Morocco 2017 – The Blue City of Chefchaouen

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 fabled 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 also 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 also 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, also 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.

Further on we start to see burros pulling carts, almost as often as we see other cars.  I look out at hedges of prickly pear interspersed with low growing trees, which form a green fence between the fields and the road. We pass through a  small town of window manufacturers and automotive shops operating out of spaces about the size of a single car garage.

Here’s a graveyard out of seemingly nowhere…

There are carts of oranges along the side of the road, nomadic fruit stands. More burro carts, houses that are painted lavender and pink.  Doug points out aqueducts running parallel to the roadway, 40-50 year old structures delivering water to the fields.  The prickly pear hedges have disappeared and now the road is lined with eucalyptus trees. 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.

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

  • The Blue City of Chefchaouen was established 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.

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 hotel manager assures me that the motifs are indeed 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 upwards, 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, a precurser to the tagines that will arrive later.  Mine is squid, delivered still boiling.  I watch it continue to boil for at least two minutes before I test my bravery and my fork, spearing the succulent white meats from the broth and blowing the sizzle away so I don’t burn my tongue.  Still very hot but very delicious!

Doug gives us an overview of what to see during our free time tomorrow, and to use the Plaza Uta el Hamman, the town square, as our landmark. The city is built into the side of the mountain, with a Spanish mosque overlooking the city and the reddish mud brick wall snaking up the mountain at the northern edge of town.  It was built in 1471 as a stronghold against the Portuguese.  After dinner we walk back to the hotel, through noisy streets where the shops are still open, 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 down the stairs 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 centuries-old 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 views of the countryside. I was particularly taken with the finish work of both the carpentry and the brick flooring, and wondered if the top floor doubled as a residence. See my gallery of photos at Daveno Travels.

A building across from the tower that I think was the original manor house for Moulay Ali Ben Musa, now houses an Ethnographic Museum, although apparently I missed many of the displays. There were several settees displaying tradition craft, which I have boarded on Pinterest. The expanse between the guard tower and the manor house was filled with gardens and two fountains. Gardens and fountains were very important to Islamic cultures and nearly every building of consequence had one.

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…

He introduces himself as Abdamin, and invites me into his antique store.  He shows me a photo of his girlfriend in Tacoma, and after some social banter, I have a look around.  Here’s a pile of small silk prayer rugs of the style I was looking for in Istanbul.  He pulls about half a dozen from the stacks and lays them out on the floor, and then makes me circle around them until I choose one.  I see another pile of square carpets, which he tells me are for laying your head on when you go to bed.  I buy one of each style, not haggling over the price.  While he’s fetching me a glass of coffee, I look around again, this time finding 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 an unexpected find! 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 very friendly parting hug before setting off again.  I turn right into a cobblestone alley, looking at the 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 spy what would become my second clothing purchase … a red, green and purple striped djellaba with fancy turkshead and tassel buttons.  The shopkeeper helps me try it on, and 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.  

  • My clothing purchase in Chefchaouen was a Djellaba, 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 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 I think is 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 also find some other things of note, like the gate to 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, but admired all of the templates that he had hanging along the walls of his shop.

I make my last shopping 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 relayed that later to Doug, he said 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 around to the salesman who is still trying to sell me those shoes, I find my way back to the hotel, where I rejoin my group.

And shortly after noon, we set out for Fez.

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