Sunday 2nd October 2011, Chefchaouen, Morocco
We slept really well last night, exhausted by the heat, the driving and the many new experiences of the day. Because Morocco gets light at an earlier hour than mainland Europe, this morning we were on our way down into town well before 9am. The air was still fresh so we decided to take the footpath that wound steeply down the hillside between shrubs, bushes and fig trees through the old, disused cemetery full of abandoned tomb stones, many painted bright blue. Actually that was the colour of the old town as it stretched out way below us. Everything is painted in blue and white which makes it look cool even in the heat.
The path brought us out at the top of the town so we still had to make our way through the bustling streets down to the medina or old town. People were milling everywhere, many of the men wearing white hooded robes while the women wore scarves and long, flowing dresses. Many also wore Moroccan leather slippers. Men sat outside street cafes together. They looked no-go areas for women though all that was being drunk was mint tea and glasses of milk or coffee.
This area is a major producer of cannabis and the town attracts a lot of younger people because of the easy availability of kif. Indeed, even we were asked if we wanted some!
Nobody bothered us much. We got a few stares and lots of bonjours but certainly no pestering which was an agreeable surprise. A few people asked where we were from and told us of things not to miss around the town. At one point in the day a very dark young man wearing Joseph's technicoloured dream coat asked to try on my sunglasses and suggested swapping them for his. He said he came from the southern Sahara but was now running a small hanut (general store selling anything and everything) in Chefchaouen. Another man saw us looking with interest at sacks of powder paint outside his open fronted little store and came to chat explaining how the pigment was made and what uses the paints were put to.
All these conversations were in French but as we stopped to watch in admiration as a man twisted long lengths of wool together ready for weaving, a dignified man spoke to us in excellent English. He told us he was a retired surgeon and had done his training at Charing Cross Hospital in London. He was very pleasant and was delighted when I commented that we'd had some excellent Moroccan medics working in Exeter hospital when I was there. He wished us a happy visit to his home town and left.
In the medina another pleasant man in robes told us about his weaving factory producing rugs, blankets and silk shawls. He said this area is important for wool production and his workers colour and spin the wool as well as weaving it. He led us through the narrow streets to his tiny factory to show us some of the work they do and to see a hand loom in action. Everything is produced in a few low rooms down a tiny back street of the medina. It was deliciously cool and dark inside the thick walls and each room was piled high with stunning rugs and blankets in a riot of different colours. He invited us to sit on covered benches while his assistant floated crimson and orange silk cloths around for us to admire. Mulberry trees grow in the town and the silk is also produced here. We did not wish to buy however, explaining that we were visiting friends working for a weavers' co-operative and if we did buy it would be from there. He told us we were throwing up the chance of a bargain and offered us soft, colourful blankets for 55 euros. He accepted however that we were not buying and warned us to be careful with vendors further south in the country.
Eventually we found ourselves at the heart of the medina, the attractive square of Uta el-Hammam where cafes served soft drinks and mint tea from beneath shady awnings and customers sat on decorative metal benches covered with bright cushions. To one side of the square was the mosque. Unlike in Turkey, here non-Muslims are forbidden to enter. Next to the mosque is the entrance to the red sandstone Kasbah, the old town's original castle, prison and administrative centre. The walls are crenelated with walkways along the top and a high tower. From the top excellent views across the town could be enjoyed. Within the walls lies a beautifully green and tranquil garden with cool walkways and a central fountain. Within the Kasbah too we found a small but excellent museum of Berber artefacts and costumes labelled in Arabic, Spanish and French.
For lunch we returned to the shaded Uta el-Hammam where we sheltered from the heat in the dark recesses of one of the restaurants drinking freshly squeezed orange juice and chilled water as we waited for our tajines to cook. Ian had lamb with prunes while I had chicken with lemon. Both were accompanied by warmed round flatbread and a bowl of olives. From our table we could watch everybody crossing the square. There were young backpackers carrying loads as large as themselves as well as western tourists nearer our age. There were also though, townspeople of every kind. There were men in robes but others in tee-shirts and jeans. There were women in skimpy tops with flowing hair looking very westernised and beautiful. There were others though wearing jellabas and head scarves and a surprising number who were completely veiled in black with just a slit for their eyes to peep out from. There seemed proportionately more here than we saw in Turkey.
There were a number of elderly beggars too. Old and withered they squatted in the narrow streets, the women bundled up in many different sorts of clothes with scarves or towels and straw hats on their heads, while the old men wore dark tunics with pointed hoods pulled over their heads.
After lunch we walked steeply downhill and out to the edge of the town. Here we found an old stone bridge with a fast flowing stream running through the street of little houses. Women, dressed inappropriately in their heavy robes, were washing carpets, pouring buckets of stream water over them to rinse away the soap. Other women were working at the lavoir – a series of deep stone sinks filled from the stream where the washing for the entire quarter appeared to be done by a couple of ladies with unwanted assistance of tiny toddlers.
Just upstream from the lavoir were several deep troughs through which the stream ran. These were providing cool relief and lots of fun to the young boys of the area as they dived and swam. We observed no girls joining in such activities, nor in the games that were being enjoyed by the young boys wherever the narrow streets of the medina widened out sufficiently to kick a football, even though it was invariably to friends scattered at different points up a flight of steep steps.
It was now so hot we ceased to enjoy our wandering. Leaving the medina we found the fish, meat and vegetable market where the vendors waved fronds over their goods to keep away the abundant flies. It was hot and smelly inside but we couldn't escape until we'd been called from one stall to another to admire all the different kinds of fish and animal heads offered for sale. We were excused buying because we were visitors and couldn't easily cook huge fishes but the young vendors all wanted to speak to us, practicing their French and sometimes their English.
Practically we should have taken a taxi back up to the campsite. Instead we spent more than the taxi fare on cold drinks at a cafe near the market and then walked back up to the top of the town and on up the steps winding back up the hillside. From time to time we passed beneath the shadow of a tree and stopped, gasping for air. Eventually though we emerged onto the hilltop, only to be confronted by a young man hoping to sell us hashish! A short walk brought us back to the campsite, cold showers and several glasses of chilled water.
Tonight all the English caravanners have gone down into town for supper together. They, like us, will be moving on in the morning. It has actually been rather pleasant sharing this site with them all. They've been cheery and amusing companions. One was telling us with distress that he'd been told he'd be having a burger breakfast this morning. Instead all he got was some sort of cheese on bread. We suggested he'd misheard as he wears a hearing aid and that what he'd had was actually a Berber breakfast!