A turn around town with Or­son Welles

For all the wide-screen magic of Morocco, look no fur­ther than Es­saouira, ad­vises Si­mon Cour­tauld

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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

Check­list

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.

Pic­ture: AFP

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