Friday 27 April 2018

Escape to Essaouira - Moroccan magic that won't break the bank

Holidays in North Africa

View of Essaouira old city in Morocco
View of Essaouira old city in Morocco
Deirdre Mullins in Essaouira
Essaouira, Morocco. Photo: Deirdre Mullins
Sardines in Essaouira
A Moroccan Gnawa musician

Deirdre Mullins

From designer goodies to kite-surfing, Morocco’s windy city is worth the trip.

Set the mood

My biggest regret going to Essaouira is that I didn’t bring an empty suitcase. The walled medina in this brilliant Moroccan city has a smorgasbord of shops with hand-crafted and stylish interior goodies. I would have filled that empty case with woollen carpets, light fixtures and hand-painted ceramics for a fraction of the price you’d pay at home.

Of course, there’s more to these spice-scented lanes than shopping. The medina is the buzzy heart of Essaouira, retaining a traditional Arabic character. But beyond it, a long, sandy beach is a playground for kite- and wind-surfers.

Known as the ‘Windy City of Africa’, the lashing Atlantic wind can make sunbathing uncomfortable, but the beach, and its colourful sunsets, can be enjoyed on horse or camel back.

Top tip

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A Moroccan Gnawa musician

Gnawa music was brought to Essaouira by freed West African slaves. Go to a spiritual jam session (called a ‘lila’) at the Gnawa Music Centre to fully experience the hypnotic trance-like quality of the music. See the locals dance in ecstasy as they enter their trance. Sundays from 8pm. Ask for the Zaouia Sidi Bilal venue.

Insider intel

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Deirdre Mullins in Essaouira

Villa Maroc (villa-maroc.com) was Morocco’s first riad hotel, opening in 1990 as a guesthouse for surfers. Today, it’s a blend of four medina townhouses connected by whitewashed passageways and courtyards. Its interiors are simple Moroccan style and a double costs €126. The owners also have a countryside retreat 21km outside Essaouira. Day trips include transfers, use of a pool and a barbecue lunch (€25).

Guilty pleasure

Housed in a former almond warehouse, La Table by Madada’s dining room is grand with massive light fixtures and a Moroccan folk band setting the mood (facebook.com/latablemadada). It’s hailed as Essaouira’s best and most expensive restaurant, but those prices are relative.

For mains, I had a fillet of sea bass in a lemon butter sauce (€17). The mash potatoes with argan oil is to die for, as is the chocolate creme brûlée — which cost all of €5.80. A local organic Syrah set me back €38. Paying top dollar in Essaouira doesn’t have to break the bank.

Cheap kick

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Sardines in Essaouira

Essaouira is a seafood lovers’ paradise, and if you eat like a local you’ll be shocked at how little you spend. There’s a bit of a knack to the BOF (bring your own food) system. Firstly, go to the sardine man who sells freshly caught sardines on the street. For 50 cent, you’ll get a bag of about eight which you then bring to one of

the stalls on the smoke-clouded lanes. They’ll grill them and serve with bread and salad for about €3. For a bigger variety, go to the fish market in the medina — it runs a similar system.

Glitches

Haggling is a way of life in Morocco. Done in good humour, it can be a fun process that involves drinking mint tea with the seller. But having to second guess every price just because you’re a tourist can become tiresome, too.

Get me there

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Essaouira, Morocco. Photo: Deirdre Mullins

Deirdre flew as a guest of Air Arabia, which has direct flights from Dublin to Agadir on Wednesdays and Saturdays (prices from around €69 on airarabia.com).

From Agadir airport, get a private taxi direct to Essaouira for approximately €54; it takes three hours. A shared taxi from Agadir bus station will cost €5.40 and a bus €3.60.

See also visitmorocco.com.

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