Casablanka — Essaouira

Startharbour: Casablanka
Boarding after: 14.12.2013 00:00
Departure: 16.12.2013 14:00
Port of destination: Essaouira
Arrival: 20.12.2013 12:00
Debarkation before:
Days on board: 7


And now we are in Africa! Casablanca is the major industrial centre, economic and business capital of Morocco (although the political capital is Rabat, situated roughly 100 kilometres to the north). With a population of 3 million people Casablanca is one of the most densely populated cities in Africa.

The first port and settlement situated where Casablanca proudly stands today, came about as early as 700 BC and was used initially by the Phoenicians and then by the Romans. By the 8th century Anfa (the old, Arabic name of Casablanca) was one of the richest towns on the Atlantic coast of Africa. By the 15th century the port of Anfa was a major base for pirates and sea rovers, who spent most of their ‘professional’ time robbing Portuguese merchant ships. In 1468, in an attempt to eradicate piracy, the Portuguese destroyed ancient Anfa and built a military fort called Casa Branca. The fort and surrounding settlement remained under Portuguese monarchs’ control until 1755, when the Great earthquake turned Lisbon, Lagos and other Portuguese towns into a pile of rubble. The Portuguese had to forget about their grand colonial ambitions. Their garrison left Casablanca and it was the new owners, Arabs, who took on the task of rebuilding the town which also suffered during the fateful earthquake.

Today, despite multiple destructions, Casablanca retained a small historical part. Narrow streets of the Old Town, surrounded by a semi-collapsed wall, form a peculiar labyrinth and white walls, reflecting the powerful sun, happily blind its visitors... This is how most Europeans imagine Casablanca – mysterious and exotic… largely because of the famous film of 1942 by Michael Curtis. But in reality the exotic areas last only for a few blocks rapidly giving way to the modern metropolis – new Casablanca with a distinctly European rhythm and pace.

Even the most famous point of interest in Casablanca is only 20 years old. It was designed by the European architects. Hassan II Mosque, the second largest mosque in the world, can accommodate over 100 000 people. Its marble floors are heated from the inside, the roof is retractable and the minaret is topped by a powerful laser, day and night shining a bright light in the direction of Mecca. It is hard to imagine a more modern mosque.

For the last 500 years the Port of Casablanca has often been used as a starting point for transatlantic crossings, a gateway to the New World from Europe. Even the famous film tells us a similar story – its main characters escaping the Nazi occupation awaiting their visas in Casablanca to carry on with their journey towards America. Casablanca will be a gateway for Shtandart as well – here we shall begin our journey to the Canaries.


Having left Casablanca, Shtandart will sail south alongside the African coast, heading towards Essaouira. We shall follow the path of Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama and thousands of other Portuguese, Spanish, French and British navigators and sea-travellers who followed in their paths.

We might make a stop at the ancient town of El Jadida with its perfectly preserved 16th century Portuguese fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site. During Portuguese and later the French protectorate Al Jadida was known as Mazagan. The historical part of Mazagan with its market, bath houses, craftsmen shops and amazing underground water storage has survived throughout the centuries, and we shall definitely take a stroll or two through its streets. Modern Al Jadida should be a magnet for tourists, yet, paradoxically, it found itself off the beaten tourist tracks. Perhaps this is how this ancient port managed to keep its unique cosy atmosphere.

There is a small, but interesting town of Safi, lying south-west of Al Jadida. It was founded in 500 BC by Hanno the Navigator, a famous Carthaginian explorer. Throughout its history Dutch, English and Portuguese traders used Safi as a convenient transfer point. But our interest in this place relates to yet another event – here on May 17th 1970 a papyrus boat Ra II, belonging to the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, set off on its famous voyage. 57 days later it arrived at the coast of Barbados.

Our last stop on the African continent shall be Essaouira.


Since ancient times the bay at Essaouira has been considered the best anchorage on the Moroccan coast. The bay is sheltered from the ocean by a small island, providing excellent protection against strong marine winds. Mogador (the ancient name of Essaouira) is believed to have been founded by Hanno the Navigator, a famous Carthaginian explorer. According to Pliny the Elder, back in 500 BC Hanno’s naval forces, consisting of 60 vessels, explored the African coast all the way from Gibraltar to modern Gabon and Congo. The port was actively used by Phoenicians and later by Romans. Under the Romans from around 1st century BC a large purple production facility was established in Essaouira. It was one of the most lucrative crafts at the time. The remains of a prosperous Roman villa still stand nearby.

The 16th century saw Essaouira as a major trade port on the Atlantic coast of Africa and also… a safe haven for pirates. Spanish, English and Dutch all made their claims to the port at different times, but from the 17th century France had the most influence here. At the end of the 18th century sultan Mohammed III decided to turn Essaouira into a new centre for maritime trade as part of his campaign for economical integration with Europe. The city was totally rebuilt with the help of specially invited European architects. New harbour and fortifications were built at this time. The sultan’s plan worked. For the following 200 years Essaouira remained the biggest port in Morocco. Goods from West Africa came via caravan tracks in Sahara to be loaded onto the ships carrying them further to the rest of the world.

The Medina of Essaouira, with its 18th century colonial military architecture, is a UNESCO World Heritage listed city. Today Essaouira is a modern sea resort, popular with the Moroccans and Europeans alike and a centre for kite and windsurfing. The large sheltered bay still attracts people today just like it did many centuries into the past.