Rabat, modern art and a birthday dinner

Posted on January 18, 2015

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Rabat may well be the capital of Morocco but it lacks the buzz and charm of some of the other cities I have visited so far. There is an air of wanna-be sophistication but it doesn’t quite pull it off.

The boulevards are wide, the roads jammed with small blue taxis and beat-up cars while the souks are filled with more shoe sellers than a cobblers’ apprenticeship school.

The night I arrived the heavens opened and I was left with rather soggy feet. I had foolish swapped my hiking boots for a pair of canvas slip-ons before i headed out to briefly explore. Slipping and sliding my way through one of the markets I actually stopped to browse the fancy Arab footwear. A short two minutes later I was eight quid lighter walking in a pair of faux-biker boots that will no doubt fall apart before the end of my trip.

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I managed to hit a crossroads where the smell of street food coaxed me to make a sharp left. There on the corner next to a beautiful mosque were a queue of old ladies selling the equivalent of hot chapatis. Next came the young lads deep-frying fish and calamari and then the butcher boys grilling and flipping merguez sausages; liver and all manner of meat on a hot plate with onions.

Still trying to stick to the veggie rule, I observed and refrained from delving in. Part of me didn’t want to get sick; but i was starving and dying to eat something. I left the market exiting by a beautiful Bab, one of many in the city which forms part of the perimeter walls. There on the main road was a busy cafe.

“Hurrah!” I thought. “Busy equals safe and safe equals food.”
I charged in and order a plate of fried calamari; an avocado juice and a tomato salad. I am craving greens. I have not eaten spinach, broccoli, watercress or anything else I am used to for two weeks. My skin is suffering and I have reverted to a spotty teenager. Wolfing down the food like someone who has not seen grub for half a year I headed back to my digs conscious that the light had faded. I did not want to be walking through the medina at night, even though Rabat is not Fez.

I’m staying in another wonderful riad tucked away in the medina. These beautiful old palaces are wonderful retreats away from the madness. In the comfort of my room I showered, used wifi and prepared for bed. Then less than three hours later the inevitable happened, a rumble in my stomach and lets just say I went to bed more than eight quid lighter.

I couldn’t sleep that night. Too much on my mind. The cogs whirring away I had a burst of inspiration to get writing. Work had asked me to script and voice material here on Arab reaction to the Paris attacks for part of a documentary going out on Arise News. I had not written a word and my deadline was tomorrow. I grabbed my iPad and curled up in front of the gas fire and at 3am fired off a stream of consciousness for the next hour. It was officially my birthday, but I pushed that thought aside until I had finished, delighted that for the rest of the day I would now be able to relax.

After a beautiful late breakfast in the courtyard I set off to see the sights.

The blue and white houses in the Kasbah, tucked away behind the large gate walls. The Andalusian gardens and the sea front.

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I managed to find Hassan Tower and a stunning mausoleum where the tomb of King Mohammed V lies.

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Next stop the archaeological museum, there were meant to be artefacts from Volubilis here. You would not believe how bloody difficult it is to find places in Rabat. There are few street signs and navigating by the force is much harder than Yoda would think. Inside this tiny museum, there are many exhibits on show, none of which have the security or pomp you might expect with treasures that are more than 12th century old. Some of the bigger pieces are neither behind glass nor are there ropes to cordon them off from visitors. The curators at the British Museum would have kittens if they saw how open this area is.

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Close by is the rather grander Museum of Mohammed VI – it is filled with modern art – some of it interesting but most of it utter rubbish. I am not a fan of most modern art so it is not a criticism of Morocco but of the work of the artists.

As the sun started to dip I headed to Hotel Balima one of the few places you can sit outside watch the world go by and have a drink. Time to toast my birthday with an OJ and a small beer. As I plonked myself down I realised there was a demo going on with men and women protesting about jobs. Waving coloured scarves and chanting they goaded both the riot police and soldiers lined up in front of what looked like an official building. At one point I did think things would kick off as there was some running and the crowd scattered, but sadly no such luck.

Back at the riad I spruced up and set off for a special birthday dinner. I had booked dinner at another riad whose chef had come highly recommended. You have to give 24hours notice and they prepare the meal. As it was my birthday I got stuck in to everything that was served up and it was amazing.

The first course was a selection of hot Moroccan salads – a type of ratatouille; smoked aubergine puree cauliflower with garlic and pickled courgettes. Then came an incredible pastilla. This is a type of pie which was stuffed with chicken and ground almonds, and dusted with icing sugar and chocolate. It is a sweet and sour combo that is only served on very special occasions. The chef had prepared it especially for me because it was my birthday. I have never tasted anything like it, it was so delicious. The out came a tagine of vegetables – yay, potatoes sweet peppers, green beans, broccoli, I was in heaven and this was served my a roasted chicken thigh. After sweet tea with homemade almond pastries an incredible orange gratin followed, which was so sweet and moreish I begged the chef for the recipe.

Stuffed but über sated I briskly walked back to crash into my lovely bed with an enormous smile on my face. First birthday I have been to bed utterly stone cold sober too!

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