Saturday 22nd May, Chefchaouen, Morocco.
You know how I said I was off to the seaside town of Asila? Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. After I finished at the internet café in Tangiers, I hurried back to my hotel, and quickly packed, hoping to catch the midday bus to Asilah. When I lumbered into the small bus station near the port gate, I was informed that there no longer was a midday service to Asilah. The bus that was preparing to depart was bound for Chefchaouen, in the Rif Mountains, three hours to the southeast. So I changed my mind and jumped on board, and here I am in Chefchaouen. I guess that’s why I can’t travel with other people, eh?
Chefchaouen, in case you’re interested, is pronounced sheff-show-ann and translates literally as ‘look at the mountains’. Ahmed had told me this was one town I really had to see, and the Lonely Planet guidebook described it as ‘delightful…a favourite with travellers…cheery white and blue houses…unique atmosphere… a wonderful place to chill out for a few days…in fact most people find it hard to tear themselves away’. That all sounded good to me, although I suspect that the reason so many people find it hard to tear themselves away is because they’re permanently stoned. Chefchaouen is renowned for its kif (pot). I have been offered kif or hash so many times since I arrived, that if I bought a gram from each dealer, I’d be wasted for the next ten years!
The drive here was a gradual but continual climb from the moment we left Tangiers. The last leg was very steep indeed, especially the last kilometre from the bus station to the town centre, which I walked, just to spite the annoying touts and taxi drivers. It was a bit too warm, and my pack was a bit too heavy for that sort of bravado, and if I had to do it again, I’d fork out the dollar and catch a cab. The touts are starting to annoy me though. For the half an hour or so that I spent looking for a room here, I was almost always shadowed by one of a number of touts, mumbling things like “You English?” or “You look for Pension Castallena?” Well, I was looking for Pension Castallena- the cheapest accommodation in town- but I wasn’t about to give some annoying bastard the satisfaction of following me there, just so they could demand a tip for their services. So in my own stubborn way, I managed to get rid of the touts, but by the time I doubled back to Castallena, I had lost the last room to a couple of backpackers who were on the same bus as me!
The town really must be a favourite with the travellers, because I had quite a time finding a room. Castallena was full, except for a family room which was a bit pricey for me on my own, Hotel Andaluz, my second choice, was in a similar situation, Hotel Yasmina was full to the brim, and so when the charming lady at Pension Znika said that al she had left was a three person room, I jumped at it. Sixty dirham- about seven US dollars, or four pounds. And the mint tea is cheaper here than in Tangiers, too. Three dirham, maybe thirty-five cents US or twenty pence. Okay, I’ll stop going on about the prices, you get the idea by now that things are cheap here.
Perhaps since there are apparently so many tourists in town, I might even meet some interesting people while I’m here. In Tangiers, the only person I managed to find a conversation with was Ahmed, unless you count “Hey mister, where you from?” or “You want hotel? I got cheeeep hotel!” or “You are shit. I’m going to kill you!” as conversation. By about five o’clock in the afternoon, I was freshly showered- a hot shower- and feeling relaxed- famished though, having relied on two croissants for breakfast to get me this far, and I had a dinner reservation, of sorts. Earlier, after I’d circumnavigated Chefchaouen twice, and it wasn’t looking hopeful that I’d find a room if left to my own devices, I’d finally relented and asked a waiter. Rather than give me directions, he walked with me- which I altogether a different story if you’ve actually asked for help. I promised to come back and dine at his café. My search would have been made a little less complicated if I’d realized that when a footpath is painted blue, it means it’s a dead end! I found that out later.
these photos have not been retouched or edited. It really is that blue!
It was a mighty fine dinner too. Cous cous with chicken and vegetables. Despite the surprise of an occasional sultana, it was essentially a savoury dish, but around the edge of the plate were sprinkles of sugar and cinnamon. It reminded me of my short lived career as a cook in Athens, when I accidentally added a generous shake of cinnamon to a savoury beef dish- I’d mistaken it for cayenne, a simple mistake in light of the Greek lettering on the spice jar. An assortment of other herbs and spices helped to mask the taste of cinnamon, but when questioned I proudly declared that I always add a pinch of cinnamon when I make that dish “It gives it a certain something” I told the chef, rubbing my thumb and fingers together in front of my face, the way us chefs do. He was so impressed, he vowed to experiment with cinnamon in some of his other savoury dishes! I got the sack the next day, but for a totally unrelated incident.
After my feast of cous cous, I strolled through the square to the Hotel Parona, one of only a couple of places in town where you can get a beer. At 25 dirhams for a 250ml bottle, it was almost as expensive as my dinner, and half the price of a room for the night. My first beer since leaving England, it was quite lovely, but at those prices it’ll be a while before I treat myself to another.
This morning, I managed to cause quite a scene in the marketplace. Mum, if you’re reading this, you should skip this paragraph, as there’s some language that I’m sure you wouldn’t appreciate. As I was sitting in an open air café, sipping my morning coffee and editing my book, I overheard a local character trying to sell hash to the couple at the next table. When they waved him away, he sidled over to me. I couldn’t be bothered with the distraction, so pre-empted him with a firm but not particularly rude “No thanks, I’m fine.” Well, he seemed to take offence and proceeded to berate me at length. “Fucking Europe” he repeated several times angrily. When he finished his tirade, he said “You understand?” I looked up and tried to say something like “I didn’t understand exactly what you said, because I only really speak English. However I gather that you are unhappy with me, and I’d appreciate it if you’d respect my privacy and let me continue my lovely breakfast in peace.” Unfortunately, only two words came out of my mouth. The second one was “off” and the first one started with a capital “F”. If he was displeased with me before, this didn’t help. Anyway, it all ended happily when the restaurant manager called the police, who promptly turned up and took the scoundrel away for a couple of complimentary nights’ accommodation. The Moroccan authorities are quite protective of their tourist industry. The officials turn two blind eyes to the selling and smoking of hash, but they don’t like to have their tourists upset.