Casablanca as a First Stop in Morocco
Most travelers to Morocco, leaving from the United States, land in Casablanca or the White City. The name Casablanca rolls off the tongue and entices travelers with romance and intrigue, but the African city lacks tourist attractions. The former French colonial port, fronting the Atlantic Ocean, matured into the country’s most modern and western-like city. Today, skyscrapers and a large business district fill the once-exotic marketplace. So, what do you do in Casablanca?
In my opinion, three sites bring cherished memories and top the list of what to see and do in Casablanca:
My flight landed at Casablanca Mohammed V International Airport, or CMN, built in 1943. (FYI: I’d say the airport hasn’t changed much since that era.) A drive of about 20 minutes gets you downtown, where I did what the typical tourist does. I exchanged money, grabbed a meal, checked into my hotel, and took a shower and a short nap.
Later, I insisted on dining at the legendary Rick’s Café (from the classic movie “Casablanca” with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.) Not to ruin your dreams, but the movie was not filmed in Morocco. Instead, a 1930s grand Moroccan mansion with a central courtyard (riad) recreates the site. The entire building underwent a total make-over and opened on March 1, 2004. Fans of the film adore the illusion.
I walked along the busy port side street from my hotel in the Old City to reach Rick’s, passing residents returning from work or headed to the subway station. Turning a corner toward the Ancient Medina, I found the restaurant’s street-front entrance — a white stucco, multi-storied building framed by heavy wooden doors.
Once inside and through the fringed curtains, the atmosphere bursts with cinematic details: curved archways, balconies, potted palms, and hanging lanterns pierced to let the light create shadows. The main floor, tiled in black and white, features an authentic 1930s Pleyel piano, and yes, the pianist accepts frequent requests for “As Time Goes By”.
My small group climbed to the second floor and sat at a table near the edge of the balcony. While Islam prohibits alcohol, considered “haram,” or sinful, guest drink orders are welcome. And it’s no surprise that the establishment features outstanding cocktails.
I began with a Gin Rickey in honor of the original gin joint. The bartender combines freshly squeezed lime juice, carbonated water, and gin, similar to a gin and tonic. Others chose the house cocktail, the Sour Jdid, a mixture of a whiskey sour with red vermouth, mashed lemons, and a splash of sparkling water. I loved the colorful glasses on the waiter’s tray but felt a bit uneasy about the costume-like uniform he wore.
My meal began with a salad of goat cheese and figs, arugula, and a topping of balsamic vinegar. The taste was truly delicious. Entrée choices ranged from a variety of fish selections to several beef cuts and duck. Duck confit with grainy mustard, mashed potatoes, and green beans became my choice. I couldn’t resist the chocolate lava cake with orange sorbet for dessert.
My group listened to the piano tunes while getting to know each other and enjoyed the upscale mood. However, we called it an early night as we had all arrived on red-eye flights. I’m so glad I splurged on a meal at Rick’s Café, a perfect start for an adventure in Morocco. I would eat traditional Moroccan food from here onward, but I fulfilled my Casablanca film connection.
Strolling the Markets
I was awakened by the deep-voiced Arabic call to prayer early in the morning but soon fell back to sleep. After breakfast, my small group strolled through many markets in the Habous Quarter. The ancient architecture remains – an homage to the French influence of the country. The area gives you a feeling of walking through history.
I photographed vibrantly colored spices, beautiful fresh fruits and vegetables, glimmering copper and decorative metal items, and serving pieces. But I also was startled to see animal heads among the butchered meat. I didn’t tarry in that section of the market. I adored the traditional fountains, Moorish designs, and old towers scattered among the souks. I also appreciated the shop owners not badgering folks to buy their wares. You get plenty of that in Fes and Marrakech.
Hassan II Mosque
The last of the sites to see in Casablanca stands as the immense Hassan II Mosque, the largest and most ornate in the country and the only one open to non-Muslims. The minaret soars to 656 feet and sends out a laser beam of light toward Mecca. A glass floor hovers over the Atlantic Ocean, and the central ceiling slides open. A maximum of 105,000 worshippers can gather together for prayer: 25,000 inside the mosque hall and another 80,000 on the mosque’s outside ground.
A steady rain was falling when we arrived at the mosque, so I didn’t get to enjoy the fountains and grounds as I would have liked. However, the interior made up for that disappointment and more. Crystal chandeliers and massive marble columns the size of giant redwood tree trunks line the central prayer hall. The sliding roof remained closed due to the rain. Intricately carved details in the stucco bounce the light creating eye-catching interest.
Knowledgeable guides lead group tours explaining the areas and shrines within the magnificent structure and answering questions about the practices of the religion. I especially liked the calm surroundings in the ablution area, where Muslims wash their hands, forearms, faces, and feet before they pray. This purification ritual precedes all prayers. Don’t miss the opportunity to go inside an incredible architectural wonder.
One day is enough to see the highlights of Casablanca, but they are well worth a visit. I’d return to Casablanca (play it again, Sam) for my flight at the end of my two-week trip.