Casablanca, the first day – Ville Nouvelle and medina
Short description. I walked from Coco’s house through Ville Nouvelle and then went to the Old Medina. I also managed to get out of a tentative theft of my smartphone. In the evening we went out to a lighted sky-bar in the city center of Casablanca and, after that, we had a beer with Coco’s friends.
In the morning I had breakfast with Nora and Babi (Nora’s restless kitten) on the sunny balcony. Nora gave me lots of information about Casa (as locals called it) – where to go and where to eat. We agreed to meet at home in the evening and go out with her friends. All said and done.
I headed toward the center of the new city, Ville Nouvelle – the New Town, an exemplary representation of the French-influenced urban planning from the beginning of the 20th century. Even though I was on the outskirts of the city, I decided to walk to the city center and admire the architectural variety of the Moroccan metropolis.
Casablanca was the economic and industrial capital of Morocco. It featured art galleries, fashion designers, chic cafes, and select properties. The Gauthier district had long, straight boulevards flanked by palm-trees alignments and fairly-tall buildings of modernist architecture. Stylish cafes and ground-floor exhibition spaces, with a bohemian atmosphere and European influence, could be seen everywhere in the neighborhood.
I usually found my way using a map, and I always had a printed one in my pocket. But as I was out of the tourist area, I walked holding the smartphone in my hand to navigate toward the city center using the GPS. At a street junction, a Moroccan riding a moped rode past me and snatched the phone from my hand. The phone fell from its cover on the asphalt and tumbled next to a gutter. The thief moved away fast on his motorbike. A Moroccan woman came quickly to help me. Fortunately, the phone neither fell into the gutter, nor into the hands of the thief. Funnily, the smartphone still worked.
As I was cautious as usual, I had tied the phone case to the strap with which my bag with documents and money was attached to the tie band of my backpack and myself. A whole system of straps, bands, and ties. Cutting, breaking, or untying just one of them wouldn’t have been enough to steal something from me. I probably looked like a Christmas tree, entangled within a jumble of cords. When the thief grabbed the phone, he encountered resistance from the straps I had tied my bag to my valuables.
Cathedrale du Sacre Coeur stood at the edge of a wide boulevard lined with palm trees and lush vegetation. It was a large white cathedral of neo-Gothic influence. Squared concrete beams symbolized the typical buttresses of the medieval European Gothic style. The interior of the cathedral was huge, austere, but animated by colorful stained glass windows and an exhibition with paintings in the main nave. Next to the entrance, you could climb one of the bell-towers through a spiral staircase full of pigeon manure. From the bell tower, you had an urban panorama of white houses and buildings, among which green spaces with palm trees appeared here and there.
Parc de la Ligue Arabe stood next to the cathedral and had colorful modernist decorations. Arches with stripes recalled the chiostro of a medieval monastery in Europe. I walked along a promenade with palm trees to reach Place Mohammed V, and from there, I was close to the famous Avenue Hassan II. The modernist neighborhood featured valuable French architecture (listed as a tentative UNESCO World Heritage Site), highly regarded for its early 20th-century urban planning.
Casablanca delivered an architectural and urban synthesis of African, European, and American influences. Buildings in Casa were the creative result of these cultures. The architecture featured a stylistic and cultural mix of art déco, functionalism, and avant-garde modernism. As a result, terraces, loggias, and pergolas specific to the Maghreb culture alternated with bowindows, attics, and wrought-iron balconies of European and American influence.
Streets in central Casa featured Haussmannian buildings with chic hotels and stylish cafes, as well as pavement terraces in the shade of porticoes with arches. Rows of windows and bowindows created rhythm on facades, a rhythm further multiplied in different forms and shapes along the entire street. It then continued with another combination of architectural elements on another street, strictly respecting the cornice and attic alignment. Also, delicate wrought-iron balconies and gates decorated hotel facades. Besides, Art Nouveau ornaments and columns framed rhythmic windows. Each facade had a different decorative program from a different stylistic palette. Even though the buildings seemed pretty diverse, the street view was unitary as all buildings featured the same style and cornice height.
Men wearing business suits hurried across the street. On Mohammed V Boulevard, a tram ran in front of the Central Square marked by arcades lining up onto the street. Next to it, the famous Cinema Theatro Rialto had a shabby facade. Moroccans were bustling everywhere in the street. At the same time, cars were snaking among people. I stopped to have lunch at Snack Boule de Neige, where I served the soup of the day (a kind of harira) and a sandwich with some strange meat and fried potatoes.
From Place des Nations Unite, you could see the entrance to the old town, the medina. The small medina in Casablanca featured a labyrinth of narrow streets with chaotic merchandise, whitewashed houses, and a square with few palm trees. The enormous city port, a shipyard continuously in construction and expansion, stood on the opposite side of the medina fortifications. I entered Cafe Maure – an elegant cultural space with a garden, canopies, and a fountain, in one of the 18th-century defense towers of the medina (called Skala). Coco had told me about that place and I would have liked to have a drink and relax there. The waiters told me they were fully booked though, so that I left … discouraged.
Even though I could have taken a tram, I preferred to walk back to Coco and Mehdi’s home. I ended up exhausted but happy after a full day. When she found out my phone was almost stolen, Coco got scared and worried for me. In the evening, we went to the only sky-bar in Casablanca – a bar with a bright red upholstered interior, located on one of the twin sky-towers in Ville Nouvelle. The drinks were pricey, so we only ordered schweppes and some mineral water, but we admired Casablanca all lit up at our feet.
After that, Coco and Mehdi wanted to show me the underground bar La Cigogne, where they knew it was possible to drink beer. There, we also met with their friends, a group of young, funny Moroccans. In the evening we returned home and had dinner. Coco cooked a delicious tajine with mutton meat. As a result, her cats went crazy smelling the food and wanted to climb up on the table.
Casablanca, the second day – Grand Mosque and Quartier Habous
Short description. On the first part of the day, I went to the Grand Mosque Hassan II on the Atlantic coast and experienced the traditional shared-taxi in Casablanca. In the afternoon, I went with Coco to the Habous District, and in the evening we had dinner with the whole family (including the cats).
The Grand Mosque in Casablanca was far from Coco’s house. It stood somewhere on the cornice of the Atlantic coast. I went out on the street and, for about half an hour, I negotiated with taxis to accept the right price for a ride to the great mosque. Eventually, a taxi driver accepted the price I offered – an amount over which Coco had clearly instructed me to not give anything extra.
The mosque built by the great King Hassan II was admirably located on the Atlantic coast, and the religious ensemble was enormous. The mosque could accommodate 25,000 believers inside and another 80,000 in the courtyards and outdoor esplanade, thus being the third-largest mosque in the world. It also included a media center, a library, and a royal hammam on the underground floor. On top of that, it had the second-tallest minaret in the world. (210 meters high – after the one from Djamaa el Djazaïr in Algiers, Algeria).
The Grand Mosque was the only mosque in Morocco where non-Muslim tourists could enter and visit. I went down to the underground floor, where a smiling gentleman gave me a discounted ticket for ICOMOS members. Then, I waited for half an hour for the next English tour to begin.
The mosque had a vast esplanade overlooking the ocean and a courtyard surrounded by galleries bordering one side of the ensemble. Shades of green predominated on all facades and exterior fountains, and created a vivid mosaic with a mix of green and emerald blue. A fairy scene of colors that enchanted all tourists (including me) who excitedly took pictures.
Coco had lent me one of her djellabas so I could enter the mosque properly dressed. We had to leave out our shoes at the entrance and enter barefoot. You didn’t have to cover your head, but you had to cover your arms, shoulders, and legs.
The interior of the mosque was huge, with impressive decorations, not oppressive though. The marble floor had discreet shades and the walls ornamental stuccoes. We had the honor to see how the ceiling slid and we could see the blue sky. The guide told us we were lucky because this only happened when the king came to visit. They were testing the proper functioning of the ceiling for the king’s visit the following day. Allah had mercy on us to see the ceiling in full operation!
I couldn’t find a taxi to accept the correct price on the way back home. Taxi drivers in the mosque area were accustomed to charge tourists three times more. I didn’t accept their price and decided to walk no matter what. When I got at a street junction quite far from the mosque, a taxi stopped and agreed to put the meter. Before I got off to Coco’s house, the driver took two more passengers. Thus, I experienced a shared taxi in Casablanca.
Every taxi had a meter with three prices in Casablanca. The taxi driver accepted customers whenever someone waved at him if they went in the same direction as the first customer. When a customer got in the taxi, the taxi driver turned on the meter. Eventually, everyone paid how much the meter measured when they got off. It didn’t matter you shared the ride with others. Everyone paid as if they were alone and the taxi driver could win three times more for a single ride.
In the afternoon, I had agreed with Coco to go to the Habous District, known as the New Medina. We took a taxi with a crazy driver, but I felt relaxed because Coco negotiated everything, even though I offered to pay. We both stood tense at the back of the car as the speeding driver rushed through the traffic in Casa.
In the early 1930s, French settlers built Habous Quarter as a hypothetical representation of the old medina, with a slight Disneyland hint. The new neighborhood featured narrow streets and ground floor shops (like in the traditional medinas). Houses were newer though, more luxurious, respectively cleaner, and intertwined Moroccan and European-French architecture.
We strolled through Quartier Habous, then sat on a bench in front of the main mosque while waiting for Mehdi to come and pick us up. During our chat, Coco told me they weren’t religious. She dressed modernly and she had told her relatives not to interfere between her and her husband in their marriage. Many Moroccan families did that and she didn’t like it. Eventually, Mehdi came to pick us up, and on our way back home, we passed an area of souks, very messy after street vendors left.
When we got home, we stopped at a butcher’s shop on the ground floor of Coco’s building. I bought tajine meat and, before Coco noticed, I had already paid for it. In the evening, Mohammad – Coco’s brother, cooked, and we sat and talked about the cultural differences between our countries. Coco felt sad when she found out I would leave the following day. She had hoped I stayed longer and told me how she understood Couchsurfing. She considered Couchsurfing as a way to stay with the hosts even for a week and thus experience authentic cultural exchange.
If you want to read more about the road trip through Morocco, here are all the Travelogues from Morocco (x21).
Have you been to Morocco or plan to go there? Leave a comment below this post and tell me what you liked in Morocco or what you want to see there.
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