Essaouira, located on the Atlantic Ocean, is a great side trip from Marrakech, either for the day or for an overnight stay. The drive is about 2.5 hours on a paved road, with some interesting sights on the way. The city, with about 80,000 residents, is beautifully situated on the sea and has become a very popular tourist area as well as being the most important commercial port in Morocco. The crescent beach combined with trade winds is a mecca for surfers. The medina is protected by 18th century ramparts called Skala de la Kasbah. Old brass cannons line the walls, and the ocean views are lovely.

The site was an important trading port in the 5th century BC. Around the beginning of the CE the Berber Juba II established a tyrolian purple factory to produce dyes from local sea shells for the Romans. The city was known as Mogador in the Middle Ages. In fact Roman ruins have been unearthed on the island of Mogador which lies just offshore from the beach. In 1506 the Portugese king ordered the construction of a fortress. In the 16th century Mogador was a haven for the export of sugar and molasses, and an anchorage for pirates.

Jewish people once represented the largest part of the population, and there are many old synagogues in the “mellah” or Jewish quarter. Almost all of the Jews left once Israel became an independent state.

Highlights of the Drive

Several miles outside the city one comes across a tourist version of “goats in trees“, where several goats are ensconced in argan trees for the purpose of eating the argan nuts. In other parts of the area this is in fact a natural occurrence.

A few miles later, one can visit a local winery Domaine du Val d”Argan, established in the 1990’s by Charles Melia, a Frenchman from Chateuneuf du Pape; he still owns a small vineyard there as well. The winery grows a variety of grapes and produces several types, mostly in the Rhone style. We had a delightful lunch, with wine, in the sunny courtyard by the pool. One can also stay there.

We also visited the Afous Argan cooperative operated by Moroccan women, selling argan oil and a wide variety of products made from the oil.

The City Tour

We engaged a guide for half a day. Highlights included a visit to a Jewish synagogue, a tour of the souks and the fish market and a visit to a cooperative making all kinds of marquettry from a hard wood grown in the area called thuya.

The Harbor and Ramparts

Muhammed’s Spice Shop

One visit we really looked forward to was a return to this spice shop, located just beside the fish market. Karen and I visited Muhammed Seddiki six years ago, and enjoyed seeing him again and buying an assortment of spices. These included several of his spice mixtures for fish, chicken and vegetables, and of course saffron.

Moroccan Food Tour

We enjoyed a 4 hour food tour in Marrakech, which involved frequent stops at street stands to taste a variety of foods. Our guide picked us up at our riad about mid-morning, and we began a stroll through the nearby streets.

Our first stop was a small eatery close to our riad, where we tasted a local breakfast dish of hssoua belboula, or barley soup. This was akin to starting the day with cream of wheat. However this was a soup made from barley – a common grain grown in Morocco – and infused with olive oil and cumin. Quite tasty.

The next stop was at a street stand, where three women were producing a pancake/crepe like dish called msemmen. These are made from a basic bread recipe, flattened into a square, fried on a hot metal cooking surface and brushed with a mixture of spices. Best eaten hot, the crepes were very tasty.

Our third stop was another street stand, where the gentleman was producing sferj/chfanj, or Moroccan donuts. These are produced from a water/flour/sugar/salt dough, deep fried and served with copious amounts of drizzled honey.

After a short walk, we came upon another stand which was serving brissara, a soup made from dried fava beans and served with lots of olive oil, cumin and cayenne. This was accompanied with the traditional Moroccan mint tea.

At our next stop we crowded into a very small cafe and squeezed into a table for two – with five people. Our guide then brought us a dish called loubia, a bean soup served with Moroccan bread. This was eaten with folded over small pieces of the delicious bread.

Next was a stop at a local “Starbucks” for strong Moroccan coffee. We watched while the vendor ground the beans, covered them with hot water, placed the container in a barrel of hot and heated sand and allowed the mixture to blend. The result was a wonderful but very strong coffee.

After another stroll through the souk, we came upon a series of olive stalls. Olives are a staple of Moroccan food, and these stands contained a huge variety of olives. We tried several, including a flavored and spicy variety.

Our last stop was for lunch at a restaurant near the main square. We climbed two sets of stairs, finally settling in at a spacious table on the rooftop. After a series of Moroccan salads – all delicious – we were served the main course of a very traditional dish called a tanjia. A tanjia is a Moroccan stew – usually lamb with saffron, cumin, preserved lemon and garlic – cooked in a ceramic jug or amphora for many hours while buried in hot ashes. The end consistency is akin to a confit of lamb, quite delicious.

That was the end of a quite enjoyable food tour. The guide service offers such tours during the day and also in the evening, and offers a good way to experience various foods and to tour part of the medina.

La Maison Arabe

What better activity to take on next than a cooking school. So off we went to a three hour class at La Maison Arabe, a cooking school located within the riad of the same name.

We met with Alia Al Kasimi, a well-known author of Moroccan cookbooks. She explained the herbs that form the base of cooking in this country.

We then moved to the kitchen where Ouda, via a translator, began to teach us about Moroccan cooking. She began with preparation of the semolina-based dough used for Moroccan bread; the prepared dough was transferred to an nearby oven. We then began preparation of the ingredients for a chicken tagine, accompanied by a zaalook salad (cumin, ginger, tomato and aubergine) and a taktuka salad (green pepper and tomato).

When the dishes were prepared, we retired to a dining area to enjoy our meals.

High Atlas Mountains

There are a many activities outside Marrakech that are worth considering. On this trip we chose to experience the High Atlas Mountains in two ways. One involved a 1.5 hour drive to the north side of the mountains to visit a Berber village. The other was a much longer drive over the mountains to the Sahara side to see two casbahs.

Berber Village

One day we drove about 1.5 hours to the village of Imlil, situated on the northern banks of the mountains, a distance of 60 miles. Imlil is a small village which is the starting point for climbing Jbel Toubkal, the tallest mountain in northern Africa at 4167 m. We were meant originally to hike one hour up the mountains to a small village overlooking the valley. Once the hosts saw our ages, the plan was to carry us on donkeys to lunch, again up the hill. When we had difficulty mounting the donkeys, the decision was to call on a very old 4 x 4 to drive us up a winding, switch-backed narrow road to the lunch place.

We arrived at Auberge Roches Armed, a ten room Berber hotel and restaurant perched atop the hillside with magnificent views of both the valley Ait Mizane and the mountaintops including Toubkal. Interestingly one can make bookings at this facility through and other sites.

We were greeted warmly, led to a rooftop table complete with table, table settings, carpets and the like, all awaiting the presentation of a Berber meal. The meal included two tagines, one with lamb and another with vegetables, and both were delicious.

After lunch we returned to Imlil village and drove back the Marrakech. Shortly after leaving Imlil we went past a large tourist vacation facility owned by Richard Branson.

Over Tizi n’Tichka Pass

Another long day we drove from Marrakech over the Tizi n’Tichka pass, one of the most scenic in the country. A series of hairpin turns carves its way up the valley rising to the 2260 meter summit, with impressive views over the rugged, rocky mountains below. On the downhill side we visied Telouet Kasbah and a local market there, then on to Ait Ben Haddou.

Telouet was once the fortified home of the Glaoui family, who ran the trade routes to south Morocco. It is estimated that the decorations on the ceilings took 300 workers 3 years to complete. Unfortunately Telouet has been left to decay and is almost abandoned today.

The local market was quite fascinating, including all kinds of locals vending various foods, equipment and other things.

The scenery was quite different and interesting at the same time.

After a lengthy drive we arrived at Ait ben Haddou, a fortified town on the banks of the Ounila River. Built from local mud bricks, it’s one of the best places in Morocco for a captivating sunset. It has been partially rebuilt for iconic films such as Gladiator, Jewel in the Nile and Jesus of Nazareth.