Play it again, Sam

IMG_4634Casablanca is such a contrast between modernity and history, between rich and poor, between beauty and ugliness. It’s an assault on the senses, yet it feels mostly benign, not menacing.

14.Vue balcon
The view from our AirBnB. In the very center, greenery is scarce, but the city lives up to its name: white house.

Earlier I posted about our visit and about the restaurants we went to. This time, we’re just going to tool around town, observing life, how it’s the same yet different.

Just beyond the warren of streets in the center, palm-lined boulevards carry lots of cars.
I love the reflection of the palms on the glass façade and the plants on the terrace near the roof. It could be any southern city, right?
More integrated greenery. Note the grill at the top–for cutting the sun.
Cacti on this roof. The overhangs are so smart–the windows stay shaded from direct sunlight.
Note the open windows on the blue-green glass building. I kept looking at Casablanca’s weather during the summer. Highs around 79, thanks to cooling sea breezes. Very pleasant. No need for A/C.

One foggy morning we went to the huge Mosque Hassan II, the fifth largest in the world. Walking back, we sought out some other sights.

Closed for renovations.

The Casablanca Cathedral, also shown in the top photo, is an Art Deco gem. It opened in 1930. It’s no longer a church but is used for cultural events. I’m a sucker for Art Deco.

The lacy cutouts reflect the local architectural styles. It doesn’t look out of place at all.

Casablanca has a shiny new tram, which was decked out in honor of the national World Cup team. The tram was clean, quick, comfortable and cheap (about 70 cents a ride).58.Tram équipe du MarocI’m so conflicted over trams and metros. On the one hand, they tend to be viewed as better than buses, and in Casablanca the buses were rickety and packed to the gills. However, they require a huge investment, and they’re stuck in place, whereas buses use existing streets that serve other vehicles and it’s easy to change bus routes.

The Casablanca tramway has two lines. The second line is 17 kilometers (10 miles), cost €262 million and serves nine districts with a total population of over 1 million people. While it’s a lower-carbon alternative to the fume-belching buses, I think you could buy a lot of new, even electric, buses for €262 million.

51.Petit taxi
Red for local rides.
13.Rue appartement
Lots of taxis!

Taxis are another way to get around, and amazingly cheap. The petits taxis are red and are for trips within the city only. If you want to go farther, say to the airport, you need a grand taxi. These are usually white. Either way, you get a white-knuckle ride.

26.Parking cyclomoteurs
Two-wheel parking lot.
We saw lots of these three-wheeled delivery vehicles. This one had to be pushed over the bump to cross the tram line–it couldn’t quite make it with the engine alone!
Delicious pineapple.

There also were some donkey carts and human-pulled carts, like the pineapple vendor above. Can you imagine a life of pushing your pineapples, probably quite far, because Casablanca is relatively expensive and you probably would have to live on the edges of the city. You navigate your precious cargo to a spot in the center of the city, where passersby have jobs that allow them the luxury of spending a few dirhams on a whim, like for a wedge of juicy pineapple. If you don’t sell, your pineapples will rot. You have no cushion, no salary. Just income from what you manage to sell, trying to survive another day. Nobody grows up thinking, “boy, I hope I can sell pineapples by the slice one day. What a life that would be!” No, it’s what you do when all else fails.

The Grand Theatre of Casablanca, aka CasArts.

Down the street but a world away, the Grand Theatre of Casablanca is taking shape. Designed by French architect Christian de Portzamparc, the theater is supposed to resemble a medina, with fluid lines, and many alleyway-like entries that will provide natural ventilation, shade and places for people to relax. The entrance will double as an outdoor soundstage.

The theater is directly across from the fountain that dominates Square Mohammed V.

I really couldn’t get over the palm trees. And the bougainvillea.40.Palmiers1P1100386

Bananas too.


56.Bière casablanca
Even palms on the beer!!!
This house was like a lot of “inner” Casablanca–undoubtedly beautiful at one time, but no longer kept up.

I still have more photos to share of this fascinating place.34.Plage4






Casablanca Cuisine

IMG_4649Last time, I showed one of the restaurants we visited in Casablanca, La Sqala. We never had a bad meal in Casablanca, even when it was take-out sandwiches from a tiny shop–there are many of these, sometimes two or three in a row. They have a couple of tables inside, a glass-front counter on the street displaying gorgeous kebabs and sausages, and an open kitchen just behind. Like a tiny diner, Casablanca-style.

The day Morocco played in the World Cup, some friends advised us to take it easy at our AirBnB by the end of the match, because a win would have crazy celebrations in the street, best appreciated from five floors above rather than in the midst of. Although I have to say, at least in Morocco you don’t have to deal with belligerent drunks.

We wanted to explore the Gauthier quarter, which was a bit more chic and modern than Derb Omar, where we were staying. And my kid and I both had found good comments about the Mood Café, so off we went.

IMG_4709 2
l’Etoile Centrale

Uncharacteristically, we didn’t take photos. It was international modern, the kind of place that could be in Paris or New York or Sydney. The food was excellent but also international modern. The Carnivore had a steak (a steak is a steak is a steak) and the kid and I had tartines, one with salmon the other with chicken. Very nice, with fresh ingredients, but what you would find at a good upscale café anywhere.

On the one hand, I think it’s great that people have choices for eating, and that they aren’t stuck with the same local specialties everywhere they look. Our friends informed us that Casablanca residents don’t eat Moroccan food when they go out–they eat that at home, and they have very high standards. So when they go out, they want something different–Chinese, Lebanese, French, Italian, international modern healthy.

59.Taureaux resto
A Spanish restaurant, if you couldn’t guess.

P1100411In fact, the most sublime meal we had was at our friends’ home. OMG. We didn’t take photos of that either. Briouats, a big meze of cooked but not hot vegetable dishes, then a tajine that made me want to cry tears of joy.

Back to the Mood Café. It was nearly empty when we arrived. We ordered and watched it fill and fill and fill. Somehow I managed to sit on a banquette right under a big screen TV showing the match against Portugal. That meant EVERYBODY was facing me but, happily paying not one iota of attention because they were all riveted to the screen above my head. And I had the best deal–I got to watch the spectators.

Chicken pastilla at l’Etoile Centrale. I am going to make this!

A table just behind the Carnivore added more and more people. A mixed crowd in almost every way–they were all Moroccans but split about 50-50 men and women; the ages seemed to range from early 20s to late 40s; some of the women–the older ones–wore Western clothes and had their hair loose, while some others–including the youngest in the group–covered their hair. The youngest woman wore a tightly pinned headscarf in maroon polyester that matched her loose pants; she had a loose white tunic with that and Converse All Stars. Her face was as round as her oversized, gold rimmed glasses, and, unlike the other women, she didn’t have a speck of makeup. She was the most enthusiastic of the group. She drew her legs up, sitting Indian-style on the chair, sometimes hugging her knees as she stared at the TV, looking as if she was going to burst into tears (Morocco didn’t play well).

Vegetable tajine
Mechoui lamb

We watched everybody react as one, heaving with excitement, jumping up, grabbing each other’s arms so tightly their fingers turned white, their hopeful faces so bright they could compete with the sun, and then…the disappointment as the goal wasn’t scored. Their faces fell. Several men held their heads in their hands.

As it turned out, Morocco lost and there were no celebrations at all.

45.Resto Zayna
Live music at Zayna.

We also ate at a good restaurant in the Habbous neighborhood. Habbous is a new medina, built in the 1920s, much calmer than the old medina. We were approached by an old woman who was recruiting people for the Zayna restaurant, which happened to be the one we wanted. Delicious food! No website….

Chicken tajine. It was very sweet. I love sweet with savory.
Mixed grill chez Zayna.

Then we went around the corner to Bennis Habous, a bakery, where you buy goodies by weight. Just point, and they’ll put them into a box for you to take away.IMG_466155.Pâtisserie BennisAnother restaurant was l’Etoile Centrale, directly across from the Central Market. Very pretty inside, but no match for Zayna or home cooking.P110040761.Resto 2

The New York Times had an article last week about Rick’s Café in Casablanca.

So much food. So little time.



IMG_4442We recently spent a few days in Casablanca. I had visited Morocco several times, but never Casablanca. I have to tell you, it doesn’t deserve its reputation as ugly, or not having anything to do. It admittedly isn’t touristy–it’s Morocco’s biggest city, with 3.5 million residents, and its economic engine, accounting for half the country’s gross domestic product. In such a bustling place, you get to see real life, instead of a sanitized tourist version.

There ARE touristy things, like the huge beach, the Corniche.
And Rick’s Café…no, we didn’t go there.

I have way too many photos for one post, so you’ll get more about Casablanca in the future. All these were taken by our kid, whose eye for detail I admire.

Crossing the Pyrénées from France to Spain.
Over Spain…already a change.
Over Morocco…more change.

I was very thankful our kid saw Casablanca. It was an eye-opener. The poverty was a shocker–and Morocco isn’t even that poor; it’s considered a lower middle income economy. Poverty dropped to under 5% in 2014 from more than 15% in 2001. That is a huge achievement. (If you are a regular reader, you know this is not the blog for “10 Most Luxurious Spas in Morocco” or “Five Most Instagrammable Spots in Casablanca.”)IMG_4440At the same time, our kid succinctly expressed what I couldn’t help thinking: “They really need a day where everybody goes out and cleans the place up.” Not just litter, but sidewalks that are broken in inexplicable places and gorgeous Art Deco and colonial buildings that are abandoned but that seem to have so much potential.

The view from our AirBnB. Lots of white buildings, as the name would imply.

Speaking of crumbling Art Deco, we stayed in an AirBnB between the train station and the central market. It was a convenient location, but it turned out to be the red light district, though we never saw any evidence of that. I regret not taking my second choice, which I too late learned was owned by a friend of the person we had traveled to Casablanca to see. Here it is–the good one.  And once I figured out the lay of the city, I realized the other apartment was equally convenient but in a much nicer neighborhood.

A mosque in the old medina.
A white house (casa blanca!!!) in the old medina.

The old medina was simultaneously laid back and frenetic. Of course, we were wooed by shopkeepers, but they weren’t insistent. Of course, a couple of guys offered to be our guide, but we generally navigated by joining the dense flow of humanity coursing through the narrow alleyways. A few times when we got off track, we were directed by kind bystanders–kids playing soccer in a quiet corner who stopped their game to call to us when we headed the wrong way; a chic young woman on her way home who took the time to lead us through the maze and who was a delight to talk to en route. Nobody who helped us asked for money. Random people would strike up conversations with us–a fellow shopper who waxed on about the wonders of argan oil, for example. It was genuine friendliness, not tourist-friendliness. I liked it.IMG_4444The insane traffic also had a surprising lack of aggression. On the one hand, everybody started honking as soon as the cross-traffic’s light turned yellow–about two seconds before they actually got a green light. Plenty of cars would slide through the light change, triggering more honking. Nobody stayed in a lane. This made crossing the very wide boulevards a dance with death–except that cars swerved or stopped for pedestrians, who seemed as unperturbed as bullfighters in the face of a charging bull, deftly dodging danger. To cross streets, we adopted a strategy of sticking with locals, and the more the better, figuring we had safety in numbers and they knew when to stop or go.IMG_4430The times we took taxis it was impossible to figure out whether the rule was priority on the right, as in France (in principle, yes, but practice is another thing), yet the rides weren’t scary–the starts and stops were gentle, like a dance rather than a battle. It was chaotic, but a shrug-your-shoulders, what-can-you-do chaos, not a my-way-or-the-highway mean chaos.

Can you see the crescent moon? This fortress turned out to be a restaurant, La Sqala.

We ate at La Sqala, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in a little oasis on the edge of the old medina, next to the waterfront.IMG_4466IMG_4457

It was very good and a nice experience. The Carnivore had a hunk of meat (lamb), our kid had salmon, I had a vegetable tajine.

The white stuff is cauliflower purée (it was a hit).
Sublimely seasoned vegetable tajine.
A row of tajine dishes.

More to come on Casablanca, as time goes by….