I lean on a wall at Café Maure in the Kasbah of Rabat, looking across the river to Salé, Rabat’s smaller twin which took its name from the Sallee Rovers, pirates who terrorised the Atlantic shores as far as the south coast of England. Today there is only one boat with a single occupant sat on the flat water of a heavy grey day, without a single ray of sunshine to lighten the sky or a breath of air to disturb the river’s surface. Around me, a young man lays out cushions on the bench seating that follows the line of the wall, ready for another day of mint teas, honeyed pastries, tajines, and couscous. While we all love bright blue skies and white fluffy clouds, especially on holiday, a day like today can make you pull in the horns of sightseeing, and simply enjoy what the day brings.
A Walk Through the Kasbah of Rabat
The Kasbah des Oudaïas (Udayas) harks back to the 12th century, when it was built to stand guard over the mouth of the Oued Bou Regreg. Other than Bab Oudaïas, the main gate with its ornate decoration, that was originally a courthouse and staterooms, the village within the walls is a slow meander of boxy low-level blue and white houses, dead-ends, and wiggley alleyways.
I stop to buy a breakfast boiled-egg sandwich from a street vendor. The commercial day has hardly begun, and other than a cubicle of a grocery store, he’s the only one open for the day. You don’t go to the Kasbah to be enthralled by its historic delights, but it is a glimpse of everyday life as it has been lived for centuries.
I work my way downhill, and just as I finish my sandwich I see a street sweeper using a palm frond twice his height to clean the stepped alleyway. It’s a very efficient brush, used everywhere, and the leaves at the tip seem particularly adept at getting in corners. He smiles as I throw my sandwich paper into the plastic bin he carries around with him. One thing less for him to clear up.
My destination is the Andalucian Gardens at the bottom of Rue Bazo, a lovely respite from the heat of the sun, which doesn’t really factor into today’s weather report, but worth the walk anyway. The dull day doesn’t do justice to the yellow of marigolds, pink of oleander, deep red roses, the drooping white angel’s trumpets, yellow and white Michaelmas daisies, all shown off against a background of a myriad shades of green and purple leaves.
The gardens were once the grounds of a palace of the infamous Sultan Moulay Ismail of Meknes, and these days host exhibitions of traditional musical instruments, clothing, jewellery and clothing.
A Glimpse Into Daily Life
I leave the Kasbah Oudaïas and wander down Rue des Consuls, once the diplomats quarter, and through the Medina. Unlike with many Moroccan cities, much of this ancient part of the city is quiet residential streets with a few hole-in-the wall workshops catering to the everyday needs of the neighbourhood. I particularly like the grand doorways, with their stone carved decoration above and around their heavy studded doors that isn’t seen much elsewhere. Eventually I come to Rue Souika. If you want to see daily life from a Moroccan perspective, without the frills of babouche and kaftan sellers, this is the place to be. Other than in the early evening when it seems that the world and his brother are out doing business, Rue Souika is ideal; no hastle or hustle but plenty of street bustle.
The breakfast sandwich is little more than a memory, so I buy a beghrir from a lady with a portable hotplate. These soft and delicious pancakes are made from a batter of semolina flour that creates hundreds of bubbles, which burst as the beghrir is cooked. But it takes a deft hand to get the consistency of the batter just right; too thick and the bubbles can’t form. While I wait for mine to be cooked I watch a man in a TV repair shop who also seems to have a pretty profitable side-line in sunglasses. A typically Moroccan commercial attitude.
The Marche Central
At the bottom of Rue Souika, in the Marche Central everything is brightness and colour. Ignore the ‘worn at the edges’ appearance, (its just short of a century of operation is showing), but delight in the mix of products you could put in your shopping basket. Gaudy bunches of fresh flowers (with dried ones dangling from the ceiling), piles of vividly green fresh mint, dangles of entrails and chunks of meat you’d rather not know the origin of, Technicolor vegetable stalls, mounds of glistening olives and dusky dates, but for me, the highlight of the gastronomic show is the fish section. You may never have thought of a display of fish as being a photo opportunity, but the care in which they are laid out makes them look as beautiful as any display of colourful leather slippers.
I watch a group of fishmongers rapidly cleaning large fish before wrapping them in paper and handing them to a young boy, who carefully places them in a battered old ice-packed cool-box strapped to the pannier of his bicycle. I envy the client they will be delivered to, imagining what I could do with such superb fresh ingredients.
I hop in a petit taxi to take me to the Hassan Tower and Mausoleum of Mohammed V and the Le Tour Hassan. Even on an overcast day with almost no sunlight to give definition, the Hassan Tower is awesome. Construction began in 1195 under the orders of sultan Almohad Yacoub el Mansour but was abandoned on his death only four years later. It’s difficult to perceive that had he completed his dream it would have been half as tall again, a towering 60 metres, one of the highest minarets in the world. The Koutoubia in Marrakech is almost twice the height of this unfinished tower, and a magnificent structure in its own right, but this truncated version of one man’s vision, left as it was on the day of his death, has an element of poignancy with the jagged edges of unfinished decorative stonework and the weeds that grow between them.
The stunted pillars are all that is left of the mosque, destroyed by the same earthquake on 1st November, 1755, All Saint’s day in the Christian calendar (the aptly named ‘Day of the Dead), that virtually obliterated Lisbon. Reports estimate that between 40-50,000 people in Portugal, Spain and Morocco died in one of the deadliest earthquakes in history, 10,000 of them in North Africa.
In the mausoleum, one of the most important shrines in Morocco and one of the few open to non-Muslims, are the tombs of King Mohammed V and his two sons King Hassan II and Prince Moulay Abdellah. An imam dressed in white robe and tasselled fez recites the Koran, while in the corners of the viewing balcony green-robed Royal Guards stand motionless in what must surely be one of the least loved of their postings. At each of the four entrances a red robed guard stands, who, like the horse guards at the entrance to the courtyard, are amenable to having photos taken. Ask, and they assume a guard-like pose. The guard who poses for my photo shows great restraint because as soon as the photo is taken he explodes into a coughing fit.
I’m just in time to catch the changing of the horse guards. Two guards with horses in green and gold livery slowly ride across the square, and in a few well practiced moves take their place in front of the gate. A matched pair of brown steeds replace a matched pair of white. The guards salute each other before the relieved pair return from whence their comrades came.
I take pity on the water seller who has been standing by the gate and who is being totally ignored by everyone, despite his highly polished bowls. Ten dirhams cheers him up and is worth the pose.
Rabat is an often overlooked destination, but this charming capital city has so much to offer. Journey Beyond Travel offers a variety of itineraries that can include a stop in Rabat. We’d love to help you plan your Moroccan visit. Each of our tours offer:
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