x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

A beautiful friendship

My kind of place When most people hear the name Casablanca, they tend to think of Bogart, Bergman, and Sam at the piano.

Tahir Shah browses through the antique shops near Boulevard Mohammed V in downtown Casablanca.
Tahir Shah browses through the antique shops near Boulevard Mohammed V in downtown Casablanca.

When most people hear the name Casablanca, they tend to think of Bogart, Bergman, and Sam at the piano. It usually comes as a shock to learn that the war-time movie was filmed stateside at Warner Bros Studios. But worry not. The real Casablanca is just as intriguing and exotic as the Hollywood classic. There is a grandeur about the city, a sheer sense of bravado, that gets right under your skin. Casablanca was built as an expression of French colonial might and, as a result, is a showcase of pre-War architecture and European style. But that's only the façade. The real story, what lies beneath, is that Casa (pronounced "Caza" by locals), is as Moroccan as any other city in the land. It's a tantalising blend of ancient and modern, a seat of industry, a hotbed of extravagance and faded charm.

Casablanca is a city that caters primarily to businessmen. Tourists are few and far between and, as a result, the city is not overwhelmed by the quaint, boutiquey little riads you find in Marrakech and Fez. There are several top-class hotels, including the Sheraton and the Le Royal Mansour Méridien. However, I would recommend the Hyatt Regency for its sublime Moroccan and French restaurants and the good old-fashioned service (www.casablanca.regency.hyatt.com; 00 2125 2243 1234). A double room costs from US$365 (Dh1,340), including taxes. Also excellent is the newly opened Kenzi Tower Hotel, which boasts a bird's eye view over the city's fashionable Maarif quarter (www.kenzi-hotels.com; 00 212 5 22 97 8000). A double room costs from $237 (Dh870) including taxes. For those looking for something a little more exotic, there's the Hotel Riad Salem (00 212 5 22 39 1313), perched over the Atlantic, at the end of the Corniche where a double room costs from $134 (Dh492) per night, including taxes.

Casablanca is essentially several cities in one. The old Art Deco heart is without doubt the most fascinating place to take a stroll. Start near the Hyatt Hotel and amble down Boulevard Mohammed V, past the old Central Market, towards Casa Voyageurs Railway Station. Take time to venture off the main drag from time to time and soak up the extraordinary details of what was one of the grandest streets ever built by the French outside Paris. Another good walk is along the Corniche, a short taxi ride from the centre. It's recently been given a facelift, and is a great place to watch the sun slip into the ocean. Lastly, a must-visit is the bustling Habbous quarter, a Moroccan medina-style area, also built by the French. It's great for bargain-hunting of all descriptions.

Casablanca is all about sitting in cafes and little restaurants and whiling away the hours. A great place to do this is at Cafe Paul (behind Stade Velodrome), where the pastries, salads - and the set breakfast - are all out of this world. It's a great place for lunch meetings or simply to sit around by yourself in the sprawling garden, taking tea and reading the paper. Another popular haunt is the terrace of Hotel Dawliz (www.ledawliz.com; 00 212 522 29 25 10), located between the Corniche and the Lighthouse, with its ample views towards the ocean. The Caesar salad and beef carpaccio (both under $10; Dh80) are excellent, as is the selection of ultra-fresh seafood. For Moroccan food, without doubt the most charming ambience and best cuisine is La Sqala, down by the port. Set in an old Portuguese fortress, its tagines and salads ($15; Dh120) are exceptional.

In Casablanca there's no shortage these days of bling ... and those with it seem to go out every night to see and be seen, not to mention to have their posh wheels admired by everyone out on the curb. The Relais de Paris brasserie, at Hotel Dawliz, is the most proficient dining spot in town. Its menu excels in seafood, serving excellent oysters from down the coast at Oualidia, and a wide range of French-style cuisine. The restaurant's magret de canard ($23; Dh190) is beyond mouth-watering, and the banoffee pie ($7; Dh60) will satisfy even the sweetest tooth. The ultra-plush Cafe M at the Hyatt Regency is also an excellent place for European fare and populated by old money rather than by new. And, with its quiet, low-key atmosphere, Thai Gardens (00 212 5 22 797579) in the suburb of Anfa is always good too, although you have to beg them to spice up the green curry.

Morocco is all about local markets rather than enclosed shopping centres and Casablanca is no exception. Spend as much time as you can out and about, trawling through the open-air markets. It's a fantastic way to watch life and to soak up the atmosphere. For food and spices, Marché Central and Marché Maarif are unbeatable, especially early in the morning. For textiles, Derb Omar is quite amazing and, for Moroccan handicrafts, Marché Habbous is the place to go. The lack of tourists in Casablanca means that shopkeepers there aren't blasé about the sight of a foreigner and are likely to give you as good a deal as anywhere else, if not far better. For higher-end shopping, check out the designer brands in Maarif near Twin Centre, or the Gallery O at the bottom of the Corniche. And if you're feeling adventurous, take a taxi to Derb Ghalef, the sprawling street market on the edge of town where at least one of just about everything on Earth seems to be for sale.

The astonishing lack of tourists in Casablanca means that there's very little in the way of usual ploys, such as a taxi driver pretending the meter's broken. One annoyance which everyone seems to tolerate is that "petit" taxis (they're red and can only operate within the city limits), are licensed to take three passengers. So if you are riding alone, or with one other passenger, they may well pick up another fare and drop them along the way. The airport is quite far out of town and you may be stung for way over the odds when taking a "grand" taxi (usually a big but grubby white Mercedes), especially at night. Make sure you have change, and pay no more than 250 Morrocan dirhams ($35; Dh130) into town.

Casablanca is not awash with great world-class culture. Sorry about that, but it's true. There are however a few great galleries exhibiting the best contemporary Moroccan art. And the Villa Des Arts, located in one of the finest Art Deco villas in town, is a bastion of all sorts of cultural activity, from poetry readings and literary discussion to exhibitions, recitals and cultural workshops. There are also the Cervantés Institute, the Goethe Institute, the Institute Française, the British Council and the Dar America, each with their own calendar of cultural events throughout the year. travel@thenational.ae