Travelogue Morocco 1: Casablanca – Rabat

19-21 April 2013

Given the success of our Girls Getaway to Turkey for Mother’s 60th last year, it seemed only fitting to test another exotic destination for this year’s birthday. Morocco was on both our lists and a very manageable week-long package serendipitously sealed the deal and soon we were up, up and away to breakfast in Dubai, lunch over Italy and dinner in Casablanca!

While the flights and transits were smooth, our induction to Morocco started with a bit of a bumpy ride. It had been a long haul with 2 eight hour flights and then a wait at the airport while our group collected their luggage and communed. But a short taxi ride later and we were at our digs, Business Hotel Casablanca. What a joyously simple pleasure to have a shower, get fresh clothes on and brush teeth! Just enough to get us motivated to up and out to spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the city.

We sought a few opinions and placed the route option and landmarks to our intended destination before deciding to forego the trams and head down to the Mosque and beachfront on foot, down the main Avenue. Perhaps a poor choice as this led us to be at the traffic lights where a local on a moped veered up to us and ripped Mother’s gold chain from around her neck. 🙁

There was a policeman stationed across the intersection so we drew his attention and explained – slowly and repeatedly – what had happened. No mean feat with him only speaking Arabic and French and us speaking neither. He did summon some passing policemen on motorbikes (using his whistle) and they sped off in high speed pursuit of a suspect they couldn’t possibly have expected to find. We found out the hard way that there are 2 types of police and we couldn’t just report the theft at the local police station but had to report to the tourist police office in order to make a formal statement (that we’d need for insurance). 3 hours later we had statement in hand, but no intention of commencing sight-seeing in the dark, so the police chauffeured us to the hotel. What the hotel staff must’ve thought when we arrived!

On a happier note, Mother informed me that our dinner was included in the package so we headed to the hotel restaurant to see what that entailed. It was a mystical experience seeing as we didn’t have a language in common with the waitress so there was no explanation of courses / options / processes. First we were set up with a dinner plate with soup plate atop. Next came a big basket of wedges of French loaf. Then there was a wait. Not sure what to do next – since you normally either get served a plate of soup or get sent to fetch soup and plate at buffet – we did nothing. It turned out to be the right call as a steaming tureen of soup was delivered by the dumb waiter (the delivery shoot, not the one who didn’t speak English). We were served lovely creamy butternut soup. With no idea what was to come, we weren’t sure how much to have nor if we should fill up on bread or not!

We finished the soup, our plates were cleared, no further clues given and we just sat and waited. Minutes later we were served baked fish with thermidor sauce, a wedge of potato bake, gratinated veg and half of the smallest baked potato you’ve ever seen, done in foil and everything but served cold. It was a delicious meal, topped off with a lemon meringue style wedge but with a liquidy meringue not the peaks as we’re accustomed.

After a long sleep that outperformed refreshing all the way to invigorating, we were in good spirits and re-ethused to start our Moroccan adventure.

Breakfast was the predictable affair with a range of breads, cold meats, cheeses, eggs, olives and garnishes and we made short work of preparing delicious Vietnam-style baguette sandwiches. Vanilla yoghurt and orange juice to top it off and we were ready to hop on the bus for our tour – the Imperial tour of the palace towns of Morocco (Rabat, Fez and Meknes) starting in Casablanca and ending in Marrakesh.

But first to fetch the rest of our group – totalling 17 people including French, Canadian, Argentinian and Brazilian alongside us and another couple from Constantia Kloof – from their hotels, all of which seemed to be along the same main road, Avenue D’Enfa.

Casablanca isn’t what you’d expect – the cliche keyhole window frames and curly-swirly metalwork. From just the short journey to fetch the other tourists, the French influence in the city is apparent; wide avenues with manicured centre islands dotted with pretty antique-looking twin streetlights that look like they’d be better suited to paraffin lamps and horse-drawn carriages than to electric lights and this flow of traffic. All road names are in French; traffic signage in Arabic and French. But there is also the medina with small shops in narrow, winding streets. Such a stark contrast!

Anfa, the original name for the city, had modest beginnings in the 7th century as a small Berber settlement, with a cluster of white block houses (think Mykonos). The town held some interest as a port by the Portuguese in the 15th century and the Spanish in the 18th century, inheriting along with it the new name Casablanca, ie “white house” – or Dar el-Beida in Arabic. This first quarter still lives and breathes, just in front of Atlantic, with all the houses still white as they have always been.

In the 20th century, Casablanca became a French Protectorate (1912-1956) and it was with this inception that the 40 year town-planning project began, primarily modernising the port, expanding with highrise buildings and of course adding the tree-lined avenues and French gardens that still beautify the city today.

Fez was originally the capital of Morocco, which was then transferred to Rabat in 1920, wanting to make a port but the sea wasn’t deep enough. So, with such burgeoning prospects, Casablanca became the capital and the economic commercial centre, with town revolving around the Place de Nations Unies – which until 1920 was still only a market place with snake-charmers, and now is arcades of brasserie terraces looked on by art-deco apartment blocks with wrought-iron balconies and carved stucco – and Mohammed V Square, the administrative heart of Casablanca. Where Casablanca in 1920 was no more than a few thousand inhabitants living in the old medina, the city now houses 6 million people, accounts for 75% of trade and uses 51% of energy in the country.

Arab’s League Park (Casablanca’s “green lung”) makes up for lack of parks in town planning and new factories are built outside of the city because it suffers from bad pollution because of lack of greenery. They seem to have made up for the lack of parks with trees lining most streets (very uniformly all in neat boxes), with flower boxes wherever possible, even lining the tram lines. This suits my overactive sense of symmetry perfectly and I think it looks wonderful!

We will also be on the look-out for the Argan tree, which we are told is native to Morocco (also known as the “goat tree” because goats climb it to eat the fruit) and used for its oils as constituent in many and varied products.

Our first alight from the bus was to visit the Old Quarter, where we were shown the Roman influence, with no windows facing the road in favour of opening to central courtyards, and the Spanish influence adorning the archways.

Then it was to the first of the 2 palaces restored by King Hassan II, son of King Mohammed V. This is the residence where the King stays when he is in town (he lives in Rabat) and it’s a proper old school regal Palace, complete with imposing high walls, mammoth doors in cedar covered in bronze with alabaster adornments either side. According to Muslim dictate, there are no animals or people in the decorations, just Qu’ran versus. The artworks and artisans come from Fez, known to be best for these.

By stark contrast, the next stop on the agenda was the central market. We were pre-warned that this was market as in fruit and veg, not as in goods and keepsakes (which is our preference and goes by the name “souk”). It was a ripe affair, with altogether too many strong smells competing in a crowded and noisy place, featuring an open fish market and skinned animals strung from their feet – among other noxious delicacies. Still, Mother (ever the dedicated and talented shopper) found something to buy and she was very chuffed with finding a small rattan weave basket with leather base and zip top section among the otherwise very ordinary wares at the basket seller stall, which would function very nicely as an unusual handbag.

Out of there and back on the bus, we were transferred to the Mosque of Hassan II, which we hadn’t gotten to the previous evening. The 2nd biggest religious building in the world, after the mosque in Mecca, it covers 9 hectares, 2/3 of which is built over the sea, and has the highest minoret in the world at 210m (taking 1,000 workers 7 years to build, 24/7), with 2 laser beams shining (over 30km) toward Mecca. There is capacity in the covered area for 25,000 people and in the open area for 80,000 people! It has a fixed roof over some sections and over another a retractable roof that can be opened in 3 minutes. It is the only mosque that’s open to non-Muslims. The whole complex is really impressive, accentuated by the beautiful ocean backdrop.

Done with ooo’ing and aaah’ing at the architecture, we used the last half hour to hunt for the famous Amood Bakery. Across the road from the mosque is a collection of official-looking buildings, all with the greenest grass and prettiest bright and colourful pavement gardens and islands. But, straight after that the buildings revert to shabby, once-white flat roof blocks with a smattering of cafes. We’d tried to venture into one, but it was a bit awkward with a male-only clientele who gawked at us. The cafes were all about the coffee and nothing about the baked goods, so not what we were after anyway.

No mind, we persevered a few blocks, taking some detours as would-be hosts lured us into their stores despite our clear instructions warning we weren’t looking for lunch. Down a side-road to a kebab shop, through a pizzeria, round past a tagine takeaway and we broke free and found exactly what we were looking for – a tucked away simple patisserie! We bought a cream-filled, chocolate covered croissant to share along with an OJ and a custard slice to take back to share with our Saffa friends (who’d said they had the best slice ever the evening before). The croissant was so good that we went back into the bakery and topped up with 2 chocolate brownies (1 with nuts and 1 without). The whole bakery shopping trip had cost less than R20!

Leaving the mosque, we took a scenic beach road drive to where we were due to lunch. We passed Anfa – a residential area with wide palm-treed avenues, mansion homes, terraces and pool decks that made it feel like Beverly Hills!

The theme continued to the beachfront promenade where the bus stopped. The Boulevard de la Corniche looks like the Miami beach scenes from shows like Dexter, wide pavements with tall palm trees, lots of pavement cafes and white buildings headered with bold neon names. But that’s where the comparisons end. The frequenters look (and dress) very differently.

We’d taken a wander up the promenade to assess what there was to see and do, wanting to make the most of our lunch break. When we realised that there was little else to the area besides eateries and hotels, we were able to fulfil a desire created earlier in the day when we’d been told of the McDonald’s McFondue burger. We cleverly shared one (a cheese burger housed in a square ciabatta drenched in fondue-style cheese) with ranch style wedge chips and Croquette Fromage (cheesy chilli bites). Very yum!

Done with lunch, we walked up the other side of the promenade, past the private beach clubs on the sea side and more cafes and restaurants on the left. It was funny to see more “La vache qui ri” signage marking vendors than the Coca-Cola signs that brand the rest of the world!

It was soon the end of the lunch break and we headed back to the bus for the short hop to Rabat.

“Facing the Atlantic Ocean, Rabat is an attractive city of domes and minarets, sweeping terraces, wide avenues and green spaces. It is markedly more pleasant than some other Moroccan cities and is also undergoing fundamental change”.

Rabat is the political and administrative capital of Morocco, has the biggest university and is 2nd biggest city in the country after Casablanca. It is across the Wadi Bou Regreg (river) from its ancient rival, Sale, a city so named because the Romans used to make salt from its waters.

We entered the city through the Old City walls, which were built in the 12th century… Although most of the architecture immediately on the inside is from 1920s.

Down Hassan 5th Avenue past the red Parliament buildings to the Royal Palace. Built by same King who built Palace in Casablanca. Quite an impressive regal affair with a long, wide driveway with evenly placed trees, with topiarised trees cut square in line with the edge of the pavement to give the impression of a floating hedge.

The Residential section of the Palace is protected by Royal Guard, Police, Army and Gendarme. They’re a bit more casual than elsewhere, with a few leaning on posts and all unperturbed at our picture taking (which is expressly forbidden by other palace guards). The Palace doesn’t look as you’d expect. Not fort-like and Arabian. More like a casino that’s big and impressive but loosely themed, mostly cream walls with green accents with the odd keyhole door and mosaic stucco for effect. Lots more terraced gardens, rows of trees, pretty flower borders (we’ve decided they’re Geraniums) and waterless fountains.

Done with current royals, we headed to the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, built on the ruins of the unfinished mosque from the 18th century. The mosque was being built when in 1755 the Earthquake of Lisbon hit, toppling the columns that had been erected and only leaving the incomplete minoret standing (at 40m when it was planned to be 80). It was never rebuilt because Rabat was no longer the capital. As part of the Mausoleum build, the area was cleared and columns rebuilt using the original stones that were part of the still-remaining debris. The square was paved with big stone tiles and serves as an outdoor overflow for the mosque next to the mausoleum. The whole complex features the river and view of Sale on the one side and the remaining ruins of the original wall on the other, which have been gated and serve to secure the area.

Next we were off the rock the Kasbah of Rabat. More aligned with our expectations, the entrance is a grand red sand walled fort, multiple stories with an imposing arch entrance.

Once inside the Kasbah it starts with quaint narrow cobbled roads with tiny closet-like shops behind traditional arches and wooden doors, peddling curios, leather goods and ceramics. Further down the road, we veered off into a labyrinth of windy up-and-down cobbled pathways, little more than a metre wide in most places, walls all white and blue with little wooden doorways dotted here and there, sometimes up a few stairs or recessed into a corner. Apparently people live here. Not sure where they shop, where they park their cars or how they get their groceries back and forth… But it is awesome!

After a brief issue over re-grouping, our guide managed to herd us all back to the bus to drop us at the relevant hotel. Ours is called the Rihab, which inspired it as the punchline in whether or not we wanted to go there. After a long day, though, it was “yes, yes, yes” and it was good to call it a day and have some downtime.