A row of tall palm trees lines the boulevard leading from Rabat’s station toward the coast. Grand old buildings display colonial architecture, the post office occupies an imposing Art Deco house on a major street corner. In this clean, modern part of Morocco’s capital, the hotels bear names such as Berlin and Gaulois. Old men while away their afternoon on the outdoor tables of the Café Alsace and the Café Comédie.
Then, suddenly, we stand in front of a high wall and a gate. Beyond the gate the medina begins, the old town. The street gets narrower, no cars are allowed.
The small square and the market hall are overwhelming. It feels as if someone had turned not only the volume up, but the smells as well.
Vendors have spread their goods all over the street. Oranges, cauliflowers, shoes, second-hand clothing, inflatable stools with Pokemon-designs and some squeaky toys vie for attention. Several crowded patisseries round the market square spill out their customers, all munching sweet layer cakes or marzipan-filled pastries.
“Avatar? Harry Potter?”
Young men have carefully arranged piles of copied DVDs in wicker baskets. “You like Helen Mirren? Or try Up in the Air with George Clooney! Very good!” the young salesman enthuses. Then he grabs his basket and hurries down a side alley. “Les flics! – the cops!”
It is not the pirated DVDs that are illegal – those are on sale in proper shops as well – but the sellers who haven’t bribed their police officers properly.
Hotel Volubilis must have been a decent address. Like many houses in downtown Casablanca it still has a beautiful façade with columns and iron-wrought balconies.
But a closer look reveals the cracks in the facade. Behind them lurk dusty staircases or hotel rooms with wash basin and bidet that have clearly seen better days.
Opposite the ruins of what still proclaims to be the “Linkuln Hotel” we sit down for a bowl of creamy butter bean soup in the Restaurant Populaire, a hole-in-the-wall place serving nothing else but bisara, the bean soup. Even the boiled eggs have to be fetched from the little shop next door.
Casablanca’s modern mosque
At Casablanca’s seaside, Morocco’s last king, Hassan II, has tried to catch up with past glory. The new mosque of Hassan II is the third largest mosque in the world, after Mekka and Medina. Islam’s bulwark to the West is built partly over the Atlantic Ocean because the Qur’an mentions that God’s Throne is built on the water.
Inside, escalators lead up to the wood-panelled women’s galleries, and floor heating is meant to make prayers more attractive for up to 25.000 people. The complex has been financed by additional taxes for the population. Perhaps a bit too much luxury for the struggling metropolis: “This year they didn’t turn the heating on, although it was so cold”, our compulsory guide Muhammad complains: “I had to wear 3 pairs of socks!”
We left modern Casblanca after two days for the splendours of mysterious Marrakesh further south.
NB: Our trip to Morocco was not sponsored in any way. We paid all the expenses ourselves.