A mountain Atlantis of pale blue, aquamarine and striking azure
An overturned cart laden with fresh melons blocks the battered gateway to the ancient medina, a labyrinth of narrow streets, bursting with energy. The cargo of freshly harvested fruit spills out onto the cobbles; the donkey brays, people push by, and the air is filled with the sound of animated shouting.
This is a typical scene that might greet you in the fascinating mountain Berber village of Chefchaouen. The place that has become internationally recognised for its extraordinary 16th Century old town that appears lost in time, painted in shades of blue, mauve and aquamarine. Walking its narrow streets becomes mesmerising, as if in an underwater Atlantis, where subtle pastel shades blend to create an unexpected experience.
In just a few hours from Spain, there lies this different world; an exotic continent that is full of the promise of adventure.
On a clear day many can catch a glimpse of Morocco from the coast of Southern Spain, with the sight of the dramatic Rif Mountains dominating the near horizon. This is one of the world’s great frontiers, where Europe meets Africa, Christian meets Muslim, and the developed world directly touches the developing.
The fast catamaran from Tarifa port takes 35 minutes, and with the convenience of clearing immigration onboard, before long you can be on your way, enjoying a journey of discovery of these beautiful mountains and their picturesque villages.
Travel is much easier than you might imagine. Even when faced with the disorganised queue at customs, a few euro discretely folded and handed to one of the ‘facilitators’ that rush between the waiting cars and the Customs Officers is surprisingly effective at accelerating the process, without any need to leave the comfort of your car.
After a few hours driving through unspoilt Mediterranean landscape, the village of Chefchaouen appears, its buildings clinging to the edge of the mountain, above the lush river banks of the Ras el-Maa.
Access to the ancient medina is impossible by car, so one parks by the city walls and walks to one of the elegant yet simple boutique riad hotels. One might feel a little out of place at first, dragging an overnight wheelie case over the cobbles, but the villagers do make visitors feel at home, and the distinctive courtyard properties or ‘Dar’ that have been converted into boutique guest houses and hotels offer every creature comfort, with authentic touches.
A favourite is Dar Gabriel, for its simplicity, and authentic geometric design, enhanced by artisan construction methods and furnished with distinctive Moroccan wares that display the rich craftsmanship of the area. This intimate hotel has been created by Brits, so expect comfy beds and attentive service.
Like Dar Gabriel, many riad hotels offer the opportunity to dine in; but part of the fun is to explore the myriad of eateries in town. One of the best known is ‘Restaurant Tissemlal’, where guests are amazed by the quality and flavours of the authentic dishes, including the ubiquitous couscous and tagines. Being a vegetarian here is a joy, as there is a wide choice of non meat dishes, whilst the carnivores can tuck into richly-spiced, slowed-cooked stews with dried fruits and nuts served in iconic tagine plates topped with heavy conical lids.
This is perfect hearty food that tastes even better after a day’s trekking in the Rif Mountains; or exploring the village’s artisan stalls; or following a robust massage in one of the local Hammam baths.
Some restaurants do not offer alcohol, but this is Morocco so there is always a solution. Once again, a few euro to a waiter or your hotel manager will make a perfectly drinkable bottle of Moroccan Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah red wine discretely appear at your table, served in a intricately designed heavy earthenware jug!
This is one of the safest towns in Morocco, and visitors are not bothered by shop keepers, or hawkers in the street. This makes it a real pleasure to shop, and once away from the tourist honey pot of the main square and fortified Kasbah, you will find stores selling well-priced local produce including delicious mountain honey; and artisan ware like pottery, wool blankets and rugs.
It is worth noting however, that the area is well known for its hashish, made from the marijuana that grows nearby. So possible, as you walk along the alleyways, you may be approached by young men wanting to sell you some; a word of caution, be politely firm and decline the offer, as local police are no longer as tolerant towards visitors smoking a joint!
Once one passes through that medieval gateway of Bab Souk, into the maze of mauve and turquoise alleys of Chefchaouen full of aroma and colour, one starts a memorable weekend of adventure made even better by great food and friendly people.