Today we explored Rabat, a town just up the coast from Casablanca. It is now the seat of the government in Morocco, but was once a kingdom of its own. Not just any kingdom, either, but one ruled by Barbary pirates, who ran their operation out of the mouth of the river Bou Regreg. How could we resist? In short, we could not.

The train ride north from Casa was short, fast, and comfortable, taking about an hour to wend its way up along the coast. We jettisoned our bags at the clean, funky little modern hotel I found for us, and went for lunch at an equally clean, trendy Mediterranean restaurant nearby. We ate on their garden terrace, surrounded at first by tourists and later by Moroccan business people on their lunch break.

Rabat was also the capital of the French government back in the day, so it has a much more European and cosmopolitan feel to it than Casa did. Outside of the medina, we saw very few jelabas, the long traditional hooded robes worn by both men and women (I am fiercely coveting one of my own), and mostly modern clothing, with the addition of headscarves for the women.

Once we dove into the small medina though, most semblances of modernity were left far behind. We walked up one of the main passageways to reach the Kasbah at the mouth of the river Bou Regreg (we all love that name!), and on the way, we passed by stalls chock full of just about anything and everything.

How to describe the sensory downpour that is the medina? There were layers upon layers of sights, sounds, smells, things, and people. The tiny stores displayed everything from cleaning supplies and walls full of multi-colored spools of thread to gorgeous leather work, bags, sandals, and hassocks.

The immediacy of the goods was perhaps the most striking: If you ducked down an alley, you could see them curing the leather in the tannery, and if you looked into the right door, you could see men hand painting the designs or sewing the embroidery onto intricately adorned jelabas. A man sat on the street painting tiny lines onto an ornate cedar shelf with great confidence and accuracy, his small radio playing music next to him.

There was so much to take in that I think I forgot to be overwhelmed. I was far too fascinated by it all, and didn’t want to miss a thing. I suspect that won’t be the case when we go to Fez tomorrow, but this medina was much quieter, the vendors less pushy. Perfect for our first taste of medina life.

We emerged from the alleyways of the medina to see the Kasbah perched on the river front, and ducked in to one of its gates to find ourselves lost in a world of blue: blue doors, blue walls, blue benches, blue tiles. It was a cool, soothing contrast to the bright, busy bustle of the medina, and we happily got totally lost in the small streets, walking down one dead end after another, only to find here an ornately painted door and there a woman whose jelaba perfectly matched the walls she was passing.

At a café perched on the Cliffside overlooking the river, we sat and had the requisite sweet mint tea, along with a wide variety of Moroccan sweets, which were offered to us on a large platter. The man described them all to us and we promptly forgot which was which, but enjoyed them thoroughly nonetheless.

We took a different way back through the medina, this time finding the food section instead of the lamps and leather goods. There were fruit and veggie stalls, fish vendors, and spice stores, with immaculately arranged and displayed bins of dried beans in front of towering stacks of spices in brilliant hues. There was a stall with a flock of live chickens on display in back of a counter with an ominous looking chopping block at the front. A man spread out a huge pile of orange blossoms and another one of mint on platforms in the street, while nearby a woman in a bright jelaba talked on the pay phone.

On the hunt for fresh fruit, of which we hadn’t had much since arriving, we were amused to find the best specimens strung precariously on a well-balanced motorcycle. He had panniers of fruit hung from both handle bars, and a scale on the back. Having just consumed about half of what we bought in one sitting, I can attest that his fruit was amazing!

As we walked through the convoluted twists and turns of the medina streets, I was constantly struck by two things. One, that there weren’t any tourists where we were walking, only locals. For the most part, they didn’t pay us any mind, but I did notice quite a few stares. We are about as different to them as a person in a headscarf would be to us as home – you’ve seen it before, but it still stands out from the norm.

The other thing I noticed was who was doing the staring. As I wrote yesterday, I seemed to get a lot more looks from the women than the men, which is surprising to me, especially because I only saw it when I was looking at their beauty in the first place.

Regardless of who was doing the looking, they all were very polite and friendly. When I noticed someone looking at me, whether a woman on the street or a vendor in his stall, I would smile and incline my head. Almost invariably, I received a dignified nod or a shy smile in return, an acknowledgement that we are more common than we are different, despite appearances. It felt wonderful to be welcomed in that way, especially as I felt such an intruder, staring at these people and taking pictures of their doorways as they went about their daily lives.

The one person who didn’t smile back was a fierce looking woman in a yellow jelaba and headscarf, whose dark skin and light green eyes belied her Berber heritage. She was incredibly beautiful, all the more so because she didn’t return my smile. I think it was better that way.

Back on the modern streets once more, we were overtaken on the way back to the hotel by two crowds of people holding a protest on the main street through town. At first we were entertained by their catchy tune and the novelty of seeing other people’s politics in progress, but then they started breaking up and running in all directions, threatened by the police. We almost got knocked over in the process, which was a little more excitement than we’d bargained for, but it was certainly an aspect of Moroccan life the guidebook didn’t cover.

After that, we made our way more sedately and quietly through a large park and back to our hotel, where we will be eating dinner tonight. Another successful day in Morocco, including our first medina and Kasbah.

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