Morocco: Casablanca

I barely know where to start when it comes to writing about the incredible week I spent in Morocco. Even though I was only there for a short amount of time I packed it full, managing to visit three cities and even the Sahara desert. Because of how busy I was and how much I have to write about, I decided to split the trip into bite size pieces so that you’re not sat for hours reading one blog about it. This first blog will cover the first city I visited – Casablanca.

Before we dive in, a little background about this trip. This trip has been in the works for a long time and most likely would have happened much sooner if it weren’t for covid. I have desperately wanted to visit Morocco for three years, ever since 2019 when I lived in China as part of my university degree. This may seem like a strange link but it is all to do with some of the friends that I made there. At least in my city, the northwesterly city of Dalian, there was a large number of Moroccans within the international student community due to the high number of scholarships that were available for them to go to China, particularly to study masters degrees. When I arrived in China, I only knew one person, another student from Edinburgh University who had also chosen Dalian for his study abroad city. Because of this, I was keen to meet as many people as possible. One of my first weekends there I headed out to a party at a bar with a few of the friends I had made in my class and it was here that I met Hiba. She had also just arrived in Dalian, a Moroccan student there for her masters. I originally messaged her to meet up because she had said that she would help me practise my French which I didn’t want to lose while in China. We hit it off and the rest is history. She became one of my closest friends while I was in Dalian and has stayed one of them since we parted ways. Through Hiba, I got to know a larger group of Moroccans, some of whom also became very good friends of mine.

With Hiba and Aymen in China

Unfortunately, the initial onset of covid meant that we all had to leave China, and each other, many months before we wanted or had planned but from the beginning it had always been my plan to visit my friends in their own country one day. I had other trips that fell into place during my holidays last year, as well as them being more accessible during the pandemic but I knew I would get to Morocco eventually. I had my eyes set on my October holiday this year as a good time to make it happen, with the temperature being slightly lower and more bearable for me at that time of the year and with covid restrictions being more relaxed this year than last. I contacted Hiba, found some flights and that was it! I was actually supposed to go with my friend Hannah but unfortunately the week we were supposed to leave, she was taken really unwell to the point that it would have been a really bad idea to travel. I was gutted that I wasn’t going to be able to share the experience with her as we’d really been looking forward to going but I guess it just means I’ll have to go back with her!

My journey to Morocco actually started with travelling to Paris as that’s where my flight was leaving from. Flights ended up being a bit of a pain to find. They were either €400+ for a direct return flight or a more affordable €100-200 but with a 13 hour layover somewhere in both directions. In the end I succeeded in finding two single flights in an affordable price range, direct from Paris Beauvais to Marrakesh and with a five hour layover in London Heathrow on the way back to Charles de Gaulle – not ideal but the best I could do. I had a little time to kill between my train to Paris and getting out to the airport so I was able to grab lunch with a friend that lives nearby.

I have only ever flown into Paris Beauvais, known for being the worst of the Paris airports, due to the fact that you can barely describe it as being in Paris and that the airport itself is as budget as the airlines that use it. I am of the opinion that flying into it is fine – the shuttle into the centre of Paris takes about as long as it would to get from CDG into the city and because it’s so small, pretty much only one flight arrives at a time meaning luggage and passport control queues are minimal. However, flying out of it was a nightmare and is something I will try to avoid as much as I can in the future. It was just chaotic with not enough space for all the people waiting and a very disorganised queue through passport control and security. To top it off, my flight was delayed by 50 minutes, meaning that my already late arrival time of 11.30pm local time was pushed back to 00.45am. Hiba had arranged a lot of the accommodation during my trip, including this first night in Marrakesh and thankfully I was able to arrange a €20 airport transfer through the riad I was staying in. Normally I’m all for using public transport to get from an airport into the city but not so much when it’s the middle of the night and I’m arriving by myself into an unfamiliar place. On Hiba’s recommendation, I also picked up a local sim card in the airport as my French one wouldn’t work in Morocco and we needed to be able to keep in touch until we met up. I would 100% recommend doing this as I got 20GB for €20, more than enough for my week-long stay and having access to internet data just makes everything easier, especially when travelling.

Despite the fact that it was the middle of the night, the streets of Marrakesh were surprisingly animated! I was dropped off by my driver as close to my riad as he could get. At the heart of Marrakesh is the medina, what could be considered the old, residential part of many north African cities. Marrakesh’s medina is pedestrianised, as are many others, so the small twisty streets can only be accessed by foot, bicycle or motorcycle. The owner of my riad, a French man called Bruno, met me where the driver dropped me off and walked me the final few minutes. But what actually is a riad? A riad is a house of several stories surrounding a central courtyard that is open to the fresh air. They were and still can be family homes but are also a popular, and slightly cheaper, alternative to hotels.

I was only there for a total of seven hours but I have nothing but kind words to say about Bruno’s Le Nid Bleu Riad. It was clean and comfortable and from what I could tell fairly well located although I wasn’t there long enough to go exploring. I was leaving the next day to head straight to Casablanca to find my friends but I felt so welcome. Bruno helped me arrange my airport transfer, met me on the street at 2am to walk me to the riad (nowhere near as dodgy as it sounds) and told me where to go for breakfast in the morning. I was served a lovely fresh breakfast of m’semen (a flat, square pancake) and honey, butter, jam, soft cheese, fruit, coffee and orange juice. I had already talked to Bruno about arranging a taxi to the station but I needed to get some cash out to pay him beforehand. Morocco has what is called a closed currency meaning that dirhams are not available outside of its own borders. In places like the airport or for my airport transfer I was able to use euros or you might be able to find a cash machine at the airport, I just didn’t look for one as it was already late enough. Bruno was kind enough to order me a taxi to the nearest cash machine, walk me there and even bought me a cup of Moroccan mint tea to drink together while we waited.

Breakfast at Le Nid Bleu

Even though Bruno himself isn’t Moroccan, he has been living there for a number of years and has a love for the country that was clear to me even in the short time that I spent with him. He told me that he just wants to help other people do the same and he definitely got me off on the right track. In just the short time that I was in Marrakesh (for now), I could already tell that the people are what make Morocco special (but let’s be real, I already knew that).

I got my taxi to the train station and had a very easy two and a half hour journey from Marrakesh to Casablanca. There is a pretty good train network that connects the major cities in Morocco. This trip cost 110 dirhams or about €11. Casablanca is on the coast of Morocco and is the largest city and economic centre of the country. Hiba met me at the station and it was like no time had passed since we last saw each other almost three years ago, eating ma la tang in Dalian. Those are my favourite kinds of friends, the ones who you pick up your conversation like no time has passed, even if lots has. Those are the friendships that last in my opinion and they are the friendships worth nourishing so that they do last.

The plan for the day was to try and see as much of Casablanca as possible. Hiba’s mum had driven her to the station and so drove us around a little to start with. Our first stop was potentially Casablanca’s most popular tourist attraction, certainly the biggest – Hassan II Mosque. The mosque is the second largest functioning mosque in Africa and the seventh biggest in the world. It has a capacity of 105,000 people, 25,000 inside and another 80,000 in the courtyard area outside. The minaret is 210m tall making it the second tallest in the world. There is a laser at the top that points towards Mecca! It was completed in 1993 after the king at the time acknowledged the lack of cultural or architectural landmarks in Casablanca. It was built by artisans from all over Morocco and funded in part by every family in Morocco. Hassan II Mosque is also one of the few mosques in Morocco that non-Muslims can visit but can only be done via a prearranged guided tour. At the moment, the area around the mosque is mostly closed but we happened to arrive right before prayer so we were able to walk around a little and even peer in. My favourite part was the fact that it is built half over the ocean!

On our way to our second stop we passed through an area of Casablanca called the Corniche. This is an area along the beach that has seen a lot of development in the last few years. It is now laden with resorts, luxury hotels, clubs and restaurants. It also features El Hank lighthouse, the tallest in Morocco. It played an important role in the mid-20th century in improving access to the previously dangerous harbour and therefore allowing Casablanca to develop into Morocco’s chief port. You used to be able to climb the 256 steps to the top of the lighthouse but it has been closed since before covid to preserve the stairs from further degradation. At the other end of the Corniche was our destination – Morocco Mall, the largest shopping mall in Africa! We stopped here for a bite to eat, choosing a Chinese place! Not the most traditional Moroccan food but it was a nice homage to where Hiba and I met.

We had a couple of short stops to see a few more things, passing through the United Nations Square and the Bab Marrakesh market filled with kaftans, shoes (traditional and fake designer), vases and wooden creations. Possibly the most unpleasant experience of the day was Mohamed V Square. It’s nickname might give you a clue as to why, it is known as Pigeon Square… Much more pleasant was Arab League Park. Previously a rather dirty and dangerous area of Casablanca, the park was recently renovated to the tune of €10 million and reopened in 2020. It’s like a little oasis inside the bustling city. We just had a little wander around, enjoying the coolness from the trees (even at the end of October it was around 30º most of the time I was there) but there is a lot to do in the surrounding area. On one corner of the park you’ll find the Sacred Heart Cathedral as well as a number of art museums.

We also met up with another dear friend, Aymen, that I met through Hiba while we were in China. He also lives in Rabat so joined us for the rest of the afternoon. Together we got a taxi to Quartier Habous, one of the older neighbourhoods of Casablanca. A quick note of gratitude to all my friends but particularly Hiba who handled all the taxis for my trip. Taxis in Morocco don’t often use meters although there is still an unofficial price guide depending on the city you are in, how far you are going and whether you have a big or small car. This of course doesn’t really apply to tourists who are less likely to have this information and less likely to be able to communicate with the drivers and so they often get ripped off. Having Hiba and Aymen, locals and Arabic speakers was invaluable and I had nothing to do except occasionally force Hiba to take some money to cover the taxi costs that she kept paying for.

Back to Quartier Habous, it was built in 1916 during the French occupation to be a new medina (the historical part of the city, usually walled with a maze of narrow streets). You can find a bustling bazaar with leather goods and carpets as well as a lot of bookshops specialising in Arabic books nestled amongst the twists and turns. There are also a lot of olive and spice stalls as well as the well known Patisserie Bennis Habous which has been open since 1930! We bought a mixed box of biscuits and took them round the corner to Cafe Imperial where you can enjoy them with a cup of Moroccan tea. I’m not the biggest tea drinker but I drank a lot of the very sweet, slightly bitter mint Moroccan tea over the week I was there. The traditional tea is green tea served with spearmint leaves and quite a lot of sugar. The further south you go, the stronger the tea is made by leaving it on the stove for longer.You’ll often see tea being poured into the glass from a great and ever increasing height as well. As well as being very impressive, this is done to add bubbles to the tea to improve the texture and flavour. It’s an important social custom and a big part of the culture. We happily sat in this cafe for ages, chatting, joking and laughing a lot, reminiscing about China and catching up on everything that’s happened since.

Just up the road from Cafe Imperial is the Makhma du Pacha, a building that used to be used by the king to meet with his people and hear their concerns. It was completed in 1952 and is a great example of the outstanding work of Moroccan craftsmen with carved wooden ceilings, intricate stonework and gorgeous tiles. As well as a parliamentary reception hall, the palace has also been a courthouse, a jail and the residence of the pasha (governor). I think it has been closed since covid but when we stuck our heads in, the guards let us have a little poke around. Hiba actually grew up a few streets away but had never visited it before.

It was nearing the end of the day so we started thinking about dinner. Hiba wanted to go to one of her favourite restaurants in Casablanca, Sqala. The restaurant is hidden away inside the ramparts of the old medina near the Casa Port train station. This is where I had my first taste of both Morocco’s most famous dish, tagine. The word tagine actually has two meanings, referring both to the clay or ceramic cooking pot, a round dish at the bottom and a cone at the top, and the type of dish that is cooked inside it. Tagine (the dish) is almost like a stew, usually made with meat or fish and some vegetables, although there are vegetarian tagines as well. The shape of the pot means that only a little water is needed to cook the meat or vegetables as the steam gathers in the cone and condenses back into the dish. It makes it a very practical cooking method in areas where water is in short supply. I tried a lamb tagine with artichokes and peas and we all shared a plate of briouates. These are small, triangular, puff pastry parcels filled with a variety of things, beef, octopus and chicken and almonds in our case. The chicken and almonds one in particular was a confusing but delicious combination. In a larger, round form, this is known as pastilla de poulet – extremely thin pastry called warqa filled with shredded chicken, ground almonds and cinnamon, dusted in icing sugar.

That pretty much brings us to the end of my first full day in Morocco! Originally my plan was to combine Casablanca and Rabat into the same blog post but we’re already sitting around three thousand words so I think we’ll leave it there. It just means more Morocco posts for you to enjoy! For now, I’ll finish with a few thoughts I had over my first few days in Morocco. First of all, I could barely believe that I was actually there! Being in Morocco also gave me a similar feeling to being in Honduras which might sound weird seeing as the two countries don’t have a lot in common on the surface. It was somewhere very different to a lot of the places I’m used to and I felt both out of place yet comfortable in the chaos and uncertainty at the same time. This trip really has been a long time in the making. I remember multiple conversations that Hiba, Aymen and I had together in China, envisioning this day three years ago and thousands of miles away! I feel so lucky to have found these people on the other side of the world, to have made such a strong connection with them and then be able to pick up as if we never left off, three years later, in their home and in a world that has been irrevocably changed since we first met. 

All that just from the first day and a bit! Lots more to come.

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