Suitcase and World: First taste of Morocco. Rabat.

Monday, December 19, 2011

First taste of Morocco. Rabat.

We may have just arrived into Casablanca but there's no rest for the travel weary! The itinerary for the day was to do a trip to Rabat and so we headed back to the train station and bought two 2nd class tickets for 35 dirhams each. We had about 40 minutes to wait and again, headed outdoors.

The train pulled into the station on time and we clamored on board, found two seats and settled back. Rabat lies north of Casablanca so pretty much all along the way, the train was running alongside the Atlantic Ocean. Inland was arid desert landscape.

As we sat on the train, I showed Soon the walking map that was in my National Geographic Traveller guidebook. I told him that since we only had half a day, we would have to cherry pick which places we wanted to see and I had three in mind - the Kasbah des Ouidias, the Hassan Tower and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V.  Simple itinerary and they looked pretty easy to get to....or at least I hoped they were.

"We're finally here! "
We arrived into Rabat around 11am. We exited the station and found ourselves standing alongside a very busy road. Although the map clearly laid out the walking route, there was no indication of where the train station was so we had not starting point. I told Soon that all three sights were located along the edge of the Oued Bou Regreg (Bou Regreg River) and since the street were standing was on a hill, that we should just walk in the downhill direction and so that’s what we did.

Eventually, we found a street sign posted up on the side of the building. We were on Blvd Mohammed V which is one of the main thoroughfares and luckily for us, part of the walking route. We followed the route, which did take us in the downhill direction, and along the way passed by several buildings that looked like administrative buildings of some sort.  Unfortunately, everything was labelled in Arabic and my guide book did not have any information so Soon snapped some photos but we just walked on by each one.

"First things first "
We soon found ourselves outside the walls of the old city. By now, my stomach was growling and so we decided to take our lunch break. We found a small restaurant that served meals in a small outdoor courtyard. It was too beautiful a day to sit inside. It was our first Moroccan meal. Soon had the classic tajine of chicken cooked with preserved lemons and olives and I had beef brochettes served with French fries. We each washed our meals down with freshly squeezed orange juice and for dessert, we had Moroccan mint tea. A very simple but tasty and satisfying lunch.

"Now the walk begins "
After lunch, we continued on our walking route with took us through the medina. Rabat’s medina does not have any charm to it…..looks like countless other markets I’ve been to in my life. Basically, every time of vendor selling every type of food and non-food item you can imagine. As usual, home goods and clothing hold no interest for me but the food sure does! Olives, spices, dates, freshly butchered meat, eggs, veggies, herbs, and Moroccan bread…..all looked so interesting.

Along the way, we passed through a covered area that seemed to be the leather souk….lots of shoes,  handbags, jackets and anything else that can be rendered in leather, for sale. Too early in the trip to shopping so Soon and I deliberately moseyed along. I have to say that the vendors here are not as aggressive as ones I’ve encountered in places like Istanbul and Cairo. Maybe it’s because we’re in low season at the moment but we really were not hassled much at all.

The medina blends into the Mellah which is the old Jewish quarter. Comparatively speaking, the Mellah is the poor part of town and you could definitely see the difference as you walk about. Everything is a bit more run down. Even the vendors seem less fortunate, many just selling a few items laid out on the ground. For some reason, I felt guilty about taking out my dSLR camera with its huge lens to snap photos so I refrained so I have no photos of the Mellah except for the entryway that leads to the “outside”.

"Get me to the Kasbah "As we exited the Mellah, I caught sight of a view that I had seen in my guidebook. Red stone walls fronting a hillside filled with whitewashed buildings, the minaret of the town’s mosque towering over the landscape. Excitedly, I told Soon it was the Kasbah des Ouidias!! We just had to figure out how to get inside. We walked towards the Kasbah and soon enough, I recognized another sight….its famous Bab.  Bab means gate and this is a beautiful carved one!

"Oh, this is going to be a challenge "Of course, we wanted to take photos and Soon has very specific ideas of how he wants his photos taken. He basically wants the full background and it doesn’t matter to him if he just appears as a speck. Okay….got that. Snap 1….no good. Feet too far apart. Snap 2…..still no good, feet still far apart. Snap 3….still no good, feet okay but not enough background. Photographer about to strangle subject! 9 million….okay that’s an over exaggeration of course but I snapped so many photos, I quickly lost count. Luckily, I eventually got one right and we were able to move on. Small victory for mankind, big victory for Julee!

"You must enter here"As we took more photos of the walls of the Kasbah, a local resident pointed out to us the entry in to the Kasbah, a relatively unassuming door compared to the more famous Bab. We passed through the doorway and were immediately greeted by one of the touts I had read about in pretty much all the guidebooks. These are the men that work as guides and can be aggressive when it comes to selling their services to you. The guy was talking to Soon and I was eavesdropping as he was instructing Soon to first go inside the residential area of the Kasbah and to leave the garden to the end.

Naturally, I walked towards the garden and kept walking. Pretending like I had spotted something interesting, I called out to Soon, waving my hands for him to come towards me, which of course he did.

That got us both away from the tout. Actually, we had stumbled into a pretty little garden….nothing fancy but it was nice to see the greenery.

There were palm trees and orange trees and wandering about, cats. We lingered a bit but I knew what was waiting for us in the residential area so we had to move on.

"Blue and white and sea beyond"We walked in the direction that the tout had pointed us to and passing through a narrow entry way, we found ourselves in a neighborhood filled with narrow, winding cobblestone streets and houses painted in shades of blue and white. A street musician greeted us as we entered in but we didn’t have tip money readily at hand so we made a mental note to tip him on our way out. The buildings here are just so eye catching in appearance; the upper half painted white and the lower half painted in some shade of bright blue.

Interestingly, the white part of the building walls in smooth plaster and the blue is nubbly. The tout had mentioned to Soon that we would have a great view from the top of the Kasbah so with every step we walked uphill. We had no idea which street to turn on to or where the “top of the Kasbah” was, we just keep going up. Up and up we went. Along the way, I snapped photo after photo of the houses and narrow streets. This is such a charming little place! At one point, Soon felt a breeze and he deduced that we were close to the top of the Kasbah. And he was right!

We eventually arrived at a large open space that fronted the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Oued Bou Regreg on the other. In the distance, I recognized the Hassan Tower and the Mausoleum with its distinctive white walls and green roof. Across the Oued Bou Regreg lies the community of Sale which basically is a suburb of Rabat. We took our time to soak in the views. The tout was right. It was worth the effort to find our way to the top of the Kasbah.

"Round 2 "On our way back down, I told Soon I wanted to have my picture taken with one of the narrow streets as the backdrop. Two shots later and I was done. Soon wanted the same so of course, I obliged with full knowledge of what I was getting myself into. Here we go again with all the different snapshots. Hands in wrong position, head crooked, legs too far apart, etc. Countless attempts later and I think I finally managed to get a shot Soon liked. I think he looks great in all the shots but that’s just my humble opinion. Here are all the shots… decide.

On our way out of the residential area, we left a one dirham tip for the musician who had greeted us on the way in.

"To where kings are buried "We soon left the Kasbah behind and with a quick check of the map, we started our walk to the Hassan II Tower and the Mausoleum. We walked along the Boulevard Tariq el Marsa and as soon as we had the opportunity to veer uphill, we did. Following our instincts and periodic sightings of the Tower, we soon found ourselves on the other side of a metal fence surrounding the Tower grounds.

We walked alongside the fence until we saw the two horsemen and then we knew we had arrived at the entrance to the Plaza where both the Hassan II Tower and the Mausoleum of Mohamed V are located. At the near end of the plaza was the Mausoleum and at the far end stood the Hassan Tower in all its unfinished glory.

"A tower that was to be a minaret "Fronting the Hassan II Tower were the 200 hundred stone pillars that would have supported the roof of the mosque which was planned to have been the largest one in the world at that time. I can only imagine what it would have been like that had Yaqub al-Mansour lived to oversee the completion of the construction effort.

Of course, I wanted to have my photo taken with the Tower in the background. Two snaps later and Soon was done. Then….., it was my turn behind the lens. By now, I had learned to ask Soon to frame the shot and I would just snap. Success!! Two shots and I was done! I’m slowly but surely getting used to the “Soon School of Photography”. Hoping to graduate before the trip is over. :-)

"A serene resting spot for a king "We wandered around the plaza and eventually made our way to the Mausoleum of Mohamed V.   It was a lot smaller than I had expected.  Of course, the last mausoleum I had visited was the Taj Mahal so that will give you an idea of what I was expecting.  For a king, it seemed relatively modest....a white stone building with a green roof.

This is one of the few Islamic buildings in Morocco that non-Muslims are allowed into so of course, we had to go inside. What an interior!!  Most definitely fit for a king! Every inch of the walls and ceiling was decorated with zellij tiles and gold painted marble. The ceiling was ornately carved wood.

Looking from above, we had a view of the tomb of Mohamed V which was situated on the floor level below.  The tombs of his two sons, King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah are also in the mausoleum.

There were four entrances leading in to the mausoleum. Armed guards were posted at each. A gentle breeze passed through the entries facing the ocean. If I were a king, I would want to be buried in this spot.  In its own way, it's a very serene location.

Located nearby the Mausoleum was another structure. The gate was closed so we couldn’t walk up to see it up close but my guess is that it is a place for royal family members and dignitaries, who are coming to pay their respects, to have a place to congregate.

"Who needs a map? "We meandered our way out of the plaza and back on to the streets of Rabat. We found ourselves standing in a residential neighborhood and with map to roughly guide us, started our walk back towards the train station. It was still daylight but we decided that we didn’t want to be wandering about Rabat in the dark so an early return to Casablanca would be good. By now, we had realized that street signs, whether painted on the sides of a building or on posts, are not a common thing in Morocco. So, we walked in the direction we thought we had to go in and did our best to guess which street we had to turn onto.

"Snack time! "After a bit of walking, we stumbled on a coffee shop. Though our brains had adjusted to the time zone differences, our stomachs had not quite and by now, my stomach was telling me it was close to lunch time and that I needed to eat something. Neither of us were really all that hungry but we decided to take a seat, rest our feet for a while and share a pizza… anchovy, olive, caper pizza to be exact. Washed down with mint tea. We took a table outside so we could watch the world go by.

Thanks to French influence, the small café tables here are positioned like the ones in Paris…..with each seat facing towards the street. After we paid our bill, I headed to the toilet and on my way back to our table, I asked the waiter what the name of the street was that we were on and what the name of the cross street was. Referring back to our, what we had determined to be by now a very crappy map, Soon and I quickly realized we had completely veered off on to another street. We obviously needed to make some corrections. Our first attempt took us further off path and we decided to cave in and ask for directions. Note #1. Few Moroccans speak English. Note #2. Julee can speak about 20 words of French – enough to ask a question like “Où est la Gare Rabat Ville?” Note #3. Julee does not know enough French to fully understand a response especially if it involves a lot of left and right turn sequences. So, having help is nice but not being able to make use of it is worthless :-)

So, we were back to following our own instincts and logic. This time, it paid off and after a bit of walking, we caught sight of the wall of the old city. Before long, we started to recognize the buildings and in no time, were back at the train station where we had started our visit to Rabat. Luck had been on our side all day and now was no exception. The clock read 17:45 (5:45pm) and there was a train leaving for Casa Port at 18:00 (6:00pm).

"Calling it a day
We bought our tickets and headed down to the platform. A train, bound for Marrakesh, was just getting ready to pull out so we knew that the next train in would be ours. A short while later, the train pulled in and we boarded and go into our seats. I remember being awake long enough for the conductor to come by and punch our tickets but seconds after he passed our cabin, they turned the overhead lights off. I closed my eyes and the next thing I remember was waking up and having the girl seated in front of me say Casa Port while nodding her head. We had arrived back!

We made our way back to the hotel and after a few minutes for a bathroom break, met back up in the lobby. It was dinner time! I have to admit, I love Moroccan food so meal breaks are always welcomed! :-)

"Dinner! "We had no idea where to eat but I knew where the main streets were so we decided to walk in the direction of one, figuring we would find a place to eat somewhere along the way. Bingo! We stumbled on a restaurant that served Moroccan cuisine which was exactly what we were looking for so we headed on in. The maitre’d led us upstairs to a table that seated four. The waiter delivered to us a small basket of French bread rolls and a small bowl of black olives to munch on. We ordered lemon juice as our drinks. Here the juice is freshly squeezed and the lemon is so pucker, it makes you squish your face as you sip it. They serve it with a small packet of sugar. Sugar helps and with that, the drink is actually very flavorful. I savored every sip. It didn’t take long for us to decide what we wanted to eat. Soon had enjoyed his tajine at lunch time so much that he wanted another helping. This time though he opted for another Moroccan classic – lamb with prunes and almonds. I ordered Crevettes Pil Pil which is shrimp with a slightly spicy, garlicky tomato sauce. Our dishes came quickly. Compared to American plates, there’s not a lot of food on a Moroccan plate but it’s more than enough to fill you. Soon’s tajine looked tasty and he devoured every bit, sopping up all the sauce with the bread. My shrimp was a small bowl. Not the freshest of shrimp but enough to satisfy my taste buds.

 On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at a neighborhood mom and pop store to buy water and some snacks…..chocolate wafer cookies to be exact. :-)

"I'm pooped "Back at the hotel, I left Soon in the lobby where he had access to free wi-fi. It had been a really, really long day and I was tired. All I wanted to do was shower and get into bed. Of course, I was still too excited to really fall asleep quickly so I decided to write up the blog post for the trip so far. And what a trip it has been!! Aaron and Mildred arrive tomorrow and I can’t wait for them to join us so we can explore a bit of Casablanca before we head off to Fes.  It's been an awesome first day but I need to make sure I rest well because tomorrow will be another long day.  So, good night!