Exploring Rabat, Morocco's picturesque capital
With Michael Osborne
Hands up who thought that Casablanca was the capital of Morocco?
Well, Morocco's capital is Rabat, which is on the Bou Regreg River and adjoins the Atlantic Ocean. It's known for architecture that salutes its Islamic and French-colonial heritage.
The tour takes us to the majestic Hassan Tower. . The city's iconic 12th-century minaret, which towers above the ruins of a mosque. Unmissable, it’s been the symbol of Rabat for eight centuries. It remained unfinished after the death of its founder in 1199, but its solitary splendour overlooking the river amid a wasteland of broken columns is eerily poignant.
Facing the tower is the sumptuous marble Mausoleum of King Mohammed V, grandfather of the current King, who died in 1961 (free entry). Unusually, non-Muslims are permitted to visit its hallowed interior, patrolled by royal guards and draped in heraldic banners.
We were lucky enough to be there to witness the changing of the guards. The superb horses and the brilliantly attired guards create a visual spectacle that really had the cameras clicking away
Next was the oldest part of Rabat - Kasbah des Oudaias. Ancient narrow stone stairs between brightly painted white and blue walls of houses. Hassan takes us on a wonderful walk through the maze of alleys, along stone paving that has been worn down by many hundreds of years of pedestrian traffic.
This wonderful journey of discovery continues as we board our coach and head east towards Fes, as the locals know it, not Fez as often seen.
Fes El-Bali is the oldest walled part of the city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Enter through the archways of the stunning Bab Boujloud (Blue Gate) and you’ll get a sense of what lies ahead in the 19th-century medina.
The medina is one of the world’s largest urban car-free zones. Here, mules, donkeys and pedestrians flow steadily through the streets. Hassan warns us to listen sharply for the call, ‘Balak - ’Balak’ as we negotiate the Medina: it’s the cry of the porters who transport, on trolleys, all the goods to the hundreds of shops. Balak is a warning to cling to the wall as the porters make their way.
Fez is also famous for its leather products and most of it comes from the leather bazaar (souq). The souq is home to three ancient leather tanneries, the largest and oldest being the Chouara Tannery, which is almost a thousand years old.
Fez’s tanneries are composed of numerous stone vessels filled with a vast range of dyes and various liquids spread out like a tray of watercolours. The tanneries processes the hides of cows, sheep, goats and camels, turning them into high quality leather products such as bags, coats, shoes, and slippers. This is all achieved manually, without the need for modern machinery, and the process has barely changed since medieval times, which makes these tanneries absolutely fascinating to visit. Well, besides the odours!
The hides are first soaked in a mixture of cow urine, quicklime, water, and salt. The hides are then soaked for two to three days after which tanners scrap away excess hair fibres and fat in order to prepare the hides for dyeing. The hides are then soaked in another set of vats containing a mixture of water and pigeon droppings. This contains ammonia that acts as softening agents that allows the hides to become malleable so they can absorb the dye.
Our accommodation for the next three nights is in a Riad, which is like a small palace, with a central courtyard and fountains. The rooms are all en-suite and our meals are served in the courtyard, which has rewarding views over the valley and across to the Medina.
Historic City of Meknes
Founded in the 11th century by the Almoravids as a military settlement, Meknes became a capital under Sultan Moulay Ismaïl (1672–1727), the founder of the Alawite dynasty. The sultan turned it into a impressive city in Spanish-Moorish style, surrounded by high walls with great doors, where the harmonious blending of the Islamic and European styles of the 17th century Maghreb are still evident today.
The ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis are the main tourist attraction for Meknes. This is Morocco's most famous Roman remnant and for good reason. Sitting atop a hill, with the countryside rolling out below, the surviving columns and temple fragments of Volubilis are an impressive, and powerfully atmospheric, site. Although much that has been unearthed here is now on display in Rabat's Archaeology Museum, many of the gorgeous and intricate floor mosaics in Volubilis' grand Roman villas have been left in-situ, giving you a taste of the grandeur of wealthy Roman life.
The city's heyday was AD 24-285 when it served as capital for the Roman province, and most of the ruins date from this period of prosperity. Of particular interest are the House of Orpheus, the House of the Athlete, and the House of the Labors of Hercules, with their particularly well-preserved mosaics.
Bab al-Mansour is the main gate between Meknes' Medina and Imperial City districts. It's an immense and highly photogenic structure that many experts proclaim as one of North Africa's finest examples of surviving gateways. Finished in 1732, it was built by Sultan Moulay Ismail (though completed after his reign). The intricate architectural detail on the gateway includes lavish use of tiling and carving work. Today, the gate isn't actually open, instead you enter and exit through a neighbouring, much smaller side gate. This allows you to fully admire the gate's artistry unheeded by traffic.
Camping in the Sahara
All aboard our coach and the group is very animated as we chat about the wonders we have seen. Most were slightly disappointed that we didn’t have time to fully inspect the roman ruins. But then again, we are heading for the town of Merzouga, where we will hop into our four wheel drives and be driven deep into the Sahara Desert for an overnight stay in tents. We are going to be waited on like Berber Princes by La Belle Etoile Tents.
Why not have a look at all the other award winning adventures with Back Roads Touring : https://backroadstouring.com/
Images: Michael Osborne (Click on them to enlarge)
Our guide, Hassan, relating the history
Changing of the guard
Mausoleum of King Mohammed V
Peter relaxing by the pool in our Riad
The Palace Gates
Hassan in Meknes