Monday 11 December 2023

Rabat and Salé Part 1

There is so much to say about Rabat and Salé, that I don't really know where to start. The history, the architecture, the people, the food, all were absolutely amazing and made us fall in love with Rabat and Salé even more than when we first set eyes on her sailing up the River Bou Regreg.

To set the context of our stay in Rabat and Salé, below is a potted history which will provide a background to some of the places visited and photos I'll share.

Rabat has a very chequered past. As far back as the 8th century BCE, both Phoenicians and Romans set up trading posts along the River Bou Regreg. Building what is now the city of Salé started inthe 10th century A.D. and as Salé started to prosper, Rabat fell into decline.

With the arrival of the Almohads in the 12th century Rabat saw a brief resurgence as an imperial capital and Al Mansour added Bab Oudaia to the kasbah and began work on the Hassan Mosque, which he intended to be the greatest mosque in all of the Islamic world. Al Mansour's death brought an end to the grandiose scheme and left Hassan Mosque incomplete but standing tall and proud to this day.  The city then lost its significance until the 17th Century.

Hassan Mosque

As Muslim refugees fled Christian Spain in the 17th century, so did a band of Christian renegades and Moorish pirates. Rabat and Salé became a safe haven for them. Dubbed as the Sallee Rovers, they marauded as far as the coast of North America, capturing Spanish gold, and Cornwall in England capturing Christian slaves. They continued attacking European shipping well into the 19th century.

In 1912, under French rule, France shifted power away from Fez and Marrakesh to Rabat and since then it has remained the seat of Government and official residence of the King.

With so much history, there was a lot to explore. Would one month in Rabat and Salé be long enough?

I could talk about Rabat and Salé forever. But I will give a brief synopsis of our highlights and post more photos on a separate blog for those that want to see more detail.

Starting with history, the stand out for me was the the Kasbah des Oudaias. Built in the 12th century and occupying the original fortress-monastery, it sits on the shores of the River Bouregreg and was the first building we saw when entering the river. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the entrance is through the dramatic Almohad gate of Bab Oudaia which was built in 1195. The Kasbah is predominately residential with narrow streets lined with whitewashed houses and the views over to Salé and the Atlantic Ocean are spectacular.

We had a wonderful time exploring the old Kasbah. We took time to talk with the locals who were selling their wares, meandering the streets and admiring whitewashed houses which reminded us of pueblo blancos in Spain and once at the central plaza at the top of the village, we spent time looking out to sea, watching the surfers make the most of the waves caused by recent high seas and reflecting on our journey and adventure so far. It truly was a magical place!

At the southern end of the Kasbah are the Andalusian Gardens. Created by the French at the beginning of the 20th century and complimenting the Spanish feel to the Kasbah, the aim was to imitate an Spanish type garden. Organised into rectangular parts, each containing ponds and fountains the gardens are full of citrus trees, lofty palms and vibrant bougainvillaea.

We spent a contemplative hour wandering around the gardens, enjoying the shade from the sun and the smells from flowers and plants. To think that this is set next to a busy main road, but provides a haven of peace and tranquillity.

The architecture in Rabat is truly spectacular. Every where you go, there are buildings with intricate carvings, monuments, sculptured archways and doors, bright mosaics and so much more. I was in my element, wandering around trying to capture everything on camera, with Mark waiting patiently for me to finish. But, one of my favourites has to be the Mausoleum of Mohammed V which sits on a hilltop overlooking the River Bou Regreg. To reach the monument, we had to cross the river so we decided to walk over the bridge, mainly so we could appreciate the views. To our left were views down the river and towards the sea and to our right the new buildings of the Grand Theatre and the impressive sky scraper that is still under construction and once across the bridge, we had views of our marina.

So, on a bright and sunny morning we headed off. We were not disappointed. The contrast of ancient and modern was stunning.

The Mausoleum of Mohammed V was designed by Vietnamese architect Cong Vo Tan and carved in white marble. It is decorated with great examples of Moroccan craftmanship including spectacular mosaic tiles, carved plaster and a ceiling covered in gold leaf. As the present King's father and grandfather are laid to rest there, royal guards watchover the tombs in traditional dress and a reader of the Quran is usually present in the lower chamber.

Entering the grounds of the Mausoleum, there is a respectful silence, which adds to the solemnity of the place and whilst it is not a religious building, there is an expectation that visitors show respect. Visiting the Mausoleum was quite an experience. Having seen some extremely poor areas of the country, to now witness the opulence provided for two men seemed quite unjust, but we are mere guests in this country and it is not for us to judge and it was pretty damn spectacular!

One of the things that really struck us about Rabat was the number of art galleries and cultural centres. But, given that it is the capital city of Morocco and home to the King and many foreign embassies, it shouldn't have come as a surprise. We could have quite easily spent all our time visiting the art galleries, but with so much else to see, we were pretty restrained.

The stand out art gallery that we visited was the Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. Opened in 2014 by the current King, it contains permanent displays from Moroccan artists dating from the 1950s to the present.

It was pretty awesome to discover new artists and some of the art on display was quite breath taking. Mark declared himself a new fan of Fatima Hassan el Farouji and Ahmed Louardiri but was blown away by the striking contemporary work of Hossein Miloudi who he now rates alongside one of his other heroes of art, Joan Miro. He returned twice to stand in front of the Miloudi works, taking them in.

Teresa's favourites...

...and Mark's...

Our final place of note on our exploration of Rabat, has to be the Roman ruins at Chellah. Set on a hilltop above the River Bou Regreg, the ruins laid abandoned until the 14th century when a Sultan built necropolis on top of the Roman site. As it overlooks the river, it provides you with spectacular views and a real contrast of the old against the new (the sky scraper).

When we arrived at the site we were disappointed to find that it was closed for further renovation work, but a local guide introduced himself and offered to take us on a tour via a hill at the back of the site that would provide us with spectacular views into the roman ruins.

As it is set amongst fertile land (it's very green and damp), it is a popular breeding ground for around 100 pairs of Storks, nesting three or four high amongst the ruins and precariously perched on trees.

It was a pretty damn spectacular site and one that I shall explore properly on my return to Rabat.


Rabat and Salé really are different in every conceivable aspect. On the one hand, you have a very cosmopolitan City that is obviously enjoying a huge amount of investment and then on the other side of the river, you have Salé, a tourist free city where life appears to be unchanged for centuries. However, what Salé lacks for in terms of culture and investment, the people of the city more than made up for in kindness.

Once a thriving town in its own rights, when Rabat was made the capital city of Morocco, Salé sunk into an obscurity from which it is only now emerging. With investment in a new marina with quayside apartment blocks, restaurants and cafes it is starting to benefit from investment and tourists. But, cross the road from the marina and you are into the walled medina of Salé where life is geared to the working people and the attractions for tourists are few. We loved it!!

Most of our time spent in Salé was very functional. Shopping, walking, eating and general life activity.

The marina was really nice, good showers (though sometimes lacking hot water), very safe and secure (24/7 security guards and armed police on hand guarding King Mohammed VI's boats), well sheltered from storms, friendly staff, mooring prices half those in Spain. But what made it for us was the night time views when strolling the promenade. Full of bars and restaurants, it was jolly but not lairy and had a fun family feel about it as most venues didn't sell alcohol and shut their doors at midnight. There were lots of singalongs to live bands in the restaurants but, neither of us really warmed to Moroccan music.

I got to know the staff in our local supermarket very well as I visited it most days. There was always a warm welcome and smile and they could not do enough for you. Towards the end of my stay, I was on first name terms with them and although language was a barrier, with the help of Google Translate, we had conversations about family, life in England and Morocco and of course food.

Even after I had gone back to England, when Mark visited the supermarket, they would ask after me. And, when he turned up in his Hakim Ziyech Moroccan football shirt, there was a 30 minute conversation about football, then family (''do you have a son? I have an unmarried daughter''), food, what he thinks of Morocco (''the nicest people on Earth'') and more about family. He'd only gone in for onions!

It wasn't just the people we met in daily life that were kind and pleasant, but complete strangers. We went to the medina a few times for shopping or to go to the bank and walking down the streets, invariably somebody would say hello to you or if you were in a queue, they would just start chatting to you. They didn't want anything, other than to pass the time of day with you. Mark recalls a number of times in the streets of Sale , busy on some chore, a man would shout a cheery 'bonjour m'sieu' and, focussed on his chore, he'd be five metres past before realising it was for him and go back, put his hand on his chest and apologise for his rudeness and return the greeting.

Our most notable memory of Salé has to be a restaurant we visited in the heart of the medina. Mark had found it on the internet and it had really good reviews, so we thought why not. I was returning to England in a couple of days, so this was our swansong meal.

Located in a scuzzy backstreet is O Saveurs de la Medina, a Moroccan restaurant set in a Riad (a small hotel in a converted house.) Mark had called and made a reservation, but when we arrived, the iron gate in front of the the front door was locked so we had to ring the bell on the intercom. We both looked at each other, my eyes saying 'are you sure of this' and Mark's eyes saying 'get ready to run'. But, as we entered the building we were completely blown away by the inside.

It was the most beautiful restaurant I'd set eyes on. Never mind what the food was like, this was a feast for our eyes. The architecture, the colours, the tiles, the carvings, all were mind blowing.

Fortunately, the food was absolutely delicious and they served a delightful Moroccan wine. A real bonus as not that many do. And to top it off, there was a musician who played some of the most soulful Moroccan guitar music we had heard. The flamenco link was unmistakable

It was a perfect evening to end our stay in Rabat and Salé and was topped off by our taxi ride home!

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