Compared to Morocco’s seductive Marrakech and Fez, Rabat is a colorful, sunny oasis of calm just waiting to be explored. Rabat is the country’s untapped, culture-rich capital. It is brimming with buried cities, majestic mosques, mouth-watering food and an emerging contemporary art scene. We guarantee we can keep you enthralled with a range of experiences with a few days in this city. Even surfing is an option if you choose. Best of all perhaps is that on one of our tours, we can arrange for you to stay in the city’s most extraordinary boutique hotel – the Villa Mandarine. There is no guest who checks in and then willingly checks out. It’s that kind of a place where you want to stay for weeks enjoying the calmness, the décor, the exquisitely decorated rooms and the divine cuisine.
Villa Mandarine is located in the diplomatic quarter, a short drive from the city center. Surrounded by the homes of the country’s ambassadors, you know security will never be an issue. Driving down the hotel’s driveway you stop in front of what was once the home of a French family. They lived there for several generations before deciding to lovingly transform their home into a charming sunlit villa. Today, the art-filled mansion is set in luxuriant private gardens boasting hundreds of orange trees and varieties of flowers. Checking-in is done in a reception area with plenty of comfortable chairs and tables and an array of gorgeous carpets. It’s a small property – a total of 36 rooms, and check-in is fast and efficient. As required by Moroccan law, they will make a copy of your passport, so don’t be alarmed.
Card key now in hand, one of the hotel’s staff will escort you to your room and you’ll be glad. This is a boutique property and the room numbering system is not necessarily logical. It’s a few minutes’ walk from the reception area to the rooms. And, if you are on the second floor, there is an elevator. A fountain babbles gently in the center and is a good beacon if you need reminding of your room’s location.
A card key gains you entry to your cozy, well-appointed room, all of which overlook the lush garden brimming with hibiscus and bougainvillea. Each room has been individually decorated using architectural elements only found in Morocco, glazed Taddelakt and Zeliige mosaics as well as Bejmat tiles. Original pieces of artwork have been carefully chosen to compliment the character of each room. There is a writing desk, and a flat-screen TV. But why would one ever turn the TV on when the view outside your window is so beautiful. Indeed French windows let in the cascading light and offer striking views of the lush garden. There is a small mini-bar and a hairdryer. No iron and the room could do with a few more outlets, but there are enough to manage.
The sheets are wonderful, soft, Egyptian cotton with the hotel’s elegant logo beautifully embroidered on each one. The bathrooms are spacious with lots of marble. They have fluffy towels that you want to take home (all with the elegant logo which I love). The fixtures are a little dated and most rooms have the baths and showers as one unit. But there is plenty of hot water, lovely shampoo and soaps.
Perhaps what I enjoy most about the rooms are the lovely terraces attached to each room. I look forward to taking my book and sitting out looking at the lush green of the garden. Occasionally you’ll see peacocks strutting across the lawns as if they owned the place, which I sometimes think they do! The fragrances of jasmine trees, datura and bougainvillea fill the air and it’s often hard to stay awake in this peaceful environment.
If you feel like being energetic then you can pay a visit to the small gym. Even better, wander over to the heated pool, surrounded by lush gardens, where distinctive towels await. I don’t think I have ever seen more than five people here at any one time. A word of note – those colorful, enormous replicas of exotic animals dotted about the garden are pieces of art. The current owner was an art professor in Paris. Because of this, the gardens, like the rooms, are full of original pieces of art.
Eventually though, as relaxed as you are, hunger will call to the hotel’s public areas. All of which are expansive and decorated as beautifully as your rooms with views of the gardens always visible.
For cooler nights there is a log-burning fireplace and a billiard table. I have spent more time here than I care to admit. Maybe because it’s so close to the bar and the barman makes a mean gin and tonic with Hendricks gin. Amazing how Hendricks can be found in even the remotest spot in Morocco. I wonder who their Moroccan salesperson is, they deserve a pat on the back!
If the weather is nice, eat outside in the delightful courtyard with the views and scent of the surrounding garden.
When temperatures are cooler – don’t worry, the interior is very pleasant as well. Alcoves offer an intimate feel to the dining room as well as providing views of the lush landscape.
If it is on the menu, order the swordfish tartare. It is served in a very generous portion and could easily replace dinner if you want a lighter meal. The miniature croutons are home-made and the quail eggs are a delightful touch. Also recommended is the “Octopus of the Orient” served with saffron risotto. The unusual blend of textures and spices provide a unique Moroccan twist. For dessert you must order the trio of creme brûlées – cardamon, ginger, and coffee. Each flavor is superb. The wine list is extensive with some excellent Moroccan wines. Both the food and wine are extremely reasonably priced especially given the quality of the cuisine. The complimentary petite fours served at the end of the meal are the icing on the cake.
Eventually, as hard as it will seem to leave the wonderful Villa Mandarine, you just have to experience Rabat. It is enchanting and smaller than you would expect, with a center compact enough to be walkable, Its seaside location, at the mouth of the River Bou Regreg, is a delight with a fairy-tale 12th-century kasbah perched over the water.
To begin to understand Rabat start at the remains of the old Roman city which appear out of the earthy hills in the Gardens of Sala Colonia in Chellah. The Phoenicians were the first to settle on this sloping site before the Romans took control. It’s a beautiful walk to the site and you are unlikely to see anyone else.
From here our extraordinary guide can take you to Mohamed V Mausoleum, a perfectly preserved example of the Alaouite dynasty’s architectural style and the final resting place of three significant members of the royal family. Although one cannot enter the mosque, it’s one of the few holy sites in Morocco open to the public. Traditionally-clad soldiers guard the entrance. Once inside, the marble mausoleum is decorated with patterned zellij and carved plaster. Its carved cedar ceiling is quite magnificent and covered in gold leaf. Be sure to look for the cleric in the corner who is always there quietly reading the Quran.
In the distance is the new Grand Theatre, designed by the architect Zaha Hadid. Its bold, fluid lines are inspired by the river and its covered auditorium seats 1,800 people. The theatre is part of the Wessal Bouregreg development spanning both sides of the river. When completed, the 110-hectare project should encompass an archaeological museum, an arts center, a national archive building, malls, a hotel, and a residential district. Rabat is going places.
Drive through town to the cobblestone alleys of the millennium-old Oudaya Kasbah, a former lair of Barbary Coast corsairs and the capital. Wander through their narrow streets enjoying the sun and the vivid blue paint that is such a feature of Moroccan cities.
Rabat’s contemporary edge
For the second half of the day we’d love to show you the city’s contemporary edge. Le Bistrot du Pietri is a chic urban place to dine. Local recipes are inventive and prepared with freshly grown products.
Then explore some of the city’s most interesting art galleries. Stop at Kulte, an independent cultural space where the displays change every month. When I was there last, they were exhibiting prints from an artist’s collective in Tangier, known for their socially conscoius projects. Kulte also has an interesting selection of contemporary art books.
Close by, a 1950’s home houses the tiny L’Appartement 22 gallery on the top floor. Since its opening in 2002, the exhibitions and workshops presented at L’Appartement 22 have consistently attracted international attention. We can arrange, and recommend that you visit the studio of Mustapha Akrim. Mustapha belongs to a new generation of visual artists in Morocco whose works address the social and political issues facing Morocco today.
As you leave the city, admire Rabat’s colonial district and its impressive Art Deco architecture including the dazzling white art deco cathedral. Many of the city’s walls were painted in 2017 to celebrate the “Afrique en Capitale”. This ambitious cultural project showcased frescoes by contemporary African painters which added to the many facades already painted by local street artists.
Returning to the Villa Mandarine, you can head to the pool for a relaxing swim before heading to the restaurant for another fine dinner and a brand new menu as it changes daily. And don’t leave the table early – you will miss the petit fours.