The Blue City & the Big City
The sun had already set by the time we rolled into the beginnings of Chefchaouen, and Jamal pulled off the road into a parking area. Lights shown forth from the jumble of buildings in the distance, stacked up against the base of Mount El-Chaouene in the foothills of the Rif mountains. The trademark blue color of the city was not in evidence from this distance in the fading light, and we were excited to get down there and experience this magical town for ourselves
After checking in to our riad for the night, Mustapha led us through some of the more picturesque parts of the medina with charming alleys, windows and doors painted in various shades of bright blue, providing sharp contrast with the whitewashed walls and red tile roofs. There are several theories on the ubiquitous blue hues: the color keeps the mosquitos away, the blue is a metaphor for the spirituality of sky & heaven, or (the most cynical view) is a city mandate in the 1970s to attract tourists! Take your pick. I like #2.
Our seemingly aimless meanderings brought us to Bab Ssour, a lovely restaurant up the hill near the eastern gate, with gorgeous flowers, bushes, and landscaping. The service was slow, but the food was delicious, and we enjoyed a chance to relax and visit, recapping the day. Then back to the riad and our cute but small room.
Something woke me in the middle of the night, and after a few moments I realized Susie was in the pitch-black bathroom being violently sick. I sat with her several hours until she could get back to bed, with various visions of how we were going to get to a hospital; how would we catch up with the tour; how would we get back home if it were serious. Luckily, she felt much better by the morning and decided it must have been something she ate that reacted badly and was now out of her system. Whew.
With that scare out of the way we had a quick breakfast at the riad and started walking through some different parts of the medina, admiring the crafts and foodstuffs on display, working our way uphill. We crossed the small Ras el'Ma river where women were washing their laundry and started up a hill to see the Spanish Mosque.
Built by the Spaniards in 1920, the mosque was never used and fell into disrepair. It was closed when we reached the summit, but the views of the Blue City were really why we trekked to the top. It was a beautiful morning with clear blue skies providing a lovely backdrop for the rich blue, white, and red clay buildings of the city nestled in the Rif Mountains. Perfect spot for selfies and group photos.
Chefchaouen (or Chaouen) is only 33km from the Mediterranean coast and was founded in 1471 by a descendent of Idriss I as a kasbah to fight off Portuguese invaders. The population of North African tribes was increased by Jewish and Morisco refugees fleeing the Spanish Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages. Spain (and occasionally France) gained control of the region during several wars, and it was temporarily independent, declared Republic of Rif around 1921. Morocco, and with it Chefchaouen finally threw off all foreign bonds and became a sovereign country in 1957.
The Rif mountains are a popular destination for hikers, offering varying treks from easy day trips to extended overnight excursions. Hikers must be cautious to avoid another feature of the surrounding area – cannabis plantations. Cultivation started in the 15th century and was officially sanctioned by Sultan Moulay Hassan for local consumption in five douars, or villages, of the Ketama and Beni Khaled tribes, in the Senhaja area of the Rif.
Since then, particularly in the last 5 decades production has exploded, with Morocco being the chief exporter of hashish. Although cannabis cultivation in Morocco is illegal, in this area a complex set of colonial, political and economic factors has resulted in an entrenched tolerance of the cannabis plant. While providing a huge influx of cash, especially from western Europe, intense cannabis cultivation is causing increased deforestation, soil erosion and soil pollution.
Walking down the hill was decidedly easier and the path led right back through the medina’s eastern gate Bab al Ansar. Just past this was Bab Ssour, our dining spot from last night and lunch spot for today. Susie was not thrilled to be back, but the food was good, and no one had any adverse effects this time. Back to the riad to pack up and get on the road again, for a long ride (~220km) south to Fes.
The first thing I noticed as we approached Fes was the large police presence. There were groups of officers from every branch of the police and military at every intersection and at various checkpoints. We found out it was because Mohammed VI, the King of Morocco was in town at the Royal Palace.
We had also noticed frequent police checkpoints along all the highways, stopping many vehicles but usually waving us through. Ostensibly there to verify papers such as license & registration, they are more likely checking for illegal goods such as drugs.
The Imperial City of Fes is the 3rd largest city in Morocco today, and an important center for trading and religious education. This evening we stayed in L’Escale, a modern hotel in Ville Nouvelle, the new part of the city. A quick check-in and then Jamal whisked us off to the medina for a special meal in a gorgeous riad with amazing mosaic work on every wall. Wish I could remember the name. I believe they only open for special occasions – which would be us! First was a course of delicious appetizers, followed by their pièce de résistance: chicken pastille, a signature dish of the area. A sweet & salty mix of chicken, almonds & spices is wrapped in flaky layers of warqa, a pastry similar to phyllo dough. We had this dish a couple of other places, but their dish here was super delicious.
After breakfast on the hotel terrace the next morning, we head back to the medina in the old city, known locally as Fes el Bali for a busy day with a local guide. First stop is Art Naji, a shop run by the Fakhari family since 1930, specializing in the art of pottery and Zellige (mosaic). We viewed the craftsmen & women doing everything from mixing the clay with their feet, turning the vases on foot-powered wheels and etching and painting designs on flatware.
Men in another room were meticulously chiseling out intricate pieces of ceramic in specific shapes to be used in complex mosaics. Another man was piecing together a mosaic fountain, placing the pieces upside down in a pattern committed to memory. Many pieces were sitting around this area in various stages of completion, and some gorgeous finished large fountains and tables were on display.
From here we moved into the main showroom that was filled with beautiful vases, flatware, bowls, lamps, and urns. Many of our group, including me were impressed enough to purchase something, and most had the art shipped back home. Service was quick & professional.
From there we wandered through one of the souks that featured foods and spices, passing stalls filled with fruits, herbs, and soups. Mustapha assured us it was fine to take pictures of the vendors, except the butchers. “They don’t like it, for some reason” he said, “and they have knives.”. Point well taken. Haha…
The narrow alleys opened onto a noisy, open area on the Rue L machatine. Artisans sat in shop fronts or stools in the open, hammering on various vessels that appeared to be made from copper or bronze. I thought it would be cool if they could all get their blows in sync, but it didn’t happen. Unfortunately, it was too loud for me to hear what our guide was describing at this place.
Fes is well known as a source for fine leather goods, and in another narrow alley we came to the Chouara Tannery. One of the shopkeepers greeted us inside the door, handing everyone a sprig of mint. As we trooped up the stairs and onto the balcony the reason for the mint quickly became evident as our nostrils were assaulted by an extremely pungent odor.
Spread out below us were about 300 vats filled with various acids and dyes like quicklime, urine, and pigeon guano, used for processing animal hides into leather. Men were moving the skins from one vat to another, immersing them in the liquid and stomping around with their bare feet as their ancestors have done for centuries. Clutching the mint to one’s nose helped slightly, but no one lingered on the balcony for very long. Inside the store we viewed a large assortment of shoes, boots, belts, skirts, handbags, and ottomans, in a variety of colors in high quality, supple leather. Several in our group could not resist making purchases there!
Later, we visited the Medersa Attarine, an institution of learning for Islamic studies, renowned for its beautiful architecture and design. We also admired Mosquee Al Qaraouiyine, a mosque and religious school founded in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri. It is the oldest existing, continually operating and the first degree awarding educational institution in the world according to UNESCO.
Next was another shop with a variety of beautiful metal and cloth goods. We were treated to a demonstration of a skilled artisan working on a large bronze platter, using a small hammer and tiny punch, to make intricate patterns covering the surface. It would take many days to complete one piece. They also had a large loom setup for a quick demo of a man weaving a 2 meter wide piece of cloth.
OK. Everyone is overwhelmed with amazing sights, sounds and smells, and ready to get back for some dinner and maybe a glass of wine…or two….or…..
Tomorrow – heading up into the High Atlas Mountains!
To be continued…..