We escaped the busy streets of Marrakech for the quiet seaside city of Essaouira (pronounced Essa-Weera by French speakers, and Es-SAW-ruh by Arabic speakers). I had first heard about Essaouira because HBO filmed part of Game of Thrones there. But the city had much more to offer, particularly in food.
We arrived before lunch and went for a walk along the waterfront. The old walls look like a European fortress — they were built by the French after all. Today Essaouira’s walls don’t defend against much, but the city still is a major fishing center. A walk around the wharf let us see and smell the day’s catch.
In our walk through the city, we tried to find a way to walk up along the walls, but the entrance to the ramparts was closed for renovation. We saw an old synagogue and shops selling to tourists and locals alike. As usual, we went for the desserts — mostly small treats that include almond or pistachio paste.
I also went for a run along the beach our first afternoon, past locals playing soccer and Europeans lounging in the sun. It’s a beautiful along-the-beach running route, but Moroccans don’t seem to run for fun (despite Moroccan runners doing well at the Olympics). The next morning we went on a run together, and made it far enough to see what looks like a pile of rocks out in the water. That pile, a former fortress, is touted locally as the inspiration for Jimi Hendrix’s song “Castles Made of Sand.” The story is not true — Hendrix did visit Essaouira, but it was after he released that song.
Then we splurged (compared to Moroccan prices) on a cooking class at l’Atelier Madada. We learned how to make Zaalouk (an eggplant salad) and lamb tagine with caramelized almonds and dates. Our hosts were Mora, our French-speaking chef, and Alison, our English “translator” — since the whole group spoke English and not French, she did most of the instruction. During the class, we were each called “Chef” (although this was typically when Mora scolded us and fixed whatever it was we were doing wrong). I was doing pretty well at chopping until it was onion time and a super fine dice was required. Then I cried.
While the tagines were cooking, we took a tour of the former fish market, now (during renovation) home to spice sellers. We learned about the spices for sale, what they should cost, and how each shop has its own secret recipes.
Then we returned to find our wonderful meals all done — we didn’t have to finish the cooking because Mora did it for us! While I don’t ordinarily eat lamb, I made an exception for the experience and it was delicious.
We finished out the day with some relaxation and dinner at the recommended Berber Cafe. There isn’t really a menu; you just show up two to three hours ahead of dinner time, place an order, and show up again later. We ordered couscous with fish, which turned out to be enough food for six people. It tasted fantastic.
The next morning, we left for Imlil in the Atlas Mountains, by way of Marrakech. But before moving on, I have to share my #1 distraction: cats. Essaouira, like Marrakech, has cats wandering about. But in Essaouira the cats tend to look healthier. It probably has something to do with the seafood. And according to our cooking translator, when the garbage workers went on strike and garbage started to pile up, the piles were not crawling with mice or rats — good job kitties!
Apparently the charity from the UK that works on spaying and neutering missed a season, so there were lots of kittens. The kittens were very cute — there was even a family of cats in and around a cardboard box near our hotel — but we hope they get this back under control soon.
After Essaouria, it was off to the mountains!