TheAltitude Report

Casablanca: Your Gateway to Northern Africa

There’s one thing, and maybe only one thing, about the city of Casablanca that resembles the place in the movie of the same name. In December 1941, the film’s screenwriters depicted the city as a gateway out of Africa. In real-life 2017, it’s still a gateway, but this metropolis of over 5 million now faces the other way, introducing people to a nation of hybrids and contrasts.

With Air Canada now offering non-stop service between Montreal and Casablanca, we take a look at five bustling Moroccan cities within reach of Mohammed V International Airport.

Casablanca

Start in the Marché Central. A renovation ahead of its centenary has just been completed with an emphasis on locally grown and prepared foods, served and sold from its many stalls and cubbies. From there, walk to the Hassan II Mosque, the largest in Morocco. It’s gorgeous, but not a relic. Though it was built by thousands of Moroccan craftsmen and features the Zellige mosaics that have been associated with Morocco since the eighth century CE, it was only completed in 1993, making it an ideal attraction in this very modern city. Along the way, stop by Rick’s American Café. A faithful reproduction of the set from the Bergman/Bogart movie, it should be terrible, but it’s not. The cocktails are good, the room bustles but isn’t noisy, and the movie plays discreetly in a loop on unobtrusive wall-mounted TVs.

Essaouira

Though it was built by the French, English and Genoese, this small city is all Moroccan, commissioned by Mohammed III in the 18th century when he wanted a port close to Marrakech that would reposition his empire toward the Atlantic and world trade. In this walled city with strong trade winds that encourage surfing of all sorts, you’ll want to spend an afternoon at the casbah. Built in 1765, it’s the city’s original defence. From here you’ll see the gargottes, the blue and white stalls serving cooked fish straight from the sea, caught in the blue dories strewn everywhere and presided over by hundreds of soaring gulls.

Marrakech

This is a city of grand hotels, most designed around the concept of the riad, or central courtyard. Among them are the famous Mamounia, a favourite of Churchill’s, and the newer Royal Mansour, one of the world’s most luxurious – fit for, and built by, the king (and with the best hammam outside of Turkey). If you have a picture of an Arabic market or souk in your mind, the one in Marrakech is probably the closest thing to it. Marrakech is the Morocco people envision and dream of – the Florence of the Maghreb.

Fez

The recent beneficiary of a king who values tourism, this 1,200-year-old city boasts no fewer than 27 sites and buildings that have been or are being renovated with funding from the World Bank. Two souks make up part of what may be the world’s largest urban pedestrian zone. It was the capital until 1925, so there are plenty of monumental buildings to visit, including the library of the University of Al-Qarawiyyin, founded by Fatima Al-Fihri in 859 CE, making it probably the world’s oldest. (Its recent renovation was led by Canadian-Moroccan architect and Fez native Aziza Chaouni.)

Tangier

Tangier is about as close as you can get to Europe and still be in Africa, and it was the first, and sometimes last, stop for Europeans and other foreigners who wanted to delve into the pleasures of the Maghreb. Delacroix, Matisse, Choukri and Burroughs (who wrote Naked Lunch here) all spent time in Tangier, enticing other likeminded people to come, and often stay. As a result, this blue and white city, though only about 1 million strong, is as cosmopolitan as any place there is. Try Café Hafa, a modest place founded in 1921 that the Beatles, among others, seemed to like. From 1940 to 1956, Tangier was an international zone, part of no country but open to all, law-abiding and otherwise, and a good deal more like Bogart’s Casablanca than Casablanca itself ever was. Though it’s all legit now, the ethos remains, and there’s not another place like it on earth.