Morocco is the most fascinating country. Sitting at the mouth of Mediterranean Sea, just 9 miles from Spain and Western Europe, Morocco is a world away. Most tourists head straight for the bustle of Marrakesh to soak up the spice or the beaches of Essaouira to soak up the sun. We chose the first option and decided to do five days, out of season, in the fourth largest city in Morocco. After three days in Marrakesh we decided to take a trip out of the city. It was far too cold for Rosie to venture into the Atlas Mountains, and so we spent a day visiting nearby Casablanca (the largest city) and the Hassan II mosque. We discovered what makes Casablanca the perfect day trip from Marrakesh.
Staying on the edge of Marrakesh’s medina had its advantages. Sure, we had to walk further to reach the famous main square, but it made it really easy to grab a taxi. Taxi’s in Marrakesh are cheap if you know what you are doing. We let a couple of guys go past who were obviously just out to rip tourists off, but found a good guy who put the meter on without us having to ask, and we were off.
We arrived at the station in plenty of time to buy a return ticket. Our poor school-learnt French really came in useful in Morocco. We grabbed a bit of breakfast from a small concessions stand, to munch on the train.
The train was the type that had separate cabins off a main corridor. We were lucky enough to get a cabin to ourselves for the three-hour journey.
The Hassan II Mosque
Hassan II Mosque sits overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. January set it against a grey and bitter sea but I bet it is glorious in the summer sun.
This mosque is big, that’s why it is called the Grande Mosque too. It is the second biggest mosque in Africa, and thirteenth largest mosque in the world. I find that quite hard to believe as the place is HUGE. (At the time, it was the third largest, and that seemed about right. The world must be building some huge mosques!) It was so difficult to get a sense from across the road, but as we walked across the vast outside area it slowly loomed above us. Even in these photos I may struggle to give you an idea of scale.
The whole thing didn’t come cheap. It was the idea of the former King, but he wasn’t funding it. Instead, the Moroccan people had to fund a fair chunk. They were essentially subject to a Grand Mosque tax, payable by every family in the country; whether they intended to use the building or not. The total cost was over £500,000,000, but I suppose they really have something to show for it!
The minaret is the largest in the world; standing at 210 metres. At night, a laser shines east from the top in the direction of Mecca. The giant doors at its base, by the main entrance to the mosque can be drawn all the way up.
The Prayer Hall
That’s not the only moving part to this gigantic building; the roof is retractable. That means that the 25,000 worshippers inside can enjoy the same Moroccan sunshine as the 80,000 people praying outside.
Our first stop was the prayer hall. This is 200 metres long, and half as wide. It’s like two full size football pitches laid end to end. The whole thing is intricately decorated with influences from traditional Moorish design, and more local tastes. As it was only built in the last decades of the 20th century, the whole thing is an homage to the mosques that had come before it. During construction there were around 10,000 craftsmen working on the building in shifts as large as 1400 people at a time.
The ablutions room was my favourite area. It was symmetrical, tiled, Moroccan perfection. During our visit it was empty and echoed every footstep. I would love to see it full of the sounds of splashing fountains, gossiping friends and children screaming with delight or horror at the cold water.
As well as the normal washing areas, the mosque has its very own hammam. Lots of sparkling rooms are crowned by a lovely heated pool. This pool is never used. It seems like a big waste, but I didn’t dare an illicit dip.
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Why is Casablanca the Perfect Day Trip from Marrakesh?
Casablanca, as a city, is not that exciting. There is a small souk (market) but from what we saw, it was mostly places to buy socks and pants. The most intriguing thing we saw was two men drawing string along a wall. They had stretched it for thirty metres, zigzagging back and forth. We never found out what it was all about, and were sad that we didn’t ask.
Casablanca is the financial heart of Morocco. It has a lot more modernity and a lot less atmosphere. It certainly wasn’t the tropical, colonial place I had conjured up in my imagination. Hollywood really romanticised it for me.
This is why we thought it was the perfect day trip from Marrakesh. We saw the stunning Hassan II mosque, had a little wander, and then it was time to leave. We were glad that we could go back to Marrakesh, but so glad that we had visited. Feeling quite uninspired by the food options, and by Casablanca in general, we decided that this was the place to get Mr Fluskey’s customary Big Mac. After dinner, it was time to get the train back.
If you wondering what this quirky travel tradition is all about, check out the article Backpacking with Burgers – Munching on Mcdonalds
Obviously, we always encourage you to go and make your owns mind up!
The Train Home
On the way home, we were a lot less lucky with our cabin mates. It was very busy, and so we were squished in. An argument kicked off between two people, and the shouting went on for a while. We had no idea what was going on and were a little worried but luckily, it didn’t escalate. The plan was to have a little nap, but it was so busy that we just enjoyed observing the other people in the carriage.
If you are thinking of visiting Casablanca and Hassan II Mosque, here are some things you might need to know for your perfect day trip from Marrakesh.
- Trains run every couple of hours between Marrakesh and Casablanca. Be sure to check the timetable before you go.
- Hassan II mosque is a 20 minute walk from the station.
- To enter the mosque, appropriate dress is required. Knees and arms should be covered but ladies don’t need to cover their hair. You will be asked to remove your shoes.
- The mosque can only be visited as part of a tour. These are conducted in several different languages. To find out more information about this check out the website here.
Maybe if we’d had more time, we’d have discovered more in Casablanca to love. Honestly though, I was really glad that we weren’t staying over night because we had seen its undisputed highlight.
Have you been to Casablanca? What did we miss? Let us know by leaving a comment.