Welcome to the Casbah

by Donna on October 30, 2011

The first thing I notice about a country is its smell.  Stepping out of the airport the nose registers someplace foreign immediately, even before the eyes.  Get off the plane in Delhi and you smell curry.  Fiji was fresh air and fish.  Mali was dust (yes, I think dust does have its own smell.)  Arriving in Casablanca, waiting an inordinate amount of time for luggage, the first smell was of a bit of old decay, intriguing if not very enticing.  Sort of a weary, time-worn smell reminiscent of slightly over-ripe vegetables.

Morocco is also country on its own time.   My adjustable alarm clock, veteran of numerous time zones changes, does not have a setting for the Moroccan hour.  There are settings for London or Paris or most of the Middle East, but not Morocco.  Somehow this seems appropriate—Morocco has probably always been on its own time.  The country is located on the African continent, but its roots are in the Middle East.  Its people are a mixture of physical types.  The original Moroccans were Berbers, related to the Tuarag of the Sahara and places like Mali.  It has been part of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and a French protectorate.  The faces of Moroccans reflect their multi-cultural status.

Moroccan Musicians

Moroccan Musicians

Casablanca is the entry and exit point for all international travelers, and the least interesting city in Morocco.  Romantic tales, like Rick’s cafe, are either invented or belong to history.  There is a boardwalk along the ocean, lined with tour buses and cafes that could be anywhere.  There is the Hassan II mosque, second largest in the world after Mecca.  Built by the late King, it is imposing for the tiles and the setting, but the building lacks the  charm of older sites.

Hassan II mosque--the second largest in the world

Hassan II mosque--the second largest in the world

Other than connecting on flights, there is not much reason to stay in Casablanca, so like most travelers, the first stop is Rabat, a charming city about a 2-hour drive away.  It’s low-key Morocco.  The vendors haven’t been trained in high-pressure sales tactics, the Medina isn’t quite as busy.  There is a pleasant “second-city” feel to it, as if history has passed over and left it lolling in the sunshine.  After a long, uncomfortable flight, and longer than expected bus ride, that suits me just fine.

Rabat, Morocco

Rabat, Morocco

Rabat’s claim to fame lies in the remnants of the never-completed great mosque and Hassan Tower (a 12th century Hassan, not the father of the current king.  Moroccan royalty has a habit of recycling names).  The adjacent Mohammd V Mausoleum is a 20th century jewel of beautiful tiles and a welcome break from the fierce sun.

Guarding the Mausoleum

Guarding the Mausoleum

Inside the Mausoleum

Inside the Mausoleum


Rabat, as one of the Imperial Cities, has one of the royal palaces dotting the country.  I never did get straight which ones the king lives in and which ones are for state functions and business.  At any rate, driving past the ramparts and walls that encompass the royal palace, it was clear his digs are a tad better than our hotel.  The Golden Tulip does have a great view, overlooking the Hassan Tower on one side and the Medina on the other.  The staff is generally very nice.  My request for Tabasco to perk up the bland dinner (easier to communicate a brand name than the idea of hot sauce) resulted in three people conferring, several trips to the kitchen, and a triumphant waiter bringing the precious little bottle on a platter.  By that time we were finishing off our bottle of Moroccan wine so the effort was properly applauded.

Between jet lag and exhaustion, after wine and Tabasco, it was collapse time.  Even the barely functioning air-conditioning couldn’t keep me up.  There was hot water in the shower, a bed with clean sheets, and my room was away from the call to prayer.  Time to sleep after my first day in Morocco.

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