Monday, October 20, 2008

Essouaria

It takes 3 hours to drive to Essouaria from Marrakesh. This time our taxi is a new Mercedes van and very comfortable. We stop along the way to photograph the goats in the argan trees, and get cranky with the goat herds who get cranky with us when they demand 100 durhams and we only give them 20.

Arriving in Essouaria after 3 hours of stoney desert, is lovely. The sky does that thing where somehow it looks different when you're on the coast. Gulls wheel and squeal, the sea crashes on the sand and our spirits lift. We hadn't expected such a large town, and I certainly didn't expect to see another walled medina, right on the beach. Our Riad Al Medina is a let down after the Riad Slitine and we have to ask for an extra bed. Almost everywhere we have gone, even though we stressed to the travel agent to make sure they asked for 3 separate beds, we have found ourselves with a double bed and one single bed, so we have to go through the whole routine of getting a portable bed added to our room. The beauty of Essouaria, is that it is both well laid out and small enough that you can walk the whole place without getting lost. It is a real fishing village. In the port blue hulled dories, trawlers, fishermen with cartons and barrows of fresh catch and the large atlantic gulls are all being studied and painted by artists of varying capabilities.
The main street leads down to a large town square, ringed by restaurants on two sides and opening to the seawall and beach on the third. Facing the beach is a row of blue and white marquees, all selling fresh catch cooked in front of you. It is too tempting and we decide to risk food poisoning and order Sardines, prawns and calamari. The prawns are good, the sardines excellent and the calamari woeful. The beach to the south of the 17th C Portugese fortress and port, is arching and windswept, flowing down to a spit with sand dunes and camel rides for hire. It is the end of the season and although warm, the sky is overcast above the broad promenade. The beach chairs are empty, vendors forlornley try to sell us their junk and camel rides, teenage boys play soccer on the sand. In one spot the boys have made up a game, half burying a giant swiss `fitball' in the sand and using it as a launch pad to spring somesaults in the air. One muscular teenager perfects a triple somersault and the watching crowd applauds. Kite surfers slice up the sea and sky, the beach is one of the worlds best for wind & kite surfing. On our way back to the riad, we stop for a beer at a seaside cafe, and sit in a glow of late afternoon sun, watching as it silvers the sea, talking aobut partners and children, admitting to missing loved ones and feeling the first pangs of being ready to go home.

There are still suprises ahead, though. The first is a restaurant called Elizir, a wonderful eclectic restaurant housed over three levels, with a rooftop terrace and art noveua / 60's fusion decor. The owner & chef is a local who spent 9 years in Italy, and the menu is a fabulous Italian / Maroccan fusion. We are served tapas compliments of the house - Cheese, olive, pumpkin and aubergine tapinades, fresh bread and Tiny Tom tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and herbs. Then I have hand made ravioli, in the shape of little bon bons, with ricotta and spinach and walnuts, and a beautiful creamy sauce. Gill has the same and Cath has Risotto with black cuttlefish, a delicate and exotic flavour. The following day it's discovering Chez Boujmaa, the first euro style delicatessan we've found in Maroc. We purchase Baguettes and chees and get them to slice and prepare the rolls for us for lunch. Dinner is intended to be at Le Cinq, another of the guide books recommendations, but when we try to find it, we can only find `After 5', which ouf course turns out to be the re-invention of Le Cinq. It is a little pricey, but we we decide to eat there. Large square chairs with deep cushions, dim lighting, arched wall alcoves, a fireplace, terrific African / Moroccan art work on the walls. A half decent French red ( the Moroccan wines are pretty ordinary) and we are settled. Unfortunately there is a language misunderstanding about my order of Lamb ribs with herbs, first I get Bream with herbs, which I send back, then I get Lamb tagine (I'm over tagines!) it goes back, and finally my Lamb ribs arrive - otherwise known as cutlets in Australia. The lamb is not to Australian standards, a little tough, but beautifully herbed and cooked and presented with some of the best mashed potatoes I've had in ages.
Essouaria has a reputation for art and music, and these two restaurants certainly reflect a local culture that is different from all the other Moroccan towns we've visited.
Gulls sqwaking accompany my waking thoughts. These large Atlantic gulls with their mottled wings and rimmed eyes, circle above the medina chasing smells of fish scraps from the port and the kitchens. Their cries are penetrating, "awk awk", with a ringing resonance almost clamoring like bells. I sit on the sea wall letting the sun warm my knees as the ocean rolls in with languid, lapping waves. The only people around at 9am are local boys and men and the occasional tourist. Its time to go home.

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