This weekend, I ventured out into the world and spent my first night away from Ifrane since arriving in Morocco five weeks ago. Along with four other exchange students, I went to Rabat, which is quite a process, as there’s no train station in Ifrane. So, instead of just getting on a train, our afternoon went something like this: petit taxi → grand taxi station, grand taxi → Meknes, petit taxi → Meknes train station, train → Rabat, train station → hostel. Even with all the steps, though, it only ended up taking about 4 hours and a little over 100d ($12) to travel something like 200 km. Not half bad by American standards.
When we arrived, we realized that one of our group had left her passport back in her dorm. Whoops. Note to any future travelers to Morocco: if you’re checking into a hotel, legally, you must have your passport. Although the hotel staff spoke next to no English, I know some French, and one of the other girls some Arabic. Between the two of us, we could (kind of) communicate. Even when we couldn’t, though, there were many recitations of مرحباً (marhaban), the Arabic word for welcome. As long as we could manage to get a hold of the entry number they had stamped into our friend’s passport at the Casablanca airport, she could stay the night. After some frenzied messaging to her roommate, and a trip down to the local police station to get approval for her to check-in, the matter was settled. We ate a delicious dinner at the Marché – for me, harira, a Moroccan vegetable soup that reminds me of Minestrone, and a strawberry smoothie chaser, because I haven’t seen a single smoothie since I’ve been here, and they pretty much make up an entire food group for me when I’m in America.
Back at the hostel we were invited by the owner to sit down for some mint tea. No matter how full or how tired you are, there is always room and energy for more Moroccan mint tea. Afterwards, we went inside, got into our PJs, chatted for a while, and then decided to wash up and tuck in a bit early, as we were all tired from our day of traveling and wanted to get an early start. In typical Moroccan style, though, there was no soap or toilet paper in the bathroom, warm water in the showers, or any form of heating whatsoever. The lobby, with it’s ceiling (or lack thereof) open to the elements, led directly into the dorms, letting in the chilly night air. Most of us swore off showering in cold water, and instead opted to huddle under the covers and warm up as much as possible.
Bright and early the next morning, we got up – most of us with icy extremities – and walked back into the Marché for breakfast. Unfortunately, big breakfasts don’t seem to exist in this country, so we made do with tea or coffee and a croissant, and set out for the day.
Breakfast, Moroccan style.
Our first stop was Chellah. Chellah are ruins on the site of an ancient Roman city known as Sala Colonia, which lay on one of the main Roman roads to the Atlantic. It was eventually added to by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, but was abandoned in the 1100s. Later, the Almohads began using the site as a necropolis, and in the 14th century, the Marinid dynasty added a Mosque and zawiya, or religious school. The Marinid sultan Abu Al-Hasan ‘Ali ibn ‘Othman (1297-1351) is buried there alongside his wife. Today, the ruins, which were damaged in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, are a bit overgrown and unkempt, with the few still standing structures topped by giant stork nests, but are a peaceful and informative place to spend an afternoon. We wandered the grounds for a few hours, taking full advantage of the fact that, unlike at many other historical sites, there were very few restrictions on where visitors could walk. So, yeah, we were climbing all over the Roman ruins and wandering among the broken down pillars, through the 700 year old Mosque, and into the old zawiya. No big deal.
How many centuries will it take before our civilization looks like these ruins?
It’s hard to imagine the hands that carved this…
We’re so tough.
After our morning at Chellah, we meandered our way back towards the center of town, eating lunch at a crêperie and then making for the Mausoleum of King Mohammed V, grandfather of the current king (Mohammed VI). It’s a beautiful, spacious, calm area, fenced off from the rest of the city and guarded at each gate by mounted soldiers. Inside the fence, there are numerous white columns, nearly all half-finished, across from a massive minaret that looks like the top has been sliced right off. At the time of it’s building, the Hassan Tower was intended to be the largest minaret in the world, and it’s attached Mosque equally grand. Had it been finished, it would have held 20,000 worshippers, but after the death of Sultan Almohad Yacoub el Mansour in 1199, the building project was abandoned, and much of the finished work was destroyed by the same earthquake which damaged Chellah in the 18th century. Inside the white marble mausoleum across from the Hassan Tower, the architectural details are exquisite. Visitors come in on the upper level, and can look down on the coffins of Mohammed V, and his two sons, King Hassan II, and Prince Abdallah. There is also a cushion and bookstand for the Qur’anic reciter who can often be found next to the tombs. We spent several minutes just standing and soaking in the details of the building, which had guards at every door outside, and in every corner inside. There’s really no American equivalent that I can think of, but the images that my mind keeps springing to are of the monuments and memorials found in Washington D.C., namely the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial.
Rabat as seen from the Mausoleum.
Group photo with the Hassan Tower in the background.
Once we had seen all there was to see at the Mausoleum, we turned our feet towards the Kasbah of the Udayas and started walking. The kasbah, or citadel, is located at the point where the Bou Regreg River empties into the Atlantic. It was built by the Almohads in the 1150s, on the site of the older Almoravid kasbah which had been destroyed during the fighting for control of Rabat, but was abandoned in 1199. Today, it’s a fairly quiet (albeit touristy) area of the city, painted all in blue and white, with glorious views of the ocean. We spent some time inside the world heritage site, took a quick spin through the garden – small, compared to those at Chellah – and headed back to the hostel.
The view from the Kasbah.
The Kasbah as seen from below. Très méditerranéen!
After a quick wash up, we went for dinner near the train station. Admittedly, our motives for walking so far from our hostel were very, well…American. Two of our friends who were staying at the same hostel as we were had gone to the McDonalds in town, our first glimpse of American food (and ice cream!) in the nearly month and a half that we’d been in Morocco, and their talk of McFlurries was just too good to resist. In all fairness, none of us particularly like fast food back home, we had no intention to eat dinner there, and nor did we; we really just wanted the ice cream. In any case, we ate at a small restaurant called Baba Ganoush, which, rather disappointingly, did not have baba ganoush. It did, however, have the mediterranean/middle-eastern style food that I was expecting to be more prevalent in Morocco, and I happily dug into falafel and hummus. Yum. Afterwards, we attempted and failed to find McFlurries, and went back to our hostel once more. Within half an hour, though, the desire had grown too great, and we got a taxi to take us to McDonalds. The taxi driver spoke more English than most, and was quite chatty, but when he started a sentence with “Usually Americans ask me to take them to the other McDonalds,” we all cringed. We just turned into those people. Oh well. The M&M McFlurry was worth it, so judge away.
Enjoying our McFlurries.
After eating in the fanciest McDonalds that I’ve ever seen – three stories tall! – we returned to our hostel, where we stayed up talking about anything and everything for several hours. Bonding time completed, the boys went back to their room and the girls to ours, we stole blankets from the unoccupied beds, and with the extra layer of protection from the cold, slept comfortably until…10 a.m. Unfortunately, the snooze button got in the way of the others’ plans to get up and see the sunrise on the beach, but since I don’t care enough about sunrise (or almost anything else) to get up at 6 a.m., I was perfectly content, and we all needed the rest anyway.
We checked out, ate another petite breakfast across from the train station, and sadly set off on our journey back home. For everyone in the group, Rabat had been our favorite location in Morocco thus far, and nobody really wanted to leave. Homework was waiting though, so a train and a couple of taxi rides later, we were back at AUI, and back to shivering in the winter weather which had been so wonderfully absent during our days in Rabat. We walked back out to the Marché for a quick msemen and tea stop, as our breakfast had been less than filling, and then returned to our respective dorms to enjoy the water heating system which exists on campus, and rinse off the grime from two days of travel without access to soap or warm water.
The journey home. From left to right: Taylor, Meredith, Erin, myself, and Chris.
Now, shower taken and homework (mostly) completed, I’m wishing even more that I was back in Rabat. Ifrane is a nice town, filled with wonderful people, but I’m a city girl at heart, and it’s difficult coming back to a place this small – 40,000 inhabitants – after only a short break into the 1 million+ world of Rabat. However, keeping me going is the knowledge that in a few short weeks I’ll be on a plane to Barcelona for Spring Break! Until then, it’s back to the grindstone, so, as always,
Salam from Morocco.