26 June to 22 July 2022
While Salé was our temporary home, Morroco’s laid back capital lay within touching distance on the opposite bank of the Bouregreg River and we made the short hop many times by tram, river taxi or on foot.
Our first exploration of Rabat saw us walking across the new road bridge which takes traffic, trams and pedestrians across the river to the city. Immediately we were met with close up views of the city’s newest landmarks. Tour Mohammed VI is so new it hasn’t been completed yet. At 250 metres tall it is the tallest tower in Africa and to say it dominates the skyline is an understatement. We had seen it from 10 or more miles out at sea when we couldn’t even see land. Sitting squat but equally futuristic beside it is the new Grand Theatre de Rabat, a major cultural and arts centre which, we were told, was due to open during our time in the city but we saw no evidence of any fanfare. Its vast car park remained entirely empty throughout our stay.
Tour Mohammed VI towers high above the city’s other famous landmark, the 12th century Tour Hassan, just a stone’s throw away. Intended to surpass the height of the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakesh and the Giralda in Seville, only 40 metres of its architect’s intended 60 metres were ever completed but the ruins of the huge rectangular mosque at its foot gives a sense of its planned grandeur.
Turn round from imagining the mosque that never quite was and you find a rather more modern but still identifiably Moroccan building celebrating the father of Moroccan independence. Designed rather incongruously by a Vietnamese architect and completed in 1971, the Mausoleum of Mohammed V houses the tomb of its eponymous hero and his son Hassan II who died in 1999. The intricate interior was unfortunately still out of bounds to the public due to Covid-19 restrictions but its exterior was beautiful all the same.
The tower and mausoleum are guarded daily by mounted guards but only until 5pm when they head home, leaving the site entirely unprotected and us to suspect that they are there purely for photo snapping tourists!
Down the hill from the Tour Hassam is a riverfront promenade which in the evenings and at weekends becomes the centre of family recreation. Electric bumper cars dart erratically and dangerously amongst the crowds, operated by anyone from infant to teenager and meaning you need eyes in the back of your head to avoid injury. Families sit watching the comings and goings on the river and groups of young men and boys take turns to dive into its somewhat uninviting waters. It is a perfect spot for people watching and for a pizza in one of the river side cafes.
On our first visit to Rabat we returned to Salé from the riverfront in one of the many blue taxi boats rowed between the banks and which we had only narrowly avoided collision with on our passage up the river.
On our multiple further trips into the city we went by far more futuristic transport. The wonderful modern tram system whisked us from just outside the marina at Salé to various points in the city in minutes
and the modern feel continues on the streets of Rabat. Like the Ville Nouvelle in Tunis, the capital has its own wide, palm lined boulevard that leads all the way from the royal palace to the Medina lined with more modern buildings, the railway station, the parliament building, the Museum of Modern Art and the post office.
Yet like any Moroccan town as soon as you walk through the walls of the medina it feels like you have walked a century back in time. Unlike Salé and Marrakesh, however, the streets of Rabat’s medina seemed wider and much less crowded. It helped that our visits were all around the festival of Eid when many vendors take time out to holiday with their families. What stalls and shops remained opened weren’t interested in selling trinkets to tourists, rather essentials to locals and our top tip for buying momentos of Morocco is to do it here instead of in the chaos of Marrakesh. It will be a cheaper and far more pleasant experience.
Walking directly through the medina and out through the walls on the other side brings you out to the Atlantic coast, its rocky shoreline guarded by a welcome lighthouse
and another vast cemetery, packed tight with brightly coloured gravestones.
We had explored much of Rabat on our own by the time SV Aurora turned up on our pontoon in Bouregreg Marina and we were introduced to the wonderful Wolfgang, Gabi and Julian who had just completed their Atlantic circuit.
With them we booked a local guide to give us the insider’s view of the city. Our entrepruneurial young guide, Karim, took us on an evening stroll through some familiar spots but also some we had missed. We were utterly bemused to look up at the enormous facade of the Cathedrale Saint-Pierre. We had passed it several times on the tram without noticing it at all.
And we finally got to explore inside the Kasbah walls stopping at Café Maure for mint tea and almond biscuits and views across the river to Pintail and Aurora as the sun went down.
We returned to the tram stop through the evening shoppers in the medina where Karim pointed out that most of the wares for sale came from China rather than Morocco! We left our German friends to find a tagine for dinner and returned back across the river once more.
But its sites ancient and modern weren’t all that Rabat had to offer. We also found a lot of something we just weren’t expecting to find in Morocco…