El Jadida, an exceptional blend of Moroccan and European cultures

A view of the old town’s seaside front.(Saad Guerraoui)

2017/12/17 Issue: 136 Page: 24

The Arab Weekly
Saad Guerraoui

El Jadida - The Atlantic coastal city of El Jadida has become one of western Morocco’s pop­ular tourist destinations because of its strategic lo­cation and rich culture and history.

Known as Mazagan after it was conquered in the 16th century by the Portuguese, El Jadida, 90km south-west of Casablanca, is a UN­ESCO World Heritage site.

El Jadida’s old town merges Eu­ropean and Moroccan cultures. The Portuguese fortification of Mazagan was built on the coast in the early 16th century to boost its defence. Cannons still stand on its bastions.

The old town’s double gate leads to the beautiful Church of the As­sumption on the main Rua de Car­reira, which was built by the Portu­guese in a Manueline style of late Gothic architecture. The church, which is one of the few surviving Portuguese buildings in El Jadida, has been converted into a theatre.

Many handicraft and souvenir shops line the hassle-free main street where visitors admire the mixture of European and Moroccan architectures.

Only a few metres from the church, the cistern is one of the most breath-taking constructions of the Portuguese period. The build­ing was an arms depot before be­ing converted into a cistern around 1541. It was supplied with fresh wa­ter to meet the city’s needs in the event of a siege, a local guide said.

It is believed that the Portuguese soldered the floor tiles’ edges with lead to prevent water from pen­etrating the surface. It was dis­covered by chance in 1916 when a merchant knocked down a wall to enlarge his shop.

Entering the cistern, visitors get a mystical feeling because of the re­flections of the Gothic columns and vaults on the water.

The cistern gained fame in 1952 when Orson Welles used it in scenes of the award-winning film “Oth­ello.”

At the back of the cistern, precise­ly in the Rua dos Celleiros — Cellar Street — is Chaibia Talal art gallery, which used to be a cellar as part of the cistern complex. The 200-sq.- metre space was converted into an art gallery in 2000 bearing the name of one of Morocco’s most popular artists who was born in El Jadida region.

Street names are preserved in Portuguese, an authenticity that has justified El Jadida’s inclusion on the World Heritage List in 2004.

En route to the Spanish church, there is an ancient building believed to be the home of a Portuguese gov­ernor. The wrecked door, which is barely standing, is half open, dis­closing an incredible amount of de­cay and serves as an example of lo­cal authorities’ carelessness about priceless heritage in dire need of restoration.

The Spanish church has been converted into a charming hotel, L’Iglesia, thanks to its 19th-century atypical building and refined deco­ration.

Refreshing mouthwatering mint tea is available at Le Lokal in the middle of Rua de Carreira. It is a cultural cafe that exhibits photos of El Jadida region’s main culture and heritage themes, including monu­ments, “Tbourida” (“The Gunpow­der Play” on horses) and falconry, said owner Mohcine el-Maaloumi.

Reaching the bastion overlook­ing the city’s port and the entire old town, the landscape is astounding. The serenity of the atmosphere was broken only by seagulls chirping and wailing.

El Jadida is famous for its mous­sems and festivals. The annual Moulay Abdellah Moussem has been celebrated for hundreds of years in memory of Saint Moulay Abdellah Amghar. Considered one of the most famous events in Mo­rocco, the moussem pays homage to the vestiges of a past steeped in Islam and love of the ancestral soil.

Visitors from across the country erect tents during the 7-day mous­sem in August to celebrate the saint. Thousands of horse riders flock to the venue to perform fantasias. Falconry, musical concerts and folk troupes are part of the celebration.

The pristine Sidi Bouzid beach, 5km from El Jadida, is the ideal place for surfing any time of the year. During the summer, El Jadida is crowded by local tourists and demand for hotels and apartment rentals exceeds supply.

For those looking to spoil them­selves with an unforgettable week­end, Mazagan beach resort complex is the place to be.

An array of activities — golf, ten­nis, yoga, spa and fitness, horse rid­ing and quad biking on the beach, karting, belly dancing over dinner and gambling in North Africa’s larg­est casino — awaits. Not to forget, a steamy hammam in which city stresses can be scrubbed away.

Saad Guerraoui is a regular contributor to The Arab Weekly on Maghreb issues.

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