Morocco 2017: Chefchaouen – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To keep myself sane during the pandemic lockdown, I started reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text and additional photos.  

My travels have taken me through Italy, Turkey and Spain. In 2017 I hit the top of my bucket list with a belated birthday gift to myself – a guided trip to Morocco. Today we visit a blue city high up in the mountains, and I buy more clothes!

After roaming around the Kasbah of the Oadaias and inspecting nearly every inch of the fortress in Rabat, we climb into the car and head towards the Blue City of Chefchaouen.  

We drive by groves of trees that have had their bark stripped to about 8 feet up. They are cork oaks, freshly harvested. Cork can be harvested a dozen times during a tree’s lifetime; after a tree reaches 25 years old, it can be harvested by hand every 9-12 years. The harvest does not harm the tree, and because trees regenerate their bark, cork is considered a renewable resource.

We pass hothouses where bananas are being grown, the structures are not as tall as I would expect but stretch back from the road for several acres. I see smaller quonset shaped hothouses where strawberries are being grown. Flocks of sheep graze right along side the road while their shepherds stand nearby, almost always in traditional dress.  We see cattle, but are told that these are dairy cows.  Beef cows are raised in feed lots, but Morocco does not have an industrialized beef industry.  Mohamed, our driver, owns a restaurant, and explains that restaurants work directly with butchers, who buy cows directly from local ranchers. Much of local commerce is based on personal relationships here.

Burros start to outnumber cars. There are carts of oranges along the side of the road, nomadic fruit stands.  Doug points out 50-year old aqueducts running parallel to the roadway, delivering water to the fields. Houses are painted lavender and pink. I look out at hedges of prickly pear interspersed with low growing trees, which form a green fence between the fields and the road. The prickly pear hedges give way to eucalyptus trees further on. To the left is a sugar cane field, and to the right, pottery stands displaying piles of lanterns, pots and tagines. Craftsmen’s booths are lined up side by side for a solid two blocks.

We pass through a  small town of window manufacturers and automotive shops operating out of spaces about the size of a single car garage. A little later on, an unexpected graveyard.

Climbing up a winding road, nearing sunset we turn a bend, and a pale blue and white landscape comes into view. It’s Chefchaouen, a mountain community that we will explore tomorrow.

Chefchaouen was built in 1471 by Moulay el Ben Rashid ed Alami, a Moorish exile from Spain. It served as a refuge for Moriscos and Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition and was also a stronghold against the Portuguese. It’s Jewish population painted the town blue during the 1930’s, possibly to control mosquitos, though the actual reason seems open to speculation.

We pull into a steep drive and check into the Al Khalifa Hotel, on a hill overlooking the city.  The rooms are simple but efficient, and the red painted furniture is striking against the blue-washed walls.  It feels very Himalayan, but the manager assures me that the motifs are Arabic-Moroccan, painted by a local artist.

After a brief respite in our rooms, we walk down a winding set of stairs towards the town square, only to discover that the restaurant is above us (literally). Mohamed finds a route which backtracks back up, and we arrive at The Lampe Magique Casa Aladin.  It’s a fun place and we get a table right next to the window, which offers an excellent view of The Qasaba – a kasbah which now houses a museum.  Our table is covered with tea glasses and plates of mezze, precursers to the tagines that will arrive later.  My tagine is squid, which continues to boil for at least two minutes after it is delivered to our table. It is delicious.

The city is built into the side of the mountain, with a Spanish mosque overlooking the city and a reddish mud brick wall snaking up the mountain at the northern edge of town. Doug gives us an overview of what we should see tomorrow during our ‘unguided day,’ and instructs us to use the Plaza Uta el Hamman (the town square) as our landmark. After dinner we walk back to the hotel through noisy streets where the shops are still open, brightly lit under a beautiful starlit sky.

We start the next morning with breakfast in the glass-enclosed terrace of the hotel, which Doug says is new since the last time he was here.  Brenda and Doug pair off, as do Catherine and Mark, and I set off on my own for a couple of hours of sightseeing and shopping.

I walk down the pale blue staircase towards the town square, immersed in a soundscape of rushing water, and the pastoral bleats of goats and sheep.  There’s a waterfall near the Hotel Khalifa – the Ras el Maa – a water source for Chefchaouen that literally roars out of the mountains.  I cross the bridge to admire the sound and the view. Further upstream are wooden structures with roofs but no sides – washing sheds where the townswomen come to do their laundry, and wash fleeces prior to processing the wool into yarns for weaving.  I pass one of the community bake houses, built in the mid-1500’s.  There are no ovens in the homes in town, it’s too much of a fire hazard, so women bring trays of bread dough, covered with linen towels, to be baked in the wood fired ovens.

My first stop is The Qasaba, built in 1471 by Moulay el Ben Rashid ed Alami in the Andalusian style, complete with crenelated walls and a watch tower with a prison in the bottom. The cell reminded me of Casanova’s cell in Venice – some things are universal.

The top of the watch tower affords the expected panoramic view of the countryside. I’m impressed with the finish work of both the carpentry and the brick flooring, and wonder if the top floor doubled as a residence. Gardens and fountains separate this tower from anther building at the opposite end, that I think might be the original manorhouse for Moulay Ali Ben Musa. It now houses an Ethnographic Museum that I will cover in a separate post.

Back in the town square, my eye is caught by a textile that turns out to be a rug. The young shopkeeper tells me he is the weaver, and draws back a row of shawls to show me his loom.  I buy one of his striped shawls, and he puts it into a small handbag which he has also woven the fabric for.  I wander off, absent in thought, when another shopkeeper shouts down at me from doorway and asks me where I’m from.  

“Seattle, USA,” I shout back. “Is that near Tacoma?” he responds…

His name is Abdamin. He invites me into his antique store and tells me he has a girlfriend in Tacoma.  After some social banter, I take a look around.  Here’s a pile of prayer rugs like what I was looking for in Istanbul.  He pulls half a dozen from the stack and lays them out on the floor, and makes me circle around them until I choose one.  I also choose a smaller square one from another pile, that Abdamin says are for laying your head on when you sleep.  While he’s fetching me a glass of coffee to seal the deal, I look around again, and find an astrolabe in a corner cabinet.  I had looked all over Florence and Istanbul for one of these, after visiting the science museums in both cities.  What a bizarre thing to find in this mountain city…

Abdamin takes it out of the case for me, and I promptly dismantle it to see if it has all its parts.  It does.  And now it is mine…

I finish my coffee and my transactions, and get a friendly hug before setting off again.  I turn right into a cobblestone alley, and watch tailors hunched over their sewing machines in stalls that can’t be more than 6 feet wide by 10 feet deep, stuffed floor to ceiling with folded garments and stacks of fabric.  Walking back towards the square, I see what would become my second clothing purchase – a red, green and purple striped djellaba with turks head buttons with little tassels. I try it on, and the shopkeeper accepts the $200 dirham I have in my pocket in spite of his $300 dirham asking price. His wife made it, and he was eager to make his first sale of the day.  

A djellaba is a full length, long sleeved garment with a hood, worn by both men and women, though I saw more men wearing them than women. Caftans do not have hoods, which sets them apart from djellaba, which always have hoods.

My wanderings take me to the gate of a mosque that no longer exists, and a hamam built in 1927, and a woodworkers shop across the alley from the hamam. I put my camera away at this point, and admire the design templates hanging along the walls of his shop.

I walk around the backside of some apartment buildings, where I find a panorama view of what I think is the reconstruction of a lower fortress wall, and what may be the tomb that Abdamin spoke of. He told me there are several holy men buried in Chefchaouen, though I did not learn any of their names.

I make my last stop at a shoe stall, but after trying on a pair and not succeeding at the haggle, I decline the sale, and then get lost trying to get away from the salesman who is now following me. I pass some kids who greet me with “Ola.” When I relay that later to Doug, he says that a lot of Spanish tourists come here, and the kids probably weren’t Spanish, but thought that maybe I was.

After about a half hour of upstairs and downstairs and circling back around to the salesman who is still trying to sell me those shoes, I figure out how to get back to the hotel, and arrive before anyone else does. I’m wearing different clothing than what they saw me in at breakfast, which elicits a comment about my expanding ‘trad’ wardrobe.

And shortly after noon, we set out for Fez.

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