I spent the morning having a wonderful breakfast by the pool in La Mansion Arabe and then took a walk in Marrakech wandering around the Medina before Karem picked me up mid morning to drive the short 2 ½ hour drive to Casablanca.
The drive was pretty uneventful. We made one stop en route and I ended up getting a lesson from a young man on how to make tagnine (the little clay pot dish with meat, potatoes and vegetables that is cooked over hot coals) and a woman who was making bread. For some reason both had shops at this little truck stop and it was pretty cool to see them work.
After the cooking lessons, we were back on the road and reached Casablanca by 1:30. Karem was going to give me a driving tour of Casablanca and first up was the Hasaan II Mosque, one of the few mosques in Morocco that I could actually visit (in fact it would be the only mosque I would visit in Morroco). Unfortunately, the tour was not until 3 so Karem hurried into the mosque for mid-afternoon prayers while I wandered around the virtually empty square outside the mosque and took pictures. (And it was a good thing I did it then because when we came back later, the tour buses had invaded the site.)
Now the mosque is built on a wall adjacent to the Atlantic ocean, and there was a walkway that ran beside the wall where young boys had taken to using it as a launching point into the ocean as the waves crashed into the wall. I wandered down to take a look and it was insane. These kids were pretty skilled at timing the jump as the water came in. With all the rocks nearby it is amazing I did not see anyone get hurt. (I am sure it happens all the time.)
In addition to the kids launching themselves into the water, there were kids using boogie boards to body surf. The waves were quite big and it was hilarious to hear the screeches and laughter. They were clearly having a good time and it was a boatload of entertainment.
Karem came and found me and suggested we do the driving tour of some of the Casablanca sites first and then come back for the tour of the mosque since there was still well over an hour before the tour would start.
First up was the La Corniche a promenade area along the waterfront filled with shops, some hotels that have seen better days and a few restaurants. This area seemed like prime real estate, and I was a little confused why there weren’t better hotels and restaurants. Anyway, it was a rather pretty area that could use some work.
We then drove up the hill to the Anfa area of Casablanca. (Anfa was the original name of the city before the French changed it to White House.) Anfa was gorgeous with beautiful mansions and carefully manicured hedges and gardens. Clearly this was an area of some wealth and if to confirm my opinion, Karem suddenly pointed down a barricaded street and told me that there was another of the King’s palaces down that road. This time, though, we couldn’t even get close enough for a view.
We drove down the other side of the hill and into lovely Casablanca traffic. Casablanca is the business capital of Morocco and home to 7,000,000 Moroccans. Unfortunately, it does not really have a lot of historical sites. So the only other really interesting site to see was La Place Mohammad V Square. So off we set … inch by inch.
We finally reached the square which turned out to be a lovely park like setting with buildings surrounding the square all of the same design and size (including the French embassy). It was interesting, but not on my list of highlights for the trip.
By now it was time to head back towards the Hasaan II Mosque. As I mentioned before, when we returned, the place was full of tourist buses and what seemed like every Italian on holiday. Geez.
Anyway, after waiting in a ridiculously long line of Italians and paying my 120 DH, I rushed to catch the English group that had already left the ticket area. I quickly pulled off my sandals and stuck them in the plastic bag I was handed and walked quickly through the mosque in search of the English group. I finally located them in the middle of the mosque just as the tour guide was speaking about the history of the mosque. I soon learned that it was constructed in 1995 and is the third biggest mosque in the world behind the mosques in Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia.
The mosque can hold 25,000 worshipers and 80,000 worshipers in the courtyard, which it does annually for Eid al Hadda or the “Big Feast”, an annual Muslim Holiday to honour the willingness of the prophet Abraham to sacrifice his young first-born son Ishmael in accordance with God’s command before God intervened to provide Abraham with a lamb sacrifice instead. I will actually be in Dubai for the “Big Feast” in two week so it should be interesting.
Anyway, the guide gave us a walking tour of the mosque, including the areas where worshipers wash before beginning their prayers, and the spectacular hammam in the basement of the mosque that is used by the female worshipers. I found it particularly interesting to see the washing area and the hammam, which I have never been able to visit in other mosques I have been to in the middle east.
The tour ended around 3 and Karem picked me up to take me to the Sofitel Hotel for my one night stay in Casablanca. Karem suggested he take me to one more place – a famous cookie shop (the name of which for the life of me I can’t remember). I agreed and two blocks later I was in the ship selecting a few of the famous morsels (they were actually really good) and called it the end of my Moroccan tour.
Karem dropped me off at the Sofitel, arranged for my luggage to be taken to my room and we said our goodbyes. Karem had been a fabulous driver. He is an incredibly warm, wonderful human being (as were all of my guides except for that horrid guide in Marrakech, Mustafa). I thanked Karem profusely, bid him goodbye and headed into the hotel. Unfortunately, my room was not ready so the hotel sent me into the bar and told the bartender to make me a drink (The front desk gal recommended the mohito and it was fabulous).
Anyway, one mohito later and my room was still not ready so the gal upgraded me to a penthouse suite. Oh Lordy. This place was on the 20th floor and the 180 degree view was unbelievable. And the suite … oh my goodness. Can I please have a place like this in every hotel I stay. This thing had everything including a steam room. (I am not kidding.) Such a pity I only had it for the night.
I enjoyed a couple hours of relaxation, watched the sun set, listened to the myriad of calls to prayer and then set out to find the best seafood restaurant in the area. The concierge hailed me a cab and sent me to Restaurant du Port de Peche. Talk about ambiance and locals only hangout. It was fabulous. I had grilled sardines, some salad (olives, tomatoes, potatoes), fresh french bread with a hot sauce, grilled calimari and some very good white wine Stupendous! (Oh and I’d like to thank the waiter for seating me directly in full few of the handsomest man I have ever seen! I am pretty sure he knew I was trying not to stare at him.)
Anyway, with a happy stomach and a very tired body, I hailed a “petite cab” and was soon sitting in the bar of the hotel, drinking another of those splendid mohitos, watching the fake fireplace (on a TV screen) and listening to some British couple sing Adele and Amy Winehouse tunes. (No kidding.)
Anyway, after one drink I called it a night. I had enjoyed my time in Morocco, but doubt it will be added to my list of do overs. I think my favorite highlights were the Chella in Rabat, the ruins in Volubilis, the Medina in Fez and the High Atlas Mountains. Unfortunately, there were things I did that, had I been given sufficient time to actually plan this trip, would not have been included in my itinerary (that horrible trip to the desert and the stop in Erfoud for example). However, sometimes you have to go with the flow and figure out contingencies when plans get messed up by government and politics.
Oh and in case any of you are wondering, I found my squat toilet at a truck stop in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains about an hour outside of Marrakech. (I came out of the bathroom with a big grin on my face and explained the story to Karem. He actually got a big kick out of it as I regaled him with my running count of the squat toilets of the world.)
So with that, it was time to leave Morroco and head to Tunisia. This should be interesting.