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…


Tallinn guards the southern entrance of the gulf of Finland. Built atop a steep hill it nurtures the centuries it as known. Ancient walls and turrets survive, bell towers and onion domes shape the skyline, a labyrinth of streets entwine within its walls, like some mad, medievalist fantasy. Not just that, mind you; this is no theme park, no historic splinter suspended in amber. The modern city has grown around it, recording both the dour order of Soviet days and the sometimes crass exuberance of a westward looking independence.

  Climbing to the highest point in Tallinn is the sort of journey through time that medieval cities provide. The streets wind upwards between close grouped tall buildings. Archways lead off into beckoning squares and courtyards, flights of steps lead to flights of fancy. Rising higher than the high pitched roofs are a host of towers. The sleek spire of St Olaf’s church was once the highest building in the world, surpassed in the 17th century. The onion domes of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral strike an eastern chord, signaling the long dominance of Russia over Estonia. 

  More than forty per cent of the population still speak Russian and the cathedral’s size and prominence is a mark of that culture’s persistence. Russian rule began in the early 18th century when the Swedes ceded their authority. After the First World War the Estonians gained brief independence, but the recommencement of hostilities in the 1940s saw Russia annex the land once more.  

  Age drips from Tallinn, but most becomingly. At the summit, land and city fall away and the eras through which the city has journeyed become visible. The regimented streets of the communist age form one zone, the brash spires of consumer capitalism another. Beyond the city the flat lands merge in an infinity of Baltic blue. The air itself seems scarcer here, the buildings white and calm above the bustling city.

  Tallinn retains much of its impressive walls and guard towers. These sport colourful names, there is Fat Margaret and, intriguingly, Kik in de Kok. Sounds painful, but it’s old Low German meaning ‘peep into the kitchen’, the vantage point allowing such snooping, apparently. The city grew in the heyday of the Hanseatic league and many original merchant houses survive. Some have been converted into restaurants and bars, and occasional street theatre breaks out as players attempt to lure custom with costumed displays of local legend. Typical Paddy abroad, I suppose, but I wind up parked before some seriously frothy beer at Mad Murphy’s in the Town Hall Square. Irish tricolours flutter in the brisk breeze; they’re fond of flags here, the flapping colours and emblazoned pennants underlining the medieval atmosphere. 

  It’s not all gaiety. St Catherine’s lane is lined with ancient tombstones, the pressing walls on each side kept apart by buttresses. Outside the city walls the atmosphere changes markedly. Trams skate along straight boulevards, Soviet era apartments and powerful public buildings assert themselves. In the New Town glass towers take the eye upwards, street signs, neon and tacky commercial joints vie for attention. Still the ancient peeps through like a palimpsest. Old wooden churches are left marooned in the concrete and neon. 

  At one redevelopment site the foundations of an old building remain. Along the ground, beneath glass, a timeline of Tallinn’s history is laid out. From Danish invaders to Teutonic knights, the Swedes were followed by the Russians, then a brief flicker of independence before the dark Soviet days. As the Iron Curtain evaporated, Tallinn became independent again. It is now in the Eurozone and prices are cheaper than its Baltic neighbours.

  Amongst Europe’s oldest capitals it was Europe’s Capital of Culture last year. We can be sure the blossom of Tallinn will not fade away. Its citizens provide a streetlife that’s lively and bright, with a keen sense of style and modernity too. But they are wise enough to hold onto their past, building on its firm foundations for a promising future.