Mike MacEacheran | Casablanca and beyond, Morocco, P&O Ferries
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Casablanca and beyond, Morocco, P&O Ferries

Morocco has always been easy to enter but much harder to leave. Olive-green minarets, domed ceilings resplendent in gold and jade tiles, labyrinthine bazaars  and souks where fragrant spices, fabrics, Berber carpets, oil lamps and curly-toed babouche slippers have been traded for centuries – what’s not to love?

It’s easy and effortless to spend hours wandering the country’s best cities and desert towns and that’s what’s continued to entice travellers to its shores for centuries. Here’s our guide to getting the most out of a 24 hour trip to Casablanca, Morocco’s most alluring modern destination, and country’s cruise ship gateway.

A Brief History Lesson: Settled by Berbers in the 7th Century, Casablanca, or Casa as the locals call it, has long had a history of attracting migrants, foreign entrepreneurs and traders. The Portuguese were the first to arrive on their multi-decked rigged galleons back in the 1468, before handing it over to the British some four centuries later. The French sailed in soon after to administer the south of the country as a protectorate prior to the First World War, leaving behind their language, architecture and love of coffee. A showcase of their colonial power, faded Art Deco buildings and romantic cafes can be spotted all throughout the city.

The Must-Do: For the faithful and devout, the considerable beauty of Casablanca’s French colonial heritage pales in comparison to its wonders wrought for the glory of God. Arriving at Casa’s gigantic port – one of the largest artificial harbours in the world and a hive of cruisers and commerce today – you won’t be able to take your eyes off the Hassan II Mosque, the compass to which all of the modern city points. Partly erected on water, a homage to the Quranic verse ‘the throne of God was on water’, it is the biggest on the planet and built by more than 10,000 craftsmen at a cost of US$800 million. Its iconic 200m tall earthquake-proof minaret, embellished with inlaid keystone arches and ziggurat crenulations, thrusts directly towards the sun – as though Casa was the centre of the Islamic universe.

While fishermen cast lines from the curved Ain Diab Corniche seawall outside, and children swim in the crashing Atlantic surf only metres away, it’s well worth escaping the heat of the courtyard to explore the mosque on a guided tour. They begin in the prayer hall, home to a colossal retractable roof, elevator, escalator, under floor heating, intricately carved cedar cupolas and exquisite mashrabiyyas (wooden lattice screen balconies) – a perfect balance of mod cons with traditional craft. Beneath the hall, the opulence continues in the ablutions hall, decorated with ornate fountains, exquisite marble hammams and a bathing pool more suited to a Grand Vizier’s palace.

Lunch Worthy of Hollywood: For the ultimate Casa lunch stop, make a reservation at Rick’s Café, based on the mythical saloon in the eponymous movie Casablanca, and now a tourist attraction in its own right. Secreted between twin palms on Rue Sour Jdid, the restaurant brings the mythical saloon to life, having been opened by Kathy Kriger, one of many expats who have fallen in love with the city’s faded grandeur. Decked out with curved whitewashed arches, sculpted balconies and balustrades, it’s a painstaking replica of the celluloid version, right down to the gleaming piano and antique bar, where Bogie slumped in the film. Ask nicely and one of the Fez-wearing waiters may even tinkle out As Time Goes By on the ivories for the zillionth time.

The Shopaholic’s Guide: A short walk from here takes you to the old Medina, where the alleys are abuzz with life and overladen vegetable and fruit carts. Unlike the souks of Marrakesh, Fez and Rabat where it’s almost a badge of honour to get lost in the tangled web of streets, Casa’s bazaar is easy to navigate and even easier going. Start at the Bab El Jedid archway, where costumed water sellers tend to pose for photographs below the clock tower (for a small donation, naturally) – it’s easy to pick your way through the main square planted with palms and fig trees and around the medina’s ancient ramparts to hunt for bargains. Genial vendors tout everything from belly dancing costumes and hand-carved magic boxes to fake Louis Vuitton handbags and English Premier League football strips, but the must-buy are the bright orange and gold tagines, traditional upturned earthenware ovens. Make sure to also reserve some space in your luggage for Moroccan mint tea, or the country’s delicious sweet almond pastries. Remember that haggling is expected (and half the fun) and vendors inflate their prices, so start out by offering around half of the original asking price. For traditional crafts like tea pots, Moroccan lamps and metalwork, you’re better off heading to the small copperware souk in the Habous district.

Still, Casablanca’s shopping experience isn’t just about trawling through the past. Modern shopping malls fringe the coast road, including the Morocco Mall, the second largest shopping centre in Africa. It’s home to every international brand and chain store you can think of, including an outpost of luxury French department store Galeries Lafayette.

From Dusk ’Til Dawn: Around dusk the city stops working and reveals its true cosmopolitan colours. To see it at its best, take a late afternoon stroll along Place des Nations Unies and Parc de La Ligue Arabe, stopping to admire the palm-fringed Palace Mohammed V. Couples picnic, teenagers flirt over ice creams and the city seems to reenergise before sunset. To see how they live it up after dark, check out the international class restaurants and unpretentious cocktail bars inside the Hyatt Regency, Le Royal Mansour Meridien, Hotel Sofitel Casablanca Tour Blanche and Sheraton Casablanca Hotel and Towers, which cluster together downtown, towering over the old, crumbling medina. Highly recommended is Dar Biad inside the Hyatt Regency, which offers up incomparable tagines – the best with sweet dates, plums, quinces or apricots – Lebanese-style mezzes, fragrant, lemony couscous and wrapped pastillas served with a side order of belly dancing and a traditional Berber band. Come around 11pm, the time when most Moroccans congregate with friends and family for a late night dinner.

Casa’s greatest gift to the visitor is that it remains true to itself. It’s unchanged and antiquated, yet modern and cosmopolitan. Which is why visitors still find themselves staying longer than they’d anticipated. You may not know it yet, but it’ll cast a spell on you, too.