Believe what you see and lay aside what you hear… ~ Moroccan Proverb
Today we were travelling from London to Casablanca
We left Romany’s house in West Harrow (London) around 2:30pm and caught an Uber to Heathrow Airport (Terminal 4). We settled at Caffe Nero and used our remaining currency to buy coffees, smoothies and a lemon sparkling tea. We sat and chatted with Romany, Kirsten and Jared until 4:45pm, then made our way through security.
Ren got caught in a backlog of passengers who needed their bags checked, and while we waited at the security counter our gate lounge opened. It seemed an interminable wait before Ren’s bag was even opened, and the only mistake she had made was to leave her iPad in the bag (rather than take it out). When she was finally given the all clear, we rushed to our gate lounge, sat for about ten minutes and then boarded our plane.
As we boarded a very chatty English guy took a shine to us and told us his life story. He was heading to Casablanca to work on the next series of Homeland, which (apparently) had an ISIS theme. He said he’d worked on films in Morocco before, including Gladiator and a
number of other movies I’d never heard of. Unfortunately, it was hard to believe him. He didn’t seem to like Morocco, and he definitely didn’t like the local food. He told us his case was full of baked beans – so much so that he’d exceeded his baggage allowance and been forced to pay an additional 80 pounds. Apparently he had enough beans to sustain him for five months… it was a relief to realise we weren’t sitting anywhere near him.
Just before take-off there was a moment of nervousness, because the safety instruction sheets we were asked to read during the safety demonstration were for a Boeing 737-800, and a few passengers (including myself) suddenly thought we were actually sitting in a 737 Max 8 – the very model that had recently crashed after take-off in Indonesia and Ethiopia. However, there was nothing we could do… so we simply sat back and hoped for the best.
We sped down the runway just after 6pm, banked over London and then tracked down over France and Spain towards Morocco. Dinner was a simple but tasty affair – I ordered chicken and potatoes, while Ren opted for beef and rice.
There was a smokiness to both dishes that was very appealing. I also enjoyed a small bottle of French red wine with the meal, and it was fantastic.
After a smooth and comfortable flight, we touched down in Casablanca at 9:30pm. We disembarked onto the tarmac, piled into a waiting bus and headed straight to the international arrivals terminal. We queued for a while to get through customs, waited at the baggage carousel to collect our packs and eventually emerged into Casablanca’s cool night air at 11pm. We caught a taxi to our studio apartment in Melliber Apartment Hotel, where we arrived just after midnight. The taxi driver tried an old scam we hadn’t experienced for quite a while – the fare was $300 dirham, and when I gave him $400 dirham, he informed me he didn’t have any change. Ren saw it coming and pounced – she told me to wait in the back of the taxi while she went and got some change from the hotel staff. Old mate suddenly remembered he had some change in the glove box… 😄
We checked in, unpacked and settled in our large and comfortable room. We had an incredible
view of the Hassan II Mosque from our private balcony, and we couldn’t believe how close to the mosque we actually were. We were fading fast, so we eventually surrendered to sleep at 1am.
For the first time on this trip we slept late, waking at 7:30am. We pottered in our room and watched the day come to life in the streets below us and the local housing apartments opposite us. A woman was putting her washing out on a tiny balcony, and she kept staring into our apartment. We didn’t want to close the curtains and lose the light and view, but we didn’t want to be on display either. But then again, she may have been thinking the same about us – a couple of annoying tourists staring at her while she was putting her washing out.
We headed down to breakfast at 8:30am, which again was very late for us. I feasted on khobz
(traditional round leavened bread) with cheese, ham and harissa
(mixed chilli and garlic) sauce; omelettes; croissants; dates and ghriyba
(Moroccan almond cookies) which were incredibly tasty. I was also very thirsty, so I enjoyed endless cups of tea and fresh orange
Feeling suitably refreshed, we walked to the Hassan II Mosque which was literally a stone’s throw from our hotel. We booked in for a tour and browsed the slightly underwhelming museum while we waited for the tour to start. The mosque was very impressive, although the megalomaniacal story behind it reminded me of Ceausescu’s Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest (Romania).
Our guide was friendly and she clearly loved the mosque – it was her place of worship, and she enjoyed taking people through. The interior was opulent to say the least, with intricately carved cedar ceilings, Venetian glass chandeliers and heated marble floors. The grandeur was obvious and the design was particularly symmetrical – it was hard not to be impressed. Completed in 1993 and built on reclaimed land at great expense, the entire place went up in six years on Casablanca’s foreshore. You don’t have to walk far from the mosque to find locals living in abject poverty, so the budget could have been used for more worthwhile social housing and health care initiatives. However, putting aside Hassan’s ego, the mosque does provide a focal point for an otherwise gritty and unfinished city.
walked from the mosque through a very poor and derelict part of the city to the old medina. On the way we found ourselves lost, and for good reason – ‘well planned’ is not a term you would use to describe the built infrastructure of Casablanca. Luckily, a very friendly policeman (who continually referenced me as ‘Mister’ at the start and end of every sentence) directed us out of the medina, and on his advice we followed the old city wall until we finally arrived at our intended destination – Rick’s Cafe – an entrepreneurial offshoot from the film Casablanca. Unfortunately I was wearing thongs (flip flops) which barred me from entry. How annoying! Especially after walking so far and getting lost in the process!
We consulted our Lonely Planet guide and discovered that another restaurant– Sqala – was just around the corner. This was an absolute gem hidden within the squalor (literally) of Casablanca’s gritty seaport. Sqala is a tranquil oasis located in an old fortified bastion on the edge of the medina, and its leafy open air atmosphere was incredibly relaxing. We shared a chicken tagine
with red olives and preserved lemon, plus a selection of briouates
(fried flaky pastry filled with beef, chicken and seafood). We also enjoyed complimentary fresh bread, olives with spicy harissa
and tomato dips, and we each ordered a pot of mint tea. The restaurant did not serve alcohol, but I ordered a non-alcoholic beer to quench my thirst, and it was surprisingly good.
Feeling completely refreshed, we made our way back into the maze-like medina and navigated the narrow lanes, occasionally having to retrace our steps when we found ourselves at a dead end. Whenever the lanes widened, a group of young Moroccan kids would be playing soccer between a set of makeshift goals, and it was great to stop and watch the passion with which they played.
We eventually emerged from the medina and used the Hassan II Mosque’s towering minaret as a landmark as we made our way back to the hotel. We found a nearby laundrette and managed to ask the friendly owner – using sketches of clocks and calendars – how much and how long the washing would take. On finding a common languages (i.e. hand gestures and laughter), we let him know that we would drop a bag of washing off the following morning.
We stumbled upon a nearby bakery and picked up some biscuits and slices from the incredibly friendly owner, then grabbed some water from a tiny street-front shop before retreating to the hotel. We’d been wandering for five hours, and we were feeling it in our legs. After settling in the apartment with a cup of tea and our bakery goods, we caught up on our travel notes as the late afternoon sun brightened the ochre walls of the Hassan II Mosque.
In the early evening we headed out for a walk along the Boulevard de la Corniche, which offered great views of the Hassan II Mosque over Casablanca’s rocky foreshore. We strolled the length of the boulevard, turning at the Phare de El Hank lighthouse and retracing our steps back to the mosque. The sun had dipped below the horizon, so our return journey was enhanced by the enveloping shadows of dusk.
Life abounded on the boulevard. Families had ventured out of their high rise apartments to enjoy the sea air, while children frolicked on play equipment and dogs chased balls and anything else that moved. It was an incredibly friendly and welcoming atmosphere, and we loved being
in the middle of it. At one stage a small child running aimlessly along the boulevard bee-lined for my legs and threw his arms around my knees. While he screamed with joy, his embarrassed father apologised profusely while disentangling the child’s arms from my legs.
We settled in the apartment with a cup of tea and the remaining bakery goods and reflected on our first day in Casablanca. We wouldn’t help but marvel at the friendless and welcoming nature of the locals. It may well be early days, but we had heard so many negative travel stories of Casablanca, yet we could barely fault our experience. This was a gritty city with a soft heart. SHE SAID...
Today we were leaving London and travelling to Casablanca
to begin our Moroccan adventures.
Immigration at London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 4 was swift, but then we hit the most incompetent security screening staff I’ve encountered in all my travels! Very few security checks require an iPad to be removed from a bag, and if so, there are clear signs making that request. I saw no sign, so I left my iPad in my bag… and as a result
my bag was isolated to be hand-checked. Normally your bag would be pulled aside, hand-searched in under a few minutes and you’d be on your way. Well, not at Terminal 4 at Heathrow Airport!
I was in the queue with about ten other people waiting for our bags to be hand-searched – and I waited about 45 minutes! Two minutes after I joined the queue, the lone guy on hand-search duty looked at his watch, grabbed his bag and left without a word (I assume he was due his break). It took 10 minutes for another guy to stroll along and replace him. It took another half an hour or so for him to get to my bag because of the mind boggling things people thought they could get through airport security.
There was a woman who had no concept (or pretended to have no concept) of what 100ml was, and kept arguing that her many jars of creams where less than 1kg each. There was an old man who attempted to gobble down a large bottle of coke on the spot rather than give it up. But my favourite was the guy who fought tooth and nail
to keep his four large tubs of strawberry flavoured yoghurt because ‘plane food is so shit innit bruh, do you want to me to starve to death bruh?’ Despite my annoyance at being held up, I was quite amused by the antics of my fellow passengers. 😊
There was no possibility we’d miss our flight because of this delay, but Andrew ran a reconnaissance mission to find out where our boarding gate was anyway. And then a second mission to locate the nearest toilet for me enroute to our gate. We made it to the gate about ten minutes before boarding began. Whew! Rushing at airports is NOT something we normally do or enjoy doing! 😱
It was a mere three hour flight, so it didn’t matter that the flight was absolutely packed without even a single spare seat. The flight must have had a connecting flight to Nigeria from Casablanca, as the majority of the plane seemed to be Nigerian. And I say this without any negative intention because the fabric of Nigeria is woven into my life – but they certainly aren’t a quiet people! 😊
I was sitting next to a South African woman
(I spied her passport) who was halfway through a book I studied in high school in Nigeria (Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
). I was itching to ask her what she thought of it, but I fell asleep before there was an opportunity to do so.
As usual I only woke up in time for dinner which was a delicious beef stew with well-cooked rice. Andrew’s chicken with potatoes was equally tasty. And then I slept again, only waking when the wheels hit the tarmac in Casablanca at 9:30pm. Thankfully Andrew had been awake to collect two incoming passenger cards for us.
Andrew had been chatting to an English guy as we boarded at Heathrow who regularly flies to Morocco to shoot films and TV series. He was returning to Casablanca for a five month stint to film the next series of Homeland. We must have looked like two totally newbie travellers who didn’t have a clue, because he warned us (in detail) about every scam under the sun we would encounter and gave us his sage advice on how we should deal with it. His stereotyping of Moroccans was hard to listen to, and as soon as I
asked him any detailed questions about Casablanca, we realised he didn’t have a clue. He told us that he had paid 80 pounds in excess baggage fees to take a supply of his favourite baked beans with him, so I think it was obvious what sort of insular expat he was.
However, he also warned us that the immigration / passport control lines at Casablanca Airport where always horrendously long, and he wasn’t wrong there. The line snaked through the large immigration room and was starting to spill out the door. We were very tired and it was past 10:30pm… but the line was constantly moving so it didn’t bother us too much – and we were on holiday! 😊
We sailed through baggage claim, customs and security before braving the taxi rank. We got a nice black Mercedes Benz for our one hour drive to town. The driver was exactly how I like my taxi drivers – he knew exactly where he was going, and didn’t need to talk to us. We had agreed on a price of $300 dirham which I knew was reasonable. However, he still tried the old ‘I don’t have change’ trick when
Andrew gave him two $200 dirham notes. But he miraculously found change when I said I’d go in and get change for him at our hotel reception. 😊
The Melliber Apartment Hotel was even better than advertised. Check in was a breeze, and our room was palatial with a gorgeous view of the minaret of the Hassan II Mosque. When the biggest downside of a hotel is that the touch sensitive panels to summon the lift needed to be ‘touched’ (more like fondled actually!) a few times before it responded… you know you’re looking hard for negatives. It really was a pretty good find.
We were beyond tired and felt like we were moving in slow motion. However, we still managed to sort out our bags, shower, have a cup of tea and even catch up on our travel notes before we crashed at 1am.
We woke on Monday morning at 7:30am IN MOROCCO! We were very excited. However, we’d slept well past our 6am target. I’m still not sure how we slept through the call to prayer at 5:30am, considering the Masjid al-Hassan ath-thani (Hassan II Mosque) was only about 200m from our balcony!
were more tired than we realised and couldn’t drag ourselves down to breakfast until 8:30am… but we perked up when we saw the buffet – it was a great mix of traditional Moroccan and French food. A variety of breads, pastries, a cold bar with fresh salads, and all manner of marinated and pickled foods (olives, beetroot, cucumber, palm hearts etc.), the usual eggs and hot food options, and Moroccan biscuits and cakes. As I usually do on my first few weeks in a country – I tried everything on offer! My favourites were the French pastries and the ghriyba
– Moroccan almond shortbread cookies with the scent of gorgeous orange blossom water.
After a hearty and enjoyable breakfast, we were finally ready to step out of the hotel and explore Casablanca at 10am… a whole hour and half later than we had planned.
Casablanca is one of the more well-known cities of Morocco, typically due to the famous namesake Hollywood movie. Yet when researching this trip, it was obvious that there isn’t much love for Casablanca from tourists. It seems tourists deem it to be less bustling and ‘Moroccan’ than other cities, so they either spend minimal
time in it or skip it entirely. As with all our travel, we prefer to see for ourselves than rely on the impression of others, so we scheduled three days here. Given we’d only just set foot in the country, I couldn’t compare it to other Moroccan cities (yet), but I could certainly see its lean towards Europe and feel its cosmopolitan vibe.
As mentioned earlier, the Hassan II Mosque was a stone’s throw from our apartment, so we started out explorations there. We were free to wander around the vast outside space of the mosque, but we wanted to experience its interior too, especially because it’s one of the few mosques open to non-Muslims in the country (but only with a tour).
Tickets couldn’t be pre-bought online, so we arrived at 10:15am and registered for the 11am tour. While we waited we took some photos and visited the museum next to the ticket office. It had details of the mosaics, metal work and wood carvings used in the mosque. While it was interesting to see the craftsmanship up close, it didn’t add to my enjoyment of the mosque.
The mosque is built right on a promontory
overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, and was only completed in 1993. It seems to combine the best of old world Islamic and Moroccan architecture with modern technology. It’s a massive religious and cultural complex, including a prayer room, ablution rooms (for the ritual washing required before praying), hammams
(public bath houses), a madrasa
(Koranic school), a library, a museum, fountains and gardens.
It can accommodate 25,000 people inside and a further 80,000 outside! I think the guide said it was the biggest in Africa and third biggest in the world (after Mecca and Medina). With the highest minaret in the world at 210m, it has an essential but rare elevator (obviously so the muezzin
who recites the call to prayer doesn’t have a heart attack walking up there five times a day!). The minaret clearly dominates the skyline of Casablanca, and it was built with that very purpose in mind.
The forecourt of the mosque (for want of a better word) was as impressive as it was peaceful. The vast open space was interrupted by a few not-so-flash outbuildings before leading the eye to the beautiful mosque complex. The outside was beautiful with light marble, pale pastel mosaic tiles
and metal work. Inside, it was even more stunning…
Our guide Fatima was very good, and she gave us just the right amount of information and detail we needed. We walked into the main prayer hall and were faced with an amazing cedar wood retractable roof (yes a retractable roof!) that sat over the whole space. Unfortunately it was closed when we were there, so the room was lit with wall scones and massive Venetian glass chandeliers. There were heated marble floors, and a glass panel floor in the middle of the prayer hall allowed us to peer into the abolition rooms in the basement. As someone who has had to endure many Masses in cold and draughty churches and cathedrals throughout my entire childhood, I was mightily impressed with the heated floors. 😊
As far as the eye could see, there were aesthetically pleasing stone columns and horseshoe arches (the iconic Moorish arch, also called a keyhole arch), with an extensive use of marble, granite, zouak
(painted wood ceilings), muqarnas
(moulded plaster) and zellij
(mosaic ceramic tiles). The side wings to the main hall were carpeted and decorated with mashrabiyyas
(wooden lattice screens). The absolute symmetry in
the design and the beautiful geometric shapes made me smile with pleasure!
All materials were sourced within the country apart from the marble and Murano glass (both from Italy). Using these beautiful local materials, about six thousand traditional Moroccan artisans created and constructed all the mosaics, inlay marble floors, plaster work and carved wooden ceilings. The building took six years to complete and overshot its completion date by three years… and also predictably went well over budget. Its completion was partly financed by a decreed ‘voluntary contribution’ from every family who lived in the city.
As we made our way downstairs, we walked past the base of the minaret and it was gigantic. There were two rooms under the main prayer rooms that were used for gender segregated ablutions. Each had a fountain and hammam
included in the room. I loved the symmetrical layout of the columns with their lustrous tadelakt
plaster. It’s a traditional Moroccan lime plaster that is polished with black soap (made from olives) to make it waterproof. It looked and felt like marble!
The architecture and interior design of this mosque was quite different to the mosques we’ve visited in Asia and Turkey.
Though highly detailed and ornate in parts, it felt balanced and beautiful. And even though the use of mosaics was somewhat similar to the gorgeous older mosques in Turkey, their look and feel was very different.
The majority religion in Morocco is Islam (which is the constitutionally established state religion). The second largest religion is Christianity at less than 1% (although most Christians are foreigners or descendants from the period of Spanish and French colonisation). Morocco’s Jewish population has mostly emigrated to Israel and other countries, with less than a few thousand remaining. However, regardless of anyone’s religious affiliation or lack thereof, the Hassan II Mosque was definitely stunning to behold. It was a very pleasant and beautiful way to spend our first morning in Casablanca.
We decided to explore the old medina next and wandered off in that general direction. Well, we unintentionally went off the beaten path (read: got very lost). We found ourselves in very very local neighbourhoods, with gritty apartment buildings and markets in muddy streets. I would have loved to take some streetscape photos, but I felt I would have been intruding on people who were going about their daily lives.
continued to be lost and massively overshot the gate to the medina we had been aiming for. We were trying to make it to lunch at Rick’s Cafe, so we eventually asked a policeman how to get to our destination. He was a very friendly chap, but very firmly suggested that we shouldn’t try to find our way through the old medina. He suggested instead that we walk along the exterior medina wall. We followed his instructions and walked along the shop-lined wall where we inevitably picked up our first ‘can you please visit my brother’s shop’ guy. He was polite but insistent, and we were polite but insistent in return. We managed to lose him when he got sick of waiting around whenever I stopped to take photos! 😄
We eventually asked for more directions from an orange juice seller, and like the policeman, he discouraged us from trying to get to our destination via the medina. It was a long and hot walk along the outside of the medina wall, but we eventually found Rick’s Cafe.
I’d been reluctant to visit Rick’s Cafe as I thought it was just a tourist trap capitalising on the name
of the nightclub in the Casablanca film. However, I was quite surprised to find out that its owner actually created the venue as a homage to the film. It piqued my interest, so I convinced Andrew that we should visit. But when we got there, Andrew’s thongs (flip flops) caused us to be denied entry!
We turned to our trusty Lonely Planet guide to check the other restaurants we’d wanted to try in the vicinity. We kept walking around the city walls until we hit a bastion with cannons. This area would have been a lot more picturesque if there hadn’t been major road works taking place all along the waterfront. Hidden away inside the bastion was Squala, a beautiful secret garden restaurant. This lunch was a belated anniversary celebration meal, so we were quite happy that Rick’s Café hadn’t worked out because this place was simply gorgeous. We try to spend our anniversary oversees every year (as both our birthday months are usually quite busy work periods for us).
In the shade of a large tree, we were given complimentary khobz
(round leavened bread), olives, harissa
(mixed chilli and garlic dip) and a tomato dip. Andrew ordered
a non-alcoholic beer (yes that’s a thing!), and we also ordered our first mint tea. I loved the mint tea very very much.
We shared an assortment of savoury briouates
(filo pastry parcels with chicken , beef and seafood fillings). The chicken parcel was a mini pastilla
, a Moroccan pie which is traditionally covered in cinnamon and icing sugar – and I was understandably sceptical about mixing meat and sugar. Strangely, it sort of worked, although Andrew vehemently disagreed! We also had our first tagine
! It was a chicken tagine
with preserved lemon and red olives. The tagine
was delicious, but the meat was on the bone and made for fiddly eating. We also ordered an assortment of fruit juices which came in shot sized glasses… with flavours such as orange, mango and vanilla, strawberries and grapefruit, and peach and cardamom. They were exactly the hydration we needed to keep walking in the hot afternoon.
While having lunch (and trying not to feed the beautiful cat begging at our table), we heard our first call to prayer in Morocco – for me, you can’t beat that type of first day travel excitement! We were
somewhere new, doing new things and eating new food. So much happiness!
We decided to walk back to the hotel through the residential part of the old medina. The old medina was small but very interesting. It was great strolling through its winding labyrinthine streets. I was pleased the narrow alleys weren’t filled with tacky souvenir stalls. Instead, it was a place of everyday life for the locals – men smoking in tiny cafes, women shopping in small one-room corner shops, clothes hanging along the white walls, cats sunning themselves in sunny spots, fruit carts being pulled through the lanes, and neighbourhood kids running wild in the streets.
We walked back to the hotel via the laundry near our hotel to ascertain how long they would take to do our washing. We hit our first person who spoke zero English… and given we speak zero Moroccan-Arabic or French, the charades began. With the aid of a hand drawn clock and the words Monday and Tuesday, we understood that it would take him six hours to do our laundry. With laughs all around at actually communicating despite our massive language barrier, we decided to come back the following morning.
Spying a bakery, we stopped by to see if they had the ghriyba
(Moroccan almond cookies) we had at breakfast, but the baker didn’t have any. We struck a language barrier again, but he was so lovely that we ended up buying a box full of biscuits and pastries for our late afternoon cup of tea. Very happy with the day we’d had, we walked back to our room to shower, have cups of tea and catch up on our notes.
As the sun began to set at about 7pm, we headed out again and walked along the seafront on Boulevard de la Corniche. The corniche starts at the mosque and continues for kilometres along the Atlantic Ocean. The boulevard was full of families strolling, couples sitting by the water, young boys playing football, groups of joggers in lycra and kids playing in the parks. It was a very lovely and relaxed atmosphere. And the golden light on the mosque was stunning!
We walked as far as the Phare de El Hank lighthouse and realised that as the sun set, the wind had picked up and it was suddenly quite cold. So we turned back. I kept
thinking of the description I’d read of Morocco being a cold country with a hot sun – it was very true.
We were so full from our massive breakfast, big lunch and a sumptuous late afternoon tea that we couldn’t even contemplate having dinner. So we retired to our room and spent the evening enjoying the remaining goodies from the bakery while catching up on our writing.
We had two more days in Casablanca, but I’d experienced enough to know that I like this city very much. From what I’d seen so far, Casablanca seems to be somewhat defined by being the financial capital of Morocco, being the home of the Hassan II Mosque and having one of the country’s biggest ports. Personally, I think these three things shape the city and influence its vibe very much.
As our first introduction to Morocco, we’d felt extremely welcomed. The people had been really friendly and approachable, the cityscape had been fascinating and the food had been incredibly delicious. It had totally whet our appetite for further explorations of the city and beyond!
See you around Casablanca.
Tot: 2.403s; Tpl: 0.116s; cc: 17; qc: 38; dbt: 0.0448s; 1; m:saturn w:www (18.104.22.168); sld: 2;
; mem: 1.6mb