This will be a short post for the simple yet boring reason that not a whole lot happened today, it having been mostly a travel day on the van to get us from Tangier to Rabat. It’s about a 3 1/2 drive through not especially interesting countryside, mostly big industrial-sized farms that are far more similar to their American counterparts than to the small family farms that we saw in the Rif mountains. The countryside is mostly pretty dry, as you might expect, but the farms are irrigated. The most common crop that we saw was strawberries, with okra a distant second. Lots and lots of strawberries, protected from the sun under acres of plastic sheets… “strawberry fields forever”, one might say, if one was desperate to insert some lame humor into an otherwise pedestrian blog post.
We arrived in Rabat around lunchtime and did a quick spin around the city in the van to get a feel for it. It is a somewhat schizophrenic place: very modern looking on the one hand, with a gleaming light rail system that would be the envy of any American city, yet at the same time exuding the Moorish ambience of the royal palace and the very large mosque next door. And overlooking the city and its river (called the Bou Regreg), the largest casbah we have seen, a huge medieval fortress housing a walled town with its souk and medina, and an ancient royal garden. This casbah is a classic Moorish fortress, with tall onion-shaped arches under classic medieval parapets like a marching row of squared-off teeth.
Momo (our tour lead Mohammed) brought us all to lunch at a bustling trattoria adjacent to Rabat’s central rail station. It was a very American kind of place, serving mostly burgers, pizza, and, um, shawarma (which if this were Greece you would call gyro). It all had a very big-city feel to it and could have been any European city except for the proliferation of women in hijabs. But far from all of them: being the capital (and having a population of 2 million), Rabat is pretty cosmopolitan. There we a larger percentage of Wester-dressed women her than any other place we’ve seen, and this included the co-owner of the restaurant, an attractive and thoroughly Western 30-ish woman who spoke nearly perfect English and came over to chat with us for a while. (Her father is the other co-owner.)
We had a couple of hours to kill after lunch, so Steve and Thumper and we decided to do some exploring on our own. We had heard that the casbah gardens, called the Andalusian Gardens in the guidebooks, were worthwhile, so despite the likelihood that we will be visiting them tomorrow we jumped in a cab and instructed the driver in French to take us there. That did not turn out as well as we hoped. Not because our French was inadequate — we can get by in that department — but because, unbeknownst to us and the guidebooks notwithstanding, the locals do not refer to them as the Andalusian Gardens but rather the Oudaya Gardens, Oudaya being the name of the casbah. The only reason we got there at all was that Alice showed the driver a map indicating our destination, at which point the light bulb went on and he charged forward. The ride took about 10 minutes and cost $1.50. I gave him two bucks in dirhams and felt like a big spender.
The gardens were pleasant if unspectacular, more enjoyable for the setting beneath the castle walls and the locals strolling about that for the flora. The was a group of teenagers playing music on a guitar and flute; pairs of women in hijabs taking selfies with their phones; families with children; lovers sitting on a ledge holding hands. It was cool in the shade and fragrant with roses, an unselfconscious little idyll behind high walls.
An archway at one corner of the garden led to an outdoor tea salon on a terrace overlooking the river, where for two bucks apiece we each had a glass of achingly sweet and satisfying mint tea and a plate of genuinely spectacular almond cookies. The river view itself is austere; it is broad and shallow with surprisingly little boat traffic, and long low rows of boxy apartment blocks on the far shore. One boat in particular caught our eye: a large dark brown wooden dhow, surprisingly resembling Captain Hook’s ship from Peter Pan, lay moored at the shore. We had been told that we would be having dinner aboard a boat tonight, and wondered if that was it. (Spoiler alert: it was.)
Leaving the terrace, we ambled through the medina for a half hour or so, a stroll that include Alice getting waylaid by an insistent lady selling henna tattoos. Alice plunked for one — the lady wanted five bucks, Alice offered two, deal accepted — and sported a nice henna curlicue on her arm that listed all of about a half hour before washing off.
Back at the hotel we finally met the rest of our group, a gregarious crowd of folks who mostly hail from New Orleans and mostly already know each other. They seem like a real good group that will fit in nicely with our current eight, and I expect we’ll enjoy our time with them. So far I’ve identified among them a nurse, an architect, a caterer, a retail store and coffee shop owner, and a rheumatologist. They’re all very good-humored and interesting to talk to; over dinner the rheumatologist was telling me about some volunteer work that he did in a refugee camp in Iraq.
Dinner on the boat was surprisingly good and the setting surprisingly elegant considering that it looked from the outside like some kind of tourist trap. (Our tour operator, OAT, does their homework in this regard.) Tomorrow we’ll have a city tour that I expect will bring us back to Oudaya. But that’s fine with us. I’ll post some photos of the day in my next entry.