Morocco 2017 – Rabat

We leave the Habbous District of Casablanca, with it’s grand Municipal Building of carved plasterwork and arches, and the souk where I acquired a beautiful striped caftan and a tunic/pants set (yay, pants!).  We drive through another market filled with farmer’s wares, and shop from our car for bananas, apples and the distinctive round loaves of Moroccan bread that we would munch on 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 was ground 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 later 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 and the political, administrative and financial center of Morocco, and 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 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 to our lodging for the night.

Kasbah of the Oudaias, surrounding the medina

We walk through an unassuming wooden door and into a courtyard, 3 stories tall, covered at the top with a pyramid-shaped glass ceiling. We have arrived at our first riad – the the Dar El Kabira. 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 at least 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, and a bottle of water in an ornate cover, and a plate with a napkin and knife for the fruit,  and 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.

I check out the bathroom and find a sink that I have only seen in photographs. It’s a finely painted blue and white porcelain basin with engraved brass fixtures, sunk in to a simple white wrought iron stand. There are toiletries here, which I grab to start reconstructing the kit that were lost with my luggage. I really don’t want to leave, but we’ve been promised a remarkable sunset…

We walk towards the waterfront, passing old 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 the chilly 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 tastes like the chorba I ate in Istanbul, served here with a small cinnamon bun soaked in honey, and a hard boiled egg that we are told to peel and break into the soup.   Next up is a plate of mezze – 10 different salads and relishes presented on a bed of romaine leaves.

Tea, served by a skilled 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!  Bread, and tagines, and more tea and fruit for dessert. 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.

Afterwards I rush up and down the stairs, trying to find the embroidered caftans that I can see hanging on the walls from the courtyard floor.  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, and the manager of the hotel finally tells me that 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.

Today we visit the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, a leader revered as the father of Moroccan Independence. 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.

Glass dome in the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, made by French craftsmen

Across the plaza is the Hassan Tower and Mosque, begun in 1195 and intended to be the largest mosque and minaret in the world. 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.
  • In more recent history, Mohammed V conducted the first Friday prayers here, after Morocco won its independence from the French in 1956.

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. My guidebook says that this tower is usually open and offers an excellent vantage point of the surrounding area. It was closed for construction when we were there.

Our next historical site is the Chellah Necropolis, dating to 1339 and built by Abou Yacoub Youssef as the site for a mosque and burial place for his wife.  The outer wall was built sometime before 1351 by Sultan Abou Yacoub,  possibly as a reconstruction of the original Roman walls.  

The site became the burial place for the Merinid rulers, of 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.  Additional photos of this site are on my photo-blog at Daveno Travels, although I did not manage to capture the pond, where women come to feed eggs to the eels in hopes of conceiving children.

  • Travel tip: bring a dirham or two to give to the woman who sits at this pond.  You can pay a woman a dirham or two, and 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.

We finish the day roaming around in the Kasbah of the Oudaias, the 12th century fortification at the head of the medina, restored during the 17th-18th centuries.

I did not expect to see blue-washed walls before arriving in Chefchaouen, but most of the alleys were blue at the bottom, white at the top, and led to private residences which looked out over the sea.  I discovered a courtyard, and a door, which led down a series of stone steps to the ramparts and guard towers that guarded the Kasbah on its northern and eastern sides.  

  • 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.

See additional photos of the sites of the day at Daveno Travels.

Next stop – the Blue City of Chefchaouen…

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