At first, we had planned to go straight from Marrakesh to Fez. A stop in Rabat wasn’t even something we’d considered. We dreamed of mosaic-covered minarets resonating with the sound of the call to prayer, maze-like medinas that felt like a jump back in time, inviting bazaars and salesmen in traditional garments ready for a bargain, with the scent of burning incense in the background. Long story short, we dreamed of the full Orientalist package.
When we got off the train and out of the station, Rabat was all about straight avenues, colonial buildings and well, modernity. Yet, it felt somehow reassuring after three nights spent in hectic Marrakesh, where every step outside our hotel was a renewed struggle against hustlers and where the whole city seemed like the fake vision of what a fantasized Moroccan town should be, deprived of an identity without tourists being part of the picture.
Those straight, broad avenues therefore soon felt like a blessing compared to the narrow, labyrinthine back alleys of Marrakesh, half of which led to a dead-end. They got us to our hotel in no time, lulled as we were by the sounds of the ocean whose proximity added some coolness in the air.
The front desk of our hotel was a ruckus though until the owner made his entrance and let us know that there was no room for us. We were ready to put up a fight but he offered a solution on his own and took us to a nearby, fancier hotel, without asking us to pay for any price difference. Perhaps it was a scam, somehow, but we were so used to the obvious Marrakesh shams that we took it at face value without a second thought. Plus, we were eager to start exploring the city.
The main purpose of our stay in Rabat was more than a 40-minute-walk away. It could have deterred us but walking the streets of the Moroccan capital city turned out to be pleasant. On top of that, we did not have the strength to spend a while bargaining with a taxi driver.
We walked past massive buildings left by the French colonial administration, underneath covered passages where street vendors sold second-hand books and into peaceful streets lined up with orange trees, undisturbed by the slight traffic. At some point, we had to walk through the gates of huge walls and were out of the city. Beyond a chaotic roundabout stood the Chellah, oozing in mystery, urging us to face the lack of pedestrian crossing to find a way to get to its gates.
It seemed that the Chellah was a different world altogether. The ancient Roman city, turned holy Marinid necropolis, turned serene ruins, had seen the course of many civilizations take hold in Rabat. It was now allowing tourists to delve into its secrecy, along with whole families of strokes that had decided to make the place their home, with specific love towards the top of the ancient minaret.
Blossoming spring flowers were adding a touch of colour to the landscape, purple lilas contrasting with the sandy walls of the fortress, carpets of yellow flowers popping out in between green bushes. The fragrance of orange blossoms in the air culminated into creating the kind of romantic aura only deserted ruins could evoke.
As if suspended in time, the atmosphere made it hard to leave the Chellah. Yet, there was another place we were looking forward to visiting in Rabat so we backtracked, only taking a break for a rewarding ice cream in the city centre. The streets started to feel familiar before we entered the local medina, feeling a little reluctant.
As expected, the place was crowded, full of wandering people going from one stall of the bazaar to the other. It was noisy too, buzzing, but not in an overwhelming way. The smell also surprised us. It was not the smell of cheap leather goods but mostly one of cheap plastic. Around us, we could count the tourists on one hand, lost in a sea of locals on a shopping spree. When we bought some msemen, the local version of French crepes, from a teeny food stall, the lady vendor did not try to rip us off. Marrakesh was definitely miles away !
Getting out of the main streets of the medina was a struggle, still, but it could have been worse. Since the place we were looking for was close to the seashore, it only took us a few minutes to find our way and access a flight of stairs leading to the Bab El Kebir, the massive ornated gate leading to the Kasbah of the Udayas.
Past the gate was the ancient 12th-century fortress, designed by the Almoravids and destroyed by the Almohads before they rebuilt it, just like Chellah. And just like Chellah, the Kasbah felt like a secluded world of its own, like a village hanging above the big city, living according to its own notions of time.
Blue and white dominated over all other colours. Each house was painted with its own shade of blue, a little faded on some walls, a little tainted too. The old door latches and pulls seemed a tad worn-out, silently keeping the visitors at bay but being all the more inviting. There was quite some movement along the main street but stretching on many more blocks were inconspicuous, empty alleys.
We decided to first see the end of the main street of the Kasbah and accessed a square on a platform overlooking yet another flight of stairs leading to a walkway over the ocean. Crushing waves and wailing seagulls were playing their own melody, like a lullaby, and this soundtrack suited the even pace of the Kasbah perfectly. It numbed us into a tranquil melancholy. So it numbed the many young couples around us on a romantic stroll, or perhaps even on a date.
It was a craving for pictures that brought us back to reality. We turned back, ready to explore the empty streets of the Kasbah we had only saw glimpses of so far. Walking in circles, we turned at every corner and strolled through every street we could.
Old bikes resting on walls and meowing cats were our sole company until one of the many young couples we had seen earlier. They too were on the hunt for the right spot for a dream photo shoot. Before getting to know Rabat, we’d have thought that was no easy task.
Yet, after a day spent discovering Roman ruins, medieval fortresses and colonial buildings as if Rabat were an open history book, we could say for certain that the Moroccan capital city was picture-perfect but that it was also one hell of an introduction to the country.