A day with the goats – free-range foodie fun

Goats doing what they love best - climbing.

Goats doing what they love best – climbing.

Finca los Robledos is in the beautiful Sierra de Aracena.

Finca los Robledos is in the beautiful Sierra de Aracena.

The farm is close to the town of Aracena.

The farm is close to the town of Aracena.

The finished product: delicious Monterobledos goat's cheese.

The finished product: delicious Monte Robledo goat’s cheese.

Readers of this blog will know that I like my food, especially if it’s from a small local producer, and that I also love days out and trips with my kids, even more so if we’re “close to nature” and eating is an essential part of the experience. So going to an organic farm with the kids to make goat’s cheese – what could be more free-range, foodie and fun?

A few months ago we went to the Sierra de Aracena for the day, to Finca Los Robledos near the town of Aracena – around an hour’s drive from Seville. Down a bumpy country road, then a narrow farm track with a little stream flowing next to it, we finally arrived at the farm. Our hostess and guide was Maria Jesus, who owns the farm along with a cheese shop in Aracena. It’s a family affair: one of her sons, Manuel, looks after the goats, along with his girlfriend; Maria Jesus and her husband, Rafael, make the cheese; and her other son, Miguel, runs the cheese shop in town – his daughter was there on the day we visited, and she played happily with my two children.

But Maria Jesus is definitely the brains and the driving force behind the operation. An energetic, sharp-witted, creative woman, she is full of tales of when her father ran the farm – it was sold to him by a terrateniente (landowner) on very fair terms (unlike today’s endless horror stories of banks, mortgages and evictions). In fact, her family has been making cheese for five generations.

The cheese world in the Sierra de Aracena is a small one, and it turns out another favourite cheese of mine, Doña Manuela, is owned by one of Maria Jesus’s brothers; Manuela is their mother’s name. Both Monte Robledo, Maria Jesus’s cheese, and Doña Maneula are certified organic, as both herds of goats graze on the same pasture – her farm is part of a 400-hectare plot of land divided between the three siblings.

Zac greets a goat - they're such friendly creatures.

Zac meets a goat kid – they’re wonderfully friendly creatures.

Maria Jesus’s herd of goats numbers 150, and she makes 10,000 kilos of cheese every year. The goats wander on the grassy hills around the farm by day, grazing on wild plants including acorns which makes them produce greater quantities of creamy milk, full of protein and with a fantastic taste. The goats are milked by machine every morning, munching on a snack during the process to keep them happy. Maria Jesus explains that it’s quicker and less painful for them, with silicone teats like those on a baby’s bottle. The goats are friendly, nuzzling me and the children; some of the kids, whose mothers wouldn’t feed them and had to be hand-fed using bottles, are downright cheeky and head-butt us.

Trying my hand at milking the goat, as explained by Manuel, with moderate success.

Trying my hand at milking the goat, as explained by Manuel, with moderate success.

Then it was Lola's turn to milk the goat - she was a natural.

Then it was Lola’s turn – she was a natural.

Zac has a got at milking the goat.

Zac has a go at the “squeeze, pull”.

We all try our hand at milking – Miguel shows us how to hold, squeeze and pull the teat in the right direction, with pressure in just the right spot. I worry about hurting the poor animal, but a warm jet of white liquid spurts out and Lola shrieks with delight. Her little hands manage to produce some milk too, though Zac finds it trickier.

Zac in the kitchen garden - lush, green and the perfect space for kids to run about in.

Zac in the kitchen garden – lush, green and the perfect space for kids to run about in.

Then Maria Jesus shows us the kitchen garden, a long grassy sloping area where they grow tomatoes and other vegetables in summer. The scenery is beautiful – lush grassy hills covered in oak trees, and today the sun is shining so it looks idyllic. There’s a small patio, with low buildings on one side: we visit the little museum, which is chock-full of fascinating old agricultural implements. I love places like this – finding out how people lived and worked in these hills years ago. If you visit their shop in Aracena, you can see more such vintage farming tools.

Maria Jesus shows us the anti-wolf collar.

Maria Jesus shows us the anti-wolf collar in the farm’s museum.

An entremuros, a wooden tray used for separating curds from whey - this is now done in a large stainless-steel vat.

An entremuros, a wooden tray used for separating curds from whey – this is now done in a large stainless-steel vat.

An old cooking brazier - hot stones placed under, pan on top.

An old cooking brazier – hot stones placed under, pan on top.

Maria Jesus picks up a scary-looking metal collar with long spikes which looks like a medieval instrument of torture. It was for the dog who looked after the goats, to protect him from wolves – a serious danger to livestock until only a few decades ago. Other antique contraptions in this cave of wonders are a hand hay-baler; an iron cooking brazier; a mill for grinding cereal to feed the pigs; an entremijo, a wooden tray used to separate curds from whey when making cheese (read on for more about this process); an iron plough; and glass jars full of dried herbs such as arnica and hierbabuena (mint) collected by her mother (the mint still has a strong smell despite its years). It puts the farm into a historic context, which seems a wonderful idea and makes our visit that much richer.

The we go into the dairy – this is unashamedly modern, with stainless-steel vats for making the cheese. The milk is filtered when it comes out of the goat, and then heated gently and stirred with big paddles. When it is hot, rennet is added to make it coagulate, and then it is “cut” with a metal implement with blades called a lira.

Freshly-made cheeses in the dairy.

Freshly-made cheeses in the dairy.

Cheeses maturing nicely. My mouth is watering just looking at this picture.

Cheeses maturing nicely. My mouth is watering just looking at this picture.

The cuajada (curd) and suero (whey) are gradually separated (the latter is fed to the pigs, as it’s high in protein), until you have a creamy, dense-textured white mass which is pushed into small plastic moulds with slots for the whey to drain out. The cheese is turned over every day, and after 20 days you have a semi-curado cheese. If you want a stronger fill-flavoured cheese, curado, you leave it for at least 50 days; for larger cheese, the process takes two to six months. Herbs can be added, such as rosemary or oregano, pimiento or black pepper.

A pure-bred Iberian sow with her newborn piglets.

A pure-bred Iberian sow with her newborn piglets.

Next it’s time to meet the Iberian piglets – born just four days ago, they confirm my non-meat-eating beliefs more than ever. I make sure my kids, entranced by the sight, realised these little darlings could be the jamon on their tostada one day. WARNING: gratuitous cute animal photo.

cerdo iberico

Reason #27 why I don’t eat meat.

A pail of fresh goat's milk, ready to be made into cheese.

A pail of fresh goat’s milk, ready to be made into cheese.

Rennet made from cardoon, a thistle-like plant.

The magic ingredient: rennet made from cardoon, a thistle-like plant.

The milk is thickening.

The milk is thickening.

Straining the mild to separate the curds (lumpy white stuff in the sieve) from the whey (liquid in the pail).

Straining the milk to separate the curds (lumpy white stuff in the sieve) from the whey (liquid in the pail).

Now the moment we’ve all been waiting for: after milking the goats, and playing with them, seeing how the cheese is made, and all those old implements, it’s our turn. Maria Jesus heats up some fresh goat’s milk (the very same stuff that we extracted earlier, or so I like to think), and adds the vegetable rennet, made from a plant called cardoon. The milk starts to thicken and she “cuts” it with the spoon, and then when it has curdled, and gone nice and lumpy, the curds are separated from the whey and we’re each given a little plastic pot-full of cheese to squash down. The process looks so simple, with only two ingredients – milk and rennet – but obviously you need to know exactly what level of heat to use, what temperature the milk needs to get up to, and when to add the rennet.

Maria Jesus gives Lola her cheese to squeeze.

Maria Jesus gives Lola her cheese to squeeze.

Zac pushes down his cheese, to squeeze the last whey out of it.

Zac pushes down his cheese, to squash the last whey out of it.

Zac's cheese, all ready to take home.

Zac’s cheese, all ready to take home.

Lola with her cheese - it didn't last long.

Lola with her cheese – it didn’t last long.

We squish our cheeses to get the whey out – a top activity with my children, unsurprisingly – then we pop lids on, write our names and listen to Maria Jesus’ careful instructions to keep the cheeses in the fridge, and turn and drain them every day for five days, adding salt, then put them on a plate covered with clingfilm. The children’s cheeses didn’t make it home in one piece, as queso fresco - fresh home-made goat’s cheese – is just too delicious to resist, but I kept mine for a month and when I finally gave in, it was fabulous (if I say so myself). And anyway, food tastes so much better when you know exactly where it came from, and what a happy, free life those goats lead.

Maria Jesus is a mine of information about everything from the history of the area, to which types of her cheese sell best where (the markets are king), to her collection of philosophical frases (sayings) on the farm’s website. She is an immensely kind woman, and generous with her time, which makes this a perfect family day out in my book.

A visit to Finca los Robledos costs 2 euros; cheese-tasting 3 euros without wine, or 5 euros with wine; visit with cheese-making 5 euros; visit, cheese-making and tasting 10 euros; and all the above with lunch (goat stew, naturally), 20 euros. They’re well set-up to cater for groups, with a large dining room.

If you want to stay in the area, I can highly recommend Posada San Marcos in nearby Alajar, or for self-catering, Monte Mateo in Navahermosas.

You can buy Monte Robledo cheese at the Monte Robledo shop, Calle Concordia 18, Aracena (tel 959 128 994); in the Alameda organic market in Seville on the second Saturday of every month, and the Aljarafe organic Market in Gines on the third Saturday of every month.

You can see Maria Jesus making cheese in this video.

The three Ferias of Seville: the caseta

portada, alumbrado, Feria, Sevilla, Feria de Abril, Feria 2104
The portada (entrance) of the Seville Feria lit up on the first night – Monday: the alumbrado.
Feria, Sevilla, fish

Pescaito frito – fried fish, the traditional dish for Monday night at the Feria de Sevilla.

Every thing is done to extremes at the Seville Feria - like this flamenca's three flowers (most women only wear one, or two).

Everything is done to extremes at the Seville Feria – like this flamenca’s three flowers (most women only wear one, or two). But it works.

Last week was the Spring Fair here in Seville – officially called the Feria de Abril (April Fair), but this year held in May. It’s a fantastic event, utter mayhem of crowds and horses and heat and manzanilla sherry, where you need stamina and a strong head for drink, a decent grasp of Spanish, but above all you need friends. Friends with casetas. These are the small stripey tent-houses (or large, for companies, and the public casetas, for areas of the city and political parties) where all the action takes place.

Feria, Sevilla

Keeping track of friends at the Feria by mobile phone (WhatsApp is the preferred means of telecommunication) is an essential part of the experience.

After this year’s Feria, which was a vintage one for me, even though I didn’t even manage to meet or visit everyone I had intended to, I came to the conclusion that there are three experiences of the Seville Feria, all completely different.

The first Feria is for those who have a caseta. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s your own – casetas are owned (and the costs are shared) by groups of people – friends, family, associations. It could be your in-laws’ (the commonest option among the Sevillanos I know) or your company’s. You have your own base where you can invite friends, or mention you’ll be there on a certain day if they would like to drop by and visit (you’ll also go out caseta-hopping to visit your friends in theirs). The doormen can be informed if you’re expecting guests, so he knows to let them in even if you’re not there at the time.

Feria, Sevilla

Ingenious, aesthetically-pleasing method of keeping socios’ possessions easily accesible.

Each socio (member) has a tab for food and drink at the bar, and you tend to be generous about entertaining visitors to your caseta. If you’re canny, like some casetas owners I heard about this year, you can rent your caseta out by the hour to Chinese or German tourists for a four-figure amount which will substantially reduce the annual fee paid by the caseta’s socios.

With friends in a caseta - our kind host is in the centre.

With friends in a caseta – our kind host is in the centre.

The second Feria is when you have friends with casetas. As always, it’s a case of not what you know, but who you know. Invitations are carefully sought and cherished in the weeks leading up to this extraordinary event, the mother of all ferias (for many towns in Spain hold their own, scaled down accordingly from the 1,000-odd casetas at the Seville event). If you’re lucky enough to be invited to a friend’s caseta (or their parents’, or company’s), once you’ve called/texted/WhatsApped to check they’re there and found them, you will be plied with food and drink, and when you try to respond to your hosts’ generosity by repaying in kind, your offer may or may not be accepted (in some casetas only socios can pay).

Dancing Sevillanas in a private caseta at the Feria.

Dancing Sevillanas in a private caseta at the Feria.

As a Brit who is very aware of courtesy, and the importance of getting one’s round in, especially as a guest, I find that a little difficult to get used to – while not for a moment complaining about the wonderful Sevillano hospitality. You just have to accept it – it’s part of the Feria protocolo (code of behaviour).

The third Feria is for those who, sadly, don’t know people with casetas (or who didn’t get an invite). Obviously they can still come to the Feria – entrance is free, they can watch the procession of magnificent horses and carriages, walk around the streets, and soak up the atmosphere, as well as going to one of the public casetas - for the six Seville barrios, plus political parties and trade unions. Tourists who come must find it an extraordinary sight, if rather closed-off – women dressed in frilly flamenco frocks partying away behind closed doors (well, canvas awnings). I have heard more than one person describe the Seville Feria as “1000 wedding receptions you’re not invited to”.

Sevilla, Feria, Feria de Sevilla

Ladies in flamenco dresses riding in a carriage – one of everyone’s favourite sights at the Feria.

Many feel it is too exclusive, and only for the “have”s (or have-a-friends), when it should be for everyone. My husband is in that camp, although he’ll go to his trade union’s caseta. I noticed that this year, when it got to the small hours, there were many more young people having a bottelon (drinking in the street from bottles they’ve brought with them) than in previous years, Note that other Ferias, apart from the Seville one, don’t have the same system of private casetas as here – all are open to everyone.

This year I went one night with a friend of a friend, who had already been at the fair for three days on his own, taking photos for a project. He hadn’t even been inside a caseta. We took him round to meet our friends at their casetas, and he was bowled over by the friendliness and hospitality shown to him by the Sevillanos, and astonished by the world of difference between la Feria en la calle, and la Feria en las casetas.

What’s your experience of the Feria de Sevilla? Have you been to a private caseta, or a public one?

Next year’s Feria is 21-26 April 2015.

While I’ve got your attention (hopefully), I’m going begging for votes. I’ve been shortlisted in the Travel section of the Brilliance in Blogging Awards, the major UK mum blogging awards. To get to the final of the awards, I need your help! Please vote for me, by clicking on this link, going to Travel, and ticking the box next to Scribbler in Seville. Mil gracias!

 

Domingo de Ramas: La Paz in the park

Semana Santa, Sevilla, procession, Maria Luisa Park

Two boys watch from a perfect vantage point as the Virgin of La Sed arrives at Plaza de España.

Semana Santa, Sevilla

These military-style uniforms for the mounted band of La Paz are typical of the pageantry that is Semana Santa in Seville.

Semana Santa, Sevilla, procession, Maria Luisa park

Check out the “tails” of these helmets.

Semana Santa, Sevilla, procession, Maria Luisa park

The Cruz de Guia, carried by nazarenos from La Sed, which marks the official beginning of the procession.

Children ask for sweets from a nazareno - "Nazarena, dame un caramelo!"

Children ask for sweets from a nazareno – “Nazareno, dame un caramelo!”

Nazarenos start young, and junior to them are monaguillos, or altar boys, who carry baskets of sweets to give out to children along the procession route.

Nazarenos start young, and junior to them are monaguillos, or altar boys, who carry baskets of sweets to give out to children along the procession route.

Plaza de España, Seville, Sevilla, Semana Santa

Nazarenos approaching Plaza de España – you can see one of its towers of the right.

The first procession to go out in Semana Santa (Holy Week) here in Seville is La Paz, on the afternoon of Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday). Dressed in long white robes and tall, pointed hoods with eye-holes – nazarenos; and the same white robes, without hoods but carrying black crosses – penitentes; the long snaking line of 1700 cofradia participants takes an hour to go past.

Jesus paso of La Paz passes Plaza de España. Sevillian extravagance from the early 20th century.

Jesus paso of La Paz passes the central area of Plaza de España: two examples of Sevillian extravagance – the baroque float with its richly-robed statues, and the supremely majestic neo-mudejar building – both from the first half of the 20th century.

The two highlights for thousands of people who, like me, had come to watch La Paz with friends and family, are the two pasos (floats) – one of Jesus de la Victoria, accompanied by the familiar Roman centurion with white feathered helmet, on a baroque gilded base which shone dazzlingly in the bright sunshine; and the other of Nuestra Señora de la Paz, the Virgin Mary under an intricate palio (pillared canopy) on a float of shining silver adorned with white flowers. This Virgin is well-known for the olive branch she carries – a sign of peace.

Semana Santa, Sevilla, Procession, Maria Luisa Park

Penitentes of La Paz carry their crosses through Maria Luisa Park on a glorious Sunday in April.

The first part of their route goes through Maria Luisa Park, which celebrates its centenary this year – it was created for the Ibero-American Expo of 1929, originally planned for 1914 but delayed by war and other factors.

Semana Santa, Plaza de España, Seville, Sevilla

Virgin de la Paz under her curtained palio (canopy).

The procession passes Plaza de España, one of the city’s most spectacular monuments and the centrepiece for Expo 29. This semi-circular sweep of bricks and tiled arches is a suitable backdrop of magnificence and grandeur for the dazzling religious statues with their carved decorations, fresh flowers and embroidered gowns.

Semana Santa, Sevilla, procession, Maria Luisa Park, costalero

These fellows, some considerably heftier than others, bear the weight of the pasos on their shoulders – they’re called costaleros. It’s hot and exhausting work, so these guys are taking a well-earned break. Note their corset-belts.

Plaza de España, Seville, Sevilla, Semana Santa

Penitentes passing Plaza de España.

I must state that my interest in the Semana Santa processions, is not a religious or spiritual one; it is more a case of appreciating the sense of theatre and passion which goes into them, and with which they’re received. For me, it’s about how people – in this case, Sevillanos – perceive their beloved effigies, as they are borne by men called costaleros from the church of their barrio to the cathedral, and back again. On this particular occasion, it was more of a nice day out in a beautiful park than any close allegiance to these statues – at least, that was my impression. Watching La Esperanza de Triana return to her church at the end of the Madrugada yesterday afternoon – well, that was an entirely different experience, ambience, crowd.

Over the past week I have taken over 1,000 photos of Semana Santa – I watched many pasos in landmark spots all over the city. So watch out for more posts with images of Holy Week processions over the coming days.

The medina and the market: colours of Tangiers street life

Women selling fruit and vegetables in a square in the medina of Tangiers.

Women selling fruit and vegetables in a square in the medina of Tangiers.

Tangiers, Morocco

A woman shells peas to sell in the street.

Tangiers, market, Morocco

A mix of dried spices, leaves and flowers. Moroccan cuisine is highly aromatic.

The classic colours of Morocco at a spice stall.

The classic colours of Morocco at a spice stall.

market, Tangiers, Morocco, Medina

Stalls have an amazing variety of goods, including garlic, ginger and volcanic pumice stone.

Tangiers, medina, Morocco

A turquoise street in the Medina with yellow and red houses.

For me, the most memorable part of my all-too-short visit to Tangiers was wandering through the Medina – the old city, just below the Kasbah. In my last post, I talked about our guide, Aziz. If I had been trying to find my way through alone, I would certainly have got horrendously lost – normally a fun part of exploring a new city, but when you’ve only got a day, with lots to see and learn, not ideal. But as it was, Aziz knows these labyrinthine streets and took us up steps, around corners, and under archways. We saw the real Tangiers, which is a third-world city without running water in some homes, with refuse on the streets, and with a vital sense of life. As I said in a previous post, this is my first time in a developing country in over a decade, so I was looking through newly naive eyes.

Morocco, Tangiers

Coloured, patterned leather slippers are reminiscent of tiles and plasterwork, with their intricate patterns.

House in the medina, in a shade close the famous albero of Seville.

House in the medina, in a shade to close the famous albero of Seville.

Tangiers, Morocco, market, olives

Fat, juicy olives in all colours, in the market of Tangiers.

When I  mentioned to a very well-travelled, highly-experienced photographer friend that I was going to Tangiers, and asked what advice would she give me – especially in case of not-ideal climatic conditions (it rained) – she just said “colour”. Only showers, as it happened, but those zingy colours can’t be suppressed by a light downpour – houses, spices, clothes (not the djellaba, the long hooded kaftan, which we only saw in earth tones – white, grey, brown or black).

Berber, market, Berber market, Tangiers, Morocco

Berber women selling fresh fruit and vegetables.

market, Berber, Berber market, Tangiers, Morocco

Produce from the countryside in hand-woven baskets.

oranges, Tangiers, Morocco, market

A moped trailer piled high with oranges, fresh from the farm.

We were lucky enough to be in Tangiers on a Sunday, when the Berber market takes place. Berbers are the native people of Morocco, before the Arabs arrived; they’re nomadic, tribal people. They come into the city – mostly women, but men too - bringing their fruit, vegetables, milk, cheese and eggs (and even live chickens, too) to sell on the pavement next to St Andrew’s Church, by the Grand Socco, on Sunday mornings.

Some handy tips for visiting Tangiers

One euro = around 11 dhirams. Most places accept euros, but give change in dhirams.

Some Moroccan women don’t like being photographed; I tried to avoid capturing their faces.

Alcohol is served, but discreetly, as Morocco is a liberal Islamic country – mostly in tourist hotels, and smarter bars and restaurants.

Kif (marijuana) smoking is tolerated for Moroccans, and very popular among the young, but illegal (if also popular) for tourists. Beware.

In future posts, I’ll be looking at Tangiers in artistic, musical, cinematic and literary terms, as well as telling you about the trip I took out of the city to the coast.

A trip to Tangiers: first impressions

One of the most beautiful sights in Tangiers: a public fountain in the Kasbah with Islamic tiles, exquisite plasterwork and carved wooden roof .

One of the most beautiful sights in Tangiers: not a palace, or a mosque, but a public fountain in the Kasbah with colourful tiles, exquisite plasterwork and carved wooden roof.

Tangiers, port, Morocco

First stormy view of Tangiers from the ferry – terminal with red flag for the king’s visit, medina, and on the skyline two towers: a minaret (right) and the bell tower of St Andrew’s church.

 

A snatch of plaintive Arabic music, small children playing marbles in the street, a Berber woman covering her face with a scarf… narrow alleyways dotted with rubbish, houses painted azure blue, canary yellow, terracotta pink; ancient, exquisite carved wooden doors; piles of gleaming fresh aubergines, tomatoes and strawberries stacked high in a market stall; figures wearing the djellabah, a long, medieval robe with pointed hood; young men glued to a Spanish football match on TV in a bar, with the sweet aroma of hashish swirling around. Snapshots of a brief but intense experience.

Readers who follow my blog’s Facebook page (see Like box on right, part of snazzy new self-hosted look) will know that I recently went to Tangiers.

This was my first ever trip to Africa – a new continent, and a new country: Morocco. Separated from Europe at Spain’s nearly southernmost point by just a few kilometres, the two continents pushed apart by Hercules, so the legend goes. After 10 years, finally I got around to making the short, easy trip. Having been warned to expect hassle I was apprehensive, being out of practice at coping with third-world countries (trips to Europe, Asia and South America from my late teens to my mid-thirties seem like a lifetime ago), while at the same time being more excited about visiting a new place than I have been for years.

Morocco, Tarifa, ferry, Tangiers

Between two continents: crossing the Straits of Gibraltar – Africa (Morocco) to the right, Europe (Spain) to the left.

The ferry takes a smooth hour from Tarifa, with a modern, efficient system where your passport number is printed on your ticket – and the return is open, so you can always decide to delay coming back (it’s tempting, believe me). At the other end, few touts were waiting as the ferry terminal disgorged the latest batch of arrivals, mostly day-trippers. Driving away from the port towards the Kasbah, the fortified area at the top of the medina (old town), what struck me most was that the city looked remarkably like Spain – a wide avenue lined with palm trees and a variety of glass-fronted, first-world shops.

But then, but then… we climbed a hill and turned right through a series of low, narrow arches, the horseshoe shapes found all over my beloved Andalucia – and we stepped back in time. This was Bab Kasbah, the gate to Tangiers’ medieval fortified area, high up above the rest of the medina. Once inside, we saw tables and chairs set out under an ancient tree, old men whiling away the day – and then our riad. These are traditional Moroccan houses built around a central patio – just like in Andalucia, I hear you say. Not surprising, considering that north Africans, known in Spain as the Moors, occupied Andalucia for 800 years. Their architectural legacy is highly visible, providing some of the region’s most famous and beautiful monuments – Granada’s Alhambra, the Mezquita of Cordoba, the Giralda in Seville. So I suppose it wasn’t surprising, then, that in many ways, Tangiers felt familiar - like a place whose features are already so well-known, it’s as if I’d dreamed about them. This is where so much of the literature, culture and gastronomy of Andalucia came from – pomegranates (granadas in Spanish), oranges, rice, almonds.

Hotel La Maison Blanche, Tangiers, Kasbah,, Morocco

The hotel’s patio with the glow from its welcoming fireplace – a cosy spot on a cold day.

hotel, La Maison Blanche, Kasbah, Tangiers, Morocco

The fountain, with its hand-laid mosaic tiles, is the centrepiece of the hotel’s patio. Fresh flower petals add a pretty, romantic touch.

La Maison blanche, Tangiers, Morocco, Kasbah

Our red room at the hotel, with handpainted walls and moody lighting.

Our small hotel, La Maison Blanche, a newly-restored riad with just nine rooms, was decorated only with Moroccan artesan pieces – from the most gorgeous lamps, to carved cedar-wood doors, to metalwork bins (no plastic or IKEA here). Everything felt authentic and of its place; the heavy print fabrics weren’t all to my taste, although our boudoir-ish red room was heavenly; one upstairs room, with north African light drenching its antique metal four-poster bed and white furnishings, was right up my alley. They haven’t used wallpaper; just fabric hung on the wall, or hand-painted designs. Yes, it’s that classy. The interior designer was French, and the owners are a Moroccan-Spanish couple, Aziz (Tangerino) and Pilar (Malagueña), so it’s a hotel with French sophistication, Spanish warmth and Moroccan style.

tangiers, kasbah

Tangiers is full of stunning multi-layered doorways like this one in the Kasbah.

Kasbah, tile, tiles,

Craftsman working on a tile – the glaze is chipped away to make the design.

kasbah, tangiers, museum

The museum, housed in a former sultan’s palace – for another visit.

When we arrived in Tangiers it was wet and cold, and by the time we got to the hotel I was freezing (yes, I had dressed warmly: a fleece and hiking jacket, FFS), so we had a hearty Moroccan breakfast of flatbreat with goat’s cheese and pain au chocolate by the open fire, sitting in plush rich-red chairs. I was itching to explore the city, so Aziz, who is a professional guide – American travel writer Rick Steves (his word is gospel for many US visitors) is a big fan – took us on a walk around town. That’s the only way to get around these streets – few of them are wide enough for cars.

We walked down to the main square of the Kasbah, past the 13th-century mosque, the madrasa (school), the museum (a former palace), and the house where the Rolling Stones recorded Continental Drift from the Steel Wheels album with a Berber group called Jajouka in 1989, and through another arch to look out to sea. We saw a craftsman in his workshop, meticulously chipping glaze off a tile to create a classic geometric shape, as seen on azulejos all over Andalucia.

Bab Bhar, the gate which looks out from the Place du Kasbak to the sea.

Bab Bhar, the gate which looks out from the Place du Kasbah to the sea.

Kasbah, Tangiers, Morocco

A detail of that fountain. Islamic art is astonishing.

As it turns out, my first impression had some logic to it: as Aziz told us, they’re building a new multi-million-euro marina in Tangiers bay, supported by King Mohammed VI, who is keen to see the city develop economically – he was visiting while we were there, and red Moroccan national flags were everywhere to honour his presence. In parallel, monuments in the Kasbah, such as the mosque’s minaret and the old city walls, are being restored, and illegal houses built along the outside of the walls will be knocked down. The horseshoe arch which looks out to sea from the Place du Kasbah’s archway, Bab Bhar (in the photo above), has been shored up with ugly concrete, blocking out the horseshoe form – luckily you can still make out the original stone shape. Let’s hope it can be restored to its original glory as part of these plans.

Those were my first few hours in Tangiers; I will be writing more about this African adventure soon: markets, carpets, movies, artists, and our gorgeous hotel.