Subtour 3: Around Casablanca in 20 Days, Day 01: Old Medina

Casablanca Travel Blog

 › entry 69 of 92 › view all entries
001 The Bab Marrakech Clock Tower

I have a bit of a dilemma:  After a short 2 weeks in Europe, I feel I’m just getting warmed up and I’m itching to do some more exploring and parkbenching.  However, I’m going to be tied down here in Casablanca for another 10 weeks…


Solution?  I’m going to do a “supertour” of Casablanca itself!  I’m going to wander around every single neighbourhood and unearth as many gems as I possibly can.

 

This is actually a project I’ve been wanting to work on for a long time for several reasons.  First of all, I’ve taken many random half day trips to different neighborhoods of the city.  Unfortunately the memories of all those trips get all scrambled in my head.  I figure if I make it like one continuous trip--  picking up each day at the exact spot I stopped the day before, then it will stick in my memory better…

 

But there’s another reason as well.

001 Bab Marrakech
  See, volumes and volumes of books have been written about cities like Paris, New York, or London--  detailing practically every shop on every single street… but I really doubt anyone has ever written a neighbourhood by neighbourhood tour guide of Casablanca… In fact many people, tourists and locals alike will say, “Other than the Hassan II Mosque and Habbous, there’s nothing to see in Casablanca…”

 

I think that that’s utter nonsense… there are tons of things to discover in this city--  you just need to have the right set of eyes… and two very sturdy legs…

 

So this is my Official Guide to Casablanca…

 

(*NOTE:  since I already explored and added Casablanca to my collection back in 2008 and I can only count each city one time, all these days of exploration are technically part of my upcoming “Mediouna” adventure)

 

Day 01:  The Old Medina

April 13, 2010

 

Where do I start?  I’ve been pondering that for the last couple of months.

002 Place Nations Unis
  My first “Discovery” needs to be a symbolical and significant spot in the city.  I’ve thought of starting at the Casa Voyageurs train station, where many visitors first arrive in the city… the Hassan II Mosque… or even the lighthouse along the coast…

 

But this morning, as I head out in the dim early morning hours to start my adventure, I know just where to start:  Bab Marrakech, right smack in the middle of town.

 

Discovery 001: Bab Marrakesh

 

Bab Marrakech (or “Marrakesh Gate”) is where the different  faces of Casablanca crash in one giant tangled intersection.  To the north is the entrance to Casablanca’s notorious Old Medina, that still remains somewhat trapped in time… To the northeast a few hundred meters away lies Casa’s bustling port, the symbol of the city’s important economic position in North Africa… to the south is “Colonial Casablanca” a commercial sector with many French colonial era buildings that are slowing fading into oblivion… and to the west, right across from the Old Medina, looking conspicuously out of place, is the towering Hyatt Regency Hotel--  a reminder that there is a lot of wealth in this city as well…

 

I think we can safely say that Bab Marrakech is the heart of Casablanca.

003 Main Street, Old Medina

 

I reach Bab Marrakech at about 6:15 AM.  Everything is pretty quiet.  Generally there’s a mishmash of middle class, lower class, vendors, hobos, glue sniffers--  maybe a few tourists or Subsaharan immigrants… Some people hurrying to or from work, shopping or just milling about…

But now everything is quiet--  which is fine with me… I’d kind of want to start out my journey on a quiet peaceful note…

Besides the typical, decorated gateway to the Old City, there’s a clock tower that’s has a distinctive design--  not quite European… not quite traditional North African… which is what Casablanca is all about…

 

002 Place Nations Unis

At Bab Marrakech, there’s a now unused pedestrian underpass that leads to Place Nations Unis--  where there’s skeleton of a half globe--  I guess, symbolizing the United Nations.

003 Vestiges of French influence
  Fittingly, this underpass was once a discreet little market where undocumented Subsaharans could sell sunglasses and souvenirs… but not any more. 

 

Whenever I see that passageway, I’m reminded of Morocco’s awkward position as a reluctant passageway for illegal subsaharan immigrants seeking a better life in Europe. 

 

The uglier aspects of Morocco’s relationship with its illegal immigrants sometimes pops up in the international media, painting a quite disturbing picture.  But during my stay in Casablanca, I’ve also come across hundreds of legal and relatively well settled in Subsaharans--  businessmen, students, professional workers… who show another side to Morocco’s relationship with it’s southern neighbors…

 

003 Main Street, Old Medina

 

I take a moment to ponder in what direction I should head first… North? South? East? West?  The Old Medina seems like the best place to start my discovery… So North it is…

 

To step into an Old Medina in Morocco is to step back in time.

  Now in a city like Fes, you feel like you’re stepping back 1,000 years in time to some storybook medieval world.  Not so, in Casablanca’s medina.  Here you feel like you’re stepping back maybe a century or two, to an era when Morocco began to absorb European elements into its culture and architecture.  You see elements of ancient Moorish architecture blended with early 20th century French design… the typical, zigzagging, claustrophobic alleys but with a tinge of the Colonial Era that made a permanent mark on Moroccan society and life. 

 

Understanding this paradoxical marriage is the key to understanding Morocco’s soul--  but we’ll get back to that later…

 

I mentioned earlier that Morocco’s  medina is “notorious”… that’s because, according to locals, the police never go into the Old Medina--  not even the undercover police.

004 Side alleys
  I personally have my doubts about that being true--  but that certainly does fuel its mystique as a lawless, uncontrollable area.

But now that I’ve lived in Casablanca several years, I’ve seen a completely different angle.  See, I’ve had several robbery attempts in Casablanca, but never in the Old Medina.  I’ve been in it many times at any hour of day or night and never been threatened or harassed in any way.  I’ve seen a lot of fights--  fistfights, rock fights, bottle throwing fights--  but it’s always been between locals sorting out their frustrations in their own distinct way.  (Of course, you want to be careful you’re not caught in the crossfire!)

 

People that I’ve asked have confirmed that “wilad l’medina” (the sons of the Medina) are respectful and peaceful to outsiders. 

So the Old Medina is not really lawless--  they just go by their own laws and run their neighborhood in their own way… A sort of “bubble” insulated from the rest of Casablanca.

 

Anyways…

 

I head down past the fried fish eateries on the right, and past a small but distinctive mosque, down the “Main Street” commercial strip, which will be a very crowded place in a few hours… It’s lined with little clothes shops, leather goods shops, pirated CD shops--  and a couple of cheap hotels…

 

004 The Back Alleys of the Old Medina

 

The nice thing about exploring the Old Medina early in the morning is that it’s easier to discreetly take a few photos of the back alleys.  See, in Fes it would look perfectly natural for a tourist to take pictures of the old alleys--  the people are proud to show off their old city.

006 Zraktouni Park
  But here in Casablanca, people might find that a bit insulting to see you taking pictures of their trash strewn streets and mildewed homes… People aren’t exactly proud of the Old Medina here.

 

Personally though, I find the peeling paint, the decay and the gray feel gives this place a gritty charm.  And then, tucked away you get little glimpses of elegance that shine like candles in a dark room… And then you have these old French lanterns and balconies--  the last vestiges of a bygone era…

 

I notice the graffiti on the walls--  but it’s not the typical expressions of hate and anger that you see in most urban areas.  Most of it is themed around “Wydad” and “Raja”--  Casablanca’s two football clubs.  Old Medina folks are passionate about football--  When there’s a game at the stadium several kilometres away, Anfa Boulevard becomes one giant, traffic-stopping parade of young fellows heading off to see the game.

006 Zraktouni Park
  I can see a lot of pent up energy in that crowd and fortunately--  for now at least, that energy is channelled towards football. 

 

Old Medina has a mix of Wydad and Raja fans--  but according to the graffiti, Wydad seems to dominate…

 

005 A Msimmen Shop

 

The best--  and cheapest breakfast in the world is msimmen (a sort of greasy flatbread) and a glass of mint tea which will set you back 3 Dirhams.  There are a bunch of these open already as I twist and turn my way through the old medina… Finally I find one with msimmen hot off the grill… and enjoy a delicious and unforgettable moment, sitting at a scrappy little table in the middle of the alley, soaking in the vibe around me as the city slowly wakes up…

 

006 Zraktouni Park

 

The Old Medina has an oblong shape, and I follow it north west to the edge where I find a pleasant shady park with enormous trees.

One of the few very old buildings in the Old Medina
  This is a perfect spot to pull out my guitar and have the first “Parkbench Concert” of my tour.

 

            Casablanca Music Spot 01: Zraktouni Park, Old Medina, Rating: *****

            Shady, good place to meet people, few troublemakers… quiet except for the birds sometimes…

 

I actually have played here a couple of times.  Once I made a video clip here with a couple of wannabe breakdancers and a fellow who could do cool vocal rythmns… Nice spot.

Today I don’t have any company except for a young fellow and girl who looks like a prostitute, chatting cheerfully not far away… I feel a tinge of sadness as a watch them, wonder what her life will be like 20 years from now…

Later on, a guy, maybe 40 years old, drives up on a scooter, pulls out a slingshot and takes aim at the birds in the trees… I’m not sure if he just really hates birds, or if he’s just trying to relive his childhood… but it is quite a funny sight…

 

007 The West Wall

 

After my mini-concert, I dive into the Old Medina once again.

007 West Wall
  This time I head southwest into the vegetable market area that is starting to wake up.  I head down a dead end and a respectable looking fellow gentle points the correct way for me…

 

In Fes, I’ve had guys try to send me down a dead end so they can rob me… but not here in “notorious” Casablanca…

 

Finally reach the West Wall and exit the Old Medina

 

The stretch along the outside of the wall is an interesting stretch… On one side you have houses snuggled against the wall looking down at you, on the other, some rather grundgy looking cafes and snack shops--  it’s a sort of “No Man’s Land” between the two worlds…

 

008 The “Strip” on Avenue des F.A.R.

 

Finally I exit the Old Medina area into wide open space.

009 Tourist Trap Strip
  This is “Avenue des F.A.R.” and this strip has been spruced up a bit lately with new street lights, a new sidewalk and even a couple of digital billboards…

 

Usually it’s crammed with folks selling t shirts and posters with their wares strewn out on the sidewalk, making it difficult to walk--  And it’s a popular stretch for a couple of mentally ill folks--  who put on some pretty bizarre street spectacles… So despite the efforts, this strip doesn’t quite feel like Rodeo Drive yet… But it’s a good place to feel the rush and excitement of Big City Casablanca and thousands of people hurry to and from their jobs…

 

009 Casablanca’s “Tourist Trap”

 

I reach Bab Marrakech once again, and after another moments thought, I figure I should continue exploring the medina some more before plunging into another neighbourhood.

Fading French Colonial influence

 

So I continue on east, down the palm tree lined boulevard leading to the port--  a pleasant little stretch.  It’s also Casablanca’s “tourist trap” with rows of souvenir and handcraft shops begging for the attention of the few tourist who linger around in Casablanca. 

 

I guess if you do want a souvenir, this would be a good place to look--  folks here aren’t nearly as pushy as they are in Marrakech or Fes… It’s also a good place to exchange money at a decent rate.

Along the way I notice the remains of a French Colonial building, which was probably quite beautiful once upon a time… with a giant skyscraper rising up in the background... I take a picture.  I think one theme of this Casablanca tour is to find and photograph those colonial structures that may soon disappear forever… I get more into that when I get to the “French Colonial Downtown” in a few days…

 

Here I decide to pause for a second parkbench concert in the shade of the palm trees…

 

            Casablanca Music Spot 02: Port Avenue, Rating:**

            Too noisy with passing traffic.

010 East Side Old Medina
Difficult to find an empty bench.  Feels a bit conspicuous.

 

010: The “East Side” of the Old Medina

 

Back into the Old Medina for the third time, I explore the cleaner and quieter “East Side” with a lot of white buildings and a couple more shady parks. I can resist the temptation to have yet another parkbench session.

 

            Music Spot 03: Old Medina, East Side, Rating: ****

            Another great, quiet shady spot.

010 East Side
I did feel a little uncomfortable with a couple guys drinking not

            Far away--  but I’d definitely go back there…

 

I pass by the “Hotel Central” the hotel where I stayed with my family for a few days when we moved here two years ago… I have mixed feelings as I remember the obstacles and uncertainty of that time…

 

At the edge of the Medina, there’s a mosque and what looks like the tomb of a saint--  I’ll have to do research on this later…

 

011: Le Scala

 

Le Scala is a mini-fort built to defend the Old City against sea invaders--  it’s not very big, and other than a couple of canons, not much to see.

010 Hotel Central
  Inside, it’s been turned into an upscale restaurant.  It’s not authentic enough to add it to my collection of “Castles Visited”… but since I’m passing by it anyways, it deserves a mention…

 

Outside, there’s a new little park that’s been built right outside the walls, right under people’s windows… It’s clean and well maintained... I sit down for one last music session.  There are two university students across from me--  one of them wearing traditional garb and the Islamic beard-with-no-mustache style. I figure he might not approve of my music, but decide to play it anyways…  Within a few moments, they come over for a chat.  They’re studying Islamic Education and hope to continue their studies in Europe (which I find a little bit ironic)… friendly fellows, happy for the chance to practice their English and learn a bit about life abroad.   Nice to have an audience for a couple of my songs…

 

            Music Spot 04: Old Medina, Le Scala, Rating: ***

            Clean, safe, quiet, plenty of benches--  but very little shade…

 

012: The Scrap Market

 

I continue on, following along the outside of the Old Medina wall past the new yacht marina that’s being built… past military marine facilities, with smartly dressed sailors heading out to their ships… passed rows of grittly little barbershops and furniture stalls…

 

The magnificent Hassan II Mosque is just a stones throw away, but I resist the urge to head that way… That “Discovery” is for another day…

 

Finally I reach the Tafilalet Entrance on the west side and a “Scrap Market” where folks sell scraps of anything you can think of--  a couple of rusty screws… an ancient transistor radio… a shoe… Always a fascinating place to explore…


And from here I decide it’s time to bid Casablanca’s Old Medina farewell, and call it a day… I’ve discovered (or rediscovered) 12 interesting spots, found 4 cool places to play music, and met a couple of interesting people--  and had the most delicious breakfast I’ve had in a long time… it’s been a good morning of exploring my adopted city…

Join TravBuddy to leave comments, meet new friends and share travel tips!
001 The Bab Marrakech Clock Tower
001 The Bab Marrakech Clock Tower
001 Bab Marrakech
001 Bab Marrakech
002 Place Nations Unis
002 Place Nations Unis
003 Main Street, Old Medina
003 Main Street, Old Medina
003 Vestiges of French influence
003 Vestiges of French influence
004 Side alleys
004 Side alleys
006 Zraktouni Park
006 Zraktouni Park
006 Zraktouni Park
006 Zraktouni Park
One of the few very old buildings …
One of the few very old buildings…
007 West Wall
007 West Wall
009 Tourist Trap Strip
009 Tourist Trap Strip
Fading French Colonial influence
Fading French Colonial influence
010 East Side Old Medina
010 East Side Old Medina
010 East Side
010 East Side
010 Hotel Central
010 Hotel Central
010 East Side Gate
010 East Side Gate
010 Shrine
010 Shrine
011 Park near Le Scala
011 Park near Le Scala
011 Le Scala
011 Le Scala
012 Tafilalet Entrance
012 Tafilalet Entrance
Casablanca
photo by: nathanphil