Morocco’s biggest city and commercial capital, CASABLANCA (Dar el Baida in its literal Arabic form) is the Maghreb’s largest port, and busier than Marseilles, on which it was modelled by the French. Its development, from a town of 20,000 in 1906, has been astonishing but it was ruthlessly deliberate. When the French landed their forces here in 1907, and established their Protectorate five years later, Fez was Morocco’s commercial centre and Tangier its main port. Had Tangier not been in international hands, this probably would have remained the case. However, the demands of an independent colonial administration forced the French to seek an entirely new base. Casa, at the heart of Maroc Utile, the country’s most fertile zone and centre of its mineral deposits, was a natural choice.
Superficially, with a population of over three million, Casa today is not unlike a large southern European city. Arriving here from the south, or even from Fez or Tangier, most of the preconceptions you’ve been travelling round with will be happily shattered by the city’s cosmopolitan beach clubs or by the almost total absence of the veil. But these “European” images shield what is substantially a first-generation city – and one still attracting considerable immigration from the countryside – and perhaps inevitably some of Morocco’s most intense social problems.
Casablanca’s most obvious sight is the Mosquée Hassan II, and it also has the only Jewish museum in the Muslim world, but the city’s true delight remains the Mauresque and Art Deco architecture built during the colonial period, in particular the 1920s and 1930s. Casa can be a bewildering place to arrive, but once you’re in the centre, orientation gets a little easier. It’s focused on a large public square, Place Mohammed V, and most of the places to stay, eat, or (in a rather limited way) see, are located in and around the avenues that radiate from it. A few blocks to the north, still partially walled, is the Old Medina, which was all there was of Casablanca until around 1907. Out to the south is the Habous quarter – the New Medina, created by the French, while to the west, along the Corniche past the Mosquée Hassan II, lie the beach suburbs of Aïn Diab and Anfa.