Casablanca…When you hear that, I’ll bet it conjures up black and white images from the classic film. I’ll bet you think of its famous lines, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” and “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” I’ll bet you think of classic love stories and piano bars in the middle of the desert.
I’ll bet you think of Rick’s Cafe.
What you should think of instead is the intriguing and mesmerizing modern city that is Casablanca, Morocco.
Located on the northwestern coastline of this North African country, Casablanca is known (beyond the movie) for its Mosque Hassan II – the largest in all of Africa and one of the largest in the world.
Casablanca is also the largest and most cosmopolitan city in Morocco, serving as its financial and business center.
Mosque Hassan II can be seen from all around the city; the minaret looms above the skyline with its intricate decoration.
Of course, also along the skyline is the view of endless rooftops covered in satellite dishes.
To get to Casablanca, fly into Mohammed V Airport about 30 minutes outside of town. You can take a train from there to Casa-Voyageurs Station, and from the train station there are extensive bus routes or cabs available.
If you’re already traveling through Morocco, buses will bring you between cities and around them quite easily, or you can take a train to Casa-Voyageurs Station or to Casa Port Station, which is closer to downtown but receives far fewer trains.
A word of warning though:
Casa – as it is most commonly called – is not a city for the faint of heart. It is congested, rough in many parts, and can feel oppressive.
Vendors will be in your face and the pollution can be overwhelming.
Trying to queue up for a train ticket left us bewildered as the crowd simply pushed and shoved its way to the ticket counter – a tactic we also had to attempt lest we miss yet another train.
It was uncomfortable, yet there was some order in the chaos and I didn’t feel unsafe at all. Still, if this isn’t your style, try to arrange your train tickets in advance.
But there are still many positive points to visiting Casa (say Caza). The most obvious being the city’s now iconic mosque.
Situated along the Atlantic coastline with waves crashing into the break wall beside it, Mosque Hassan II is architecturally phenomenal.
Here are just a few highlights:
- Its minaret is the tallest religious structure in the world at 690 feet, towering over the city and intimidating those standing at its base.
- The roof over the massive prayer hall can fully retract to allow worshippers to pray under the open sky. Despite its weighing 1,100 tons, this process takes only a few minutes.
- The intricately decorative prayer hall was completed by 6,000 master artisans over a period of 7 years – work continued around the clock for the last few years to complete the structure.
- The maximum capacity in the prayer room is 25,000 worshippers, and an additional 80,000 people can fit on the grounds outdoors. That’s a total of 105,000 people able to pray together. The space is simply mind-blowing.
- And as if all that weren’t impressive enough, the minaret has a laser beam pointing toward Mecca during the night. A laser beam.
Mosque Hassan II simply – and understandably – astounds.
Casablanca’s mosque is available to tour by non-Muslims, which is a rare treat. Proper attire is required, so pants or long skirts are necessary, as are long sleeves, and ladies should consider covering their hair with scarves to be considerate.
Casa itself is actually quite modern with many young people shirking traditional conservative attire. However – as in any religious building worldwide – you should be considerate and respect their customary dress.
My personal favorite area of the mosque was the Turkish baths downstairs. The area is warm and welcoming, while maintaining its solemn purpose in such a religious monument.
I also loved the tile floor of the bath for its deceptive design – the middle of this pool is actually 6.5 feet deep, but looks to be a mere 3 inches.
Outside the mosque, people line up along the break wall to watch the waves crash and to admire the sunset, which – if you know me at all – you know I had to do as well.
We were given a tour courtesy of our hotel desk clerk, who offered to take us to the Mosque as well as around the more modern part of the city center.
There we opted out of shopping despite the many opportunities available to us (the Morocco Mall opened in 2011 and is the second largest mall in Africa).
After meandering through the city’s small medina (the traditional walled-in old city marketplace), and visiting the mosque and modern city center, we decided to venture farther afield to the nearby city of Rabat.
The train ride is just over an hour but only costs a few dollars each way. You’ll be rewarded with a complete contrast to Casa’a pollution and modern sprawl – Rabat has an old-world feel with a tropical flair.
Rabat is the capital of Morocco and its 7th largest city. Its medina is quiet and calm, though quite small. It is not too small as to go unnoticed by UNESCO, however, as the city’s successful integration of old and new prompted Rabat to be listed as a World Heritage Site.
The wide palm-lined boulevards and white-washed government buildings actually reminded me a bit of Washington, DC.
While neither Casablanca nor Rabat would be worthy of a week’s stay on their own, the cities combined over a long weekend served to be a perfect getaway for us.
From Europe, the flights were affordable, the costs for transport and accommodation were low, and we both left with many a small handmade craft to remember our visit.
My affinity for outdoor markets will likely bring me to Marrakech and Fez the next time I venture to Morocco, though another visit to Casa might show me just how quickly this city continues to change and grow.
Have you been to Morocco? What was your favorite place to visit?
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