Forever immortalized in the Hollywood classic of the same name, Casablanca the largest city in Morocco seems to hold a romantic allure for many folk who have seen and loved the classic movie which stars Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Moreover the movie which won an Oscar in 1943, was shot in Florida not in Casablanca.
Unlike other popular destinations in Morocco such as Marrakech and Fez, Casablanca is actually a bustling metropolis. Located on the Atlantic Ocean, Casablanca is the largest city in Morocco. The Port of Casablanca is one of the largest artificial ports in the world and the city is the capital city of the greater Casablanca region.
It is the commercial and economic capital of Morocco and it is fortunate to be located in one of the most fertile regions in the country the Maroc Utile. Casablanca, with a population of four million people is a modern and liberal city with a pulsating nightlife culture.
Like other big cities of the world it has extreme wealth and poverty coexisting together in a city dominated by maddening traffic, art deco buildings, wide boulevards, bazaars and the beach front neighborhood of Ain Diab where trendily clad Moroccans bask in the sun.
Casablanca has much historical importance as well as it was the site of the Casablanca Conference in 1943 between Winston Churchill and Franklin. D. Roosevelt. The Conference was held to chalk out strategy during the Second World War.
Lately, however Casablanca has suffered the consequences of global terrorism and has seen suicide bomb attacks on its streets in 2003 and 2007. These attacks have killed many civilians and have resulted western countries issuing warnings to their citizens against traveling to Casablanca.
History and origin of the name Casablanca
The City of Casablanca was established by the Berbers as early as 7th century BC The Phoenicians, Romans and Merenids through the ages ruled Casablanca in turn. At this time it was known as the important trading port of Anfa. Subsequently the Portuguese captured and destroyed the city in 1468. They rebuilt it and renamed it Casa Branca which when translated means ‘white house’. An earthquake in 1755 caused the Portuguese to flee. Later a Moroccan Sultan Sidi Mohammed III rebuilt the city and rechristened it Dar El Beida which means ‘White House’ in Arabic. Spanish traders used to call the city ‘Casa Blanca’ in Spanish which has the same meaning as the Arabic name. During the 19th century the port of Casablanca grew in stature and importance until it was colonized by the French in 1907 and established as a protectorate in 1912. The French spent a lot of money making Casablanca the commercial capital of Morocco and building many of the magnificent art deco buildings which line the boulevards of the city.
Casablanca and the rest of Morocco gained independence from the French in 1957.The current head of state in Morocco is King Mohammed VI, an enlightened and liberal ruler who ascended to the throne in 1999.
The city is served by the Mohammed V International airport which is a hub for the national airline Royal Air Maroc. It is located 30 kms away from the city. Several international airlines fly into Casablanca from French and Spanish Airports and air links exist with North America, the Middle East and Africa. It is a modern airport with all amenities. The older airport called Casablanca Anfa closed in 2006. The airport is well connected by train, bus and road to the city center. Taxis are available outside the arrival hall. Shuttle buses operate from the airport to various destinations in Casablanca. A train service is available from the arrival hall to the city center and the port.
Casablanca has two major rail stations which are operated by the state owned rail ways ONCF. The station for long distance trains is called Casa-Voyageurs. Trains from here operate to Marrakech and other cities like Tangiers and Fez. The other station is called Casa Port and is used by the local trains which operate on the Casablanca –Kenitra route.
The Airport shuttle bus makes a stop at the Casa – Voyageurs so tourists can catch a train to the popular destinations of Marrakech and Fez which conform much more to a tourist’s romantic notion of Morocco rather than the modern, bustling city of Casablanca.
There exists several private bus operators in addition to the state run CTM coaches which provide intercity bus services. Some of these coaches travel to other European cities as well. The Bus station located in downtown Casablanca is called Gare Routiere
Two types of taxis ply on the roads of Casablanca the red ones are called Petits taxis which when translated from French means small taxis and are generally small cars like the Fiat Uno. These are metered taxis and operate all over the city. The second type of taxi is called Grands taxis and consists of older models of the Mercedes Benz car. These ply on pre defined routes and can also be used for inter city travel. These Grands taxis are usually a share a cab service and can be hired by the hour or the entire day. It is advisable to travel in a taxi in Casablanca while visiting nightspots in Casablanca as the city does have a high crime rate.
The official language spoken in Casablanca like the rest of Morocco is Arabic. Tamazight is a Berber dialect which is also spoken here and is second official language. French, Spanish and Castilian are other languages spoken in Casablanca as well.
The best months to visit are between June to September when the day time temperatures hover in the high 20C(low 80F).The rainy season is usually between November to April. Casablanca on the Atlantic coast enjoys a temperate climate.
Casablanca’s city center is dominated by grand boulevards and numerous well maintained art deco buildings which are usually white in color. Roads fan out from the center point of the city which is called the Place des Nations Unis. The Casablanca of Bogart and Bergman is best witnessed in the old city where small houses line the smaller streets.
Place Mohamed V, Central Casablanca
The Mohamed V Boulevard is where one can see the exponents of the Neo-Mauresque style developed by French architects in Casablanca in the 1920s and 1930s.
Hassan II mosque, Boulevard Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah
Designed by French Architect Michel Pinseau, the Hassan II mosque is a magnificent edifice which was erected on a rocky platform reclaimed from the sea. It was commissioned by King HassanII on the occasion of his 60th birthday. The Mosque was inaugurated on August 30th 1993. It can accommodate 25000 worshippers within its walls and an additional 80,000 in its grounds. The Mosque unlike other mosques is open to people of all religions. It is has a 175 meter (575 feet) tall minaret which rises like a beacon and illuminates a laser beam at night in the direction of Mecca. The call for prayer is also issued from the minaret. The prayer hall is elaborately decorated with mosaic tiles and carvings and three story high Venetian Crystal Chandeliers. The marble for the mosque came from Agadir and the granite from Tafraoute. It is a high tech mosque with a retractable roof, central heating and glass flooring. The mosque was built at a cost of $500 million dollars which was raised from the public in the form of donations. It is a symbol of national pride amongst most Moroccans save those who were evicted from the area without compensation to enable the construction of the mosque.
The old Jewish quarter of Morocco is the abode of the 6000-7000 Jews who reside in Casablanca . They have their own Jewish schools and a synagogue called Benarroch at the corner of Rue Rousseau which is the principal synagogue of the city. The district contains the largest Jewish population of North Africa.
Old Medina Central, Casablanca
This is the old Arab town which is encircled by a wall; it is a maze of narrow streets with shops selling spices and many other wonders.
The Parc de La Ligue Arabe
The Parc de la Ligue Arab is a thick wooded park which is the largest park in the city and is located at the edge of the Cathedral of Sacre Coeur. The Cathedral was built in the European style with Moroccan accents. It served as a school but now stands abandoned.
The Port, Central Casablanca
Casablanca has the largest and the busiest port in Morocco. It has many deep water quays and is the center of trade for most of North Africa. Cruise liners, Tankers, Container carriers all call at the port. A shopping center called Centre 2000 near the port is worth a visit too.
The beachfront at Ain Diab must be visited as well. A day pass is to be purchased to enter the beach. A number of nightclubs and bars line the ocean front corniche. There are public beaches as well which are frequented by locals and private beach clubs such as the Miami club where entrance has to be purchased. Clubs such as these are frequented by both foreigners and rich and less traditional Moroccans.
New Medina, South Casablanca
The new medina is located in the south of the city and can be accessed by a 10 minute taxi ride from the Place des Unis. It was built by the French as a solution to a housing crisis in the 1930s. It is clean and orderly and has shops selling souvenirs and fresh produce. The New Medina is also known as the ‘Quartier des Habous’ or District of Holy men.
The Marabout is a burial site on an island outside the city. The burial site consists of white domed tombs which are rumored to contain the remains of holy men. This a popular site visited by pilgrims who believe a pilgrimage to the tombs enables spiritual healing.
Borj Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah
The remains of the 18th century fortress are located at the end of the Old Medina. The fortress was built to repel attacks by the Portuguese.
The Grand Mosque
This beautiful mosque was built by Sultan Mohammed Ibn in the 19th century to commemorate the defeat of the Portuguese at Anfa.
Casablanca has a variety of Hotels to suit a budget. Luxury hotels like the Hyatt Regency at the Place des Unis (212-2)26-1234 are modern with contemporary amenities expected in a hotel such as this. There is also a Meridien at the Royal Mansour which is located on 27, Avenue de L’armee Royale, (212-2)31-30-12 . This charming hotel is built in the Moroccan style with Moroccan accents such as arches, pillars and mosaic tiles. More moderately priced hotels are the Excelsior (212-2) 20-02-63 near the Old Medina and the Hotel Bellerive (212-2)39-14-09 which is on the ocean front and is an exponent of the art deco architecture. Another popular hotel on the beach is the Hotel de la Corniche (212-2)36-10-11. Hotel Indou Anfa (212-2)22-00-35 is a moderately priced luxurious hotel on Boulevard d’Anfa with a panoramic roof top bar.
Restaurants and Nightlife
Moroccan cuisine is composed of slow cooked meats or lentils stews called tagines. Couscous rice like accompaniment is also typical of Moroccan cuisine. The meal is often topped with flaky pastry made with almonds and pistachios and sprinkled sugar called Pastilles. Excellent Moroccan cuisine can be sampled at restaurants like Al Mounia on Rue du Prince Moulay- Abdallah, Ryad Zitoun at Blvd Rachidi and Imilchil on Rue Vizir Tazi. A good restaurant for fresh seafood is Taverne du Dauphin on Blvd Houphouet –Boigny. Au Petit Poucet is a restaurant which was frequented by aviator and writer Antoine de St-Exupery. It is adorned with his sketches and is on 86, Blvd Mohammed V.
The nightlife is concentrated in the bars and clubs that line the oceanfront and are frequent by the European Jet set as well as wealthy locals. These are expensive and here the partying goes on until the wee hours of the morning. Some of these Bars and clubs are The Fandango, La Cafconce, Le Balcon 33, Le Tube and L’Armstrong.
To cater to cinephiles and to recreate the mythical Ricks Café of the movie ‘Casablanca’ an American woman Kathy Kriger has opened a Ricks café with all the ambience of the café as depicted in the movie in a stately old Moroccan home at the edge of the old Medina . Rick’s is located at Blvd Sour Jdid.