Friday, December 22, 2017

Casablanca, Morocco: Most Underrated City in the World

I wasn't expecting much when I arrived in Casablanca, Morocco. The Bogart-Bergman movie was not filmed here--it took place almost entirely in a Hollywood movie studio. Even so, several enterprising businesses have not disavowed the link, and a Rick's Cafe replica exists. 

When I arrived, I realized I had stepped into the equivalent of Morocco's NYC. Although Rabat is the official capital, most of Morocco's economic activity occurs in Casablanca, its largest city. Pollution is not noticeable, but grime is. Here are two photos, unfiltered, of the exact same area. 
Beautiful place, beautiful weather.

For whatever reason, no one has cleaned up Casablanca, so fewer tourists choose it over Marrakech, Chefchaouen, and Fes--a big mistake. Casablanca has medinas, beautiful architecture, attractive costs, and arguably the grandest mosque in the world. While London and Vancouver suffer rain or snow, the weather is almost perfect in December. 
Hassan II Mosque.
In addition, just one hour away by train is Rabat, which houses the Tomb/Mausoleum of Mohammad V, another stunning attraction. Cost of the train ride? About 4 USD--the same from the airport to the city center. (I stayed at ibis Casa Voyageurs next to the train station, avoiding the need for taxis.) 
Outside the Tomb.

Although Rabat has its own large mosque (Assounna) and a surprisingly good museum of modern art, nothing can compare to its tomb. You need only one day in Rabat, but it will be one of your most worthwhile experiences. 

You will want to spend three to five nights in Casablanca. With its fairly new Alstom-built tram, getting around the city is convenient, though the ticket machines could use an upgrade. (Choose the English option on the home screen and buy two trips, which should generate a renewable card.) 

A typical itineary will include seafood at the Central Market (tram stop: Marche Central); 

the modern Seddiq mosque in the business district; the Habous district, which contains incredible Andalusian-style architecture and the beautiful Muhammadi Mosque or al-Mohammadi Mosque; and of course the Hassan II Mosque. (Don't forget to wear respectful clothing, as you would if you were visiting the Vatican.) 
Cafes are everywhere, so you can try tagine with beef or lamb and the famous Moroccan mint tea. The avocado shakes were an unexpected bonus. [Update: don't miss "kika," or Moroccan almond cake.] 
Avocado shake with mint tea. Inside the teapot are mint leaves.

I enjoyed pastries at Patisserie Serraj, an institution since 1954, and sugarcane from street vendors (about 50 cents). If you see an outdoor market, you can buy meat or liver from a butcher and take it to BBQ at a nearby stall. 
Cost: 60 dinars or about 6.40 USD

Not one person overcharged me, and everywhere I went, I saw an old elegance, the kind you expect to exist only in movies. 
Morocco is famous for its tiles. Visit the museum inside the Hassan II complex.
Perhaps Casablanca wasn't filmed in Morocco, but I don't mind--no movie could ever capture its variegated beauty. Come before everyone else discovers this gem. 

Bonus: I took the train to Fes (about three and a half hours from Casablanca). I didn’t like Fes except for a cute crafts bazaar (Poterie de Fes) located outside the walled medina. 
On the way back to Casablanca, I stopped at Meknes, which has the best vibe of all the Moroccan cities I’ve seen. Meknes is where the youth are, and it might be the most open-minded city in Morocco. Perhaps that’s one measure of a society’s success: the more the adults let the youth roam free, the more the circle of life can continue. Why? Because all kids stretch the boundaries of authority as much as possible to see if the social fabric foisted upon them is stable. If the adults are fair and confident rulers, the rules they’ve made—both formal and informal—will bend but not break. This generational testing, this stretching, is what we call progress—if we’re lucky. #Youth #DontTrustAnyoneOver30

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