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Chefchaouen: a friendly community of magical characters

click here to view a slideshow of images from Chefchaouen

September 2009

We visited Morocco twice this year. In May we spent three weeks in Fez, Marrakesh, Essaouira, El Jadida and Rabat. On the flight back we mulled over possible destinations for our three-week vacation in July. Before we landed in Montreal, we had come to a decision: We would return to Morocco.

You might ask why we returned so soon to the same country – a first for us. The May trip was difficult because my bad knee was at an all-time low. We travelled with a couple from New York whom I didn’t know well – another first for us, and we’ve since decided that although they were lovely people and it did save us money when we hired a guide, we’re not cut out to travel with anyone else.

Despite these things, we enjoyed ourselves immensely. The locals were friendly and supportive. The weather was perfect (it was too hot when we returned in July). The second language, French, made it easy for us to communicate. Every town and city is exotic and exciting in its own way. And you know that old saying about the devil you know – except there is nothing devilish about this place. I’m not sure why Morocco has such a bad rap; it must come from people who haven’t been there! True, there are beggars young and old selling small tissue packages, and people who try to stay alive by hocking every manner of watch, painting, purse, shirt, shoe and key chain, and “guides” every time you turn around, but Turkey was much worse when it came to being hounded and harassed for our Western buck.

What we love to do in Morocco may not be ever yone’s cup of tea. Our cup of tea is fresh mint and we sip it watching the people go by. We love to walk through the Medinas, or old cities. Each town, no matter how small, has its Medina, as well as its Melech, the part of the old city where the Jews lived. Unfortunately, our museum and archeological site days are over, because of my knee.

I love bargaining and bantering with the shopkeepers more than Irwin does, and my favourite sight-seeing subjects and photo ops are the people. The plethora of dress among both women and men is perhaps the most colourful and exotic I have ever seen. Almost anything goes – except the crass bareness of some Westerners who show themselves to be disrespectful of Morocco’s somewhat traditional and conservative dress code. Mini skirts or shorts are not de rigueur, and it’s best to have some part of your chest, back and arms covered. The easiest way to fit in is to buy a Moroccan kaftan or blouse, as we did.

I’m going to begin my account in Chefchaouen, where we spent a week in July. Eventually I hope to describe each place we visited.

On this second visit we stayed in the north of the country, which has a large Spanish influence. In fact, more people seem to speak Spanish as a second language rather than French, which is predominant in the south. We landed in Casablanca, then took a train to Tangier, where we caught buses to Tetuan, Chefchaouen and finally Asila, a beach town on the Atlantic where we stayed for four days. As usual, we planned very little in advance, deciding where and when to go on the spur of the moment.

We spent a week in Chefchaouen, partly because I got sick and partly because it is so magical. Travellers have discovered this little jewel nestled in the Rif mountains of northern Morocco, which is said to have over 200 hostels and hotels. The town’s name refers to the horn-shaped mountain tops that tower over it. We arrived in the town’s new, lower section with no guide book, and took a taxi to the upper level, where the Medina – and all the action – is. Chefchaouen’s central oblong- shaped “square” is lined with coffee shops and eateries. Off in almost every direction are the winding cobblestone lanes of the souk, or Market, where you can purchase everything from light fixtures to small sacks of dye, leather purses, and costume jewellery.

We began to search for a hotel with an elevator, but, alas, ever y lane we tried had only walk-up pensions with shared bathrooms. We finally decided on Hotel Yasmina, because it was clean and had only 18 stairs. Later that afternoon we met Melinda, an Australian former nurse who married a Berber (the indigenous people of North Africa) and now runs a lucrative shop with him at one corner of the square. She recommended the one luxury hotel in the area, the Parador, a four-star establishment with a pool. We promptly reserved a room for the following night.

I knew even before we settled into our cots at the Yasmina that my days of happily sharing a bathroom with other travellers are over. Still, at 108 dirhams ($15) a night, it was an experience – one I’d rather not have again. The Parador was 540 dirhams ($75) for a room with a private bathroom and a fan that shut off automatically every 60 minutes. The “pool” turned out to be more of an outdoor bathtub.

For dinner we tried Casa Hassan, a fabulously decorated place on three levels with a three-course dinner for 80 dirhams, or $11. For appetizers, our traditional harira soup and white cheese salad were both excellent. The vegetable pastel, a cinnamony and spicey stuffed pancake, was exquisite. Irwin declared his meat kebabs with rice and vegetables perfect. The lemon tarte, a thin layer of lemony bliss over honey- and cinnamon- flavoured crumbs, was the pièce de résistance. By Day 2 we had found favourite spots for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and we were welcomed in each like family. We played a lot of chess in Chefchaouen – at breakfast, after lunch and before dinner – so it was of no surprise to our restaurateurs that Irwin enrolled in the international chess tournament. It was, however, a surprise to Irwin: I talked him into it at the last minute. It was five-minute-a-game speed chess, with which he had no experience, but I thought it would be fun, as well as a great photo op for The Senior Times. Irwin played seven games, lost all of them and packed it in at 11 p.m. It was more fun to watch youngsters as young as eight – including one with a lollipop in her mouth who batted the chess clock as nonchalantly as if she were shooing a fly away – winning game after game against Irwin and others than it was to watch Irwin lose.

I’ve saved our best experience for last. In Chefchaouen we met Florence, an osteopath raised and trained in Paris who is married to a Berber and has a 2-year-old daughter, Lina. Florence opened her business, aptly called “Art du Bien Être” on the ground level of the house she rents with her husband for the equivalent of $300 a month. It’s all painted blue and resembles a large cave on two levels. Florence helped me through a sore hip I had developed at Melinda the Australian’s shop while bending down to look over her jewellery. Florence was my Nightingale, so relaxed and spiritual. After my first osteopathic treatment, I asked her if I could have a massage (a steal at $20 an hour) every day until I left. If you ever find yourself in Chefchaouen, Florence is worth looking up even if you’re perfectly healthy.

On our last night we attended the end of a free concert with 500 people in an open air auditorium listening to 13 men chant liturgical music on a huge stage, all dressed in white and playing various instruments. There were many children watching and it was past midnight.

One of the charms of Chefchaouen is that it’s almost impossible to get drunk there. There are no bars and the vast majority of restaurants do not serve alcohol. This means no loud, beer-guzzling tourists. It’s a pleasure to be in a safe, alcohol-free environment where children run around freely after dark.

Meanwhile, the Chefchaouen re- gion is one of the main producers of cannabis in Morocco, and it is said that your hostel owner will offer you hashish at the drop of a hat, so if you want to relive your hippy days, this is the place to do it. (We didn’t.)

Chefchaouen is full of characters. Here is a list of some of the most memorable:

• The boy who approached me while I was ordering an ice cream cone. He pointed to himself, so I bought him one, which he took to the elderly men sitting around a fountain. They nodded to me in approval.

• The boy who came up to us at a café and asked for 7 dirham ($1) to buy a sandwich. We offered to buy him the sandwich, and he insisted that the money would do just fine. When we told him it was the sandwich or nothing, he left us, pouting.

• The young man who stopped us with a loud “Shalom” to tell us his father’s name was Ben Yakov and he sold antique carpets and would we like to see his carpet warehouse. When we asked how he knew we were Jewish, he pointed to the Hamsah (Hand Against the Evil Eye) keychain hanging from our knapsack. But wait a minute. Everyone in Morocco wears them, Muslims and Jews.

• The town’s only full-time beggar. This elderly lady does the restaurant strip twice a day with her hand out, yet seems no worse off than any of the other Berber women in the town.

• The guy standing outside his restaurant who said “Come and eat” and when we said “We’ve eaten” he responded with “Come and sit.”

• The shopkeeper who, on our fifth day, stopped us and said, “You’ve been here five days and you haven’t bought anything from me.” Nobody goes unnoticed in Chefchaouen.

I leave you with some of my favourite 5am Chefchaouen sounds: roosters cockadoodling, donkeys braying, birds singing, and the muezzin calling people to prayer. It was a magical place.

If you go to Chefchaouen: • The Parador is located in Place El Mekhzen. Call (011) 212-39986136.

• Florence’s home office is behind the big mosque at 7 Derb Leizer, Souika; her number is (011) 212-663-419- 303. Or you can ask Melinda (you can’t miss her shop – just ask for the Australian woman) and she’ll direct you to Florence.

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