Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Part III: Casablanca, Morocco

December 25, 2006

Up at 4am again for the early morning flight. I was up late packing and was kept awake by the apparent bombing campaign in downtown Dakar. The drive through the suburbs to get to the airport in Yof was interesting, as there was little to distinguish what I saw from another urban centre. The Dakar airport was a bit rough around the edges, but modern. There were only a few dozen of us on the early morning flight so we had the run of the plane. I stretched out comfortably in an emergency exit seat and alternated nodding off with finishing “A Christmas Carol”. It was a familiar, pleasant story. Some of Scrooge’s ass-ish lines and a few instances in the narrative for me reveal a wit in a young Dickens. Not sure if this was in fact the case, or whether he was just bitter. In any case, the Dakar airport and the flight were both very low key, like it was a special Christmas flight just for us.

Flying into Casablanca I noticed a lot of farmland. The arrivals lobby was gorgeous, the nicest I can recall. I took a train to the downtown. My first impression of the outskirts as we went through: Dakar without the negative elements. Very much looked the same but it very much felt like going through agrarian Europe, and the buildings when we reached them looked like Dakar.

On the train, I met an American man who was on the last leg of his 3-week round the world trek. I’m not sure how I feel about a rapid-fire plane jaunt all over the place. On the other hand, a couple of days is often enough to get the feel of a place. We discussed how many North Americans have little conception of the reality of the rest of the world outside of our borders.

I walked from the train station to my hotel. My first impressions on downtown Casa: it was a big, European city centre. The Hotel de Paris was in a great central location, with a very pretty interior and lovely rooms: decorated arched wooden doors, rugs, chair and table.

I walked around most of the day. It was much like going around Dublin, although the streets were a bit confusing at times. I had good ice cream from one of the various parlours for which Casa is known. I went to de Fleurs restaurant for supper, and had my first experience with Moroccan tajine, which was really just some beef, potatoes and veggies broiled in a clay pot. I also tried the local Casablanca beer. It was alright, an unoffensive lager like Flag and Julbrew.

I took a quick stroll through the medina: it was really just old dilapidated buildings, although it was more pleasant than the Dakar and Banjul markets: there were stone roads rather than dirt, less pushy salespeople, less insanity, nicer stuff. These markets are still not my thing, though.

Casa was very much a café-style city: everywhere there are people walking the streets, sitting indoors or outside drinking coffee, all day and into the evening. I had a more pleasant nighttime walk than in Dakar, where everything shuts down and you want to take a taxi wherever you go. Here, there was lots of traffic on the streets. It felt like West Edmonton Mall’s French recreation.

Getting off the plane earlier that morning at the Casablanca airport, I was hit with a welcome chill. It was not a cool, summer breeziness like in Gambia, but a light, biting mild winter child, which I’ve missed. I think the pilot announced that it was 8 degrees.

Casablanca citizens seem like a pleasant, stylish group. Casa is far more pleasant than Dakar, with none of Dakar’s madness and where I felt pretty much comfortable walking around.

There was no real feel of the movie, aside from vast amounts of architecture which evoke a French past. It was a combination of low-key (compared to the British) imperial French cool and stateliness combined with Moroccan grace and beauty.

December 26, 2006

I slept under warm blankets last night. It was a bit chilly, but the room was nicely heated.

This morning I went to the Mosquee Hasaan II. It was the most impressive man-made structure I’ve had the opportunity of ever seeing: huge, beautiful, intricate, rich, grandiose, awe-inspiring. The walk to get there took me along the port area and along the old Medina walls.

After the Mosque I went to the central market to buy fruit. It is hard to live cheaply and healthily when you’re traveling around.

I did a walking tour in the afternoon to see the architecture: from Place Mohammed V (a nice park, surrounded with the art-deco style official buildings), down Boulevard Moulay Youssef (which runs through an amazing deciduous and palm-lined park), past the Cathedrale du Sacre Coeur (abandoned art-deco), up to Place Oued el Makhazine, then casually back.

My thoughts on Casa: it doesn’t feel like Africa (which I’ve realized doesn’t mean much, since African countries are all different), the architecture and palm trees and parks feel like a cross between Los Angeles and Paris, with Arab inhabitants. I thought about visiting the Churchill Club (the British Bank Club), but decided against it: it was too far, and expat living is only fun if you know other expats. I popped into the Bar Casablanca at the Hyatt: a very swank hotel so I didn’t stay long. At night, the outside of the hotel was lit like a Vegas hotel. I’m not a big fan of artificial attempts to capture the movie. It is better to go out and experience Casablanca as it really is. Rick’s Café Americain was more than just about being swank, it was about a gathering place for expats (like Churchill’s in the Gambia).

I spent the evening relaxing at a couple of cafes, which is fun both when it’s warm in the day and when it’s bustling and cooler at night. I discovered that espresso with some sugar is rather tasty. It is more substantial than café au lait, and tastes like weak Ethiopian coffee, and warms you up nicely on the cool patio. Casablanca is like the British pub culture only with coffee. It is more stylish and less rowdy.

I’m glad to be leaving Casa: the lure of pastries and ice cream is too great. I hope to spend more time touring in Fes and Marrakesh. It is tough to stay healthy when you’re in a consumption town. The good thing about Casablanca was getting great, cheap, fresh-pressed fruit juices. There is cheaper eating and living than in Dakar, and is overall a lovely city.

More thoughts on the movie: the feeling is evoked somewhat by the combination of the architecture (worn down though it is now) and palm trees, which hint to the world that the movie took place in. You can tell that Casa used to look like 1940s Hollywood, although that world doesn’t really exist here anymore. However, you can picture in your mind when the buildings were new, and the existence of expats and sailors, and the European influence of café culture, 1940s fashion walking around amidst old cars.

It’s interesting to note that French colonialism here and in Dakar left so much more behind than the Brits did in Gambia (who really left nothing). I wonder what somebody new to Africa would think of Casablanca (or Dakar, for that matter). The Gambia prepared me for Dakar. And after Gambia and Dakar, there wasn’t much to it for me. It was like stepping into Europe.


Anonymous Lady M said...

Nice description of Casablanca. But did you go to the Corniche ??
It is where all the night clubs are located, from classy to scary ?
This little strap of land captures the essence of Casablanca, a mixture of poverty, depravation and luxury.

5:38 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, I second that, a good, fair description, although I felt you went overboard on the glitz of it all, during my two years living and working there, it all felt more like one big large shanty town to be honest.

If two words comes to mind to describe the city, I would go for 'poor' and 'tacky'. 'Poor' to describe the majority of it (the centre is small but the city itself stretches for miles, with over 5 million people), and 'tacky' to describe the attempts at luxury, such as the corniche and the international hotels and the shopping centres, they don't fit in too well to a city whose buildings are well past their best. Shame, because there are some fantastic examples of art-deco there. If you do go, remember to look up! You will see some great period designs, in need of much renovation.

5:12 AM

Anonymous Property in Morocco said...

Hi Bogg.
I enjoyed reading all your blogs. They are so unpredictable.
About Casablanca, I would like to say that it is the economic capital of Morocco and the biggest city, with about 5 million people.
The town is basically a big commercial and industrial city and its medina (market) is nothing in comparison with those of Fez or Marrakesh.

3:06 AM

Blogger Hannah said...

Hi, I checked out this blog because I am considering moving to Casablanca. One thing that concerns me is the fact that it is so industrial. I was wondering about this part of your blog - the architecture and palm trees and parks feel like a cross between Los Angeles and Paris, with Arab inhabitants.

Are there good public parks in Casablanca that allow you to escape the craziness of the city?

7:45 AM

Blogger Parag said...

Casablanca is not renowned for the sophistication of its nightlife, and you really need on the spot advice from a local to get the best out of what is there.For ladies, hotel bars like the Bogart/Bergman-themed Casablanca Bar at the Hyatt Regency are more welcoming.
casablanca airport hotels

11:43 PM


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