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Magical Morocco, Part I: Casablanca and the South

Author: soliteyah (More Trip Reviews by soliteyah)
Date of Trip: March 2007



My boyfriend and I decided to visit Morocco in a rather haphazard way -- we were trolling for our next vacation destination by browsing online image galleries, hoping to be inspired. We were open to pretty much anything, but nothing was jumping out at us. Croatia? "Pretty..." Peru? "Intriguing..." The Faroe Islands? "The who? Hmm, kinda cool, but way too remote..."

And then we clicked on some images of Morocco, and we both had the same reaction -- this was it. The exotic kasbahs, medinas and desert landscapes were unlike anything we'd seen in our previous travels, so we immediately started researching.

We decided on a springtime visit to avoid the heat and crowds of the summer, and we found pretty good airfares in March (prices made a definite jump in April). We wanted to visit at least one imperial city -- we picked Fes -- and spend some time in the desert in the southern part of the country as well. I also really wanted to visit Chefchaouen, a town up in the Rif Mountains known for its blue doors and alleyways. (Unfortunately, we ended up cutting this town out of our itinerary at the last minute due to time constraints and a bus strike across Morocco. We went to Meknes instead.) We flew into Casablanca, hoping to visit its famous Hassan II Mosque -- one of the only mosques in the country that are open to non-Muslims.

We'd never been to Africa before, or to any Third World country, or to a country where the native language was in a whole different alphabet (Arabic looked like a series of squiggles and dots to our ignorant eyes!). So we knew we were in for an eye-opening experience...

Getting There
We traveled for 21 hours door to door to get from our Philadelphia apartment to the Hotel Guynemer in Casablanca. Our initial flight was delayed due to snow in Philly, and then we had a five-hour layover in Heathrow before our three-hour flight to Casablanca took off. It was pretty amazing to have the window seat on that flight -- I saw the Pyrenees in Spain and then the Rif Mountains near Tangier as we made the turn toward Casablanca.

Once we landed we went through an incredibly sloooooow customs check and then took some Moroccan dirhams out of the airport ATM before meeting our driver from the hotel. He took us there for 230 dirhams (about $25) and taught us how to say "welcome" in Arabic ... which I promptly forgot. Hey, I was jetlagged!

Casablanca
The Hotel Guynemer bills itself as a three-star property, which I'm not so sure about, but it was perfectly fine for our purposes. It cost about $64 a night (booked by emailing the hotel directly), including breakfast, hot water and free Internet access in the lobby. The room had matching duvets and curtains that looked rather historic (and not in the good way), and there was quite a bit of noise from the street below; the hotel is located right downtown in an area that supposedly isn't the safest at night. (We stayed in, so it wasn't an issue.)

We slept okay until I was awakened in the middle of the night to the sounds of a loud verbal altercation going on down below. I couldn't understand a word, of course, but one man was growing increasingly belligerent, shouting back and forth with what sounded like several other men until he finally roared off on a motorbike. That nuisance aside, the hotel was fine, and the breakfast the next day (croissants, baguettes, yogurt, hardboiled eggs, tea and coffee) was okay too.

After breakfast we headed out to see a bit of Casablanca. In an incredibly boneheaded move, we had scheduled ourselves here on a Friday, which is the one day of the week that the Hassan II Mosque is closed. (We discovered this with great chagrin as we were studying the guidebook on the plane ride over.) This was a big deal because Casablanca is quite a large, modern city and doesn't have very many "sights" -- so we weren't quite sure how we were going to fill our day.

On a tip from a fellow guest at breakfast, we started by walking toward the cathedral (that's something we weren't expecting to see in Morocco!), where we could apparently climb into the tower and get a nice view over the city. Before we got there, though, we ran into a nice little park near the post office and decided to just chill out and people-watch for a while. It was about 9 a.m. and the weather was perfect: upper 60's, sunny and breezy. We noticed a lot of locals in jackets and sweaters, reminding us that this weather is still kind of wintry to them. In fact, there was quite a wide variety of clothing -- there were women in traditional robes and head scarves, but also some with modern dresses/pants and uncovered hair. The men wore everything from jeans or business suits to traditional robes and fes hats. Clearly the European influence has been strong here, in Morocco's largest and most modern city.

We left our comfy bench after a bit and snapped a few photos of the nearby Ancienne Prefecture and the Palais du Justice, two imposing buildings on Place Mohammed V. The former has some lovely mosaics on the facade while the other boasts a tall clock tower. We weren't the only tourists there; my SO and I shared a laugh over a group of Japanese tourists who were getting their picture taken with several men in bizarre red outfits and pompom hats -- water sellers, according to our guidebook. We passed on the photo, knowing we'd have to pay the water sellers for it.

We finally made our way to the cathedral, which was completely empty inside; we wondered whether it had ever been used. Sunlight filtered through the stained glass windows, leaving colorful, shimmering reflections on the bare floor. To get the promised panoramic view, we headed for the steps leading up to the bell tower. The staircase got increasingly narrow as we ascended, and we had to step around huge clumps of feathers and dung from the pigeons that live here.

Incredibly (at least to my American eyes), at one point you could actually walk out onto the cathedral's roof and look out -- with no railing! I could only imagine how lawyers in America would react to that. A little higher, we came to a landing in the staircase where there was an open hole right in the middle of the floor, leading down hundreds of feet to the very bottom of the staircase. There were a couple of beams of wood surrounding the hole, but they didn't serve as any kind of barrier -- seemed like a lawsuit waiting to happen! But I guess that's not how things work here...

At the very top of the tower we got a great panoramic view of the city. We could see the Hassan II Mosque in the distance, as well as wide boulevards lined with palm trees closer in. Nearly every building was white and modern and topped with a satellite dish.

We headed back down and set out for the Hassan II mosque, hoping to at least take pictures from the outside even if we couldn't get in. On our way we stumbled upon a really neat street market, offering bananas, enormous oranges, tomatoes, apples, fresh meat, eggs, spices, live chickens, etc. Definitely fun to browse.

We did eventually find the mosque, which was breathtaking -- huge and clean and brilliantly decorated with exquisite blue and green mosaics. Perched on the edge of the Atlantic, it was built in 1993 at the behest of King Hassan II, paid for by an involuntary tax on every Moroccan citizen -- even those who were too poor or who lived too far away to ever visit this enormous monument. Our guidebook told us that a crowded slum was razed to make space for the mosque and that the residents were turned out without compensation, a fact that tempered my admiration of the place just a bit.

Hunger was calling, so we went to a French seafood restaurant called Taverne du Dauphin, about a 15-minute walk away. The menu was in French, which we don't speak, so we squeaked by. I got an omelet with ham and cheese, and a side of cauliflower; SO got some sort of fish in a cream sauce. Delicious! It cost about $30, including the tip, for our meals plus sorbet for dessert, a large bottle of water and a beer for SO.

After lunch we had somewhat grand plans to explore Casablanca's medina and check out a few mosques there, but the streets we chose once we got into the medina actually led us right back out again about 15 minutes later. Hmmm. The medina honestly wasn't all that exciting except in its very ordinariness -- locals going about their day, a group of old men playing some sort of game I couldn't see, women sharing a communal plate of fruit.



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