European and Moorish influences collide in the port city of El Jadida, a creative community and UNESCO heritage site built within old fortified Portuguese walls.
EL JADIDA, Morocco – After spending a week in Marrakech with a savvy French friend who showed me the ropes, I had the urge to adventure on alone.
Destination: El Jadida, a lesser-known coastal town about 160 miles north of the more popular Essouira. Locals drive or taxi from Marrakesh, but I took the train and was pleasantly surprised by the comfort and dependability of it. First-class tickets provided better seats in a less crowded train car for just a few dollars more than coach.
Upon arrival, I needed to take a taxi to the Old Portuguese City, but none were metered, which instantly lit up my inner cynic. To my (pleasant) surprise, El Jadida taxis from the train station to town have a set price of 10 MAD (about $1.15). My driver, a music teacher who chauffeurs on weekends, was welcoming and eager to talk about the city. As I exited his car, he called to me.
"Make sure to tell Americans about the taxis in El Jadida!" He was proud.
WHERE TO STAY
Most international tourists stay in one of the large private resorts, Mazagan Beach Resort or Pullman Mazagan, but I was invited to be one of the first guests to stay at the only upscale hotel in the city — just as they were putting on the finishing touches.
L'Iglesia is a reconverted Spanish building in El Jadida's fortified Old Portuguese City (La cité). The Leymarie family, owners and designers of the hotel, made the place art deco fabulous and totally international.
I'm writing with my glass of Moroccan red wine in the hotel living room after dinner. It's a normal evening, you might say, except for one thing: I'm in a Catholic church. Sitting where the pews used to be — now leather lounge chairs over red shag Moroccan rugs covering pastel gray and white tiles — I'm overwhelmed with the hotel's eclectic style. The walls are unpainted, still gray from the refinished stucco, gritty enough to blend with the outside surroundings.
I'm the only tourist within a hundred miles, or so it feels while out roaming the cité, but then I come back to l'Iglesia and find my little heaven. You want to whisper, because every small sound echoes here, and that's the beauty of it. They didn't try to chase the truth away; it has kept its sanctified aura. And with only eight rooms, it's easy to feel at home. Children can be heard outside long after dusk; the cité is full of kids playing in the dirt and jumping off the old stone ramparts into the water, racing around, shouting. They infuse the city with life.
WHAT TO DO
In El Jadida, I learned the value of a good guide. There are places so fresh to foreign eyes that you won't even begin to scratch the surface if you don't get someone to show you around.
I spent my first day on the streets with the intention of getting lost. But I was uncomfortable with everyone staring at me as if I had dropped in from a neighboring planet. It was impossible to blend in, the only blonde among 150,000 inhabitants. My instincts turned inward, and I hurried to find my way back to L'Iglesia. I needed a travel companion.
The hotel recommended Sylvie Pedersen, who gave me a private tour of the city and the neighboring town of Azemmour. On foot and by car, Sylvie offered me insight into Moroccan culture and history I would never have learned on my own. Did you know, for example, that it is against the law to refuse someone requesting water at your door? Or that each person is responsible for looking after the well-being of at least one person less fortunate than themselves? These little bits of information brought the country into new light. By the way, Sylvie is a non-Muslim European who has been living in El Jadida for eight years, and the people of the cité respect her, treat her like a star even. I felt at ease to explore.
HOW TO BEACH
EL Jadida's long and gorgeous stretch of sandy beach and roaring ocean reminded me of my native Southern California. Except that the two most popular Western pastimes were missing: sunbathing and boozing. A hundred miles of beach and not a bikini in sight!
There are about a dozen oceanfront cafes competing for visitors. People sit sipping coffee and soda — there's no beer, no wine, no piña coladas. Culture shock for sure. Instead, kids and adults alike fly kites, and children ride ponies on the sand. Tiny ATVs race down the shore. Along the boardwalk, vendors sell crafts, homemade pastries, and sweetened popcorn.
WHAT TO SEE
Just 20 kilometers north along the coast is the small town of Azzemour. Every year in April, the Festival d'Art Mural d'Azemmour brings artists from all over to contribute to the medina walls. It's an incredible sight to see, as everyone in town gets involved in the public art display. In just three days, white walls are transformed into colorful scenes, abstract and concrete depictions of how the locals see their world. These murals stay for the year, and then, just before the festival begins again, the walls are repainted to start afresh. I learned that styles and content have changed drastically over the years — a symbol of the community's increasingly progressive mindset.
GOOD TO KNOW
When I arrived at the airport on the first day of my trip, I was fearful of disrespecting the laws of the land. Could I sit where the men sit? Should I button my blouse all the way to the top? But by the end of the trip, I recognized that I'd been a victim of my own misconceptions. After three weeks I had loosened up, knew what to wear, knew what to pay attention to and what to disregard. The biggest lesson was that kindness, openness, and a smile go a very long way.
HOW TO GET THERE
El Jadida is 45 minutes from Casablanca Airport and three hours from Marrakech by car. I took the train from Marrakech to El Jadida, and sprung for first class tickets (190 MAD, or 22 USD). Totally worth it.