Tangier to Chefchaouen

Considering we were in a sweltering 4 bunk cabin with an elderly Mohammed beneath us continuously attempting to clear his throat, sleep endured till dawn.

I awoke feeling like the wrong end of a camel and decided to get up and get some fresh air from the small slit in the corridor window. It had no effect in pulling me back into full consciousness. Even the strange tea I bought from the small cart onboard, proved ineffective. It’s effervescent chemically lemon tang still lingering on my tongue as the heavy metal wheels came screeching into Tangier station.

The station was very new and clean, mimicked by the road and new builds outside. We were hassled by a few taxi drivers, all providing us different information on how to get Chefchaouen. Eventually we went with the cheapest option. A taxi ride into the port area where we could book a bus to Chefchaouen leaving in a few hours at midday. On the way the very expressive taxi driver kept trying to convince us to take his tour of the amazing Tangier to see the ‘Lighthouse and big cave of Hercules’. This obviously involved a handful of dirham and no guarantee of making it back in time for the bus. So we politely declined. He dropped us off at what looked like his friends shop but apparently an actual bus stop…. It was closed. Losing faith in this guys reliability, we said our goodbyes and wandered off for a mint tea to collect our thoughts.

We decided that Tangier was not a place to hang around it for too long. I can’t comment on the city as a whole but the port area was seedy and seemed dangerous, reminiscent of a tired, weary European settlement.

We decided we should ‘get the hell outta dodge’ as soon as possible. Whilst realising this, we stumbled across our taxi driver from the train station and negotiations began for a taxi fare to Chefchaouen. It started high and ended up being quite reasonable, only double what the bus fare would have been for the two of us. It was off season and this guy seemed desperate so bartering was simple and it meant we would arrive just after midday, saving plenty of time. So he rang his friend who would be taking us and after a quick stop at the police station to log our travel out of town to Chefchaouen, we were off.

The driver was very friendly and we communicated in a concoction of Spanish, French and English. He also asked me to have a conversation with his 10 year old son over the phone, who spoke perfect American toned english, explaining how we wants to grow up and design cars for Mercedes. And there we were, in his father’s Mercedes that looked like it had made it out of a German factory in the last World War, speedometer wavering like an alcoholics hand and dashboard laden with all sorts of inexplicable trinkets.

Typical conversational classics that we conjured up with a limited knowledge of a handful of languages included, ‘A quantas hueres pour arrivé dans le Chefchaouen amigo’ and ‘Tu l’habite in Maroc, tu le…erm….all your life?’.

Just as we were getting to a pinnacle in the creation of a true European language, a car ahead of us just came out of a turn, began skidding and completed a full 360 degree turn as it passed us on the other side of the road, ending up in a ditch. Thank god there weren’t many cars behind us and it narrowly survived what could have become a fatal accident. Rif turns to the driver and asks whether there were many accidents on this road. Sitting in anticipation of a reassuring reply, I was stunned by his retort.

‘Beaucoup, beaucoup!’

The journey took about 3 hours and the ride was fun, but adrenaline fuelled at times. We got to stop by a lake and take some snaps but were prohibited from taking pictures of the rest of the journey due to some high profile houses in the area. Or so we were told.

The roads wound around the valley edges as we trundled along towards the Rif mountains. We were finally there. Rif had a constant smile on his face as we entered the lands of his birth name. He had a glow on his face as if he had returned to a place of his belonging. Content with the world we took a final corner and had the first glimpse at our home for 3 days. Chefchaouen. Small, old and full of character, tucked in under two looming peaks known as the ‘Two Horns’ which were steeped in an eerie mist at the time.

The trademark blue paint of it’s medina, stuck out of the green countryside like a beacon to all those weary from travel. We climbed the steep roads into the new part of the town until we reached the top western edge of the medina. Bab Souk, the gate named after the market that still has locals selling fresh fish under it’s archways. We paid the driver, said goodbye and then dodged the many locals offering hotels into the gate and into another world.

Chefchaouen (pronounced shef-shao-wen) for me, represents all that is good and honest in Morocco. As we walked through that old stone gate with it’s high arch, littered with fishmongers, we entered a world of blue, a world where time slowed and people smiled, a land of winding streets and dim glowing street lamps, bouncing deep evening turquoise off the sea washed walls.

After a steepish climb up a street to the left of the gate we found our home for the next 3 days, Casa Perleta. Beset into the side of the street down a few steps is an absolute haven. We were welcomed by the extremely friendly and invaluable link to the town, Begonia. A spanish woman who had moved and settled to this sleeping edge of Morocco and who provided us with all the hints and tips to enjoy what the town had to offer. We had mint tea and filled in the check-in forms whilst warming by a well lit fire in the hearth by reception. The Casa was an old house, renovated in the towns legendary blue with spacious rooms and a view of the town and hills beyond that set my adventurous spirit in motion.

The afternoon was spent walking the streets, taking in the smells and sounds and visiting the well recommended Casa Hasan for dinner. The food was astounding, the service by Saleem excellent and became our eatery for dinner the next few nights. Lamb tagine served bubbling hot with spiced prunes and crisp almonds, all shovelled down with freshly baked bread, olives and mint tea. Heavenly.

But as the rains came in force, we retired to our room for a well deserved nights rest. Sleep coming fast as the pitter patter of water on the tiles outside our window, washed away the fatigue from travelling across the country.

Waking early to a misty morning, we hoped for the sun to break through and warm up the day before our trek up to the unfinished mosque on the hill overlooking the town. Breakfast was served by the fire in reception. We were the only ones in the house that night so we enjoyed a quiet petit dejeuner of bread, olive oil, goats cheese and coffee. Fuel for the walking ahead of us.

On Begonia’s instruction we turned right out of the Casa and walked straight, along the highest point of the medina until we came upon the path up to the mosque. It had stopped raining and it looked liked a lot of the locals had the same idea to head up to see the view from the base of one of the ‘Two Horns’. As we walked further and further away from the town, the view behind us unfolded in a glorious array of tightly woven buildings. The tapestry that was Chefchaouen, transformed as the sun broke from behind the clouds and the blues and browns of the structures shot out from every face of this beautiful and unique place.

The walk took us by Berber trails cutting up into the sheer rock faces to our left, which slowly opened into outstretching green plains of grazing herds, watched over by Jedi like hooded shepherds.

We were joined on the trail by groups of teenagers on their spring break, guitars in hand and music playing from their phones. Our quicker pace meant we preceded most of the droves to the top and had the platform around the unfinished mosque, over looking the town, all to ourselves.

The views were amazing over the town and surrounding lowlands and as usual the customary pictures at the top were taken.

The mountain air filled our lungs as we made the walk back into town and down the eastern wall of the medina, past the women washing their clothes in the river that came down from the Rif ridge. Small restaurants and cafés added to the ambience of the walk, the sounds of clinking glasses and conversation rising above the undertone set by the flowing river. Tributaries would spring up next to the main stream and cascade down in waterfalls as locals strolled up and down, admiring the view and the slow pace of life.

Serenity is the word that came to mind that lazy afternoon.

We had lunch in the main square, under the Kasbah which gave the aged town a medieval feel, complete with the Jedi council, a group of old Berbers that hung around at the dilapidated mint tea establishment at the north end of the square.

We recuperated back at Casa Perleta, with a mint tea and refreshing conversation with one of the many Mohammed that worked in the house. With our legs recharged, we decided to explore the actual medina wall itself. We had seen it winding up around the town on a steep ascent of the hill it was built upon. There had been a small trail up to the top and like any self respecting itinerant it had to be wandered.

An hour, a bottle of water and around 347 deep breaths and we had reached the top of the wall. Tired but satisfied, we looked down on the town which now looked like a model village just within a grasp. In reality it was quite a drop back into town…

We walked along the perimeter of the wall, peering through small arrow loops at the town below. Our sight seeing tour of the world above the wall was cut short as the clouds rolled in and rain could be seen coming our way over the hills at an alarming rate…

So we cut down through an archway back into the dense thicket of streets, navigating our way south until we hit a larger street and turned right, hopefully taking us back to Bab Souk. Working in these basic right and left directions really helped us not to get lost, even know eventually it would happen, you still had an inclination towards the direction home. As sleep came, so did the thunder. The storm raged for a while and I managed to capture a shot of the lightning in the far distance over the hills in the view from our window.

The storm had cleared by morning and it seemed had cleansed the sky of the rain we had the last few days. Blue skies reigned overhead and heat baked down on our shoulders as we had breakfast on the terrace overlooking town.

I was beginning to love the simple breakfast with the olives and goats cheese full of taste and nothing like the ‘versions’ we get sold at home!

We had to book tickets to Fez for the next day and this involved a walk out of the Bab Souk into the new town and down to the limits to the south western edge. Begonia accompanied us half of the way to the post office and directed us on how to come back through the market and a place to eat fresh meat.

Tickets booked and paid for we made the steep walk back up to the new town square via the Monday market. If you are in Chefchaouen on a Monday I would definitely recommend a trip to this Riffian market that takes place to the south of the new town on a road that twists and turns back up to the Post Maroc. The mix of fruit, clothes, kettles and junk made the walk a pleasure. Watching the master barterers at work, shaving pennies off of their daily deals and necessary purchases; out of custom, enjoyment and need.

Rif walked among his people like a king would amongst his subjects. Brushing his hand along the sacks of produce from the hills of his people, a glint in his eye and an unwavering posture that exuded pride.

We had done it. Rif was in the Rif with his Riffians and all seemed right. Our brilliant smiles only grew in width when we spotted an item from our childhood, shining like a lighthouse from a pile of used shoes and broken necklaces.

We continued on through the droves of people, awash with burdened arms full of fruit and veg. The harsh climb made me wonder how precariously the market traders had propped up their stalls on the hill but by this time my stomach had exceeded us in our pursuit of language and had began reciting prose of its own.

It was time for meat. And not just any meat. We had been promised the best meat in the world. I know this might sound slightly on the homosexual side, but this was purely a homosapien drive for one of humanities oldest sources of energy. Meat.

And oh what quality meat it was. The slow cooked lamb melted in the mouth whilst the steamed minced lamb balls exploded with flavour. All accompanied by our very own display of the local lambs literally being led to the slaughter, to be dished out onto customers plates within hours.

The rest of time in Chefchaouen included:

Staring in awe at more blueness than we could ever have imagined.

Drinking the local water profusely after stupidly running up the hill.

Drinking mint tea in a woodland north of town in the foothills of the Rif.

Watching old Berbers watching….other old Berbers?

Wearing a silly amount of hats…

Leaning on a rock on the side of a cliff overlooking town, trying to get ‘that’ night shot.

Enjoying the towns transformation at night, with its lantern glow and even slower pace.

The final hours of the last day were spent in a sombre state, having a last meal at Casa Hasan with a final goodbye to Saleem, who had given us amazing service and friendly conversation during our meals there. Then a stroll through the markets at night and a final stint of people watching in the mood lit square.

Chefchaouen is an absolute gem and I hope it doesn’t experience the high amount of tourism that has spoiled other places in Morocco. It is by far the outstanding part of our trip and shall always be in our memory. The food, the people and the sights.

A definite must for anyone in Morocco. Or even in Spain, its only a boat and a bus away!

And so the last night crept up on us faster than we could have comprehended. The next day was another part of Morocco and knowing this country, a completely different experience.

Goodbye Chaouen.

On to Fes.

– U.Mirza