Suitcase and World: Casablanca. الدار البيضاء

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Casablanca. الدار البيضاء

Forever immortalized in the Hollywood classic of the same name, Casablanca is Morocco's largest city and its industrial and economic heart. It also boasts the world's largest artificial port but no ferry service of any kind.

The modern city of Casablanca was founded by Berber fishermen in the 10th century BC and was subsequently used by the Phoenicians, Romans, and the Merenids as a strategic port called Anfa.

The Portuguese destroyed it and rebuilt it under the name Casa Branca, only to abandon it after an earthquake in 1755.  Sultan Mohammed Ben Abdellah al-Khatib who was Sultan of Morocco from 1757 to 1790 under the Alaouite dynasty, rebuilt the city as Dar el-Beida which means "White House" in Arabic.  The city was given its current name of Casablanca by Spanish traders who established trading bases there. The French occupied the city in 1907, establishing it as a protectorate in 1912 and starting construction of the Ville Nouvelle, however it gained independence with the rest of the country in 1956.

Casablanca is our point of entry into Morocco. We only have two days here basically to just give us time to adjust to the time change and get acquainted with the country and its culture.

Soon and I arrive a day earlier but we'll wait for Aaron and Mildred to come so we can all explore the city together.

By pretty much all accounts, Casablanca one of the country's less endearing spots in terms of heritage sites and landmarks.

"An old city in a new city" Our hotel is located, right across the street from the Casa Port train station, in what is know as the Ville Nouvelle (New Town) of Casablanca which was designed by the French architect Henri Prost. The main streets radiate south and east from Place des Nations Unies and the area is pretty much populated by government administrative buildings and hotels.

Our hotel is a stone's throw away from some of the city's tourist spots including the Old Medina and the Place Mohammed V.

The Old Medina is the part of town that pre-dates the days of the French protectorate) and doesn't have the exotic charm of the medinas of cities like Fes and Marrakesh because its architecture has colonial influences rather than Arab-Muslim ones.

But I think it's worth at least a quick look see.  It will a good place to get an idea of the type of things that are sold in the medina, a chance to do a bit of comparative shopping before hitting the medina in Fes.

"A mosque fit for a king" Located a  little further away from our hotel is pretty much the one and only major heritage landmark in Casablanca - the Hassan II Mosque.

The mosque is the largest in North Africa and was designed by the French architect Michel Pinseau.  Construction on the mosque was started in 1980 and was intended to be completed for the 60th birthday of the former Moroccan king, Hassan II, in 1989. However, the building was not inaugurated until 1993. 

The mosque has enough room inside to accomodate for 25,000 worshipers.  An additional 80,000 worshipers can be accommodated in the mosque's courtyard. Its minaret is the world's tallest at 210 metres and it dominates the city's skyline.

Spectacular for its size and the Moorish and art deco lines of the architecture, the Hassan II Mosque is the only Islamic sacred place that is open to non Muslim visitors with guided tours.

"A meeting place"Place Mohammed V is a vast square  surrounded by an impressive array of  administrative buildings, mostly designed by French architects Henri Prost and Robert Marrast. The ancienne préfecture (old police eadquarters), dating from 1930, dominates the south side of the square and is topped by a modernist clock tower.
The nearby Palais de Justice (law courts) was built in 1925.  Across the grand square is the main post office which was built in 918.  More in the style of traditional Moroccan architecture is the Banque al-Maghrib, on Blvd de Paris. Fronted with decorative stonework, it was the last building constructed on the square.

"A church"The Parc de la Ligue Arabe (formally called Lyautey) is the city's largest public park. On its edge is the Cathédrale Sacré-Coeur; a cathedral in a Muslim city!   Looks a bit out of place in this city and not surprised to learn that it no longer functions as a church.

The huge Cathédrale Sacré-Coeur was built in 1930, when Morocco was still under the rule of Catholic France. Falling into disuse after Morocco's independence in 1956, the Cathédrale Sacré-Coeur was used as a school and then a culture center. Today, it hosts fairs and exhibitions and on occasion, the Cathedral is open to visitors, including access to the towers which offer superb views of Casablanca and the Atlantic Ocean.  Maybe it will be our lucky day if and when we stop by for a visit.

The Cathédrale Sacré-Coeur known for its fascinating architecture which represents an interesting experiment of using poured decorative concrete. Architecturally inspired by the look of European cathedrals, it combines two different architectural styles: Gothic and Art Deco, a combination that makes it a historical monument like no other.

Even after having done the research on what to see and do in Casablanca, I have to admit, it still doesn't sound like an interesting place.  But, I will keep an open mind and hope for fun time!