Chefchaouen, Morocco: A Magical Dreamscape
It’s hard to pinpoint how a place ends up on my Must See list – I hear about it from a traveling friend, I read a novel set there, I come across a rhapsodic account on the Internet. But once a place is lodged on the list, it stays there until I start packing.
I remember exactly when the Moroccan town of Chefchaouen joined the queue: in a coffee-table book I found at a garage sale, I spotted a photograph of what appeared to be an all-blue town.
I’d never heard of the place before, and there was only a single picture, but that was enough. It was on the list.
Cobalt to Aquamarine
This summer, years after the photograph ignited my fantasies, Chefchaouen was the first stop on a trip to Morocco I made with my daughter. The town didn’t disappoint.
Chefchaouen is a magical dreamscape of a place, occupying the saddle between two peaks in the Rif Mountains of northern Morocco.
Houses, stone walls, alcoves, arches, streets, are all covered in whitewash tinted a shimmering iceberg blue. Doors, sashes, ornate iron balconies and window grilles are painted in shades from cobalt to aquamarine.
The Spanish Influence
This lends the winding streets and stairs an underwater feeling -- as if a Greek village had been relocated to the bottom of the sea. In fact, Chaouen, as it is locally known, is in many respects a Spanish town, having been settled by Moorish refugees fleeing the Inquisition.
Christians were banned from entering the town until 1920, when Spanish troops occupied Northern Morocco. One of the three who tried to sneak in, an American missionary, was poisoned.
The Spanish influence can be seen in the town’s many Andalusian-style red tile roofs and heard in the cries of “Hola” in the streets.
Pulsing with Life
Although Chefchaouen’s architectural charm had come through clearly in the garage-sale photograph, it wasn’t apparent that this idyllic setting is pulsing with life.
Kids play soccer in narrow cobblestone alleys and in the early mornings women carry trays of bread dough and peppers for baking in the wood-fired community oven.
Stray cats are everywhere. Street stalls sell almond-filled pastries and boiled snails, to be plucked from their brown-and-white striped shells with safety pins. The bees prefer the pastries.
After several days in Chefchaouen, I concluded that the town square, the Uta el-Hammam, is one of the world’s great public spaces, truly a marvel. Forget the sun-scorched Spanish Steps or the famously hectic Djemaa el-Fna in Marrakech.
The Uta el-Hammam manages to be both lively and serene. The surrounding landscape of tall peaks gives the plaza a protected, oddly cozy feeling. Beautiful pebbled mosaics underfoot contribute to the sensation that the plaza is a big outdoor room.
Small cafes line one side of the square, each dotted with blue and red umbrellas. Directly opposite, side by side, are the two most imposing buildings in town: the 15th century Grande Mosque, with its lofty staircase and octagonal minaret, and the Kashbah, built of red earth walls.
Inside is a lovely garden with palm and fig trees and a small museum of old musical instruments and traditional crafts.
All day and late into the night, the plaza serves as the stage for a kaleidoscopic assortment of humanity, both local and passing through.
Old men in white Jellablas and embroidered skull caps, Riffian women in traditional red and white striped overskirts and pom-pom topped straw hats, strolling Berber musicians, backpack-toting tourists, young Moroccan parents in modern dress keeping loose watch on children whose sneakers flash tiny red lights, like grounded fire flies.
A Vogue for Che
In my pre-departure guidebook browsing, I had learned that Chefchaouen went through a phase as a hippie hangout, owing to the large quantities of marijuana (locally known as kif) grown in the nearby hills.
The hippie influence has faded somewhat, although walking around town I detected a curious vogue for Che Guevara, whose face could be seen on T-shirts and on posters in people's living rooms.
A guide I’ll call Ali took us around during our second day in town, and I asked him about the Che phenomenon. Ali allowed that he too had a Che poster in his room. This was because Che stood for being hippie happy all the time, he said. At least we thought that was what he said.
Ali was both hard to understand, owing to rudimentary English language skills in addition to a slight stutter, and hard to believe, as he seemed to say whatever came into his head, sometimes giving different answers to the same question. This lent an air of unreality to his stories which fit perfectly with the dreamlike atmosphere of the town.
Some Ali facts: 80 percent of the people in town smoke kif. This includes his 74-year-old father, who smokes every single night and does not look a day over 54. (The same man who has had nine wives and 22 children.) It includes the Securite police and also the king, when he’s in town. I think Ali was joking about that.
The Ras el-Ma River
After a brief turn around the Kasbah, Ali led us a short walk from the Northeast gate of the medina to Ras el-Ma river, which cascades down from one of the peaks.
Climbing toward the spring that is Ras el-Ma’s source, we came first to a pool where women were congregated washing brightly colored rugs by submerging them in the water and stamping on them. It looked like much more fun than a coin laundry.
We climbed farther, passing a wood-fired clay oven, where bread was being baked as it has been for centuries. Eventually we arrived high above the town at one of the local sights, which Ali described as the remains of a mosque.
My Cadogan guidebook begged to differ, describing the ruins as a folly built by the Spanish occupiers and was never actually used by the townspeople as a mosque. It also cautioned: “Watch where you put your feet – there are turds about.”
There are indeed, but it seemed a rather unnecessary warning, as the presence of so many donkeys and goats provided enough of a hint.
A Web of Music
We learned that this fake mosque was as close as we would get to a Muslim house of worship. In Morocco, entry to Mosques is reserved for Muslims, a restriction originally put in place by the French Protectorate.
Still, we were not excluded from one evocative daily ritual of the faith. Every evening we climbed to the rooftop terrace of our hotel to hear the sunset call to prayer. As tradition dictates, the muezzin at the biggest mosque starts the prayer and the call then echoes from mosque to mosque across the town.
Our hotel, the wonderful Dar Mounir, was in between several of the town's mosques, and being on the terrace during the call to prayer felt like being enmeshed in a web of music.
We were especially happy with Dar Mounir because we had stumbled onto it when the lodging we’d originally booked turned out to be far from town, rather grimy and run by stoned Scottish hippies.
The Da Mounir was simple, but beautifully designed and centrally located, right off Uta el-Hammam. The front desk was staffed by a handsome young man named Mohammed, who was friendly and patient and willing to answer our steady stream of questions about his country and his religion.
“I don’t know if you know this,” he said by way of explanation, “but there are two branches of Islam: Sunni and Shiite.”
We know now, we said. Ah, yes, he said, ever since Sept 12th. There were sighs and head shakes all around, as we thought back to those terrible events eight years ago.
An Excellent Portent
Then the conversation turned to the historic speech President Barack Obama had given just the week before, calling for a new relationship between the United States and Muslims around the world: “one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.”
This seemed an excellent portent for beginning a trip to Morocco, which, as Obama reminded the world, was in 1777 the first country to recognize the newly independent United States. One more reason for it to belong on our Must See list.
Dar Mounir, in the Derb Kadialami quarter, has 11 air-conditioned rooms, all with baths and three with shower areas. Its rooftop terrace has panoramic views of the medina and the town. The hotel also runs a small café in the town plaza.
The Tissemial restaurant inside the Casa Hassan guesthouse does a very nice version of Moroccan standards in a cozy and picturesque setting.
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