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This past April, I spent a day in the eclectic city of Casablanca, Morocco as part of a spectacular, 14-night transatlantic crossing from Barbados to Portugal aboard Silversea’s elegant, luxurious flagship, the Silver Spirit.
While the entire voyage was simply stunning from start to finish, that dusty Tuesday spent in the rushed, hurried and frankly bizarre Moroccan city continues to dominate my thoughts. Why? Because it was such a contrast, not only to the ultra-luxurious atmosphere aboard the Silver Spirit, but to each and every place we had been prior.
In the early morning hours, I stood on the balcony of our Silver Suite on Deck 11 like I did every morning, taking photos. Only this time, I had to shut the door to the suite behind me so as to not let the wind blow dust – or soot – or whatever it was, around.
We sailed past a series of industrial-looking sheds, each of which had a cargo ship berthed next to it. Some kind of powder – not quite sulphur, not quite sand, but somewhere inbetween – was being loaded haphazardly into each ship. Caught by the wind, it blew straight toward the spotless exterior of the Silver Spirit and hitched a ride.
I’m not sure if I was expecting Humphrey Bogart to appear and tell me that he sticks his neck out for nobody, but somehow there was a disconnect between the Casablanca I thought I knew and the one that manifested itself in front of me.
Therein might lay part of the problem: most of us have seen Casablanca, but did you know absolutely none of it was shot in Casablanca, let alone outside of the state of California? Yet, nearly everywhere you go in the city, some building or other is called ‘Rick’s Bar’ and features dozens of tourists out in front snapping away furiously with their cameras. The movie and the city, it would seem, are inexorably linked.
Modern Casablanca is busy and clogged with traffic. In fact, one of the things that fascinated me most about the city is that despite having all the expected signs and signals, traffic moves in a chaotic fashion that defies logic and explanation. Cars queue up four abreast to make a left hand turn, people change lanes and directions at will, and congestion in the city centre gives new meaning to the phrase,“ gridlock.”
Yet it’s also a city of striking beauty, particularly where the Hassan II Mosque is concerned. Constructed in the early 1990’s, this seaside mosque is the 7th largest in the world, and one of the few open to non-Islamic visitors. Strikingly designed and beautifully constructed, it is as impressive as monuments and cathedrals that pre-date it by centuries.
Over 100,000 worshippers can converge here at a time, which must be an absolutely amazing sight.
The other impressive thing about Casablanca was how decidedly French it feels in certain places; credit for this goes to a man named Henri Prost, a French architect who designed and planned a number of important buildings and streets during the early 1900’s.
I learned I love the tea the Moroccans make – it is simply superb. Sweet, pleasant and very refreshing.
But I also learned that after spending nearly two weeks aboard the Silver Spirit, I am very, very fortunate.
Poverty is prevalent in Casablanca. The “have nots” far outnumber their well-off counterparts. Sellers approached us in the street at nearly every turn, asking if we’d like to buy leather belts, cheap knock-off watches, or whatever else they happened to have with them. A firm, “no, thank you” was always enough, but it made me feel more than a little guilty.
Turn the corner, there’s a popular, upscale retail chain. Turn the corner again, and there’s shanty-houses propped up with metal and wood. Turn the corner again, there’s a gas station with a queue of sports cars, tops down, waiting to fill up. Turn the corner again, there’s a kid with no shoes running down the street.
That’s not to say that there’s no middle class in Casablanca; far from it. But if you’ve walked through bazaar’s in Turkey or Egypt before, it’s like that, but on steroids. I formed the impression that everything – and maybe anything – was up for grabs, if the price was right.
But Casablanca was invigorating, precisely because it is so different. It’s very much a city in a state of change; grappling on the one hand with its treasured religious beliefs and with its own industrial revolution that has plunged the city centre into a sort of motorized Circus Maximus.
Casablanca, though, was the city that reaffirmed why travel is so important to me; after six hours exploring this fascinating Moroccan capital, I left with a greater understanding of the Moroccan people, their values and traditions, and the city I thought I knew.
Humphrey Bogart may not have been here, but I was. And I look forward to returning.
Read our complete Live Voyage Report from onboard Silversea’s Silver Spirit as she crossed from Bridgetown, Barbados to Lisbon, Portugal this past April!
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