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Taking It Easy in Relaxed Rabat

The capital is rich in beauty and history but not tourists, which makes it hassle-free and open to casual exploring

November 05, 2000|JEFF KOEHLER | Jeff Koehler is a freelance writer in San Diego

RABAT, Morocco — I had spent the night in a faded hotel near the railway station here so that I could catch the first morning train to Fes. For many years I had dreamed of seeing Morocco, but my schedule allowed only eight days for highlights. So I'd planned a careful itinerary to get the most out of visits to the Middle Atlas Mountains and the historic towns of Fes and Meknes. Rabat was only a jumping-off point.

The hotel was dark and quiet when I made my way downstairs to leave. A locked chain held the front door shut. The night watchman, an old, green-eyed Berber who slept on a makeshift mattress behind the reception desk, wasn't there. When I found him on the top floor stoking the water heater with wood, it was too late.

I took a later train, but what I saw in a short morning walk in Rabat persuaded me to return for a longer look.

Rabat is a cosmopolitan city (population 1.2 million when counted with adjacent Sale), and although it is visited by tourists, not many spend much time here. It has been the capital since 1912, when Morocco became a French protectorate. Its location on a bluff where the Bou Regreg River meets the Atlantic Ocean made more strategic logic to the French than the previous, inland capital, Fes, and it was also less of a hotbed for radicals. In a departure from colonial practice, the French built their ville nouvelle, new city, abutting the medina, the old, walled city, not far away.

The new city was the part of Rabat that I first encountered outside the main railway station. (Rabat is a two-hour train ride from Casablanca, the usual port of entry for air travelers.) The feel of the quarter is European but more spacious, the grids more perfect. Sloping gently downhill toward the medina is the main boulevard, Avenue Mohammed V. It is wide, lined with fat palm trees, banks, salons de the, newspaper kiosks, travel agents and government buildings.

Here the tree-shaded, terraced cafe of the Ho^tel Balima is one of the city's most popular spots. This is where locals, expats and travelers meet, chat, people-watch and read the newspaper, all while drinking endless glasses of heavily sweetened fresh mint tea. Because the cafe lies within easy walking distance of the four most prominent historical sights on the south side of the city, as well as the medina and kasbah (fortress) to the north, it is the perfect place to study a guidebook and map, make sightseeing plans, jot notes in a journal or simply rest. I must have drunk a dozen glasses of tea doing all of the above.

Rabat had two imperial periods, the first at the end of the 12th century, the second at the end of the 18th. It was the first, under the rule of Sultan Yacoub al Mansour, that can be considered an age of glory. The ambition of this sultanate is best seen in the Hassan Tower, the unfinished minaret that remains the city's most visible landmark. Begun in 1194, it was intended to be the highest in the Muslim world, but the sultan died five years later, and construction stopped at 145 feet.

Next to this is another great monument, the Mausoleum of Mohammed V. King Hassan II built the ornately tiled tomb for his father, the first monarch of independent Morocco; it was completed in 1971. Last year Hassan was laid to rest there by his son, the young King Mohammed VI.

Flanked by photogenic royal guards in traditional, colorful uniforms, the mausoleum can be respectfully entered by non-Muslims. Inside, I stood for some time on the balcony above the tombs and listened to the reader below recite from the Koran.

A 15-minute walk south is the excellent Archeology Museum. Displays and artifacts extend from Morocco's ancient history to about the Middle Ages, but the focus is on its Roman past. I wished I had gone there before seeing some of the country's other ruins to gain a sharper historical context first.

Continuing south, just beyond the city walls, I visited the necropolis of Chellah. At the beginning of the 14th century the Merenids built royal tombs over the Roman settlement of Sala Colonia. The ruins of this complex were not uncovered until 1931. I spent some hours reading in the tranquil gardens, seemingly far from the city.

But it wasn't for the sights that I had come to Morocco. I had previously spent two years in Africa and another two in the Middle East and Asia, and was looking for that element that I loved most about being in those places: the assault on the senses. All the senses.

When I moved to Spain four years ago, I thought I would visit North Africa immediately. Morocco is only a two-hour plane ride from Barcelona, or a one-hour jet ferry ride across the Strait of Gibraltar. The two countries' histories and culture are deeply entwined, from the Moorish occupation of Iberia to the Christians' expulsion of Muslims (and Jews) and their settlement in northwest Africa. But my years in Spain passed, and trips were always to somewhere else.

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