08 July 2014

Morocco day 1: Casablanca

The flight from Madrid to Casablanca on Saturday 21 June took just 1 hour 50 minutes, the wait to get through immigration 30 minutes – I think North African time is a little like ‘island time’, and the taxi ride into Casablanca about 30 minutes, so I was safely ensconced in my hotel by about 2pm local time.

My cousin Julie and her friend and workmate Andrea had arrived from Singapore, where they live, not long before me so, after a quick catch up and time to refresh, we headed out to explore. The streets were just coming to life after the long lunch and siesta break, so sensible in a hot country. First impressions were of shabby early-20th-century-style buildings, with some lovely snippets of Art Deco and Islamic influences in their architecture; a local love of icecream, judging by the number of gelato vendors and people queuing to buy; mad traffic with many truly ancient cars, some literally held together with duct tape and string; and extremely friendly people.

We were thirsty and a bit peckish so found a restaurant, Tucked away upstairs in a rather non-descript building was our first taste of the beautiful interior decoration we would discover all over Morocco, with gorgeous mosaic, tile and stucco work, and colourfully painted ceilings, lit by intricately patterned lanterns. Our host was happy for us to photograph his place, interrupting lunch with his family to turn lights on and off for us, and giving us advice about Casablanca and his cell phone number in case we needed any help during our visit.

Wandering on from there we were soon taken under the wing of a delightful taxi driver who persuaded us to let him give us a tour of the city for the next 90 minutes for a very small charge, so we proceeded to whizz round to the old Sacre Coeur Catholic Church, the former cathedral, which is now just empty space inside and used for exhibitions rather than religious services; the Notre Dame Church, the largest active Catholic church in the city; the new medina near the royal palace at Habous, which was overflowing with delights to tempt the shopper so we vowed to return there the next day; past the port, for a quick look at all the large container ships and small fishing boats moored there; then to the highlight of the day, the Hassan II Mosque.

This mosque can only be described in superlatives! It’s the largest in Morocco, the largest in Africa, the seventh largest in the world, and the tower is the tallest religious tower in the world. The mosque has an internal capacity of 25,000 people, with room for 80,000 more on the outside courtyards – gigantic! And it has all the mod-cons: a laser light shines from the tower towards Mecca and the huge pavilion roof opens up, to name just a couple. It also sits in a beautiful location, on a promontory overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. As men strolled deep in discussion, women sat chatting under the cloisters while their children played tag and football, and students sat quietly reading, the late afternoon light made the buildings glow, creating an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity. It was a magical place!

We wanted to dine watching the sun go down so our taxi man whisked us off to a wonderful cliff-top restaurant close to the local lighthouse, where we enjoyed our first taste of the tagine and couscous dishes this country is famous for – and they were delicious! It was the perfect end to a perfect first day in Morocco.

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