Sunday, May 6, 2012

Blue dream

24-26.02 - Fes – Chefchaouen, 202 km, three rides.

If I could take part in creating any city of my choice, this blue treasure nestled at the base of the Rif Mountains would undoubtedly be my first choice. Anybody who's ever been to an art gallery with me knows how difficult it is for me to refrain from touching the linen to feel the strokes of paint underneath my fingers. Were it without any harm to the painting, I would touch every inch of every composition.

My very last destination on this trip - Chefchaouen - was more than just a single painting - it was like a gigantic workshop where gems of art sprawl whenever you walk around another corner. Moreover, I had no reasons to keep my hands off.

The thing you remember most vividly about Chefchaouen is its colors. Most of the town is entirely flushed in truly Mediterranean shades of white, gold, lilac and, most important of all, blue. A specific feature of countless buildings is also the wavy lines formed by multiple layers of paint and plaster put on the walls one by one throughout the years. That's something I really love to touch.

Being entirely surrounded by Earth colors gives you a feeling of staying in a space not restrained by any borders, where the beauty created by man and the beauty created by the nature become one. Sometimes it's difficult to tell apart where the ground ends and the sky starts; so much do these ultramarines, cyans and aquamarines overlap. It's also a photography lover's paradise. You could choose with your eyes closed and any direction you'd look would set a perfect background for a photo.

These colors are a legacy of Jewish residents who flocked here together with Muslim refugees after the fall of Granada in 1492. They left a mark on Chefchaouen in the 1930's by painting the buildings blue and white, colors widely used in many places in the Andalucia. Even after the Jews' withdrawal in 1940's/50's the town, formerly painted green (traditional Muslim color), seemed to become bluer. It's worth noting that until the beginning of the Spanish occupation in 1920 the city was inaccessible to non-Muslims and the punishment for disobeying this rule was a death penalty.

The medina, much more navigation-friendly (mainly thanks to being situated on a hill - whenever you get lost, just find your way down and sooner or later you'll find some orientation points) than medinas of Marrakech or Fes astonishes with its multitude of narrow streets and mysterious passages that are fun to explore, ornate houses, adorned doors, barred windows and shops selling natural dyes.

What I really liked about Chefchaouen was its relaxed and hassle-free atmosphere, so much anticipated and never found in most of cities I've been to on this trip. To really appreciate Chefchaouen you have to take your time. Life slowly flows through its streets, nobody seems to be in hurry, absorbing the scenery and carefree moments instead.

During the last month I got so much used to aggressive vendors praising their products and forcing to buy anything that in Chefchaouen I almost missed this aspect of Moroccan culture that sometimes got on my nerves. Shopping here is almost like buying things in Europe - not all shopkeepers are so willing to haggle, preferring fixed price instead, they also wait until you show interest in getting certain product, instead of attacking you once they see you glance for a second at their stalls.

On the contrary to the southern part of Morocco, here the dominating foreign language is Spanish. It's a bequest of colonialism, during which the Rif Mountains were controlled by the Spanish Moors who settled down there to escape the persecution from Christians. They stayed there until 1956 and kept only two autonomous cities, Ceuta and Melilla. In the south people approaching me on the street automatically assumed I must have spoken French, here Spanish was the first language spoken to me by shopkeepers and people living in the medina. Even the Arabic spoken by inhabitants of Chefchaouen might sometimes be unintelligible to Moroccans from the south due to the way it was deeply influenced by Spanish.

Regions surrounding Chefchaouen are renown for being the major marijuana-growing area in North Morocco. Its massive marijuana plantations surrounding the city are what Chefchaouen owes its reputation of being "Amsterdam of Africa." Almost half of wold production of hashish comes from here. Just this single location satisfies 80% of European demand for this drug. Despite its illegal status, for many poor people living in the mountains it's still the only source of income.

Before coming to Chefchaouen I heard numerous warnings about the dangers of traveling on roads surrounding Chefchaouen and in the city itself, where desperate drug dealers persistently try to sell hashish to tourists. In my opinion, you can blow all warnings like this to the wind. Sure, I was offered marijuana or hashish by some dreadlocked hippies but none of these situations seemed dangerous at all. In this "notorious" place I felt the safest in entire Morocco, whether accompanied or on my own, during the day or at night. The risk factor that people ascribe to Chefchaouen is massively overstated.

However, my host Mohamed told me that regions further east, especially around Ketama, are infested with dealers persistently trying to extract money from travelers and can be a serious problem to drive through. It's commonly used practice to block the road and refuse to let the people pass unless they buy drugs. It can take hours to cover a short distance, just because of hash pushers along the way trying to stop your car. Since I love being in places that others discourage me from going to, don't be surprised if this African capital of hashish and marijuana becomes the destination for my next Moroccan adventure.

Chefchaouen was probably the most difficult place in Morocco to say goodbye to. This charming and photogenic city cut into the mountains is a must-see when visiting this country. I loved how incredibly peaceful it was out there, how its fresh mountain air made me feel like nowhere else in Morocco, how much enjoyment I had searching for the best spots to take in the amazing blue and white cityscape of Chefchaouen. Here even the sky always has the color of ink...

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