Many travellers stay in Casablanca just long enough to change planes or catch a train, but the sprawling metropolis deserves more time. It may not be as exotic as other Moroccan cities, but it is the country’s economic capital, and it represents Morocco on the move: Casablanca is where the money is being made, where the industry is, where art galleries show the best contemporary art and where fashion designers have a window on the world. The old pirate lair is looking towards the future, showing off its wealth and achievements.
The first French resident-general, Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey hired French architect Henri Prost to redesign Casablanca in the early 20th century as the economic centre of the new protectorate and, indeed, as the jewel of the French colonies. His wide boulevards and modern urban planning still survive, and mark the city as more European than Moroccan. However, Lyautey underestimated the success of his own plans and the city grew far beyond his elaborate schemes. By the end of WWII, Casablanca had a population of 700,000 and was surrounded by heaving shanty towns.
Casablancais are cosmopolitan, and are more open to Western ways than other places in Morocco. This is reflected in their dress, and in the way men and women hang out together in restaurants, bars, beaches and hip clubs. But Europe is not the only inspiration. More and more young Casablancais are realising that they come from a country with a fascinating history.
Casablanca is full of contradictions. It is home to wide boulevards, well-kept public parks, fountains and striking colonial architecture, but is also fringed by large shanty towns and simmering social problems.
The bleak facades of the suburbs stand in sharp contrast to the Mauresque, art deco and modernist gems of the city centre, and to Casablanca’s exceptional landmark, the enormous and incredibly ornate Hassan II Mosque.
The medina – the oldest part of town – is tiny and sits in the north of the city close to the port. To the south of the medina is Pl des Nations Unies, a large traffic junction that marks the heart of the city. The city’s main streets branch out from here: Ave des Forces Armées Royales (Ave des FAR), Ave Moulay Hassan I, Blvd Mohammed V and Blvd Houphouët Boigny.
Ave Hassan II leads to Pl Mohammed V, easily recognised by its grand art deco administrative buildings. Quartiers Gauthier and Maarif, west and southwest of the Parc de la Ligue Arabe, are where most of the action is, with shops, bars and restaurants.
To the southeast is the Quartier Habous (also known as the nouvelle medina) and to the west is Aïn Diab, the beachfront suburb home to upmarket hotels and nightclubs.
Development in Casablanca today is so exciting that you’d think the ghosts of General Lyautey and Henri Prost were working on a new plan for the city, though this time with Moroccan pride rather than French colonial might. The new tramway has eased some of the pressures of Casablanca's interminable traffic, and improved the city centre environment enormously. Along the coastal road in Anfa, huge new projects are being built. The new environmentally friendly, award-winning 200,000-sq-m Morocco Mall, the biggest ‘destination mall’ in North Africa, houses shops and offices as well as a large aquarium and a 400-seater IMAX theatre. On the coast east of the Hassan II Mosque the Casablanca Marina remains a few years from being completed, along with the under-refurbishment Casa Port train station. Casablanca today is showing a confident face to the rest of Morocco – and the world.