Immortalised through the eponymous Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman movie and forever associated with honorary citizen Sir Winston Churchill, Casablanca is a sprawling, vibrant metropolis of close to 6.5 million inhabitants, 3.5 million of them living in the city itself.
Though not the seat of government, it is Morocco's undisputed commercial capital, an enigmatic meeting place of western modernity and Arabic tradition. Casablanca (‘Dar el-Beïda' in Moroccan Arabic, which translates as ‘White House' in English) or Casa as it is known colloquially, was a tiny Berber settlement that became a home port for privateers, before turning into a trading post with Europe. Then, in the era of the French protectorate at the dawn of the 20th century, it mushroomed into what is today one of Africa's four largest cities. It was the vision of French governor Marshal Lyautey that set in train a massive half-century project that rebuilt the city and its facilities until they outshone those of Marseille, the port that had been the inspiration.
Accommodating 2,500 worshippers inside and another 80,000 in its courtyard, Hassan II Mosque is a truly monumental complex right next to the sea. It covers a site of 9 hectares (22 acres), making it the world's second largest religious building after the main Masjid al-Haram mosque in Mecca. Commenced in 1980 and opened in 1993, but not set to be fully finished for several decades yet, it has been the inspired idea of the late King Hassan II and some 35,000 Moroccan craftsmen. The amazingly ornate minaret is the world's tallest, standing 200m (656ft) high while two laser beams reach 30km (18.5 miles) towards Mecca. The vast prayer hall even has a sliding roof that can be open to the heavens.
Casablanca today uses 35% of the nation's electricity and handles 41% of its exports. Thanks to one of the world's largest artificial harbours, Casablanca dominates Morocco's industrial and service sectors. Its suburbs contrast sumptuous villas with dreadful slums, while its downtown mixes the dowdy with the exquisite. You take it as you find it in Casablanca. Tourism is welcome but, essentially, Casablanca is a commercial hub that goes about its life in its own way at its own breakneck pace.