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You Must Remember This

Casablanca, Morocco

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For most people in the states, the name ‘Casablanca’ means one thing – Humphrey Bogart running Rick’s Bar, Ingrid Bergman’s beautiful Ilsa and Dooley Wilson as Sam, singing ‘As Time Goes By’.

But the great film really only used the Moroccan city of Casablanca as a backdrop to a more compelling human story. Although the city remains saddled with the baggage of the movie’s success to this day, it is a fascinating place in its own right. Although it’s not the capital of Morocco, it is the North African nation’s commercial center and major seaport, and remains a key stopping off point for east Atlantic cruise ships running itineraries around the Madeira and Canary Islands.

If your cruise route allows you a day in Casablanca, make sure you make the most of the opportunity to look around this fascinating town. Owing to its position on the Atlantic coast at very nearly the most westerly point of Africa and its French colonial history Casablanca is a very cosmopolitan place. This is most obvious in the French language street names and the fact that it’s possible to get by in the city in any one of three languages – French, Arabic and English.

From a visitor’s point of view the heart of the modern city is the Boulevard de Paris. Lined with upmarket hotels, boutiques, international stores and offices, the three-quarter-mile length of the boulevard gives Casablanca the feeling of a chic, modern European city. If you’re simply after a way of stretching your sea legs and looking around the comfortingly familiar sights of western civilization, this is the area of town you should head for.

A very different story is told by the narrow lanes and souks of the Ancienna Medina, the old town, which lies on the shoreline around half a mile to the northwest of the Boulevard de Paris. This is the most westerly of all the world’s great Arab markets, and the covered walkways and bazaars are gloriously reminiscent of something you might find in Istanbul or – a few decades ago – in Baghdad. The area might look like a Hollywood back lot made over for a scene from an Ali Baba movie, but it is in reality a thriving, working, busy commercial center. Providing you take the usual security precautions for exploring any city you should have few problems in the Ancienne Medina, despite its sometimes rough, ready and roguish appearance. Chatting to the market traders and picking up local souvenirs is great fun.

If you’re a little more interested in culture than commerce, there are several interesting sights for you to take in Casablanca. You should certainly make an effort to look at the Hassan II Mosque, which lies a little to the west of the Ancienne Medina, on the shoreline and built slightly out into the harbor. The mosque’s minaret (the tower from which the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer) is an incredible 210 meters high, and, given its position, will probably be the first major Casablanca landmark you see as your ship puts in at the docks. The mosque can hold 25,000 worshippers within its walls and a further 80,000 in its immediate vicinity. There are opportunities to look around the interior, though take local advice and be careful to be respectful in observing common courtesies like the removal of your shoes before entering. If you’re female, you may be out of luck – although women are allowed into certain areas of the mosque under certain circumstances, your access may be blocked during prayers.

But don’t worry – there’s a lot more to see and do in Casablanca. If religious architecture is your thing, the Catholic Catedrale de Sacre Coeur is just a little way to the south, or you can have a stroll around one of the city’s several parks.

One of the best things to do in Casablanca is simply eat – this is one of the best places in the world for sampling and enjoying Moroccan cuisine. There are many restaurants and cafés, from small family-run affairs to the dining areas of large international restaurants. It is in the former where you’re most likely to find really excellent, authentic local cooking. Sweetmeats and offal are central to Moroccan cookery. However, if you’re not very confident eating some of the more dubious parts of a cow, you could try a tagine – this traditional Moroccan dish. Traditionally cooked on an open wood fire, a tagine is a kind of casserole that can include more or less any local ingredients you can imagine, from meat to fruits and often both. Lamb and beef are traditional tagine staples.

Casablanca is an exotic place, but one that falls well within the bounds of familiarity and recognizability for most westerners. This is a great place to start your exploration of the Arab world!

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