Casablanca, Our Last Stop

We left Essaouria early in the morning.We had a long drive ahead of us, and the rest of the day after our arrival in the city was the only time assigned for a tour of Casablanca. It was quite obvious that Casablanca not meant to be a highlight of our visit to Morocco. It did not bother us that this was the case since we had already explored the heart and soul of the country over so many days. (I will note that Rick’s Cafe, a popular destination for tourists to the city because of the movie Casablanca, was not even on the itinerary!)

Our departure from Essaouria actually ended up being a little later than planned since our luggage was late being delivered from our rooms to the bus. Youssef explained that hotels were short staffed because of the effect of COVID.

There had been a overwhelmingly positive response when Youssef asked if folks wanted to see the movie Casablanca on the bus. (I might have been the only one who said no!) The blinds were all drawn to darken the interior of the bus as the movie was played during the morning drive. I had to pop my head behind the blinds to look out and take some of these pictures.

I enjoyed listening to the dialogue in the movie even though I was not watching it. There are so many memorable lines!

Since this was our last day together in Morocco, we started saying our farewells to the people who had taken care of us during the tour – our driver Youssef, and our helper Rashid – at our stop for lunch. Youssef and Rashid had kept us out of trouble, and had gotten us, and our luggage, safely and securely to all of our destinations. They had done a remarkable job!

The land looked flat and dry as we got closer to Casablanca. There were rolling hills and farms. We could see donkeys, and occasional cows and horses. There were no camels here – like in the eastern parts of the country.

Things began to get quieter on the bus as we approached the city. In the short period of time that we had been together we had gotten to know most of our fellow travelers, and we would actually be missing many of them as we departed for our individual destinations.

The city of Casablanca was given its name by Portuguese in 1500s. The original name, Casa Branca, translates to The White House. The city was abandoned after an earthquake and rebuilt by the locals with the name Dar al-Bayda, which also means The White House. The city has suffered occupation by a few European countries during its existence, including the Spanish, and even the Vichy French during WWII.

Casablanca is the largest city in Morocco. It is considered the economic “beating heart” of Morocco.

As we were entering the city, we drove next to the beach and a posh section of city. That whole area looked very clean.

The first stop in town was to take a walk along a section of the Boulevard de la Corniche next to the sea. There was nothing culturally or historically notable. It was more of a break from sitting in the bus – to stretch our legs.

The lighthouse in the distance in the picture above is called El Hank. It is the tallest lighthouse in Morocco.

After the walk, we were driven further north towards other parts of town. Casablanca was looking like a very modern city so far.

Our next stop was at the Hassan II mosque. This picture was taken as we approached the area of the mosque.Hassan II is the biggest mosque in Morocco. Unlike most mosques in Morocco, it is open for non-muslims to visit. It was built during the years 1986 to 1996. Because the government lacked sufficient funds at that time, its construction was funded by money contributed directly by the people. Folks received a receipt for their contributions, no matter how small it was.

I learnt that the three spheres on top of the minarets of mosques were meant to represent three religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Some mosques have a 4th sphere (for the important books of Islam), and others 5 (for the pillars of Islam).

We were scheduled to just see the mosque from a distance, but some people were also interested in seeing the inside of the mosque. Youssef had heard the message and internalized it, but he also was constrained to follow the itinerary that had been set for the tour.

Our next stop was the Notre Dame De Lourdes church, built in 1954 by the Franciscans. The sides of the church were of stained glass.We were told that there was a depiction of Satan on one of the stained glass windows. (I do not remember now why that piece of information was considered significant enough to convey.)

We were told that there are still Franciscans in Morocco, and that they do social work. There was a chorus practicing in the church while we were there. They looked like visitors from other parts of Africa.

Christians live under certain constraints in Morocco, and their numbers are small. They are not allowed to proselytize.

Later on in the evening, we did pass another massive cathedral building that has not served its original function for many, many, years. The building stood out against the background of the blue of the evening sky as we drove by.

We church was located in the Habous quarter of the city. (Habous means endowment.) This area was developed for needy people during the last century. The architecture is typically Moorish. Property in this part of town is now apparently considered highly desirable in spite of its origins.

The palace was supposed to be close by but it was not on the itinerary.

Before we checked into the hotel, Youssef made a last minute arrangement for some us to see the inside of the mosque. What a guy! We were squeezing in some time to try to get back to the mosque. It was touch and go, but we got there on time. He twisted enough arms so that we could buy the entrance tickets on our own quickly at the last minute, and then jump onto electric carts that would take us to the mosque itself in a timely fashion.

Once in the mosque, we rushed off to find a tour group with a guide who was speaking in English. Unfortunately, our guide was not easily understandable – in fact he was indecipherable!I have to point out that there were at least a few women in our tour group who chose to wear a shawl over their heads as a sign of respect. I thought this behavior was commendable.

The building was immense. The roof can be opened to allow the air from the outside to enter and circulate within the building. The movable roof is operated electrically.We went down to the basement of the mosque where they have the area for people to do their ablutions before prayer.

This picture is of one of the entrances to the mosque.The door is massive!

Youssef was waiting for us with the bus after the tour of the mosque, after first having dropped off the others who were not coming on the tour at the hotel. We were taken to our hotel. There would be a dinner that evening to celebrate the end of our time together.

We drove to a restaurant for the farewell dinner. Many people dressed up for the event. We stopped at Mohammed V Square on our way to dinner. There were a lot of people out on the square having fun. A person dressed in a gold covering sat on a bicycle pretending to be a statue!

A tram line ran on the road next to the square.

On the other side of the road was the new Opera House, still under construction.

Again, my impression was of Casablanca being quite a modern place.

We continued to the restaurant after the break. We had to walk the last few yards to the restaurant because the road was blocked off on account of an accident.

The dinner was a relaxed affair. The musician who was entertaining us was singing songs that we could also join in. One of our friends from Arizona pulled out her smartphone to get the lyrics to the songs and also started singing beside me. That was fun. At some point, a couple in our group decided to dance to a Latino song that was being sung. They managed even though there was not much space for them to move freely.

We had to depart the restaurant much too early because people had flights to catch soon after returning to the hotel and picking up their luggage, i.e., they would not even be occupying the rooms in the hotel for the night!

There was a feeling of sadness as we began to make our way back in the bus to the hotel, and as we said our goodbyes and left each other’s company for the last time at the hotel. In a matter of a couple of weeks we had all become connected in some way.

And what about Youssef, our tour manager! What an amazing person. He managed our large group seemingly effortlessly, but there was so much of coordination work that he was constantly doing behind the scenes. He never showed a moment of frustration or impatience, always had a smile on his face, and took care of us individually, answering our every question, and going beyond the call of duty to satisfy our desires and needs. What a sweetheart. During the bus trip back to the hotel, he wished the group adieu, thanked us for visiting his country, and asked us to talk about his country and let others know about his people.

Youssef was there the next morning at 4:30 am, with some packed breakfast which he had made last-minute arrangements for with the hotel, to send us off on our way to the airport. We are going to miss him.

We were on our way out of Casablanca even before the sunrise.

Beginnings in Rabat

The first leg of our travel to Morocco took us on an Air France flight from the Washington, DC, area to Paris, France.We were to transfer to another flight there that would get us to Casablanca. We would then be taken by road from the airport to Rabat.

Unfortunately, the air traffic controllers had decided to go on strike in France on the day of our arrival in Paris and the number of flights departing the airport had been reduced. (We had been warned about this by the airline earlier, but had no choice about the date of departure from Washington, DC, because of the tour date.) Fortunately, our flight to Casablanca was not cancelled. There also appeared to be no delay in the scheduled time of departure of that flight. It was only after we had boarded the plane and sat in our seats for a while that we were told that there was a two hour delay in the flight, and that they had known about the delay all along. They had boarded us just in case a slot opened up earlier that would allow us to depart before the two hours were up. We ended up sitting in the plane at the gate for almost 3 hours! Passengers began to get more and more irate as time passed but the flight attendants somehow kept their cool. There was a big cheer of relief as we finally departed the gate soon after the clearance was obtained and the announcement was made. (Interestingly enough, there was one passenger who was missing from a seat near us at the time of takeoff. We found out later that she had taken up occupancy in the business class section of the aircraft while we were on the ground. She was sent back to steerage after the flight took off.)

A large percentage of the passengers on the plane were tourists. Many of them seemed to be from the US. Quite a few of us tourists were traveling with the same tour company – Gate1 Travels.

The entry process in Casablanca went off without a hitch, except for a slight delay in finding our baggage carousel because of poor signage. The Gate1 representatives were there to greet us as we exited the airport in spite of the delay. They separated the folks going on three different Gate1 tours so that they could be sent to the correct hotel to meet up with the rest of their tour group.

And then we were on the bus to Rabat. Along the way, we got our first impressions of Morocco. They seemed to have a good highway system. The road that we were on was a toll road.There were housing developments along the roadside,and a lot of unoccupied buildings,some with obvious signs of unfinished construction.

There were signs of some poorer neighborhoods, with ramshackle shacks, and also areas of trash, beside the highway – indicating that there was scope for further development.

The sign for a McDonalds restaurant beside the highway caught me by surprise.

There was a dinner organized for our tour group that evening, and the few us who were on this delayed flight were late for this. They waited for us, and postponed the introduction of the tour to the next day. We met Youssef Afallah, our tour manager, for the first time. Drinks and dinner were enjoyed and we were stuffed. I had my first taste of one of the local beers. It is called, appropriately, Casablanca! We found out that there would be 41 people on this tour. It was quite a large group! (Youssef told me later that the largest group he had managed before this was in the low thirties.)

We were tired because of the red-eye flight the previous night. We were supposed to wake up early the next day for breakfast, but slept late. No worries! Fresh squeezed orange juice and great espresso coffee got us going. I did get this picture of our first Moroccan sunrise from our room before we left for breakfast.

We were staying at the Sofitel Rabat Jardin des Roses hotel – luxurious accommodations beyond belief to me! They had a nice property that we explored a little bit the two mornings we were there.

Tour introductions were supposed to start at 8:30am after breakfast. Youssef kicked things off. The young man seemed to have things well in hand. He handled the big group deftly, and with a sense of humor. A lot of patience is needed when dealing with such a big and diverse group.

During this session, we found out that there were a few people on the tour who had not yet received their luggage. This was the first opportunity for us to notice Youssef’s endearing ability to take care of each and every one of us individually, and in a very smooth way. He had the most caring personality. Not only that, he answered each of our questions, no matter how silly they may have seemed to him – without any signs of condescension, and with infinite patience. I cannot recollect him forgetting to execute on something that he had promised to do for us some time in the future. I did not see him visibly lose his patience with any one of us. We even saw him go out of his way on many occasions to help us, without hesitation, sometimes even seemingly loosing his infinite patience with the people involved outside of the tour group in order to make sure our issue was resolved.

In the case of the missing luggage, most of the missing bags were expected to arrive at Casablanca airport that evening, and he made arrangements for the people involved to be able to take a taxi to the airport in the evening after the tours to get their luggage, and to return to the hotel. There was one couple that did not get their luggage until a few days later, in Fes. Youssef kept on top of that problem until the luggage was delivered, even making arrangements for a taxi driver in Fes to take the affected people to the airport in Fes to retrieve their luggage and then return to the hotel. He also had a contact in the industry who tracked the missing bags to Fes once they arrived in Casablanca.

We boarded our tour bus, the one that we were going to be using for the next 15 days, after our introductory meeting. We met our driver for the tour, Youssef (the second!?), and helper, Rashid, for the first time.

Youssef gave us an introduction to the history and the peoples of Morocco during the drive to the places we were to visit in town. I will talk about some of what I learnt later. The information was repeated a few times during the later days of the tour, and hopefully I remember it correctly. A similar description of Rabat followed as we approached our first destination in town. Rabat is the capital of Morocco. It is one of the four Imperial Cities of the country. The others are Fes, Marrakech, and Meknes. Youssef is from Meknes, near Fes!

The first stop was at the casbah. In general, casbah means a fortified area. This casbah is in fact a fort.
From the upper level of the casbah,one was able to get a good view of the beach and the Atlantic Ocean.People live in the casbah.Since this is a tourist destination, there are a few small stalls along the way, most featuring local artisans or artists, catering to the visitors. This was also our first introduction to the fact that most of the pets in the town were cats!They were everywhere!

The next stop was at the Mohammed V Mausoleum and Hassan Tower esplanade. This tourist destination includes an unfinished mosque. You can see the changing of the guard in one of the pictures below. They are present at both entrances to the complex. We noticed that the horses were brown on one side of the complex and white on the other side.

The next stop was at the king’s palace. The bus was parked at a mosque that is nearby. We walked to the palace from there. This is a picture of the mosque taken as we were returning to our bus.The facilities at the mosque were used first.This was the first of our many daily experiences with what Youssef called “The Happy Room”. This subject might be worth a diversion in some future blog, but now I must plow on!

In general, we were not allowed to get too close to the palace.

Note that the king has many palaces located all over the country.

The final stop in the morning was at the Mohamed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.There was some compelling art work on display, but we did not have too much time to linger.

Lunch was in a restaurant beside the river that flows through town. This was the first time we got to mingle and chat with some of our fellow travelers.

We got a view of Zaha Hahid‘s opera house on a few occasions as we were driving through town. This was the only clear picture I was able to get of the landmark.

There is another new landmark coming up not too far from the opera house. The Mohammed VI tower (also called the Bank of Africa tower) will be the tallest building in Africa when it is complete. I got a good picture of this place the next morning as we were leaving for Tangier.We drove past the medina in Rabat. Medinas in Morocco are walled old towns where people live. There are usually a lot of narrow alleyways and small shops there. They are fascinating places to visit. We are not stopping at this one, but we will be visiting the famous one in Fes along the way. For the time being, I had to satisfy myself with pictures of the wall of the medina taken from our bus.Those look like satellite TV dishes!

My impressions of Rabat include the fact that it is very clean and well laid out. There are big parks with greenery and trees everywhere. There are public places for people to mingle and participate in sports and other activities. There are people outside, all over town, indulging in social activities. There are roundabouts (traffic circles) everywhere to manage the intersections. Things look organized.

Youssef mentioned that the King wants to use Rabat as an example city for other big cities to follow to transform themselves. A goal is to make them more attractive to visitors, and to also improve the quality of life of people living there. Another random observation – there is more of an official uniformed presence on the streets than we are used to in the US. There are different kinds of police with different colored uniforms. There are also rules against taking pictures of the police. I noticed that the security guards (not the police) wear black suits everywhere they are present.

The areas that we visited in Rabat felt quite modern, dare I say westernized, although I suspect that the inside of the city’s medina is likely to be quite different.

Later in the evening, after the official tour for the day was over, just to get out of the hotel, we took a walk with another couple who were more familiar with the area near the hotel. I had thought that the hotel was located far away from the city, but a short walk on a road over a hill brought us to a commercial section of town. We went to a very modern mall. The place was packed with people. There was some entertainment being provided by a band in one of the locations. A crowd had gathered.We picked up some food items from a massive market in the lower level of the mall. Day turned into night as we departed the mall. We stopped for gelato on the way back. It was dark by the time we got back to the hotel. I had picked up a sandwich for dinner from the food court in the mall. They had both a McDonalds and a Burger King. Heck, I think I even sighted a Dominos Pizza across the food court! I wanted no part of American fast food that evening! I picked up a chicken sandwich from a local establishment (that could have been part of a local chain) – to consume after we returned to our hotel room. It was yummy and filling!

We are starting early tomorrow morning and headed for Tangier in the north.

BTW, the time difference between Moroccan time and Eastern Daylight time in the US is 5 hours. It took us a couple of days to adjust to this time difference.

You can find the next blog in this sequence here.

Still Dreaming Of Morocco

We are back home from our trip to Morocco, but I am not fully here yet mentally. I dreamed of Morocco last night. But I also know that the feelings and memories will fade away quickly. I need to make my statement promptly before that happens. There are things worth remembering. We have experienced so much, and learnt so much about this amazing country and its people. I should be thankful, and grateful, and should also be spreading the word and the feeling – if possible!

I can still hear the voices of my fellow-travelers – 41 of us in all. I can still hear Youssef, our tour manager, as he tries to get our attention – to get us organized for the next move or for the next day, or as he tries to explain something to us, or as he gives us more background information about his country. Daily early morning breakfasts, many before sunrise – fresh omelettes, fruits, pastries, and juices – the chocolate croissants to die for, the orange juice with pulp in it – as we greet our fellow travelers as they sleepily join us in the dining area. We make sure to put our bags outside our room if we are moving to a new town that day. And then we are on the road once again, all counted and accounted for by our always smiling and efficient helper, Rashid – to see new places, to learn new things, to meet new people – the wonderful people of Morocco. Rashid gives each of us a bottle of water as we get going. Our driver, the other Youssef, gets us from point A to point B, with intermediate stops along the way, quietly and safely every day. He negotiates the tough spots smoothly. He does not do anything rash. He is patient. The big motor coach cannot be easy to manage.

We covered the entire nation of Morocco during our 15 days of wandering, starting off in the capital city of Rabat. We then visited the northern city of Tangier, the gateway to Africa from Europe. After that we headed into the Rif mountains, heading southeast to Chefchouen, the Blue City. Two nights were spent in the old religious center of Fes. We then crossed the Middle Atlas Mountains and the High Atlas Mountains – through mountain passes and over the high plains – to the get to Erfoud and the Sahara desert. Then it was onward and westward to the UNESCO Heritage site of Ait Benhaddou; then over the High Atlas mountains to the madhouse that is Marrakech. Finally, we crossed over the High Atlas mountains once again, to head to the beach and resort towns of Agadir and Essaouira, before completing the trip in Casablanca. The above list does not even begin to touch upon the various other places that we passed through and even visited along the way. We were rocking the casbahs and the medinas of the towns we visited!

I am not sure yet how to tell the entire story. Perhaps it will emerge in non-linear fashion. And I did take notes this time, perhaps for the first time on a trip like this.

But I do also feel that I need to try to provide a highlight reel of pictures before I start to tell the story, even though it is bound to be incomplete. The most complete set of pictures will be posted in a Pbase album, and some of these pictures will be used in further blogs that I will create to break down the trip and provide more information.

The pictures will be further identified in their contexts in future blogs.

You can read the first blog in the complete Morocco sequence here.