Rabat: My Moroccan Introduction

[First, a confession. Morocco wasn’t actually part of my 2023 plans. I did want to go to Morocco, and it was one of my dream destinations, but I was planning for it further down the line. I was really trying to push through with my Central American trip, which was originally scheduled in early 2020. But there were issues late last year that depleted my savings, forcing me to altogether abandon that trip — perhaps even for the next few years. I was looking for a Plan B, and after checking for fares, the cost of living, and visa policy for Philippine citizens, I narrowed down my choices to three countries, and finally went with Morocco. And I have been really pleased with my decision, to say the least.]

I arrive in Rabat at just after lunch hour. I missed my train from Casablanca (the immigration lines at the airport were a bit long), where I landed just a few hours earlier, so I took a bus instead. The ride took us through the highway along the Atlantic coast, and arriving in Rabat, the country’s administrative capital, I am surprised by the elegance of the place.

Instead of the crowded alleyways that I have come to associate with Morocco (no thanks to Hollywood), the first sights that greet me are the wide highways, spacious parks, and clean sidewalks. It feels more Europe than, well, my misinformed images of Northern Africa.

I take a taxi to the medina, where my hotel is. I check in, rest a bit, buy an adaptor for my phone charger (because I was too excited for the trip I forgot to pack mine and the power bank) and start exploring the city. I arrived later than I planned, and I just have nine days in Morocco, so I’m going to do a bit of cramming.

Rabat’s medina is a maze of shops selling clothes, shors, ceramics, spices, and jewelry, among others.
Different spices provide color and fragrance to one of the shops in Rabat’s medina.
Dar Ibrahim is a cozy and affordable place to stay inside the medina.

My first point of exploration is the medina. In Morocco and other Northern African countries, a medina is the old, often walled, part of a city. In particular, Rabat’s medina was built in the 17th century as a trading post, and the walls bound the city limits until the 20th century. Today, it’s a bustling hive of activities, with all sorts of enterprising action occurring from all directions. As I walk, the smell of the spices from one stall and meat being cooked in another send my stomach grumbling.

The palm-lined boulevard along Avenue Mohammad V makes for a fine stroll in early morning or early afternoon.
The central Rabat office of Poste Maroc is one of the most notable buildings in Avenue Mohammad V, an example of urban design in the context of the French protectorate.
The Nouzhat Hassan Garden is the oldest and largest park in Rabat.

In the 20th century, the French arrived and established a protectorate over the country in 1912. They made Rabat its administrative center (and Morocco retained this even after it achieved independence in 1955) and set upon expanding the city limits. This included creating and designing a neighborhood south of the medina. The European vibe is pretty much palpable in the area around Avenue Mohammad V, where a number of Art Deco buildings evoke a sense of nostalgia.

The Hassan Tower or Tour Hassan is the minaret of an incomplete mosque in Rabat.
The Mausoleum of Mohammed V contains the tombs of the Moroccan king Mohammed V and his two sons.
A royal guard secures the entrance to the Mausoleum of Mohammed V.

All this walking eventually leads me to the Hassan Tower or Tour Hassan. Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur of the Almohad Caliphate commissioned the structure near the end of the 12th century, but he died before it was completed. Today, only the towering minaret and a field of pillars destroyed by an 18th century earthquake are all that remain.

Across the tower is the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, which contains the tomb of Mohammed V and his two sons, King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah. The structure was designed using traditional Moroccan designs, including the use of the zellige (mosaic tiles).

The fortresses of the Kasbah of the Udayas tower above the Bou Regreg River.
Morocco may not be the first place to come to mind when thinking of surfing, but surfers abound in Rabat’s beaches.
The Phare de Rabat lighthouse was built in the 1920s and is still being used.

I then backtrack and continue uphill to the Kasbah of the Udayas. Today it’s mainly a residential area, with narrow pathways lined by pearly white houses built my Muslim refugees who fled Christian Spain in the early 17th century. The winding alleys eventually lead to a platform that overlooks the Bou Regreg River and the city of Salé on the opposite side of the river.

Afterwards, I spend the rest of the afternoon sitting at the beach (a woman charges 10 dirhams for a seat). I didn’t figure Morocco to be a surfing destination, but it’s a big thing here apparently — at least here in Rabat. The strong January waves of the Atlantic are pummeling the shores of the beach, and the surfers are just too excited to take advantage, braving the cold waters as they run to meet the waves.

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