The plan was to go to Portugal. My friend lives in Ethiopia and we were looking for a halfway point between Addis Ababa and Washington, DC. Portugal it was, and there will be blog posts about that trip.
When I looked at flights, however, the best fare was on Royal Air Maroc and we would have to change planes in Casablanca!
There was no way I was going to change planes in Morocco without seeing the place!
When you tell people you’re going to Casablanca you get one of two responses. The first is, “Holy shit! Is that really a place?? That’s amazing!!!” The other response is from people who have been to Morocco. They look at you with ennui and say, “There’s nothing to see there.”
True enough, much of the online literature supports that statement, but I have learned when to ignore these comments and this was one of those times. Are there better places in Morocco to visit? Sure. Marrakesh, Fez, Tangier, the Saharan Desert Bedouin experience, all arguably bigger and better. These locations, however, take a half-day or more to get there from Casablanca and another half-day or more to get back, and we could only add 2 days to our trip (remember, the ultimate destination is Portugal!)
“…the first time in my life, I saw the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean!”
So we settled on a day in Casablanca and a day in the capital city, Rabat, one hour north of Casa.
It did not disappoint, and we had a fabulous time! If you are flying on Royal Air Maroc, you can add a day or more to your itinerary without changing your fare. A day in Casablanca is a great way to adjust to the time difference, practice your French (or Arabic), eat fantastic food, and explore the ancient open-air markets known as the Medinas.
Rick’s Café – The reason people find the name exciting is because of the movie. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s film Casablanca lit up the screen over 75 years ago (1942). They made the name of this city immortal. The setting for the film is an American-style nightclub and gambling casino named Rick’s Café Americain.
In 2004, a former American diplomat, Kathy Kriger purchased an old mansion in the ancient medina and created the “gin joint” to live up to the film http://www.rickscafe.ma. I did not visit Rick’s. Honestly, I found the idea a little too touristy; but, I did walk to it hoping to find a souvenir for a friend. Alas, it was also closed for the holiday. I will say, it gets good reviews.
Hassan II Mosque – The Hassan II Mosque is the 2nd largest mosque in Africa. When the hotel employee told us this factoid we thought, OK, great! When we got up to our room looking out over the city, we were like, that’s a big freaking mosque!!! Built on a promontory jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, it dwarfs everything else in the city. The walls are hand-carved marble, and the retractable roof allows worshippers to pray in open air.
It can accommodate 25,000 people inside, and another 80,000 people on the grounds outside!
We walked to the mosque, but this being Eide al-Fitr—and we not being muslims–did not try to enter.
Medina Ancienne – The Medina is an open air market place. Here in the states, that often means a temporary farmers’ market of 10-20 stalls. In Morocco it is a small ancient city, a warren of alleys and shops. This part of the city could take up 3 days exploring. One can find everything here, food, clothing, dry goods, fresh cooked items. Normally, it is bustling and has the feel of an Indiana Jones movie. That was certainly what we found in Rabat. On this day, however, everyone was otherwise occupied. More on that in a minute.
My French, although rusty, is good enough to have a conversation. You can get by with English, but it doing so instantly makes you an outsider. Speaking French made us insiders. There are so many people roaming the medina and it is not a touristy experience. In fact, we got some puzzled looks. People were very warm and welcoming, but also looked like they wanted to ask if we were lost. In fact, we were not, we were right where we wanted to be!
When we visited the Medina in Rabat it was bustling and alive. In Casablanca, however, two big factors left the Medina largely shuttered and empty. One, it was a holiday, Eide al-Fitr, the last day of Ramadan. But even more visible to us, Morroco was playing Iran in the World Cup!
Everywhere we walked shops were closed and people were crowded into cafes and bars. They weren’t there to eat or drink mind you–it was still Ramadan for 6 more hours–but to watch the World Cup!
We would be walking down a street and hear a roar from a café. We’d think, oh boy, Morocco must have scored, but no, when we’d look in, the score was still 0-0. It’s a game Americans don’t seem to appreciate as much as the rest of the world does. I think a score of 0-0 after 80 minutes of play is one of the reasons.
Everywhere we went people were packing cafes and peeking in from outside.
We got back to our hotel in time to catch the last 30 minutes. In the posh international atmosphere of the Sofitel Casablanca, we also were able to enjoy a couple cold beers after walking around all day in the hot sun. I have to say, I really admire that muslims go an entire month without eating or even drinking water between sunrise and sunset.
The lobby was packed with World Cup fans and equipped with projectors and big screens. It’s very exciting to enjoy an event like that when national pride is on the line.
Moroccan Food and Wine – We were leaving early the next morning for Portugal, so rather than venture out on the town, we opted for a traditional Moroccan feast in the hotel. We enjoyed a really nice Moroccan rosé. Morocco has areas with the perfect climate–and French vines–for very good wines.
Dinner included a classic tagine of chicken, preserved lemons, green olives and a lot of garlic. I am in love with Moroccan cuisine. It is middle-eastern, Mediterranean, French and African all rolled into one.
I am also a sucker for any dish where the pot you cook it in, and the food you make in that pot have the same name. The tagine tops the list for me.
One thing I knew for sure, a tagine was going home with me! Stay tuned for that in future blog posts!
The end of the day also gave us an unforgettable sunset looking out over the Hassan II mosque, the ancient medina, and the Atlantic Ocean. It gave me one (ok, 30) of the finest pictures I’ve ever taken. For the first time in my life, I saw the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean!
I will cover Rabat in a future post, and to be fair, there was a lot more going on in Rabat. But for a quick tour, on a holiday, during a World Cup game, Casablanca did not disappoint! I will absolutely be back to Morocco to see more of this exciting country!