Pretty City: Chefchaouen


Inconvenient to reach but all the more attractive when you arrive, Chefchaouen is among the most photographed towns in Morocco for a good reason: it’s blue.

Like, really blue.

For reasons not reliably documented, people started painting their houses and businesses a eye-popping shade of cerulean a hundred years ago, and now the historic heart of the city is entirely blue. Walls, sidewalks, doors, passageways… blue, blue, blue, blue. The shades range from pastel robin’s egg to a deep, saturated royal. The collective effect is so striking that even when viewed from a distance on the highway, Chefchouen looks blue. The eastern flank of town is marked by a quick-moving river that cascades over rocks and terraces, making a cool spot to relax with mint tea and enjoy the sound of rushing water.


Chefchaouen was also my last chance at hiking before leaving Morocco. The town itself is built on steep hillside, not unlike Moulay Idriss; climb up to the top of the town, and you emerge into a wooded park with a small ecological museum and access to trails and jeep paths. I kept walking from there, occasionally encountering other hikers or locals, and eventually climbed up the pass toward Jebel EL-Kelaa.


I was following spotty directions, but a goat herder helped set me straight when I missed a turn on the trail. From there, I could follow a solitary hiker with a bright turquoise shirt a half-mile ahead, and he served as the perfect wayfinding beacon to stay on the trail to the peak. Sadly for me, he was fast enough that we crossed paths as he was coming down from the mountain and warned me the trail was a little tricky up ahead. I spent at least 30 minutes scrambling over boulders and trying to gain footing among roots while looking at my surroundings and thinking, “this is definitely not the trail.” I had given up on the peak and decided to make peace with views I already enjoyed when my effort to get back down intersected with the trail I should have been on. Reaching the top of Jebel El-Kelaa was easy from there, and the walk down a bit smoother, too.


In addition to the blueness and the steepness, the cats made me smitten with Chefchaouen. Cats are everywhere in Morocco, living comfortably on the edge of tame and feral, enjoying the privileges of pets by wandering in and out of homes and businesses but without really having a ‘home’ anywhere. Chefchaouen was small enough that in my four days there, I recognized some of the cats — the one with a scar over its eye was sitting on a pile of carpets in a shop one morning, and that afternoon was sleeping on a pile of receipts on the desk of another store down the street. “Is that your cat?” I asked the shopkeeper. He kind of shrugged, yes and no. One shop was crawling with kittens after a momma cat had chosen it as the ideal spot to hunker down and have her litter. They hid and tumbled amidst the lanterns and wood carvings, curled up on the carpets, and probably drummed up business from tourists who wanted to giggle at the kitties and then felt like they ought to buy something while they were there.

[Chefchaouen: March 2018]


Pretty City: Volubilis and Moulay Idriss


Before there were Arabs but after there were Berbers, Morocco also had Romans, and man did those Romans like to build stuff all over the place. At the entrance of Volubilis, a map shows the fantastic spread of the ancient Roman Empire across Europe, the mideast and north Africa, and put context to the stone ruins that have sat for millennia on this pretty hillside in central Morocco amidst the tall grass and wildflowers.

Volubilis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and rightly so. The ruins reveal how houses were arranged along a main street, where public spaces existed for worship and government, and how water and heating were manged in the unrelenting Moroccan climate.

I had taken public transportation an hour or so to reach this spot, and among the busload of locals were two people I marked as fellow travelers. As we exited at Moulay Idriss, we realized we were also neighbors: they were father and daughter from a Quebec town just over the Vermont border. We spent the day walking among the ruins, picking over stones, resurrecting in our minds what stood here, marveling at the engineering of it all.


A short taxi away was the hillside town of Moulay Idriss, a village so central to the origin story of Islam's blossoming in Morocco that non-Muslims weren’t allowed in the town until 2005 and a wooden beam bars them still from getting too close to the Mosque. This reminds me of Soviet cities that were closed to foreign visitors for the importance of the military or research secrets that were held there, and I spent a good part of the steep uphill walk to the top of town pondering the human impulse to barricade and encircle ourselves — whether to keep us in or others out, and what’s the difference exactly?

Moulay Idriss occupies a hillside, with white plaster houses stacked neatly in terraces cascading down from the top of a hillock. We climbed and wended our way through small residential streets with the help of little kids who tagged along hoping for a coin or piece chocolate, all of us babbling the same conversation about directions to our destination: “Grande terrasse?” “Oui, grande terasse!” From the highest, largest terrace, we sat with a commanding view of the rolling hills below us and Volubilis a few miles away.


[Volubilis and Moulay Idriss: March 2018]


Pretty City: Meknes


A quick train ride and a welcome escape from Fes, Meknes was a joy. Perhaps less “important” in architecture and history, the crush of tourism in Meknes was significantly less than in Fes. But fantastic examples of architecture were everywhere in a city that felt more open to the sky and the surrounding countryside.

Meknes is a bit bereft of great places to stay at low price, but I sacrificed convenience for a fantastic riad tucked into a residential quarter deep in the old city. My short stay here had me drawing quick and superficial comparisons to other places I had been - the main square is like Jemaa L’Fna in Marrakech but smaller and less frantic; the medina and madersa is like Fes' but smaller and less confusing.


A long walk around town led to the horse stables and a lovely reservoir where families strolled and popcorn vendors took a laid back approach to their task. Near the main square, I fell into the stream of locals shopping for goods at the outdoor market -- tables of tennis shoes, housewares and toys filled the center of the wide alley, lined on both sides by stalls selling Western and Moroccan clothing. I let the flow of the crowd pull me into the shaded medina, where the stalls were modern florescent-lit bodegas fitted into an ancient neighborhood.

Eventually I found my way to the madersa, similar in style to the one in Fes but one major upside: the vibe here said, come poke around and check out the place. Visitors could climb up to the second floor and peek into the tiny dorm rooms where the boys would have lived in pairs while they studied and worshipped here. Keep climbing up, and you emerge onto the rooftop where no one stopped you from walking around the top of the building and staring across the rooftops of the medina and the rest of the city. On a blue-sky day, I sat in the sun on the roof next to the green-tiled eave of the mosque and stared at the minaret just a few yards away.

It would be mischievous and magical to portray this as a secret foray, but really this is just Morocco. A handful of others came and went from the roof while I was there, everyone pleased to rest awhile and take in the view.


[Meknes: March 2018]


Pretty City Blitz: Fes


In the last weeks of two months in Morocco, I stared at the long list of places I had imagined visiting but hadn’t managed to yet, and crammed them into a frenetic itinerary built of bus and train schedules and fear of missing out.

From Marrakech, I took a daylong train to Fes, a historic city that had loomed in my imagination as an endless wander among plaster and tile buildings in the classic Moroccan style, intricately etched with centuries of history. I rolled my eyes at the warning that I would get lost in the Fes medina, and that I should hire a guide. Medinas, I’ve seen a few, and this wasn’t my first rodeo.

But in my short stay there, I learned first hand that yes, the Fes medina does exert some kind of disruption of the three dimensions that makes it nearly impossible to navigate. The predominant colors of the medina here are white-washed walls with dark wooden trim, and the tops of the two and three-story buildings reached out to each other over the twisting alleys that separate them, creating an ancient urban canopy that obscured my sense of north-south, left-right. I would walk confidently in one direction for 20 minutes, and find myself back where I started.

And the advice on hiring a guide was frustratingly ubiquitous: guides were everywhere, ready to “help” lost or confused tourists wandering the medina. We were easy to spot, roaming aimlessly and unattached to the massive chattering tour groups that swarmed and eddied around historic buildings, filling the alleys, pushing everyone else to the edges. The Fes medina felt suffocating in a way that I hadn’t expected. It wasn't the getting lost that was frustrating, it was the crush of humanity accompanying you along the way.

But take a few steps away from the major sites, and the streets were calmer, cooler. You could actually look up and around and take in the place, without worry of trammeling someone underfoot or being trammeled.


[Fes: March 2018]