I woke up distressed because I could no longer smell the scent of the hotel’s dilapidation. After trying to breath shallowly all night (to avoid inhaling mold spores and who knows what else), I tested the damp, mildewy air by taking a deep breath and discovered that it no longer smelled of anything.
“Gabe, we have to get out of here. I think I’ve become immune to the smell. Does that mean we smell like the room now, too?”
We hastily packed our bags and left the place where we took refuge during our stay in Rabat. Then we exited the hotel’s foyer into a narrow alley, dumping ourselves into Rabat’s medina.
Unlike the night before, when the medina was teeming with life—a frenzy of shoppers swirling around street food carts and shops like fish darting in and out of bright coral reefs—it was now silent and empty. Already 8 am, we were reminded that Morocco is a late-to-rise culture, as we made our way east of city centre on empty sidewalks.
Soon, our destination rose before us: Chellah, an ancient settlement established by the Phoenicians and Carthaginian explorers as early as the third century BC.
We stepped into the walled archaeological site through a thick gate, leaving the modern behind as we entered another time. Footpaths led us through lush gardens and we marveled at the quiet that felt so separate from Morocco’s capital city. It was a sanctuary of peace.
Chellah’s haunting walls were deserted, save ourselves, a few groundsmen, the resident cranes and a dozen cats that lazily slept in sun patches along the garden paths.
Arched doorways beckoned us in, drawing us deeper into Chellah, where we saw layers of architecture reflecting the site’s varied past—marking its progression from a Phoenician settlement to bustling Roman hub to Islamic burial site.
Overlooking the Bou Regreg river, the crumbling Roman ruins, dating as far back as 40 AD, support archaeologists’ theory that Chellah was once a naval port for the empire. Open to our own exploration, the rocks invited us to study their past as we climbed up jagged paths and walked on cobble-stoned streets that once formed the Decumanus Maximus (a Roman military road), a temple, triumphal arch and forum.
We gathered what information we could from scattered UNESCO signs, which were written in French and Arabic. It appeared that the defensive wall around the ruins was not built until the 14th century, when Merenid sultan Abou al-Hassan Ali built a medieval Muslim necropolis on top of the site, which prior to that had lain deserted for several centuries, having been abandoned by the Romans in 1154.
Large birds nested on top of the defensive wall and the minaret that seemed to anchor the ancient Islamic complex. As we circled the site, we found the minaret’s gaze followed us, a steadfast presence.
Glimpses of light through windows and open doorways teased us with what might lie around each stone corner. Our footsteps muted by the soft dirt floor of the ruins, we silently wandered through the stone walls, trying not to disturb the birds as we envisioned what Chellah must have looked like in the height of its day.
We had started our exploration of Chellah along the exterior walls of the ruins, but after an hour of winding through its footpaths, we found ourselves in its innermost sanctum, beneath the shadow of the minaret. There, we discovered an ornate pool, crafted with hand-cut Moroccan tiles.
After whirlwind days in both Casablanca and Rabat, we enjoyed a slower pace. We paused to sit on a rock cropping (or perhaps it was a crumbling Roman column?), overlooking the estuarine portion of Oued Bou Regreg, drinking in sights of the river and bird sanctuary nestled between rolling green hills. The large cranes also built towering nests along the riverbed, not unlike those you might find in a Dr. Seuss book.
Unhurried, we remained there for the rest of the morning. But eventually, our stomachs growling, we decided it was time to return to 2018. We retraced the footpaths to the impenetrable exterior wall and through the thick gate.
Back in Rabat’s city centre, we shared a pizza and a spicy gingembre fizzy drink al fresco in a street café. As we sat, la gendarmerie royale du Maroc began to arrive in armored vehicles fitted for protection from riots, each seat occupied by an alert officer. Over the course of the meal, more of the national police force arrived and started to block off streets.
Assuming an important government official was about to parade through the streets with his motorcade, but unsure just exactly what was going on, we finished our meal and decided to escape into Rabat’s medina. By that time, we knew we wanted to continue our journey north. And the one pair of shoes I packed for the trip were not warm enough for that trek.
“Sarah, I think you should buy a pair of shoes.”
“What? I’m sorry… I don’t think I heard you correctly. Can you repeat that?”
“Yes, I know. I can’t believe I’m saying it either.”
The shop we entered had a sign that read prix fixe, although I knew that in the medina, nothing was ever truly a fixed price. I tried to ignore the beautiful leather ankle boots, knowing what Gabriel would say to me walking miles across foreign terrain in wedged heels. Instead, I moved towards the back of the shop, where a wall of colorful balgha or babouche (Moroccan slippers) lined makeshift shelves. A pair of subdued taupe flats—almost a cross between loafers and espadrilles—caught my eye.
Once on my feet, I discovered the soft leather was comfortable, but more importantly, warm. An internal battle began—in 29 years, I had never purchased a pair of practical shoes. Would I break the record now? I looked at them again. In some ways, they reminded me of a Moroccan version of Tom’s. I decided I liked them enough to consider them practical and cute, in a beatnik-chic kind of way.
I haggled only a moment with the shop owner before handing over some dirham and walking out with the new shoes on my hooves. Less than an hour later, as we made our way back to city centre and the train station, I spotted a grandma wearing the same shoes. I tried to convince myself the shoes were still cute, but my argument was becoming less strong.
It was mid-afternoon when we boarded the train, this one much older than the one that carried us from Casablanca to Rabat, and a bit more cramped. We shared a compartment with four others, our shoulders touching each neighbor.
The sun was beginning to set when we departed the train and hopped onto a bus. We were only halfway to our destination—a place deep in the Atlas Mountains and inaccessible by train. I tried to rest as we winded through narrow mountain passages.
Sometime later, our forward motion came to a halt and I woke up. I opened my eyes and everything was blue…