Step into the Moroccan capital of Rabat and you enter a city that stands apart from its tourist-laden siblings. Nick Savage explores its enchanting, untouched streets, charming architecture and historic ruins
Rabat is the capital of Morocco and travel time is three hours from London Gatwick to Rabat-Salé Airport, which is approximately 30 minutes to the centre of the city by car. Currency is the Moroccan dirham, and time is GMT. In November, the average high temperature is 20C and the average low temperature is 11C. During Ramadan, many of the shops, restaurants and cafés are closed, so do take this into consideration when planning a trip to Rabat.
Royal Air Maroc flies to Rabat from London Gatwick three times a week, with return flights starting at £200 per person. http://royalairmaroc.com
Ryanair flies out three times per week from London Stansted and flights start from £24 each way, per person. http://ryanair.com
Moroccan National Tourist Office has a wealth of information and top tips on hand for inspired trips to Rabat and across Morocco, including cultural tours and desert treks. http://muchmorocco.com
In Morocco by Edith Wharton (John Beaufoy Publishing, £6.99) is the American writer’s account of her travels through the country at the end of the First World War. Her style captures the essence of Rabat.
To offset your carbon emissions when visiting Rabat, make a donation at climatecare.org and support environmental projects around the world. Return flights from London to Rabat produce 0.65 tonnes C02, meaning a cost to offset of £4.89.
Like the eyes of the Mona Lisa, no matter where I wander in Rabat, King Mohammed VI’s gaze seems to follow me. His image is found everywhere throughout the city: in the entrance of hotels, cinema vestibules, riad foyers, billboards atop crumbling edifices. In a stall adjacent to the Kasbah of the Udayas, walls are plastered with a mosaic of fading photography showing the king stopping off for ‘asseer del litchine bil ma’zhaar (orange juice with a dash of orange flower water).
As is typical of many bureaucratic centres, there is a reserved tranquillity that permeates the streets of Rabat. Mohammed VI’s royal aegis seems to have worked a force field around the city, protecting it from the peccadilloes of other tourist traps and offering an authentic view into old Morocco.
During an afternoon chat with Rachid El Guennouni, owner of the restaurant Dinarjat, he emphasises the importance of royalty in Rabat. Spread out on the couch, his head freshly shaven, wearing a crisp white shirt and wire rimmed glasses, he speaks with a resonant baritone voice while gesticulating wildly with a cigarette. ‘Wherever there’s a kingdom, there’s a good cuisine,’ he explains wryly to me. ‘You need money and to be rich. Moroccan cuisine comes from imperial cities. There is a bourgeoisie class surrounding the king that develops the culinary art.’
Rabat offers many of the best aspects of Morocco’s better- known cities: Essaouira’s surf, Casablanca’s cosmopolitanism, Marrakech’s energy and Fez’s cuisine. The medina bears the same haphazard hallmarks of the country’s other markets – beggars, hawkers and the customary chaos – yet it plays out in a more orderly manner than the larger tourist-frequented destinations. It does, however, remain an assault on the senses. Strolling down one corridor, I’m forced to edge along a sky-blue wall as a man in traditional djellaba (robes) and fez pushes a tumbril laden with strawberries, the air redolent with their summery scent. Walking down another alley, I happen upon a stall of steaming sheep’s heads, mouths lolling open, sparse teeth remaining, the flesh calving off to reveal expanses of alabaster skull. The cooked meat is sprinkled with cumin, salt and chilli and then scooped into hollowed-out half moons of khobz chair, a large bun of Jewish-Moroccan origin neatly dusted with sesame seeds.
Nearby there’s a wagon supporting a large vat of roiling brown broth and whorled shells: escargot (snails) flavoured with aniseed, liquorice root and caraway. Once ladled into bowls, a queue of men and women tweeze the gastropods from their shells with wooden toothpicks. A young girl dips brilliant yellow ears of corn into saltwater before handing them by the stem to passers-by.
I clock a few scammers attempting to convince sceptical tourists that the kasbah is closed but, otherwise, behaviour is circumspect. In Marrakech’s other souks in Fez and Tangiers, it’s easy to feel assailed by the constant attention but in Rabat’s bustling medina, tourists are generally left to their own devices. Sometimes it can actually feel more like you’re importuning the locals than the opposite. In a country that has always had quite a robust tourist trade, Rabat is frequented more by diplomats than goggle-eyed sightseers.
Later in the evening, I’m led through the rabbit warren-like passageways of the medina by a man hoisting a cast-iron lantern. The tortuous knot of alleys is rendered even more bewildering by the darkening sky. We arrive at a heavy wooden door with an ornate lintel and iron studs. My escort knocks sharply, causing me concern for the hearing of whoever’s on the other side.
What awaits couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to the experience out on the streets. Situated in a 17th-century mansion with an open courtyard, Dinarjat is a soothing break for the overstimulated mind. Two men in traditional garb play the oud and the doumbek, Barbary Coast versions of the lute and hand drum. A burbling fountain punctuates their music. Zellige (traditional mosaic tilework) pervades the room and baffles guests with its complexity of pattern. Clad in a black kameez (robe) with golden hood, our server Khadija pours mint tea from astonishing heights to cool the liquid and create a frothy mousse on top.
Mr El Guennouni prefers to staff his kitchens with women. He insists they are the best chefs as, historically, Moroccan gastronomy has devolved through maternal inheritance. Alongside a bottle of Médaillon Rosé de Syrah from nearby Benslimane, I enjoy a pastilla, which is dusted with icing sugar and crosshatched with cinnamon. Its warka, a gossamer-thin pastry similar to filo, encloses a rich mixture of squab pigeon, lemon, egg, almond paste and honey. A marriage of Berber and Persian cooking, pastillas are strictly a court creation that have filtered down from palace kitchens to home kitchens and eventually to the streets.
However, my pastilla is promptly upstaged by the arrival of a lamb shank tagine served with saffron rice and a generous smattering of roasted wild artichoke hearts. Tagines are the earthenware pots used for preparing the dish and also the food contained inside them – steam condenses in the conical lid and then drops back down on the meat so it retains its moistness.
The next day, walking south on the Avenue Mohammed V, you’re offered a glimpse at the city’s three personalities – the ancient, the French and the contemporary. It’s best to start with a quick jaunt around the Kasbah of the Udayas. Originally constructed in the tenth century as a ribat (fort) to protect the Almoravids, it wasn’t long before it failed its purpose and was razed to the ground to be rebuilt by the Almohads. Its honey-hued crumbling ramparts jut into the mouth of the Bou Regreg River, with the Atlantic’s darker waters peeling into the Plage de Rabat, surfers and bodyboarders riding its waves.
As you continue walking south, the energy and commotion of the medina gives way to a broad boulevard lined by two rows of date palms. The ville nouvelle (new town) exhibits Gallic design influence at its finest, from when France established Morocco as a protectorate in 1912 and made Rabat its capital.
During the evenings, arcades along Avenue Mohammed V are thronged with locals. The now-shuttered Hotel Balima, opposite the national parliament building, evokes the faded glamour of the Twenties. The Gare de Rabat Ville (train station) was constructed in the Thirties, its architecture a playful cocktail of art deco and futurism with Moorish detailing. Further south lies the neighbourhood of Agdal, a hip and affluent commercial district, and then Souissi, thicketed with luxurious hotels, villas and embassies.
It’s Friday afternoon and following jumu’ah, the time of prayer just after midday, public administrators will return home to enjoy couscous with their families, a meal that is bound in ceremony. At La Maison Arabe restaurant in La Tour Hassan, my host Hayat Guedayia tells me that traditionally a patriarch’s character is measured by how equally he can apportion the dish.
It’s common on this day to have kseksou bidawi, couscous with lamb and seven vegetables, the number seven being considered auspicious. The lamb is entombed under a pyramid of carrot, cabbage, pumpkin, tomatoes, turnip, courgette and marrow, then crowned with raisins and chickpeas.
Lalla Latifa, who has worked at La Maison Arabe for 26 years, prepares my dish. With her white headband and chef’s jacket juxtaposing with her dusky features, she cuts a striking figure. Latifa began her career studying at École Hôtelière Touarga, the royal cooking school set up by King Hassan II in his palace complex. She explains to me that there aren’t an abundance of local specialities because Moroccan cuisine tends to be overarching, with dishes defined by the produce that is readily available.
Walk ten minutes east and you’ll reach the hotel’s eponym. Tour Hassan is the incomplete minaret of a mosque that was started in 1195 by Almohad Sultan Yaqub al-Mansur. Built of ochre sandstone, at 43m high it stands in stark contrast to the white plaza and rows of ruined pillars around it. The Mausoleum of Mohammed V is at the opposite end of the square, where the current king’s father and grandfather have been interred. A cursory glance will reveal how revered royalty is in Rabat – the building is wildly opulent yet remains remarkably tranquil inside. An imam reposing on a sheepskin rug next to it reads the Koran, passages from which have been incorporated into the intricate zellige mosaics and carved yeseria plasterwork on the walls.
However, the most bewitching site in all of Rabat is arguably Chellah, located opposite the Royal Palace. Its history is rich and the experience of walking it is incredibly haunting. Originally settled by the Phoenicians, it was conquered by the Romans in 40BC and turned into a city – its pillars, streets and walls still extant. In the 14th century, Sultan Abu I-Hasan of the Marinid Dynasty converted Chellah into a necropolis. As we zip through the ruins and botanical gardens, I hear a loud clacking noise coming from above. I ask my guide, Hamid Ouriti, where the sound is coming from. ‘Laqlaq’, he tells me, the onomatopoeic Arabic word for stork. There’s a large flock of them that have made the site their residence, fishing in the nearby Bou Regreg, nesting atop the remaining stonework and clacking their beaks relentlessly.
From here, it’s a short ride to Mohammedia, driving along the developed coast of Temara into low-lying scrubland interrupted only by golden fields of wheat and corn. It’s worth making the journey here to sample the morning’s catch at Le Restaurant du Port, which has been run by the same family for 30 years. Guests dine underneath a pergola bowered with the abundant foliage of a single bougainvillea. A trolley is wheeled over groaning with red mullet, sea bream, sole and turbot, not to mention a few lobsters lazily attempting to make an escape.
As our bream is salt-baked in a masonry oven, I have the opportunity to chat with Pascale Arnoux, the restaurant manager. Born in Casablanca, her family originally moved out here from France in 1912. She’s very quick to define the dichotomy between cuisine and gastronomy. ‘The Moroccans host dinners in a very similar way to the French or the Japanese,’ she tells me. ‘This is why I believe it is more gastronomy, because of the rules and traditions that have to be respected in order for the meal to become a success.’
Pascale’s head chef, Willy Benjamin, was lured away from Joël Robuchon’s acclaimed kitchens in Paris and Las Vegas by the quality of Moroccan produce, which he claims is some of the best on the planet, as well as the unique seasonings.
‘The use of bold flavours has got me thinking differently in terms of the subtle and delicate tastes that I’m used to working with,’ he says. ‘Here the food explodes in spice, flavour and colour.’ It reiterates a claim Mr El Guennouni made earlier which I had initially disregarded, that ‘the dishes of France and Spain are more influenced by Moroccan flavours, not the contrary.’
Whichever way the coin falls, it’s obvious Rabat has a bounty to offer. Wandering around the souks and cities of Morocco has been romanticised for hundreds of years but it’s difficult to find an experience akin to the writing of Edith Wharton or Paul Bowles with tourists from across Europe being Airbused in 20 times daily.
Rabat, for the most part, remains untarnished and you can’t help but feel that the invisible hand of power is at play keeping it so.
Where to Stay
L’Amphitrite Palace Resort Just a 20-minute drive from central Rabat in the beach district of Temara, L’Amphitrite is a whitewashed art deco hotel that channels Moorish by way of Miami. Spread out along the white sands of Skhirat Plage and the azure waters of the Atlantic, it’s one of the area’s original beach resorts, with a hydro pool, outdoor swimming pool, hot tub and 13 private treatment rooms. Doubles from £95. P4030, Skhirat 12050, 00 212 5376 21000, http://lamphitrite-palace.com
Dar El Kebira The medina trumps all other locations in Rabat for pure energy. Dar El Kebira is a stunning historic riad nestled in its core. Painstakingly restored to update its classic Moorish design for the modern traveller, it offers ten guest rooms, a traditional hammam and one of the most enviable views of the city from its rooftop terrace. Doubles from £80. Rue des consuls, 1 Impasse Belghazi, Ferrane Znaki, Rabat 10000, 00 212 5377 24906, http://darelkebira.com/en
Sofitel Rabat Jardin des Roses Of all of the hotels in Rabat, Sofitel Jardin des Roses probably packs in the most bling. Named for its Andalucian gardens, which boast 300 rose plants spread over 17ha, Sofitel is also home to two bars, three restaurants and the hottest nightclub in the town, a venue that plays host to an array of celebrities during the Mawazine Festival. Doubles from £140. Impasse Souissi, Rabat 10000, 00 212 5376 75656, http://sofitel.com
La Tour Hassan Situated in the beating heart of Rabat’s commercial district, La Tour Hassan is a stone’s throw from the eponymous tower. The five-star hotel is an exercise in lavishness, with a traditional Moorish style, three restaurants, a hammam, spa, gym and lounge. A perennial favourite among celebrities filming in the area, Clint Eastwood tickled the keys in the piano bar during the filming of American Sniper. Doubles from £266. 26 Rue Chellah BP14, Rabat 10000, 00 212 5372 39000, http://latourhassan.com
Villa Mandarine Nestled within one hectare of riotously verdant gardens amongst an orchard of 700 orange trees, this family run boutique hotel is in the embassy district of Souissi. It offers just 36 individually designed rooms, most of which boast terraces facing out on to the grounds. The watchword here is tranquillity – extreme relaxation is a symptom among many guests. Doubles from £275. 19 Rue Ouled Bousbaa, Souissi 10000, 00 212 5377 52077, http://villamandarine.com
Where to Eat
Prices are per person for three courses, excluding wine, unless otherwise stated.
Dinarjat Often a first-stop dining destination for diplomats visiting Rabat, the romance at Dinarjat is readily apparent. Guests are led through the winding passageways of the medina to a 17th-century Andalucian-style mansion, where traditional music is played live in the courtyard. The Moroccan fare here favours the very best cuts of the animal, and is market-fresh. £22. Boulevard el Alou, Rabat 10030, 00 212 5377 04239
Le Restaurant du Port Nestled in the funky port town of Mohammedia, this is a favourite for denizens of both Rabat and Casablanca. The menu revolves around fish that arrives earlier in the morning, prepared simply. During our visit we enjoyed salt-baked sea bream served with a wedge of lime and potato aligot (mashed potato with cheese and garlic). Don’t miss the tarte tatin either. £22. 1 Rue de Mauritanie, Ex Rue du Port, Mohammedia 20800, 00 212 5233 22466, http://restoport.ma
Tajine Wa Tanjia Named for its two principal dishes, Tajine Wa Tanjia is nestled beside the train station. The restaurant specialises in exotic meats such as camel and ostrich, which are prepared in tagines or tangias (clay pots). Don’tmiss the poulet aux citron et olives (lemon with chicken and olives) or the tanjia chameau (camel tagine). £13. Rue Baghdad, Rabat 10000, 00 212 5377 29797
Villa Mandarine Boasting one of the most beautiful gardens in Rabat, it would require a heart of steel not to experience a certain joie de vivre cracking a bottle of local organic Syrah de Saignée while peacocks thread their way through bougainvillea, morning glory and oleander. The food matches the setting. The menu is made up of European and North African selections – the common denominator being a canny attention to quality. £26. 19 Rue Ouled Bousbaa, Souissi 10000, 00 212 5377 52077, http://villamandarine.com
Le Ziryab The restaurant here has similarities with Dinarjat. Guests are led through the winding alleyways in the northern quadrant of the medina to an ornate door. Walking inside reveals a beautiful courtyard with a soundtrack of live lute. The menu is fixed – perfect for the choice-averse. £35. The Ziryab, 10 Impasse Ennajjar, Rue des Consuls, Medina, Rabat 10030, 00 212 5377 33636, http://restaurantleziryab.com
Don't missDomaine Ouled Thaleb Anyone visiting Rabat with a penchant for wine will undoubtedly happen upon a bottle or two from this wine estate in Benslimane run by Thalvin, which produces a wide variety of Morocco’s most well-known wines. Medaillon is its most widespread label but we were especially charmed by the CB Signature. Mawazine Festival We visited Rabat just before Ramadan during the weekend of the Mawazine Festival, one of Africa’s largest music festivals, which attracts up to 2million people. Performers run the gamut from Stevie Wonder, Sting, Santana and BB King to Rihanna, Chris Brown and Iggy Azalea. It will be held again in May 2017. festivalmawazine.ma Temara The stretch of oceanside to the west of Rabat is quite built-up but the bungalows often recede to offer beautiful patches of white sandy beaches or rocky promontories, with roaring surf and quirky tide pools.
- Chermoula: Though recipes tend to vary, chermoula is one of the most pervasive marinades you’ll find in Morocco and the Maghreb. It’s regularly made with preserved lemon, lemon juice, olive oil, cumin, garlic and salt. It may also contain black pepper, coriander, chilli, parsley and saffron
- Couscoussier : Couscous is arguably the central meal in Morocco and a ceremonial Friday dish so it follows that there is a special utensil for preparing it. In Moroccan, the base is called a qadra and the steamer a keskes, however, the French word couscoussier is the term used regularly
- Gharbal : A coarse sieve for sifting couscous grains as they are produced. Originally fashioned from leather, gharbals are now primarily made with meshed metal
- Gsaa : A gsaa is essentially a large bowl used for making bread or couscous. It can be made of baked earthenware or carved wood.
- Halwa chebakia: A Moroccan sesame cookie that’s shaped into a flower, deep-fried and then immersed in honey. Served during Ramadan and other special occasions
- Harissa: Likely the most popular condiment in the country, harissa is often an amalgam of red chilli, mint, coriander, cumin, caraway seeds, garlic and olive oil
- Ras el hanout : A pungent blend of spices (often proprietary recipes are guarded with a very watchful eye). Ras el hanout usually contains allspice, cloves, cayenne pepper, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, ginger, nutmeg and turmeric
- Tagine: The name for both the cooking equipment and of Morocco’s iconic national dish. Dining on a tagine is a daily occurrence for tourists and Moroccans
- Tangia: Earthenware like the tagine but shaped like a Greek amphora, tangia is known as a bachelor’s dish. Historically, young men or soldiers would fill it with meat, preserved lemon and herbs then bring it to the hammam and leave it in the embers for hours to slow cook its contents
- Za’atar : Similar to lemon thyme, za’atar is one of the favoured spices in the Maghreb. It is commonly eaten with pitta bread
This article was published on 24th October 2016 so certain details may not be up to date.