Tan Wee Cheng's Journey Through  Morocco, Land of the Furthest West

4 Mar: El Jadida & Essaouira

Click to expand for route details

Ninety-Nine Kilometers For A Cistern

Woke up again at 5:45am to get ready for the 6:45 am train to Casablanca.  Reached Casa-Port station at 7:15, and I quickly rushed to the CTM bus station.  There, I arrived in time for the 8am bus to El Jadida.  This bus seemed to be full of well-dressed people.  Perhaps, they were all middle class Casa people who were off for a relaxing holiday break on the beaches of El Jadida.

I like CTM buses.  They pick up passengers only at certain specific locations, usually the two terminal points of the trip plus a few important towns the route passes through.  Other bus companies tend to pick up passengers whenever someone waves his arm along the highway, and they tend to overload the bus.  This also means that CTM services tend to be more punctual than the rest.  In addition, CTM usually has its own bus stations, which are more often than not, clean, modern, and staffed with a few English-speaking personnel.  CTM tickets are bilingual (Arabic and French) and often printed with the use of computer - makes a difference for a tourist for other companies simply provide a slip with scribblings in Arabic, and the tourist is worried if he had bought a ticket to the right place.  I came across a CTM privatisation bid document at the Moroccan Embassy in London.  I suppose CTM had been privatised and that's the source of new money for these improvements.  See the wonders of global capital markets ?  OK - enough of the sales pitch or you would think they pay me for this.

The bus travelled through the coastal plains south of sprawling Casablanca, passing Azemmour, a seaside town that once had a strong Jewish presence.  After 99 km and two hours, it finally reached El Jadida.  I was particularly relieved as I had enough of the two quarrelsome kids behind me, who kicked my seat once in a while, or threatened to kill each other in an internecine feud.

Why El Jadida ?  In a country with more magnificent monuments and better beaches elsewhere, tourists come to El Jadida only to visit the Portuguese Cistern, which is listed as a World Heritage by UNESCO.  El Jadida first came into prominence as Mazagan, the old Almohad fortress occupied by the Portuguese in 1513.  These were the days the Portuguese controlled a sizeable portion of world trade and occupied ports and fortresses stretching from Ceuta to Mozambique, and the Spice Islands.  Mazagan was one of their main centres of control, but by the 18th century, Portuguese power was spent and they lost Mazagan to the Moroccans under Alawite Sultan Sidi Mohammed III in 1769.  As ports like Essaouira and Tangier began their rise, El Jadida, as Mazagan became known after the Portuguese retreat, became a sleepy town as it is today.

Ruined church & tower

El Jadida is a really dull provincial capital.  It has some beaches but they appear to be a little dirty and a somewhat rocky.  However, they are picturesque with the usual coconut trees, an occasional minaret and a number of locals fishing on the more rocky parts.  Yes, El Jadida is a fishing port.  Fleets set off from here for the rich fishing grounds just off this coastline, where warm currants attract fish in huge quantities.  In  El Jadida, one sees many fishing boats, fishermen drying their nets, fishmongers and their goods, and like fishing ports elsewhere, lots of seabirds ready to snatch a few herrings from the fishermen.

Walking through El Jadida, I noticed a number of building work and road retaring.  Perhaps, the Moroccan Government has big plans for this city.  It's the day after the national celebration and as the grand celebratory pavilions and decorations were being removed, one began to see the slums, the beggars and all those ugliness behind the facades.  Life has to go on after any festivities, isn't it ?

The Cité Portugaise, or Portuguese City is located at the city centre.  Today, it is still home to many people.  Despite its reputation, there are few tourists and teenagers still play football in a small square within the walled Cité.  An incredibly sleepy and laid-back place.  A few scattered Portuguese arms on the walls, a ruined Spanish Church (whose tower roof had all but collapsed apart from the frame and the cross on top), Portuguese facades and cannons - these are the only Iberian legacies left in this long forgotten city.

The Cistern

It took me a while to find the Cistern, for there was only a tiny sign over its doorway.  I must be one of its few visitors in winter.  I walked in, paid the fees, and an old man opened the Cistern door with an ancient rusty key.  In it was the reservoir that put El Jadida on the tourist map.  Twenty-five arched Gothic pillars, together with the shallow pool of water and a rooftop opening in the middle of this hall, had created the most famous reflection image of the world.  This beautiful effect had attracted many film makers, the most famous of which was probably Orson Welles, who filmed scenes of Othello here.  The old caretaker walked me around the Cistern, gave a guided tour in French, despite my protests that I didn't know French and hence did not need any guide.  Within 10 minutes, I had enough of the Cistern and wanted to leave.  He mumbled in French, probably asking for tips.  I pretended I didn't understand him at all, for indeed I had received no benefit from his French introduction to the Cistern.  He gave up without further effort.  I left the place without anything more than saying "merci" and a little guilt feeling.

I had a stroll on the magnificent ramparts that surround the Cité.  A beautiful sight of the harbour from here, of fishing boats, seagulls, and more.  An artist was meditating at one of the bastions when I arrived, and he thrusted his name card into my palm.  He couldn't speak English, and me, French.  He pointed to his address, and indicated that I should write to him when I return to "Japon", as he said.  I didn't promised anything, for even if I had, he wouldn't had understood me.  Perhaps he felt lonely and isolated.  Maybe he needed a voice to the world.

Look out for pirates ?

I passed a synagogue on the ramparts.  The Star of David was up there, but the temple is apparently now a storeroom for cement-mixing equipment.  The Jews had long left and like the Portuguese, their legacy had faded away.

How About Camel Tagine ?

I returned to the Bus Station and bought the 3pm ticket for Essaouira.  It was a CTM bus that originated from Casa, and was somewhat delayed for ½ hour.  [I suppose an exception to the rule.]  The bus travelled southwards for another 200 km passing Safi, another previously Portuguese occupied town and now fishing port.  It reached Essaouira at 8:30pm.  The city's bus station is located outside the city central.  I had arrived in the dark and had to walk quite a distance to the Medina.  There were few street lights and an occasional car or horse carriage passed rather suddenly - I was in real risk of being overrun by them.  I was definitely relieved when I found myself in front of the Medina's bright lights.  From what looked like a dead suburb, I found myself in the heart of a souk, with lots of people, bustle and noise.  I was a little distracted by all the activity and colourful stuff on sale, when suddenly I realised that not for the first time, I was lost in a Medina.  It took me a while before I managed to get to the LP-recommended Hotel Tafraout.

A young friendly chap named Abd Alik greeted me at Hotel Tafraout.  The place cost DH 100 including hot showers.  OK, not a problem for me.  It's more expensive than many other Moroccan establishments (though dirt cheap by world standards) but I have decided to give myself a treat since the trip was ending soon.  Friendly Abd Alik even invited me to join him for a meal of sting-ray tajines.  I took a quick bath and then indulged in that fantastic meal, one of the best I had in Morocco.  I was also very hungry by then and so most things would taste great anyway.

El Jadida: Faded glories

We had a great chat about, as small talks in Morocco goes, our families, countries and jobs.  I have always enjoyed such conversations, as I usually learn a lot about a country and the people's lifestyle from them.  Of course, such conversations also tend to be biased as well, as they tend to present the views of the person one spoke to.  But again, guidebooks can be, and are by their very nature, subjective as well.

At this point, Abd Alik asked if I had ever tried camel meat.  No, and I was quite  enthusiastic about it.  He then suggested that we should buy a kilogram of camel meat the next day for DH 250 (about US$25), and he would cook it.  I smelt blood immediately.  Come'on, I'm not a Scandinavian or Japanese travelling to the Third World for the first time (and hence finds everything cheap), and although I did not know how much camel meat should cost, I knew it shouldn't cost so much.  Abd Alik went on, saying that the meat would cost two times more in summer, and since the next day is Friday, the Islamic holy day, many camels would be sacrificed.  He could definitely get a good price for it.  The proposal was just too fishy for me and I retired to bed saying that I would decide the next day.

5 Mar: Essaouira: Windy City, Afrika

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