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We'll always have... Casablanca

Anyone who has seen Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s forbidden love story has surely conjured an image of the city of Casablanca. Black and white misty shots had certainly created a picture in my mind but, after looking the film up a couple of years ago, I discovered it had been filmed in Burbank, California. Not one shot was filmed in Morocco! Well this fact sparked my curiosity for what this city is really like.

The largest city in Morocco with a port on the Atlantic Ocean are fairly well known facts, but what else does this city hold? This is such an important question when planning travel, as it really does drive the question of how long you need to stay in a place to do it justice. I already knew that I wanted to be based in Marrakech for my adventures and with only 4 nights in Morocco, could I also include a visit to Casablanca? Well the brief answer is ‘Yes’- it is incredibly easy to fit it into, with the caveat that it is a long day.

The Moroccan train system is excellent. The trains are spacious, comfortable and clean, and from my experience, run efficiently and on time. The stations in both cities were modern and well-lit with excellent amenities available throughout the day. Following a little research, I found that most people recommended travelling first class. The price difference was a few Dirham more (120 Dir compared to 87 Dir) but the additional comfort makes it worthwhile. I followed this advice and would absolutely agree, all carriages are divided in to compartments and in first class there are six comfortable, large seats in each. When walking past the second class compartments, the setup is identical, just with basic, firmer seats. As the journey between Marrakech and Casablanca is 2 hours 38 mins, it is worth treating yourself to that extra bit of comfort.

I mentioned that it was a long day… well it started with catching the 05:50 service. This is the perfect time for a nap, ahead of the train pulling in to Casablanca Voyageurs at 08:28. After 2 days in The Red City, I emerged to a quite a familiar sight; there were many white buildings in Casablanca but the look and feel of the city is very familiar to most cities in the world; blocks of flats, office buildings and shops all lining the city roads; Trams run down one lane of the road and cycle lanes and pedestrian crossings are frequent sights. Now don’t get me wrong, it does have a Moroccan touch, but the city it is very much the central business district that you see all around the world.

After a breakfast stop in the station eateries, it was a 1.6 mile walk across the city to the Hassan II Mosque. This is the second largest Mosque in the world (the largest is in Mecca) covering an area of 2 hectares. The minaret is the tallest in the world at 210m. To put the size of this in to perspective, there is room for 25,000 worshippers inside the mosque and 80,000 worshippers outside in the grounds. I had seen a few pictures of it before travelling and it looked impressive. After viewing it in person, I can simply describe it as stunning. It is genuinely one of the most remarkable, striking and lavish buildings that I have ever seen. The marble is gorgeous, the carvings are intricate and doors are majestic. There is a tour available and we booked on to the 11:00 when we arrived (shoulders and knees need to be covered and you are asked to remove your shoes on entry). The tour is fascinating and allows you to see the prayer room, hall of the minaret and the ablution room. The transitions between these rooms is an equally important part of the tour with the staircases and hallways designed to the same exceptionally high standard as the rooms. The guides are very informative but they also allow for free time in the rooms to have a walk around and take as many photos as you wish. It was a very relaxed tour that took about an hour. I described the Mosque as stunning and the tour guide gave an insight in to the cost of this. King Hassan II envisaged the phenomenal structure in the 1980s and in 1986 the construction began. To build this masterpiece, 1400 men worked during the day and 1100 men would work during the night… for 7 years. In addition to this, a further 10,000 craftsmen and artists across Morocco were working on the interiors. The ceiling in the prayer room is retractable but the decoration is hand painted and hand carved. The skill and effort that must have gone in to that creation alone is exceptional, yet that is replicated on every surface all over the site. One of the tour party asked about the cost of this, as you could see us all mentally calculating the price of 25,000 men over 24 hours a day for 7 years. The answer was that officially it cost €585 million, but that it is privately believed to have been nearly three times that cost. An incredible price, but you can absolutely see where the money has been spent and every inch of the site from the floor to the ceilings, the walls to the fittings is exquisite.

“Of All the Gin Joints in All the Towns in All the World…” After finishing the tour and walking the site for photo opportunities, of which there are plenty, it was on to our lunch stop. Rick’s Café from the film may have been a production set in Burbank but a Rick’s Café in honour of the film has been opened just around the corner from Hassan II Mosque. Its popularity meant we had to book a couple of days in advance to secure a table, and arriving at our 13:00 reservation found the ‘Joint’ pleasingly full. Walking in to the restaurant is like walking in to the film. The décor is elegant, the staff are attentive and the food is delicious. Morocco only permits the sale of alcohol in licenced hotels and bars so, as there was an opportunity to have a drink we sampled the cocktail menu. I can recommend the house Sour Jdid and their Martini, both were mixed to perfection. To enhance the feel of the restaurant, there is grand piano nestled close to the bar. There are performances in the evening but for the lunchtime audience it was just about the classic look. There is a small gift shop at the desk to take away a souvenir and you can keep the menus as a memento. Even if you have never seen the Warner Bros classic, this is a lovely quality restaurant.

So we exited out of Rick’s at just before 15:00 and walked around by the Port before heading back through the Old Medina. The walk back to the train station is approximately one hour if walking at pace, which we did earlier in the day, so we took this opportunity to take more time on the return to explore and take in some photo opportunities. We coincided with students’ finishing school so the area did get busy, but it was quite a different view of the city from the morning we spent at the Mosque. Dilapidated flats and weather-worn shop fronts line the Old Medina’s streets, creating a characterful place with street art and bustling stalls.

After working our way through the labyrinth of streets (we did circle around a few times unintentionally), the route back takes us past the Cathedrale du Sacre Coeuer. Dazzling white, the Cathedral is sadly no longer used and there is no access. There are however photo opportunities around the perimeter of the site and you still get to take in this beautiful building.

Arriving back at the train station, a little early for our 17:35 departure, we took time for some refreshments before heading back to Marrakech. The train at this time was much busier than our early morning journey. Arriving back at 20:14, it had been a busy and long day but it is definitely the best option to allow you to visit Casablanca.


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