So many of you know that I was planning to travel to Lebanon and Tunisia this year. Unfortunately, a little saber rattling by the US changed my plans two weeks ago. So instead of flying to Beruit on September 25, 2013, I found myself on a flight from Seattle to London to Casablanca. My flight to London was uneventful although I had an enjoyable “pod” partner. A young woman from Prague who was interesting to say the least. I am pretty sure most of the men on my flight were pisssed they were not in my seat.
So, once in London, I had the pleasure of changing terminals. Anyone who has flown to Heathrow knows what I mean. Talk about a cluster…. To get from Terminal 5 to Terminal 4 you have to walk a mile to the Heathrow Express, get on the train as if you are going to London, wait forever for it to leave, travel one stop, get off the train, cross the platform, get on another train and head back in the direction you just came from, get off the train and then walk several blocks, get on a “lift” and voila …. made it. Fortunately, I had 5 hours to kill. How anyone with only an hour between flights can make it is beyond me.
Anyway, one Royal Air Maroc flight later and I was in Casablanca. My lovely driver, Kareem (no relation to Abdul Jabar) met me and off we went on an hour and a half drive to Rabat, the capital of Morroco since 1912 (and one of the four so called “Imperial Cities with the others being Meknes, Fes and Marrakesh, which have also been the capital of Morocco at one time or another). By the time I checked into my lovely Riad (a Riad is a old mansion converted into a boutique hotel and they are everywhere in ) it was 12:30 a.m. Morocco time and I was running on two days with very little sleep. I collapsed in my comfy bed and the next thing I knew I could hear some guy singing. In my sleep induced haze I failed to realize it was the call to prayer. I don’t know if it was part dream or what, but from what I recall the guys was really, really good and actually sang before the start of the call. I’m rather bummed that I was not fully awake to appreciate the whole experience because it seemed like it was really awesome.
Now a little bit about Morocco. It is a strange confluence of Middle Eastern and French culture. The Moroccans learn two languages growing up so everyone speaks Arabic and French. What results is this strange “Frenarbic” (think Spanglish) hyrbrid. The plus side for me … I can parlez a bit of Francais … the downside I can’t understand the hybrid. The other plus, though. The food is a mix of French and Middle Eastern cuisine. For example breakfast in Rabat consisted of yoghurt, honey, bananas, mint tea (too sweet), jams and coissants and a cheese omelet. YUM!!!
Anyway, once I was up and had breakfast, I felt like a new woman. Kareem picked me up at 9:00 and we were off on a day of exploring Rabat, Volubiliss, Moulay Idriss and Meknes before arriving in Fes for the night.
We made our way on foot from the Riad through the very narrow streets of the Medina (a Medina is the old quarter of a middle eastern city) to the car and off we went. First up was a car tour of Rabat. We followed the Medina outer wall around the city through Rabat. (Medinas are wallled because they typically date back to the early centuries and needed walls to protect against invaders. I am actually thinking of putting a wall around my office ….)
Anyway, the car trip was nice, but quite frankly there was nothing on the surface that really made Rabat stand out. It was a very typical capital city with lots of wide boulevards, manicured gardens and many, many government buildings. That is until we had to show all kinds of ID to get into the”inner” government section of the city where the Royal Palace, office buildings, and the King’s childrens’ school is situated. Morocco is actually a democratic monarchy … the Moroccans elect ministers who are delegated some power by the King. It seems to work … for now….
All commentary and politics aside, the inside of the “sanctum” was another world. It looked like a magnificent park with perfectly constructed Moorish style buildings. At one point I got out of the car and was able to walk within 50 yards of the palace gate. I would have kept walking, but some guys with large weapons waved me back and since I didn’t feel like being arrested, I did as they requested.
We left the palace compound and moved on to what turned out to be the highlight of the day for me … Chellah: the site of Moroccan ruins (dating to 800 AD) and Roman ruins (dating to 200 BC). Most who are acquainted with me know that a day spent in ruins is a day of sheer bliss. Anyway, Chellah literally jumps out at you as you round a bend in the road appearing as a huge walled fortress, but once inside the site was smaller than appearances, but entirely impressive.
The primary ruins consisted of a large stone and tile minaret (dominated by a stork’s nest complete with stork) and the sanctuary, which consisted of a maze of tombs and ruins that were once a mosque and monastery. The mosque featured a beautiful mihrab (the tall structure inside a mosque that indicates the direction of Mecca) and the remains of a series of walled rooms. I wandered down the dirt path through the ruins, past a ancient stone pond (and dozens of laughing, chatty school children) and through a garden where I could see the back side of the mihrab, which was almost entirely intact with spectacular calligraphy inscriptions in Arabic.
I walked back up the hill through the Roman ruins, including the remains of an arch, a number of pillars, a temple and come kind of home or building. My kind of site!
As I was leaving the site, I noticed tents being erected everywhere and grandstands under construction. I learned that there was a royal wedding the next day: the son of the King of Morocco (not the crown prince) was to be married to a princess from United Arab Emirates. (I was going to stick around and attend, but I forgot to bring my fancy clothes…)
After Chellah we made a stop at the Hassan Mosque and Tower, which was constructed in 1195 AD and was the focal point of a huge square. Most of the mosque was destroyed in the earthquake of 1755 (which centered in Lisbon, Portugal and destroyed that city). As a result, the only remaining structure is a very large square tower/minaret (which is very unusual as all the minarets I have ever seen are circular). While the tower was impressive, it was hard to get a really good look at because a large fence prevented me from going anywhere close to the structure. I wandered back in the opposite direction and climbed a very steep set of stairs to the mausoleum of Mohammed V, the father of democracy in Morocco. The King died in 1961 and is the grandfather of the present King. The mausoleum was made entirely of marble and was guarded by four men in funny green uniforms and unlike the “shush” police who guard Lenin’s Tomb these guys seemed oblivious to chatter (although most people were speaking in whispers).
The final stop in Rabat was The Kasbah des Oudaias, built in 1195 on a cliff overlooking the Oued Bou Regreg (river). Now I, quite frankly, did not have the foggiest idea what a Kasbah actually was until I visited the site. All that I knew was that The Clash penned the song Rock the Casbah in 1982 and based on the lack of excitement going on at the Kasbah des Oudaias, the ban on rock music written about in the song actually happened at this Kasbah.
Rock music or not, I actually learned that a Kasbah is a fortified residential area, with some shops and restaurants. (In the southern part of Morocco a Kasbah is actually a fortified residence.) This Kasbah, as I mentioned, was a pretty tame spot … a bunch of twisting, narrow alleyways, a couple shops, a sad looking musician who struck up the band every time a tourist passed and a very pretty restaurant called Cafe Maure overlooking the waterway. Kareem decided to join me for a walk through the Kasbah and we ended up having mint tea at Cafe Maure.
Mint tea appears to be a national obsession in Morocco and if you ever decide to visit and order the tea … ask for tea “sans sucre” unless you like eating a cup of sugar. Oh my God! It was all I could do to choke it down. And to top it off, I was offered a little honey filled cookie to go with my tea. Now I have a horrible sweat tooth, but I am pretty sure between the tea and the cookie, I was close to a sugar comma. Jeesh. I clearly missed the tea briefing in the guidebooks, but I won’t be making the mistake again.
While we were sitting eating our sugar, I noticed the most unusual site I have seen in a Muslim country: a Muslim man and woman arm in arm walking through the cafe. Why was this unusual you ask? Well it is typically frowned upon in Muslim countries to show public displays of affection. It was just another example, though, of the French influence on the country.
Anyway, after the sugar high, we wandered through the backside of the Kasbah in what surely was the highlight of the area: formal Andalusian gardens with deep sunken flower beds, flowers, herbs and fruit trees. It was simply beautiful.
It was early afternoon when we left Rabat and headed down the road in the direction of Fes. We would be stopping at Volubilis and Meknes before arriving in Fes in time for dinner. Onwards we go.