Casablanca – or my first disappointment in Morocco…
Our day started early, again, with breakfast in the hotel in Marrakesh, followed by gathering around the bus. We had a long trip ahead of us, so there was no time to waste.
The trip to Casablanca takes around three hours and on the way you can see some really interesting sites.
One of them is the Cactus Thiemann – the largest succulent farm in all Africa, with more than 150 varieties of cacti, all displayed in tidy rows against the otherwise empty landscape of the Moroccan desert.
The farm was started by and named for Hans Thiemann, who was 38 years old when he came to Morocco from Bremen, Germany. The agricultural engineer came from a family who’d cultivated succulents for generations, but he was tired of growing them in greenhouse conditions. Thiemann had visited the north African country in the 1950s to get some plants from the Jardin Majorelle, and in the ‘60s he came back for good.
Among the succulents he brought with him was a tiny elephant cactus. It’s now stands 26-feet tall.
Another is the city’s palm grove is now considered an up-market place to live and to stay in Marrakech. It is the centre of an important urban plan that includes mansions, hotels and golf clubs. For now, the Palm Grove still has a mystical atmosphere and the buildings blend in well with the landscape.
Moreover, the Palm Grove of the city is still a source of wealth for Marrakech. The palm trees are highly productive and are used for wood and dates. Moreover, these trees create a good ecosystem for the fruit trees and the plantations in the area.
Marrakech’s palmeraie has over 100,000 palm trees. These were planted during the Almoravid dynasty (eleventh and twelfth centuries) in 13,000 hectares.
After that beauty I spent the whole journey reading. Maybe many of you have heard about this book, but I discovered it through it’s movie adaptation – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and I fell in love with it immediately. I recommend it for traveling, the hours go by as minutes.
And three hours later we arrived in Casablanca – almost universally referred to as ‘Casa’, the cosmopolitan, industrial and economic heart of Morocco and its largest city, as well as perhaps one of the less obviously endearing cities in the country. With a small, unassuming medina and a busy ville nouvelle, travellers arriving via Casablanca may be tempted to find the first train out to nearby Rabat. The awe-inspiring Hassan II Mosque and happening nightlife, however, are worth at least a day of your Moroccan itinerary. And if you are the more adventurous, independent sort of traveller who wants to go beyond what is ‘pretty’, this is North African big city life in all its grit and glory, with its cultural diversity (there are immigrants here from many other parts of Africa), and its many neighbourhoods of vibrant day- and night-life.
The modern city of Casablanca was founded by Berber fishermen in the 10th Century BC and was subsequently used by the Phoenicians, Romans, and the Merenids as a strategic port called Anfa. The Portuguese destroyed it and rebuilt it under the name Casa Branca, only to abandon it after an earthquake in 1755. The Moroccan sultan rebuilt the city as Daru l-Badya and it was given its current name of Casablanca by Spanish traders who established trading bases there. The French occupied the city in 1907, establishing it as a protectorate in 1912 and starting construction of the ville nouvelle, however it gained independence with the rest of the country in 1956.
Casablanca is now Morocco’s largest city with a population of almost 4 million and also boasts the world’s largest artificial port but no ferry service of any kind . Casablanca is also the most liberal and progressive of Morocco’s cities. Young men flirt brazenly with scantily-clad women, designer labels are the norm in the chic, beachfront neighbourhood of ‘Ain Diab and many young Moroccans speak to each other exclusively in French.
First we moved through the prettiest neighborhoods in the city until we reached La Cornice – the promenade that runs along the coast of Casablanca. On sunny days it’s one of the most pleasant places in the city, though if it rains the sound of the Atlantic Ocean and the movement of the waves is also a good show. The promenade is usually a busy area from both tourists and residents, middle or upper class. There are many restaurants, clubs and even, a bit away from the Moroccan traditions, a very active nightlife. Alcohol is forbidden.
Here we had lunch in the fanciest McDonalds I’ve ever seen 🙂
The next stop was the city’s center where we finally saw some history. Place Mohammed V is home to the city’s most important buildings including Palace of Justice, Prefecture, French consulate and the Bank of Morocco. At the heart of the square lies a beautiful fountain inside a lovely garden. Designed by French Resident, General Lyautey, you’ll easily spot the neo-Moorish and French architectural influences in the buildings surrounding the square.
On the other side of the square is the Grand Theatre, but it was hugely renovated. From there we took a walk on the biggest boulevard in Casablanca, Hassan II, and saw a few landmarks.
United Nations Square – is one of the city’s main squares and a vibrant gathering hub from where to start exploring the city. In the surrounding areas you will find hotels, restaurants, shops and much more. The Casablanca Conference was held at the Anfa Hotel in this square from January 14 to 24, 1943, to plan the Allied European strategy for the next phase of World War II. In attendance were United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill. This conference gave the name to the square.
Hotel Excelsior was the favourite hotel of Edit Piaf, but now is just a memory of what it was. A lovely, beautiful building left to decay and fall apart.
Next we had just a glimpse of the Old Medina, because we were told that it is a very dangerous place and even the police doesn’t dare to enter at night. I have no idea if that’s true but didn’t want to try our luck either.
Here’s the Old Clock Tower, situated next to the United Nations Square, it is one of the most emblematic buildings in Casablanca. It was built in 1911, by order of the French Captain Dessigny, . It was initially situated next to the old city wall, which was a little later destroyed to give more access to the port, so the tower stood alone in the middle of the square. It was a symbol of the French colonial power for several decades and Dessigny’s aim was to convince the inhabitants of Casablanca of the need to get used to the pace of life in an industrial society. In 1948, they began to demolished it, because of its precarious state. 45 years later, in 1993, it was reconstructed by the Moroccan municipal authorities, who decided to reproduce the original design. It is 20 metres tall and has a clock on each side.
… And that’s it 🙂 The only other thing we saw in Casablanca was the Hassan II Mosque, despite my longing for more sites like the ones in the previous cities. There were just none … Everything is new and there’s no oriental charm in this city. After all I don’t regret our visit, but would’ve loved some souvenir shop as I was hoping to buy more gifts. There were none, at least on our route…
So, the mosque – The historical context of the mosque began with the death of King Mohammed V in 1961. King Hassan II had requested for the best of the country’s artisans to come forward and submit plans for a mausoleum to honour the departed king. In 1980, during his birthday celebrations, Hassan II had made his ambitions very clear for creating a single landmark monument in Casablanca.
The building was commissioned to be the most ambitious structure ever built in Morocco. It was designed by the French architect Michel Pinseau who had lived in Morocco. Work commenced on July 12, 1986, and was conducted over a seven-year period. Construction was scheduled to be completed in 1989 ready for Hassan II’s 60th birthday. During the most intense period of construction, 1400 men worked during the day and another 1100 during the night. 10,000 artists and craftsmen participated in building and beautifying the mosque. However, the building was not completed on schedule which delayed inauguration.
Construction costs, estimated to be about 585 million euro, were an issue of debate in Morocco, a lower mid-income country. While Hassan wished to build a mosque which would be second in size only to the mosque at Mecca, the government lacked funds for such a grand project. Much of the financing was by public subscription. Twelve million people donated to the cause, with a receipt and certificate given to every donor.
The building dimensions are 200 metres in length and 100 metres in width. All of the granite, plaster, marble, wood and other materials used in the construction, were extracted from around Morocco, with the exception of some Italian white granite columns and 56 glass chandeliers. Six thousand traditional Moroccan artisans worked for five years to create the abundant and beautiful mosaics, stone and marble floors and columns, sculpted plaster moldings, and carved and painted wood ceilings. The exterior surfaces of the mosque display titanium, bronze, and granite finishes. It is ornamented with pale blue marble and Zellige tilework. A particular feature in the mosque is that all structures are made of reinforced cement concrete and all decorations are of traditional Moroccan design. The mosque has capacity to accommodate 25,000 devotees for prayers in the main hall and another 80,000 in the plaza squares around it.
The prayer hall is on the ground floor. The central hall is centrally heated, and provides spectacular underwater views of the Atlantic Ocean. The decorations in the hall are elaborate and exquisite made possible by involving 6000 master artisans of Morocco working on it. It is so large that it can easily accommodate the house of the Notre Dame of Paris or St Peter’s of Rome
The prayer hall is built to a rectangular plan of 200 metres length and 100 metres width with three naves. The central hall is undulating with a succession of numerous domes from which glass chandeliers, imported from Murano, are hung. On either side of the hall, there are mezzanine floors with carved dark wood furnishings, which are reserved for women.
The roof is retractable, illuminating the hall with daytime sunlight and allowing worshipers to pray under the stars on clear nights. It weighs 1100 tons and can be opened in five minutes. The roof is covered with cast-aluminium tiles, stronger and more reliable than traditional ceramic tiles, and about 35 percent lighter.
At 210 metres in height the minaret is the tallest religious structure in the world. It has a laser beam fitted at the top, which is electronically operated in the evening. It is oriented towards Mecca, across the sea and has a range of 30 kilometres . Green tiles decorate the minaret for one third of the height from the top, and then changes colour to deep green or turquoise blue; it is said that in the Hassan II minaret, the designer had used his sea-foam green and God’s blue to celebrate the life of a king. The concrete used for the minaret was a special high-grade type, which could perform well under severe conditions of a combined action of strong wind and seismicity.
This is the Wudu wash room of Hassan II Grand Mosque. The ritual of washing is performed before formal prayer and is spectacular.
And a glimpse of the ordinary washing room, not so spectacular 🙂
Structural deterioration in the concrete wall was observed ten years after the mosque’s completion. This was explained as being due to exposure to the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean, into which nearly half of the mosque’s foundation projects. Effective restoration works were instituted in April 2005.
After this beauty we received a message from our guide, saying that next we are going to the biggest mall in Africa. This was received with great joy from the rest of the group and a huuuge eye-roll from me. I’m not a shop lover and couldn’t even think of a thing that what we would do there. We had an hour and half, so we had to think of something.
The mall was advertised as something enormous, never seen before and quite extraordinary. In fact it was just like every other in the world. Yes, they had an aquarium, but still.
As it turned out we were quite lucky, because the mall was situated on the ocean’s shore and we spent out time on the beach, collecting shells and just enjoying the sound and the sight of the waves.
This was our last stop at Casablanca and the only thing left was to check in at another hotel, which was just perfect. I had never been in so beautiful and modern hotel. It was newly renovated and quite luxurious, the name is ONOMO Hotel. The food was also really tasty.
After check-in we had an early dinner and just went to bed. I was tired and quite grumpy of the lack of souvenirs in the city 🙂
Bye for now and don’t forget to travel!