Morocco 2017: Rabat – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To keep myself sane during the pandemic lockdown, I started reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text as well as larger and additional photos.  

My travels have taken me through Italy, Turkey and Spain. In 2017 I hit the top of my bucket list with a belated birthday gift to myself – a trip to Morocco. Today I am introduced to Moroccan hospitality in the first riad of this trip.

We depart Casablanca, with it’s Alhambra-styled Municipal Building of carved plasterwork and arches, and the Hassan II Mosque, and the souk where I acquired new clothes in an old style. We drive through a farmer’s market and shop from our car for bananas, apples and round loaves of Moroccan bread that would sustain us on the road. Morocco is an agricultural center of the Maghreb, and every crop grows here except for pistachios.  Doug points out fields of sugarcane, we saw stalks of the stuff in the souks, where it is ground up and sold as a beverage.  

Unlike Casablanca, where I only saw a couple of minarets, here they dot the landscape with regularity.  They are always square (which I would learn is a regional style) and always have a finial at the top, called a jamour, typically with 3 spheres which symbolize the sun, moon and stars.

In about an hour, we arrive in Rabat, the capital of Morocco as well as its political, administrative and financial center. It’s also the second largest metropolis behind Casablanca. I am also told it has a bit of pirate history although I have not yet tracked that down.

Rabat was founded in the 10th century near the Roman port of Sala, and became the capitol city under the reign of Caliph Yacoub el-Mansour after his victory over Alfonso VIII at the Battle of Alarcos in 1195. After the caliph’s death, the city declined for the next several centuries until being settled by the Moors who were expelled from Spain in 1610. It regained its status as a capitol during the French occupation in 1912.

We drive along the crenelated wall of the Kasbah of the Oudaias (shown at the top of this page) which surrounds the oldest part of the medina, and find a place to park. The rest of our way is on foot through the covered alleys of the medina, to our lodging for the night.

We walk through an unassuming wooden door and into the Dar El Kariba Riad. The courtyard is three stories tall, topped with a pyramid-shaped glass ceiling. It’s stunning, filled with light, and furnished as though it were the home of a nobleman. We are seated and served glasses of tea while our passports are being processed.  I admire a tall set of carved double doors with large brass barrel locks, wondering where the door leads to. Soon, we are given our keys and are led to our rooms.  I nearly fall over backwards when the door I have been admiring, turns out to be the door to my room …

The room has the dimensions of a large shoebox, tipped on its side. The ceiling is about 20 foot high, dark wood and beamed, with a single simple chandelier suspended from its center. There’s a small round table to my left, holding a red velvet tagine filled with fresh fruit; a bottle of water in an ornate cover; a plate with a napkin and knife for the fruit. There’s also a welcome note, rolled up and tied with a ribbon, that includes the WIFI password. The ambience of the room calls up the 1930’s French occupation, with pastel ceramic light fixtures in the colors of Turner’s Flamingos.

The bathroom sink is finely painted blue and white porcelain with engraved brass fixtures, sunk into a simple wrought iron stand.  I won’t find a single piece of brass hardware here that isn’t etched or engraved. I collect some of the toiletries to reconstruct my lost kit and investigate the welcome tagine on the table.  I really don’t want to leave, but we’ve been promised a remarkable sunset…

 We walk towards the waterfront, passing graveyards on both sides of the highway.  I see a lighthouse, and a sand and rock beach that appears to be a popular hangout in spite of a sharp wind that has picked up.  

We are treated to plumes of water sent high into the air as waves crash into the breakwater, and a sun that turns the sky from pale blue to tones of Navajo pink and yellow.  We hike back up the hill towards dinner, and I turn back every few steps to watch the sun’s rays play out against the sky, which is in turn, turning the air to gold and the wall of the kasbah to shades of tawny red.

Dinner tonight is at the Dar Naji restaurant, where we sample our first classic Moroccan cuisine – a chickpea soup that resembles Turkish chorba, served with a honey bun and a hard boiled egg that you crumble into the chorba. Ten selections of mezze presented on a bed of romaine leaves, bread, tagines, and tea served by a waiter who pours a steady stream from a silver pot, held above his head, into the six glasses on a silver tray, which he rotated with his other hand. Dinner and a show!

I settle back into the low couches as the meal comes to an end,  and Catherine remarks that my new striped caftan matches the cushions on the couch.  I respond that I’m trying to fade into the scenery, so I don’t have to leave.  But after awhile I’m found out, and we return to our riad to bolster reserves for our busy day tomorrow.

Breakfast the next day is served on the rooftop terrace of the hotel — yogurt, fruit, breads and tea. I note that the roof of the building behind the riad is covered with crypts.

After breakfast, I rush up and down the stairs, trying to find the embroidered caftans that are hanging on the walls two stories up. The maids sound French, and are dressed in white shirts, pants and short aprons, with crisp white bonnets covering their hair. They’re looking at me from around the corners and giggling; the manager of the hotel tells me they are pleased to see a guest in traditional dress.  “Tell them I lost all my clothes at the airport, and I am now dressing Moroccan.”  The hunt for an elusive floor continues until one of the maids leads me to the other staircase which gets me to the third floor and allows me to complete my quest. There are a few more shots of the caftans at August Phoenix Hats.

Today we visit the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, the father of Moroccan Independence. Mohammed V conducted the first Friday prayers here after Morocco gained its independence in 1956. The mausoleum was commissioned by his son, Hassan II and was built by 400 Moroccan craftsmen using white Italian marble. Its stained glass windows and dome hail from France.

Across the plaza is the Hassan Tower and Mosque, begun in 1196 but never completed. My first view of the Hassan tower was through the partially ruined mosque wall. The holes in the red wall accommodated scaffolding during the construction process, and were left open to allow for air circulation.

Caliph Yacoub el-Mansour started construction of the Hassan Mosque in 1196 but died 3 years later, and the mosque was never finished.  It was destroyed in the earthquake of 1755 (which destroyed much of Morocco), leaving only the unfinished minaret standing.  Had it been completed it would have had the capacity for 40,000 worshippers and would have been the second largest mosque in the world behind the Samarra in Iraq.

Hassan Tower stands at about half of its planned height. There is an internal ramp which allowed donkeys to carry building materials during its construction. Doug’s guidebook said that the tower is usually open and offers an excellent vantage point of the surrounding area. It was, however, closed for construction today.

The photo below at left is the exterior of the Mausoleum. Shown at right is a prayer room that may have been part of the original mosque. They were replacing the prayer rugs that day, so the doors were open and rolls of carpet were laying outside. Tempted as I was to walk in, I have learned that you cannot enter mosques in Morocco unless you are Muslim.

The pebble mosaic walkway (shown at lower right) near the Mohammed V Mausoleum courtyard reminded me of similar stone walkways at both the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, and the Alhambra Fortress in Spain. Upon arriving home, Elena Dent left a comment on my Facebook page, telling me that it’s a common paving style in hot climates. The stones are set on edge, and when water is dumped on them, the crevices hold the water for evaporative cooling.

Our next historical site is the Chellah Necropolis.

The Chellah Necropolis dates to 1339 and was built by Sultan Abou Yacoub Youssef as the site for a mosque and burial place for his wife.  The outer wall was built sometime before 1351, possibly as a reconstruction of the original Roman walls.  It became the burial place for the Merinid rulers, for which there are now at least 50 tombs.  The site was destroyed during the 1755 earthquake that destroyed many historical sites in this region.  It now houses over 70 storks in the biggest bird nests I have ever seen.  

Originally the Roman Port of Sala, it must have been spectacular, with its gardens and buildings housing bakeries, hamams, artisans and royalty.

Travel tip: Bring a dirham or two to give to the woman who sits at the pond.  She will reach into her basket for a boiled egg, which she peels and feeds the whites to the eels, and the yolks to the cats who are already circling her ankles in anticipation of a treat. Legend says that if you feed eggs to the eels, your chance of conceiving children are improved.

We finish the day roaming around in the Kasbah of the Oadaias in Rabat, a 12th century fortress at the head of the medina, restored during the 17th-18th centuries.

Photo credit: Brenda Dougal Merriman. I’m still kicking myself for not buying a hat from this artisan / performer.

Travel tip: We did not get into the museum or the gardens, but I hear they are highly recommended.  Make plans to see them when you go.

I did not expect to see blue-washed walls before arriving in Chefchaouen, but most of the alley walls here are blue at the bottom, white at the top, and lead to private residences that look out over the sea.

I discover a courtyard, and then a door which leads down some stone steps to the ramparts and guard towers that guard the Kasbah on its northern and eastern sides.  

Next stop – the Blue City of Chefchaouen.

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