Rabat is proud of being a green city, a claim backed up by its twenty square metres of garden per inhabitant – double the amount recommended by international standards. The capital of Morocco, though not the country’s main tourist destination, has plenty to see including 568 acres of green spaces, which flourish in the city’s fairly wet, mild, Atlantic climate. In fact, the city is embraced by the world’s largest expansion of cork oaks, the Mamora forest, currently in a process of recovery after the heavy rainfall of the last two years.
After visiting the Kasbah of the Udayas above the banks of the Bu Regreg river, the Hassan minaret of the Almohad mosque and the ruins of the Merinid necropolis at Chellah, visitors can relax in one of the city’s many peaceful parks and gardens.
THE BOTANIC GARDEN OF ACCLIMATISATION
In about 1914, the great French landscape architect and gardener Jean Claude Nicolas Forestier created the Garden of Acclimatisation in Rabat (Jardin d’Essais Botaniques) on about 42 acres at the heart of the Alaouite capital. This botanic garden, which houses 700 different species, is today being restored but will soon be re-opened to the public. The older inhabitants of the city remember with nostalgia having played here amongst the fig trees and strelitzias and look forward to once again visiting the newly-refurbished gardens.
From the southern end of these stepped, sloping gardens, it used to be possible to see the sea but the view is now concealed behind a line of white buildings topped with a light layer of mist. The higher part is arranged symmetrically around a large central axis with fountains and rose gardens surrounded by large cicads from different parts of the world, as well as fruit trees, climbing plants and crassulaceae that create an arid, lunar landscape.
The lower part of the garden houses the scientific activities, with a seed bank, a herbarium, a farming museum and greenhouses overflowing with tropical plants. It also has a small, enchanting garden in the Al-Andalús style, and a neo-Moorish garden which a historical feel to it, both of which were conceived and restored as part of the Med-O-Med programme.
THE EXOTIC GARDENS OF BOUKNADEL
In the middle of the last century, a French plant lover and horticulturalist, Marcel François, decided to create an exotic garden close to Rabat, on the road to Kenitra. He dug, filled and planted until he had achieved an ecosystem that was flooded by water, with wetlands and ponds containing tropical fish. He eventually converted this dry land into a shady, moist wood and was able to devote his energies to introducing aquatic plants, his speciality. During his travels all over the world – Peru, Congo, China, the Antilles – he collected seeds and species that he acclimatised on an 11-acre plot, with scientific and commercial aims in mind, but also for pure enjoyment because the collections did not necessarily follow any systematic order.
Today, the Bouknadel Exotic Gardens have been restored and are open to the public. Visitors can now sit in a pleasant café to drink a glass of tea while enjoying the gurgling fountains, and can then stroll around the intricate labyrinth of gravel and sand paths to inspect the dense gardens as they were laid out by their creator, that is, by geographical area, which does not mean that the plants are necessarily from such areas. The gardens are shielded by a screen of bald cypresses, araucarias, fig trees, palms, and mimosas, all of which allow this tropical ecosystem to survive in this arid coastal territory.
A species of fish, the gambusias, act as predators of the mosquito larvae, preventing them from proliferating in the many ponds.
But other necessary ports of call on this botanical visit to the capital of Morocco are the Al-Andalús garden dating from the early 20th century close to the Kasbah of the Udayas, and the Sisi Bou Ghaba biological reserve. These are wetlands about 25 kilometres from Rabat on the way to Kenitra, which are surrounded by Mediterranean scrub and are home to unusual aquatic birds. They are covered by the Ramsar Convention. www.ramsar.org . With a bit of luck and patience, you might be able to sight a marsh owl, and you will definitely see marbled ducks who have there their largest colony in the world. A luxury that is today under careful protection.