I’m so glad I put aside some days to explore the underrated Moroccan metropolis of Casablanca. As I’ve hopefully shown in my previous articles, the city is well worth a trip. Even if one only takes a day to visit the wondrous Hassan II Mosque before enjoying dinner at the unmissable Rick’s Cafe. Luckily for me, I had several days to explore the city. Rounding up the best of the rest from my fourteen year old files, join me for some Casablanca Nostalgia.
Most of my visit played out on foot taking in the streets. One of the first sights we came upon was the grand but misleading form of Casablanca Cathedral. I say misleading because it was never actually a cathedral, due to the fact that Casablanca isn’t a bishopric seat. Constructed in 1930, it opened as Church of the Sacred Heart, but later became known by its cathedral nickname among locals and visitors.
Casablanca was under French rule back in 1930. The local government, keen to stamp their authority on the city, brought in the celebrated Marseille-born architect Paul Tournon to lay out the cathedral. Its facade was (and is) quite the vision, an arresting combination of austere white concrete with Art Déco and Islamic flourishes.
However, there’s another reason that Casablanca Cathedral is a misleading sight. In fact, if you hadn’t heard before coming, you’d have no idea that the interior is predominantly gutted, the nave a largely empty shell. This is due to the fact that the church closed in 1956 shortly after Morocco gained independence.
Eventually, the Moroccan government transformed the church into a cultural centre. But at the time of my visit the building wasn’t open to the public outside of special events. As we trotted up the steps that day towards the main entrance, a security guard appeared to deliver the bad news.
Oh but wait… it seemed we might be in luck. All we had to do was place some Dirhams into his grubby hand and guess what, the structure would magically open for us. Thus we paid and I managed to grab a cheeky shot of him looking incredibly slimy and pleased with himself.
Inside, I was taken aback by just how stark the nave was. I had perhaps been expecting a few original artefacts on display. But it had truly been stripped from top to bottom, nothing left but its towering white columns and sparkling stained-glass windows. The latter are magnificent, the handiwork of French artists Florence Tournon-Branly (daughter of Paul Tournon), Jean Mamez and Louis Barillet.
With virtually nothing to see, we made our way up the main staircase for what I’d read were fine rooftop views across the city. “Be careful, many broken stone”, called Mr. Security, nonchalantly. He wasn’t kidding. The entire affair was quite unpleasant, with loose steps, discarded litter, shards of glass and an overpowering stench of pigeon shit. Around halfway, we exchanged nods with a Moroccan party who were on their way back down.
Church of the Sacred Heart.
Happily, we were rewarded for our vexatious ascent as we emerged onto the small, rubbly rooftop balcony. Namely with fresh air and fine sweeping views across Casablanca in all directions. That’s a section of Arab League Park pictured below.
It was so peaceful up there we decided to stay for a bit, taking in the city from all angles. And of course it was fun to pick out the ubiquitous minaret of Hassan II Mosque in the distance. Just the day before we had been touring its spectacular interior.
The views had, at least, justified the backhander we’d paid to the warden. If memory serves me well I gave him around 60 Dirhams. That’s just under £5/$6. Too much, but hey.
Before heading back down the skanky stairs, I made sure to photograph one of the gutted bell towers. And tried to imagine what it was like here back in the 1940s with the bells ringing out across the city. A large chunk of Casablanca’s then 40.000-strong Catholic community streaming inside for a morning service.
From the cathedral it was just a ten-minute walk to Place Mohammed V, Casablanca’s grandest city square. Built in 1920 by the French, some locals refer to it as Square of Many Names.
Some of these include Victory Square (a reference to both French colonialism and Moroccan independence), Pigeon Square (for obvious reasons) and Marshal Lyautey Square. Hubert Lyautey was a French army general and Minister of War who became known as “The French Empire builder”. If you think he sounds like a piece of work, check out his 1927 portrait.
Place Mohammed V is home to some of Casablanca’s most handsome and notable buildings. Pictured below is the Palace of Justice (Court House), a gorgeous Art Deco structure with Persian elements built in 1925. The cannon and palm trees, added in recent years, polish off its dramatic look.
Moreover, the square houses Casablanca Post Office (1918) and the former City Hall (pictured below), now known as the Wilaya Building. Built between 1928 and 1937, this emblematic edifice features traditional Moroccan Makhzen stone, plaster and tile work, along with a Venetian-inspired clock tower.
Today it continues to serve as a government administrative centre. Unfortunately, I was unable to get anywhere near the main entrance. Rather, a pair of eagle-eyed armed guards proceeded to wave me away as soon as they spotted my approach.
It was on Place Mohammed V that I met a pair of local men dressed as traditional water sellers (guerrabs). For centuries, the water carrier played a key role in water trade in the country’s desert regions. Furthermore, they were active in key cities such as Casablanca, Marrakech and Rabat, taking and making water deliveries to families living in the Old Medina market neighbourhoods. With bells and brass cups wrapped around their bodies, you’d hear them coming from afar.
Today, water carriers still sell water from bottles stored in goatskin bags. But they are mainly on hand for photographs in exchange for coins. The guys I met were typical pests, dripping with charm in the beginning with the usual disingenuous “How are you my friend?” and “Oooooh London, so beautiful, I have a cousin living in…”.
But then, when the small talk was over and the photo done, they got all aggressive. Unhappy with the amount of money I’d given, they demanded more, and even made a fuss about returning my camera. What a pity.
One of the great joys of Casablanca is the market scene. The city has more markets than you can shake a stick at, and I managed to tick off a bunch of them. At Maarif Market, in Quartier Gauthier, the atmosphere was so drowsy I was able to photograph some of the carefully constructed fruit and veg stalls at my own pace. Nobody bothered me.
Later, at The Great Habous Olive Market, we saw what felt like just about every kind of olive imaginable. I had once tried olives as a kid, but had been so repulsed by them I declared never to eat another. In this market the stall owners virtually insisted that I try some of their free samples, hence I ended up having a few nibbles.
Much to my surprise, this is when I realised that olives aren’t so bad after all! The market also has some of the country’s best oil and a wide range of meat and fish. Be warned though, you may also come across the grisly sight of a camel’s head hanging on a hook. I’ll spare you the photo.
I also popped into Central Market, in operation since 1917. Built on the site of the spectacular Casablanca Fair of 1915, it is an architectural delight with a Moorish Revival design and dramatic imperial style gateways.
Central Market has a long and colourful history. Even if you’re not up for buying some swordfish, it’s fun to simply stroll around imagining the stories that have played out here over the last century.
Take, for example, the events of Christmas Eve 1953 when the Moroccan resistance fighter Muhammad Zarqtuni bombed the market. Killing 19 people, his act was in protest of the French forcing Sultan Muhammad VI into exile. Zarqtuni was subsequently captured and imprisoned before committing suicide by cyanide tablet.
For me, the main fun of Central Market was gawping at all the food I had no interest in trying. Swordfish… shark… horse… camel… oysters. It is definitely not a place for vegans, vegetarians or indeed anyone prone to squeamishness.
Also in this category were the boxes and boxes of turtles. Initially, I thought they too were a culinary treat. Though according to several vendors they are more popular as pets. Nevertheless, at least several of the turtles I saw seemed to be doing everything they could to escape whatever fate awaited them.
Finally, there is the king of Casablanca markets, set in and around the sprawling Old Medina neighbourhood. Here, you can get your hands on pretty much anything, from bags, rugs, wooden handicrafts and clothing, to kitschy souvenirs, paintings, electrical goods and silverware.
I found the Old Medina an intoxicating affair, the air punctuated with spices, mint tea and traditional Moroccan dishes. I got to add another “no thank you” to Casablanca’s culinary offerings as I passed several vendors tending to large pans of boiled snails. To be fair, I’d actually tried snails before, but had no desire for a repeat performance.
Instead, we took some tea and baklava in the graceful Cafe Central. Housed in a former colonial townhouse as part of Hotel Central, the building simply oozes nostalgic charm. Though it has to be said that everything was a little rough around the edges. Even today, it seems, as reviews are patchy and the old place retains just a two-star status.
Above all, The Old Medina is the best place in the city to catch glimpses of pre-colonial times. Getting away from the main shopping streets and rambling souks, I discovered a beguiling network of residential side streets. Dusty, quiet and channeling a forlorn dignity, there are some wonderfully characterful old houses and apartment blocks with wobbly balconies and creaky, flaky doors.
Delving further into what felt very much like the heart of authentic Casablanca, we came across parts of the ancient city walls. Narrow streets came and went, home to ramshackle pharmacies, sewing workshops, cart-pulling donkeys and hole-in-the-wall barbers.
On another nameless street, in between two mammoth rows of high-rise apartments, I stopped to watch a group of teenagers engaged in a football match in the road. I knew nothing about Moroccan football at the time, though that was soon to change when, five months later, Adel Taarabt signed for my beloved QPR.
Labelled “the Moroccan magician”, he is the best player I’ve ever seen at my club, despite largely wasting what should have been a phenomenal career. And of course, in the years that have passed, Morocco’s national team has blossomed nicely. Culminating in this year’s incredible semi-final finish at The World Cup in Qatar. These guys though, pictured below, would’ve had no inkling of such glories back in 2008.
Elsewhere, one of my favourite discoveries was the rotting carcass of Hotel Lincoln, once one of Casablanca’s most luxurious Art Deco hotels. Opened in 1916, it was home to visiting politicians and the occasional king and queen. The hosting venue for national meetings, high profile seminars and lavish celebrations. Gradually though, the old girl fell into disrepair. And then shut down permanently when one of its floors collapsed following a heavy rainstorm.
While researching for this article I discovered that, at long last, The Lincoln is due to reopen in 2025 after a colossal restoration project. In fact, the Radisson Hotel Group is responsible for the ambitious refit that will see it returned to (and probably even surpass) its former grandeur.
I’ll cap this piece with a look at another of my favourite Casablanca restaurants. You can find Cafe Maure in the city’s trendy port area. It is beautifully crafted within the walls of an old 18th century fortification, with a lovely stone courtyard, resplendent mosaic tiling and tables nestled between lush trees and plants.
Cafe Maure has a reputation for some of the finest seafood in the city. Still, I couldn’t see past a traditional Lamb Couscous. Similarly, S opted for a hearty chicken tajine. Both dishes hit the spot, the ambience was great and the service efficient. Thanks Cafe Maure, for ending my Casablanca adventure on a high!
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