Rabat-Salé Airport glowed colours of the Moroccan flag. Adorning lampposts, as a taxi driver named Rashid drove us to town, were neon stars in reds and greens. It left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling as it sank in I was here, in one of my few bucket list destinations and the homeland I’d never visited.
Our riad was like a palace! If you know me and my mum, you know what kind of questionable places we stay in – so the fact we were staying somewhere this beautiful was surreal.
Salé glittered around the terrace. There were illuminated minarets in every direction. Founded around 1030, Salé was once home to Morocco's biggest harbour and was one of its most important cities. When the harbour closed, it was overshadowed by Rabat. Before heading to the capital, we were excited to discover Salé tomorrow!
I’d cleverly left my plans for the day at home, so we just wandered out, vaguely heading for the marina. We saw a blue arch. We’re simple. We follow colourful things. The whole street turned out to be colourful!
There were countless intriguing alleys to get lost in, with striking arches, vibrant shutters and ornamental doors. I found I understood more Darija (Moroccan Arabic) than Lebanese, or the Jordanian Arabic I started with. That's not to say I'm fluent, though...
We quickly reached the tram station at Bab Lamrissa. There, the medina’s bronze walls framed colourful streets and the open square ahead. The gate itself, completed around 1280 after Spanish invaders were overthrown, is still one of the oldest and biggest in Morocco.
Across the Bouregreg River was Hassan Tower. We saw boat masts, so we headed for those before getting pizza and mint tea at Tarbouche Grill & Juice (it looked cheaper than the place nextdoor). I don’t generally like mint at all but Moroccan mint tea, made with fresh sprigs and green 'gunpowder,' is delicious! Chimchar liked it, too.
New apartment blocks were in construction around the marina. Rain exploded as we left the café. We sheltered under an awning. The Atlantic Ocean’s winds blew the rain sideways into our shelter. We walked on to the Bouregreg River, where views of Rabat Medina spurred us on. The palm-lined Avenue Sidi Ben Achir was deserted. A few restaurants were open, but with the rain easing, we decided to let the wind dry our clothes instead of warming up inside. That Atlantic wind was fierce. I lost both my scarf pins and very nearly lost my headscarf!
On the russet sands of Salé’s beach was the occasional couple or dog walker and, in the distance, kitesurfers. The shores, serenely silent now, were once home to the feared pirates Salé Rovers, who helped found the 17th century’s short-lived Republic of Salé. Like many residents of this once thriving port, they were mostly ‘Moriscos,’ the Muslim residents of Spain forced to convert to Christianity and eventually exiled during the Spanish Inquisition.
Behind us rose the striking minaret of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. Distinguishing it were beautiful white arches. The only Moroccan mosque open to non-Muslims is in Casablanca, but I couldn't find out online if they were open to Muslim tourists, or only for prayer. It's just for prayer, unfortunately, but they’re still stunning to admire from outside.
The Sidi Ben Achir Cemetery extended from the mosque towards the sea. Its endless lines of tiled graves, peaceful before the wild ocean, were eerily beautiful. As the resting place of Muslim saints, their stories must have been fascinating.
On sea walls at the mouth of the Bouregreg was Borj Adoumoue, or Bastion of Tears. In 1260, while Salé’s occupants were busy celebrating Eid al-Fitr, invading Spanish ships arrived. Entering at the site of the bastion, a massacre followed. 3,000 survivors were shipped to Seville as slaves.
Beside the bastion was the Mausoleum of Sidi Ben Achir, a patron saint of the poor. Intricate arches led to deep red carpets where, before his shrouded tomb, women prayed for his blessing.
White walls, flanked by palms and vendors, led from the cemetery back into the medina. The adhan (call to prayer) echoed as we approached the Great Mosque of Salé. Built between 1028 and 1029 but rebuilt several times after strife, it’s the third-biggest mosque in Morocco.
We wandered through winding streets painted blue and white or yellow, decorated with vibrant plant pots and street art. Then there were pink buildings, red-rimmed doorways, or the slightly ajar golden doors of mosques. Smiling people exclaimed ‘bonjour!’ and ‘welcome!’ It wasn’t in the ‘now buy my wares’ way some associate with Morocco, but with genuine warmth.
Alleyways met souks. Bright fabrics hung over bags of spices, boxes of fruits and vegetables and tables piled high with trinkets. Meat sizzled on grills. Hurrying people threaded around diggers, sewage workers and merchants with carts.
With supermarkets everywhere in Europe, it’s difficult to imagine buying everything at markets. In some ways, though, there was more choice and certainly more character. There was no pressure or attempts at ‘come in, just for a look!’ Not that we could afford anything yet, since I wasn't getting paid until tomorrow! Arches led to more alleys to get lost in.
We emerged from the medina to a cloudy sunset. The pounding echo of steel drums floated from beyond the tram tracks. Under the bridge, a group of teens played. They were fantastic!
Next up, Day 2 in Rabat Medina!