And then we were on to our last stop in Morocco: Casablanca. Although settled as early as the 7th century by Berber tribes, Casablanca began attracting international attention in the15th century when Portugal virtually destroyed the town for harbored privateers who were plaguing its ships. It began attracting more favorable attention in the 18th century as an international shipping port. Growth really took off in the early 20th century under the French, who were intent on developing a world-class harbor and establish the city as a major economic power. The city’s history, therefore, generally consists of less than 100 years.
We were advised to limit our time in Casablanca. The only must-do is the Hassan II Mosque, one of the largest in the world and one of the few that is open to the non-Muslim public. Then a brief stop in the New Town neighborhood to explore some of the 30’s-era French Colonial and Art Deco buildings. That, plus a very brief walk through the old medina, was about all we gave ourselves time for. And it was sufficient.
Hassan II Mosque
Opened in 1973, this huge mosque is the third largest in the world. It covers almost 1 million square feet, including a 20,000 square meter prayer hall that accommodates up to 25,000 worshipers at a time. Its beautifully carved minaret is just as impressive, reaching 650 feet into the sky—and this doesn’t count the 20 miles that its two laser beams stretch toward Mecca!
As we learned from a tour, the mosque was designed to be as opulent as it was large, consisting of decorative materials including marble, onyx, travertine, tiles, carved cedar and acres of hand-carved plaster—work that required four days to build for each square meter. While the architect and some of the 10,000 craftspeople were from Europe, most of the labor and virtually all of the materials (except for the Venetian glass chandeliers and the two Carrera marble pillars around the entrance to the Minrab) were Moroccan. And it works: Especially the tiled fountains, the carved and painted cedar ceilings, the painted cedar dome and the acres and acres of beautiful marble that is supposed to especially gleam when the retractable roof is slid away to bath the floor and light).
Beneath the main prayer room are the ablution rooms, in which worshippers wash (all in accordance with a prescribed procedure) before praying and beneath that, a large, lovely Turkish bath that is intended to be, but has not yet been, opened to people of all faiths.
The Old Medina
Most of the old medina is little more than 100 years old. It is, however, still a medina: main streets filled with markets and narrow, alleys that form elaborate labyrinths, but often end in dead ends.
Ville Nouvelle’s Maarif Quarter
Centered between and around Place des Nations Unite, Place Mohammed V and Boulevard Mohammed V, this area bears the imprints of the 1930s, when it was created. It is the city’s primary upscale residential, shopping and dining area and houses a number of offices.
- Place des Nations Unite, which is the heart of New Town, is dominated by its pretty 1910-era (rebuilt in 1940) clocktower and a couple prominent hotels, including the Moroccan Deco Excelsior;
- Boulevard Mohammed V is lined with covered arcaded shops that rise into Colonial-era residential and office buildings, many of which are of French or vaguely Deco styles. It is also home to the city’s Central Market, marked by a decorative arch. Nearby, the renovated Rialto Theater (which we unfortunately, were not able to enter) demonstrates the pure style with which the neighborhood was founded.
- Place Mohammed V, which is the administrative center of the city, has a number of the most striking French-style buildings and decorations. These include:
- The pretty Prefecture, with its Tuscan-style Camponile, pretty courtyards and historical paintings
- The imposing, monumental Palace of Justice;
- The wonderfully tiled, Deco-style post office with its carved domed-ceiling and especially, its beautiful clock;
- Fountain and gardens.
Overall, Casablanca—other than for the unconscionably usurious behavior of the cabbies who insisted on rates of ten to 30 times normal for evening rides to downtown hotels—is okay. We, however, found that the three hours that we dedicated to seeing the city’s highlights (such as they are) was too much—even including 45 minutes for a tour of the mosque.
Hotel and Eating In Casablanca
We arrived in Casablanca at 9:30 on a Sunday night. Once we arrived at the train station, taxi drivers come up with ridiculous prices (which was illegal for them to do, but they did it anyways) to drive us 3 kilometers so we took off on foot to go to our hotel, the Hotel & Spa Le Doge. This is a beautiful little place on a small hard to find street. Our room was very comfortable, although the AC took time to cool the room. We had a beautiful little patio which we never had the time to use unfortunately. While the location wasn’t memorable, we not sure if another location would have been any better,
By the time we arrived at 9:30 on a Sunday night, few restaurants other than that at our hotel were open. We really had little choice but to eat there. Unfortunately, the restaurant did not serve alcohol and the menu was small. But given that it was our only option, Joyce ordered the cheese and mushroom omelet which was good and Tom had a pan-seared salmon which was nice and tasty after their second try to cook it medium rare.
After our visit at the Mosque the next morning, we returned to our hotel around lunch time. As we were going to go to the airport from there, we decided to eat lunch at our hotel too and ordered a couple of appetizers before we took off for the airport to go to Portugal.