Taha Bouqdib and his wife Maranda Barnes, the founders of Singapore-based TWG Tea, has built an luxury brands with stores all around the world based on their passion for tea. While Bouqdib hails from Morocco and Barnes American by origin, the two has made Singapore their home for the past 12 years.
“Tea was my childhood,” Bouqdib told us. “I grew up in a house near the Chinese embassy in Rabat. Every holiday, the embassy will give us gifts, such as calendars and tea. It was my first taste of a tea we don’t drink in Morocco, and it’s very different. While Moroccan tea is usually mint with a lot of sugar added, you don’t taste the tea leaves. Chinese tea usually has no sugar, so its flavours truly shine.”
While travellers to Morocco are usually lured by the exoticism of cities like Marrakesh and Fes, Rabat is the country’s lesser known capital that should be on everyone’s radar. The city is a vibrant cosmopolitan, where travellers can converse with merchants while browsing in the old-world Medina, drink mint tea and eat traditional sweets while taking in sweeping ocean views in cafes near the 12th-century Kasbah, and marvel at Art Deco architecture from the French colonial era.
When asked about his recommendations to Rabat, Bouqdib was more than happy to share with us his personal favourite places. He told us excitedly: “More Singaporeans are visiting Morocco now, I’m impressed. I was in Marrakesh and greeted two people, only to find out that they were from Singapore. I was so happy, it’s like I found my family there!”
I had a very unique childhood. My father was working for the king of Rabat, so he travelled everywhere all the time. I moved to Paris at the age of 18 for school. I went back to Morocco for a while, and then back again to Paris. I haven’t lived in Morocco since my 20s.
Casablanca is a happening city, it doesn’t sleep. You can head to a nice restaurant at any time or have a drink anywhere. Marrakesh, on the other hand, takes you back to another era. Even when Moroccans go there, it’s like another age of life. Rabat is unique in a way that it feels like home. You feel something very emotional in Rabat.
I miss the silence. There is a very strange silence in Rabat, even when you’re driving — or in traffic. I also miss the lighting in Rabat. It’s sort of foggy, because of its location near the ocean.
Not everyone knows this, but the people in Rabat have a very open-minded mindset. Morocco in general, is very open minded. Although it’s a Muslim country, we don’t have rules of how you must conduct yourself. I think it’s the most open-minded Muslim country in the world. Visitors will find that they can go there and dress how they want — whether they’re a man or woman. Nobody can judge you. This is something I find similar to Singapore. Religion has no judgements of people.
Morocco is also home to the biggest community of Jews. There are so many different cultures mixed into its own culture. You can have a church right beside a mosque. Nobody cares about the religion of others, this makes us proud. Instead, our culture is influenced by history and ancient beliefs. This is why I think this open mindedness makes the culture in Morocco an interesting mix between Europeans and Arab culture. When these co-exist, the result is a creative environment, and open minded people that can live anywhere else in the world.
There are different points to experience Rabat’s culture. First of all, you must visit the coast because it’s near to the beach. My favourites are the Bouznika beach and Harhoura beach. Then, you can’t miss the museums and treasures in Morocco.
The biggest one is called the Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. The museum is the first national museum of contemporary art in the Morocco. This is where they showcase international travelling exhibitions of big-name artists and permanent exhibits of Moroccan works dating from the 1950s to the present day.
The Museum of History and Civilisations of Rabat is also a really good one. This museum houses some of the world’s ancient Roman bronze artefacts.
After you visit the museums, have a comforting cup of tea at The Oudayas Cafe. Although it is very understated, a lot of famous people go there. I once saw the queen of Jordan while I was at the cafe. It’s just a very discreet, low profile place — with teas that are like $1 a cup. Its allure is a combination of the charming ambience, the view, and really good Moroccan mint tea served with sweets.
The food in Morocco, in every corner from Tangier to the Sahara, is the best. Each city has its own speciality. In Rabat and Casablanca, you can eat the best fish you’ve had in your life. When you go to cities that are near the ocean, always ask for fish. It’s fresh everyday. It’s never overcooked and is always perfectly flavoured. You can’t miss the couscous either.
Moroccans are very particular about the freshness of their food. Even for low income families, it’s important that the food is fresh. This is something we have in our blood. If you’re dining in Morocco, don’t be afraid to ask question — you must ask and be very curious. In fact, they will like it when you’re picky with your food. They won’t find you intrusive, they will understand that you want to eat well. The lamb in Morocco is also really good. It’s our specialty.
Rabat is an imperial city, so you can find some good historical points. The Medina, old city, will take you back to thousands of years. You can talk to people and have a cup of tea. Visit the Hassan Tower and Mausoleum of Mohammed V, the capital’s two most visited sites, situated along the Bou Regreg river.
However, I think the most underrated place to visit is the Royal Palace, which dates back to 1864. Nobody knows that you can go in, but they actually allow tourists to step inside. It may be intimidating because there are these huge doors and a lot of security outside. But all you have to do is give your name and ID, and you can explore the landscaped gardens up until the door of the palace with no issue at all.
This isn’t mentioned in any press, anywhere in the world. But I encourage everyone to go, because it’s unbelievably beautiful. When you go in, you can take pictures near the huge handcrafted door. The interiors reflect a mix of Art Deco architecture from the French colonial times in Morocco. In fact, there are beautiful Art Deco houses all around the old city, especially Hassan II Avenue. The red city wall, which meanders around the whole city, is also unbelievable.
Day 1: Visit Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in the morning, followed by lunch at Villa Mandarine. After lunch, visit the Museum of History and Civilization, and then a drink at Sofitel Rabat Jardine des Roses. Take a rest and end the day with a relaxing dinner at The View Hotel.
Day 2: Visit the monuments and enjoy a cup of tea at Kasbah of the Udayas, followed by lunch at Restaurant Marsa. After lunch, take a tour at the Medina of Rabat and have a drink at Cinema 7ème Art Café. Take a rest and have dinner in the Moroccan restaurant at La Tour Hassan Palace.