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Pausing for a Visit to the Portuguese City
The drive from Casablanca to Essaouira can be a long, hot and boring ride along the A7. While this may be the quickest route at just over four hours, it sure doesn’t show you much of Morocco. For a better option, if you have the time, take the coastal route for it’s sweeping views of sandy beaches, rugged cliffs, lush farmlands, and historic sites. If you do take the coastal route, plan on about six hours of driving time with more for stops and rests along the way. Better yet, I recommend you do like us and split the trip over two days and spend the night in El Jadida exploring the 16th century Portuguese city and fort and enjoying a fresh seafood dinner.
El Jadida was known as Mazagan by the Portuguese that first settled the area as a stopover on the India trade routes. They established a thriving port city and built a state of the art fortress to protect it. The fortress and the old city of Mazagan still exist today in a well preserved state of day-to-day to use. A walk along the bastions and battlements provides a view out to the city on one side and an overlook of the fishing boat port on the other. We loved sitting in the glowing light and watching the small, colorful fishing boats bobbing around in the bay. While wandering around the Portuguese city you should also make time to visit the cistern and the mosque. Both are small and won’t take much time but can’t be missed! In the cistern, the rippling light and sounds of dripping water echoing off the stone walls and pillars is magical.
It was a popular thing to do in the warm, breezy evening and we passed families, teenagers, and couples at various points along the ramparts all smiling, enjoying the sunset. One family stopped and talked to us for a few minutes welcoming us to their city. We chatted and went on our way. The sun was dipping quickly into the sea and we were ready to start searching for some dinner.
El Jadida is a bustling, lively and colorful port town on a beautiful stretch of coast. There are some beautiful golden sand beaches nearby and of course plenty of fresh seafood. You could stop in for a short visit on your way to or from Casablanca or make it a dray trip out of Casablanca. If you decided to spend the night there aren’t as many options as you would find in more touristic destinations but there are a few riads and hotels.
We tried to stay in riads whenever possible while traveling around Morocco. They tend to offer a more authentic stay in the heart of the city; many are family owned or managed and we were able to spend time in conversation about life in the medina, getting tips for restaurants or sites not to be missed, and just making new friends. This was all true in El Jadida as well. Our host met us at the edge of the medina, as had happened in other towns, and guided us to the house through the twisting maze of alleys. We had to leave the car parked in a bank parking lot, but it was safe for the night.We spent a very comfotable night in the Riad La Maison des Epices. From our riad we were a short walk from the Portuguese city, the fishing port, and the light house. On the recommendation of hour hostess, we ate dinner at “Cousteau” a small place directly across the street from the port. The fish was fresh and the calamari tender all with that perfect blend of herbs and spices. Finished off with a refreshing mint tea, this was another perfect stop on our Moroccan road trip.
Getting to El Jadida by car is a simple matter of following the R320, N1, or A5 out of Casablanca heading south. The R329 takes you right along the coast with the best views and some nice beach stops along the way. The N1 is inland some and probably a little quicker. If you just want to get there, take the A5 highway. Once in El Jadida, follow the coast around the bay until you come to the Portuguese city. You really can’t miss it if you stay along the water.
If you’re traveling north, out of Essaouira for example, take the R301 or N1 into El Jadida. Again, the R301 has the beach views and meanders through farmlands more, but it will slow you down. The N1 is more direct and quicker, butk, again, not much scenery along the road. If you are taking the R301, be careful. The stretch just south of Safi drives though some scary, almost apocalyptic industrial areas but the rest of the coastline along here is gorgeous.
Another option for travel in Morocco is a grand taxi, but you’re really taking your life in your hands if you choose to join up with other fellow travelers using these shared taxis. Being passed by these guys was the most frightening part of driving in Morocco. I can’t imagine being a passenger in one.
Where to stay: We stayed in the Riad Maison des Epices, one of a few that were listed in El Jadida. The riad is owned by a couple that live elsewhere but is managed by a friendly Moroccan woman and her small family. They made us feel right at home and provided a tasty breakfast in the morning. When looking for a riad be sure to use some system that provides as many reviews as possible. Look for reviews that specifically mention the host, hostess, or family that runs the house. This should give you the most personal and authentic stay possible.
Eating establishments abounded along the streets of the medina, all looked tasty and popular. There were only a couple of seafood restaurants by the coast and they were crowded as well, but we had no problems getting in for dinner. Other options included food carts that offered some deliciously fresh merguez hot off the grill.
Have been to El Jadida? What was your favorite part of the city?