Our Christmas tour around Morocco had seemed like a good idea at the time. A comprehensive itinerary appeared to take in a lot of the country in a short period, making it good value. Unfortunately, it also meant that most of the days were spent crammed into a packed minibus, with brief, highly choreographed stops to see the sights.
So when we arrived back in Marrakech, with a day off in the schedule, naturally most people just wanted to chill out and enjoy a day off the road – but not me. As a huge movie buff, here was no way I was getting this close to Casablanca and not seeing the city, especially since I’d read about former diplomat, Kathy Kriger, recreating the legendary Rick’s Café.
And so, while the rest of our tour party slept in back at the hotel, I hiked across Marrakech under dawn skies to the grand Gare de Marrakech for the 8am train to Casablanca.
The journey felt strangely appropriate for my trip back in time, with ancient former SNCF carriages pulled by a belching diesel engine. The seats in the first class compartment had that straw-filled feel and the facilities were little more than a toilet bowl secured over a hole in the floor. The fact that virtually everyone in my compartment spoke French only added to that silver screen nostalgia. First class might sound like an indulgence, but at the equivalent of $13 each way, for a 3hrs 20mins journey, it was an absolute bargain, and after days on the cramped minibus, my wide seat and generous legroom felt luxurious.
Traveling north from the dry desert landscape of Marrakech to the coastal city of Casablanca was an odd experience, with the endless barren beige quickly giving way to brown soil and fertile green fields. Sadly our approach to the more modern north also brought huge factory chimneys pumping smoke into the bright blue sky.
There were barely any signs on the intervening stations, so I was glad when Casa Voyages loomed large and obvious at the end of my trip. A five minute taxi ride, costing almost as much as my three hour train trip, delivered me swiftly to Rick’s and I have to admit to being a little choked to actually be there. In Casablanca. At Rick’s.
Now you can’t say for a second that Kathy Kriger has faithfully recreated Rick’s, but then to do so would be to Disney-fy it. This isn’t a stop on the Warner Bros. studio tour. But you can’t deny that she has captured the atmosphere perfectly.
The way the jeweled Moroccan lamps light the walls, the way the staff, including Kathy herself, float serenely around, smartly dressed in dinner jackets and bow ties. It all conjures up that forties movie magic that was the essence of the famous film. The extensive gin bar helped too. Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world…
Sadly I’d wasted my time honing my skills and strategy, because Emil no longer spun his roulette wheel in the corner, occasionally tipping the balance in favour of young love when Rick gives him the nod.
Lunch was not cheap, but perhaps not as expensive as you might expect for such an obvious tourist trap, and it was worth every penny to say I’d been to Rick’s. Kathy Kriger was the perfect host too, happily signing her book ‘Rick’s Café – bringing the legend to life in Casablanca’ for me in flamboyant green ink as I left.
The taxi back, hailed in the street by the doorman, cost a fraction of the taxi from the official station rank – lesson learned – and all too soon I was leaving the busy port city behind me and heading back out into the desert once again.
An early alarm, almost seven hours on a rickety old train and ripped off by a taxi, all for lunch, on my own, in Casablanca. Was it really worth it? Of course it was. After all, everybody comes to Rick’s.
Image source: static.pixels.com