Few people go to Casablanca for the scenery. The Maghreb’s biggest city, its most important port and the country’s industrial hub is not known for its tranquil pace of life or its picturesque scenery. It doubled as war-torn Beirut in the 2001 espionage thriller, Spy Game (starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt), for goodness’ sake! Casanegra, as it has become known since Noureddine Lakhmari’s 2008 film entitled it thus – thereby exposing the city’s less than shiny white underbelly – does not bustle, it jostles. The city doesn’t sell, it hawks. It houses Morocco’s wealthiest industrialists, its largest slums and – connecting them both – a significant black economy. Not a pretty place, you might think. And far removed from the days of Bacall and Bogart…..
Nonetheless, wallets and cameras securely zipped inside our jackets, we spent a weekend pounding the pavements of Casa (people don’t stroll here) and were surprised to uncover a few architectural gems.
The Hassan II Mosque is the result of a passion to leave a public legacy and a budget only the strictest ruler could extract from a population. Every working person at the time in Morocco contributed to this feat of engineering, classical Islamic geometry and vision completed in 1993. Many people even contributed on behalf of their kids. The result is quite staggering. Like Midas attempting to tame the ocean, the mosque stands proudly on its paved promontory with its 200m minaret appearing to reach up to God while defying all nature. The decor – inside and out – was the work of 10,000 craftsmen and 2,500 workers and features superlative examples of many traditional Moroccan crafts: mosaic fountains, carved thuya wood, embellished cedar ceilings, tadelakt hammam walls and elaborate carved plaster.
Guided tours run in several languages several times a day, with fewer on a Friday. Call: 05 22 48 28 86 for more information. Click here for a Facebook albums of photos of the Hassan II mosque.
Casablanca’s growth spurt came with the arrival of the French, who laid a railway to the Port. They developed local infrastructure and economic opportunities, resulting in an influx of colonialists from Europe and migrants from the rural hinterland, all seeking their fortune. The former lived in apartment buildings reminiscent of their contemporaries in Paris, Marseilles or Algiers. The latter lived in slums.
Looking up above the smoke-filled cafes and grubby-looking stores, the architecture of the city centre, in particular the streets around Boulevard de Paris, we were reminded that this great era of French expansionism was also one of new artistic movements back Europe. We saw Art Nouveau swirls giving way to the linear look of Art Deco on the apartment blocks, in many of which we glimpsed marble hallways and cage lift-shafts. On Place Mohammed V, the style is a pastiche of Moorish tradition and Jugendstil, but works – in particular at the Grande Poste (main post office).
Click here for an album of Casablanca art nouveau and art deco architecture.
The Habbous Quarter is how visitors to Morocco often wish a medina really were. It’s clean, it’s tidy, there are only a few carpet bazaars and the like and it is pretty cute. This was how the French thought the medina should be. Unlike in other cities, where the nouvelle ville is a modern, high-rising, broad boulevard-ed clash with the traditional medina, this is a “nouvelle medina”. It has the freestone arches, it has the winding streets, it even has two mosques. Far from being soulless, however, the Habbous Quarter provides a great counterbalance to the city centre craziness and although you won’t find traditional artisans of other medinas, you can have a hassle-free stroll while you prepare to re-enter the fray.