Here’s Looking at You, Casablanca

Part 3 in a series about a January trip to Barcelona and a Western Mediterranean cruise on NCL.

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Confession: I had never seen that venerable classic “Casablanca” until the week before I departed for the trip that included a visit there. Today, Casablanca is Morocco’s commercial hub, and with few tourist sites it courts business more than travelers.

In fact, tourism is focused mainly on one spot: the massive, recently-built Hassan II Mosque. We visited Casablanca via a private van tour, booked with six other passengers whom we “met” on the cruising resource CruiseCritic.com, and it was only fitting that our first stop was to the Mosque.

Hassan II Mosque

Hassan II Mosque

Although every bit of guide information I had seen referenced the Mosque as enormous, imposing, colossal or the like, I truly was not expecting the mosque to be quite as large as it indeed was. Begun in the 1980s, explicitly to provide Casablanca with a grand, worthy monument. The mosque lies just beside the sea, and is the world’s third largest—accommodating tens of thousands of worshippers at a time. The only way to see the mosque is through a great guided tour, which takes visitors through all the mosque’s public spaces. Although the mosque was certainly impressive to see, and the highlight of the day, I couldn’t help but feel like there was something missing in knowing that the mosque was built thanks to modern machinery and technology within just my lifetime.

Next we were on to Place Mohammed V, with its classic art deco architecture, featuring large public buildings set around an open square, with wide boulevards shooting off in all directions. A pro-Palestinian demonstration was underway a couple blocks from the square, which made a few members of our group antsy, but we simply avoided it and had no problems. Another tour bus from our ship was less lucky, we later heard: a driver took a wrong turn into the blocked-off street, and the bus full of American cruise passengers was set upon by tomato-throwing protesters.

Synagogue?

We also visited what was perhaps the most bizarre synagogue I’ve ever been inside—had it actually been a synagogue. The confusion started when our guide said he was taking us to a Jew church, but couldn’t remember the name to tell us, so we were never entirely clear on what it was we were visiting. The large, white structure looked like something built in the 1970s, and resembled a church more in layout than a typical synagogue, though it was marked by stained glass windows with traditional Jewish Stars of David. But oddest of all, on the day we visited the entire interior was cordoned off into booths with energy providers touting information: it was an environmental trade show. Actually, it was only when researching the name of the place for this post that I realized it never was a synagogue at all, but instead was the Cathédrale Sacré-Coeur.

We strolled through the city’s old medina as well as another un-touristy shopping district, feasted on couscous (what else?), and took photos at the private Royal Palace—which looked surprisingly modest in comparison with, say, the Mosque—and along the scenic coastline.

Rick's Cafe

Rick's Cafe

Our last stop in Morocco was Rick’s Café, a faithful recreation built a few years ago by a rabid “Casablanca” fan, modeled after the famed setting from the movie. Odd that one of a city’s top American tourist attractions should be a movie recreation recently built by an American.

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