Marrakech to Chefchaouen

Marrakech doesn’t hide it’s renowned bold crazy character. Within minutes of leaving the Souf and Natalia to their drive to Casablanca, I was in the heart of the local part of the Kasbah. Noise, scooters, horns and crowds of people hustled through the streets, buckets of olives were shoved out the front of small deli’s and cuts of meat swung gently off greyish butchers hooks in the higgledy-piggledy alleyways. What kind of craziness was this? Walking in a straight line is unheard of in Marrakech it seems – locals seem to pick a spot in the heart of everything to chat, so the need to learn the Marrakech street dance is a must. I danced my way through the small alleys into the Kasbah, and wander off into the dark bustling alleys in search of my hostel. A young boy tells me the street is closed, and that I need an escort to walk down the street, so he voluntarily walks in front of me, as if guiding me down the alley to my hostel. I find my hostel, and as I do, he turns and demands payment, as does his friend who materialises out of the darkness, who apparently feel as though they’ve earnt the right to aggressively demand money for a service I don’t want, nor asked for. After an aggressive argument, they melt into the darkness with looks of disgust on their faces at my apparent rudeness of refusing to pay them. The riad door opens. Welcome to Marrakech!

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Inside, on the rooftop, sipping a on a cold beer (yes, there is such places in Marrakech, and throughout Morocco where you can find both a bed and alcohol, it isn’t anywhere near as dry one thinks), enters Viktor. At this point I’m quite used to crossing paths with Germans, they seem to be all over the world. We get chatting, his relief clearly shown at finding another nationality besides German (it’s the German university break) as we sip on our cold beer cans. It’s the beginning of our adventures together. After reminiscing about German weißbeer, it only takes a day for us to venture out to Carrefour to pick up more beer. Yes you read correctly, if you are travelling to Morocco and need a drink, you will find them in most Carrefours in the larger cities for about 9 MAD a pop (1 euro). Alcohol can also be sourced in ‘Black Market’ shops that are hidden in the oddest of places. There are much better beers in this world, but when in Rome…

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Vik and the Kasbah gates

Venturing out the next afternoon, we headed to the most obvious spot to start our short exploration of Marrakech, Jemaa El Fna, the ultimate square for tourists and locals alike. Snake charmers play their tunes to curled up snakes (the snake seducers stitch their mouths shut, so that’s their little trick), henna artists try to drag possible clients by the arm onto tiny stools (girls, the henna trick is to get hold of your arm and start plying their art on your hand) and the juice guys argue over clients from cart to cart (they have two types of orange juice, the watered down version for tourists, and the pure version for moroccans, but you’ll never know unless you sneak a look behind their high counters). Walking through the just opening dining stalls, the hosts almost drag you onto a bench, and will chase you up the bustling aisles just to get a sale on a meal. There is varying ways they will try getting your attention, from an outstretched hand to completely blocking you walking up the aisle to bribing you with free drinks. Tagines, shish, cows head, sheeps head, brains, snails, harira, marocain salads… however this is not the the cheapest or best place to find a meal, although 30MAD (3 EUROS) for a tagine is hard to argue with. We managed to get ourselves a vegetable tagine for 25 MAD and sat down in the warm sun, trying to adjust to the absurd craziness richocheing around us.

That evening, who happened to walk through the door, but Adele (refer to last blog) the outrageous overall wearing hippie from home, and Grady, a surfer also from back home. After a rekindling hug, the next afternoon we lazily wandered off into the saturday evening sunset, to the maze of the souk, for some dinner amongst other trinkets, haggling with vendors on overpriced items (the tourist markup of items here is about 500% to 1000%, for example Viktor bought a tagine pot for 30DH, however at other stalls they were asking 260DH… same goes for gilabas, they go for 700DH but you can pick them up for 80DH). The call to prayer signalled across the souk, first one mosque and then the next, and the next. Immediately action ceased, men pulled carpets out, ran to get a spot to pray and settled into long lines between the souk stalls. It was time for God, a most impressive moment, as one they knelt, stood, bowed and prayed together. We watched silently, pulling up a hard seat on the aged stone steps inside the souk.

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Time for God

We got more then we bargained for back in Jemaa. Zipping through the souk, dodging shopkeepers who frowned at us when we declined an invitation to their shops, and headed straight back to Jemaa El Fna for some dinner. We were taken by surprise – the Friday was tame compared to this chaos. Hosts seeing we were in a group of four roared over each other at us, screaming out their best deals, begging us to see the fresh foods ready for us to eat, offering free food to the first one to accept an offer. The intensity was so bizarre and outrageous we were all taken aback for a moment. I turned around and saw our little group completely separated in four different directions, we honestly had to rally back together, shaking off gripping hands to ‘Inshallah, number 43 tomorrow mon ami’. It was almost a relief to get out of the last aisle, where we found our dinner – harira soup for 3MAD (30 cents euro), loaded to brim with nothing but locals. Lip smacking, cheap and great to fill on. Picking up a bowl of snails on the way back to the Kasbah, as well as several paper cones of freshly made potato chips and chunky, sugary doughnuts hot out of the local deep fry. We couldn’t lose.

The whole group departed the next day, Viktor and Adele to Chefchaouen and Grady to Sidi Ifni to hit the surf. I spent the day wandering town with my new acquaintance Mexico (aka Victoria). Discovering the cyber park Vik had been raving about in Marrakech, we made roads towards the royal theatre just for kicks on the return from the Gare (transport station) where I had picked up my overnight train ticket to Tangier. Pleasingly symmetrical, you can visit the theatre free of charge. We made a side trip through the famous ‘Bab Doukala’, munching on some chilli Moroccan cheeseburgers on the way to the Ben Youssef Madrasa. Paying the 50MAD entry, the interior was still being lovingly restored and maintained, the only faux part the ceiling above the main fountain hall. Intricate designs carved into the columns surrounded the beautifully tiled court, and colourful mosaic designs of green, red, yellow and blue decorates the columns from bottom to top. Small fountains were parked in the main court, softly spilling their water into the purposely built tiled pools below. Wooden doors led to the winding halls of the old hammam, now a small decorative arts gallery. A small and dreamy haven, away from the craziness of the souk in Marrakech.

Heading out for dinner with our new compatriot Max (from my hometown, Sydney), we sought out the 15MAD street tagines I’d been chowing through the days before. Parking our butts at the local street grill restaurant, we received two tagines, plus our third which was for three people, twelve shish, baskets of bread and three cokes and paid a mere 45MAD each. Absolute glory. The tagines had the largest array of vegetables I’d seen since I’d set foot in Morocco, and best of all they were more to the local price then the tourist markup. Seek and you shall find my friends. We also went doughnut fishing, potato chip hunting and sunk down a few good cold beers from the Carrefour (it becomes harder and pricier to locate alcoholic beverages outside the big cities, so I took full advantage of this fact in Marrakech).

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Ben Youssef Madrasa, Marrakech

My overnight train to Tangier arrived on time, and on I hopped into my sleeper cabin with Yusei and Yamashito from Japan! These guys were rocketship travelers, they were racing around the world in 40 days on a ‘quick’ break from finishing university before they went on to work. I slept soundly on the 10 hrs train ride on Tangier, where the Moroccan lion Sara was waiting for me at a fresh 7am. The taxi drivers were shouting out destinations as the train passengers exited the train station, something that I was now quite accustomed to. Always an interesting welcome at the local Gares and Stations in Morocco, especially when they can see you’re a tourist. Waving goodbye to my new Japanese friends it was time for breakfast.

Sara and I ducked off for some breakfast, before heading out to Parc Rmillate to check out the views over the Straights of Gibraltar and the Atlantic.  Full pack on, it was a good March through the crisp morning air to the viewpoint Sara wanted to show me, where we were ultimately rewarded with engaging views of the northern coastline of Morocco. The greens of the vegetation meeting the blue hues of the Straights of Gibraltar were beautiful, and the trees let me know I was in Africa. Our taxi driver who had agreed to stay and wait for us had disappeared, however, we were able to get the number 5 bus back to the heart of Tangier, Sara in time for university and hairy old me to the coach station. Fighting through the hassling, chasing touts, I booked my ticket and hopped on my CTM bus to Chefchaouen, on which I promptly fell asleep.

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Park Rmillate, Tangier

The coach journey was eventful as all coach journeys are in Morocco, you’d think it was a race to see which coach could break the big bus landspeeding record. Right on the edges of cliffs the huge coaches screamed, riding the edges of the deep water ditches on the side of the scrappy, potholed road. I can’t say I’m much of a fan of Moroccan style coach driving, although it’s quite riveting to watch the steering wheel be turned erratically by the drivers on the twisting mountain roads.

Falling out of the bus (yes, I slipped on the exiting mats out onto the ground, oh so gracefully) I fought through the crowd to pick up my pack and began the march up the steep hill towards the blue city. Hash pushers chased me up the street, trying to sell me the best Hash from their ‘fathers brothers uncles farm’, ‘the best hashish in Morocco’ and so on and so forth. A line of gentleman followed my long strides up the street hawking their gear at me. Minutes later I bumped into a Swiss guy who was also being chased by the Hash hawkers of the North,  and together we made our way through the streets to the blue city, and our cheap but fun hostel for the next few days. On route who did I find but Viktor, walking along with a big smile on his face, coming out with a ‘welcome to chefchaouen mate’ and a pat on the back.

On the rooftop of our lazy little hostel, where both Viktor and his gang were staying, I also discovered Adele on the rooftop couch, soaking up the warm rays of the sun, overlooking the rocky rif mountains. Not a bad life we lead for a bunch of backpackers eh? After trading stories, we promptly left on a hunt for food in our little blue city. Vik had already discovered the best place for a sandwich – 8MAD (80 cents euro) for a foot long sandwich with everything. When I say everything I mean it’s more ingredients then it is bread. 5 types of salads, fresh vegetables, selected meats, pasta, an army of simple sauces topped with fresh french fries. It was our turn to for the nest few days. The juice shop 1 minute walk away did every kind of juice imaginable, all you had to do is ask and everything from  panache to avocado, walnut and date juice was churned out for a mere 10MAD (1 euro). Bypassing both of these, I was chasing a tagine, and picking out a small restaurant nearby the old kasbah, we supped on garlic eggplant, fig and beef tagine, baskets of fresh bread, Moroccan salad and panache. Simple but simply epic. The beef was soft, melting in my mouth and well accompanied by the sweet figs they had been cooked in.

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The El Kelaa Gang – Vassi, Edgar, Adele, Vik and Kia.

The next day took us on a hike up El Kelaa, a small mountain just outside of Chaouen, a half day hike, us being Vik, Adele, Edgar, Basti, Kia and myself. Julian (part of the German entourage) was still grossly sick with some kind of flu, so unfortunately he was stuck in bed. After walking out the gates we strode uphill, past farmers inviting us to their farms to smoke Hash and drink tea and up onto the mountain trails. In the warming weather we passed by old Hash fields, the wafting smells of the golden suppresant evident in the air. Steadily we stepped up through small tree groves and stony paths, wandering past herds of multicoloured goats and packs of wild dogs eyeing us off. Crossing a farm where we had a jumbled multilingual chat with the farmers working the hard earth, we reached the final leg of the mountain, a free for all scramble with no trail, just loose rock covering the ground on the way up. After a somewhat messy scramble and rally, we reached the top of A mountain, however this was still below the top of El Kelaa. With time running out and the sun on its way down, we made the decision to turn back before darkness set inside the rif. Kicking stones, slipping precariously  down the mountainside at points, we found the dry, dusty road back into town. Stopping by our favourite sandwich shop for a deluxe everything sandwich, we all at down in the middle of the street, and happily chewed away on our foot long sandwiches.

Sara, our moroccan lion (named this because she gets notoriously fierce) came for a visit from Tangier the next day. After negotiating with a local to rent their apartment for a night, Sarah dumped her gear, and off we went to explore the blue streets of the blue city of the north. Extremely charming, chefchaouen is an easy place to get lost in, every shade of blue you can think of adorns the street walls and houses, it’s like walking around in the sky. Children kicked balls through makeshift football fields set up in the narrow streets, cheering madly everytime a goal was scored. Every street was uniquely different, from complete streets of blue, painted stairs and all, to a calm mix of soft browns slotting in comfortably with the colourful array of potplants and blue shades. Men and women wandered off through the streets on unhurried errands, as we make up stories about where they were off to for the day. Colourful handmade blankets, shawls, scarfs and carpets adorned the blue streets of Chefchaouen, through arched timber roofed alleyways back down to the hostel and our waiting friends.

Our group walked up to the adjacent hill for sunset, watching the gold nostalgic show from the mosque. Walking through the lower end of the city, a water source trickled down the sloping hills, between houses and shops, it felt like I was small eastern european village. A rocky trail led us uphill to the aged Spanish mosque, and once reaching the top we were rewarded with great views of Chefchaouen and the sunset. Bags of bananas were eaten and panache was drunk as we watched the sun descend behind the rif, shooting off the last rays over the lovely blue city before tucking itself behind the mountains to sleep another night away.

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Sunset over Chefchaouen

Planning to go to Akshour, a water source hidden within the Rif, our plans were turned with the bad weather, misty and rainy as it was. With Julian still slowly recovering from a bastardly flu, together we headed for a last hurrah of avocado smoothies. This was the last time for a long while our entire group was going to be together. The boys were off to Essaouira for some sun and sand, Sara was heading back to Tangier, and Adele and I were hopping on a coach to Casablanca to go our separate ways. After a heated argument with a guard attempting to overcharge Vik for street parking, our Moroccan lion roared and fiercely debated the topic with our cheeky Street guard. After taking our case to the police, we were victorious, not paying a cent. With the boys on their way to Essaouira, Adele, Sara and I spent our afternoon wandering the other half of the city, chasing the water source up and down old steps, and wandering through the city one last time before our early departure to casablanca…