Saturday, July 21, 2012

The neighbours

As summer is in the air, people start thinking about holiday destinations. As usual, when searching the net for holiday packages, the Algerian is faced with  very limited if any choices in his own country, so he or she starts looking elsewhere. This elsewhere has traditionally been our neighbour to the east. It used to be both neighbours; but I believe that the traffic to the western borders is very limited both by air and by land. Some holidaymakers are even eyeing destinations like Turkey, which seems to be offering some good packages even for the Algerian in the middle-class category. 

This year, I did not have the chance to make a choice about my summer-holiday destination (which most of the time is Algeria), as my husband is very busy I decided to accompany him on a business trip to Casablanca and try and make a holiday out of my time there.

After much anticipation, we landed at Mohammed V airport, a dated airport. I was surprised to see very few tourists mostly people from the Gulf countries, which made me think that Casablanca was probably not a very touristy destination.

As my husband’s company was footing the bill, we decided to stay in a decent hotel in town, a luxury hotel in the centre of the new quarter of the city. It is certainly not the best hotel I have been to, and I would go as far as saying that it needs better management. There are no spaces for non-smokers, and breakfast and the internet are not included in the extortionate price they charge.

My first impression of the city was a negative one, as we entered the city from the old quarter which is run down, and neglected; I felt that Casablanca was overrated. However, after a couple of days and a few strolls around the city, I changed my mind. The new modern quarter of the city is very nice, and had it not been for the crazy driving (Indian style), I would have thought I was in a southern European city. The street cafes give the city a Parisian feel, and add a certain je ne sais quoi to the atmosphere. The food served at cafes and restaurants is very nice albeit being dearly priced in some places. The cafes are full at most times of the day which makes me think that they are frequented by tourists (mostly Moroccans though). The service at restaurants and cafes ranges from I could not care less a l’Algerienne to very good Asian-style hospitality.

As an avid culture tourist, I was looking forward to visiting the old Medina, which is in the old quarter of the city. Except for the wall that surrounds it, which looks old, it does not offer much in terms of architecture, culture or style. It is just a few street shops selling knick-knacks and a few souvenirs.

As I read about the city, I realized that it was conceived in 1912, hence the absence of old monuments. The Hassan II mosque was worth the visit. The mosque looks out onto the ocean, and its architecture is magnificent. However, it is in much need of maintenance as the carpets are old and a bit smelly; and the ablution area should have been outside the main mosque. The entrance is free but the staffs need training on how to run it. Very few people speak English and unlike the Zeitouna in Tunis, there is hardly any information about the mosque.

A few days in Casablanca and one feels that one has seen enough of the city, so I decided I wanted to discover the rest of the country. After much begging, I succeeded to convince my husband to drive us to Marrakesh. Finding a car to hire for a day was an impossible task, and after a long search we found someone willing to rent us a car for one day. However, the price was extortionate, but we felt that Marrakesh would be worth it.

After a three-hour drive in the scorching heat without AC, we arrived in Marrakesh.  The city was a disappointment mostly because of my expectations. I was imagining a Ghardaïa but with a well-developed tourist infrastructure. I have heard so much about it  in the media, which raised my expectation a lot.  The city is basically a desert town with lots and lots of compound villas,  apartments, and resorts. All the buildings are painted in a brick-like earthy colour, which is the only thing positive I can say about this place.

I was looking forward to discovering the Medina. We went to Jemma El-fnaa, which is an old mosque with hardly any information about it, and very old watchmen who open the mosque's doors to only a few people at a time. It was just a few of us, mostly Moroccan tourists. Not far from the mosque there is the shrine of Youssef Ibn Tachfine, which is not well maintained.

All in all Marrakesh was a disappointment as the old Medina was just a few old houses. This side of the city is not welcoming and is very poor. Loads of mechanics decided to open shops there and the shops selling souvenirs are not nice like the ones in Tunisia.

Unlike Marrakesh,  Casablanca has nice streets and the new quarter can rival some places in Europe. What Casablanca offers is a very pleasant weather. It is rare to find a city with such a mild summer in the south Mediterranean. If one is looking for a destination to escape the summer heat and have nice food then Casablanca won’t disappoint especially with the green spaces that they have here. Some suburban areas are beautiful and the investments that rich people have made here are apparent. Palaces and huge gardens add a lot to the beauty of this city. 

When I started writing this post, which I must admit reads like a travel review, my intention was to say that branding is key when it comes to tourism. Morocco has done a brilliant job at selling itself to the world, and people are flocking in. I know many Europeans who love this country for its the culture and heritage. However, as an Algerian, I feel that Algeria has a lot more to offer in terms of diversity as a cultural destination. Ghardaïa, Timgad, and Djemila are museums in the open air. Tlemcen is an excellent place to develop. As someone who has been to many Algerian cities in recent years, I see enormous potential but very little will, on the part of the people, and most sadly very little tourism culture.

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