, named after the molluscs from which the Romans used to extract purple dye, have a much more interesting link with a rare bird, Eleonora’s falcon, which breeds there. In the summer months these magnificent birds can be seen from the rampart walls, often at sunset as they glide low over the water and you are wondering which fish to have for dinner. The Spectator
Intrepid Travel has announced 20 per cent off its 16-day Morocco Through the Lens photography adventure departing September 13 from Casablanca to Marrakech. The new price is $2799 plus a local payment of ($695); British travel photographer Ian Wright is the leader. More: 1300 364 512; www.intrepidtravel.com. See editor Susan Kurosawa’s exclusive accommodation reviews on the first Friday of each month in
magazine. Next: Birkenhead House, South Africa; Friday, August 7.