Lost in Chefchaouen
Crystal Clements | Photography by Michael Marquand
The backseat of the tiny taxicab smells of oil and gasoline as it rumbles up the steep dirt road to the bab, door in Arabic, of the Medina of Chefchaouen. We arrive, unload, and take in the impossibly small entrance.
It is markedly different than the bab which brought us here; which brought me - a woefully unseasoned traveler - across the Atlantic and over two continents. The entrance looks nothing like what I fell in love with 15 years before on a family trip to EPCOT. I remember standing at the base of the recreation of Bab Boujeloud, the imperial gate of Fes, with the mini-minuet of a mosque framed behind it, I was transfixed, and from that moment on, Morocco had been at the top of my dream destination list.
Now, looking at the crumbling, earthen door in front of me, barely wide enough for three people astride to squeeze through; I wonder if maybe I’ve been led astray by some very imaginative Disney imagineers.
However, as we round the first bend and the medina’s narrow streets open up to us, the disillusionment disappears. Chefchaouen, the Blue Pearl, does not disappoint.
The Chefchaouen blue is not just one blue; it is a collection of blues, cyans, cerulean, and periwinkles. Teals and turquoises tumble with cornflower and midnight. Pipe smoking locals in hooded djellabas stroll by the bare blues that kiss eggshell trims.
We slip into our hostel - a small traditional Moroccan home with rooms on the outside and a middle, open courtyard with a predictably blue interior - and before we can hoist our luggage upstairs, a broad, white smile greets us. Standing outside our door, this local has clocked our relative ages and pegged us as young enough to be interested in the area’s chief agricultural trade - hashish. The Rif mountains surrounding Chefchaouen provide an exceptional climate for growing marijuana, and not-so-hidden farms are rumored to cover a vast expanse of the surrounding hilltops.
Hash, or kif colloquially, is plentiful and inexpensive -- by American measure. The crop is officially illegal, but the economy depends on its trade to foreigners, so authorities overlook it.
We wrangle our luggage into our tiny (blue) room and then begin our first tour of Chefchaouen with our broad smiling friend. He whips through the maze of streets and alleys with incredible speed. I try to take in the unfamiliar surroundings while also trying to keep track of where we’ve been. (Those new to Moroccan medinas give up dropping mental breadcrumbs; these ancient fortresses are purposely labyrinthine -- getting lost in them is the joy of them.)
Suddenly, he whisks us through a small door tucked away on an empty street. We sit on plush footstools and drink from dainty glass cups filled with strong and sweet traditional mint tea, poured from an ornate silver teapot. We meet the man in charge of the tiny shop, and he begins to show us his wares.
Rug after rug is pulled out and I realize we have been duped into the Moroccan equivalent of a timeshare presentation. We exchange knowing glances as we sit through the carpet parade, too polite to interrupt the sales pitch. When we are finally able to convince the salesman that we are not, in fact, in the market for his rugs (lovely as they are), we exit to find that our tour guide has vanished.
It’s just as well. It’s best to explore Chefchaouen organically. We climb snaking stairs stained with blue runoff and explore the nestled-together homes, aromatic spice shops with their conical powders, huts crowded with lamps and leathers and bright powdered paints standing in contrast to the surrounding monochrome.
Corners are rounded by layer after layer of paint, giving an illusion of softness to everything, the decades peeling off to expose the history underneath. This history and the people scuttling through their day-to-day lives remind you that the city is alive, breaking, and real; this reality far flung from my own, makes it far more charming and much more magical than anything Disney could produce.
We stop at a fruit stand and load up on oranges - the oranges here are ridiculously delicious and sweet. We head out to the back of the medina where local women gather to wash laundry with the assistance of the Ras el Maa waterfall and begin our ascent to the Spanish Mosque, keeping watch over Chefchaouen from above the city.
The 15-minute walk is steep, but inquisitive goats greet and entertain us as we trudge -- their hilarious expressions making us forget our weariness. We arrive at the top and explore this out-of-place Iglesia, this reminder of a failed occupation nearly a century ago.
She spreads out below us, Chefchaouen, the Blue Pearl. Her whites and blues combine, and it feels as though we’re looking down on a cloud. It’s time for prayers, and they echo from the minuets, off the narrow corridors below us, filling the valley. A breeze whispers through it all, temperate and sweet. I pop an orange segment in my mouth, feel the flesh give way between my teeth and the fresh burst of juice. I close my eyes for a moment and open them, half expecting it all to disappear. This place that should only exist in imagination remains below, and we scamper down the dusty footpath, transported all over again.
CRYSTAL CLEMENTS is a native Las Vegan, who has made NYC her home for the past decade. When not planning theme-park inspired travel, she has been known to tell a joke or story on stage, sometimes accompanied by a guitar. She received her BFA in Theatre from UNLV and enjoys performing classical works in her living room for her moderately amused pug, Madi.