After a fantastic first day in Morocco exploring my friend Hiba’s home city of Casablanca, day two brought a different city. The plan was to head to the nearby capital of Rabat, partly just to see it because why not and partly to visit another friend from China who lives there. While I was in Casablanca I was staying in her family home which was a really lovely experience. I already felt very welcomed in Morocco just by virtue of how warm and friendly the people are but there’s something about being in a family environment that adds an extra element to that. This is where I was really glad to be able to speak French as her parents don’t speak English and I obviously don’t speak Arabic (although I made an effort during the week to learn a few words). Hiba and her mum prepared us a lovely breakfast of bread, m’semen (the Moroccan pancakes), mini pastries and madeleines, eggs, coffee and orange juice.
Rabat is two hours from Casablanca by train (40-50 dirhams or about £4, 1 hour if you get the express train) so we went for a day trip from Casablanca. Rabat is the capital of Morocco (not Marrakesh like many people think, myself included). From 1912, Rabat was the administrative centre of the French protectorate and has been the capital since the country achieved its independence in 1955. It is further north along the coast from Casablanca but isn’t a particularly important port, relying more on tourism and the fact that all of Morocco’s embassies are situated there for its importance. It is also one of the four imperial cities in Morocco, the historical capitals of the country, along with Marrakesh, Fez and Meknes.
Our first stop was the Kasbah des Oudayas which is an old military fortress and the oldest part of the city built in the 12th century. It is now a residential district that overlooks the mouth of the Bou Regreg river which also acts as the division between Rabat and the neighbouring city of Salé. There are houses, shops, a gallery, food spots and a popular cafe within the walls and all the buildings are painted white and blue. Like elsewhere in Morocco, there are also cats roaming everywhere you look! We wandered through the streets, admiring the cute nooks and crannies and beautifully painted doors. Our aim was to find Cafe Maure, a well known spot where you can enjoy the panoramic views across the river. It is decorated in an Andalusian style and was renovated in 2021. The cafe is a little difficult to find, being tucked away in a corner of the Kasbah but it is well worth it. Just ask someone as you make your way through the streets or follow anyone who you think looks like a tourist and has a better sense of direction than you! Hiba and I were joined for our cup of very sweet mint tea by an equally sweet black cat that reminded me of my own. We had some biscuits with our tea, a selection of traditional Moroccan styles including cornes de gazelles or gazelle horns. These are crescent shaped parcels filled with cinnamon, almonds and orange blossom water and Hiba’s personal favourite. I don’t know what they were called but my favourites were some more lemony ones covered in icing sugar. After a while enjoying the view from Cafe Maure, we walked back out of the Kasbah via Bab er-Rouah, a gorgeous decorative gate whose name translates to ‘Gate of the Winds’ after the Atlantic winds that sweep through Rabat.
The Kasbah des Oudayas is right next to the medina where we headed next. The medina in Rabat is actually a UNESCO World Heritage site. A friend from Rabat had been to a really interesting art exhibition the day before that we were trying to find. One of the streets at the edge of the medina had been transformed into Gal•Rue, a play on the French words ‘galerie‘ and ‘rue‘ which means street. There had been beautiful carpets laid down and the sides of the street were lined with a range of artwork displayed on easels. We walked from there, down through a market that was quieter than the one I had seen in Casablanca, and arrived at the marché central.
We wanted to go to Hassan Tower and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, both contained within the same courtyard at the top of Rabat with guards on horses at the entrances and lots of flags lining the walls. Hassan Tower is the minaret of an incomplete mosque started near the end of the 12th century. The tower was intended to be the tallest minaret in the world and the mosque would have been the largest in the western Muslim world at the time. Instead the tower stands at 44m and only a few walls and 348 columns were constructed for the mosque. Apparently the beginnings of the mosque used to be a little more visible until the courtyard around them was built. On the other side of the courtyard from Hassan Tower is the Mausoleum of Mohammed V containing the tomb of King Mohammed V (1909-1961) and his two sons, including the previous king, Hassan II (1929-1999). It was designed by Vietnamese architect Cong Vo Toan and pays tribute to traditional Moroccan styles and techniques as well as Mohammed V’s efforts to promote this craftsmanship as part of Morocco’s sense of identity. We took some silly pictures with the tower and had a little peek into the mosque and then went in search of a taxi.
We had a quick stop at St Peter’s Cathedral, an art deco cathedral from the start of the 20th century in the centre of Rabat. We did a lap around the inside where we could hear a choir practising which was kind of surreal. The cathedral is right next to one of Rabat’s tram lines so we hopped on there to head to lunch in the Agdal neighbourhood. We were meeting another friend that Hiba and I know from our time in China, Cheima. She had suggested Dar Naji, a restaurant with traditional Moroccan food. One of Hiba’s friends, Rania, joined us from Casablanca for lunch and the rest of the afternoon as well. She would also be coming with us for the rest of the week’s adventures in Marrakesh and to the desert. It was great to see Cheima and catch up after a few years. On top of that, as soon as I met Rania I knew that we were going to get along and have a lot of fun over the next few days. I decided to order another Moroccan dish that I hadn’t tried yet, rfissa prestige. This was possibly my favourite dish that I tried in the whole week! It was chicken on shredded m’semen (the Moroccan pancake) with onions, boiled eggs, figs, prunes and a broth of ginger, coriander, saffron and ras el hanout, a common spice blend in North Africa. It was far too big a portion for me but I powered through as much as I could because it was so delicious!
After a lovely lunch and a good catch up with Cheima, Hiba, Rania and I headed to our final stop of the day, the Chellah. A medieval, fortified, Muslim necropolis on the edge of the city, the Chellah was built in the first century BC by the Phoenicians of modern day Lebanon to serve as a trading post. It was later the Roman colony Sala Colonia and finally occupied by the Marinid Sultanate from the 13th century until it was abandoned in the 15th century. It was damaged by an earthquake in the 18th century and was left untouched until archaeological excavations uncovered the town in the 20th century. Today you can see the forum, the mosque, Roman baths and a cemetery.
It turns out that the Chellah has been closed since before covid so it’s no longer possible to enter the walls and have a look around. Hiba and Rania found this out by talking to one of the security guards and he told us that even if we couldn’t go into the compound, he could show us a spot around the back where we would be able to at least see within the walls. Once again, it’s one of those situations that’s not nearly as dodgy as it sounds. Hussein, the security guard, was actually lovely and as well as taking us around to the viewpoint and telling us some bits of history, he also insisted on being our photographer! He was directing, stopping us at all the best spots and taking multiple pictures. The walk up the hill was a little steep but not too long and definitely worthwhile seeing as you can’t see the Chellah properly. Hussein also pointed out quite a few stork nests around the site which I thought was a funny Alsace-Morocco crossover as storks are also a symbol of the region I live in in France!
At this point, we had been out all day and done lots of walking in the heat. The temperature was high 20s, low 30s most of the time I was in Morocco, slightly cooler in Casablanca and Rabat on the coast but at least Marrakesh wasn’t so humid if a bit hotter! Still, it all built up to the point that we were very tired. We got the train back to Casablanca and had dinner at Hiba’s, some soup and sausages, before buying our train tickets to Marrakesh the next day and crashing out to sleep!
This is a slightly shorter blog post by my standards although I’m still glad that I split it from the Casablanca post or that would have been an almost 5000 word behemoth! As a result I want to take this chance to talk a little bit about the language. I’ve already said that I don’t speak Arabic (I haven’t quite gotten around to it on my list of languages to learn!) but I obviously speak French pretty well at this point. Saying that, I didn’t have to use it that much. Seeing as I spent almost all my time with Hiba, other than getting myself from the airport into Marrakesh and Marrakesh to Casablanca, I relied on her Arabic to get me around which was actually a nice change from being the one in charge of the organisation and leading the trip. At the same time, I don’t like to go anywhere without being able to say a few words in the local language because I think not making the effort shows a lack of respect for where you are.
Now, if you know anything about Arabic you’ll know that as widely spoken as Arabic is, there is a lot of variation among its many speakers. Moroccan Arabic, more commonly known by Moroccans as Darija, is a particularly distinct form of Arabic. Because it is so different from standard Arabic, speakers from other countries tend to have more difficulty understanding Darija than most other versions of Arabic, although Moroccans don’t have the same problem understanding others. Much of Darija’s vocabulary is influenced by classical Arabic, Berber or Amazigh languages as well as some French and Spanish.
Now here’s a few words for you in Darija so that you are ready for when (not if) you go to Morocco!
Salam – hi/hello (سلام)
Besslama – goodbye (بسلامة)
3afak – please (عفاك)
- The three is used to represent the letter ع which doesn’t have an equivalent in English. The sound it makes is similar to a nasal A or E. Other numbers are used for other letters that don’t have an English equivalent.
Chokran – thank you (شكرا)
Bezzaf – a lot (بزاف)
- Chokran bezzaf – thank you very much
Ahh – yes (اه)
La – no (لا)
Bghit – I want (breet) (بغيت)
Atay – Moroccan tea (very important word in Morocco!) (اتاي)
Bghiti atay? – Do you want tea? (breeti) (بغيت اتاي)
I couldn’t believe how much we packed into each day when I was there but looking back and writing these blogs, I don’t know how my feet didn’t fall off! To be fair, I did finish these first two days pretty exhausted but so very, very happy. I felt a real attachment to Morocco from the moment I arrived. I have no doubt that much of that was to do with the people I met, those I knew as well as those I didn’t, but it also has this incredible energy that I loved! It’s a little chaotic, it’s not pristine, but it’s interesting and exciting! Hopefully that’s coming across in what I’ve written and what I’ve still got to share. Next up – Marrakesh!