Rabat, the capital city only since the French took over Morocco as a protectorate in the early 1900s, doesn’t have the impressive historical credentials of some of my previous explorations. It is, in short, not my favorite place in Morocco; the medina feels oddly regular (gridded) when compared with Marakesh and the Ville Novelle isn’t as classic as Casablanca or as shiny new as Marakesh. Coming just 48 hours after Berber villages and desert trecking it was a strange contrast of modernity wedded to discomfort. Part of that may be the fault of my hotel which was, according to the guide book, “a little past its best,” and, according to me, shabby, disheartening, and the opposite of what I wanted in the department of internet (none) and bedbugs (lots). Still, no place is entirely devoid of interest and I spent part of two days wandering around and exploring.
The Ville Nouvelle is relentlessly modern – in fact the category “International Modern” makes a lot more sense to me, architecturally, after visiting Morocco because I can see how consistent the style is in every localle – the same forms and details in LA, Utrecht and Rabat. The thing that sets Moroccan buildings apart is the detailing – the intricate carved and brickwork decorations find their way onto even the most modern of designs here.
The most interesting part of the city, to me, was the Kasbah des Oudaias, a walled area beyond the main medina and overlooking both the Atlantic and the formerly important river. The interior streets are lined with whitewashed buildings, their bases painted a brilliant ocean blue and the walls and gate complex are stunningly decorated and have a dramatic history. The twelfth century gate, the Bab Oudaia, is aesthetically stunning although when I entered it (now the adjacent building is a museum showing modern art) I was shown upstairs of the former Hall of Justice to the ancient prison and the guard, who spoke very little English, took me around the jail and demonstrated with gestures the various tortures that were inflicted in particular areas of the narrow halls: here people were strung up and chained to the wall, here, flogged, here, beheaded. It was somewhat gruesome. The contrast between that imagery and the picturesque tangle of streets and brilliant overlook at the end of them was striking.
I had to fend off a would be guide as I entered at the gate, a guy who started chatting politely and then continued to follow me pressing questions: where was I from, what languages did I speak etc, and then trying to tell me that the area was about to be closed and so I would need to hurry, he would be happy to show me, this way to the panoramic terrace. The closing seemed to be a complete lie, the direction he pointed to the terrace turned out to be wrong and his increasingly pushy manner was very off putting to me so I feel retroactively quite justified in fending him off. I stopped in the middle of the street, turned to him and said quite loudly “sir, please stop following me.” I really disliked doing that. It makes me feel like a horrible bitch but the lesser social cues I normally use to dispel unwanted stranger conversation do not work in Morocco. Mild rudeness seems the only recourse of the would-be solo traveler. Incidentally, I do not understand the tour sales tactic which I have heard repeated often here, that being shown around with a guide will go much more quickly – see everything in only an hour, madam, if you go alone it will take a long time. Does one fly internationally in order to get the sights of a foreign country out of the way as quickly as possible. For me the point IS to wander around for a long time. Ah well, clearly my sensibilities do not align with those of the informal guides OR with the theoretical tourists they are hoping to meet. I may not see everything but I enjoy my solitary rambles so much more.
After sitting and sketching in the fortifications I made my way back through the main Medina not taking too many photos because it was Friday afternoon and everywhere there were people gathered in and outside of mosques for prayer which made snapping photos of the crowd seem quite disrespectful. My pictures make it seem that the Medina is deserted but actually I only got my camera out when I found a (rare) empty street. I gathered up my bag and headed to the train station to move along and find a city I liked better than Rabat.