Oddly overlooked by many travellers, Rabat, the national capital of Morocco, is a metropolis laden with inspiring historical sites.
Despite being the political and administrative hub of this nation of 34 million people, Rabat is overshadowed by Morocco’s many tourist magnets.
It receives far fewer travellers than the market-strewn metropolis of Marrakesh and the seaside resort town of Tangier. It is less known than Casablanca, the city made famous by cinema, or Fez with its labyrinthine walled city.
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While I was entranced by Marrakesh and Fez during my week-long journey across Morocco, my two days in Rabat are equally fascinating.
It boasts a medieval necropolis, a blue-drenched Old Town, mausoleums, wonderful public gardens, a lively harbour and endless markets.
The lack of tourists is actually a blessing for travellers who do stop in Rabat, as they will enjoy lower prices, less hassle from touts, smaller crowds at its main sights and a more relaxed atmosphere.
When I board my train to Rabat from Marrakesh, one of Africa’s most-visited cities, it is swollen with foreign tourists.
It remains so as I alight at Rabat four hours later. Most of the other passengers stay on board, destined for places farther north such as Fez and Tangier.
At first, this worries me. Maybe I should have just followed the crowds. Within an hour, however, I realise I am right where I should be.
I am walking down a narrow alley which, visually, is hypnotic.
The stone path below my feet is stark white and glows in the sharp Moroccan sun.
The shoulder-height walls which flank me are ocean-blue, before transitioning to a blinding white, before merging with the blue sky.
This white-to-blue-to-white-to-blue pattern is simple but wonderfully pleasing to the eye. The pattern is broken by a kaleidoscope of bright colours contained within the outfits of two Moroccan girls who walk into the alley.
They are carrying books, seemingly on their way home from school. This reminds me that I am not in a hyper-colour maze ripped from a dream, but rather, in a residential neighbourhood of Rabat called the Kasbah les Oudaias.
Many readers will have seen stunning photos of Morocco’s famous “blue city” Chefchaouen, the kind of place which births incurable cases of wanderlust.
The Kasbah les Oudaias is not quite as spectacular. But it offers a similar aesthetic while being far more accessible than Chefchaouen, which is isolated in the mountains of northern Morocco.
The Kasbah les Oudaias is the original location of the fortress after which Rabat was named.
Constructed in the 12th century on a cliff overlooking the Bou Regreg River to one side and the Atlantic Ocean on another, it attracts not only travellers but also locals, who savour its sprawling views across the water to Rabat’s sister city, Sale.
Locals also gather to relax in the adjoining Andalusia Gardens.
After exploring the maze-like environment of the Kasbah, I take my lead from the Moroccans around me and have a rest in this lush, green space.
The gardens are a peaceful, idyllic setting in a city which at times can be noisy and confronting.
Beyond their attractive appearance, these gardens reflect the varied cultural influences apparent in Morocco. The gardens were designed by the French in the early 19th century during their period of colonial power over the northern half of the country.
But the earthen-red walls which surround the gardens, and sections of the Kasbah, have architectural flourishes of Andalusia, a part of southern Spain which was once a section of the mighty Moroccan empire, the Almohad.
This empire controlled a swathe of northern Africa and southern Spain and Portugal from 1121 to 1269. The French also left their fingerprints on the modern part of Rabat, with its wide boulevards, leafy parks and stately government buildings.
The architectural influence of the Almohads, meanwhile, is clearest in the city’s older areas. The most striking structure they left behind is the magnificent Hassan Tower.
Constructed from red sandstone and standing 44m tall, it was initially intended to be twice as high and adjoined by a huge mosque.
Rabat is overshadowed by Morocco’s many tourist magnets but the lack of tourists is actually a blessing as travellers will enjoy smaller crowds at its main sights and a more relaxed atmosphere.
The project was first scaled back and then, once the tower was finished, abandoned altogether.
Quite by accident, this has created a dramatic entrance to the tower due to a forest of about 200 pillars which were intended to be the foundations of the mosque.
I weave through this cluster of pillars, looking for the best angle from which to photograph the tower.
I soon learn that there are only good angles – it is a most photogenic structure.
Equally beautiful is the adjoining Mausoleum of Mohammed V, with an exterior draped in marble and an interior decorated by Zellige tile mosaics, one of the key design elements of traditional Moroccan architecture which boasts mesmeric geometric patterns.
This is the most auspicious of resting places for the father and grandfather of Morocco’s current King, Mohammed VI.
At just 46 years old, this mausoleum is very new compared with Rabat’s ancient structures, most notably the extraordinary Chellah, in the south of the city.
Scattered across the side of a dry, rocky hill, Chellah is a large cluster of architectural remains. This site was first inhabited more than 2,000 years ago by the Phoenicians, before the Romans made it theirs early in the 1st century AD.
Most of what I see now – sections of a large fortress wall, and ruins of burial grounds, royal tombs and a mosque – is what is left of the giant necropolis (cemetery) built here in the 1300s by the ruler of Morocco’s Marinid Dynasty.
Visitors are given free rein to wander through most of these remains, which include some limited evidence of the old Roman settlement.
In the middle of this sprawling historical site is a towering stone minaret.
Perhaps the best preserved building in Chellah, it is a graceful structure decorated by intricate engravings and tile mosaics.
I run my hand across its rough surface, imagining how grand this necropolis must have been seven centuries ago. It is majestic still.
Then I look around and realise I am the only person in sight. Somehow, I have this remarkable place all to myself.
That is a common and cherished experience when you are in Rabat, an extraordinary city overlooked by many.
There are no direct flights between Singapore and Morocco. The quickest and easiest way to reach Rabat is to transfer at Abu Dhabi, which is about nine hours by air from the Moroccan capital.
Another option is to transfer at Dubai and fly to the Moroccan city of Casablanca before catching a train, bus or taxi to Rabat, which is 90km away to the north.
Rabat’s medina, a labyrinth of narrow alleys in the oldest part of the city, is home to some of the city’s best street markets. This area is especially lively early in the morning and from the late afternoon into the evening, when locals shop for fresh food and household items.
Rabat is a city best explored on foot, so it is advisable to avoid visiting in summer (June to August) when it can be brutally hot, with temperatures sometimes exceeding 40 deg C. There are few indoor attractions to escape from the heat.
This article first appeared in The Straits Times.