From a grand mosque to Art Deco architecture, Casablanca has more to see than you might expect, even if you won't find many traces of Humphrey Bogart...
In 1515 the Portuguese built a small town on the Atlantic coast of Morocco and named it Casa Blanca (‘White House’). Spanish merchants settling here in the 18th century called it Casablanca, and it remained a backwater until it was occupied by the French in 1907. Under the Protectorate it grew to become Morocco’s busiest port, its most populous city and the economic and industrial capital of the kingdom, which it still is, accounting for more than half of the country’s industrial output.
Casablanca – “Casa” as the locals refer to it – may not be as visually attractive or as historically rich as Morocco’s more obvious tourist cities, but it is worth exploring for a day or two.
Ironically, Casablanca has never had any real link with the film of the same name that made the city famous. Not one scene was shot within a thousand kilometres of Casablanca and it bears even less resemblance to today’s city. The nearest hint of the film that a visitor will find is in the decor of the Hyatt Regency bar and the name of “Rick’s Café” set in the medina walls overlooking the port area.
Casablanca’s most impressive sight is without doubt the Grand Mosque of Hassan II (open to non-Muslims for guided tours only; there is a charge), completed in 1994. The largest mosque in Morocco, with the tallest minaret in the world, its prayer hall can accommodate up to 25,000 faithful and another 80,000 in the courtyard. The building cost nearly $1 billion, raised entirely by public subscription, with all Moroccans contributing according to their means.
The mosque’s interior is a tour de force of Moroccan architectural motifs and craftsmanship. A glass elevator climbs the side of the minaret which soars 210m (689ft) and is topped at night with a green laser beam pointing towards Mecca.
Casablanca has a population of over 4 million, making it one of Africa’s largest cities. The heart of modern Casablanca is Place des Nations Unies, where all the thoroughfares converge beneath the facade of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. A wasteland in the early 1900s, it is now a busy conglomeration of offices, banks, restaurants, hotels and shops. Situated just off the square is the entrance to the medina, which is less exotic than those of Fez or Marrakech.
The city is famous for its Art Deco and neo-Mauresque architecture. The latter was a product of the French Protectorate administration and is well represented in the public buildings around Place Mohammed V and on Boulevard Mohammed V, with its beautiful Art Deco facades – notably the apartment blocks of Glaoui, Bessonneau and Asayag.
The boulevard was built in 1915 and acted as the city’s main thoroughfare, with shops, covered arcades and restaurants lining both sides. Just off Boulevard Mohammed V, on Rue Mohammed el Quori, is the Rialto, a former cinema. Four monumental public buildings from the same period dominate Place Mohammed V: the Grande Poste, the Wilaya (Prefecture), with its clock tower, the Palais de Justice, with elaborately tiled courtyards, and the Banque d’Etat. The first three are in the neo-Mauresque style cooked up by French architects in the 1920s and 1930s.
The city’s administrative hub is Place Mohammed V, with the City Hall, the law courts, the French Consulate, the post office and the Sacré Coeur Cathedral (all grand examples of 1930s Mauresque architecture), as well as wonderful parks. Near the cathedral, at 30 Boulevard Brahim Roudani, is the Villa des Arts, an exhibition centre for contemporary art.
About 1km (0.5 mile) southwest of the centre is the Quartier Habbous, built by the French as a model medina in the 1930s, and a good place to buy souvenirs, pastries and clothes. The Royal Palace is nearby, as is the popular Patisserie Bennis (2 Rue Fkih el Gabbas). The Maarif area, west of Boulevard M. Zerktouni, near the Twin Centre, has lots of smart new boutique shops.
Place des Nations Unies
tel: 0522 43 12 34
Conveniently located in the centre of town, with all the amenities of a modern five-star hotel, indlucing a squash court. Even if you are not staying here, come for a drink in the "Casablanca" bar, inspired, of course, by the film.
tel: 0522 40 19 84
Like other members in the Moussafir chain, this hotel is within spitting distance of the railway station. SImply furnished, but clean with good bathrooms and excellent service. Good value. Booking recommended.
Tahiti Beach Club, Boulevard de la Corniche
tel: 0522-79 84 27
On a stunning terrace overlooking the sea, Spanish chef Miguel serves up fresh all kinds of fish and seafood, with paella as his speciality.
Corner of boulevards Anfa and Moulay Rachid
tel: 0522-36 42 42
A stylish café, restaurant and patisserie set in an Art Deco villa with a great garden. There's a very good selection of bread, and it is a favourite destination for Sunday brunch.
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