A weekend in Casablanca

I visited the Moroccan port of Casablanca recently, and wrote it up for the Independent’s “48 hours in…” slot. Top tips: a tour of the awe-inspiring Hassan II Mosque, which sits out over the ocean on a rocky outcrop, then an aperitif at the stylish Rick’s Cafe, followed by dinner in the open air at La Sqala, amid the ramparts of an 18th century fort.

Full text of my article is available on the Independent’s website here, or after the fold.

Casablanca travel tips: Where to go and what to see in 48 hours

 48 hours in Casablanca

Forget the usual suspects for a Moroccan break – instead plan a visit to the nation’s biggest city. Cal Flyn finds winter warmth in this Atlantic port

Travel essentials

Why go now?

The closer Britain gets to midwinter, the more Morocco’s largest city appeals. Today Casablanca will enjoy 90 minutes more daylight than London, with the added assurance of mild temperatures and the likelihood of sunny skies.

This former French colony has a distinct charm, with its old walled Medina set like a pearl within a European-style city of wide boulevards and elegant Art Deco villas. Getting there is also getting easier, thanks to Royal Air Maroc (020 7307 5800;royalairmaroc.com) now offering daily non-stop links from both Gatwick and Heathrow.

Touch down

Fares on Royal Air Maroc are typically £250-£300 return from Gatwick, slightly higher from Heathrow. From other airports, Air France (020 7660 0337; airfrance.co.uk), flies from nine UK cities, including Manchester, Edinburgh and Exeter, all via Paris. Fares are similar.

Casablanca’s Mohammed V airport is about 20 miles south of the city centre. A train from the airport to Casa Voyageurs railway station (1) costs 40Dh (£2.80) and leaves hourly, taking half an hour.

Once in town, the easiest way to get around is by taxi. There are two types. Red petits taxis are metered, private and take up to three passengers at a time. White grands taxis are shared with up to four others and charge a set 5Dh (35p) fare within the city centre.

The bus system is usually rather too crowded and confusing for weekend visitors, but shiny new trams also trundle from east to west across the city. A single ticket costs 7Dh (50p). Alternatively, spend 61Dh (£4.30) for a strip of 10.

Get your bearings

Most tourist sights are clustered close to the enormous port, including the old Arab quarter, the Medina, which sits just to the south. The modern city radiates out from the Place des Nations Unies (2) just outside its walls. The tourist office (3) is a short walk from here at 98 Boulevard Mohammed V (00 212 5222 21524; open 8.30am-4.30pm from Monday to Friday but closed at weekends).

Further south-east is the Quartier Habous, a newer medina built by the French in the 1930s as a sort of gentrified souk, while suburbs and the financial district stretch out west.

Check in

The boutique Hotel le Doge (4) at 9 Rue du Doctor Veyre (00 212 5224 67800; hotelledoge.com) has earned rave reviews. Each of the rooms in this elegant converted townhouse has been inspired by a different artist from the Art Deco period. Doubles start at £150, including breakfast.

Located south of the centre, near the Habous, and set in its own peaceful garden, Jnane Sherazade (5) at 8 Rue de Belgrade (00 212 5228 21765; jnanesherazade.com) is the closest thing to a traditional riad that you’ll find in Casablanca. It offers good value, with rooms from €89, not including breakfast.

For those on a tight budget, the Youth Hostel (6) at 6 Place Ahmad el Bidaoui (00 212 5222 20551) is simple but clean, and it’s ideally located. Double rooms here are 170Dh (£12.10), room only.

Day one

Take a view

Pull up a chair and soak up the atmosphere at the spot where old Casablanca meets new, the Place de Nations Unies (2). The Café de France (00 212 5222 75009), opposite the clocktower (7) that tops the Medina wall, is a local institution. Sit outside with an aromatic mint tea (10Dh/70p) as you take the city’s pulse.

Take a hike

Walk south along Boulevard Hassan II to Place Mohammed V, the central hub of Casablanca’s new town and home to striking architecture. Urban planner Henri Prost and his peers developed the distinctive style by combining Moorish motifs with colonial functionalism.Take in the clocktower and limestone arches of the City Hall (8), the Palais de Justice (9) and the imposing tiled façade of the Bank al-Maghrib (10). Turn back towards the sea, following Rue Driss Lahrizi. Then go left up Rue Chaouia to the lively Central Market (11). Boulevard Mohammed V, a showcase of Art Deco buildings, will lead you back towards the centre. The Rialto cinema (12), on Rue Mohammed el Quori, is a fabulous example.

Lunch on the run

At Restaurant Al Mamoun (13) at 23 Place 16 Novembre (00 212 5222 05112) you can admire the intrictate stonework through the aromatic smoke of shisha pipes. Try the tagine of veal with prunes (90Dh/£6.40).

Cultural afternoon

Cross the Place des Nations Unies (6) to enter the Medina and wander they alleyways west towards the unmissable Hassan II Mosque (14) at Sour Jdid. It is the largest mosque in Morocco and was completed in 1993. It can hold 25,000 worshippers and 80,000 more in the courtyard. Make sure you arrive in time for the English-language tour at 2pm (120Dh/£8.50).

An aperitif

Rick’s Café (15) at 248 Rue Sour Jdid (00 212 5222 74207,rickscafe.ma; no jeans or flip-flops) emulates the heady atmosphere of the 1942 Hollywood classic that made this city famous. Relax with a bottle of Coteaux de l’Atlas white wine (350Dh/£25).

Dining with the locals

La Sqala (16) at 1 Boulevard des Almohades (00 212 5222 60960) has an open-air grill and a pretty garden within the 18th-century fort’s ramparts. The green pepper salad with cuttlefish is 75Dh (£5.30). For seafood, try La Taverne du Dauphin (17) at 115 President Felix Houphouet Boigny (00 212 5222 21200, taverne-du-dauphin.com) . Give the excellent stuffed squid a go (95Dh, £6.75).

Sunday morning: go to church

The Parc de Ligue Arabe (18) sits to the south of the city centre. In its west corner you’ll find the remarkable Cathédrale Sacré-Coeur (19), a gleaming white Neo-Gothic construction. It’s no longer used as a place of worship but is sometimes opens for exhibitions; if so, head inside for a look at the stained glass lining the hall. If not, simply admire the dramatic exterior.

A walk in the park

Leave the cathedral to wander between rows of shady palms and under boughs of flowering trees. The park is edged to the south by a row of stylish, crumbling Art Deco villas, one of which now houses the Villa des Arts gallery (20) (00 212 5222 95087;www.fondationona.ma; open 9.30am-7pm daily except Mondays; free).

Out to brunch

Jump in a petit taxi to the Quartier Habous, where you’ll find plenty of small outdoor cafés. Café Imperial (21), on the corner of Boulevard Imperial and Rue Ibn Khaldoun, is a good option. A traditional Moroccan breakfast of msemen (crepes with honey) costs 10Dh (70p).

Window shopping

Venture further into labyrinthine Habous to find a wealth of sequined slippers, rugs, brassware and leatherwork stalls nestled into the carved limestone arches. After haggling to your heart’s content, stop by the beautifully tiled Patisserie Bennis Habous (22) at 2 Rue Fkih el-Gabbas (00 212 522 30 30 25) for gazelle horns filled with almond cream (from 10Dh, 70p). The Royal Palace (23) is a good spot to pick up a grand taxi and head back into the centre.

Take a ride

Take a westbound tram to the upmarket beachside suburb of Aïn Diab. Once here, go for a stroll along the Corniche, a boardwalk edged by bars and restaurants. The beach itself is rocky and overcrowded, so head to one of the private clubs if you fancy a swim.

Tahiti Beach Club (24) at Boulevard de la Corniche (00 212 5227 98025; tahiti beachclub.ma) is by far the nicest – with three pools and four-poster sunloungers overlooking the sea – but it’s a pricey option at 400Dh (£28.20) for a weekend pass.

Cheaper alternatives include Club Tropicana (100Dh, £7) a few doors down.

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