Beyond ‘Casablanca’

They lead to three old cities, which, having been spruced up and reinvented, offer new delights.

From the moment Rick Blaine put Ilsa Lund on the plane to Lisbon in “Casablanca,” Morocco’s main city and commercial hub seemed to go into terminal decline. Indeed, the only reason any serious traveler might have been to Casablanca recently was to the airport — en route to Marrakech or Fez. But after decades in seedy oblivion, Casa, as locals call it (and please get with the lingo), is suddenly hotting up. The 2 mile-long Corniche, or oceanfront drive, has been given a face-lift; the jaw-dropping Art Deco district, with more than 20 architecturally important movie theaters, is being painstakingly restored; and a new cultural center — The Grand Theatre of Casablanca, the largest in Africa with a concert hall, theater and vast retail space — is slated, after a long delay, to fully open this year. 

Last year, meanwhile, saw the inauguration of Morocco’s new TGV, or high-speed train service, which now whisks you from Casablanca up to Tangier, a distance of some 200 miles, in a little over two hours. And in the heart of the Casablanca action is the very swish new Four Seasons hotel, right on the ocean, with its 186 ergonomically perfect, cool white-and-taupe guest rooms, 30 suites the size of football pitches, a handsome pool with snap-to-it poolside service, a private beach with its own miniature sand dunes and a very beautiful spa for rhassoul clay wraps and Paris-brand Biologique Recherche skin treatments, exclusive to the hotel. In Mint, one of the hotel’s four restaurants, they do breakfast pastries the equal of anything in Paris, and in its fabulous fish restaurant, Bleu, you eat amazing Dakhla oysters and sashimi of just-caught Atlantic sea bream with a view of the breakers rolling in and the Point d’El Hank lighthouse. If Casablanca isn’t on your bucket list — and you could be completely forgiven if it wasn’t, because frankly who even knew? — it should be.

Then again, Tangier is a contender. With a magnificent location at the very northwestern tip of Africa, where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic, Tangier was an international city between 1923 and 1952, administered by France, Spain and Great Britain, as louche as it was rundown and exotic, made infamous by its cast of ex-pat residents and returning writers and poets, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Paul Bowles and the notoriously indiscreet English playwright Joe Orton, among them. Kif and sex were cheap, and self-respecting people stayed away, much to the delight of the Beats and other nonconformists. 

And so Tangier was reviled by the former king of Morocco, Hassan ll, but his son, the rather more progressive king Mohammed VI, has taken a different view. Since 2010, he has personally promoted huge investment in Tangier, which has resulted in a new commercial port, clean beaches, a new airport terminal and increased tourism generally. Indeed, the town, with its ravishing medina (old quarter) and Casbah (where former resident, Barbara Hutton, famously had all the medieval arches widened when she came to live here in the 1950s, so that her Rolls-Royce could more easily pass through) is looking positively spruce, and a clutch of new hotels and riyads (typical Moroccan townhouses) now cater to the most demanding tourists.

The classiest hotel, located on Tangier’s classiest street, Rue de la Liberté, has long been El Minzah, founded 90 years ago by a British aristocrat, Lord Bute. And following a recent revamp, it still is. At El Minzah, fez-wearing factotums greet you on arrival and the atmosphere is reassuringly upscale. The quality of the food in the hotel’s restaurant, El Korsan, is also well above hotel average in this neck of the woods, the whole experience heightened by tarbouched musicians playing heady gnoua music, while valiantly smiling at the same time. They’re joined nightly by belly dancers who lift that undulating ritual from what is often seen as purely titillating entertainment to an almost sublime art form. 

The Petit Socco (or “small souk”) at the center of Tangier’s medina, which not so very long ago crawled with hustlers, thieves and teenage prostitutes, is now so lickety-spit you could take your grandmother for dinner, without any fear of impropriety. In the corner of the square of the same name, the Palais Zahia, which was Tangier’s first bank, is now a 16-room hotel, the painstakingly restored building dating from 1903, complete with columns, frette-work, inlaid wood, marble and plasterwork. And yet another brilliant hotel choice in the city, is Nord-Pinus, a former pasha’s townhouse high up in the Casbah, 

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