By Antonio Malara
Rabat was the last stop on a trip made together with my sister and a group that led me to discover Morocco in January 2019. We reached Rabat in the evening, on a journey of about two hours starting from Meknès, a city that we had visited during that day. Rabat was famous for being the capital of Morocco but beyond that, I personally only knew about the Qasba because I had seen some very beautiful pictures of a person who had been there. I had also seen photos of the “Grand Théâtre de Rabat” designed by Zaha Hadid that they were building, a work that respected his style but as a construction site, I was sure that we would not see it. For the rest I had studied the city very little, however during the visit to Marrakech the guide had intrigued me a lot by talking about the Hassan II tower, twin of the Koutoubia and the Giralda of Seville. Mainly I was excited about the tower and curious about the Kasbah but I didn't know any other particular details and what to see in the city. In general I had a positive mood about Rabat but I must say that our arrival inside the city left me a little perplexed. Before arriving at our hotel, the driver passed through a neighborhood that to say was like and horror show. It looked like the Hill Valley of the alternate future, the one where Biff Tannen ruled the city! From the bus I saw scruffy kids with hard faces, in blocks with ruined houses, broken cars and even a bus with broken windows that looked like it had been stormed by a commando. Luckily that sad and dangerous looking area suddenly disappeared after a few blocks and our hotel was right next to the “Gare Rabat Ville” a brand new and modern train station, in a completely renovated area, with large streets and newly built buildings. Check-in was a bit long but when we went up to have dinner on the terrace, it was incredibly satisfying. That neighborhood and that location seemed like a different city compared to the neighborhood we had crossed to get there, Rabat had already amazed me with its "versatility". And if the panorama seen during dinner from the panoramic terrace was marked by the night lights, that of breakfast was even more evocative thanks to the soft colors of the early morning, which revealed the beauty of the neighborhood and the sea barely perceptible on the horizon.
The Royal Palace of Rabat was the official residence of the King of Morocco Mohammed VI and was the first place of interest we visited in the city. We arrived around 9:30 AM and the bus actually dropped us off outside the Bab Soufara Gate, another arabesque-style arched structure. Beyond it, a long and well-kept road took us to some gardens from where a mosque magically appeared. It was the Ahl Fès mosque and that area was already part of the King's residence, something that puzzled me. The guide recommended us to respect all that area that the King granted to tourists, everything was clean and cared for and that morning there was a surreal silence, both out of respect and because we were the only ones in a very large area.
The mosque had an arched design, the main part was white but the turrets at the corners were sand colored and the roof was green. On one side stood the square minaret of white and gold. We had half an hour available and with my sister we started taking some photos, breaking away from the group. That area was impeccably clean and well-kept, plus there was something surreal, perhaps the size of the streets and the greenery compared to the structures. From the mosque we could see the entrance to the royal palace in the distance; it was made up of several structures detached from each other and they struck me because they were only on two levels. Being there, walking around an area that was not only private but belonged to the King of Morocco, gave me a particular feeling, as if I were privileged and at the same time made me increase my respect towards the King who, with an incredible personality, put those places available to all. Surely the surveillance was of the highest levels but what amazed me was the concept of privacy. If I had been the King, I wouldn’t make that place free to visit. Beyond security, for me that area was already intimate, so at the very least I would have chosen who could visit it.
After crossing two round fountains, we arrived in front of the entrance, where another yellow arabesque gate marked the official entrance. The area in front was the last one we could visit and we had to stay at a certain distance because there was a garrison of various soldiers always on guard. There was something strange that I couldn't immediately perceive but then little by little I understood what was giving me a slight discomfort; it was the asphalted part of the area. Although there was a lot of greenery, the asphalt parts both along the access road and near the mosque and finally in front of the entrance were enormous asphalt "lawns". They were probably made for ornamental parades so that type of surface was needed compared to streets made of other materials. We essentially spent most of the time in front of the entrance, where I also took a photo of the whole group. To tell the truth, I immediately managed to exorcise the asphalt lawn by taking surreal photos with that large surface as the protagonist. It seems strange but even a cold and non-harmonious element like concrete, if impeccable and clean like that of the Royal Palace, could create atmospheres similar to those of a painting by De Chirico.
Hssan II Tower and Mohammed V Mausoleum
The visit to the Hassan II Tower was the most awaited moment for me and along the way I saw something that put me in a good mood before even seeing the tower. Along an uphill road, looking down into the valley, I saw the “Grand Théâtre de Rabat”, Zaha Hadid's opera which was under construction. I quickly took some photos from the bus and noticed that no one knew about the building. At the time I was very enthusiastic about that type of modern architecture with lines with a dynamic effect, lines that gave the impression that the building was moving, as if it were continually shaping itself. Today I know that both she, who sadly passed away, and personalities such as Santiago Calatrava or Frank Gehry, were inspired by an architecture that already existed more than sixty years ago and which, to tell the truth, was more beautiful and more original. I’m referring to "Googie" architecture, a style that broke the mold in a clear but more creative way compared to modern works.
The bus dropped us off on the main road right in front of the Mohammed V Mausoleum which had access to the main staircase closed, so to visit it we had to enter the square. The Mausoleum was very beautiful and imposing, ivory colored and rectangular in shape, it had a series of arches and a green pyramid roof. I think it was made of granite and the thing I liked most was its symmetry and the decorations which were very simple and essential, a work that recalled the gates I had seen in Moroccan cities, but in a three-dimensional way and more sober.
The entrance door to the square was manned by two soldiers in uniform, they were on horseback under a shelter and the singular thing was that the small area on which they were positioned was full of sand, I think to make it easier for the horses. After crossing the entrance, the Hassan II Tower stood out on the far right of the square, I finally saw it in all its beauty. It was strange how a work that I didn't know until the week before suddenly became an obsession! It must be said that I have a predisposition for towers but personally I couldn't justify my enthusiasm, which also played a bad joke on me that day. The whole area around the tower was surrounded by columns of various heights, I think the tallest were around three meters. While the group headed towards the Mausoleum, my disproportionate euphoria at that moment convinced my sister to go in the opposite direction; I had convinced my sister to come with me to take photos of the Tower before returning with the group. The photos of the Tower became a real reportage of everything that surrounded it, from the columns to the fountain which remained below the square and at the base of the tower. A photo shoot, first with our personal poses and at the tower itself. I must say that that morning there was no one in that area so the place also had the mysterious charm of a deserted place, ideal for enjoying those moments in an almost spiritual way. Regarding the Hassan II Tower, I expected it to be taller but instead it had stockier proportions, however it had become my idol so I liked it anyway. Right next to the tower there was the ruin of what must have been a large city wall. It was a sand-colored wall that ended in a point at the top, up close it was much larger than it seemed from afar. As if the photos taken so far weren't enough, we used the wall as a backdrop for new photos. At a certain point my sister realized that it was getting late and she encouraged me to go back to the Mausoleum, when we arrived we had a “nice” surprise. The guide, in agreement with the group manager, had decided to leave without us, in my opinion intentionally as if to teach us a lesson. After reaching them down by phone they told us they would come back to pick up us. Personally I wasn't worried but my sister was a bit angry, this setback compromised our visit to the Mausoleum, of which we saw the interior quickly and distractedly.
The Qasba al-Wudāyya was a fortified neighborhood located on a hill close to the sea. I knew the place partially because I had seen photos of what was actually the gate, or Bāb al-Wudāyya. Access to the neighborhood was already very beautiful and scenic in itself, there I discovered that what I had seen in the photos was only a small part. In fact, Bāb al-Wudāyya was on top of a large wall that reached from below to the gate. It was a sort of castle, with several turrets, flanked by a paved slope and a green area with large palm trees that almost looked like a park. I immediately had a positive feeling with that place, it gave me an incredible calm, satisfying my always demanding aesthetic-exotic taste. Personally, I would have stayed there to take photos of that city wall but the Qasba could be reached only by crossing Bāb al-Wudāyya. This very imposing gate was now yet another structure of the same kind seen all over Morocco; a large arch, arabesque decorations and the actual door itself of well-kept wood and a slightly darker brown than the stone, the material of which the structure was made. Once we entered the Qasba I had the impression of diving into the sea, let's say it looked like a Medina with a marine soul. For some strange reason, almost all the houses were painted on the outside with blue at the bottom and white at the top. Initially I thought it was just at the entrance but later I realized that that color choice was a constant. Walking around the streets it was a continuous blue and white with only some details in some windows that had a gold frame. That yellow was the only different color together with the brown of some doors that broke the style I described before. To tell the truth, walking along the streets there were also fountains of multiple colors and outside some houses people had decorated the outside with plants, going slightly outside the color scheme. However, the more I walked inside, the more I felt like I was in a sort of imaginary sea. That blue and white that often combined with the color of the sky was a unique atmosphere in its simplicity. In fact, these colors are normal for those like me who live by the sea, but seeing them in an urban context with very narrow streets gave a surreal and evocative tone. I walked around and took photos in that three-color dimension with the streets that slowly began to descend downwards. In fact, little by little, even if the aesthetic panorama remained the same, we were going further and further downwards until we almost reached the height of the river. We were in an area where there was a souvenir shop and also a nice terrace overlooking the final part of the river that ended in the sea. There we relaxed a bit because there was also a garden with beautiful trees and plants, surrounded by a fortified structure which gave an even more interesting connotation to that place. To tell the truth, it was another place where I would have liked to stay for longer because there too I felt the inspiration welling up inside me. Magically after leaving that garden, we found ourselves at the base of Bāb al-Wudāyya, at the foot of the descent. The Qasba was an incredible surprise because ignorantly my idea was that of a fort, something of a military nature, a bit like the bastion of Essaouira. There, however, I found a neighborhood that, despite being high up, was a tribute to the sea or at least gave me this feeling.
The Medina of Rabat was a five minute walk south from the Qasba and it was immediately after visiting the latter that we went there. Even though it maintained the typical style of all the other Medinas I had seen up to that point, Rabat's also stood out for something personal. In fact, along the narrow streets I saw many colorful murals, we are talking about works even more than three meters high. I had not seen similar works in other Medinas and I don't know what the reason was. Probably the other Medinas were even narrower or Rabat had people with a predisposition for that type of art. The streets I traveled along were characterized by paving with small square-shaped cobblestones and in general the houses seemed newer in construction. Even in the Medina I saw many walls colored in the same way as the Qasba but there were more chromatic variations such as red, fuchsia as well as blue. From a photographic point of view I liked those streets because they were not populated and the few people who walked them were perfect for taking shots with an ancient charm and which reflected Arab culture. However, when we arrived in the most commercial street, the scenario was totally different, there were many people there, many sellers and the houses were used as shops, losing the poetry that the solitary and colorful houses conveyed, an atmosphere that was broken up in a positive way by the occasional passage of a woman in typical Arab clothing. The visit to the Medina lasted about forty minutes but in reality it was a longer route taken to reach the bus which had stopped in an easier position to pick us up. I had the impression that the Medina of Rabat was more of a technical visit than a cultural one, a place that was close to the Qasba and therefore easy to access but not the part of the city that absolutely must be seen. In fact, unlike the other Medinas where beauty was represented precisely in the market part, in Rabat the difference was made in the less frequented part, that of the murals and populated only by a few passing women.
Our visit to Rabat ended somewhat the opposite of how it began, at least from my point of view. My personal approach to the city, looking at that poor and dangerous neighborhood from the bus window, ended with a farewell with a decidedly different flavor. The departure from Rabat towards Casablanca airport was scheduled after lunch and we did this in a decidedly chic area. For lunch we went to the Rabat Marina, a completely new area, with the marina that was the backdrop to a very elegant area. In fact, in front of the port it was full of new buildings with a modern and square shape, an architecture only minimally inspired by Arab culture. In one of those buildings there was a very beautiful and modern restaurant where we stopped to have lunch and where more or less all of us did a little debriefing of our travel. It was incredible how a few minutes earlier we were in a totally different context, a place like the Medina which only exists in some areas of the world and then suddenly another scenario, more American and modern. That was the farewell to Rabat, the farewell to Morocco came that evening at Casablanca airport where another singular event occurred as at the beginning during the visit to Marrakech. There, after the visit to the Koutoubia, the guide made me curious about the Hassan II Tower and the Giralda of Seville. At the airport, however, one of our group made me curious about Brussels, simply by saying that there, apart from the Grand Place, there was nothing else to see. That statement, together with other curiosities I had about the Belgian city, established Brussels as my next destination after the trip to Morocco.
Pictures: Antonio Malara
Camera: Fujifilm XT-3