Sunday, December 9, 2012: Casablanca
It was an early morning as we docked alongside the pier in Casablanca, Morocco. As we had a number of long distance shore excursions available today, we were on schedule to be in port from 7am until 8pm, allowing passengers the chance to see and experience Casablanca and Rabat or Marrakech. As this was our first visit to Casablanca (our previous visit was cancelled in 2007), we selected the ship’s shore excursion to spend 11 hours (8am – 7pm) completing two half day tours of both Casablanca and Rabat, the country’s capital city.
As we met in the Cabaret Lounge on Deck 5 Forward to get our tour stickers and meet up with our tour group, we were happy to see that we had only a partially full coach for our day. As we boarded the bus just after 7:45am, we were 28 booked on this particular tour and had several rows open on the clean, spacious, and well-maintained Volvo super coach. Natalie and I grabbed a double wide window just behind the bus’s second entrance/exit door at mid length and had good views for the day’s sights.
As we rolled out of the port, we were introduced to our tour team for the day. We had a driver, a driver’s assistant, a tour guide for Casablanca, and a tour guide for Rabat. Hamid would be leading our tour for the first half of the day, and Aziz would be our guide for the remainder of the afternoon. As we rolled into the city, it was clear that although Casablanca continues to build and define itself as a major gateway city in North Africa, it is still struggling with the challenges of the “haves” and the “have nots” with large portions of the city with unfinished buildings, cramped and poorly constructed shanty homes (complete with requisite satellite dish, regardless of income level). While just a few minutes away, there is the “high rent district.” This area is filled with palatial estates, complete with driver, gardener, maid, cook, and private security.
Our first stop for the day was at the King’s palace in Casablanca. As we exited our coach, the group began to walk towards the palace entrance, where no less than two dozen military police were on patrol. As we got closer, we were quickly and politely informed that as the King was in residence and that we would not be able to enter the grounds. No concern our guides said — the king has a number of palaces and if he is in Casablanca today, we can visit the palace later this afternoon in Rabat, on the second half of our tour.
As we left the palace, we were already on foot, and continued into the Habbous Quarter, an area near the palace and an opportunity for us to visit a local Olive Market and see a few mosques along the way. As we arrived at the Olive Market, we were greeted with no less than two dozen different types of olives, along with a variety of spices and vegetable blends for purchase. Most were less than $1 a pound and one of our guides purchased a bag to share with us on the tour.
From here, we continued through a small market area (but only one or two shops were open due to it being a Sunday), so we enjoyed the quiet of the quarter and took in the sights and viewed the architecture of Morocco’s commercial center. We boarded our bus and drove for about 15 minutes before we arrived at the Mohammed V Square in downtown Casablanca. Here, a huge square covered in Moroccan flags (there are everywhere — on buildings, at intersections, every kilometer along the highway) framed four major buildings and a large fountain that was swarming with pigeons. After a short stop here to take pictures, we continued to one of the highlights of our day, the Hassan II Mosque, a massive 25,000 person capacity building, located on the waterfront of the city.
With a capacity of 25,000 inside of the building and supporting another 85,000 people for prayers and services outside on the esplanade, this $1 billion dollar facility was completed in the early 1990s. Constructed of entirely Moroccan materials, it includes heated marble floors and massive pillars, intricate cedar retractable roof and ceiling panels, and a 689 foot minaret, the tallest in the world. On certain evenings, the minaret has a bright green laser beam that points in the direction of Mecca for prayers. It is so bright; it can be seen for more than 20 miles in every direction.
Our group grabbed plenty of pictures and moved towards one of dozens of entrances to accommodate the large crowds that regularly attend prayers at the location. At the time of our arrival, the facility was quiet and we were able to enter a nearly empty site. After removing our shoes, we entered one of only 3 mosques in the world that can be viewed by Western visitors. The sheer size of the mosque was mind-blowing. It was easy to accommodate a regulation NFL football field within the building, and there was available seating on two levels (the main level for men and the second level for women). The artistic detail throughout the mosque was everywhere, from the carved patterns and mosaics on the floors and walls, the lavish marble pillars that shoot straight towards the sky, and the massive chandeliers, it was clearly a place of reverence, beauty, and opulence.
After we enjoyed a tour of the main level, we were led to the lower level of the facility, where “Ablution” or the washing takes place in the Hamams. Prior to attending prayers at the mosque, there is a structured way to complete the washing, with all key areas (hands, arms, faces, heads, etc.) being washed 3 times from one of dozens of marble fountains in the shape of blooming flowers. Once complete, attendees then make their way to their respective level of the facility to begin their prayers and listen to the Imam share from the Koran.
The Mosque visit was truly amazing and one that we were so thankful to have been able to see. We spent almost an hour and a half here and returned to the bus as more and more tour groups from another cruise ship began to arrive. Our guides did a great job structuring the day to minimize traffic and competing against the large groups for pictures as we visiting many of the stops along our trip.
From here, we continued along the waterfront enjoying a number of beach and sports complexes for the Casablanca population. The beaches themselves are not exceptionally good due to rough surf and limited beach facilities, so many of the “beach clubs” are actually built up facilities along the shorelines with artificial pools, huge wooden decks, and deck chairs for sunbathing and playing in the water. Opposite these beach clubs there were a large number of people playing soccer in the parks and fields that dot the neighborhoods all over the country. We traveled through several affluent neighborhoods along the way and saw the tremendous divide between the “haves” and the “have nots” as we viewed sprawling estates, with swimming pools, gardens filled with fruit trees, and many “luxury” cars parked along the paved entrance roads behind tall iron gates and stone walls.
As we left this area, we began to reach the main shopping area of the “new city” with its rows of restaurants and department stores. This is no medina or souk — this is contemporary and mainstream Morocco, and as we arrived at our lunch stop, Basmane restaurant, we were presented with the restaurant’s “Top 10 places to eat” award from a local travel magazine, along with their Facebook address. This morning’s half-day tour was definitely about “New Morocco.”
The restaurant was quite striking, its interior looking much like that of the mosque, covered in beautiful mosaic and beautifully carved shapes and patterns on the walls and ceilings. As we sit at tables for 8 in a side dining room, Hamid came in and walked all of us through our meal selections for the day. To begin, a family style Moroccan salad was provided with a multitude of small plates covered in eggplant, carrots, pumpkin, cucumber, seasoned potatoes, beets, and tomatoes — all of which were expertly seasoned and spiced with Moroccan flavors of honey, saffron, and “magic spice.” We each built an appetizer plate and enjoyed huge quantities of this salad along with crusty French baguettes. Next, huge platters of couscous and roasted vegetables, including pumpkin, red bell pepper, carrot, and seasoned with lemon broth were presented to build a base for the succulent main course of Chicken Tagine with Olives and Lemon to place on top. In addition to all of this food, we were provided with Moroccan wine (surprisingly tasty) and bottled mineral water. Another massive platter of fresh fruit was placed on the table, loaded with oranges, tangerines, and bananas, as almond cookies and freshly brewed and steaming Moroccan mint tea closed out the massive feast. We enjoyed the company of our table mates and we savored the amazing food and the wonderful tastes and flavors, so unique to this part of the world.
Nicely stuffed and more than satisfied, we left the restaurant and headed to our final stop for the first half of our day at the Artisan Exposition, a market for local handicrafts unique to Morocco. In the “modern” Morocco, prices are marked and although very limited negotiation on price is permitted (for quantity purchases, etc.) most of the haggling is now confined to the souks in the medinas and outside the major cities. We viewed a beautiful variety of metalwork, rugs, leatherwork, teas, pottery, and picked up some of the Moroccan “Magic Spice”, a mixture of 35 different spices, but an instant aroma reminder of our visit. A good sized jar was available here for 50 dirhams or 5 Euros. We picked it up and returned to the bus about 25 minutes later as the tour mates seemed to be satisfied with the available choices and offerings, most with a number of bags in tow.
It was now time to say goodbye to Hamid and turn the tour over to Aziz, his colleague, for the second half of the day. We bid him farewell (he did a fantastic job) and Aziz announced that it was time for siesta as we had a 90 minute drive to Rabat, the capital city and “historic center” of Morocco. We all got comfortable on the coach as we worked our way to the highway and found the entire drive covered with two very regular and frequent sights. First — Huge Moroccan flags were posted at each kilometer marker along the highway between the two cities, and at every entry, exit, and overpass along the route, there were police. To say that we felt safe and secure was an understatement. (We had no concerns at any time during our visit — we felt exceptionally comfortable and with no concerns about walking around, saying hello to locals, watching children play sports, etc. We actually found out that the police presence was due to the fact that the King would be travelling in his motorcade along the highway later in the day… It is normally not that loaded with patrols, but more on that later!)
Darin most definitely nodded off at least a few times along the drive as the food coma from lunch mixed with streaming sunshine into the coach that made everything warm and comfortable. Before we knew it though, we had arrived to the capital city of Rabat, where we would enjoy four stops.
The first was the Rabat palace of the King that we were told would be accessible to us since he was in Casablanca earlier in the day. Well, luck would have it that all of the police along the highway were waiting for him to return back to Rabat from Casablanca and, in fact, there would be no visitors to the palace in EITHER city today. It was something of a minor disappointment, but clearly, the King didn’t need hundreds of tourists running all over his house. Instead, we made a stop at the Friday Prayer Mosque near the palace, a regular stop for the King when he is in residence, as he shares this experience with the local people on a weekly basis.
From here, we continued to a local archaeological site, where ruins have been unearthed and are in the process of being preserved from a 13th century Medina, along with some homes, a mosque, and a Minaret. Today, the minaret is the home of a few local storks as the site continued to be restored for visitors. We continued from here to the Mohammed V Mausoleum, the former king’s final resting place, and also the home of “The Unfinished Mosque”. Another large mosque has been planned and started at this location, but was only just begun before work stopped. Although a partial minaret and the base of columns have been placed, it was never finished. Many Moroccans were at this site at the time of our visit as they were paying their respects to their former leader, a regular occurrence, even though he has been gone for 25 years.
Inside the mausoleum, a beautiful marble casket was sent against an entire room of black marble and gold trim, flanked by no less than a dozen Moroccan flags. In a corner of the room was a rug, and a copy of the Koran, regularly read from during prayers. We shared the space with hundreds of local people and their families as they visited, took pictures, and viewed.
From here, we headed to our final stop of the day, the Old Medina in Rabat and spent a few minutes in the bustling square. Many families were enjoying a Sunday afternoon here, sampling local Moroccan sweets and pastries, while little kids begged their parents to splurge on a puffy, pink cotton candy, which seemed so out of place here. Local women were trying to entice the foreign tourists to try some Henna hand tattoos for a Euro and we enjoyed the smell of freshly brewed mint tea as we viewed the sun as it began to set along the river.
It was time to begin the 90 minute ride home to Casablanca, so we re-boarded our bus and enjoyed a leftover tangerine from the lunch restaurant as we slowly made our way back to the port. As we arrived into Casablanca, we took a short 2 minute detour to see “Rick’s Cafe” a “New Morocco” restaurant that just celebrated its 8th anniversary. It was a telling sign that Morocco seems to be in a state of transition, from its old ways of medinas and souks to the new age of commerce, technology, and barcodes. It was a privilege to visit here and we look forward to returning again soon, in the hope that a little bit of its exotic North African culture has not completely faded away with the passing of time.