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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No Rick's, Yet Romance Pulses in Casablanca

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, Ingrid Bergman had to walk into Humphrey Bogart's in Casablanca. And ever since, Casablanca has been a romantic place somewhere out there in the imagination of millions.

In real life, Casablanca, the biggest city and main port of Morocco, is intensely romantic f faded, languid and vaguely decadent.

Yet if you ask residents, they will most often tell you that their city is just another disagreeable metropolis with too many people and too many cars and that you'd be far better off setting out for the more authentic Morocco f Marrakesh and Fez, say.

Residents of Casa, as they call it, seem hardly to notice that they are living in an Art Deco museum, with some austere French Colonial buildings mixed in. To them, the muezzin's soulful call to prayer is as ordinary as the sunrise.

And the daily tide of veiled women and desert tribesmen, and others in tatters, jeans and the latest designer stuff barely merits a glance.

Casablanca, which was a small town when the French made it the commercial capital of their protectorate in 1912, is clearly not ancient. And it is not entirely Moroccan in body and soul. But none of that makes it mundane.

It is a whitewashed city of sidewalk cafes and fine restaurants with bazaars where you can bargain for carpets and hand-painted plates, or just lose yourself among sacks of spices, baked sheep's heads and Hermes knockoffs. And if you like to rock, Casablanca has a club for you.

An enduring modern legend is that Bogie never set foot in Casablanca (the movie was shot in Hollywood). But his latest biographers, A. Sperber and Eric Lax, say it isn't so. According to them, Bogie dropped by in 1943, shortly after the Allied landing in Morocco and the release of the movie.

But there has never been a Rick's. The Hyatt Regency Hotel has tried, with its Casablanca Bar, a wicker and mahogany refuge with ceiling fans. But the real Casablanca, just outside, is a lot more exciting.

The Art Deco architecture of Casablanca is so plentiful that you don't have to work at seeing it. A relaxed way to take in some and enjoy the street life is to stroll east along Mohammed V Boulevard from the Place des Nations Unies in the heart of the city, by the Old Medina with its landmark clock tower, wandering off on side streetswhen the fancy strikes.

Turn down the Rue Mohammed Qori, for example, and you'll find the Rialto Theater whose interior has been renovated in modern style. It presents first-run films and live performances in its 1,000-seat auditorium.

At the Place Mohammed V, the post office, the police prefecture and the Palace of Justice are examples of the neo-Mauresque style of French architects in the 1920s and 1930s, rich with arches, columns and tiles.

At the north end of the quiet, thickly wooded League of Arab Nations Park on Boulevard Hachidi is Paul Tornon's Sacred Heart Cathedral, closed for years, but a towering 1930s Art Deco wonder of soaring stone spires that El Greco might have dreamed up.

Another of the city's great visual delights is the corniche, the oceanfront boulevard that looks out on the freighters and derricks in the port, the remains of an old fortress, the towering Hassan II Mosque, nightclubs, hotels and miles of beaches and rolling surf.

At the vast, somewhat scruffy public beaches, packed with humanity, young men gallop along the water's edge chasing soccer balls. The few women sit together chatting, fully clothed. But at private beach clubs like the Miami, which charge a few dollars to enter, the standard is more Monaco than Mecca, and foreigners and less traditional Arab women take the sun in bikinis by half a dozen sparkling swimming pools.

Neither of Casablanca's two main bazaars comes close to the teeming maze of passageways of the one in Marrakesh, with its snake charmers and medicine men. But the one in the walled Old Medina, which dates from the 18th century and is across from the Hyatt Regency, is a working market with lots of practical goods, like bargain shirts and shoes, and gives a peek at the daily life of ordinary Moroccans.

The bazaar in the New Medina, which is merely about 65 years old and is in the Habous neighborhood, 10 minutes or so by taxi south of Place des Nations Unies, is a real tourist center f unnaturally spic and span and orderly, with stacks of brass trays, ceramics and rugs. It is mostly souvenirs, but some shops offer antique jewelry, old knives and occasionally, a memorable rug.

One of the complaints about Casablanca is that it has no museums. But the Hassan II Mosque, opened only five years ago, comes pretty close to filling that gap. Its angular minaret, visible throughout the city, soars 60 stories and its interior is a tour de force of craftsmanship: walls and ceiling covered with mosaic tiles, intricately carved wood and stucco.

Three-story-high Venetian crystal chandeliers f among the few imports in the mosque f are virtually swallowed up beneath the 55-meter-high vaulted ceiling, one of the high-tech features. It slides open and, when the wind picks up, the two halves are quietly closed by computers.The mosque also shoots a laser beam of light about 30 kilometers toward Mecca, and has electrically warmed marble floors. There are several tours daily for visitors.

Out of Casablanca

For the authentic Moroccan experience head south to Marrakesh, whose bazaar is one of the most charming in the Arab world. Insistent but friendly guides will volunteer for a small fee to take you through the labyrinth of stalls where you will quickly get lost amid the spice sellers, ceremonial daggers and leather goods. Inevitability you will be taken to a carpet salesmen where you will be treated to an elaborate ritual of drinking mint tea, conversation and rug-viewing. Even if you don't want to buy, the carpet salesmen are worth listening to for their brilliant sales techniques.

A few hours drive will take you to Essaouira, a jewel of a town on the Atlantic coast. The Portuguese fortifications at the head of a long sandy beach enclose whitewashed Arab houses that conjure up the whole mystery of the Maghreb. On the point, restaurants at the medieval fishing port serve some of the best fish anywhere.

Another great trip from Casablanca is crossing the majestic Atlas mountains to Ouarzazate and the Sahara desert.

Where to Stay

Room rates often turn out to be negotiable, and some of the least expensive hotels are charming.

The Hotel Idou Anfa, with 220 rooms in plain, European modern, at 85 Boulevard d'Anfa, (212-2) 20-01-36, fax (212-2) 20-00-09, makes up in efficiency what it lacks in ambiance. Though the switchboard is not geared for computers, there is cable television in every room. Views from the high floors sweep across the city to the Sea. Doubles are $86.

Out at the beach, 15 minutes from downtown, double rooms at the 51-room Hotel de La Corniche, with its angular Art Deco concrete and marble and gold trim, cost $58; (212-2) 36-10-11, fax (212-2) 39-11-10.

Budget: The Hotel Bellerive on the ocean drive, a few doors from Hotel de la Corniche, is an Art Deco gem with 35 commodious rooms with high ceilings, 14 of them with small sitting areas looking out to sea over a terrace cafe, a park and a good-sized pool. Doubles are about $45; (212-2)39-14-09, fax (212-2) 3934-93.

Across Place des Nations Unies from the Old Medina is the 80-year-old Hotel Excelsior, at 2 Rue el Amraoui Brahim, (212-2) 20-02-63. It has 600 rooms and a lovely curving stairway leading up from the dark-wood lobby. The rooms are large and clean, but expect no frills except breakfast in doubles for $30.

Luxury: The Royal Mansour at 27 Avenue de l'Armee Royale, (212-2) 31-30-12, fax (212-2) 31-48-18, offers spacious doubles from $225 and a five-room suite from $3,570. Managed by the French Meridien chain, this 182-room hotel boasts a spectacular arched entrance, a soaring pillared lounge and mosaic-tiled corridors.

And at the 251-room Hyatt Regency, on the Place des Nations Unies, (212-2) 26-12-34, fax (212-2) 22-01-80, doubles start at about $230. The rooms are big, with contemporary furnishings, and amenities include a pool and a fitness center.

Where to Eat

The best Moroccan food is served in Arabian Nights-style restaurants, with colorful inlaid tiles, filigreed stucco and, sometimes, fountains.

Menus feature tagines, stews of lamb or chicken with olives, prunes, lemons and onions; incredible pastries called pastillas, stuffed with cinnamon, pigeon and almonds and topped with powdered sugar; and the national dish, couscous f steamed cracked-wheat semolina, usually with raisins and chickpeas, and piled high with lamb, chicken or vegetables.

Perhaps the best of these restaurants is All-Mounia, at 95 Rue du Prince Moulay-Abdallah, (212-2) 22-26-69. There, dinner for two with a bottle of Moroccan wine is about $65.

In the same price range is the excellent Ryad Zitoun, at 31 Boulevard Rachidi, (212-2) 22-39-27. The restaurant features the simple rose-colored walls typical of Marrakesh rather than the ornate local style.

For about $45, two can dine on grilled shrimp and fillets of local fish under the ceiling fans of the Taverne du Dauphin, at 115 Boulevard Houphouet-Boigny, within sight of the main entrance to the port; (212-2) 27-79-79.

The proprietors of Restaurante Au Petit Poucet, with its white tablecloths, crystal sconces and gauzy curtains in the shade of one of the arcaded sidewalks downtown at 86 Boulevard Mohammed V, boast that Antoine de St.-Exupery, author of "Le Petit Prince," was a regular when he flew airmail around North Africa.

There is a fixed lunch and dinner menu, with soup, a choice of steak, chicken or fish, dessert and a cocktail for an astounding $9 each; (212-2) 27-54-20.

Night Life

Things get pretty quiet in downtown Casablanca by 10 p.m. or so. But the hot spots on the Corniche f the playground of well-to-do Moroccans, other Arabs and Europeans f don't even open until near midnight. Most nights at most places, the pricey drinks f $7.50 for a beer, $11 for the best scotch f are the only admission charge.

One of the clubs, L'Armstrong, is a paneled and raw brick, slightly hard-to-find subterranean room at 41 Boulevard de la Corniche, (212-2) 39-76-56. The music is rock-n-roll, country, blues or jazz, whatever the singing manager, Albert Cohen, can arrange.

The Fandango, at the Rue de la Mer Egee-sur La Corniche, (212-2) 39-85-08, and Le Cafconce, at 10 Rue de la Mer Adriatique, (212-2) 94-42-33, are pleasantly decorated villas with soft lighting and the easy feel of a friend's home. If Bogie were operating in Casablanca today, the Fandango might be his place.

How to Get There

Aeroflot flies direct to Casablanca on Tuesday for $600. Lufthansa flies with a stopover in Frankfurt on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday for $799. Connections are possible with Royal Moroccan Airlines via various European airlines.