Rapid eye movement in Rabat

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Africa » Morocco » Rabat-Salé-Zemmour-Zaer » Rabat
April 4th 2019
Published: June 4th 2019
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If at noon the king declares it is night, behold the stars… ~ Moroccan Proverb

Today we were travelling northeast from Casablanca to Rabat.

We were catching a morning train to Rabat, so we headed down to the hotel lobby for an early breakfast. Breakfast was a reasonably simple affair, but enjoyable all the same. We started with freshly squeezed orange juice and mint tea, then grazed on baguettes, boiled eggs, croissants and jam.

We organised our packs in our room, then loaded them into a minibus and made our way to Casa Voyageurs, one of Casablanca’s three main train stations. The station was empty, so we breezed through the various ticket collectors and settled into our oven-like carriage. We eased out of the station at 9:45am, and stared silently at the decrepit and derelict buildings lining the rail tracks. We then hugged the Atlantic Coast as we sped towards Morocco’s capital city.

We arrived at Rabat within an hour, and it was a relief to step out of the over-heated carriage. However, we weren’t ready for the icy blast that awaited us. It was drizzling and quite cool in the wind – certainly not what we expected when we’d been imagining our travels in Morocco. We walked to a restaurant (Le Capria) cross the road from the train station and dropped our packs, pre-ordered our lunch (tagines) and then headed out on a walk around the town. The temperature had really dropped, so we rugged up as best we could.

We had a photocopied map that had been marked for us to follow, but it wasn’t long before we were lost. This was a short layover – we were leaving Rabat at 3:30pm – so we didn’t want to be late back to the restaurant for lunch. However, Rabat had really captured our interest. We were warned not to step inside the medina, as there was a good chance of getting lost. And of course we did. Luckily one of our travel companions had GPS activated on her phone, so we found our way to the Oudaia Gate in the Kasbah (a fortified section of a medina). The view of the Atlantic Ocean from the walls of the Kasbah des Oudaias was amazing, and I was surprised to see a few surfers trying their luck on the fairly inconsistent waves hitting Rabat’s beaches.

We left the blue and white inner walls of the media and walked along the Oued Bou Regreg (river) to the Hassan Tower and Mohammad V Mausoleum. We picked up some peanut brittle from a street seller on the way – and it was fantastic. We marvelled at the tourist antics in the ruins between the tower and the mausoleum, especially the families putting tiny children on top of broken columns and making them balance just long enough to take a photo with the tower in the background… what could possibly go wrong?

Tourists were also keen to have their photos taken with the royal guards, and I felt sorry for the poor guys – but not sorry enough not to take a photo of Ren standing beside one of them as he steadfastly guarded the mausoleum entrance. 😊

We needed to be back at Le Capri for lunch by 2pm, so we tried a number of times to interpret our photocopied map, but we simply couldn’t make any sense of it. We walked blindly in the direction of the train station, and with the help and guidance of a few locals, we made it back right on 2pm.

We settled at a table in the restaurant and our tagines were placed in front of us before we had time to draw breath. I’d ordered the kefta tagine (meatballs and egg) while Ren had opted for the beef tagine with prunes. The taste was fantastic, and all the better with fresh bread and mint tea. It was fairly stuffy and loud in the restaurant, so we headed outside and settled at a table on the street. The wind was cold, so we rugged up and braced ourselves against Rabat’s icy blast before walking across the road to the train station just after 3pm. Having only arrived in the city four hours earlier, we were leaving by train and heading east to Moulay Idriss.

Today we were travelling from Casablanca to Rabat, by train.

We woke at 6am. We've had to resort to using the alarm because our body clocks had adjusted a little too well to the new time zone. In addition to this, our bodies are used to naturally waking up with sunlight, and the sun doesn’t rise here until about 7:30am (for some reason Morocco is still on daylight savings time from last year!).

Breakfast at Hotel Amouday was a simple but more than adequate affair of freshly squeezed orange juice, tea, croissant, baguettes, khobz (round leavened bread), a boiled egg, butter, cheese and strawberry jam. I’m normally not a fan of orange juice, but the sweet Moroccan oranges are a very different beast to the sour oranges at home.

We left the hotel by minibus and were at the Casa Voyageurs Train Station in 15 minutes. The train was very comfortable and we left on the dot at 9:45am. We had allocated seat numbers, but Khalid (our group leader) told us that often there’ll be people in our seats, and we could simply find another seat that was free. Luckily the train wasn’t very packed and we all managed to get seats together. We sat in a set of four seats with Anya and Ineke, who have been friends from birth (their mums had met at antenatal classes). When our respective snack bags came out we realised they shared a love of pringles and chocolate digestive biscuits with me… a bonding moment for sure. 😊

The view out of the train window was of uninspiring outer urban sprawl, but the train eventually started following the Atlantic coastline. The one hour train trip passed very quickly, but it gave me a chance to finish my travel notes on Casablanca.

On arrival in Rabat, we crossed the road from the station to a restaurant that was going to store our bags for a few hours. Our stop in Rabat was a very brief one, with just enough time to have lunch and explore the city until our train to Meknes in the late afternoon.

We would be travelling to the four Moroccan Imperial cities in the northern part of our trip, and Rabat was our first stop on that Imperial city trail. Casablanca is seen as the financial centre of the country, and Rabat is described as its political centre. Even though Rabat is the capital of Morocco, and home of the Moroccan Parliament and the king, it had the atmosphere of a friendly town with a local feel and a relaxed vibe.

We were supposed to have a guided orientation walk, but instead we were given photocopied maps and told it was a simple and straightforward loop to absorb the main highlights of the city. Famous last words! Given we only had the late morning and afternoon to explore, we were asked not to venture into the old medina in case we got lost and ran out of time to experience the main sights.

It had started raining as we arrived in Rabat, but thankfully the rain seemed to stop as we prepared for our walk. With our maps in hand, we all walked in the general direction of the water – Rabat is located on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. The group naturally broke up into smaller clusters and we walked with Tracey, Meewun, Ineke and Anja. We followed the map as best we could, but it became very clear very quickly that the map was crap.

We cut through a lovely park, and by the time we ducked back to the road we were supposed to be following, we were a little lost. We could see that the most direct route to our first destination – a scenic lookout on the edge of the Kasbah (a fortified section of a medina) – was through the old medina that we’d been warned not to enter. But Anja had GPS on her phone so we confidently walked into the depths of the old world. It was a gorgeous walk through winding narrow streets with big wooden doorways and wrought iron gates, past tight alleys with brightly coloured walls, and wider streets with small local shops and cafes. With much thanks to Anja, we eventually emerged on the other end of the medina, just across the road from the Kasbah des Oudaias. I was so glad we had taken the medina route rather than walking along the traffic-filled roads.

We walked up to Bab Oudaia – the impressive huge main gate of the Kasbah, but it was closed and we had to access the Kasbah through a small side gate. We walked through the Kasbah and climbed to the Plateforme du Semaphore which offered us a lovely panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean on one side, and a view of the ancient town of Sale on the other side of Bou Regreg estuary. It really was a beautiful vantage point.

I could have spent more time in the medina, but we had to keep moving in order to get to our next two sights before lunch (which we’d pre-ordered at Le Capria Restaurant where we’d left our bags). We walked along the estuary and then climbed a hill towards Le Tour Hassan. We came across a small street cart selling many varieties of brittle (nuts set in melted sugar). He offered us free tastings of them all, and being a lover of peanut brittle I couldn't resist getting a bagful. It was seriously delicious, and I can see an addiction developing, as they are perfect train and bus trip snacks.

Surrounded by lovely gardens, Le Tour Hassan (Hassan Tower) is a 44m unfinished minaret from the 12th century. The complex around it was supposed to be the second largest mosque in the world, but a lack of funds and an earthquake stood in the way of its completion – leaving an odd collection of stumpy columns around the Hassan Tower. While it’s not the mosque they intended it to be, it’s now a weirdly lovely outdoor space overlooking the Atlantic Ocean – enjoyed by families and young people. The atmosphere on that overcast early afternoon was relaxed and happy. We spent a little while watching parents trying to get their children to do awkward looking poses on the columns – some obliged but some flatly refused. I think I would have been in the latter camp!

On the other side of the Hassan Tower space sat the Mausoleum of Mohammed V. The mausoleum was built for King Mohammed V, and now also houses his son King Hassan II (the father of the current King Mohammed VI). The beautiful plain white square structure had a green tiled roof which I’m starting to realise is a feature of Moroccan religious buildings. Every entrance of the mausoleum was guarded by elaborately dressed guards and security personnel. The interior was exquisite with beautiful zellij (mosaic ceramic tiles) walls rising to a ceiling of intricately carved cedar wood covered in gold leaf woodwork. We were on a narrow gallery platform and the white tombs of the kings were laid out in a room below us. There were more ceremonial guards on the four corners of the gallery. I saw many similarities with the interior design of the mausoleum and the Hassan II Mosque, and I wondered if the mausoleum (built about 30 years before the mosque) was used as inspiration. I enjoyed visiting the mausoleum very much, and I was amazed but grateful that everyone was welcome to visit this very holy site.

I neglected to mention that the entrance to the complex that housed the Hassan Tower and the mausoleum was guarded by two guards on horseback. As we exited, we couldn’t help but stand for a few minutes and watch in fascination as families took turns posing with the guards. The horses naturally recoiled when anyone got too close, and this caused many of the children to start bawling, which agitated the horses even more… and thus the cycle of mayhem continued. The guards at the mausoleum entrance had security minders, and I really wished these two guards and their horses had some protection from overeager tourists too.

On a side note, it is made very clear to tourists in Morocco that taking photos of anyone in uniform is absolutely strictly forbidden. However the guards at this complex seemed to be exempt from that rule. Even though they were on duty and couldn’t communicate with us, whenever I asked if it was ok to take a photograph, they’d nod slightly, suck their tummies in, straighten their shoulders and look off into the distance. But would then smile as soon as I lowered the camera and said thanks. The ceremonial guards very much added to the atmosphere of the complex, and I probably took more photos of them than I needed to. 😊

By now we were getting quite hungry, but still had a long walk back to the restaurant. The crap map didn’t help us at all, so we walked in the general direction we needed to go and then resorted to asking for directions to the train station. The directions we received were a bit complicated, as people struggled to communicate instructions merely with hand signals. However, this all changed when a girl gave us the most helpful advice – follow the tram tracks!

The Ville Nouvelle (new town) area we walked through was relatively affluent with tree lined trees, and modern well designed apartments and office blocks. I loved seeing the lovely small local squares tucked away on side streets and larger squares with beautiful architecture like the St Pierre Cathedral on the main roads. We eventually saw the Mohammed V Gare de Rabat (train station) and ‘our’ café in the distance.

We made it back to our pre-ordered lunch a tad late, but I think it made the food taste all the more delicious. Andrew thoroughly enjoyed his first kefta tagine (meatballs in a tomato sauce with eggs poached on top), and my beef tagine with prunes was also wonderful. And as always, the khobz bread and fresh mint tea made everything taste better.

It was only the first full day of the trip, but the group dynamics were already starting to reveal themselves. Some people are just not cut out for group travel or group situations in general. When you move as a group, the people with social and caring personalities tend to stand out from the ones who only care about themselves. Two such people had become apparent on our travels that morning – they had separated themselves from the group already, had displayed minor signs of aggression, and went to great lengths to tell everyone that they were the only ones (out of 16 in the group) who hadn’t got lost that day. Apparently the map was more than adequate if we’d known how to read it. Those of us who heard the comment chose to laugh it off as some sort of socially awkward joke, but I think they were quite serious. It is early days and I’m trying not to judge too quickly, but I’ve now got my eye on them. 😄

Even though we only spent a few hours in Rabat, I liked it instantly. It’s an easy-going quietly beautiful city that reminded me of Melbourne in parts. The new town area was clean and well planned, and the old medina was charming and relaxed. I could have definitely spent more time in Rabat.

When faced with a whole country to explore, and only a finite block of time off due to our work schedules… we try to make the best decisions about which cities and towns we want to spend the most time in. Sometimes we make arbitrary decisions that we later regret, and I think Rabat may have been one of them.

The rain had held off for our entire city walk, but it was now changing for the worse as the afternoon progressed. And the forecast wasn’t looking any better for the next few days. We had picked spring as the best time to visit Morocco (to avoid Ramadan and the scorching summer temperatures in the south), so we were bound to experience rain at some point.

Next we travel east to Moulay Idriss, the holy pilgrimage town of Morocco.


4th June 2019

I felt the same way, like I should of spent more time in Rabat. Luck of the draw. And we got lost in Rabat too and did exactly that, followed the tram lines. Easy Peasy! Enjoy Moulay Idriss. Loved it there, very traditional Moroccan vibe, and lots of hill donkeys! I know you love your donkeys. The call to prayer is amazing, it echoes off the hills. And hopefully you can make it to Volubilis.
4th June 2019

Luck of the draw - sometimes we win, sometimes we lose :/ Ohhh I'll have re-read your blogs, I didn't realise/had forgotten that you'd visited Moulay Idriss too. And yes, we went to Volubilis the next day :)
5th June 2019

Missed out
It was unfortunate that we did not get time to see the tomb. It looks pretty nice and colorful
8th June 2019

Re: Missed out
Hi, the tomb was a highlight for me, but there were many interesting and lovely aspects to Rabat. Thanks for reading and commenting :)
6th June 2019
hassan tower

It can snow in Morocco in winter
Once in 10 years or so it actually snows in Morocco in winter. Many people who go to northern Africa in December and January don't realise that it can get pretty cold, especially at night. The Hassan Tower is cool. Thank's for writing about a part of Morocco I know nothing about. /Ake
8th June 2019
hassan tower

Re: It can snow in Morocco in winter
Yes, and that's exactly why we avoided Morocco in winter :) We expected it to be cold and wet in parts, but it was unseasonably cold and wet for April. The Hassan Tower and surrounds were unexpectedly cool, and I think the way the locals use the area helped to make it so!
11th June 2019

Rabat Medina
Good for you for ignoring the advice and walking through the medina (though I sure can understand the concern about getting lost in medinas in Morocco). The Rabat medina was so pretty, with the whitewashed walls and blue accents. We stopped for cookies and mint tea, I remember. :)
11th June 2019

Re: Rabat Medina
We didn’t disobey on purpose, it just kindda happened ;) Rabat was such a lovely city!
12th June 2019
beef tagine with prunes

We liked Rabat more than we thought we would because few people talk about it. Looks like you are doing the same route we did. So happy to read and remember. Thanks for taking us along.
12th June 2019
beef tagine with prunes

Re: Rabat
It was an unexpected treasure for us for exactly that 'unknown' reason Merry. Thanks for following the trip :)
19th June 2019

Rabat sounds and looks amazing! Very much enjoyed reading your impressions of the city and your time there. Loved your photos, especially the one of the guard on the amazing Arabian horse and his elaborate bridle. I'd give my right arm to own that horse!
19th June 2019

Re: Rabat
We really enjoyed the little we saw of Rabat. That poor horse was so hassled by people standing too close and children being thrust at its face. And the guard couldn’t react in any way! :(

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