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After several tries, my taxi driver finally identifies the start of the street leading to the riad I had booked in the medina, or old quarter, of Rabat, Morocco’s capital city. Cars cannot navigate the old town’s alleys and blind turns, so I get out and step through an archway trailing my suitcase into a street of cramped grocery shops, traditional tailors and small workshops.
Staying in a riad feels like being let in on a secret; the simple blank exterior walls of the houses in the medina often hide elaborately decorated architectural gems. The Riad des Oudaya does not disappoint. I eventually found it at the end of a tiny cul de sac across from a pastry shop.
Behind the unmarked wooden door there is a tiled sunlit courtyard housing a giant banana tree, red bougainvillea, flowering hibiscus and fragrant jasmine. Stairs covered in traditional green ceramic tiles lead to two floors of colonnaded galleries overlooking the courtyard. This small but elegant guesthouse has four spacious guestrooms each furnished differently with bright Berber rugs, coloured glass lanterns and hand-painted tables. A whitewashed roof terrace with a parapet provides another tranquil space. In the evenings the lovely smells of Moroccan cooking waft up to the rooms through the courtyard. For dinner the riad offers a choice of local specialities cooked by Aisha, a woman from the medina.
Rabat may not have the mystique of Marrakesh or Fez, but the capital is a picturesque and relaxed city which offers an enticing melange of history and modernity. Indeed there is just enough of both to give visitors an appetising flavour of the traditional pleasures of Morocco as well as a glimpse of the luxurious lives of the country’s westernised elite. The city has a small bustling medina, long stretches of ochre-coloured crenellated walls and hidden riads. Its upmarket areas like Agdal and Souissi exude a southern European elegance with immaculate white villas, bougainvillea-filled gardens and trendy shops and restaurants.
One of the kingdom’s four imperial cities, Rabat has only been the capital since France established a protectorate in the first half of the 20th century. This pretty and hassle-free place serves as the kingdom’s political and administrative capital, while the country’s economic heart lies elsewhere in the hectic metropolis of Casablanca.
A city of wide palm-lined avenues, Rabat sits on the Atlantic coast at the point where the Oued Bouregreg flows into the ocean. The river provides some of its most spectacular views.
Every time I visit Rabat, I return to the Kasbah of the Oudaya, a walled town within the city and its oldest part. Sitting high on a bluff overlooking the Bouregreg estuary, it is a tightly-packed huddle of blue and white houses that line narrow winding streets leading to a large viewing platform from where you can see the sweep of the river and the small boats bobbing on its surface as it meanders into the ocean.
Across the water and set back beyond the north bank of the Bouregreg are the whitewashed houses and mosques of Sale, Rabat’s less prosperous twin city. Just below, young boys play in the surf on the wide sandy beaches of the Atlantic.
The Kasbah of the Oudaya was built on a site chosen because it allowed an excellent vantage point from which to observe movements by sea and land. It is entered through a massive carved stone gate which dates back to 1195. The streets here are quiet, with only one or two shops selling tourist items. There is not much to do except stroll around enjoying the quiet atmosphere and the panoramic views.
I go to the only cafe, a somewhat labyrinthine open air place with terraces hugging the side of the cliff that offers the chance to look at the view while sipping a mint tea and eating traditional marzipan filled pastries.
The wide valley of the Bouregreg with fields on either side provides a spectacular backdrop to Chellah, one of the most attractive corners of Rabat. Set on a cliff, and sloping down towards the water, this area of Islamic and Roman ruins is almost smothered in the spring by pink and purple wild flowers. It is enclosed by yet another of Morocco’s medieval high walls with crenellations and guard towers.
The site houses the remains of the ancient Roman outpost of Sala Colonia along with a necropolis and Islamic school dating back to the Merenids - the dynasty which ruled the region for about two centuries from 1248.
Not much remains of the Roman city, but my guide pointed out the foundations of a triumphal arch and various stone structures overgrown with thick vegetation. The Merenid remains are in better shape. There is a large minaret decorated with colourful ceramics, and large parts of the Islamic school - including the scholars’ cells - are still discernible, as are the tiled graves of the family of the Merenid sultan, Aboul Hassan Ali.
The open skies above the valley, the peaceful atmosphere and Chellah’s overgrown jumble of monuments make this a very charming location. It is all enhanced by a botanical garden planted by the French and some 280 storks who have taken residence in the trees, building large nests everywhere, even on the top of the sultan’s minaret. A walled pool tucked into a corner attracts infertile women who light candles and throw boiled eggs to the eels living in its depths. The old woman who sells the candles and feeds the 40 cats that live by the water says that children come from God, but suggested the eels somehow helped.
Also worth a visit is the Tour Hassan, a massive minaret that stands near the river. When building work started on it in 1195, the sultan at the time, Yacoub Al Mansour, wanted it to be the tallest minaret in the Islamic world at 60 metres. But when he died four years later the work stopped and the edifice has remained stuck at 44 metres. A mausoleum for Morocco’s current ruling family is on the site.
The medina in Rabat may be smaller than its counterparts elsewhere in Morocco, but it is still a shopaholic’s fantasy, boasting the usual array of places selling rugs, pottery, gold, leather and spices. The Rue des Consuls is partly covered by a glass roof held up by a frame of wrought iron rosettes. It is the place to go for handicrafts shops. For some of Morocco’s irresistible street food, stop by a row of elderly women - they look like housewives - selling pancakes and other pastries on tables set at one end of Sidi Fatih.
The medina boasts several restaurants serving fine cuisine. But for those who have had too many tajines, there are a number of good western restaurants in the modern parts of the city. On Boulevard Mohammed V, the main thoroughfare in the French-built downtown, I had lunch at Le Grand Comptoir, a beautifully designed art-deco Parisian-style brasserie that caters to the city’s elite (see below).
Beyond the monuments, the shopping and the eating, Rabat offers one of Africa’s best golf courses. The Royal Golf Dar Es Salam was established in 1971 by the previous king, Hassan II, a passionate golfer. Designed by the renowned golf course architect, Robert Trent Jones Sr, the Dar Es Salam has a technically demanding championship course. It is just a 15-minute drive from the city centre, lying in 450 hectares of oak cork forest, flowers, water and palm trees.