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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Morocco -- Casablanca

"Play it again Sam."
Humphrey Bogart and Rick's Cafe is what we normally think of when we mention Casablanca.  However, it is much more.

by Fodor's Travel Guide to Morocco

Casablanca is Morocco's most modern city, and various groups of people call it home:  hardworking Berbers who came north from the Souss Valley to make their fortune; older folks raised on French customs during the protectorate; pious Muslims; wealthy business executives in the prestigious neighborhoods called California and Anfa; new and poor arrivals from the countryside, living in shantytowns; and thousands of others from all over the kingdom who have found jobs here.  The city has its own stock exchange, and working hours tend to transcend the relaxed pace kept by the rest of Morocco.

True to its Spanish name--casa blanca. "white house," which, in turn, is Dar el-Beida in Arabic--Casablanca is a conglomeration of white buildings.  The present city, known colloquially as Casa or El Beida, was only founded in 1912.  It lacks the ancient monuments that resonate in Morocco's other major cities; however, there are still some landmarks, including the famous Hassan II Mosque.

Hassan II Mosque
Casablanca's skyline is dominated by this massive edifice. No matter where you are, you're bound to see it thanks to its attention-grabbing green-tile roof. The building's foundations lie partly on land and partly in the sea, and at one point you can see the water through a glass floor. The main hall holds an astonishing 25,000 people and has a retractable roof so that it can be turned into a courtyard. The minaret is more than 650 feet high, and the mezzanine floor (which holds the women's section, about 6 feet above the main floor) seems dwarfed by the nearly 200-foot-high ceiling. Still, the ceiling's enormous painted decorations appear small and delicate from below.

Funded through public subscription, designed by a French architect, and built by a team of 35,000, the mosque went up between 1987 and 1993 and is now the third-largest mosque in the world, after the Haramain Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina. It was set in Casablanca primarily so that the largest city in the kingdom would have a monument worthy of its size. Except for Tin Maland, this is the only mosque in Morocco that non-Muslims are allowed to enter. If you fly out of Casablanca, try to get a window seat on the left for a good view of the mosque in relation to the city as a whole.

At the edge of the new medina, the Quartier des Habous is a curiously attractive mixture of French colonial architecture with Moroccan details built by the French at the beginning of the 20th century. Capped by arches, its shops surround a pretty square with trees and flowers. As you enter the Habous, you'll pass a building resembling a castle; this is the Pasha's Mahkama, or court, completed in 1952. The Mahkama formerly housed the reception halls of the Pasha of Casablanca, as well as a Muslim courthouse; it's currently used for district government administration. On the opposite side of the square is the Mohammed V Mosque—although not ancient, this and the 1938 Moulay Youssef Mosque, in the adjacent square, are among the finest examples of traditional Maghrebi (western North African) architecture in Casablanca. Look up at the minarets and you might recognize a style used in Marrakesh's Koutoubia Mosque and Seville's Giralda. Note also the fine wood carving over the door of the Mohammed V. The Habous is well known as a center for Arabic books; most of the other shops here are devoted to rich displays of traditional handicrafts aimed at locals and tourists. This is the best place in Casabalanca to buy Moroccan handicrafts. You can also buy traditional Moroccan clothes such as kaftans and djellabas (long, hooded outer garments). Immediately north of the Habous is Casablanca's Royal Palace. You can't go inside, but the outer walls are pleasing; their sandstone blocks fit neatly together and blend well with the little streets at the edge of the Habous. 

Old Medina
The simple whitewashed houses of the medina, particularly those closest to the harbor, form an extraordinary contrast to Morocco's economic and commercial nerve center just a few hundred yards away. European consuls lived here in the 19th century, the early trading days, and there are still a youth hostel and a few very cheap hotels within. The medina has its own personality and charm due in part to the fact that Moroccans living in more affluent areas may never even enter it. Near Place des Nations Unies a large conglomeration of shops sells watches, leather bags and jackets, shoes, crafted wood, and clothes.

Place Mohammed V
This is Casablanca's version of London's Trafalgar Square: it has an illuminated fountain, lots of pigeons, and a series of impressive buildings facing it. Coming from the port, you'll pass the main post office on your right, and on your left as you enter the square is its most impressive building, the courthouse, built in the 1920s. On the other side of Avenue Hassan II from the post office is the ornate Bank Al Maghrib; the structure opposite, with the clock tower, is the Wilaya, the governor's office. The more modest buildings on the right side of the square house the notorious customs directorate (where importers' appeals against punitive taxes stand little chance). To avoid confusion, note that Place Mohammed V was formerly called Place des Nations Unies and vice versa, and the old names still appear on some maps.

Need a break?
Sidi Abderrahman
If you follow the Cornish to its southwestern edge, you will see the tomb of Sidi Abderrahman, a Sufi saint, just off the coast on a small island. Moroccans come to this shrine if they are sick or if they feel they need to rid themselves of evil spirits. It is accessible only at low tide, at which point you can simply walk to the small conglomeration of white houses, built practically one on top of the other, along the sandy beach. Non-Muslims are allowed to visit the tiny island and have their futures told by an in-resident fortune-teller, although access to the shrine itself is prohibited. On the corniche, just in front of the tomb, you can enjoy some snails and Moroccan mint tea, along with the locals.

La Sqala
Situated within an 18th-century Portuguese fortress. La Sqala enchants with its beautiful garden. patio. greenery. and fountains.  It may serve the best Moroccan breakfast in town. and if you want a quick snack while sightseeing. the pastries and mint tea are a great bet.  La Sqala also serves lunch and dinner. offering a perfect mix of traditional but tasteful Moroccan design and atmosphere coupled with yummy Moroccan salads and tagines. 

Venezia Ice
After strolling along the Corniche. relax on the trendy Venezia's terrace and enjoy one of their 60 flavors of ice creams and sorbets. 


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