“ Here’s Looking At You Kid.” A Few Days In Casablanca, Morocco.
First published in Oman Air In Flight Journal Sept 2017.
Casablanca seems to be one of those cities that is often given a wide berth by tourists but, spend a little time here and you will see that for those who skip it while visiting Morocco are missing something rather magical.
When the French took control of the small, Portuguese-built port of Casablanca over century ago, they immediately set about transforming it to showcase their flair for architecture, design and culture.(The French do love to show off! )
Today, the city still retains a midcentury elegance even though, over the last few decades a slew of high rises and sleek shopping malls have sprung up connected by an ultra-modern tram system which snakes its way across its centre.
To really understand the history of Casablanca its probably best to visit the oldest part of the city, the medina. The easiest entry point is the Marrakech gate, with its imposing clock tower but, beware as there are no reliable maps but, with a little twisting and turning, you are sure to find your way to the old Portuguese fortress that backs onto the old city.
In this part of the city, historical gems from the past are everywhere like the fabulous Cinema Rialto, which has recently been restored to its former glory. Just around the corner is Le Petit Poucet, a famous watering hole where luminaries such as Albert Camus, Edith Piaf, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry would spend their afternoons.
A satisfying snack in the old quarter can be as simple as a fried egg sandwich, cooked on the spot by one of the numerous food vendors that dot the sidewalks. I found it impossible also not to succumb to the mouth-watering strawberries sitting atop the wheeled carts that ply the narrow lanes. Spend a little time here and there is no doubt that you will engage with the chatty locals, eager to share with you the exotic history and geography of the area.
A short taxi ride from the old city will take you to the gigantic Morocco shopping - mall (Boulevard Sidi Abderahmane) a perfect juxtaposition to this bygone-era vibe where every ‘western brand is on display, with the ubiquitous fast food outlets that we all know so well. A 3-D movie theatre takes up the entire top floor showing the latest Hollywood blockbusters.
One cannot visit Casablanca, or indeed the rest of Morocco for that matter, without indulging in the national pastime of drinking juice!
One of the best and most popular juice bars is the Espace El Frutero, next to the fresh food market. This popular establishment has become the prime meeting place for youngsters and students. The establishment is made all the more charming by the sacks of fruits and nuts that hang from the wooden rafters of the dim interior. For about 20 Dirhams ($2.50), one is able to order a custom-made mixed fruit cocktail that you will be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the world.
Given that the juice bar is right next to the central market, it is well worth a visit. Unlike the sprawling mazes of the markets in Marrakesh and Fez, this one is small and manageable. The colourful produce is displayed in bright white stalls manned by excitable vendors yelling out the daily prices. You are sure to be talked into buying a small jar of Argan oil, the Moroccan elixir that apparently cures all ailments!
In the late afternoon the melodic call to prayer from the Hassan II Mosque wafts across the city. This gigantic structure is one of Africa’s largest mosques, complete with the world’s tallest minaret! Situated as it is on the waterfront, it is probably the most imposing building in Casablanca. If you are there just after dark you can clearly see the green laser beam, affixed to the roof of the mosque, whose rays arc through the night sky towards the holy city of Mecca. The mosque is one of the few that allow non-Muslim visitors to wander its halls and is well worth the visit. The ticket office is situated at the main entrance and they will also provide a professional guide.
When the sun goes down, another side of Casablanca comes alive when its myriads of bars, restaurants and clubs springing to life and doing brisk business until the early hours.
A night out is probably not complete without a stop at Ricks Café, (248, Boulevard Sour Jdid) which, over the years has become a wildly popular tourist destination. The establishment actually has absolutely nothing to do with the movie, Casablanca (which was actually shot entirely in Hollywood!), but the former owner, an American diplomat, has clearly taken great pains to re-create the interiors as depicted in the film.
With its arched doorways and wonderful curved traditional architecture offset by vibrant mosaic tiles it is a perfect reproduction. The 1942 Humphrey Bogart film runs on a continuous loop while the café's resident ‘piano man,’ Issaam Chabaa belts out classic Sinatra and other tunes from the 1940’s. The staff is friendly and oh-so professional, and the food and beverage menu will cater to the most discerning of tastes.
Casablanca is a city festooned with acres of green spaces epitomised by the Parc de La Ligue Arabe being the largest one. Tree-lined boulevards, lined with enticing eateries and food stalls, dissect its spacious lawns and flower gardens. Cassablancans use this oasis to escape the continuous traffic noise of the busy streets, as the only sound that permeates this tranquil space is bird song.
One thing I loved about this city is its plethora of art galleries and museums. One of my favorites is the Villa des Arts: a wonderful art deco building built in the 1930’s. The gallery houses local and international contemporary paintings and sculptures and, best of all admission is free. It’s a wonderful place to spend an afternoon wandering the wide, airy corridors far from the madding crowds. (30 Boulevard Brahim Roudani)
For those who feel that Casablanca is not that special should note that there are big changes in the offing. Under the King of Morocco's supervision, there are plans to revitalize the city through a culture renaissance coupled with grand constructions that will transform the urban skyline, which is sure to wake this wonderful city from its slumber.
For now though, Casablanca for me still retains its original charm and, once visited, one can repeat with authority those immortal words.
“Here’s looking at you kid.”
Paul v Walters is the best selling author of several novels and when not cocooned in sloth and procrastination in his house in Bali he scribbles for several international and vox pop journals.