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A financial future and a romantic past come together in Casablanca

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A financial future and a romantic past come together in Casablanca

In the Moroccan port city, Robert Everett-Green writes, a dynamic street life enlivens a distinct metropolis that is fast positioning itself as the commercial core of Africa

A pattern is seen in the Madrasa Bou Inania in Fez, Morocco

Near the western end of the bustling promenade that overlooks Casablanca's seafront, you can catch a ride on the nearly new tramway system that sweeps in a wide curve through the city. The tram rolls smoothly through the well-to-do residential streets of the Ain Diab district, but after a while, the houses end and you enter a vast empty plain, dotted with construction cranes. This is the site of the future Finance City, a preferential business zone and part of Casablanca's bid to become the financial centre of Africa.

This launch pad for the future is also part of the most romantic vision of the city's past, in the 1942 film Casablanca. An airfield built on this spot in the 1920s was used by Vichy planes during the Second World War, and was thus the very place from which Ingrid Bergman's character bid her last adieu to Humphrey Bogart (the filming, however, was all done in California).

General George Patton, whose American forces captured the airfield just as Casablanca was invading theatres, was startled by Casablanca's synergy of French and Moroccan city-building. "This town is a cross between the ultramodern and the Arabian Nights," he said.

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Most tourists looking for the Arabian Nights in Morocco head to Fez or Marrakesh. Casa, as many people here call it, is the country's centre of business travel, and a fascinating tourism destination if you know where and how to look.

Casablanca’s Hassan II Mosque includes a retractable cedar roof, a heated floor and 25 massive doors made of Russian titanium.

Several Canadian companies are part of the action. Last spring, Air Canada extended its newly established direct service from Montreal to Casablanca from a seasonal to a year-round offering. The daily flights on the company's Rouge service cater to business folk, tourists and Montreal's majority share of Canada's 73,000 Moroccan immigrants.

The Four Seasons hotel management chain opened a swank resort hotel a little more than two years ago, within sight of the surging whitecaps that make the beach a magnet for surfers. The lavish 186-room hotel, which includes three restaurants and a luxury spa, was designed by Foster and Partners and built by a Spanish developer, along with the adjacent Morocco Mall – the largest in Africa – and 250 private residences.

Between the hotel and the sea, landscape architects from Montreal's Lemay are developing a five-kilometre boardwalk to run between Ain Diab and the massive Hassan II Mosque, whose 210-metre minaret is the tallest in the kingdom. Lemay says the new promenade area, "inspired by the classic, multitiered Islamic garden," will include spaces for festivities, conservation and sports.

According to Marie-Pierre Brancaleoni, marketing director at the Four Seasons Casablanca, the hotel is mainly a business hostelry in all but the summer months. An increasing number of visitors are Chinese, following the elimination of visa requirements two years ago – part of the national government's plan to boost annual tourist visits to 20 million by 2020. Morocco's economy is diversifying from core strengths in mining and agriculture toward transportation industries, expanding the range of business travellers. Bombardier opened an aeronautics plant near Casablanca in 2014.

Most tourists looking for the Arabian Nights in Morocco should head to Fez.

The kingdom has improved its principal highways and is building a $2-billion (U.S.) high-speed rail system. The first leg, due to open this year, will shorten the overland travel time from Casablanca to Tangier from 4.5 hours to just over two.

Casablanca is also building up its cultural tourism base in ways that seem designed to appeal to visitors not necessarily looking for the exotic. CasArts, a curvy new opera house designed by French architect Christian de Portzamparc, is under construction, and will be Africa's biggest theatre. A two-hectare complex of disused abattoirs in the city's south end is continuing its transformation into spaces for contemporary arts.

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Casa's biggest tourist draw is the Hassan II Mosque, a 25-year-old colossus ornamented in timeless style by 10,000 craftsmen. Its engineering is up to date, however, and includes a retractable cedar roof, a heated floor and 25 massive doors made of Russian titanium – to resist corrosion by the sea air. At a more intimate scale, the Museum of the Abderrahman Slaoui Foundation holds the fruits of a wealthy art-lover's half-century of collecting.

There are also nine golf courses in Casa's vicinity, including the challenging nine holes of the Anfa Royal Golf Club, a short cab ride from any central hotel.

A pianist performs for customers at Rick’s Café in Casablanca, a restaurant modelled after the ‘gin joint’ Humphrey Bogart’s character runs into in the film Casablanca.

The French took political control of Morocco in 1912, and decided to transform Casablanca, then a town of around 20,000, into a colonial business hub and experiment in urban design. Casa would be the new Los Angeles, they said, or a second New York in North Africa.

Urban planners laid out broad boulevards and aimed for a synthesis of modernist European architecture and traditional Moroccan design, based on "surprising analogies of style and simplicity," as one of them said. The clean lines, flat roofs and plain façades coming into vogue in Europe in the 1920s and 30s were already part of the Moroccan building vernacular.

Casa expanded rapidly, and developed a signature style you can still see at work in the current city of 3.5 million. New buildings tend to be of modest height, with plain exteriors, Bauhaus-style proportions and (often) the rounded accent corners typical of the style moderne.

Casa's nickname is "the white city," and that's literally true: Almost every building is a shade of white, sometimes with earthy accent colours, but almost never out of harmony with its neighbours.

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A view of Chouara Tannery, a UNESCO World Hertiage Site, in the heart of the ancient medina of Fez, Morocco, Tuesday, April 25, 2017. The tannery is composed of numerous dried-earth pits filled with a range of dyes and liquids, where raw animal skins are treated, scraped and dyed, turning them into high quality leather products.

One of the pleasures of Casablanca is wandering its neighbourhoods, where a dynamic street life co-exists with a remarkably coherent urban style. The French passion for Arabisance is visible in older neighbourhoods and in the new medina of the Habous Quarter, built in the 1930s as a tidier alternative to the old medina, which still exists.

Some downtown areas are studded with fabulous if often shabby buildings in art-deco and hybrid Mauresque styles. Casamémoire, a group of local architects pledged to celebrate and preserve the city's built heritage, offers guided tours of four key districts, by donation ( casamemoire.org).

One notable place in Casa caters to a very familiar fantasy about the town. Rick's Café, at the seaside edge of the old medina, is closely modelled after the "gin joint" Bogart's character runs in Casablanca. Themed restaurants can be tacky, but American Kathy Kriger's recreation of the movie hideaway's Mauresque interior is top-drawer. Everything looks and feels as if the place has been there since the 1920s, though it opened only in 2004, after some herculean remodelling of a grand but run-down mansion.

Sitting at the evocative wooden bar, sipping a martini while waiting for your entrée from the remarkably good kitchen, it's easy to feel that this imaginary Casablanca is almost as real as the one outside. Morocco has been a visitors' dreamland for centuries, and still is, even in this most modern of Moroccan cities.

The writer was a guest of Air Canada and Four Seasons Casablanca. They did not review or approve this article.

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