As cities go, seats of government tend to be well-upholstered but stuffy. Who in their right mind would prefer Brasília to Rio, or Ottawa to Montreal?So when I returned to Morocco recently after a few years' absence, I was, I confess, disappointed that my business would not take me on pleasant roads I had traveled before—to Marrakesh, or to the snowcapped Atlas Mountains, or into limitless Saharan wastes. Instead, I was heading toward the sleepy capital, Rabat.
In the end, I found myself not just liking the place, but silently enumerating its qualities as a kind of dreamy urban ideal. Rabat is indeed a low-profile town, where dour bureaucrats pad about on their self-important tasks, and where the wail of a siren portends not tragedy or thrills, but the whooshing past of some official motorcade. Other Moroccan cities offer better-known diversions: the musky souks of Marrakesh and its carnivalesque giant square, the dark medieval warrens of Fez, the airy, surf-battered ramparts of Essaouira. The big port city of Casablanca and its smaller sister, Tangier, still carry a film-noir whiff of faded grace and veiled sin, along with modern dockside bustle.
Rabat blends all this variety in such a neat, well-proportioned package that if I were to choose one destination to capture the spirit of the country as a whole, this would be it. Like any Moroccan town worth its salt, for instance, Rabat has a walled Old Town, or medina. This one, once a fearsome pirates' den, looks at first suspiciously clean, yet it proved on exploring to be authentically mazelike, with crowded bazaars, eerily empty alleyways, a cliff-top castle by the ocean, and a postcard-perfect cove down below in the estuary of the Bouregreg River, where fishermen spread their twitching, glistening prizes on a crescent-shaped beach. Like all Moroccan cities, Rabat also has an adjacent ville nouvelle, laid out when the country was a French protectorate. But here the colonial quarter is imperial in scale, crisscrossed with boulevards fringed by palms and arcades and punctuated with the elegant Art Deco concoctions of architects from the Métropole. With their blend of Modernist, futurist, and faux-Moorish detail, even such mundane institutions as the railway terminus, the post office, and the phone company evoke the playfulness of Babar's Celesteville.
Then there is the climate. Southern enough to be perennially sunny, close enough to the Sahara to be dry, Rabat is fanned year-round by the Canary Current, a balmy southwesterly tail of the Gulf Stream. Bougainvillea grows in fuchsia profusion, along with scented mimosa, eucalyptus, and Mediterranean pine. In addition to sea birds, the city is home to a great many storks and cats. The two species coexist in the high-walled gardens of Chellah, beyond the royal palace quarter at the edge of town. They share the gardens—which contains both Roman ruins and a medieval Muslim necropolis—with the well-fed eels that cruise the reflecting pool. This ensemble creates a certain suspense, a quiet primal tension that adds to the contemplative power of the place.
Perhaps it is my looming middle age that makes Rabat's lugubrious silences appeal. Yet the fact is that rival towns in Morocco, even deep in the interior, are no longer the resort of only burnoose-and-slipper-clad Moroccans, or of movie crews and aging couturiers, but of package tours by the Airbus-load. Rabat so far fails to draw this crowd, and so has been spared the inexorable maturing that afflicts so many "exotic" destinations, turning them into spectacle, then theme park, then mere gimmick. It may be no accident that the name Rabat in Arabic means "a refuge," or "a retreat." This is a town that is self-contained, still very much its conservative self, and all the more likeable for being so.
One reason is that for a city of 1.2 million people, the capital is surprisingly hard to get to. Lacking an international airport, it makes do with Casablanca's, but that is 70 miles away. A fast highway and efficient train links cannot change the fact that Rabat lies outside the circuit that carries custom to the country's chief metropolis—Casa is home to 60 percent of the country's industry as well as 5 million of its people—or onto flights to the country's main tourist draws, Marrakesh and the beach resort of Agadir.
Rabat's shortfall of travelers and factories has many compensating advantages. The city is free of Casablanca's sticky traffic and crime-ridden shantytowns, and the importunate touts and faux guides that plague Fez and Marrakesh. Rabat's jostling markets stock all the same fine handicrafts, from thick-piled Tazenakht carpets to polished wooden boxes. From the backstreet workshops that make such things comes the shuttlecocking of looms and tapping of hammers. But here, goods for the tourist trade mingle with everyday stuff: barrels of glistening olives and sticky pyramids of sweets, pots and pans, cafés Internet. And here, unique in Morocco, prices are pretty much fixed. Merchants roll their eyes if you push for a bargain. "Mais monsieur," they will say, their city's phlegmatic bureaucratic reflex rising, "nos prix sont corrects."