On March 26 we arrived in Casablanca, Morocco. Despite Americans’ romantic notion of this city from the movie of the same name (which was actually shot entirely in Hollywood), Casablanca is a large commercial city (3.5 million people) with a reputation for having little charm.
We opted to spend the day on an excursion to Marrakesh, about 150 miles to the south. We travelled by bus, rather than the Marrakesh Express, and managed to get there after a long drive (about 3.5 hours each way). We saw many villages, each with a minaret, & flocks of sheep & goats. One interesting thing was the widespread use of prickly pear cactus as hedgerows & fencing for grazing animals. We were told that they don’t eat the cactus, but they do make oil from it & some other products. We even saw a large hill planted with rows of prickly pears like a farmer’s field.
Casablanca is known as the “white city”; the name means “white house” & originated in the fact that it had so many white housesthat sailors could easily identify it from sea. Marrakesh (which is inland, at the foot of the High Atlas mountains) is called the “red city” because most of its buildings are made of reddish materials (originally they used the local red mud). It is a pretty large city & very busy and crowded on the streets. The name of the country, Morocco, is derived from the name Marrakesh. Our first stop was at a hotel for lunch. It was a beautiful hotel, but the lunch was disappointing in that it was not Moroccan cuisine (we did get some very good Moroccan cuisine, but it was on the ship after our return!).
The air conditioning in the bus didn’t work during the long hot (sun in my face) drive to Marrakesh, but while we ate lunch they fixed it. The guide told us (with a straight face) that the bus driver had explained that someone on the bus must have been using a computer, which caused a virus to infect the air conditioning system. This is the “computers work by magic” school of technology, which reminded me of the film Independence Day, in which Jeff Goldblum was able to tap into the alien computer system in a few minutes through wifi internet with his laptop & read their plans to conquer Earth (apparently the aliens not only had the same technology we do, but also communicated digitally in English, even though they also possessed scary mental powers). These aliens also generously provided free Earth-style wifi in their mothership, without even using password protections, to enable Jeff to upload a virus to their system that destroyed all their ships in just a few minutes (but there was no wifi on our bus, so even that theory wouldn’t apply). Isn’t magic technology wonderful?
The first place we visited after lunch was the Bahia (“Brilliant”) Palace. It is relatively new for a Marrakesh landmark, having been built in the 19th century. But it is full of lavish Moorish decoration. The intricate carving in the walls that looks like sculpted stone is actually sculpted stucco. The ceilings of this building are made of carved cedarwood. You are going to see a lot of this stuff, both in this posting and in the Grenada, Spain posting yet to come, because we really liked it. So bear with me & enjoy it.
We also visited the Saadian Tombs. Members of the Saadian dynasty (15th & 16th centuries) are buried here. The first sultan of the next dynasty wanted to eliminate all such recollections of the Saadians, but because it would have been bad luck to desecrate the tombs he left them intact but blocked off all access. They were mostly forgotten until rediscoved in 1917.
Outside the tombs is the Kasbah Mosque, built in the 12th Century. We continued to the carpet store (don’t ask), through the colorful streets of this part of Marrakesh. The city is home to storks, who nest on top of urban walls & buildings here.
Last, but far from least, we visited the Djemaa el Fna (assembly of the dead) and the nearby Koutoubia minaret, which is the symbol of Marrakesh. If you have seen the remake of Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” you may recognize the Djemaa el Fna as the large colorful plaza where Jimmy Stewart learns the secret from a dying man that causes him and Doris Day so much trouble for the rest of the film. It is a large open area surrounded by cafes & vendors that fills up as the day lengthens with food carts (particularly orange juice – Moroccan oranges are bitter and tough, not great to eat) & snake charmers,monkeys, acrobats & other entertainers (who charge a Euro, or more if they think you are gullible, to take their picture). We were there in late afternoon, so many people were still setting up their stalls; things reportedly get really interesting at night. Although you have to be careful (you have seen Indiana Jones, so you know how easy it is to get abducted in such places); I turned away for a minute to take a picture and some guy came up and took Mary’s hand & tried to pick her up.
The Koutoubia Minaret is about 180 feet tall. It was built in the 12th Century, and the mosque associated with it had to be rebuilt twice (once to correct its alignment with Mecca). It can be seen all over the old part of the city & is quite beautiful.
Then there were a few more random things worth seeing: the Theatre Royale, a view of the High Atlas mountains from Marrakesh, and the city walls (which look a lot like Taroudent’s, but aren’t quite as old).
The trip back to Casablanca was long, but there was a dramatic sunset about halfway there.
Back in Casablanca there were two more stops before reaching the ship (where they had kept the dining room open for us, and we enjoyed a terrific Morrocan style dinner). First we stopped to see the Hassan II Mosque, which was near the ship. Built recently (1989) this is supposedly the largest mosque in the world. It holds about 20,000 worshipers inside the sanctuary and another 80-100,000 in the courtyard. It has a retractable roof (3.5 minutes to open) & has the world’s tallest minaret at 689 feet. OK, that was pretty impressive, but the other stop was at (what else?) Rick’s Cafe. As I mentioned at the beginning, the film Casablanca was filmed entirely in Hollywood, so Humphrey Bogart & Ingrid Bergman never set foot in this place. It was built just 9 years ago by a woman from Portland Oregon named Kathy Kriger, so it is strictly a tourist attraction. I am sure that if we had gone inside Sam would have played it again (and again), but we didn’t get out of the bus for this one, and were only too happy to finally reach the ship.