Sunday, 17th November 2019
The priority in Casablanca is to visit the Hassan II Mosque, the only mosque in Morocco which non-Muslims are allowed to visit. The hotel concierge said it would be a pleasant walk in the sunshine, but the route he directed us to, took us through an area where there was much heavy building work going on and the pavement was often out of bounds so we were walking with the traffic. We felt we could find a more picturesque route back but the works seem to be designed in part to create a more picturesque approach to the mosque.
On the way we spotted Rick’s Café which Matilda, who studied film, was adamant had to be on the itinerary and was already scheduled for later that evening.
We carried on towards the Hassan II Mosque which was built between 1987 to 1993 by [unsurprisingly] King Hassan II, the father of the current monarch, Mohammad VI. The mosque was originally scheduled for completion in 1989 to coincide with King Hassan II’s sixtieth birthday but [also unsurprisingly] this was delayed.
It combines traditional Moorish architecture with modern technology and is simply beautiful: the exterior is predominantly polished granite with green and turquoise blue zellij [tiling] decorations which complement the changing colours of the sea.
As this is a relatively new construction, built on land reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean, the vistas are sweeping and the complex not only includes the Mosque, a museum and a library/resource centre but also incorporates underground parking which means that the area is traffic free and visitors are able to wander safely around the square.
This is probably just as well as the majority of people spend their time gazing upwards at the mosque in awe.
There are tours on the hour at certain times of the day, when the mosque is not in use for prayers and tickets are available from the adjacent museum. Out of season we were able to arrive at about 09:50 and still get places on the 10:00 tour. A rather large group was led across from the museum to the entrance where tickets were scanned and all visitors removed their shoes. Bags are provided so that everyone carries their own shoes with them during the tour, thus avoiding a confusion of footwear at the entrance. Could this be a new collective noun?
Once inside and barefoot, visitors are asked to stand by one of four signs denoting the language of the tour they wish to join. The English tour on this occasion was thankfully relatively small.
The interior is also magnificent.
The materials predominantly come from Morocco with the exception of some Italian marble and the chandeliers which are made from Murano glass.
The Hassan II is the largest mosque in Africa and the third largest in the world. The minaret is 25 meters wide and 200 meters high and is said to be the tallest in the world whilst the prayer hall is able to hold 25,000 people. An additional 80,000 worshippers can be accommodated in the grounds outside the mosque.
As it was built by a monarch, there is a “King’s Door” and a path down the centre of the prayer hall which is roped off and which only the King is allowed to use.
The ceilings over the central area are made from intricately carved cedar wood felled in the Atlas Mountains and can be opened to allow for worship under the stars or for additional ventilation when required, for example during Ramadan.
The sound system has been discretely incorporated into the interior decor with loudspeakers installed on the capitals of all the columns. A laser beam shines out from the top of the minaret across the sea towards Mecca and can be seen 30k/19 miles away.
The exquisitely carved wooden mezzanine floors are reserved for women.
Having put shoes back on the tour continues past intricately carved doors . . .
. . . and beautifully carved ceilings down . . .
. . . to the washrooms . . .
. . . which are an architectural delight in themselves.
Having visited the mosque, we returned to our hotel to take a tour round the city by car, although the three hour tour turned out to be rather shorter than originally sold to us as we think we had slightly stolen the driver’s thunder by having already visited the mosque. We drove to the Old Light House . . .
. . . where there is a lot of redevelopment going on and where there are panoramic views back across the sea towards the Hassan II Mosque.
From here we drove along The Corniche – a stretch of sandy beach which is again subject to some serious regeneration work. Old swimming pool complexes lie in ruins, with rubble and detritus slowly encroaching whilst further along their more recent replacements have been drained for the season. This is obviously a very wealthy area.
There was a real party atmosphere when we stopped at the Église de Notre Dame de Lourdes. We did visit on a Sunday, but were nevertheless allowed to enter, and many of the congregation were outside socialising. The church itself was built in 1954 and is a striking modernist structure with an imposingly tall entrance.
There was a shrine to one side . .
. . .whilst inside more of the congregation continued to worship in the coloured light from the stained glass windows along either side.
We continued past the Old Court House . . .
. . . and into the market streets of Habous where . . . .
. . . the courtyard which is given over to olives was fragrant and enticing but we managed to refrain from buying anything to add to our luggage.
We also passed the Royal Palace.
Our quest to find the Art Deco buildings of Casablanca led us to the Mohammad V Square and the Grande Poste.
Unfortunately our driver had not heard of some of the gems which we had identified as worth finding so, having returned to the hotel briefly, we set out again on foot past another photogenic Post Office . . .
. . . and on to The Cinema Rialto, an Art Deco treasure, which was closed when we passed but seemed to be available for events and screenings. When you peer through the doors, very appropriately, there is a poster of Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca on the wall.
The Église du Sacré Coeur is a beautiful building which was deconsecrated and apparently turned into an arts centre. Sadly when we walked past it was boarded up, open to the elements and deteriorating rapidly.
Opposite the Cinema Rialto was another Art Deco building, the Hotel Rialto, which boasted a very welcoming bar where we were allowed, unusually to drink beer outside. Matilda wondered whether this might be because it was preferable to letting a woman sit inside as she was the only female present.
Rick’s Café only serves meals at lunch time but in the evening you can go to the upstairs bar for a drink where they play the film Casablanca without sound but with English subtitles. This bar is obviously a complete fabrication as the film was shot almost entirely at the Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank but, as they say in the movie, “Everyone comes to Rick’s”.
We had been recommended a restaurant which was on our way back to the hotel where once again felines were visiting different tables hopefully. This time a small ginger cat sat patiently next to Matilda but we were told that he had moved in recently and was being well fed.