Casablanca: Here’s Looking at You, Morocco

I finally come full circle and return to Casablanca a day before my flight out of Morocco. Many travelers say there’s nothing to see in Casablanca, probably owing to the city’s status as the economic capital: it prioritizes luring investors rather than tourists. But I figure it’s still worth exploring, so I set aside a whole afternoon to tour its city center.

I arrive from Marrakesh just after lunch, check in at my hotel at the outer limits of the city, and then ride a tram to Place Mohammed V, a popular spot in the Casablanca’s center. Today, a Friday afternoon, families and groups are flocked around the large fountain at the center of the square, which itself is ringed by some of the city’s most notable buildings.

Speaking of buildings, Casablanca’s city center features a number of colonial-era buildings, whose designs combine elements of Art Deco and Moorish styles. I stroll around the streets to take a look at some of these, such as the Cinema Rialto, which has been standing since 1929. The cinema was once closed but has been recently opened and now occasionally screens classics, including the movie, well, Casablanca.

The Hassan Il Mosque is Casablanca’s most recognizable landmark.
Place Mohammed V is a popular spot for families.
L’Eglise du Sacré Coeur combines elements of Art Deco, Moorish, and Neo-Gothic styles.
Palm trees line a pool in Arab League Park, one of the numerous parks in Casablanca.
Built in 1929, Cinema Rialto is one of the oldest cinemas in Morocco.

I finally emerge in United Nations Square, and from there, I head north to the city’s old medina. Here, the medina lacks the charm of the medinas of other Moroccan cities, and shops here sell things that are more of the practical sort and would appeal more to locals than to travelers (think rubber shoes and jeans instead of textiles with traditional designs). It’s also a bit scary walking here alone even despite the lack of faux guides and the crushing madness of the medinas of, say, Marrakesh and Fez. Still, walking here provides a glimpse of the “authentic” Casablanca life, away from the sanitized version of the more upscale neighborhoods.

With the help of Google Maps, I manage to navigate the tangled alleyways and eventually exit at the northeastern part, where I finally see Rick’s Cafe. The cafe was built in 2004 to recreate the one featured in Casablanca, that classic directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. The restaurant is currently closed until dinnertime, though, and even then, I need an advance reservation and dress up to get in. So I just take a picture of its facade and go on my way to the mall across the highway.

Here, I sit at a McDonald’s restaurant in a foodcourt to rest, eat, and charge my phone’s batteries while do some people-watching. The foodcourt is located by a large porch that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean, which makes for a fine way to pass the time.

Having refilled my stomach and my nearly empty phone battery, I resume my walking tour and make my way west to the Hassan Il Mosque. It’s one of the largest mosques in Africa, able to hold 105,000 worshippers at any given time. It’s also one of the most opulent, with most of the materials sourced around Morocco and some from Italy. The structure contains intricate mosaics, as well as stone and marble floors and columns, and around 6,000 workers were required to do work on all these.

As I wait for the sunset, I stay around the vicinity of the mosque to just soak up the atmosphere. Groups of young men play football while others stroll along the seaside promenade, watching the strong January waves pummel the promenade’s walls.

The modern design of the Casablanca Grand Theater stands out in an area dominated by colonial architecture.
Art Deco buildings surround the Place 16 du Novembre.
Casablanca’s medina lacks the medieval charm of its counterparts in Fez and Marrakesh, but it’s still worth a stroll to see its neighborhoods.
Life imitates art as Rick’s Cafe brings to life the popular restaurant in the movie Casablanca.
A marine aquarium is one of the features of Morocco Mall, the second-largest mall in Africa.

Afterwards, I hail a taxi to take me to Morocco Mall. I am curious to see Morocco’s largest mall and Africa’s second largest (I don’t know which is Africa’s largest). I can sense the frustration in the voice of the driver even if he speaks in a heavily accented English. “Traffic is bad,” he says. Unsurprising since it’s a Friday evening, and I guess Moroccans, like Filipinos, prefer to flock to malls, at this time. We do reach the place at half an hour — faster than when, say, it would take at the same time in Metro Manila.

Truth be told, the mall isn’t that special if you’ve spent a considerable time in Metro Manila, where malls rather than open public spaces are the norm. But there’s something special in spending time in a place where you feel connected with the average Moroccan, to experience the modern Morocco after all this time soaking up on their history. As I try to take in the remaining moments of this trip, I can’t help but paraphrase Bogart: here’s looking at you, Morocco.

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