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Saturday, 22 February 2014 12:00 AM

A Weekend in …. Rabat, Morocco

The Times, Saturday, February 22 2014, Weekend section – Travel pages

This article is reproduced from The Times. See our Rabat Short Break Promotion for holiday ideas.

by Annabelle Thorpe

Saturday afternoon in Rabat, Morocco’s unassuming capital, and it seems as if every teenage boy is out playing football – hurtling around the wide arc of sandy beach or on the waste ground that lies adjacent to huge hoardings, advertising the new port development. In the distance, still more are hoofing a ball about under the flyover, where shiny trams glide back and forth across the River Bourgreg, linking the two halves of the city, Salé and Rabat.

When my boyfriend Mark and I take off our shoes to paddle, the nearest boys giggle and point. This is the first moment we’ve attracted much attention at all. Usually, a couple of tourists ambling around a Moroccan city are a constant target for street vendors, would-be guides or cheeky ten-year-olds hoping for a few dirham to point you in the direction of your hotel.

Yet Rabat is a very different creature to its more frenetic siblings. The capital since 1912, when the French invaded and declared Morocco a protectorate, it is still only the sixth-largest city. As well it feels less unwieldy than Casablanca, less alien than Fez. There is a small 400-year-old medina (walled inner city), a picturesque 12th-century Kasbah perched above the sea, and wide boulevards and squares that could be in any sizeable French city, the characteristically bonkers Moroccan traffic aside.

What the city doesn’t have is tourists, although this may be about to change, with new Ryanair flights from Stansted starting this month. The souks (markets) are set up for local people, the medina free of wannabe guides, but that’s not to say there’s no tourist infrastructure. Our first hotel, the elegant Riaf Kalaa in the heart of the medina, matches any of the Marrakech riads that I’ve stayed in for style and traditional design.

What makes the Rabat medina so manageable is its size. Unlike Fez, with its labyrinth of 9,000 alleyways, a ten-minute stroll in any direction will see you pop out through one of the babs (medina gates) and into the modern city. You stroll past dozens of tiny nooks in the crumbling walls, housing tailors bent over ageing sewing machines, elderly ladies rolling out pancakes on hot plates, catch-all shops whose keepers peer out over stacked bars of chocolate and soap. It has all the familiar sights: neat pyramids of spices, washing-up tubs laden with olives, herb sellers crouching beside sheets piled high with bunches of mint, parsley and coriander.

We stroll along Rue Souk jemaa, the main shopping street, munching msemen, a delicious crispy pancake filled with onion, peppers and tomatoes that costs about 10p. In among the crowds of women shifting through T-shirts and men haggling over fake Converse trainers and mobile phones, there’s not another tourist to be seen. “I thought that you said it was hectic,” says Mark, as we browse rows of beautiful Berber necklaces in a gleaming jewellery shop. It’s his first time to Morocco, and I think of Marrakech: mopeds and donkeys and carts and footballing kids, all trying to get down the same 2ft-wide alley at the same time. “It is, normally,” I say, feeling slightly foolish. “Rabat’s just … different.”

And not just the medina. The next day we discover the highlights of the Ville Nouvelle, swept along by Moncef, our enthusiastic guide, who leans out of the car to yell greetings at everyone from the guards at the Royal Palace to the street-sweeper outside the Chellah, the 15th-century necropolis encompassing the remains of the Roman city of Sala Colonia. We stroll through the ruins that are empty save for one other couple and a colony of storks; the birds swoop between pillars and peer down at us with proprietorial expressions.

Moncef sweeps us round the city’s sightseeing spots; from the tranquillity of the Chellah to the grandeur of the Royal Palace (unused by the current King Mohammed VI, who lives in a more modest city residence), to the white and teal streets of the Kasbah, where we sit with sweet mint tea in a ramshackle café overlooking the river mouth and the beach beyond. Angular new apartment buildings on the far bank look pristine against the messy city backdrop. Change is coming to Rabat, a city where slum clearance and riverside penthouses can be mentioned in the same breath.

For our last night, we travel across the river to stay in Salé, the poorer half of the city. Our walk through its medina is different again: the souk feels like a jumble sale, rickety tables bundled with clothes, vendors piling everything from shoes to fresh mussels on dog-eared sheets in the street. There’s real poverty, yet not for a moment do we feel unsafe or unwelcome. By sunset we’re on the roof terrace at Riad a la Belle Etoile, watching the sea flood gold and the Kasbah bask in the last rays of sun.

“If this is Morocco, then I’m hooked,” says Mark, and just as I’m about to say it isn’t, not really, the evening call to prayer begins to echo out from the mosque behind us. A second muezzin takes up the call, then another, and another, until the whole city is linked by the invisible voices. And I realise: Rabat is Morocco, absolutely, just a different version to the one I know – quieter, calmer, but just as intoxicating and just as much fun.

What We at Naturally Morocco say

Rabat is a great weekend break in itself – as Annabelle says – but links very well with Fez or Meknes to the north, to give a 2 centre holiday in very different cities.

We strongly encourage the use of a guide for a half day or more to get the most from the city and we have excellent guides, used by Annabelle and Mark, that we can pre-book.

Annabelle went early in the season when there were very few tourists - there are tourists in Rabat (including the Chellah) as it warms up more, but generally they are few and far between – although the Chellah can become a little busy (but quiet relative to other tourist destinations in Morocco) in the late afternoon (the best time to visit).