CHEFCHAOUEN Part 1
3RD to 5TH JUNE 2015
Chefchaouen, or Chaouen as the locals say, pronounced ‘Shaf sh a wan’, is the capital of the province by the same name and is located in the foothills of the Rif Mountains. Chefchaouen is noted for its buildings painted in various shades of blue.
There is no train service from Tangier to Chefchaouen and therefore we had to decide whether to take a bus or Grand taxi. We chose the bus as they generally leave on time whereas Grand taxis do not leave until they are full. Full is seven passengers. Grand taxis are old Mercedes and they ply between larger towns and even though they are cheap, around Au$0.30 per kilometre, we decided the bus was the best option as we didn’t fancy a long wait, sometimes up to four hours for the taxi to fill.
With bus in mind we took a Petit taxi from Tangier to the bus station. The bus station was on the outskirts of the city, a good half hour ride away. A Petit taxi is a small four-door car that only operates within city limits. They have meters but at times the driver chooses not to use them with tourists, preferring to negotiate a price before setting off. This might suit the driver but for visitors like us you have no clue as to how much to offer. The best approach is to ask a local how much it should cost for a particular trip then you have a starting point for the fare negotiation. Petit taxis have a roof rack basket into which baggage is tossed but not tied down so you hope the driver doesn’t come to an abrupt halt or drives excessively fast otherwise your luggage might end up strewn across the road. The other consideration as far as I’m concerned is unsecured luggage could be stolen when the taxi stops at traffic lights. Fortunately for us we are travelling with so little luggage we were able to have it in the taxi with us.
A note of warning for travellers intending to take the bus from Tangier to Chefchaouen. There are a number of bus stations in Tangier so one wants to be sure to go to the right one. The best plan is to have someone write on a piece of paper either in French or Arabic the address of the departure station and this can be handed to the driver or the taxi tout. A taxi tout is self-appointed and he waves down a taxi for you. You don’t actually tip him but I’m sure he would take money if offered. I think he must have an arrangement with taxi drivers and he is paid relative to custom pushed the driver’s way. There are also touts who find parking spots for cars for a small remuneration. Everybody is out to make a dollar, no opportunity missed. I was going to use the word ‘buck’ in lieu of dollar but of late the use of the word is considered racist. Young black slaves in America were referred to as bucks and they were traded for goods and services.
The Petit taxi ride was uneventful but we did wonder if the driver fully understood which bus station we wanted to go to as we seemed to travel a long way from the city centre. Arriving at the bus station we had around three hours to wait before the bus departed. To pass the time Bev did some blog editing and I did map work. We sat by a window in the warm sun and supped on mint tea.
Mint tea (Spearmint Mentha spicata) is the national drink of Morocco and there is a special procedure to be adopted when making a good brew. To make it you proceed as follows: First boiling water is swished around in the teapot to warm it; the water is discarded then fresh mint leaves, a pinch of green tea leaves and sugar are placed in the pot and boiling water is added and allowed to stand for three minutes.
Tall narrow glasses called shot-glasses* are used for the drinking of tea. A glass of tea is poured then returned to the pot, this helps dissolve the sugar. The tea is poured from a height, which makes foam on top of the tea. Bev and I found the tea pre-mixed with sugar far too sweet so we always asked for sugar on the side.
The drinking of mint tea is a Moroccan tradition and is a sign of hospitality and friendship. It is served all day long and after every meal. When Moroccans gather the topic of conversation often revolves around who makes the best mint tea. On the home front, mint tea is usually prepared by the oldest male in the family and it is considered impolite to refuse a cup of mint tea. Usually three glasses of tea are taken. There is a saying: The first glass is as gentle as life, the second glass is as strong as love, and the third glass is as bitter as death.
* Because of my interest in the origin of words I can’t resist telling you about the origin of Shot-glass. In Indiana USA in 1857 a man attempted to open a saloon against fierce local temperance opposition. The initial stock of liquor was a barrel of whiskey that arrived by train and whilst it was sitting on the platform awaiting collection an ardent temperance supporter shot a hole in the barrel draining its contents. The saloon was never opened so the locals had to satisfy themselves with drinking coffee and when they ordered their coffee they asked for a shot. From that day drinks served in a specific quantity is called a shot. For example when a whiskey drinker orders whiskey he orders by the number of shots and coffee drinkers can order a double shot.
The bus ride from Tangier to Chefchaouen passed through mostly agricultural country and from my observations, even though there were a number of large holdings, most of the farms appeared to be small subsistence lots. I took a number of photos from the bus window but they are not so sharp because the windows were dirty therefore I have only posted two.
At one point along the way we passed over a spur of the Rif Mountains and because the road was narrow in some parts the bus went precariously close to the edge. The driver obviously knew the road as he pushed the bus to its limit. The bus was not new and as we swept around the bends I was thinking tie rod ends, steering arms and hydraulic brake lines.
The bus journey took around two and a half hours and I have to admit it was good to get off at the Chefchaouen bus terminal. The terminal was on the outskirts of town and at the advice of a couple of fellow passengers we bought tickets in advance for Fez as we were told that we may not get them on the day due to the popularity of the route. As it happened we bought the last seats available. At the terminal there were no maps to help with orientation however we were approached by a man who said he had a taxi nearby and he would take us to our guest house for very little cost. The taxi was not a legal taxi, I surmised it was a private van and like most Moroccans the owner was trying to make a dollar.
The ‘taxi’ only just made it to the hotel entrance as the road up was steep. The motor sounded like a badly tuned lawnmower and the driver had his foot flat to the floor but still he had to slip the clutch. There was a distinct smell of clutch burning. Finally we made it to the alleyway off which our hotel was located. I felt sorry for the driver as no doubt he was not making a fortune from his taxi enterprise so we gave him a handsome tip.
Again Bev had booked our accommodation in advance and the entrance was up a narrow alley. Hotel Casa Khaldi was located just outside the medina wall and as soon as we hit the entrance we knew it was going to suit us well. It oozed colour and character.
The décor of the hotel entrance and courtyard was stunning. I wish I could now suggest you close your eyes then when I have the photo in front of you say, ‘now open them’.
The water fountain in the centre of the photograph is where followers of Islam wash before praying. The tap in the centre is called a wudu tap.
Seeing Bev with a book relaxing suggests we are on holidays not an expedition. People often ask whether we are on holidays but I say it’s more of an expedition. A holiday in my mind is a short term break, an expedition is long term with an aim. Travelling as we are with bikes is no holiday, it’s hard work at times.
In the previous Tangier post I mentioned that one of the criteria for us when booking a hotel/hostel is that it has a rooftop area where we can see our surrounds. Hotel Casa Khaldi had one so up we went.
One morning at around 2.30 there was a severe thunderstorm. I went up to the roof and what a sight! Lightning flashed and thunder clapped, images and sounds that will remain in my mind forever.
Hotel Casa Khaldi was located just outside the medina wall and to get into the medina we passed through a narrow arch. Once through the wall it was like the Tangier medina, a maze of narrow alleyways and streets.
Through the arches and within the medina there was not only a maze of streets to explore but there was a Kasbah. The Chefchaouen Kasbah was built in the form of a fortress with high walls and no windows. It’s main purpose was to provide a safe place for the town’s leader to live and shelter in the event of the town being attacked.
Bev and I visited the Kasbah with a young lad named Omar. He approached us early in the day and quoted the usual spiel, ‘I am a student and I want to practise my English’. He was an exceptional lad who spoke English very well, he didn’t really need to practice. I think in his case it was more a matter of wanting to meet people outside his immediate sphere. Omar was studying Islamic law at university.
Being able to get onto the roof of the Kasbah made for some good photographic opportunities. Following are a few random pictures of Chefchaouen town.
The cleanliness aspect might relate to the teachings of Prophet Muhammad who said ‘Removing any harm from the road is charity that will be rewarded by Allah’.
Above the young man and the cat was a dog on a roof. The dog on the roof seemed desperate to get down to the cat. I’m sure a poet could expand the theme, ‘young man, cat and a dog on the roof’.
Dogs live on roofs in towns and cities where there are no backyards or parks to wander in. The mission tile roof is in a poor state of repair, and the youth and the cat were in danger of being clonked on the head by a loose tile, especially with the dog clambering above them. I can imagine the newspaper byline ‘man hit on head by tile dislodged by dog’. It’s interesting to note that there is a plastic bottle filled with water (about one quarter along the ridge line). I would bet my boots that there is another one on the other side of the roof and the two bottles are joined with a piece of wire. The wire goes over the ridge cap and the weight of the bottles holds a loose ridge tile in position. The keen observer will note a grumpy face in the bottle.
Some years ago Bev and I met an eccentric in Tasmania who made a study of faces in nature. He thought the faces in rocks, in tree trunks and clouds were spirits of the dead watching us and warned us that one day the spirits of nature would envelop us! This may be true if we keep exploiting the planet.
The centrepiece of the courtyard was a large eucalyptus tree. There were no seedpods or flowers allowing us to positively identify it, I think it may have been a Forest gum. I imagine that in days gone by the gardens would have been used mostly for the growing vegetables and herbs.
Ornate lampshades may look good but they are mostly very impractical as the shades reduce the light emissions. Bedside lamps are the worst. The only way to get enough light is to remove the lampshade.
The following photograph shows the best bedside lamp configuration we have found so far. It was in a hotel in Paris. The top light with shade provided a general light and the bottom light on the flexible arm provided directional light for reading. Brilliant.
The name, Chefchaouen, refers to the shape of the mountains that tower over the town. Locals believe the mountains look like two goat horns. The town began to grow in the 15th century when Jewish refugees fleeing the powerful administrators of the Spanish Inquisition made it their home. In Judaism blue is believed to be the colour of divinity as it mirrors the sky and it reminded them of God. As a result they began introducing blue to the landscape.
From a distance buildings adjacent to each other seem to merge and appear as a mirage. These days blue is everywhere and following are a few examples.
To Australians the word blue has many meanings. You feel blue when the man in blue gives you a bluey: Feeling blue means you are not happy; a policeman is called a man in blue because of his blue uniform and a bluey can be either a parking ticket or a speeding fine so called because the form on which the misdemeanor was written was blue in colour. Singing the blues: Singing a sad song. Having a blue with Bluey: Having a fight with a red-haired man. Bluey: nickname for a red-headed person: This originated during WW2 by soldiers. Redheads were believed to have a short temper and were eager for a fight (a blue). Blue or Bluey: A blue cattle dog which is a breed of herding dog originally developed in Australia for droving cattle over long distances across rough terrain. Humping my bluey: a bluey in this case refers to the blue grey blanket (swag) swagmen carried when walking the roads of Australia looking for work.
When outsiders began arriving in Chefchaouen there was some resistance. Foreigners, especially Christians, were barred from entering the walled city under threat of death. However in the late 1800s it is believed that three foreigners did make it into the city…a Frenchman, an American missionary and a British journalist; one of the three was reportedly killed.
One good thing about painting with one colour is there is no detailing to be done. Chefchaouens paint everything. Not only buildings and doors are painted but footpaths and steps as well. There is no need to put drop sheets down to avoid splashes on the pavement.
One morning Bev and I decided to take a hike up into the Rif Mountains and visit the now abandoned Spanish mosque. It was abandoned in the 1920s during the Rif War. This war was also called the Second Moroccan War and was fought between the colonial power Spain (assisted by France) and the Moroccan Berbers of the Rif mountain region. The Moroccans eventually won the day.
The Rif Mountains are not part of the Atlas Mountains. In geological terms they are more likely to be part of Europe and the Iberian Peninsula that has been torn from the European mainland and squeezed into Africa.
The mosque is visited regularly by boys smoking hash (kif) and picnicking locals. From the mosque the path extends further into the mountains. Local Riffian women walk the path to Chefchaouen where they ply their wares.
On the way back down from the Spanish mosque there was plenty to amuse us. Carpet owners usually store their carpets over the summer period and as the warmer weather approaches they use the services of carpet washers to clean them before storage.
Carpets and tapestries are serious business in Morocco. One’s wealth is judged by the ownership of quality carpets. Some years ago I read a book called The Carpet Wars, well worth a read if you are interested in Middle East politics.
Next, the wall masons. The masons were inserting small pieces of what looked like tufa into a bed of cement on a wall. Tufa is a soft porous sedimentary rock consisting of calcium carbonate and is formed by the evaporation of water, especially at the mouth of a hot spring or on a dry lake bed. Algae and bacteria are sometimes involved with its formation. There are extensive deposits of tufa in northern Australia and the deposits there are associated with warm subterranean waters flowing from within limestone deposits.
If the inlaid stone being set into the wall was tufa I suspect it was chosen because of its porosity as the cement would get into the pores of the tufa and hold it in place. If small water worn river stones were used there would be less holding power.
Another mason about to start work had a very interesting scaffolding arrangement.
The scaffolding setup shown in the photo looked a bit dodgy to me as the round poles projecting from the holes in the wall could easily snap. It would definitely not pay to jump up and down on the planks, especially when buckets of render are placed on the planks as well. Obviously there is no Occupation Health & Safety law enforcement in Chefchaouen. The locals are left to exercise their commonsense.
The use of the word commonsense these days is considered politically incorrect as it implies that the person the word is being directed at is common and the sense part of the word implies that the person is mentally deficient. For example if I fell off my bike and was injured the paramedics attending the scene must not refer to commonsense but indicate I may have lacked professional judgment. A reader of this blog recently fell off his bike and injured his arm: a definite case of lacking ‘professional judgment’.
Another worker in the street with a low risk assessment was a carpenter making a door. Because indoor working areas are confined many tradespeople work on the street.
I’m guessing that the carpenter is going to fill the grooves with putty or builders’ bog. When the door is painted (blue of course) no one will know of the bodge underneath the paint.
Authorities in the developed world are obsessed with removing potential hazards in the streets. For example, workers go out and grind off any footpath projections that pedestrians may trip on. There are no such worries in Morocco. Chunks of footpaths are missing in places, there are open trenches and collapsed retaining walls and none of these hazards seem to worry the locals.
At various spots around the Chefchaouen medina the drains smell, I guess they are completely blocked with footpath runoff. The locals know it so they cover the drains with cardboard, boards or sheets of plywood, all held in place with a rock or brick. The following photograph shows a drain cover. In the western world the cover would be considered a pedestrian hazard.
Bev and I had been wandering around the medina for hours, we were footsore and hungry and we couldn’t find anywhere to sit and eat our lunch. This was not missed by Hassan who invited us to sit at the entrance to his shop. After lunch he put the pressure on to buy and we ended up with two Tuareg necklaces. We felt obliged after he allowed us to sit there. I guess we were also privileged because he entertained us with some Berber songs.
The Tuareg cross is a symbol of people by the same name who have lived a nomadic lifestyle in the harsh North African deserts for the past two thousand years. The Tuareg people are also known as the ‘purple/blue people’ because they wear clothes dyed with extracts from plants containing indigo. The dying process does not involve the use of water so subsequently the dye rubs off onto their skin.
Tuareg people are renowned for their delicate metal jewellery of geometric design and the Tuareg crosses we bought are examples of their work. The cross has different symbolic meanings to different peoples. For those of the Muslim faith it is a protective symbol, they believe that the arms of the cross disperse evil. Tuareg fathers give a cross to their sons when they leave home, believing it will bring them good luck and protect them from evil.
A less spiritual belief is that because the Tuareg people navigated by the stars it was used to orientate themselves in relation to the south. The cross represents the four points of the compass and so the cross is sometimes called Croix du Sud or the Southern Cross.
Regardless of what one believes the crosses are beautifully made and for us they are a reminder of the positive experiences we have had in Morocco. The crosses are made from 60% silver and 40% nickel so they are going to last for many generations to come.
The end of Chefchaouen Part 1 has arrived. Bev and I have enjoyed our stay and it will be one of those places we will recommend to friends and family who want to get off the beaten tourist track. To date there are three countries, which we would consider returning to: Greece, Albania and Morocco.
Chefchaouen Part 2 will deal with more Chefchaouen delicacies and favorite photos. We hope you continue travelling with us.