The Taste With Vir: Forget the movie Casablanca, go and see the real thing
Drive into the Casbah in Tangier. And lose yourself in the gardens of Marrakech. It will be a holiday with a difference.
Almost everything you think you know about Morocco is either out of date or a complete lie.
Take Casablanca. Those of us who have heard of the city know it from the classic Hollywood movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart. But here’s the thing: the guy who wrote the play on which the film was based had never been to anywhere in Morocco, let alone Casablanca.
What’s more, after the film became a hit, he still refused to go to Casablanca saying he would rather stay with the Casablanca of his imagination rather than the real city. In fact, the original idea had been to set the movie in Lisbon. Casablanca was an afterthought.
Most of the film was shot in a studio in Burbank, California. The bits that were not shot in the studio were shot at a local airport in California. Not one scene was shot outside of Burbank/Hollywood. Except for the airport, which was real, everything was make-believe and created by set decorators. Hardly anyone associated with the production had ever set foot in Casablanca, let alone planned to shoot there.
So, except for the name, the Casablanca of the movie has nothing at all to do with the real Casablanca. And yet, when Morocco is mentioned, so many of us think we know a little bit about it because we have heard of Casablanca.
In fact, most of us could not find Morocco on a map. We assume that it must be somewhere in the Middle East, near Dubai or Kuwait, perhaps.
When you tell people that it is in the North of Africa and is actually much nearer Europe than it is to Saudi Arabia or Kuwait this shocks people. In fact it takes nearly nine hours to fly from Dubai to Casablanca. On the other hand, it takes just two hours and forty-five minutes to fly from the South of France (say from Nice) to Casablanca. And just over an hour to get there from Lisbon.
For all practical purposes Morocco is in the European sphere of influence which is why it was easy to switch the location for the movie from Lisbon to Casablanca — the two cities are closer to each other than Delhi to Mumbai.
This is the reason Morocco (and especially Casablanca, Tangier and Marrakech) plays such a large part in the cultural and literary life of the West. The American writer Paul Bowles lived in Tangier for 50 years and virtually anybody who mattered in the world of Western culture came there to visit him.
Rock stars who found India too far and too forbidding only made it as far as Morocco. Cat Stevens, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones: they all spent extended periods of time in Morocco. Led Zeppelin went back so often that after the band broke up Jimmy Page and Robert Plant even recorded a live performance there. And legend has it that the Zeppelin classic Tangerine was written about or in Tangier.
So, as you can see, it’s a long way away from the Burj Al Arab. Morocco is an entirely different world from the Dubai-centric Middle East that most Indians are familiar with.
In a sense, this makes it even more exciting. I had been to Casablanca once before I went there last week so I wasn’t expecting to bump into the usual suspects or to find a gin joint. But equally, in the 20 years since I had been there, the city had changed enormously. It was more prosperous, more European and very clean.
I stayed at the lovely Four Seasons overlooking the sea, next to a beach and each morning when I went down to breakfast, the sun would just be rising and I ate my shakshuka watching as the sun’s rays reflected off the ocean and sunlight slowly filled the room.
I drove between Marrakech to Casablanca, an easy drive of about two and a half hours on exceptionally good roads: the kind of highways that we do front page stories about when they are built in India. In Morocco they are just taken for granted.
When it was time to go to Tangier, my instinct was to drive again because the roads were so impressive. But my wife discovered that Morocco had super-fast trains modelled on the French TGV. In the old days the train journey could take up to five hours. The new bullet trains had cut the journey time to 2 hours 10 minutes.
It sounded too good to be true but we booked our tickets online and discovered when we got to the station (clean and well-organised) that we had a lounge to wait in (with drinks, snacks etc.) Twenty minutes before departure we were encouraged to board in a leisurely fashion. The carriages were almost luxurious (more than the French TGV, slightly less than Japan’s Shinkansen) with lots of room and each carriage had space for luggage.
And the cleanliness continued to be a recurring theme of our travels in Morocco. We went to the Casbah, the old fortress in Tangiers which is a sort of town within a wall. It was pretty and charming and yes, spotlessly clean. Then we went to the Medina, the old city, with its bazaars and markets and souks. They couldn’t possibly keep it clean, I said to myself. But yes, they did: it was as clean as any European market.
I don’t know enough about the Moroccan economy to tell you where the prosperity has come from. But it is all around you. And yet, in Tangier at least, the new money has not been allowed to clutter the city with ugly constructions. There are hills and lush gardens and flowering trees on the road and a wonderful spot in
the water where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean.
The Moroccans remain a warm and friendly people. You never feel unsafe. Nobody bothers you. And as you walk through the Medina in Tangier you pass through time. You can see the cafes where the rock musicians performed in the 1960s and 1970s. You can imagine Keith Richard strung out on a square. And yet, only a few feet away, you will bump into ancient shopping stalls run by families that have sold olives on that site for centuries.
I don’t know very many Indians who have gone to Tangier. I reckon more of us should go and enjoy its sights and sounds. The expensive way to do this is via Europe or by a fancy Gulf airline in which case the business class fares can range from to four to five lakh; and even Economy Class can be expensive.
I found a better way: I went by Saudia on which I had very good flights (I changed planes in Jeddah’s swish new terminal) with exceptional service and paid less (in business class) than I would have if I had flown only as far as
Dubai on Emirates from Delhi.
There was no alcohol on board (which may be why Saudia charges lower fares) but that made no difference to me. The food, comfort, service and the fact that my ticket cost at least a third (or not a fourth) of what it would have on an European or Gulf airline made it exceptional value.
So next time, stretch your imagination and yourself. Forget about the movie’s Casablanca. Go and see the real thing. Drive into the Casbah in Tangier. And lose yourself in the gardens of Marrakech. It will be a holiday with a difference.