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Published: November 2nd 2020
Saturday, October 19th
Day 14 -- Our final day in sun-kissed Essaouira – the perfect weather here had been a wonderful gift which we had taken for granted. Regrettably, this day we will have little or no time to breathe in the fresh sea breezes or walk the charming, narrow lanes of its colorful medina. While I could easily have enjoyed more time in Essaouira, I also enjoy the anticipation that each day brings us more new discoveries and today to a much different city -- the city we'd only garnered a fleeting glimpse of before beginning our journey in Morocco 2 weeks earlier. We were truly coming full circle in the city of Casablanca.
With our luggage packed and readied for pick up, we made our way down to the restaurant, The Fondouk, for our final breakfast at the lovely Riad Dar L’Ouissa. I later realized I had taken no photos of the restaurant which was disappointing as I like to take photos for my photographic journal as well as the fact that it had some interesting features: several enormous, eye-catching portraits of older Moroccan men with faces full of character, and an interesting traditional ceiling with beams made
of thinner tree trunks and branch poles similar to that in our room at the kasbah in Erfoud.
Leaving Essaouira we headed north for Casablanca. It wasn’t an extremely long drive between towns as the distance to be covered was approximately 250 miles (this distance varies depending on taking a coastal or inland route). The geographical terrain on this route was not particularly interesting or memorable. We sometimes passed through dry, arid stretches punctuated by several small and obviously very poor towns. These towns usually consisted of a few clustered buildings and shops along the main road. Some shops and vendors displayed their goods, including food, just next to the road which was curious because in each of these towns everything from sidewalks, to sun awnings, to tarps, and cars seemed to be covered in a fairly thick layer of grit and dirt.
Since it was Saturday, I assumed it must have been a main market day because each of these town's market was crowded with both buyers and sellers. I must be honest and say that while I usually find markets selling fruits and vegetables, textiles, clothing, furniture, local art or the like interesting to see, I
despise live animal markets. Most of what I saw from the bus windows seemed to be just that on this particular day – animal markets – much too raw for me.
Still, sometimes I would catch a fleeting glimpse of an interesting site -- a young shepherd boy watching over a flock of grazing sheep, children going into school, a beautiful horse, men socializing with friends and a cup of mint tea, or women shopping. Often lying just beyond the markets there would be dusty, mostly empty lots with a few trees or parched grass where horses, and donkeys would graze or be left standing to wait while the owners were visiting the markets or had come to town to socialize.
Soon it was time for a 'technical stop' at Café Ezzahrae where you could buy refreshments and small souvenirs, but most importantly the restrooms were clean. I don’t remember what town this particular café was situated in, but somehow these places tend to reflect something about the towns around them, each cafe or restaurant being quite different in style and offerings.
Upon boarding the bus, Larbi had a small surprise for us. An unmistakable movie soundtrack
began playing and the TV monitors which had so far not been used during this trip began to flicker vintage movie images in black and white -- a map of Africa, and street scenes. The classic movie, Casablanca
, opens with narration and images of the seductive Casablanca and its streets teaming with European refugees trying to escape the horrors of World War II. Meanwhile the Vichy French Army makes a show of rounding up the 'usual suspects'. The most desperate souls surreptitiously attempt to arrange for exit visas by any means possible for quick passage out of Casablanca to Lisbon and beyond. But, exit visas are few and worth a fortune, so the desperate must stay in Casablanca and “wait … and wait … and wait.”
Centered around Rick’s Café Americain, the movie Casablanca
is ultimately the love story of Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund which had been complicated by the reappearance of Ilsa's husband -- the resistance fighter, Victor Lazlo -- who earlier in the story had been assumed to be killed in a concentration camp, but has somehow survived after all. The story has an unexpected twist at the end. I've seen this movie many times but
I never tire of watching it.
About halfway through our drive we stopped for lunch at a small, modern restaurant on a main road. Wanting something different, we ordered a vegetarian pizza topped with olives, cherry tomatoes, zucchini and peppers with a cold Coke which fit the bill nicely. The café was sunny, pleasant and clean but again, oddly enough, I didn’t take a photo of the exterior and once again had no idea what town we were in.
While here, it was time to say goodbye to, Barakka, the young man who was Larbi’s assistant and who had been with us for the entire trip. Barakka was not only a kind, courteous and gentle man but one who was always very helpful and who was partially responsible for making this tour a great experience. We understand that Barakka will be a tour guide himself very soon.
Our arrival in Casablanca signaled the near completion of our trip, but it was not the culmination of our experiences in Morocco just yet. This ancient town founded by the Berbers in the 7th
century is home to over 3.5 million people today. Although it is the largest city in
Morocco, and also in the Maghreb, it is not the capital with that honor going to Rabat. Though obviously modern, it still bears some vestiges of Portuguese, Spanish, and French influence remaining from the eras when those countries once ruled Morocco. The city owes its name, Casablanca or ‘white house,’ to the foreign influence as it was bestowed by the Portuguese and retained by the Spanish.
I can’t say that we saw enough of this vast city to get a real impression of it, but we did see 3 popular sites. The first was Mohammed V Square
, named in honor of the former king and grandfather of the current king, Mohammed VI, of the Alaouite Dynasty. The square, sometimes known as ‘pigeon square’ because of the hundreds of pigeons there, was built in 1916 as designed by a French architect during the era of the French Protectorate. Adjacent to the square are many important administrative buildings featuring the “Neo-Mauresque” style conceptualized by their French architects.
The focal point of the square is the multi-tiered, jetted fountain in the center of the square. Just watching those plumes of water shoot skyward was refreshing on the hot day. No wonder
it draws many visitors, families with their children, food and toy vendors, and most notably, the eye-catching “water sellers.” Traditionally dressed in a red caftan with a chain of brass cups hung around their neck, the water sellers seek your attention by ringing brass bells. They carry a plain or decorated goat-skin water bag and wear a multi-color, conical-shaped hat with tassels and sometimes coins.
Water sellers were very important in the days when water was a scarce commodity, especially in the arid climate of Morocco; however, today they are likely to be seen in the squares of Marrakesh and Casablanca where they are more of a tourist attraction than a necessity. Although Moroccans apparently believe that buying water from a seller is lucky. If you buy water from them, it wouldn’t be a sin to tip them for also having your photo taken with one of them; the tips earned from posing for photos may account for the larger portion of their income. Unfortunately, I never saw anyone buying water or even having their photo taken with them. Still they represent a small bit of history which can still be seen today in places such as the Mohammed
We made a short stop for photos at “Rick’s Café
," a restaurant reminiscent of the 1942 movie, Casablanca.
Released on the heels of the Allied invasion of Europe during WWII, the movie is, as you know, set in Casablanca.
Kathy Kriger, a former US diplomat, fell in love with Morocco upon visiting the country. Inspired by the movie and the setting portrayed as “Rick’s Café Américain,” in 2004 Kathy opened a restaurant suitably called “Rick’s Café.” She searched for the perfect spot to establish the café and found it in an old mansion near the ancient medina walls. She furnished it in unforgettable Moroccan style and added good food and live music. Known as “Madame Rick” by her regular customers, Kathy lived the remainder of her life in Casablanca.
Unfortunate but understandable, we could only view the exterior of "Rick’s Café". At the entrance a tall, slim man with dark sunglasses and impeccably dressed in a sharply tailored dark suit, white dress shirt and dark tie, kept watch and occasionally peered at us gawking tourists. He looked as if he could have been right out of a movie himself.
Not far from Rick’s Café,
we concluded our sightseeing of Casablanca at the Hassan II Mosque
which draws an untold number of visitors each year. Sitting on a promontory jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, the site was specifically chosen for the mosque by the king for religious reasons and therefore, the mosque is actually built on both sea and land.
Some interesting facts about the Mosque:
• The Hassan II Mosque is considered the 5th
largest mosque in the world, and at nearly 700 ft. in height, it has the world’s second tallest minaret. At the top of the minaret, a laser light focuses a beam in the direction of Mecca.
• Commissioned by King Hassan II in 1986, the hope was that the mosque would be completed by his 60th
birthday in 1989. The mosque was designed by French architect, Michel Pinseau. It’s said that 2,500 people or more worked 7 days a week in shifts around the clock to complete the mosque in only 7 years. Sources estimate that 10,000 people labored more than 80 million hours to finish it.
• All of the natural elements used in the design of the mosque -- granite, plaster, wood and marble -- were sourced from
Morocco itself, with the exception of the Italian white granite columns, and over 50 Murano glass chandeliers and many sconces.
• The mosque can accommodate 25,000 people inside while another 80,000 can be accommodated in the courtyards.
• A retractable roof covers the approximately 220,000 sq. ft. prayer hall and can be opened in only 5 minutes!
• A large portion of the financing to build the mosque came from donations by the Moroccan people.
When Larbi offered our tour group the opportunity to purchase tickets for a guided tour of the mosque, we didn't hesitate to opt in. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter other than by taking a guided tour. Photography was allowed at no extra charge.
The mosque is enormous and elaborate and to say that it is stately and beautiful doesn't do it justice. Before entering the mosque my eyes were drawn to the minaret -- the most extraordinary one I’ve ever seen. The tower features intricate patterns of blue-green zellige tile which play beautifully against the whiteness of the stone. The upper most portions of the soaring minaret are particularly grand. Another focal point at the side of the mosque was the beautiful shell-shaped
fountain featuring an intricate zellige tile patterned back splash with both a small and large alfiz surrounding it, also with similar zellige tile work.
If architecture, especially Moroccan architecture, is your passion, you will be richly rewarded for taking a guided tour of the mosque. Ornate doors lead into the enormous prayer hall with its gleaming multi-color marble and granite floors and long colonnade of arches supported by marble columns. Like the Bahia Palace in Marrakesh, the coffered ceilings are masterpieces of carved wood and Zouaq painting which are hallmark architectural details native to Morocco. Muqarnas, or ornamented vaulting, all draw the eye upward and grace most if not all arches. Architectural details such as these are considered fundamental design elements for a religious site such as this one.
On a lower level are the Ablutions Halls for worshippers -- we saw the women’s side only of course. The Ablutions Hall was nearly as ornate as other parts of the mosque but with more muted colors. Star-shaped, pierced metal chandeliers hung above the 45 lotus-shaped gray and white marble fountains which were symmetrically positioned between massive zellige tile-covered columns. The fountains are a necessary and essential part of
performing the rite of ablutions called Wuḍūʾ.
Back into the daylight we wandered around the lovely plaza surrounded by the ocean and bearing its own designs and architectural features both underfoot and in arched structures separating some of the areas there. About 1 ½ miles in the distance across the water we could see the Phare d’El Hank
or El Hank lighthouse which rises over 160 ft above El Hank Pointe. Designed by Albert Laprade, it was completed in 1920 and functioned not only as a navigational guide but warning signal to men at sea. Although the lighthouse was automated in 1974 and is still operational, it still has a lighthouse keeper who lives on site. Apparently the El Hank is not open to the public which is unfortunate because it has, of course, a 360° view and apparently even the medina can be seen from it. This solidly-built all white lighthouse is a well-known landmark in Casablanca.
Our last night in Morocco was spent at Casablanca’s Kenzi Tower Hotel, a modern high rise with over 200 guest rooms situated in a high density business area. We were assigned to Rm. 1101 with good city views and although
the room was a bit devoid of traditional Moroccan décor, it was very comfortable, large, came with coffee and tea provisions, had free WiFi, and ultra-modern bathroom facilities.
Our group met in a private dining room on the 27th
floor for our Farewell Dinner which was excellent as nearly all of our meals in Morocco had been. It was a last chance to say goodbye to our fellow travelers, and show our appreciation both verbally and in a more financially practical way to our guide, Larbi, who had been nothing short of extraordinary throughout the whole trip and and who deserved all our gratitude. Earlier in the day we had said goodbye to our very patient bus driver and rewarded him as well. (Sadly, as I write this blog almost exactly one year later during the Covid-19/coronavirus pandemic, I know that the lack of international tourist travel must have greatly impacted people like Larbi, Barraka, and especially people like our Sahara camel herders, in a very significant way. I hoped they have survived any illness and survived financially.)
The next day, Sunday, October 20th,
we had early morning Air France flights scheduled. We finished all packing preparations after
the Farewell Dinner because our wake up call was set for 4 am and our bags were to be picked up at 4:30 am. Still bleery-eyed due to the extremely early hour, we skipped the proffered breakfast as we had to meet in the lobby by 5 am along with 2 other members from our group. The ever energetic Larbi was already in the lobby when we arrived and everything was completely organized as usual.
The ride to the Mohammed V International Airport was via a very comfortable minivan. It had rained heavily during the night and the dark streets of Casablanca had been washed clean of the day’s grit and dust. Puddles reflected the street lights and the sidewalks were virtually empty as most of the city’s inhabitants were still nestled innocently in their beds. As we sped through the streets I noticed that affixed to many lamp posts were small red and green twinkling lights which formed the outline of the Moroccan flag -- I had actually seen similarly lit Moroccan flag representations in Marrakesh as well and found them charming symbols of the country.
Arriving at the airport, our tour company had thoughtfully arranged for
someone to help guide us through any obstacles we might encounter there; we easily and quickly navigated all the checkpoints and received an excellent, clear passport exit stamp which I was hoping for. Passport stamps are one of my cherished 'souvenirs'. Thanks to our upgraded flights, we had use of the Royal Air Maroc lounge which we gladly visited. We both had hot beverages and nibbled on a small slice of cake knowing that on the airplane something would be served however small.
As our plane departed and headed skyward, I was sad that our time in Morocco was over while at the same time being ready to go home. But I had little time to think at this point because breakfast was served quickly after reaching altitude on our 2 hr. 20 minute flight to Paris. Our airplane was full on this first leg of our return-home journey but service at this level on Air France is excellent.
Rather than being served something small as we thought, we were first handed an Air France menu with several excellent choices for breakfast. We both chose the omelette served with turkey sausage and dinner-like sides of grilled zucchini and
mushrooms as well as a croissant, butter, jam and juice.
It was also raining in Paris when we landed! We had a layover of several hours in the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport so again we had access to the very excellent Air France lounge which is the best I’ve ever had the privilege to use.
We helped ourselves to hot coffees and only a snack knowing that an excellent lunch would be served on the next last leg of our journey home (shrimp scampi). I spent some time writing in my journal and then we relaxed while watching a World Rugby match between Japan and South Africa.
A boarding announcement for our final flight was welcomed since we both realized we were very tired at this point in the trip and we would still have a drive of several hours to reach home after landing and gathering our luggage at JFK airport. But, while on the plane once again I thought of how I felt about the 2 weeks we had just spent in Morocco and my conclusion was simple -- it was everything I had hoped for and more, and I often still think of
our time there even now one year later.
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