A hundred years ago, Casablanca was little more than a small coastal town, struggling to come to grips with its deepwater Atlantic harbour. The walled area delineating the Medina is still there, while greater Casablanca has grown into a vast city of three million people. The French colonial system established the modern city in the inter-war years. Wide boulevards are lined with white-stone buildings with ornate iron balconies. Fine civic buildings of the nineteen thirties preside over public green spaces beneath towering palm trees. The effect was to lend the centre an elegant air, while re-echoing the original designation ‘white house’.


Sadly overcome by time, dereliction and a societal aversion to commerce and its attendant boon of social celebration, Casablanca today can seem more grey than white. Individual and collective poverty have eroded the civic fabric, dirt and dilapidation have taken root. Men perch like gloomy crows at pavement cafes, a glum parody of gaiety Parisienne. Unattended by female company, they sip thick coffee and watch the world, or this part of it, shuffle by. Not often in a city do I wonder what it is I should be doing.

Alienation has its compensations. Chaotic shoots of commerce, the creative individualism of traffic, warp the elegant street plan, push against the homogenous conformity. There’s life in the street-hawking, the hustling for work and pay, as back street operations infiltrate Main Street. Occasionally the plan prevails in a positive sense, as surprising green spaces open up an oasis of calm, an opportunity of rest. The ancient city still prevails, a medieval way of life endures.

Inside the Medina

Inside the Medina

If the Medina is not widely renowned for its charm, it does at least display plenty of spirit. At the gateway we are knocked off course by some aggressive hustling. We turn, by way of evasion, into a localised web of backstreets that becomes a bewildering maze. The river of humanity surges around us. This is where locals buy and sell; fruit, meat, vegetables and all the goods of life. Repair shops, two seater cafes, bric-a-brac stalls jostle for business. Live chickens are exchanged, weighed, haggled over and strangled in hectic bouts of shouts, gestures and desperate clucking. Mopeds, impossibly weighted with food and booty, weave through pedestrians with casual abandon.

Our companions have taken off like scalded cats and it is a struggle to maintain contact. I wonder if this is the proper place to be festooned with a Canon. Not through any fear of theft, or even the wrong kind of attention – the locals are indifferent to our presence, although some children are greatly amused. No, this is a place to be experienced, not itemised. Anyway, it is rude to point.

Hassan II Mosque

Hassan II Mosque

Our journey takes us to the Hassan II Mosque. This towers above the city, its two hundred metre minaret being the tallest in the world. The massive complex is isolated on a plinth of blazing blue sea and sky. The king was keen to give Casablanca an iconic sight. This is it. People flock here, drawn like filings towards a giant magnet, drawn to its prospects of prayer and peace. If Morocco is dubious of the benefits of mammon, it can at least feel itself close to God. As we rest by the giant plaza, some local schoolchildren decide to wrestle nearby. A guard, whip poised, is not amused. There are always imperatives for behaviour, even for the very young. The children depart, but still in good humour. Where there’s life there’s hope. Where there’s laughter too.

Away from the spiritual island, some seeds of economic advancement have sprouted. Along the coast road, new apartment blocks gleam. Aloof from the crumbling city nearby, they are the future, perhaps. Where we re-enter the Medina, there is a small park, its trees promising shadow where children play, the older folk sitting and talking. This quieter, residential precinct, has a more comfortable ambience. A village of thousands, where life can find its own pace.

Rick’s American Bar is to the seaward side. Established some years back in homage to the Curtiz film, where Bogart and Bergman conjured everlasting love and eternal art from monochrome light. There never was a Rick’s Bar, of course, it is all smoke and mirrors, anther Hollywood trick. What better place to explore the universe than inside your head, in the dark beneath splaying beams of magic light? So, Rick’s Bar is made flesh and from the unpromising stone of Casablanca weaves its own form of magic. We enter the sedate and seductive world imagined by the movie. White walls, tiled floor setting off the heavy, ornate furniture. Light ambushes the cool interior. It is much more welcoming, intimate than we had anticipated. No crass Americana here. We order drinks, something which might have been possible elsewhere, just neither obvious nor desirable. This is something you do behind closed doors here.

The grime and crush of the city dissipates. On the wall behind us, a good sized screen shows the movie. We dip in and out, it is silent and subtitled. We ask the waiter to take a photograph and he obliges. Only later do I notice the frame he has captured behind us sets in motion that most magical movie moment, where Rick addresses Sam: “Stop it. You know what I want to hear….”

Everyone goes to Rick's

Everyone goes to Rick’s

Later, we find the market end of the Medina. There’s plenty on offer here, especially leather and jewelry. I get an excellent jacket from a friendly and diligent stall-holder. The most difficult requests are met with hurried phone calls and the arrival outside of a speeding moped and the requested article. That’s what I call service. Commerce and society are alive here, but struggling. Hopefully, it will all come good someday. After all, the heavenly realm and its rules notwithstanding:

You must remember this / A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh / The fundamental things apply / As Time goes by…


The car is a deep red Kia and I get the hang of it soon enough taking the route south towards the US. Actually, I lose the main road twice, veering right into the suburbs, but I pick up the route fairly easily both times. There’s a good view of the Cascades to our left. At US Customs we have to go into the office to fill out forms. A guard, not the one dealing with us, is interested in our origins and talks of his own Irish connections. He expresses fondness for Irish home baking, maybe he thinks we’re smuggling scones. At last, we’re free!

  Seattle is easy to access off the freeway. Our hotel is about four blocks from the off ramp and, despite roadworks, traffic is light. The Warwick is pleasant, clad in rather dark tones, and our room has a good view of Seattle’s needle. We head for Pike Place Market and eat at medium pace burger joint with a view of the Puget Sound. You order at the counter and take a seat, a window seat, great! I was it down with a bottle of Alaskan Amber Ale, the seafaring label makes me yearn to go way up north.

 Pike Place Market is colourful and friendly. A wedding party wafts past and a cheerful Seattelite makes us smile for our photo. We plumb three levels of the market and we are fascinated by the throbbing highway on stilts that rings the city. A constant noise comes down from it, but it does its job and gets cars in, out of and around the city with little congestion.

  Later, we have coffee at the world’s first Starbucks. This retains its old store atmosphere. Originally it sold packet coffee, the idea of a coffee house came later, now it’s taking over the world.

  We hike around looking at the architecture. The Smith Tower, which in the 1920s was the tallest building outside New York still has that antique skyscraper feel amongst the glass towers that form the skyline. It’s a lovely white terracota that soars above Pioneer Square at the old heart of the city. Here there’s a monument to Chief Seattle and American Indian writing, an ancient and wonderful form that communicates using pictograms. Ironically, the Smith building is associated with both guns (Smith and Weston) and typewriters; so the pen and the sword are closely related after all.

Seattle’s first restaurant is nearby, a wild west style saloon and we wander up to Occidental Square – and quickly out again as it’s the vagrants’ hang out. 

  The city architecture is really impressive and there’s a fine, solid New York deco style to many of the older buildings. The modernist towers are pretty impressive too. We do a bit of Fraser at the lobby of the Opera House, culture vultures that we are. The city library is another architectural oddity on the way, a giant crystal with a jagged, irregular profile.

  We shop for some funky clothes at Ross’s and pick out a TexMex for dinner, unfortunately it closes early. Seattle is busy with commuters but there aren’t that many eateries in the commercial area. That evening, we find a grand, big, Italian restaurant downtown, Fornaio’s, and enjoy good food with free tirimasu. 


When in the coffee capital of the Pacific Northwest, do the Seattle on Foot coffee tour. Up early and down to Post Alley and Pine Street which isone of the few remnants of the pre-grid town. A small group with about nine or ten others congregates beneath the neon coffee mug of SBCs and Vicky our guide, resplendant in tartan hat and Sarah Palin glasses and smile, leads us off. There are plenty of coffee tasting sessions on the way, and plenty to see and talk about, especially after the first few cups have loosened our tongues and put a pep in our step. 

  Coffee is the thing and we find out loads about where it comes from, and how, and why there’s so much in Seattle. Apparently the scene was a few people pushing carts on the sidewalk back in the sixties but it has blossomed since then. It’s not just Starbucks you know, there’s also the Smith Brothers or Seattle’s Best Coffee, whichever you call them. No wonder Seattle is sleepless.

  Frazier’s radio station is on the corner of Pike and Third just before we gather for another snort outside a more historic (the 1960s) take away. We finish near Pioneer Square in a good place to chill out, if only I could remember how. It’s a smart hike and a short, sharp taxi ride back to the city centre with some lively if unfocussed conversation with the on Hendrix and grunge. I’m still stoned on the beans, man, but I chill out a bit on the monorail up to Seattle Center.

  Experience Music Project is Bill Gates’s fantasy museum. Devoted to rock music, it includes DIY studios where you can cut a disc. There are virtual performance spaces and museum type tributes to great guitarists, grunge and Jimi Hendrix. The basement is a homage to science fiction from its origins to the present day. We also enjoy the graphics exhibition by Hatch Show whose creative use of make-readies or print proofs are now seen as an art form. Brings me back to college days, hurriedly slapping together silkscreen posters in the print room.  

  Back outside I’m inviegled onto a roller coaster before we ascend the Space Needle. The view is good and “the mountain is up.” In other words, the snowcapped Mt Rainier is visible, forming a beautiful, conical backdrop to the city. Someday, however, she’s gonna blow!

  Tonight we get a unique dining experience at the self-effacing Pink Door on Post Lane, opposite Kelly’s (very) Irish pub. No menu at the door and you knock for attention; the cuisine is Italianesque and the ambience is of a theatre cafe of the Belle Epoque. We sit outside to begin with and, as the chill gathers, take an inside table and a peek at the trapeze artist swinging over the tables. Now I know I’m in the wild west, and it’s the best place to be.