Scottish Daily Mail

Easy does it in Essaouira

Less frenetic than Marrakesh and with creativity and scrummy food at every turn — Morocco’s seaside city is perfect for an autumn break

- Holidaypla­nner@ by KATE WICKERS

WE’RE all different — which is, of course, marvellous. But a colleague, who seems perfectly sane, said the other day that she can’t wait for the clocks to go back and that she longs for it to be dark by 4pm.

Perhaps she was confused at the time. Because most of us — me included — start reaching for the lifeboats at the very thought of those long, wintry nights. And they’re not far away.

Choice of holiday is another great divider. The idea of sitting around a resort pool all day in ferocious temperatur­es (if you can grab a sunbed, of course) drinking white wine spritzers is anathema to some travellers.

Likewise, traipsing through a crowded city like Rome (pictured below) with a tour guide holding a lollipop sign with the name of the travel company on it doesn’t suit everyone. Nor does rising at dawn to partake in breathing classes, followed by a roll-yourown yoghurt workshop.

Bill Bryson once wrote that ‘the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar that it is taken for granted’.

With that in mind, we’re starting a new column today called The Best Thing About A Holiday Is… (turn to next page), kicking off with Jane Fryer’s paean to the breakfast buffet, complete with her family’s savvy strategy to savour every morsel of joy from this daily spectacle.

Mind you, I’m always lost in admiration for those discipline­d holidaymak­ers who can stare a buffet in the face, then opt for a skinny latte and slice of melon.

Good intentions normally abandon me as soon as I walk into the dining room for breakfast. But perhaps one of the pleasures of a break is the dismantlin­g of good intentions.

We’re keen to hear what ‘everyday things’ about a holiday rank highest for you. Keep it brief and get in touch via

Chopping tomatoes wouldn’t normally make me nervous, but as these will add to the popular savoury Moroccan dish of taktouka and head chef Ahmed handour, of heure Bleue palais in Essaouira, is looking over my shoulder, the pressure is on.

‘now mix them with the bell peppers, garlic and spices,’ he tells me. The spices are fresh from the souk in Essaouira’s 18th-century medina and the air in the kitchen is thick with the aroma of turmeric, ginger, cumin, sweet paprika, garlic and preserved lemon. ‘now the fun really begins,’ he says, handing me a piece of calamari and a piping bag. My challenge is to stuff the mixture into pockets of squid, bought from Essaouira’s fish market — and it’s harder than it looks.

Essaouira (pronounced es weera in Arabic) has a population of 78,000 and lies on the Atlantic coast, 108 miles from the beach resort of Agadir and 118 from Marrakesh, and was, in the 18th century, Morocco’s greatest port city, transporti­ng goods to Europe from Marrakesh, the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara.

Known then as Mogador, the city fell into decline from 1912 under French protectora­te and took the name of Essaouira (from the Arabic word as-sawira, meaning little rampart) once Morocco gained independen­ce in 1956.

Best months to visit are September and october, when average temperatur­es hover at 25 degrees, and even on hotter days, the constant wind (this is the

country’s gustiest city), known locally as the taros, keeps it pleasant. I’m staying within the old walled city at Riad Baladin, hidden away down a narrow lane in the once-thriving, now crumbly Jewish Quarter (although it’s now well on its way to gentrifica­tion).

Riad Baladin is a fabulous example of how three traditiona­l houses have been rescued and elegantly restored to create a heritage hotel. With many original features intact — each has a cool, palm-filled interior courtyard — and rooms are simply but imaginativ­ely decorated with Berber rugs, cotton-draped four-posters and hand-crafted ironwork lamps that cast geometric shadows. If this were Marrakesh, it would cost triple the price.

Fans of Games Of Thrones might like to note that the hotel is a two-minute walk to wavelicked ramparts and citadel, built in the 1770s, where scenes from the hit HBO series were shot (most famously when Daenerys Targaryen arrives at Astapor). The ramparts make for a particular­ly atmospheri­c stroll at sunset with lovers seeking out the cosiest seats for two between its ancient pillars.

I’ve arrived in Essaouira with a menu in my head of the food I want to enjoy — classics such as couscous, sept legumes, zaalouk (smoked aubergine dip) and slow-cooked tajine. ‘We keep it local, simple and delicious,’ chef Handour tells me, while adding a slug of nutty Argan oil (pressed from the kernels of the argan tree so prevalent in this region) to the chocolate mousse we’re making.

THERE are other cookery classes on offer (lessons at L’Atelier also come highly recommende­d), but I like Heure Bleue’s idea of tuition plus an invitation to dine on what you’ve made amid the palms and burbling fountains of its opulent courtyard restaurant.

It’s a less fancy affair the next day as I settle down at a vinyl-topped table in Essaouira’s fish market to eat charcoaled sardines, served simply with lemon.

Essaouira’s distinctiv­e blue fishing boats knock together blown by the tangy sea breeze, upon which herring gull whirl, and around my ankles, feline chancers prowl ready to pounce on any scrap of fish that falls.

The experience is part of a tour with guide Rachid from Tours By Locals, and several times I narrowly miss having my feet swilled with fish guts by rubber-booted fishermen with mischief in their eye.

On ice, sardines rub scales with sea urchins, bream, squid, red mullet and shrimp sculpted into pyramids. I call on Rachid to help me out with identifyin­g barracuda, conger eel and a slender fish he calls a sweet pink. Domaine du Val d’Argan is a 25minute drive from Essaouira and is an anomaly being Morocco’s most southerly vineyard.

‘Thirty years ago, people thought I was crazy in wanting to grow grapes here because it’s so hot and dry and had never been done before,’ Charles Melia tells me, whose family owns the Font du Loup vineyard in Châteauneu­f-du-Pape. We sit under the canopy of an acacia tree, where lunch is served — a vast, delicious meze of salads, grilled aubergine and beef brochettes —and sample the Val d’Argan wine. I’m enjoying a glass of Perle Rosé de Mogador when the dessert arrives. ‘The rosé is so good, but now try the La Gazelle de Mogador orange wine,’ comes the advice from Charles’s wife, Zineb. ‘It brings all the flavour out.’ Light and floral, the organic wine is a perfect match for my rich chocolate tart.

Essaouira has more than its fair share of fabulous restaurant­s full of ex-pat hipsters and tourists feasting on platters of Oualidia oysters from Casablanca. Popular with hippies in the 70s, many came and never moved on (now owning galleries and restaurant­s), seduced by the city’s tolerance and joie de vivre. For proof of how accepting of other cultures and beliefs Essaouira has become, just look for the Jewish Star of David, the

Christian Rose Moon etched stone gateway

Jimi Hendri stayed long e songs, includin tles Made Of about this stor two years ear jamming here Frank Zappa a

‘I saw him pa hand, so invite That’s where h

s float at Essaouira’s port

e and Islamic Crescent into the port’s grand y. x visited in 1969 and enough to write a few ng, legend has it, Casf Sand (only problem ry is that it was released rlier). Stories of him with Cat Stevens and also go around. assing one day, guitar in ed him in to drink tea. he sat,’ one old carpet seller tells me, pointing to a beatenup carpet, lounged on by a cat.

La Table by Madada is great for people-watching; another is the flamboyant Love by Caravane, owned by French artist Didier Spindler. ‘Darlings, I’m going to dance because it’s my birthday,’ announces an artylookin­g lady with purple hair to the entire restaurant. We’re treated to a show of experiment­al shape-throwing while the live band play stoically on. Dining out is a little cheaper here than in Marrakesh, but for real value for money (and excellent home cooking) seek out no-frills places such as Restaurant Awrirrte, tucked away down an alley off the Rue d’Oujda.

Arrive early to bag a seat on the rooftop of Salut Maroc, the prime perch for listening to live gnawa folk music while watching the sun set over the Atlantic and ramparts. Save room after dinner for a stroll along buzzy, shop-lined Avenue Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah to bijou L’amandine Souirie, the prettiest of the city’s Moroccan patisserie­s, to buy figs cloaked in marzipan and macaroons filled with apricot puree.

Nothing stirs memories of my first trip to Morocco in the 90s like a pastilla with chicken and almonds. I eat one at Tara Cafe, relishing the buttery flaky pastry and the filling of honey and almond mixed with cinnamon, saffron and shredded chicken.

Then, I head through the whitewashe­d lanes to the core of the souk — a courtyard bordered by small shops — where I find what I’m looking for at Chez Makki, a shop piled with dried herbs, tea and spices.

Once home, I’ve plans to recreate the tajine I made with chef Handour and I need a blend of spices.

‘You are welcome,’ shopkeeper Khaled booms when I pop my head around his door. I’m soon enjoying a cup of royal tea (made with verbena, chamomile, rosemary, sage, thyme, rose and mint). ‘Is it good for anything in particular?’ I ask. ‘Everything but particular­ly for your stomach,’ he says. Who knows, it might even help shed the pounds I’ve piled on in Essaouira, so I buy some.


DOUBLE rooms at Riad Baladin start from £69, riadbaladi­ Ryanair offer the only direct flight from the UK out of London Stansted, with returns from £63.98,

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 ?? ?? Port of interest: Morocco’s Essaouira and, inset, delicious example of the local tajine
Port of interest: Morocco’s Essaouira and, inset, delicious example of the local tajine
 ?? ?? Ocean blue: Distinctiv­ely-coloured fishing boats
Ocean blue: Distinctiv­ely-coloured fishing boats
 ?? Pictures: SHUTTERSTO­CK/ RIAD BALADI/ GETTY ?? Elegant: Riad Baladin was restored to create a heritage hotel
Moroccan stroll: Walk through the medina of Essaouira
Pictures: SHUTTERSTO­CK/ RIAD BALADI/ GETTY Elegant: Riad Baladin was restored to create a heritage hotel Moroccan stroll: Walk through the medina of Essaouira

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