16 July 2022
We had of course chosen to visit Morocco in one of its hottest months. As our time there went on it became very obvious that our grand plans to explore the country were more than a little foolhardy. With temperatures inland reaching 45°, we quickly canned plans to visit Fez for a weekend. Temperatures on the coast were, however, more manageable so we hopped back on the train to go south to Casablanca.
The city might have something of a romantic reputation thanks to the film with which it shares its name but in reality it is as the Lonely Planet describes ‘a workaday town‘. It turns out Casablanca was not even filmed there and the author of the book the film was based on never even visited it!
Our Rabati guide Karim had warned us not to be underwhelmed by what Casablanca had to offer. ‘A day is more than enough’. The highlights he said are the Hassan II mosque and Morocco Mall, Africa’s biggest shopping centre. ‘But I suppose you have those in the UK’ he said. 190,000 square metres of shopping hell was definitely not at the top of our agenda.
Religious buildings aren’t often high on our list either. We’re not fans of intruding on other people’s sacred spaces but perhaps because as non-Muslims we were barred from visiting Morocco’s other mosques, the unique opportunity to see this behemoth of a place of worship was just too tempting.
We arrived just in time to join the 10am tour. Our extraordinary guide spoke seemingly fluent English, German and Spanish and showed off further with some Dutch and Japanese and an ability to recount some key facts about Macedonia for the two Macedonians amongst us.
Built partly on land reclaimed from the Atlantic, Hassan II Mosque is very difficult to describe in its size and beauty. It is the largest functioning mosque in Africa with space for 105,000 to pray inside and out. Its minaret stands at 60 stories. 350,000 workers were employed in its construction including 6,000 artisans who worked for five years on its
white granite pillars and 50 glass chandeliers
latticed windows and doors
Nowhere avoided their tools, even the subterranean marble ablutions hall and outside colonnades.
Their craft is extraordinary and came at a price tag to match. Morocco’s Government could not afford the €585 million bill itself so it was raised from public donations, donations from other Arab countries and loans from Western countries. Such spending is perhaps rightly controversial in a country where the average wage is only €5000 a year but there is no doubt that the mosque is an incredible piece of architecture.
With our tour ended we set off to walk from the ocean front to the heart of the city in search of Casablanca’s less dramatic but equally impressive buildings. Our early start meant we had not had time for breakfast so we stopped first for petit dej at a very Parisian style street café, incongruously called Café Sardinia!
Fuelled by croissant, orange juice and coffee we continued our walk through palm lined streets and passed lots of cooling water features.
We stumbled across L’Eglise du Sacre-Coeur, the city’s former Catholic cathedral, now arts space, and although it can’t quite compare with the Hassan II Mosque in size, it makes its own imposing presence on the city skyline with its 33 metre towers.
We found Casablanca’s version of Trafalgar Square, Place Mohammed V, where thousands of pigeons got under our feet or perched precariously overhead!
Then we plunged ourselves deep into the fading glamour of the city’s art nouveau and art deco filled streets. Crumbling facades tell of its growth during the French Protectorate of the first half of the 20th century.
Hotels, cinemas, apartment blocks and arcades full of tea rooms all immediately recall the 1920s and 30s. We got repeatedly lost in these streets with our eyes constantly looking up!
Eventually we found ourselves in Place des Nations Unies, where all roads in Casablanca seem to converge. Formerly a market square just outside the Medina it is home to a reconstruction of the original clock tower and the Jean Francoise Zevaco’s dome, impressive enough at street level but best viewed from underneath in the traffic avoiding subway.
Karim was right. A day in Casablanca was sufficient but as we hopped back on the train we knew could have lingered longer in its squares, parks and streets watching everyone going about their days and gazing up at its buildings.
We promised ourselves we should probably also watch the film sometime!