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In 1980, King Hassan II commissioned a fabulous new mosque for Casablanca, intended to be a modern wonder and a statement of both his power and his commitment to Islam. He wanted it finished by his 60th birthday in 1989, and he wanted the design to be done by French architect Michel Pinseau, who had done a number of buildings in Morocco. The king got everything he wanted except the completion date; the huge complex wasn’t finished until 1993.
The mosque, third-largest in the world, is immense, yet graceful. Its vast acreage, on a promontory at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, holds a square big enough for 75-80,000 people. Thousands of workers spent untold hours constructing the mosque and creating the tile-work, fountains, archways, and 210-meter-high marble minaret—the highest in the world. The Hassan II Mosque has an up-to-date public address system, a retractable roof, and a glass floor in a room that can hold 25,000 worshipers. The artistry is exquisite, from the carved archways to the intricate colored tiles. The best of Moroccan artisans put their finest efforts into this monument. Needless to say, this was an expensive project. It cost an estimated $800-$850 million, one-third paid by the king and much of it from Moroccan contributions.
This is one of the few mosques open to non-Muslims, though only on guided tours. They are offered every day except Friday in several languages, including English, and take about 45 minutes. Visitors must remove their shoes and carry them, and shoulders and heads should be covered. Taking pictures is allowed, but not video.
The Hassan II Mosque is by far the main attraction of this busy, commercial city of 3.5 million. (Casablanca has the largest port in North Africa.) The lighthouse is a famous landmark, and the Boulevard de la Corniche is popular for its trendy cafes, nightclubs, ocean views, people-watching, and a beach that curves along the harbor. Rick’s Café is nearby, which interests everyone who’s seen Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the old movie, Casablanca. (Rick’s serves fairly expensive but good food.) Nobody cares that this café was not in the movie, which was filmed entirely n Hollywood.
Casablanca has some interesting Art Deco and Moorish architecture, along the wide boulevards of the New City area that was designed by the French when they occupied Morocco. There’s an old section, the medina, and souks (markets) that are not as intriguing as in other Moroccan cities. Casablanca houses every extreme, from magnificent walled villas to the small, humble homes of the poor.
One of the best hotels is the Hyatt Regency Casablanca, near the harbor. Its 255 rooms, four restaurants and two bars are spread over 11 floors. The hotel has all the amenities, including a fitness center and a swimming pool. Another popular and much simpler lodging is the centrally located Hotel Les Saisons, which has nicely furnished rooms.
A noted restaurant is Al Mounia, serving excellent traditional Moroccan meals. For fine pastries, try Benis Patisserie, in the Habous Quarter. And to join in the active nightlife scene, head for Boulevard de la Corniche.
Written by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose.com