By Antonio Malara
The trip to Morocco of which Casablanca was the first stop was my sister's idea. The trip was also a way to spend New Year's Eve outside the city, something I had only done once before, when I visited Paris in 2009. To be honest, Morocco has always been a desired destination for both of us but we had never been able to plan it, for one reason or another. Finally, in a completely improvised way, at the end of 2018, also with the help of the travel agency, we managed to find a nice trip at a decidedly low price, especially considering it was for New Year's Eve. There were many reasons for visiting Morocco and they had roots in our youth, in fact in my city which is located in southern Italy, there has always been and still is, a strong Moroccan community. Since I was a child, I have been used to interacting with young Moroccans who came to work in Italy and their culture has always blended well with ours. Moroccans have always addressed us by calling us "cousin", a friendly form that they have always shown even with facts. Moroccans have always been and still are friends and this is always how I have considered them too. So visiting their country was for me a sort of tribute to them, something more important than places to visit or photos to show on a social network. As for Casablanca then, I have always been a fan of the film starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman even though I already knew that in the city there was nothing related to the film, except an unimportant celebratory bar.
At Catania airport we met our tour leader and after the instructions we went to the gate at around 11 PM and right there I had a pleasant surprise. There in line with us was a Moroccan friend of mine, one I know for work reasons. When we met, it was amazement and pleasure for both of us, then I explained the reasons that brought me to Morocco and he immediately made himself available for anything I needed in Morocco. The flight lasted several hours and we arrive in Casablanca in the early morning of December 31st. At passport control, my Moroccan friend made my life easier by translating into Arabic and telling the girl at the desk who I was and what I was doing in Morocco. That night in the hotel we slept very little because the stay in Casablanca was only for one day and that same morning, at 10 AM we were ready to explore the city.
The first visit to Casablanca was an unusual place, so much so that we were all a bit amazed. Our guide took us to a place in the city center and once we got off the bus we walked a few steps to the market. I don't know if the place had any particular importance but I don't know what could have been different in a fruit and vegetable market in Casablanca compared to that of another city. However personally I’m always interested in exploring anything and everything when I am abroad. The Casablanca market that we visited was not very big and was more or less like any other market but a more rustic one. Aesthetically it was white with parts painted blue and in the lower part of the walls there were tiles. There were certainly not the hygiene standards we are used to today but it stood out positively for this. The market seemed more real and consequently also the fish, vegetables and meat on display gave a feeling of naturalness. The most original thing that struck me was the belonging to the nation which manifested itself in the market in the form of paintings hanging on the walls which depicted not only the flag of Morocco but also that of King Mohammed VI and his father, the King Hassan II. A symbol of sincere respect, a kind of flattery and faith for who rules the country, different from the adoration of convenience for politicians that there is in the West. The visit to the market lasted about twenty minutes after which we moved on to the next destination.
We moved to the Méchouar neighborhood where there was an important place to visit, namely the "Mahkamat al-Pasha". This was an administrative building built in the early 1940s. From the outside the palace was very impressive with its stone construction with one of the main gates being very high and arched. But the characteristic beauties were inside the structure. Immediately after the entrance there was a large internal courtyard which was already fascinating in itself. The workmanship that this had such as mosaics on the walls and the upper part in wood, emphasized even more the already characteristic beauty. Other elements were marble as flooring and then the typical fountains present above all in the center of the areas. Those rooms, so large and so full of aesthetic details, were truly beautiful and had a hypnotic effect on me. They were typical things seen in movies but seeing them live was a different and magnetic experience because I personally didn't want to leave that place. With my sister we started taking many photos, especially I liked to immortalize those colored mosaics that were present in the lower part, near doors and windows. Those aesthetic details that caught my eye for no rational reason were the things that excited me the most. The palace also had an external courtyard-garden which, unlike the internal one, also had trees and plants as well as a larger fountain. The visit to the building lasted about forty minutes, a little short but I tried to make the most of it by trying to take pictures, listen quickly to the guide and try to enjoy the place itself.
Soon after we moved to the Royal Palace of Casablanca, this place was not open to the public and in fact we stopped in front of one of the entrances. From an architectural point of view, the gate of the Royal Palace was very similar but richer in details than that of the "Mahkamat al-Pasha". The door of the Royal Palace was made of stone, of a sand color but there were elements such as the columns with mosaics that were white and on top, the roof was made of wood. Above the arch of the door there were other decorations of various colors. It was certainly a more characteristic and articulated work, moreover what we saw was only a very small part, certainly it was even more beautiful inside. Unfortunately, together with the group we were only able to admire that door, it was more of a moment of pause that we spent in that huge square in front of the entrance.
The last destination in Casablanca before moving to Marrakech was also the most important, namely the visit to the Hassan II Mosque. We got there after about forty minutes by bus and the Mosque was right next to the sea. This visit was highly anticipated because the guide had told us a lot about the importance of the mosque as well as its size and grandeur. The Hassan II Mosque was the largest in Morocco and one of the largest in the world, it was built with the money of all Moroccans and for this reason it was also a popular pride. The mosque could hold about 25,000 faithful inside and its Arab-Andalusian-style minaret was 210 meters high, the numbers of the Mosque were record-breaking. Upon arrival in the Mosque area I was immediately able to perceive the importance and majesty of the building. The Mosque stood out on the horizon, on the sea and a huge square led to a first colonnade made with wide arches. Already from the colonnade, my sister and I started taking pictures with the mosque in the background because the perspective was very original. The all-white Mosque with light green elements such as the roof and some decorations on the minaret, made one perceive its size thanks to the people near the entrance, who from the colonnade looked very small. For a strange effect, the closer we got to the Mosque the more it always remained the same size, it was due to the fact that the square was huge so we had to walk for five minutes before getting close enough to see it big. To tell the truth, I personally did not approach the entrance but only until I was close to being able to see and photograph the minaret in its entirety. Even from that perspective, the people near the entrance looked small. Beyond the aesthetic beauty especially of the square minaret compared to the round ones that could be seen in Turkish Mosques for example, that of Hassan II had a unique feature; it was a Mosque that was also open to non-Muslims. However there were reservation rules for groups and that day our guide said that it was not possible to visit it. Since we had to go back to Casablanca on the last day before returning to Italy, if we had time, we would have visited it on our way back. Unfortunately this did not happen, however even that time spent there looking at the Mosque from the outside was a beautiful moment of reflection. The Mosque had both a beautiful and imposing style and then it was positioned right on the sea, an unusual location which however gave it a different charm, more exotic and less solemn if I may say. Our visit there lasted about twenty minutes and we left in a mood that was more of a goodbye than a farewell.
After leaving the Mosque we headed south to the coast where we stopped at a restaurant for lunch. The coast was very long with fine sandy beaches and many bathing facilities, although it was December there were also people at sea. What struck me however was the quality and condition of these structures, all new and modern and the seafront was also new and well maintained. It was evident that those structures had recently been built with a modern concept and subsequently as I continued my journey in Morocco, I noticed how in many places they built giving a very modern and functional face to the cities. After lunch our day continued with a bus trip to Marrakech where we arrived for dinner and to celebrate the New Year.
Casablanca was an anomalous visit, certainly the first approach to Morocco and the Arab lifestyle and the typical architecture of the place. The city was very large and our guide told us that it was impossible to visit the Medina both because it was endless and because it was dangerous. In general there was a feeling among the group that the city wasn’t safe and that therefore the first visit to Morocco was more superficial and faster. However, even if we saw very little of Casablanca, it was enough or at least it went well for me. After all Casablanca was not a main destination in Morocco and in the end there was nothing in the city about the movie that I loved so much. The Hassan II mosque then was enough to justify the visit to the city, a large place, which we visited in very small part but of which I still keep a good memory.
Pictures: Antonio Malara
Camera: Fujifilm XT-3