Feeling blue in the blue town

7 – 9 feb 2014
Tanger to Chefchaouen

The morning of my departure from Tanger starts badly; on the toilet, for an hour and a half. Thankfully it turns out to be a case of agitated bowels not yet being used to the Moroccan cuisine, rather than a virus that would leave me toilet-bound for days on end. Once my bowels have calmed down, I walk to the port, where Lonely Planet claims there is a bus station for CTM, Morocco’s national bus company. Alas, it’s nowhere to be found, and taxi drivers claim it only departs from the Gare Routière, the main bus station. I negotiate a price of 30 dirham (about € 2.70) for a taxi to take me there. As I board the car, the driver answers a question from a fellow driver in Arabic; I can only make out the words ‘gare routière’ and ‘dirham’, but the other driver’s thunderous laughter is enough to know I’ve paid far too much for what turns out to be a 4 minute ride. Lesson learned! At the gare routière, it turns out that today’s only CTM bus has left, so my only option is to go with a bus from the pleasantly named Bon Voyage company. The bus itself doesn’t inspire much confidence in the bon-ness of the voyage, with worn seats and curtains, and a baggage handler / bus steward that looks like a shorter, less muscular Sylvester Stallone with a Monster Energy-drink baseball cap sideways on his head. The driver turns out to be surprisingly calm and safe though, with only one dodgy overtaking move during the three-hour bus ride. As we pull out of Tanger, I think about its importance in historic travels. To the ancient Greeks, it was the end of the world, where Herakles took over the sky from the giant Atlas for a while. To Ibn Battuta, the Marco Polo of the Islamic world, it was the starting point of his journey. For me, Tanger has been something inbetween; the end of the world that’s familiar to me, and the beginning of my travels into unknown lands. Those travels start off uneventfully, with the bus passing fields full of garbage on the way to Tetouan (there doesn’t seem to be any proper waste disposal going on in Morocco), but the views improve as we enter the Rif mountains. The countryside is green, and brightened by the occasional blossoming almond tree. Just before Chefchaouen, the Monster Energy kid tells me and a few other passengers to get out; two taxis are standing by to take us to the town itself, as the bus continues on its way to Fes. There’s nothing wrong with the 4km stretch of road to Chefchaouen, so I can’t really imagine this procedure to be much quicker or cheaper for the bus company, although I’m pretty sure they will have negotiated a better price for the taxis than I did…

(Chef)chaouen, meaning (look at the) horns, is named after the two steep peaks on either side of it. Its claim to fame is its sky-blue painted medina and Spanish looks. The Spanish looks are from Jews and Muslims who fled persecution in Spain in the 1600s and settled in this area; the blue-white paint scheme is from the 1920s. It’s a very pretty little place, although it takes me about an hour of searching in the winding medina lanes before I find my hotel, where the husband and wife owners give me a warm welcome. On the roof terrace I meet Nina and Iris, a student and a cowgirl (yes, really) from Switzerland, and a group of Spanish students. Chefchaouen, as the rest of the Rif, was a Spanish protectorate from the 1920s until independence in 1956, and Spanish is still the second language. This draws in many weekend-trippers from Spain; with my black hair and brown eyes, I get a lot of ‘¡hola amigo!’ calls in the streets because people assume I’m Spanish. After dinner in the heroically badly named Magic Lantern / Aladdin (the food and the view make up for the name), it’s time for bed. The following morning, hotel Koutoubia is feeling blue, since Biki fell off the roof and hurt his hip during the night. Biki is the real owner of the hotel: a snow-white cat that is at the center of attention wherever he goes. Now he’s feeling very sorry for himself, and all the staff agree with him. I watch them pamper him as I have breakfast with Nina and Iris. Afterwards, it’s time to explore the medina; unfortunately, it’s raining, and it does so all day long. As a Dutchman I can’t let that discourage me, so I spend a few hours wandering around. The day is livened up by guys and girls from the nearby large cities (Tanger and Tetouan) walking through the streets in small parades, beating drums and chanting and having a good time. The local men are tucked away in their jellaba’s (a sort of poncho made of wool), and the women underneath their headscarves or umbrellas, so it’s not an ideal day for people watching. That’s not to say that no-one is talking to me though.
‘Hola, you want something?’
‘You looking for something special?’
‘Amigo, que tal? You want something to smoke?’
The “something” in all these cases is cannabis in one form or another, and the men or boys offering it are looking to sell it to tourists. See, the Rif mountains are the source of an estimated 42% of the world’s hashish, and before Chefchaouen became popular with Spanish families, it was (and still is) a prime destination for hippies looking for cheap, high-quality cannabis straight from the source. I politely decline, and make plans for a trek in the mountains instead. 

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