Rabat may well be Morocco's most civilized city, yet most travelers pass it by. They don't know what they're missing, says veteran Middle East correspondent Max Rodenbeck

David Cicconi Avenue Mohammed V, one of the Rabat's main throughfares, in the medina.
| Credit: David Cicconi

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."

Compared to Arab capitals I am more used to, such as Cairo or Beirut, Rabat is orderly to a fault. Risking the rental of a small Peugeot, I found the driving almost eerily slow and deliberate. It was Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, and I failed to hear a single horn toot, even at that desperate sunset hour when commuters rush home to catch the breaking of the fast. Early evenings brought throngs of sated strollers onto the Avenue Mohammed V (named for the current monarch's grandfather) for a very Mediterranean paseo, but the volume of their chatter never seemed to rise above a murmur.

Midway along the avenue, the terraces of the Hôtel Balima, an imposing landmark erected in the late 1920's, command a view of the great Moorish gingerbread confection that is Morocco's parliament. Seated on high one night with a café express and a bottle of Oulmès, Morocco's superior, slightly salty answer to Perrier, I watched as a crowd of perhaps 200 well-dressed youths accumulated in the avenue's wide central aisle. For half an hour they chanted protest songs, observed by a sprinkling of police. The demonstrators were unemployed university graduates, it turned out. For the past few years they have gathered here regularly for the not very revolutionary purpose of demanding jobs from the government.

The politeness and regularity of the protests say much about the present state of Morocco. Joblessness remains a persistent problem, a reflection of fast (if slowing) population growth and of an economy still struggling against such handicaps as illiteracy and corruption. But the politeness of the police speaks of change. Under the last king, Hassan II, street protests were a bad idea. The chain-smoking, golf-mad tyrant, who ruled for 38 long years, was famed for hurling his enemies—and sometimes their brothers, sisters, and children—into some of the world's dingiest dungeons and losing the keys in the folds of his hooded robe.

His legacy still seems to hang over Rabat, not only in the mysterious silence that emanates from the long, crenellated walls of the palace quarter (where the old king kept a stable of concubines and, some say, eunuchs), but in its citizens' wary mind-your-own- businessness. Yet since Hassan's death, in 1999, a political thaw has enlivened public life. The police can still be mean, and officials venal, but ordinary folk now have little fear of saying so. The current king, Mohammed VI, the 23rd in a line of Alawi monarchs, does not simply belong to a more outward-looking generation. Although he keeps up pretenses as the theoretical Commander of the Faithful, donning a white burnoose and red felt skullcap for solemnly televised visits to the mosque, the 42-year-old king is clearly more at ease at the nearby beach resort of Skhirat, on a pair of water skis.

The king's own projection of clashing identities mirrors the complexity of his realm. The people who run the country—the secretive royal court, the political men in suits, the French-speaking business class—are something of a caste apart, divided from the people at large by yawning disparities of wealth, cosmopolitan manners, and, frequently, a relative laxity in religious devotion. Although tourism has long been Morocco's main source of income, the average, proudly pious Moroccan is not entirely comfortable with large numbers of scantily dressed guests.

In Rabat, this social mix can be seen at its most tolerant and relaxed. The main streets of the Agdal quarter, near the university, look much like any European college town's, if a lot more clean-cut. The proliferation of fancy coffee-and-snack joints here, and of international-brand chain stores clogged with credit card–wielding youths, hints at an upward mobility that might enable Morocco, at some future point, to enter the Euro zone. But across the little Bouregreg River lies Salé, a city that used to be Rabat's rival in the piracy business and is now a suburb of the capital. Here, behind the walls of yet another medina, complete with still more souks and whitewashed houses, the mores are solidly Muslim and traditional. Head scarves predominate, and the five daily prayers set the pace. At dusk during Ramadan, Salé's only visible residents are cats, stealthily pacing the alleyways through a heavenly fog of cooking smells: cardamom, sesame seeds, pickled lemons, all bubbling atop the stoves in cone-hatted clay tagines.

Back in my own medina, on the Rabat side, I find that Ramadan inspires a potent sympathetic hunger at this time of day. A determined heave swings wide the studded wooden door that leads off the now hushed alleyway. A vaulted passage leads into the pointillist-tiled courtyard. There I find my hosts beckoning me from a side room to join them around a steaming tureen of harira, the gloriously thick, peppery, tomato-and-chickpea soup that is Morocco's second staple after couscous. The Khribeche family, originally from Fez, bought this rambling 18th-century town house, the Dar Al Batoul, six years ago. Nabila, who graduated from a Swiss hotel school, undertook its transformation. Her taste is flawless: the place is a blend of simple comfort and high Moroccan style, all dappled shadow and bold color, with textures of wool and brass and marble, plaster filigree, and potted ferns. The sleeping quarters, each unique, give onto a second-floor terrace that encircles the courtyard, with the whole open space topped by a useful modern touch, a sliding-glass roof for rainy days.

Between servings of soup and dates, I ask Nabila's father, a retired engineer, what brought him here from Fez. "Quite simply," he says, "Rabat is the most agreeable of our cities." I couldn't have agreed more.

When to Go

The weather is best in spring and fall.

Getting There

Royal Air Maroc and Delta operate direct flights from the States to Casablanca. To reach Rabat, take a taxi or the one-hour express shuttle train from the Casa Port station.

Where to Stay

Dar Al Batoul
7 Derb Jirari; 212-37/ 727-250; www.riadbatoul.com; doubles from $110, breakfast included.

  • Villa Mandarine
  • Small garden hotel at the edge of town with an excellent restaurant and hammam.
  • 19 Rue Ouled Bousbaa; 212-37/752- 077; www.villamandarine.com; doubles from $198, breakfast included.

Where to Eat

La Caravelle
Great fish and traditional Moroccan dishes (plus wonderful views) in the Kasbah des Oudayas.
Sidi Lyabouri Lot; 212-37/ 738-844; dinner for two $28.

La Péniche
Terrific seafood on a canal boat.
Right bank of the Bouregreg River; 212-37/785-659; dinner for two $40.

La Péniche

La Caravelle

Villa Mandarine

Dar Al Batoul