Morocco 2017: Casablanca – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To keep myself sane during the pandemic lockdown, I started reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text as well as larger and additional photos.  

I have traveled to Turkey, Italy and Spain. In 2017 I hit the top of my bucket list with a belated birthday gift to myself – a trip to Morocco. Since this was my most popular trip to date (gauging by reader reactions) I am republishing these from their original May-June 2019 dates. I hope you enjoy them!

A red-headed cowboy leaning against a pillar in baggage claim, lifts his gaze from his phone.  It’s Doug Baum, our tour guide and ‘camel guy’ for the next two and a half weeks.  He offers to assist Brenda with her luggage, and looks around for mine.  I grin, and hold up my purse, and say “this is it, I’m traveling light this trip.”  “Oh Girl!” he exclaims with an air of disbelief.  

“Nothing is going to ruin this trip.  I’ve got the critical things I need, and I’ll buy new clothes in Fez.  Let’s go!”

I will not allow myself to be stressed or let lost luggage ruin this trip. I obeyed that bizarre, nagging, back-of-brain voice that told me to shuffle essentials from my luggage, into my purse before I left Seattle.  “Everything else can be replaced. It’ll be fun! You are not allowed to stress out about this,” I kept saying to Doug. When I’m sure that we both actually believe those words, I start to laugh.  What else are you gonna do?

As we leave the terminal, I comment about the unexpected site of green fields stretching to the borders of my vision.  Doug says it’s been a wet spring here, so everything is even more green than usual.  We climb into his car and he starts the conversation with a snapshot of the culture we are about to encounter. He tells us that the population of Morocco is one-third Arab and two-thirds Berber, with Arabic and Berber being the primary languages. Casablanca is one of the four largest metropolises in all of Africa.

My introduction to Morocco begins in Casablanca, the largest city in the country with about 31 million people. The city was originally Berber, and was destroyed at least twice over the past 8-9 centuries. Click here for more history of this fascinating city.

In addition to Arabic and Berber, we will also find French, Spanish and a smattering of other languages spoken here. Morocco gained its independence in 1956, although its cultural history traces its lineage to pre-Roman times.

We meet up with Mark and Catherine, who have arrived from Australia, and start a walking tour of Casablanca with Nezha Sebti, our local guide. Nezha leads us down Boulevard Mohammed V, which slices through the city from its center to the waterfront, past a number of colonial era and Art Deco landmarks, including the Rialto Cinema, still in operation. Josephine Baker and Edith Piaf both performed here. The Palais de Justice, and the old French, British and German consulate buildings.

Nezha paused long enough for me to get these shots of the Main Post Office, with its stunning blue and green mosaic tile facade — an example of “Mauresque” architecture, a blending of Moorish elements, European Art Deco and Art Nouveau, which gives Casablanca its distinctive architectural flavor. The style dates back to the French Protectorate period (1906 – 1930s).

We end our walking tour at Rick’s Cafe, inspired by the film Casablanca which was actually shot on a sound stage in the US.  You can find me in the lower left corner of this photo, wearing a headscarf and looking lost. All I can remember from the meal is the white tablecloth, and the Coca-Cola poured from half-sized green glass bottles, into tumblers filled with ice, each garnished with a wedge of lime.  My jet-lag sets in before we finish dinner. I do remember the piano player, and the walk through the thick crenelated wall of the medina, past a cannon and to our lodging at the Hotel Barcelo.

The next morning, breakfast is at the Terrasse Cafe Restaurant on the Corniche. It’s my first view of the Atlantic Ocean, and my introduction to tagine — Morocco’s national cooking style — this one with egg and kefte swimming in oil, which our driver, Mohammed, shared with me.

The sea is stormy-grey against a pale blue sky, and I can see a lighthouse in the distance.  Bagpipes below us add a humorous underlay to the morning’s conversation.

Today we visit to the Municipal Building – a miniature version of the Lion Courtyard from the Alhambra (which cracked me up after seeing the original in Granada). The building is crawling with police because the King is in residence, so I had to take care to aim my camera away from them, especially noting the heavily guarded door leading to some apparently very important place (center row, left).

As we are leaving, I take some exterior shots of the front door (lower left) and the back (center), as well as the interesting combination of banana tree and evergreens planted in the outer courtyard.

Afterwards, Doug and I spent an hour shopping at a nearby souk, where I begin building my Moroccan wardrobe. I come away with a nice (and expensive) striped caftan, and an embroidered cotton tunic with pants included. (Yay pants!)

A short drive out of the city brings us to the Hassan II Mosque.

The Hassan II Mosque is the largest in Morocco and the fifth largest in the world.  The prayer room has a glass floor that extends over the sea. The building has a retractable roof and can accommodate 25,000 worshippers.

We weren’t able to go inside, but I explored as much of the exterior as we had time for.  We also got to watch workmen doing restoration work on both a fountain and the mosaic work over one of the side doors.

Beyond the Hassan II plaza we walked past a madrasa – a university for Koranic study. I commented to Doug on the plantings between the Hassan II courtyard and the madrasa, which included palm, snake plant, and surprisingly, prickly pear. Doug said that prickly pear was brought here from Spain during the time of Columbus, and that it’s used throughout rural Morocco as organic fencing. 

We end up in a museum which had extensive examples of the craftwork that we would see up close and personal throughout this trip. The last shot was one I found most interesting, showing a detailed progression of carved plasterwork from top to bottom. It was especially interesting to learn the process, after seeing the finished fretwork on the exterior of the Hassan II Mosque.

Next stop – Rabat!

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