Morocco’s Big Cities: Casablanca and Marrakech
We ended our Moroccan roadtrip in Marrakech! I was so excited – the city is so exotic to me that I wasn’t even sure how to spell it, which is rare for me. Frankly, it’s a transliteration, so there really isn’t a right way, but it seems like spellcheck wants me to use ‘sh’ even though I like it better the other way. I guess whatever goes, which is definitely the feeling I got in the city. I’ve always wanted to see snake charmers, and knew Marrakesh was the place. The square’s version was different than what I had imagined. Instead of a guy with a turban playing some kind of pipe to get the snake to slither up from a basket, there were a few makeshift booths where guys had all kinds of snakes laying around. If you got close enough, they would throw a snake on you, let you take a picture, then ask for money. I thought I could overcome my fear of snakes, but after I saw the guys throw a snake on somebody, I kept my distance! The square had other entertainment, including acrobats, musicians, and monkeys dressed as schoolboys! From the square we entered the souq, which was my least favorite in Morocco. Everything was geared toward tourists and I was done shopping by that point.
Across from the square is the Katoubia Mosque. Its beautiful minaret towers over the city. Inside the minaret, instead of the stairs you would expect is a ramp for a horse to carry the muezzin to the top to perform the calls to prayer. In the harem days, the muezzin was blind to prevent him from seeing inside the harem. Its unclear whether the muezzin started out blind or if it was an occupational hazard of a getting a job at that particular mosque. Most of the city is designed to prevent the regulars from getting a peek of whatever went on inside the palace walls.
Our tour of Marrakesh started with the Bahia Palace, which was built in the 19th century. We started in the courtyard entrance, where there were five colors of bougainvillea planted, and about 25 charming cats milling around. The first hall of the palace is the receiving area, also based around a courtyard. Jews, Christians and Muslims all had their own waiting rooms, and each was decorated in accordance with that religion. For instance, the Jewish room had a border of 6-sided stars and the Muslim room had a border of verses from the Koran. Further inside, we saw the rooms of the four wives, their courtyard, and some of the rooms where the concubines stayed. Did you know that once a woman entered the palace as a wife or concubine, she stays there forever? Unfortunately most of these setups were political arrangements to keep a balance among the tribes, so these ladies didn’t have much stay anyway. At least there were beautiful mosaics and painted ceilings to keep them company.
We also visited the Saadian Tombs, which were only re-found in the early 20th century after a western occupier finally realized the only entrance was through the mosque, where none of his kind ever entered. Originally, they were built in the 16th century for the rulers and well-connected of the Saadian Dynasty. The tombs are separated into women’s, men’s, and children’s areas, and each building is breathtaking in design. The graves outside are believed to belong to servants.
My favorite part of the city was walking through the medina. We saw more people in fun djellabis and other exotic clothes, as well as a few merchants hawking their wares, even though it was a Friday afternoon, when locals usually close shop for family time.
From Marrakesh, we took the train to Casablanca (only about $9!). Although my generation isn’t quite as enchanted by the Bogart movie as our elders, because of the movie, or maybe just because of its name, the city has also always been incredibly exotic to me. Currently, the city has vastly enlarged its port and is now Morocco’s boomtown. It has a French colonial past, however, and a lot of the buildings retain the local or art deco style.
After checking into our charming hotel (lobby above) my friend and I took a walking tour of the city to check out the architecture. A kid on the street practicing his English told us that we could pretend it was Miami, with all the white buildings and pedestrian boulevards. I was so happy that it was Casablanca, and I was actually there, so I didn’t feel the need to mentally escape my surroundings.
Somehow on our walking tour we managed to get a little lost in the local souq. This was the most bustling of all the souqs that we had seen in Morocco, possibly because Sunday afternoon is shopping day! I only took one pic with my phone, but I think you can get the idea of the crowd and activity situation. As we walked through the produce section, something hit my lower leg, and in the instant I was sure that a goat was escaping the butcher! No, it was just a shopkeeper’s kid, crawling out from under the display table onto the street. We had a good laugh at our mutual fright, and moved on.
On my last evening, to celebrate the trip, we had dinner at Rick’s Cafe. It’s definitely one of the nicest places that I had been to in Morocco. Although there’s no authenticity, the place harkens back to the luxury of a different era. The film was actually almost entirely produced on a set in Hollywood, and not at all in Morocco. Still, the idea isn’t much different than the Bubba Gumps or Planet Hollywoods all over the world now. If you go, you can have dinner, drinks, or just sit and listen to the jazz, or watch the movie upstairs, where a clubby screening room plays Casablanca on constant repeat.