It’s always tricky to anticipate weather temperatures at a foreign destination. 24 degrees sounded a doable, mild and pleasant temperature to me. But landing at Casablanca’s Mohammed V airport – it was HOT .
After a relatively painless immigration process, our hotel shuttle took us to the centrally located Hotel Odyssee. The car journey took more than an hour, so I found myself dozing off, only waking up as we approached the busy central city. Beautiful palm trees lining its paths, with the Atlantic ocean over the horizon, and large business buildings in every corner, Casablanca is the economic lung of Morocco – a bustling financial metropolis.
It is also the largest city in Morocco with over 3 million inhabitants.
Despite feeling exhausted, after a quick shower we were ready to explore and hungry for a late lunch. After a tiring detour when we ventured off in the wrong direction, we eventually located the Grande Marché Central which houses a market with veggies and flowers but is also a fishmonger. It’s great because of the open air style vendors. It’s not huge but what it lacks in size it gains in character. We strolled into the market (all contained inside the courtyard and the walls that surround it). Fish and seafood of all types are displayed artistically on beds of ice. Everything is fresh and the anticipated fishy smell did not manifest. Stray cats strategically positioned themselves to be on hand for sampling the goods.
My first impression was how friendly everyone was. Immediately we were accosted by competing restaurant tauts who were determined to “persuade” us into their restaurant. It was a touch annoying as we were still trying to get our bearings and look around, perhaps take some photos before the market closed, but these people had zero comprehension of “Wait. We are not ready to eat yet.”
Because we were actually quite hungry, we didn’t put up too much of a fight and watched with amusement as two tauts yelled at each other, narrowly avoiding actually coming to blows as to whom we “belonged” to. We were relieved to see that the sparring seemed fairly good-natured and we were eventually not “stolen” by the restaurant next door. In any case it emerged that the neighbouring restaurant was owned by the same family as the lady that was determinedly herding us into seats in the enclosed courtyard.
Just outside the fish market are a network of open air restaurants in a courtyard. It appears that you can purchase your fish and the restaurant will prepare and cook it for you, or you can order directly from the restaurant. In any case, for us the options were apparently irrelevant. We were pushed into small plastic chairs and plates of food instantly began to appear. Tomato and onion salad; a zaalouk of warm aubergine and tomatoes; a tatouka of peppers; lentils; flatbreads and harissa. Geoff who had made it his business to know these things pointed out, “you pay for each of these dishes – they are not complimentary.” Which is then so annoying. If I’m paying, well I’d like to at least choose!
Anyway we were determined to be chilled and enjoy ourselves and succumbed to the generous hospitality at our expense 😁. We also ordered crispy shrimp and calamari and loved every delicious mouthful. We made friends with the gents seated beside us who were devouring a feast of langoustine, lobster and other mouth-watering sides. How you order these things when you are not fluent in French remains a challenge. Ultimately our meal cost MAD 240, which we thought not unreasonable.
Satiated for a while, we wandered through the surrounding streets, marveling at Casablanca’s unique blend of grit and style. The old, and in some cases decaying, art-deco buildings are exquisite. Reminiscent of a glamorous, by-gone era. Along the modern tramway were mobile wagons selling fruit of exceptional quality.
The palm-lined Boulevard Mohammed V, in the heart of old Casablanca, is a reminder of the French influence on the city. One of the finest examples of Art Deco design, Cinéma Rialto, lies just off the main drag.
In Casablanca the petite taxis are red (each city has its own colour). Despite these being metered taxis, you have to negotiate the price of your trip before you get in. This is a real challenge when you are clueless about the actual distance. Eventually with the help of an elderly gentleman we flagged down a taxi to take us to the famous Hassan ll Mosque. He advised us to pay no more than MAD 10, but we soon established that this price would only work for locals, and that as foreigners, MAD 20 is in fact an excellent rate – they would’ve charged us MAD 50! He also gave me a brief lesson on how to pronounce “Hassan Deux Mosque” in French so that I would be understood.
It was pleasantly cooler at the coast and we even had a spattering of rain. The mosque was closed off and you could only admire it from outside the grounds and plazas. Luckily watching the sun set against the illuminated minaret was spectacular and we took lots of photos, watching the building gradually morph from white to gold, reflecting grandly in the rising tide below. We looked forward to exploring it more deeply in the daylight. We noticed local families and groups of ladies gathering to watch the sun sink into the ocean. Young couples strolled pausing to take selfies, solitary individuals sat on the steps watching the vendors setting up their carts. There were a couple of tourists and photographers, like ourselves (although not nearly as many as I would’ve thought).
The Hassan II Mosque, the largest mosque in Morocco, is a testament to flawless craftsmanship. It is a spectacular piece of architecture. It took more than seven years and as many as 10,000 artisans to complete the intricate masterpiece. Dramatically located on the sea wall overlooking the rocky shores of the Atlantic Ocean, with a minaret that extends above the clouds, this sacred structure stirs one’s sense of spirituality. There is apparently a religious symbolic reference in the Quran to God’s throne being over the water.
The interior of the mosque is a splendid manifestation of the remarkable Moroccan artisanship that is renowned worldwide: Moroccan zellij tilework paves the walls and pillars, hand-made wood carvings, mosaics, intricate and complex plaster filigree and meticulously sculptured Italian marble. We returned on a misty early morning to catch the first guided tour of the day. The landmark 210 metre-tall minaret was partially obscured by the clouds.
Designed by French architect, Michel Pinseau, the building is on the site of an old Olympic-sized swimming pool and was partially funded by public subscription. Our guide was clearly very proud of the Moroccan artisanship on display in the mosque. She told us that 6000 master craftsmen worked on the interior, delicately carving intricate patterns in cedar wood from the Atlas Mountains and pink granite from Agadir. After carving, the cedar ceiling was gilded and enhanced with exquisite zellij (ceramic tiling). The predominant colour is green, which is the Islamic colour of paradise.
The roof opens to allow fresh air in on days when the mosque is full. It also allows the blue heavens to be reflected into the water pools inside the building. On cooler days, worshippers benefit from underfloor heating as they kneel to pray. Our guide explained that the dimensions of the mosque (200m long x 100m wide x 65m tall) add up to 365, the number of days in a year.
The enormous doors of the mosque are made of titanium to ensure that they will never rust despite being so close to the sea. They are electronically operated and open upwards. It was fascinating to have these modern touches pointed out to us. I liked the way the loudspeakers were discreetly hidden within exquisitely carved marble pillars. Downstairs there are marble ablution fountains which have been carved to look like giant lotus flowers.
Experts in getting around by now, we flagged down a little red taxi and headed for our hotel district. We passed the old Medina which was pumping with activity, lights and action. If we hadn’t been so shattered, it might have been worth a look. Instead we grabbed a delicious glacé for a nightcap, bought some water and (dark chocolate) Bountys and went straight to bed in an extremely comfortable room, beautifully insulated from the noise city below us.
After a brilliant night’s rest, we were able to be up early and we strolled passed the Etats-Unie dome along the walls of the Medina. The place was like the aftermath of a war zone. The filth and junk after the previous night’s revelry, complimented the partially broken-down buildings and it seemed that only the cats had survived whatever anarchy had played out. As we wandered around taking photographs, cleaners began to turn up, swiftly restoring the area.
We took a taxi to the Quartier Habous, the picturesque ‘new medina’, built by the French in the 1930s. Bennis in Habous is world renowned and we were determined to try their famous almond cookies. Our taxi dropped us outside the walls of the Grand Palais and we wandered around the area before joining the queue outside Bennis.
Aside from the exotically tiled interior and the aromas of freshly baked pastries, we were fascinated by the vast variety of biscuits. We were encouraged to taste and then simply allowed them to put 4 or so of each type into a box to take away with us. The biscuits are a cross between Greek/Portugese and middle-eastern fare.
Around the corner we came across a street café offering petit dejeuner of omelette, olives, fresh orange juice and a dried meat reminiscent of biltong. We enjoyed our breakfast while watching the stray cats manipulate people into parting with portions of their meals, then wandering off before their benefactor could steal a quick stroke, never mind a cuddle. So very Cat…
Afterwards we strolled around admiring the local minaret and the extraordinary arched doorways.
We took a cab back to central Casablanca, passing the Casablanca Cathedral, L’Église du Sacré-Couer, built in the ’30s while under French protectorate, but now desacralised and used to host concerts and art exhibitions. This beautiful white church is a striking mix of Gothic and Art Deco style and is considered to be one of the most significant church buildings in Africa.
Named after a former King of Morocco, Mohammed V Square was central to most of our comings and goings through the city. Monikered “Pigeon Square,” there are pigeons everywhere! Apparently, they never go away. It was a lovely sunny day and we enjoyed the fountain and the birds and people-watching. The square represents the administrative centre of Casablanca. The main post-WWI buildings include the Consulate of France, the courthouse, the prefecture, the central post office, and the Bank of Morocco, as well as the Place des Nations Uniones, focal points of the Ville Novuelle.
For many of us, Casablanca is romantically associated with the famous movie of the same name. Rick’s Café is a restaurant, and bar designed specifically to recreate the atmosphere of the original Hollywood set. It was opened in March 2004 by American Kathy Kriger, who was dismayed that the iconic movie’s piano bar was not represented in the city.
We decided that visiting it for a drink would be well worth the effort of dressing up and catching a cab. We scoured our limited wardrobe for inoffensive garments.
“Our Dress Code aims to maintain their comfort without the needless distraction of poorly dressed customers taking away from their pleasure being at Rick’s.
We do not allow :
Flip flops /rubber thongs Torn or ragged clothes or jeans
Low cut neckline
Logo/ads t shirt
(Sport wears items)
After taking at least an hour to procure a cab… (the first one we hailed demanded MAD 50, refused our counter-offer of MAD 20, so we snorted derisively and waved him away only to discover that at that hour on a weekend night, all the taxis were occupied and were not going to be charged any less. We paced around dodging traffic until eventually we thought we’d suck it up and pay up. We hailed the next taxi. Lo and behold it was the same taxi driver, still fare-less, but happy to accept our MAD 30! )…we eventually arrived at the establishment that is frequented by ambassadors and movie stars.
The palm trees flanking the impressive white building welcomed us to Rick’s. Less so the snooty doorman, who looked us up and down. “Avez-vous une réservation?” We explained, “Non, seulement boissons…” Looking down his nose, he spoke into a collar mic and reluctantly let us through the big double wooden doors.
Ms. Kriger was purportedly interviewing Moroccan candidates for the role of establishment manager when she met Issam Chabaa. He mentioned he could play the piano. “I asked him to show me, and he sat down and played ‘As Time Goes By,’” Ms. Kriger said. “He was hired. He has been with her since the opening 14 years ago. Kathy Kriger sadly died, in 2018, aged 72. Mr. Chabaa still plays jazz piano several nights a week, as well as managing the club’s 60 employees. Hardly a week goes by without some diner asking him to “Play it again, Issam.”
(Historical note: “Play it again, Sam,” is never actually uttered in the movie; Ingrid Bergman’s character, Ilsa, says, “Play it once, Sam, for old time’s sake.”)
Rick’s Cafe came to life in a converted old house in the Ancienne Medina. A dozen white arches supported by columns frame the main dining room, under a three-story, octagonal cupola, and green leather bumpers grace the curved bar top. Palms in the corners, hanging brass chandeliers, beaded table lamps and a baby grand piano tucked into an archway lend to the period-authentic staging.
On a screen nearby, the black and white “Casablanca” movie plays on a continuous loop. The Barman was cast from the same pool as the barman from “Harry’s Bar” in Venice. He had also perfected the disdainful, ‘you are not worthy’ look as we enthusiastically pored over the cocktail menu. The atmosphere was inspiring and nostalgic. It meant that Geoff felt he ought to utter the sentence, “Un Negroni, s’il vous plait”, without an idea of what a Negroni might involve. It turned out to be as offensive to us as we were to the barman. I didn’t do much better, ordering the house specialty “Cas-mopolitan” which was spicy, bitter and rather unpleasant.
Despite the unfortunate choice of drinks, we were determined to soak in the atmosphere, while we watched delicious meals moving from the kitchen to the dining tables and agreed that ‘next time’ we would make a point of dining at Rick’s. A delicious Irish coffee set our palettes at ease. Surprisingly I was able to introduce our worldly barman to having it with Kalhua, something he’d never heard of before. We were pleased that we had decided to take a cab instead of driving our hired car. The alcohol content of the drinks we consumed was considerable!