After Spain, our ship set sail for Africa, my sixth continent. We docked in Casablanca at 8:00 am, and Adrian and I stepped off the boat. The dock was filled with dozens of buses taking the cruisers on day tours, but as far as we could see, we were the only two passengers who were exploring on our own. The port was immense and confusing, so we followed the buses to find our exit. Scores of taxi drivers speaking excellent English offered to drive us around the town, but I stubbornly insisted that we try our hand at public transport. Luckily I knew that the train station was near the tall Novatel hotel, so once we spotted that, we had some sense of direction. The Casa Port train station was right next to the hotel, but so unassuming we had to ask for directions twice before we found it. We bought tickets to Rabat, and I was on board my first train in Africa. One hour later, we were in Rabat Ville (or Rabbitville, as Adrian called it), the capital of Morocco. We hired a driver in a blue petite taxi to drive us around for the morning. My four months of French was enough for basic communication, and we soon arrived at the ruins of Chellah.
These are the ruins of a great Roman settlement called Sala Colonia that was built on both sides of the bridge across the Bou Regreg river. On the side that we visited, our guide walked us through the ruins, pointing out the function of each place. It was so easy for me to step back in time and imagine the pedestrians crossing the bridge, paying the tax at the gate, with the shops nearby filled with items to tempt sailors and other travellers. We wandered through the sites of the houses of the merchants, and stepped over a series of aqueducts that once led to a vast reservoir of water for drinking and to fill the saunas. Even the pattered mosaic floor of one home, built over 1800 years ago, was still intact below a layer of red dust.
In the fourteenth century, one part of this area was converted into a school, a mosque, and a mausoleum. The stones once used in Roman arches were re-used to build a minaret, and the classic Latin inscriptions were replaced by intricate Arabic scripts. Three generations of sultans, including that of Abu l-Hasan, were buried on the site, their graves still marked by brightly patterned tombs. We walked though the ruins of the small mosque, and we saw the niche in which the Imam stood at the front, his back to the others so that he was also facing East, his words amplified and forced backwards by the curve of the stone.
Today, the most conspicuous residents of Chellah are the storks, building their nests at the top of the columns, and gathering sticks from the nearby trees. We saw them courting each other with bends of the neck and rapid snaps of the beak. They seem quite content with this sanctuary that gives them peace and protection, close to the river yet safe from predators.
We next visited Tower Hassan, the minaret built by sultan Yaqub al-Mansur. Intended to be the largest mosque in the world, construction began in the 12th century, but stopped only four years later once the sultan died. The tower is only half the height that it was intended, and the only sign of the rest of the mosque are the crumbling walls and 200 columns that were taken from Roman ruins and assembled in rows.
After seeing the highlights of Rabat, we hopped back onto the train, as we wanted to ensure that we gave ourselves plenty of time to see Casablanca and then return to the ship. On the outskirts of both Rabat and Casablanca there were vast slums built next to garbage dumps, reminding me how lucky I was to be born into such fortunate circumstances.
We had lunch at a lovely restaurant called Sqala, set inside the ancient medina of Casablanca. We both had meals slow-cooked in a tajine (vented cooking pot), and I followed this up with a chocolate fondue with kiwifruit, pineapple, apple, and banana. It was delicious and I even managed to eat it without ending up covered in chocolate myself.
Then we spied the world’s tallest minaret on the horizon, and we headed for Hassan II mosque. The mosque, designed by French architect Michel Pinseau, is really beautiful, far more pleasing than the Sagrada Família, the colours blending perfectly with the surroundings. The building sits on the peninsula, as the fierce winds blow out from the Atlantic the warm sandstone reflects the light from the sky and offers protection from the elements. The blues and greens in the mosaics were delicate and precisely complemented the churning sky and tumultuous sea.
The area was full of tourists and locals, taking photos and posing for each other. Young women strolled about in jeans and designer handbags, some with headscarves, some without. We saw a young boy running in circles through puddles, his baby sister trying her best to keep up without getting too wet. A group of mixed sex teens hung out together, sitting on the absolution fountains, flirting and laughing. Even right next to the mosque, Casablanca was not a place of strict religious oppression. While a lot of the city was run down, the people had an upbeat and cosmopolitan attitude. The taxi drivers, shop keepers, and waiters were all multilingual, and the whole place felt very European.
We left Morocco with a firm desire to explore it more thoroughly next time we return. It was a very long walk all the way back to the ship, through the streets and navigating the complex dock, but we finally made it back to our cabin where I was so exhausted I refused to go out for dinner, and made poor Adrian miss out on his promised reward of pizza after a very long day.