Saturday 23 March 2013

Chefchaouen – A whole other world in Morocco

March 19-22, 2013
 We were presented with the perfect opportunity to slip over the border for a taste of Morocco while Alcheringa was  lifted out of the water at Medgate Shipyard in Ceuta for a coat of new anti-foul and a few other jobs.
Our taste of Morocco convinced us we want MORE!
 A few people at home were surprised we weren’t going to do the hull cleaning and new anti-foul paint ourselves but the reality is the DYI option can be false economy. First we’d have to hire a high pressure water blaster, then we’d need to buy the anti-foul paint, masking tapes, paint rollers and trays, protective over-alls and eye protection, all at retail prices. Then we’d actually have to do the work having absolutely no previous experience in the field. Labour charges here in Spain are very modest by Australian standards and quite frankly, it worked out no more expensive to have the experienced shipyard staff do the job rather than we playing blind leading the blind wondering whether everything was done correctly.

The bonus of course was that instead of spending the week coated in grime and toxic paint, we got to escape on an exotic adventure into the mountains of Morocco so it was hardly a difficult decision to make. 
Getting this little tub blocked up and tucked away in Med-Gate's
shed put our lift out back a day but such is life.
Alcheringa looked tiny in the slings after the big motor vessel of the day before

We were due to be lifted out on Monday but after needing to put things off a day to finish blocking up a very lage boat they were lifting into their even larger boatshed, the shipyard manager, Christian, and his staff could not have been more helpful. After our boat was hoisted out on their huge travel-lift more accustomed to huge super yachts than our 43 footer, we got all the paperwork completed and then asked if they could call us a taxi to take us to the border crossing. Instead, Christian provided one of his staff to not only drive us to the frontier, but also though it and the bureaucratic maze that can regularly take inexperienced travellers two hours or more to navigate. He then drove us to a town ten minutes into Morocco where they’d arranged a reliable, English speaking driver, Omar, to meet us and take us the rest of the way in his typically well aged Mercedes taxi.
Omar's luxurious Mercedes chariot got us up into the mountains without fuss. Note the quality, after-market interior door handles.

On the recommendation of Jayatma, who Karen and I had sailed with in 2012 on Moksha, we were heading to the town of Chefchaouen situated high in the Rif Mountains a little over two hours’ drive from the border at Ceuta. The city was founded in 1471 as a small fortress to fight the Portuguese invasions of northern Morocco. The fortress still exists to this day.  Along with the Ghomara tribes of the region, many Moriscos and Jews settled here after the Spanish drove Moors out of the Iberian peninsula in medieval times.  In 1920, the Spanish seized Chefchaouen to form part of Spanish Morocco. Unlike Ceuta, Spain returned the city after the independence of Morocco in 1956. The town was reputed to be particularly well preserved within the walls of the Medina and complete with a medieval Kasbah so it sounded a particularly interesting place for us to get a taste of Morocco.
This Moroccan palm tree is actually a mobile telephone service tower.
We wish Australian Telcos were as sensistive with the visual polution they erect.

Omar proved a typical cab driver and talked much of the way down the coast and up into the mountains. Initially we travelled on an excellent dual carriage way lined with gardens and extremely ornate lighting. Omar pointed out what looked like a massive tourist resort by the beach and explained that the current King of Morocco liked jet-skiing and this was in fact his summer palace where he, his extended family and entourage spend four months each summer playing in the Mediterranean.  Apparently the standard of roads in the region has improved dramatically since the King took a liking to the area.
Old Mercedes taxis as far as the eye could see - this is Morocco

Once we left the coast and began climbing into the interior the roads did change but were still far better than what we had envisioned. We did have to stop at a Police post in a transit centre surrounded by literally hundreds of old Mercedes taxis as Omar was required to obtain a permit to travel further than 50 kilometres from his base in Tetuen. After an otherwise uneventful drive, he deposited us outside the main gate into the Medina at Chefchaouen and then headed back on the two hour return journey and all for the princely sum of 500 Moroccan Dirhams ($56 Aus).

In full accord with Murphy’s Law, the heavens opened up with a torrential downpour as we gathered our backpacks up and made our way towards the Medina. Passing through the ancient stone gateway of the town walls was literally like entering a whole new world. We sloshed our way down narrow laneways teeming with people, mostly in traditional dress, scurrying in all directions heading for shelter. Through good old reliable we had booked two rooms in the Riad Baraka inside the Medina. We’d carefully studied the directions to the hostel and Marc was ably leading the way but proved unable to shake a keen local lad who was insisting on showing us to the door. Of course when he arrived he hit the British owner up for a fee for bringing him three new customers but as we were pre-booked it was ‘No dice Abdul. On ya bike’.
Our room at Riad Baraka in Chefchaouen. It was the best hostel we've stayed in.

Riad Baraka is run by Londoners, Joe and his mum Anne and while listed as a hostel could far more accurately be described as a boutique hotel. The décor was extremely attractive and completely fitting with its surrounds. The friendly welcome provided to us by Joe and Anne during our three night visit was more akin to being family friends staying in their home.  We enjoyed a great breakfast every morning during which they were very forthcoming with their local knowledge as we planned our day’s activities. The roof terrace was a favourite of ours each afternoon providing great views over the old town and up to the mountains. Best of all though, it also featured a fridge full of beers and wines complete with honour book to write down what you drank. We need to point out that alcohol is simply not available in Chefcaouen so our roof top oasis was highly valued. At a 140 Dirhams ($15.60 Aus) per person per night for a private room with ensuite it was hard to beat so Riad Baraka gets five stars and comes highly recommended by us.
We loved the roof terrace, and its well stocked fridge, at Riad Baraka in Chefchaouen

While booze may be unavailable in the town what isn’t hard to find is whacky weed. The mountains of the Chefchaouen region are one of the main producers of cannabis in Morocco. While drugs are actually illegal, Hashish is sold all over town and, particularly at night, it’s difficult to walk far through the laneways without the aroma of burning weed or hash wafting your way.
The blue lanes and alleyways of Chefchaouen are amazing to wander around
Click on any image to see larger versions of the photos

Karen was intrigued to actually find a public phone. No such thing in Aus anymore

The name Chefchaouen refers to the shape of the mountain tops above the town, that look like the two horns (chaoua) of a goat. The most distinctive feature of Chefchaouen is its blue-rinsed houses and buildings which made this a truly magical place for us to spend many hours wandering around. While all the usual tourist fare is available, traders in the Medina offer many native handicrafts that are not available elsewhere in Morocco. The traditional, hand woven wool garments and blankets in particular are of extremely good quality and outrageously cheap.. The goat cheese native to the area is also very popular.  
Marc about to be offered 'very special morning price just for you' in Chefchaouen

We had to constantly remind ourselves we live on a boat and don’t need stuff. However it was incredibly hard to resist a queen size, hand-spun, hand-woven wool throw for our bunk at under $25 Australian but we already have all the covers we ‘need’ so it stayed on the shelf. While we congratulated ourselves on our self control at the time, we fully expect to regret the decision sometime down the track. After gorging ourselves in Chefchaouen’s outstanding Moroccan restaurants, a very ornate targine bowl and serving dishes did prove irresistible though and has now found a home on Alcheringa. After all it’s to be used to prepare crew meals so can be classed as a need not a want. That’s how we rationalised things anyway.
This shop is now missing a very nice tagine bowl that found its way onto Alcheringa
The Kasbah at Chefchaouen is impressive day and night

The food was definitely one of the highlights of our visit as tried different places each lunch and dinner working our way through a range of chicken, lamb and Rob’s favourite, meatball and egg tagines, incredible brochettes (kebabs) and a chicken specialty called pastella we had at an outstanding restaurant called Darcomm on our final evening.  We may need a week of salads back on board the boat to recover although we did do a lot of walking to work some of our excesses off.
Meatballs and egg tagine - mmmmmmm!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The Darcomm had amazing food and great atmosphere but we still struggled
accompanying our meal with a fine vintage of water.

The weather on Thursday dawned clear with bright sunshine and following the showers of the previous days, the morning air was crystal clear so we headed into the hills for a nice hike.  We made our way up through the maze of the Medina’s picturesque laneways,  through one of the gates of the town’s defensive walls and past the falls cascading down the high cliffs bringing a constant supply of pure mountain water to Chefchaouen.

Apologies to people viewing the blog on Apple devices as you may not be able to see videos

We then began climbing a track into the mountains above the town and soon came across local children keen to show us their skills with a spinning top and have us join in a game of ‘kick it to me’ with a soccer ball. Further up the trail we passed by local goatherds tending their charges feeding on the slopes as has been done here for centuries. The mobile phone at the ear was a dead giveaway that this was indeed modern Morocco but it didn’t destroy the romance of the moment totally.
Outside the walls and time to head UP!

And UP!

We stopped at a small mosque standing all by itself on one of the ridges and sat enjoying the views down over the multitude of blues hues of Chefchaouen below us and the emerald greens of the valley stretching away to the north and south. It really was breath taking. Marc made a new friend as one of the local lads began chatting away to him before inviting us on what would have no doubt been a unique tourist excursion.  As informative as it obviously would have been we politely declined his offer of a tour of a friend’s kief factory to see how hashish is produced from cannabis plants. We did ponder later whether it would be like visiting a winery and being offered tastings of the various offerings produced.
This young local was offering Marc a unique tour we just had to politely refuse
Marc working up an appetite on our mountain hike

While dope is offered for sale on almost every corner and there are the usual touts selling everything from gold jewellery to traditional hats encouraging you to ‘visit my shop for very special cheap prices just for you’ all were good natured and quite accepting of a polite refusal. Nowhere did we find anyone in Chefchaouen to be overly pushy, except maybe for the guy who turned out to be the security guard on the gate of the local Islamic school. He got a little antsy when Karen mistook the stone gateway for an entrance to the Medina and pushed past him waving off his efforts to stop her. He definitely didn’t find it as funny as Marc and Rob did behind her.

We absolutely loved our time in this still unspoiled piece of Morocco. In fact when we heard from the shipyard that the boat wouldn’t be ready to go back in the water until the Monday we were very keen to stay longer but unfortunately Joe and Anne couldn’t provide rooms for us so it was time to call Omar and climb back into the ancient Merc for our drive back to Ceuta and the western world. We will definitely return to Morocco though and look forward to spending time along its Atlantic Coast when we finally leave the Mediterranean after a couple of more summers.
Walking across the Ceuta - Morocco border is like a scene from Children of Men
This post contains but a small sampling of the many images of Chefchaouen that Rob captured on our visit. Many more can be found on our facebook page. facebook Dreamtime Sail Morocco Photo Album

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