Casablanca. The very name transports one back to 1942 and the black and white American romantic drama set in World War II. Starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, the film was an unprecedented success like no other before. Who has not heard of Casablanca? And Rick’s Café?
But did you know that not a single scene in the movie was actually filmed on location. Casablanca was shot entirely at Warner Bros. Studio in California. There never was any Rick’s Café in Casablanca, back then, either. The one that stands now near Hassan II Mosque is a recreated version of the one in the film, built much later. It doesn’t really matter though, for through the movie Casablanca, Casablanca the city on which the film was based became a household name globally.
Most travellers zip past Casablanca onto the more exotic destinations Morocco has to offer. Compared to the cultural charms of the royal cities of Fes, Marrakesh, Meknes and Rabat, Casablanca comes in as a poor second. When it is rugged nature that tugs your heartstrings, what does a commercial port-city by the Atlantic Ocean have to offer?
Casablanca, or Casa as it is called by the locals, reminds me of my adopted home in India, Mumbai. Both are maximum cities, cities of dreams, wrapped in the aura of cinema. Since most long-haul flights use the Casablanca Mohammed V International Airport, you have a perfect excuse and reason to explore Morocco’s least explored city!
Originally christened Anfa around the 8th – 7th Century BC, Casablanca used to be the capital of the Amazigh [Berber] Kingdom of Barghawata and remained so till it was conquered by the Almoravids in 1068 AD. Following a series of conquests by the Arabs and then the Merinids, a major turning point took place in the early 15th Century.
Morocco’s coastline was during this period under the control of the Barnaby Pirates who ruthlessly plied ships and coastlines, marauding them of all belongings. To free themselves from their oppression the Portuguese landed on Anfa’s coast, bombed it in 1468 AD and built a fortress on its ruins in 1515 AD. The town around the fortress they painted white and called it Casa Branca meaning “white house.” When the Crown of Portugal merged with the Crown of Spain, Casa Branca became Casablanca.
The next landmark event in Casablanca’s story was the earthquake of 1755 which destroyed much of the city, and forced the Europeans to flee. The latter, however, returned in the 19th Century, first as traders and then as colonial rulers in 1912. In between all this in 1770, the Alaouite Sultan Mohammed Ben Abdullah rebuilt the Old Medina and named Casablanca Ad-Dar Al-Bayda.
Not much remains of the Portuguese Casa Branca before the earthquake, except for a portion of the sqala [bastion] in the Old Medina. Casablanca post-1770, divided into three centres, showcases three different cultural montages, all equally part and parcel of the city. There’s the Old Medina rebuilt by the Sultan, the New Medina built for the Europeans during the French Protectorate, and the Administrative Centre with its Art Deco marvels.
For that epic stopover every journey to Morocco should include, here’s my take on what Casablanca has to offer for 8 hours. Happy travelling. 🙂
Morning: Hassan II Mosque and Casablanca’s medieval Old Medina
Top: Morocco’s magnum opus and Casablanca’s pride, the Hassan II Mosque. Above: Detail of zellige decorating the mosque walls.
Left: Clock tower at the entrance of the Old Medina; Right: Local savouries for sale in the shops inside the Medina.
Kickstart your day by heading straight for Casablanca’s show-stopper, the Hassan II Mosque. It sits on a promontory facing the crashing waves of the ice-blue Atlantic Ocean on the northern edge of the city.
Some statistics to further impress its importance: It is the largest mosque in Africa with a seating capacity of 105,000 worshippers built at a cost of US$ 800 million over five years by 6,000 indigenous artisans from all over the Kingdom. 53,000 sq. metres of carved and painted wood and 10,000 sq. metres of exquisite zellige [ceramic mosaic] in 80 different patterns along with Islamic calligraphy in stucco-work, painted cedar ceilings, intricate muqarnas and the world’s tallest minaret decorate the structure.
Compared to Morocco’s other attractions, the Hassan II Mosque is brand spanking new; it was inaugurated on 20 August, 1993. Access for non-Muslims is by 45-minute guided tours which are held at specific time slots throughout the day. At other times, the mosque functions as a place of worship.
Once finished, take a peek at Rick’s Café and then make your way into the chaotic Old Medina, the original walled city of Casablanca. It was rebuilt by Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah after the 1755 earthquake. Not nearly as colourful or lively as the Medinas of other Moroccan cities, it still offers interesting insights into local life. Sights to look out for are the Portuguese bastions and fort wall [sqala] and the Clock Tower.
Early afternoon and lunch: Habous, Casablanca’s New Medina
Habous, packed with souvenir shops and cafes, is Casablanca’s tourist hangout.
Mahkama Du Pacha , a functioning parliamentary building, embodies traditional Moroccan architecture at its finest.
Eglise Notre Dame de Lourdes Cathedral  dazzles with its 800 square metres of Art Deco stained glass windows.
Take a petit cab from the Old Medina to the Habous or Hubous Quarter filled with souvenir shops, bookshops and cafes under arched pass-throughs in south-east Casablanca. Ask for the “Palace.” The Habous area was built by the French Protectorate in 1916 to serve as a New Medina for its French officers. Designed as a structured, elegant and orderly Islamic Medina, unlike the 18th Century Old Medina where the locals gathered, it is at a walking distance from the Royal Palace.
Two edifices stand out for the traveller here. The Mahkama Du Pacha and Eglise Notre Dame de Lourdes Cathedral.
Mahkama Du Pacha is a functioning parliamentary building built in 1952 and houses both Morocco’s court of justice and reception area for state occasions. Which can make it a bit tricky to gain access, for there is usually something going on. Moreover, the guards at the main door give preference to guided tours. But if you are travelling independently like I was, try to negotiate for a few minutes just to have a look. Exquisitely beautiful on the inside, the zellige, stucco and cedar wood ceilings will take your breath away.
From courthouse to a church—another site that will bowl you over with its beauty is the Eglise Notre Dame de Lourdes Cathedral on the north-west edge of Habous. Completed in 1956, the towering concrete structure topped with a small cross, contains 800 square metres of the world’s most beautiful Art Deco stained glass. These masterpieces were crafted by the famous French artist, Gabriel Loire. Though a Muslim country, Morocco has a small Catholic population which find their way here to pray.
Late afternoon: Casablanca’s Art Deco Administrative Centre
Palais de Justice, Centrepiece of Casablanca’s administrative centre.
The streets around Mohammed V Place abound in Art Deco architectural gems. Left: The ornate Post Office; Right: Art Deco district behind the main square.
Sacre Coeur Cathedral ; Right: Detail of a stained-glass window inside.
Arab League Park, Casablanca’s largest green area.
From Habous take a petit cab again. This time, it is to the heart of the city, the administrative centre of the French Protectorate, and after 1956 that of the Moroccan government. Filled with Art Deco buildings and government offices styled on traditional Moroccan architectural lines, Casablanca’s public buildings, squares, and parks flank the main north-south Avenue Hassan II which cuts across this part of the town.
A good starting point is Mohammed V Place designed by French architect and urban planner Henri Prost. It is surrounded by the Grande Poste , Wilaya du Grand and its Art Deco Clock Tower [1927 – 1936], and Palais de Justice [courthouse] . A musical fountain marks the centre of the square.
Rue Idriss Lahrizi, near the Grande Poste, leads into an Art Deco district straight from the pages of the early 20th Century and the movie Casablanca. On the other side of the road is the Arab League Park and Sacre Coeur Cathedral; the latter is currently under restoration. If you give the guard a small tip he’ll open its doors for you to wallow in the gloriousness of its stained-glass windows and soaring roof. A snow-white Art Deco spectacle, the cathedral was built in 1930 and converted into a cultural centre after Morocco’s independence.
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Three centres, each so different from the other. Yet, each is synonymous with the spirit of Casablanca.
Time to leave? Make your way to the state-of-the-art Casa Voyageurs railway station to catch a train to the airport or someplace else in Morocco. Classy, snazzy and super-efficient, it makes for the perfect goodbye to Casa. ❤
Time to move on. Another day, another destination. The ONCF Casa Voyageurs railway station.
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[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my travels to Morocco for 3 weeks in November-December 2018. To read more posts in my Morocco series, click here.]