Thursday, 30 April 2015

Fez - A walk in the medina

Fez has the reputation of being the closest thing you can get in Morocco to a medieval town, with its labyrinthine medina. It can intimidate at first, but during my three days in town I learned to navigate its narrow streets and become acquainted with its smells and colours. The gates of the old town, Fez El Bali, soon became familiar sights, especially Bab Boujeloud, commonly called by foreigners the Blue Gate.

In the medina of Fez, I saw many traditional jobs that have almost disappeared in other parts of the world, but that are still very much part of everyday life in Morocco. There is a square dedicated to coppermaking, for instance, with a picturesque tree in the middle. While walking through the medina I glimpsed people carving Arabic writings on marble tablets, working wood to make beautiful decorations or sewing leather slippers.
Man at work
What struck me about Fez, though, is the number of religious buildings within the walls of the medina. You cannot walk too far without encountering a mosque, a medersa (Koranic school) or a shrine. Unfortunately, in Morocco the entrance to religious buildings is mostly forbidden for non-Muslims. What you can do is glimpsing through the open doors, having a look at the beautiful decorations, and observing the people taking off their shoes and entering the mosque to pray.

Taking a look inside

The shrine and tomb (zaouia) of Moulay Idriss II is one of the most fascinating places in Fes el Bali, the medina. At the entrance of this shrine - dedicated to the 9th-century ruler and founder of the city - there are women selling candles to light in the shrine and small satchels with many kinds of nougat, a common pilgrimage gift.

Selling nougat

It's not Fez if you are not invited to visit one of the many rooftops, and of course you're expected to leave a tip if you enjoyed the experience. On a rooftop, among looms where the women make carpets and the laundry of a random family, I noticed the green roofs of the srhine and the central mosque, which is the spiritual centre of the city.

The green roof of the shrine

View from a roof
I also visited the medersa Bou Inania, which is hidden behind a door very close to Bab Boujeloud. Since I had visited medersa Ben Youssef in Marrakesh I knew more or less what to expect, but I didn't know that the two Koranic schools are so similar. If you are visiting both Marrakesh and Fez, I advice you to visit medersa Ben Youssef, which is better preserved and allows you to go upstairs in the former bedrooms of the students. Medersa Bou Inania is the subdued version, but the mosaics and the decorations are just as beautiful.

From one corner you have a perfect view of the minaret, and from the door you can observe how the life outside goes on busily while you are within the quiet walls of the medersa.

Medersa Bou Inania

Of course the medina is full of smells and surprises: spices of all kinds, hens tied to their cage for sale in the food market, or a man pushing a cart full of strawberries.
Spices in the souk
Hens for sale in the food market

Jewels and small tagines in the medina
Every now and then you'll come across one of the many fountains. They are all covered in ceramic tiles and intricate marble carvings. Some of them will have a glass tied to it with a cord or a chain, and kids will be washing off the dirt from their feet, while women will be cleaning vegetables.

A fountain with azulejos in Fez

Needless to say, I was invited to see the famous tanneries, a young man leading us along the narrow streets of Fez for what seemed to be a very long time for such a short distance. What a way to try to earn a tip! Once we arrived at the rooftop from where you can see the tanneries, we were introduced to the ancient tradition of making leather goods by hand, bags, slippers and jackets that are sold to the visitors. They were not pushy, but of course they appreciate if you buy something or if you leave a donation to the cooperative. 
A view of the tanneries
Everything around me looked interesting, and I have many tales, because everything surprised me, from the Coca-Cola with the Arabic spelling to young people's obsession for Barcelona football club. In Bab Rcif Square, I saw men cooking snails in a stall, and serving them in a broth, and I was  offered a taste.

Selling snails in Fez
The mellah, which once was the Jewish quarter, is another part of Fez that is worth having a look at. Here I found a graffiti reproduction of one of the fountains I encountered within the walls of Fez El Bali. This is a less visited part of the city, almost gritty, with kids playing football and men sitting in crowded caf├ęs drinking endless glasses of tea.

A graffiti in Fez
A row of women chatting near Bab Rcif Square

I found Fez to be an interesting town: a bit less aggressive than Marrakesh, but also a bit more difficult to appreciate. It's not as immediately exotic, and its beauty is more in the small details or in the scenes of everyday life. It's touristic but not as much as Marrakesh, and it's overwhelming at times. It has quiet corners, and really friendly people who are never to pushy. Overall, I think that Fez should be included in every itinerary of a tour of Morocco, and it should be approached with calm, without prejudice. I think that in a city like Fez it is important to try to savour every bit of Moroccan culture, observing without intruding, with friendliness and never scared of asking questions.  

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Chefchaouen - dreaming in blue

There is a place in the foothills of the Rif mountains of northern Morocco that has enchanted independent travellers for decades. It is Chefchaouen, locally called simply Chaouen, a small town with houses painted blue and the verdant hills all around it.

I arrived in Chefchaouen on a Tuesday afternoon after a four-and-a-half bus journey from Fez (it costs 75 dirhams, which is around 7€): it was the end of March, and the weather was miserable. With three nights booked at Riad Baraka, I hoped that it would get better, so that I could enjoy my stay properly, and perhaps do a little hiking in the mountains as well. Since it was raining hard, I spent the first night in the hostel, warming up against the electric stove and chatting with the other guests, as if we were on a ski holiday. It was a nice evening: we were all travelling alone in Morocco, we came from many different countries and had previous experiences of independent travel.

A cat in the streets of Chefchaouen

It was during that first evening of rain that I learned about the history of the town. Chefchaouen was founded by Berbers of the Ghomara tribe, and it was later resettled by the Moriscos and Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. The entrance to the city was forbidden to all foreigners, and especially to Christians, until 1920. The few travellers who managed to enter back then found Jews still speaking 15th-century Andalucian Spanish. The houses were painted blue in the 1930s by the Jewish inhabitants of the town, who have since left for Israel or other parts of the world.

A street in the medina

In Chefchaouen the men all wear the djellaba with the hood on, as if they were Moroccan wizards, and some of the women wear a traditional costume that includes a straw hat.

A man with a djellaba


A wall in the medina of Chefchaouen
Luckily, the following morning the rain had stopped, even though it was still chilly and cloudy. In spite of relying mostly on tourism, I found Chefchaouen to be authentic and charming. The choice of food to try seemed to be more varied here than in other parts of Morocco, including Fez and Marrakesh. I tried anchovy tagine, home-made yogurt, squid, sardines, and of course the harira soup that you're offered at the beginning of most Moroccan meals. A dinner at Bab Ssour - a very friendly, cheap and traditional restaurant we found hidden in a corner of the medina - only cost me 65 dirhams (6€).

Selling fruit in the medina of Marrakesh

In the main square of the town, Place Uta el-Hammam, there is a Kasbah that you can visit for a few dirhams, with great views of the hills from the top of the tower and a good exhibition on history, traditions and customs in the area. I also hiked to the Spanish Mosque, which is worth not so much for the building itself, but for the views.

View of Chefchaouen while hiking to the Spanish mosque

On the way to the mosque you pass by Ras-el Maa, a small waterfall where women do the laundry and locals come to take a walk. The hills, when they are surrounded by clouds, give a rather mysterious aura to the place. At times, I thought I was in a Central American small town.

A view of Chefchaoen and its hills

Once we arrived to the top of the hill,  where the Spanish mosque stands, we found a relaxed atmosphere, and sat there for a while, observing the women who were looking after sheep and goats.

Grazing sheep in Chefchaouen
People come to Chefchaouen to relax, to learn about Moroccan culture, or to hike. Most likely, you will not find annoying tourists who shout or behave in inappropriate ways. Even though Chefchaouen is in the middle of an area which is famous for the production of kief and for the easy access to marijuana, I found that the kind of people that make their way to Chafchaouen do not care too much about it. I didn't meet anybody who wanted to get stoned all the time, or that was really interested in touring the illegal plantations.  
The rooftop of Riad Baraka
The medina of Chefchaouen is small, clean and not at all smelly. What a change from the aggressiveness of the medina in Fez with its smells and its touts! Nobody will bother you here, except the occasional man who unconvincingly tries to sell you hashish or lead you to your riad. It is a relaxing experience if compared to a walk in the medina in Fez or Marrakesh. A few days in this town will introduce you to the culture of northern Morocco, with its mish-mash of Andalusian and Berber influences.

A door in the medina
A corner of the medina
Selling dry fruits in the medina

When strolling around town, among blue doors and colourful pots with plants of all kinds, prepare for an array of pleasant surprises. During my wandering through the narrow streets I found  a local art gallery, a hole in the wall selling samosa-like pastries for 5 dirhams (0,40 €) and an improvised market stall (in the picture below).

An improvised market stall in Chefchaouen
An art gallery in the medina of Chefchaouen

I did take a hike on Thursday. Together with other 5 guests from the riad, we made our way to Parc National de Talassemtane, about half an hour away with a grand taxi. The return trip cost us 400€ (€37,50), the six of us squeezed in an old Mercedes. There are several possibilities here: either you make your way to God's Bridge, or to Oued El Kelaa waterfall. We chose the latter, two hours and a half away. The hike was overall I bit more difficult than we expected: it had rained a lot, and because you have to cross the river several times by jumping on some rocks, it was impossible not to get wet.

The canyon in Parc National de Talassemtane

The landscape, with canyons, clear bodies of water, and wooden huts with refreshments, reminded me of my hike in the Samaria Gorge in Crete. On the way to the waterfall we encountered very few people, most of them Moroccans. At the end of the hike, we finally found the waterfall. It is a beautiful sight, in peaceful surroundings, and we were the only one exploring the area.

Oued El Kelaa waterfall
We were told that there was going to be food, but probably because it was not high season, we found the bar unprepared. We managed to order a few fried eggs, served without cutlery, a pot of tea and some biscuits.

We quickly made our way back to the entrance of the park and we found a local restaurant, where we ate a delicious kefta tagine and a plate full of grilled sardines. This was one of the best meals I had in Morocco, and not only because I was hungry.

My three days in Chefchaouen ended with warmer weather and finally some real sun.

View from the Kasbah

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