Travel

Relaxing in Rabat (And my first hamam experience!)

February 7, 2014

Wide streets, towering hotels and buildings brandishing international flags clearly cast Rabat as the capital city of Morocco. Even the Medina had a different feel, and was more organized and flat, making it much easier to navigate.

The Kasbah of the Udaias, our first stop, is a formidable walled castle from the outside, but we were surprised to see that the inside was like a mini Chefchaouen, with shades of blue and detailed doors around every turn. Make sure to stop at the large café in the center, for even if you’re sick of mint tea (which we were by this point), the view over the Bou Regreg river leading out to the Atlantic is fantastic.

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The Kasbah of Udaias

The highlight of Rabat is Hassan Quarter, where you can visit the Mausoleum of Hassan V and the Hassan Tower. The building, an imposing white figure with a green tiled roof, is thought of as a masterpiece of Alaouite dynasty architecture. The tower was built with plans for it to be the largest minaret in the world, and part of the world’s largest mosque, but when Sultan al-Mansour died in 1199, construction stopped and the remains now sprawl across the quarter.

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We had a guide for the Mausoleum, not because we particularly wanted one, but because they latch onto you and start talking and following you around, and there’s no way to get rid of them. Then, even though you’ve been largely ignoring them throughout this “tour” when you start to exit the quarter they turn to you and say, “This is how I make a living! I have two kids!” We could have been pushier from the start, but our guide was a nice if presumptuous older man with leathery skin bunching together under his eyes and sagging over his dark, plump cheeks. He loved American music. “Heavy metal,” to be specific, he said. But what is most important about the Mauseoleum, especially for young female travelers, is that the guards are gorgeous. Tanned, strong, stoic, and sexy, with dark skin, slick haircuts and deep green eyes that flickr at you as they stand in their elaborate dress or sit confidently atop horses. There’s nothing to do in Morocco after dark, so you might as well daydream, right?

After paying for our impromptu tour, we took a boat across the river to Salé. The boats were colorful and rickety, but so adorable I wished the ride across the river took more than two minutes. That said, it only cost 20 cents. In general, Morocco was one of the cheapest places I’ve ever been. Much, much cheaper than other places in the Middle East and North Africa that I’ve visited.

Because it was a Friday, Salé was empty and almost everything was closed. We came across another “guide,” and were happy to have him, as without him we never would have found the madrasa, which was the oldest we had been to and beautiful in its decay. He also lead us to the main mosque where it seemed the entire city was gathered for prayers. I love mosques. Like all religious establishments they’re peaceful and have a certain hum about them, but there’s something to me that’s more soothing about them than churches. Maybe it’s the comfort of the rugs, or the enchanting calligraphy on the walls, or the voluptuous architecture that invokes my childhood love of Aladdin. Most likely, it’s my overall fascination (obsession?) with areas of the world where mosques are most common.

Later on, back in Rabat, we decided to reward ourselves for a week of walking with a relaxing trip to the hamam. I was excited, but having never actually been to a hamam before I couldn’t help but think it would be awkward to be naked in front of a room full of women, including one of my closest friends.  Any thoughts of awkwardness faded quickly when I saw women of all ages and all sizes, completely naked and sitting on the floor of the steamy bathhouse, sudsing themselves up and chatting away. (Being modest Americans, we kept our swimming suit bottoms on). Grabbing lumps of argan oil soap, we rubbed it across our bodies, watching it lather and dissolve, leaving oily residue on our arms, neck and legs. Next, attendants came over to scrub us down, and scrub they did! They used exfoliating mitts to rub our skin in swift strokes, turning us on our stomachs then our backs to reach every area. As she scrubbed my back, I could see flakes of skin falling from my shoulders and down my arms. Nothing has ever seemed so disgusting yet so wonderfully purifying. I felt like a snake, shedding this dark, dirty skin I couldn’t believe was actually coming off my body. Then, they poured giant buckets of hot water over us, only to lather us up again with a different soap, rubbing it rigorously over our legs, back, chest, necks, face and even behind our ears.  Splashing us with buckets of hot water again, they finally finished with two giant buckets poured directly over our head, then wrapped us in robes and swept us out the door, soft and squeaky clean. I can honestly say my skin has never felt so smooth. I kept running my hand up my arm just to marvel at it. I wish I could go to the hamam every week!

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