In spite of the labyrinth of street networks (absolutely NO grid whatsoever) the lack of street signs (there actually were some but we didn’t recognize them as such) the myriad twists and turns and thousands of stairs that looked somewhat similar, yet unique at the same time – I never felt LOST in Chefchaouen!
Granted, there were a few moments when Tomas and I had to admit that the street we took to get somewhere that “we had been before” did not take us there and we had to try another option. However, I always had the sense during these moments that if I had wanted or needed to return to our hotel – I absolutely could have done that. That’s a really good feeling to have in a new country where you don’t speak the native language!!
For one thing, the Medina (old part of the city) was enclosed by a Wall that made a definitive boundary around it, so I knew at some level that the labyrinth was finite and that if I went far enough in any direction, I could just follow the wall around the city to the neighborhood where I had taken up residence. Remember, there was a mosque right next to our hotel and it was unique in its architecture, so ultimately, there was no real danger of “getting lost.”
But it was more than that. Within a matter of hours, Tomas and I had memorized the “landmarks” of our neighborhood and by remembering the sequence of these local distinctions, we easily moved about to our favorite shops, restaurants and, of course, the ATM. It was precisely BECAUSE of the uniqueness of each doorway, each set of stairs, a certain hotel on this corner, the writing on the wall at this point and the soon-familiar shops and stalls that we were able to navigate so well, so quickly.
Chefchaouen has grown organically over centuries. The streets can be narrow, winding and sometimes very steep. The buildings seem to “grow” right out of the streets. Shop owners hang their merchandise on the walls of buildings as “advertisements.” A peek into a doorway may reveal a tailor at work over an ancient Singer sewing machine, not a treadle but close to it. Or you might find a stream of people bringing their bread dough into another unmarked “cubby” that features a brick oven for use by a whole neighborhood. When we climbed up to the top tower of the northeast corner of the Medina (tomorrow’s installment) we were surprised to find a weaver inhabiting the tower instead of the expected access back into the city. No space goes unused in Chefchaouen.
One of Tomas’s favorite pastimes is sitting in cafes (outdoors whenever possible) and people-watching while sipping a really good café au lait. It’s a European custom that I had not previously enjoyed but he managed to “convert” me on this trip. At first I was shocked by the small size of what passes for a serving of coffee in these places. A small coffee is served in a four to six ounce clear glass. “What a rip-off,” my mind said, being used to at least a 12-ounce minimum in the States. To give due credit, there is probably as much caffeine in that little bitty glass and there is in the American 12-ounce, because if you try to drink one without milk (or “noir” as they say) it pretty near blows your head off. On our last day in Chefchaouen (after we had ordered and drunk our small coffees) Tomas discovered that the café we had patronized each morning also served a “large” eight or ten ounce size that probably would have felt more like our usual habit. Good to know but a little less caffeine is probably better for me these days.
Another of Tomas’s favorite things to do is to explore (and indulge in) little hole-in-the-wall eating establishments. Here’s where I customarily apply the brakes. On our first night in the Blue City, we went to one of the tourist places on Mohammed Plaza and ate our dinner with the Blue City Kitties. That was probably the lowest-vibration food we ate during our entire stay. After that, I followed Tomas into truly tiny sandwich shops, soup and tea kitchens and other unlikely places and was pleased and amazed each time by the quality of the food and the generosity the people serving us. I never got sick once – not even close.
On our last morning we had a late brunch at a café along the Water Garden stream that Tomas had discovered on his first scouting trip to Chefchaouen, a trip I did not take with him. We were the only customers and the place was obviously the owner’s pride and joy. It was he who personally greeted us, cooked for us and served us. We sat at a table shaded by citrus trees, trees that produced some of the very oranges and lemons he juiced that morning for us to drink. We asked for water and he promptly left the premises for 10 minutes to procure it (chilled) from a vendor down the street. This is a routine practice here – no one tells a customer,certainly not a foreign tourist, that they do not have what the customer is asking for. Once our proprietor returned with our water, he set about preparing our Moroccan salad (lettuce, fresh onions, tomatoes, cucumber and olives, all finely chopped and dressed with salt and lemon juice) and our main dish (Kefta, small oblong, seasoned patties of ground beef and a plate of freshly cut French fries.) Of course, everything is served with bread that comes in 8” rounds and is always enough to feed twice the number of diners present. He conversed with us in French and played the gracious host, as though he had welcomed us to his home – which indeed he had. The café reflected a good part of his life’s work and passion. This meal ranked as the tastiest and the highest-vibration food I ate in Chefchaouen.
Most of the cafes and eating places I just described were outside the walls of the Medina. One exception was the small soup/tea room that we took refuge in the day it rained. We had been peering into this shop each morning, as we traveled from our hotel room to the coffee place just outside the Medina wall, close to the west bank of The Water Garden. We talked of “going there for tea” some afternoon but that plan never came to fruition. On our third morning, the rain caught us unprepared, as we’d brought no rain gear with us. We opted to eat the hotel’s breakfast that day (it was actually quite good) and then at lunchtime, we scurried up 100 steps and turned right at the third “cross street” and soon we were in this small eating place ordering soup. It was obviously a “local” spot and there were three or four Moroccans already taking up most of the spaces at the tables. But with a little rearrangement of the chairs, they made space for the two of us and we each enjoyed a wonderful bowl of soup (with bread and olives) for under $1 total. It was another notch in Tomas’s belt for selecting the perfect restaurant and getting a meal for an unbelievable price.
And because it rained and we could not go out to SEE and DO everything we had come to realize that we wanted to SEE and DO, we arranged to stay one more night at the Molino Garden, watch movies and blog, and hope that the next day’s weather would allow us to venture out to a couple of other destinations outside of the Medina. Those tales will be coming soon.
Meanwhile, enjoy these photos of some of the local landmarks that guided us home each day – and a few photos of some places that we found “accidentally” while trying to get somewhere else.