Moroccan Adventure: Kings and Cafés in Casablanca

During my volunteer trip to Rabat, I had the opportunity to take a weekend excursion to Casablanca, the largest city in Morocco. It lies along the Atlantic Ocean on the country’s western coast and is home to one of the largest artificial ports in the world. The city was originally called Anfa in Berber, but the Portuguese renamed it Casa Branca, or “white house,” when they took over in the 15th century AD and built themselves a large, white fortress. When Portugal became part of the Spanish union, the town was renamed Casa Blanca to reflect the newly predominant language. Today most Moroccans simply call the town Casa.

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One of my fellow Cross-Cultural Solutions volunteers, Paige, and I took the one-hour train ride from the Gare de Rabat-Agdal station to Casablanca for less than $5 USD apiece. We arrived in Casablanca mid-morning and walked to our first destination, the Hassan II Mosque.

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The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco

The Hassan II Mosque is the third-largest mosque in the world, and much of it is built over the Atlantic Ocean. All of the mosque’s plaster details are carved by hand, and it took 10,000 artists and craftsmen seven years to complete. It opened in August 1993 on the eve of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth.

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The Hassan II Mosque features elaborate titanium doors as well as Murano glass chandeliers, marble floors, and some pretty state-of-the-art technology that opens the entire roof in under five minutes.

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It’s difficult to understand how huge this mosque is from photos. It can accommodate 25,000 men indoors for prayers and another 80,000 on the plaza outside. It cost approximately €585 million to build, which the Moroccan government couldn’t afford. However, King Hassan II wanted a mosque that was second in size only to the mosque at Mecca in Saudi Arabia, and what a king wants, a king generally gets. The Moroccan people also wished to have the mosque, and 12 million of them donated to the project, some as little as 5 DH (about $0.50 USD) each. Even the smallest donation was given a receipt and a certificate of appreciation.

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The Hassan II Mosque is a beautiful place to visit, and our guide was both knowledgeable and hilarious. A guided tour in English, French, German, or Spanish costs 120 DH (approximately $12.25 USD) per person for adults and takes about an hour. While knees and upper arms must be covered for visitors of both genders, women are not required to wear headscarves.

In addition to seeing the great prayer hall, you’ll tour a hammam, which is a steam room similar to a Turkish bath. You’ll also walk through underground ablutions rooms with huge lotus-shaped marble fountains and intricate, brightly-colored tile mosaics.

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Rick’s Café Casablanca, designed after the movie set from the classic 1942 film Casablanca starring Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart

While it isn’t the original from the film Casablancano tourist visit to Casa would be complete without a stop at Rick’s Café. (The original doesn’t exist, by the way. It was only a movie set.) The café was opened in 2004 by a former American diplomat to Morocco, and it’s located next to the Old Medina of Casablanca. They serve Veuve Clicquot along with a number of 1940s-style cocktails and a full dinner menu. Their Goat Cheese Salad with Fresh Figs is a house specialty, and you can recreate it at home with the café’s recipe2016-04-10 15.15.20

At a population of around six million, Casablanca is a bit large for my tastes, but if we move to Morocco, it’s good to know that a metropolitan area with plenty of international transportation options exists just a train ride from any major city in the country. And as a tourist, Casa made a delightful day trip!

Next up: a camel trek into the Sahara Desert to camp under the stars in Merzouga.