When I got up this morning in Riad Dalia in Tetouan, I immediately didn’t feel too well, with both stomach and lower G.I. Issues, and my first instinct was that it was definitely time to leave – although the patron and his staff are very nice, the Riad itself feel dark, damp, and crumbling – not the best environment for healing and gathering strength!
So off we went, into the clean, crisp air of the Rif Mountains. The winding road leisurely made its way south, and as we drove, we could see that not only was the air much cleaner as we continued, but also that there was far less roadside trash as we climbed into the mountains. Until now, we have been saddened by the casual attitude of the locals about throwing out their plastic bags, containers and bottles wherever they chose – Morocco is sorely in need of a public education program about littering!
Our destination today is about a two hour’s drive due south, to Chefchaouen, a beautiful small mountain village, that, until the arrival of Spanish troops in the 1920s, had been visited by only three Westerners. Two were missionaries – the first, Charles de Foucauld, a Frenchman, disguised himself as a rabbi, and spent only one hour here in 1883. The second missionary was an American, William Summers, who was poisoned by townspeople in 1892. The third was a British journalist named Walter Harris, who visited in 1889, and considered himself lucky to escape with his life when he was discovered by townspeople.
There are historical reasons for the area’s hostility towards Europeans. This region has been sacred to Muslims since before the founding of Chefchaouen in 1471, because it is here that the patron saint of the Djebali tribesmen (and one of the “four poles of Islam”), Moulay Abdessalem Ben Mchich, is buried. As more and more Muslim and Jewish refugees from Spain settled here, it became more and more anti-European, until it became part of a semi-independent emirate, allied with the Sultans of Fes. When Spanish soldiers arrived in the 1920s, they were astonished to find that the Jews living here spoke medieval Castilian!
Now local attitudes towards visitors, including Europeans, have relaxed, and there is a wonderfully amiable and friendly atmosphere here in Chefchaouen. Westerners in their twenties with long hair, tattered tee shirts and shorts seem to be well tolerated, as do women wearing dresses, heels, and sporting fashion sunglasses. Visually, the town is dominated by the Rif Mountains that surround it, and the streets of the medina, which itself is situated above the nouvelle cite. These small streets and alleys, often painted in pastel colors, are themselves quite steep, climbing almost straight up to the houses, pensions, and shops that lie above the central spine of the medina.
The air is clean here, and it feels like a great place to heal and relax. And there is some recovery needed, too! When we arrived in town, we drove up to the medina gate, Bab Souk, nearest to our hotel, which was very crowded, with both people and cars, as it was a market day. We called the manager of our Dar which is just a short distance from this gate, and asked for help in figuring out the parking situation. He was remarkably disinterested, first telling us to just park our car anywhere, and then to drive to the outskirts of town, park and take a taxi back.
Since I was already feeling pretty weak from the flu symptoms I had, we decided that this wasn’t a good portent for a pleasant stay at our Dar. So we went about finding a new place to stay, and our first attempt, at Dar Meziana, just a block further into the medina, turned out to be just perfect! Our room is at the rooftop level, with a huge picture window overlooking the medina, and is scrupulously clean – everything we were lacking (sunlight, airiness, and cleanliness) at Riad Dalia in Tetouan. We booked ourselves in immediately, and I went up to our room to have a bit of a lie-down.
In a couple of hours, with me not feeling any better, we went out to walk for a few hours around the medina, and then to go to dinner at Casa Hassan, which has the same owner as Dar Meziana – both breakfast and dinner were included in our room price, which is unusual for Morocco, at least as far as we’ve seen so far. The dining room at Casa Hassan was packed with American and European tourists, a tribute to it’s very clean kitchen and rather low prices.
I tried to eat a little, but that just made me nauseous, to go along with my diarrhea, and I promptly vomited. I actually started to feel better almost immediately, and after we had some mint tea, we went back to our room, for a long sleep. Hopefully, I’ll quickly recover some strength, because I was looking forward to doing a hike in the Rif Mountains before we leave Chefchaouen…but we’ll see what the next day or two brings…