I had a week vacation and decided to travel to Liberia and Sierra Leone. Because I was flying Royal Air Maroc, my layover was in Casablanca. The layover was 15 hours, more than enough to leave the airport and see the city. Everybody including my Moroccan friends said Casablanca is the worst city to visit in Morocco. However, I did not feel I had enough time to visit any other cities, so it was Casablanca or bust. As the largest city in the country, surely, I could find a way to occupy a day here!
February 11, 2023: Of All of the Gin Joints
My 7-hour Royal Air Maroc flight from New York arrived at 9:00 in the morning. Immediately, I was greeted by a very long immigration line. While the line moved, the guards were taking many breaks to chat with their friends and smoke inside the building. When I complained, an official arrogantly told me to shut up. This was the most unprofessional immigration experience I have ever experienced.
Eventually, I was let in. While I have visited the Moroccan controlled sector of the disputed Western Sahara, I count it as a separate entity so I now could count Morocco as my 83rd country visited.
The Casablanca airport is very from the city. A taxi to the center is $60 USD, which is a lot of money for anywhere but especially Morocco. Luckily there is a train to the city that costs just 50 dirhams or $5 USD. The train leaves once an hour and, of course, I missed it by 10 minutes. Not wanting to pay the crazy taxi fare, I waited. So far, this trip has not been off to a good start.
Eventually I got onto the next train which left at 11:00. The ride to the center took 45 minutes, which put me in a tough spot because the final tour of the Hassan II Mosque, the city´s single landmark, was at 12:00.
Originally, my plan was to walk the 25 minutes to the mosque, but given the time crunch I had to get a taxi. Finding a taxi at the Casa Port station was not difficult, but I did have to bargain with the cab drivers. The first guy was sipping tea and offered me a city tour. After I refused, he sent me to another guy who offered a laughably high price saying that “Casablanca is such a big city and it’s so far away”. After pointing out that the mosque is in fact within eyesight, he accepted my reasonable counteroffer of $3 for the 5-minute ride.
I made it just in time for the tour.
After paying the steep 120-dirham ($12 USD) entry fee, I was taken with a huge group to the mosque. There our tickets were scanned, and we were separated into groups by language. While in line, a Frenchman did not like my line etiquette – guess I stood too close to him. I responded with “Welcome to Africa!” which set him off. He yelled at me and called me a pompous bitch in front of his young son and tried to fight me. I laughed when he almost got kicked off the tour.
The Hassan II Mosque is the largest mosque in Morocco and 7th largest in the world. They used to be the largest in Africa, but unfortunately that title has been taken by their regional rival Algeria. Nevertheless, the guide claimed that it was in fact the largest on the continent. Officially 105,000 worshippers can be accommodated in the mosque, but this number also includes the massive courtyard outside which is never used. So *only* 25,000 can fit inside.
While the mosque might not be as large as the Algiers mosque, it is more ornate. The interior is truly stunning. Immediately, I was taken back to the palaces and fancy cathedrals of Spain, which makes sense since the Moors came from and eventually fled to Morocco.
Perhaps the most impressive feature was the red painted wooden roof that can be retracted in a matter of minutes.
In addition to the main prayer hall, we also visited the basement foot washing stations. The ritual washing, wudu, is required by worshippers coming to a mosque to pray. These washing stations only operate during Ramadan when attendance spikes.
All in all, the hype surrounding the mosque is real.
Walking away from the mosque, I ran into a group of Brazilian tourists. They came from Rio de Janeiro to see their team compete in the Club World Cup, which is being held in nearby Rabat.
10 minutes later, I reached Rick´s Café. This is a replica of the fictitious bar from the movie Casablanca and is the biggest tourist trap in this non-touristy city. By the way the movie was not filmed in Casablanca. The café had two mean security guards outside who first told me I could not come in for lunch without explanation. After asking if I could have a drink at the bar, he said yes. I have no clue why they didn´t offer that to me in the first place, but I´ve seen that people in this city are not interested in being nice or working too hard.
The inside of Rick´s Café is beautiful but honestly many restaurants in Morocco are probably just as beautiful. As I sipped on my $10 cocktail, I noticed that, excluding the staff, there were zero Moroccans here…as expected. Still, I had a nice time and honestly dodged a bullet not ordering the food because it was so expensive.
Rick´s is at the edge of the old city, which in Morocco is called the medina. The place is a huge maze and dates to the 1500´s. The place was authentic and still very much “lived in”. I saw street vendors, a makeshift market, many apartment buildings and even a Jewish synagogue.
On the far side of the Medina was the official Medina Market. There I saw some West African men grilling meat. It looked good, so I got a beef sandwich on a French baguette for 20 dirhams or $2. It was delicious and the man was so nice- perhaps the only nice person in all of Casablanca.
Nearby there was a covered market full of cheap clothing, electronic shops, and barbers. Interestingly, everybody inside was Black. One guy really did not like my taking photos and chased me out. Photo taking is totally legal, but many West Africans seem to be wary of it. Not wanting to get into trouble, I fled.
I then walked around the main commercial center which also has government buildings. The wide boulevards and buildings looked French and were most likely built by them during the colonial period. However, the city felt empty – most likely because it was a weekend. I can´t describe it, but the vibes of the city were just off.
Many of the French and international brands are here in Morocco and specifically in the city center. It is not quite as developed as, say Europe, but there is clearly a strong middle and upper class here.
The city center did have some nice sights including the Arab League Park and an art deco cathedral built by the French.
My final stop was the Central Market which is full of seafood restaurants and souvenir shops.
I ended up walking a long way around the center, more than 15 kilometers, before returning to the Casa Port station. To continue my streak of misfortune, I missed the hourly train back to the airport by 90 seconds this time. It left while waiting in the long line to buy my ticket. By this point, my legs were fried so I spent the hour stretching.
Eventually I made it back to the airport well ahead of time for my flight to Liberia.
My friends warned about Casablanca…and they were right. I really did not like this city. The biggest thing is that the people were so rude starting with the immigration officer. Nearly every interaction from there on out, no matter how small or inconsequential, seemed to be such a big burden. Additionally, the city felt a little too empty for the size of the buildings, although that could simply be due to the weekend.
That said, there were some good things. The Hassan II Mosque is the real deal. The Medina is also authentic and fun to explore. The city is generally pretty, and the public transit system is as good as any I have seen on the African continent.
My recommendation is to only visit Casablanca as a layover or as the final day on a bigger Morocco trip where you see the Mosque and then head to the airport. But Casablanca is not a destination I would recommend by itself.
I have heard many amazing things about the rest of the country of Morocco so do not mistake this a disdain for a country that I have not really explored.
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