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Published: April 21st 2019
Leaving Spain at the Ceuta border you are greeted by a mass of taxis, but they are not all vying for your business. They seem to have a co-ordinator who takes all the hassle out getting a ride, and there’s no haggling for prices – they are fixed no matter how hard you try! It takes about two hours to travel along the pretty coastline, past Tétouan, and up into the beautiful hills to the blue city of Chefchaouen, all for €50. Not cheap, but we couldn’t be doing with getting a taxi to nearby Fnideq, changing on a bus to Tétouan, and then changing onto another bus to our final destination, all to save a few Euros. We were deposited at the base of the medina where an old man led us up through the narrow streets to our riad. At the door he asked for a tip, and turned down the Euro I offered him saying the price was TEN! He walked away with nothing!!
Chaouen, meaning "peaks", was one of the jewels of the Spanish protectorate in North Africa. After independence the name was changed to Chefchaouen, meaning "look at the peaks", but the two
are used more or less interchangeably. Some time in the last century (it’s not exactly clear when or why!) the town changed from an Islamic green hue to the startling blue you see all over today. Why blue? Well, nobody knows for sure. It could be that t keeps insects away. It could be that it keeps your house cool. It could be that there was more blue paint around than green at the time. Who knows?!!
Chefchaouen is, without a doubt, visually stunning but a definite victim of its own success. When we visited it was hardly high season yet it was impossible to turn a corner without seeing a group of camera-touting tourists. I know it’s a bit rich coming from camera-touting tourists ourselves, but we had expected it to be a bit quieter. Heaven knows what peak season is like but many friends have reported visiting at busier times and said that they hated the place. That’s a shame because it is an amazing place to visit and a must-see if you can bear the crowds. It’s funny though, Tangier never seemed remotely close to being busy.
Despite battling for clear views of the blue
alleyways, we loved our visit. We stayed in the impressive Dar Salma,
which has not been open very long. There were linguistic challenges as the guy looking after the place spoke Arabic almost exclusively but he had enough English/French/Spanish for us to communicate our needs. Russ was in the shower when the gas ran out and our heater kept cutting out. Both problems were sorted but Russ was feeling slightly hypothermic! It was much colder there than we had expected it to be, especially at night and inside the well-insulated riad.
Exploring the medina was a joy. Around every corner was a new vista bedecked in a blaze of glorious blue. It’s no coincidence that the town has become the latest haunt of the Instagram crowd, a high number of whom come from Asia. There were even Asian wedding photos being taken among the hordes. The shopkeepers were friendly and non-aggressive as they shook off the disappointment of us not being remotely interested in venturing into their shops which looked remarkably like every other shop. Slippers, leather goods, (magic?) lamps, spices, henna and pigments of all colours (especially blue!) were on display along with the ubiquitous kaftan Berber
jackets. Russ tried one on but the heavy wool made his skin itch so it was a non-starter! We didn’t explore the Kasbah either as the entrance fee was unreasonable at €6 each. Instead we wandered off-the-beaten-track through the medina before joining back up with the more touristy alleyways.
An early morning walk to the Spanish mosque on a hill overlooking the town was a welcome break from the crowds. There were enough people making their way to and from the mosque, but nothing compared to the medina. To say the views were spectacular is an understatement. Our guidebook told us to cross the bridge where the women can be seen washing their clothes in the river. That bridge is now full of souvenir sellers and a man with an ostrich wanting you to pose for photos. No doubt washing machines have replaced the river which is now full of chairs and tables where tourists pay above average for a mint tea and sit with their feet in the cool waters. Not so much now, but once it gets warmer, that’s bound to be the case.
Plaza Uta L-hamman is the central square next to the Kasbah. It’s
a great spot for people watching, and look out for the police moving street traders on. It’s a shame, but no doubt there is a licencing system in place and they are only enforcing the law. They also make sure the restaurants keep within their limits when it comes to tables and chairs encroaching the public space. You’re likely to see balloon sellers and colourful bands with drums and tambourines day and night.
As for food, having other tourists around means competitive pricing (except for the exorbitant rates in those riads
with an elevated view of the main square) and not eating alone. We found the food to be excellent with soups and kebabs keeping us happily fed. Tucked away near the Hotel Sham we found a dirt cheap soup kitchen for lunch where tourists and locals alike vied for the limited seating space to eat for under a dollar! We ate a reasonably priced kebab on the main square, and we feasted on couscous with chicken in Restaurant Assaada, having been drawn in by the prospect of goat, although they didn’t have any. They didn’t have any beef either, only chicken and/or vegetables, so they must have had
a bumper lunch time!!
With some reluctance we checked out of our riad and made our way to Bab Souk, where we were thankful the previous day’s market was no longer taking place. It would have been difficult to negotiate the streets with our luggage. A taxi took us a few kilometres out of town to the Gare Routier where we were soon on a bus to Tétouan.
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