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A tale of four cities

Each of Morocco's imperial capitals is a dazzling jewel in the kingdom's crown, writes Lara Brunt. Pictures by Glen Pearson

 

It is a classic pub quiz question: what is the capital of Morocco? If the pink-walled city of Marrakesh comes to mind, sadly you're mistaken.

While the desert city has been the ancient capital of more than one royal dynasty, the modern-day honour belongs to under-the-radar Rabat. Together with Fez and Meknes, they are the Kingdom of Morocco's four great imperial cities.

Befitting their dynastic status, all four are Unesco World Heritage sites. And drawing on Morocco's heady blend of Berber, African, Arab and European influences, each city serves up some-thing different.

Fez, the country's oldest imperial city, was founded by Sultan Idris II in the late eighth century. His father, Idris I, is credited with having brought Islam to Morocco, converting the indigenous Berber tribes and creating the first Arab Muslim dynasty.

The ancient medina, Fez el-Bali, is a complex maze of passages tightly packed with markets, mosques and mysterious doorways. Wandering its unfathomable streets, you get the feeling that not much has changed in 1,200 years. Donkeys laden with goods trudge past butchers displaying their bloody wares; a boy delivers his mother's freshly kneaded dough to the communal bakery; coppersmiths beat a mechanical metal rhythm, silenced briefly by competing calls to prayer.

An afternoon stroll leads us to the ninth-century Kairaouine mosque complex, home to the oldest university in the world but closed to non-Muslims. Through a keyhole-shaped door, we catch a glimpse of a courtyard decorated with colourful zellij (mosaic tiles) and endless carved stucco arches. The neighbouring Medersa el-Attarine (Koranic school) is open to all and is just as awe inspiring.

Fez is also the country's culinary capital. "Fassi cooking has lovely combinations of sweet and savoury," says Cafe Clock head chef Souad Maidja, as she leads us through the souk to stock up on fresh ingredients: cumin, coriander and preserved lemons along with aromatic cinnamon, sultanas and honey.

In her kitchen, in a 250-year-old courtyard house near the medina's main entrance, Maidja shows us how to make smoky zaalouk (spiced eggplant salad), hearty harira soup with lentils and tomatoes and deliciously sweet blighat b t'mer (date and pastry rolls).

The highlight, though, is seksou t'faya - fluffy couscous with caramelised onions, raisins and succulent lamb that falls off the bone.
 

THE HOUR-LONG drive west to Meknes passes through fertile fields of olive and almond trees, vibrant wildflowers and neat rows of vines. The vineyards, a legacy of French rule, from 1912 until 1956, produce surprisingly quaffable vintages.

Sultan Moulay Ismail made Meknes his capital in the 17th century. During his 55-year reign, he built a grandiose palace and encircled his city with imposing high walls and monumental babs (gates).

"He was also renowned for having 500 concubines and over 1,000 children," our guide, Youssef Abdelmoula, says.

The sultan went out in style, too. His mausoleum features classic tiled courtyards and an elaborate tomb hall. The impressive Bab Mansour, completed posthumously, includes marble columns plundered from the Roman city of Volubilis.

Volubilis' well-preserved ruins, 33 kilometres north of Meknes, are our next stop. Once the westernmost outpost of their empire, the Romans abandoned the city around AD285. The exquisite floor mosaics, although faded by the North African sun, are remarkably intact.

We spend the night in the sacred hill-top town of Moulay Idriss, five kilo-metres from Volubilis. During the month before Ramadan, the faithful make a pilgrimage to the tomb of the man the town is named for, where they pray, sing and dance. We wander past the holy site, closed to non-Muslims, and continue up a tangle of narrow streets, past a beautiful green cylindrical minaret, the only one of its kind in Morocco, and arrive at a lookout with tranquil views over the quiet village below.
 

COASTAL RABAT has an entirely different feel. Come dusk, a cosmopolitan crowd promenades along the palm-fringed boulevards of its French-built new town. A shiny new tram glides quietly by, full of jeans-clad students and women wearing headscarves.

"Rabat is changing a lot, but in a good way. People are progressing," says Ali Younes, a surgeon who recently opened boutique B&B Riad Zyo.

The city was added to the World Heritage list last year and praised for its blending of past and present. Yet despite this accolade, Rabat remains firmly off the tourist trail. We are happily ignored in the souks, attrac-ting the odd curious glance rather than well-practised sales patter. We have the crumbling 14th-century necropolis of Chellah to ourselves, too, bar a colony of storks that have taken up residence among the ruins.

Rabat briefly enjoyed imperial status in the 12th century under Almohad ruler Yacoub al-Mansour. The sultan built the splendid Bab Oudaia but died before the enormous Hassan mosque was completed. Today, Hassan Tower, a minaret that was only half-built, and a few pillars are all that remain following an earthquake in 1755.

Overlooking the Atlantic, Kasbah des Oudaias is the city's most intriguing quarter. The fortress was a haven for pirates during the 17th century and the brilliant white and blue houses built by Muslim refugees from Spain give the place a distinctly Mediterranean feel.
 

ARRIVING IN Marrakesh feels like stepping back in time, albeit to an era that unaccountably has motor scooters and mobile phones. Founded in the 11th century by the Almoravids, the city blossomed under the Almohad dynasty. The Koutoubia Mosque, the symbol of the city, with its 77-metre-high minaret, was built during their reign.

West of Koutoubia, the busy main square, Djemaa el-Fna, with its snake charmers and makeshift food stalls, demands to be experienced at least once. Touts banter easily in several languages, veiled women beckon strollers over for a henna tattoo and steaming pots of spicy snail broth lend a pungent aroma to the proceedings.

Visiting the magnificent 14th-century Ali ben Youssef Medersa is a far more spiritual experience. As many as 900 students once studied at the Koranic school, no doubt inspired by the lustrous zellij and delicately carved cedar balconies.

The nearby Maison de la Photographie gallery, featuring vintage photos from 1870 to 1950, allows visitors to imagine the Morocco of old, shrouded in mystique. After a sweet mint tea break on the roof terrace, we dive back into the labyrinthine souks to haggle and get hopelessly lost among the melee.
 

Getting there: Air France www.airfrance.com flies daily from Hong Kong to Paris' Charles De Gaulle Airport, and onwards from the French capital to Rabat's Sale Airport. The four imperial cities are connected by frequent train services.

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