I got there right in time, after a race on the blue streets, among colorful shops, locals inviting me in their stores, tourists wandering too slow or photographers trying to get the best shot. I was only hoping that was the right direction to the best panoramic view of what is called the Blue Pearl of Morocco, Chefchaouen. I got to the river, crossed the bridge and followed the stairs up. The scent of oranges from the stalls around, selling fresh juice, gave me a boost of energy. Behind a bush of cactuses I saw the sun saying goodbye to that day as its orange light was pouring down on the blue houses of Chaouen, as locals call their home. Ras Elma offered wat was promised: a perfect panoramic view for a gorgeous sunset.
The way to Chefchaouen
I had a blue obsession for a couple of years already: The blue city of Morocco, Chefchaouen. A name I even had difficulties to spell at first. Like many other beautiful places I was, at one point, dreaming about, as Petra or The Great Pyramids, this too seem so complicated to get to. But when there’s a will there’s always a way and so that day came and my plan was done: flying to Madrid, the next day to Tanger, Morocco, both low cost flights and get a cab from there to Chefchaouen. Voila!
I love Spain and Madrid makes no exception. Being in its capital for the second time was a joy. And another happy occasion to taste the best ham in the world: Bellota jamon.
I already knew how to get to Sol, the city centre. It was almost midnight when I arrived in Plaza de Cibeles, but the city was so alive. It’s one of the reasons I love it so, for its constant fiesta vibe. I followed the boulevard and then the little cobbled streets where people were partying in small pubs, with tapas and cerveza con limon (beer and lemon juice), towards my hotel in Sol area. As I passed a corned and found the place, I stopped in a Awww moment. The best surprise for that time of the year! After months of cold winter, on March the 7th, Madrid welcomed me with a street full of cherry trees in bloom. Plaza del Angel was truly a corner of heaven. So spring was coming…
The plan was to wake up very early the next morning, to see a little of Madrid before leaving to Morocco. I precisely wanted to get to the very 2 gems I so mistakenly missed during my previous visit. I don’t usually follow the plans when they evolve me being an early bird, still at 9am, my small yellow backpack and I left the hotel and head to that very one spot famous for the best top view of the city: Circulo de Bellas Artes. And so it did, the view was fabulous as the city was waking up in a morning rush, below by eyes, below the clear blue sky of March.
My next wish was Palacio de Cristal, in the middle of Retiro park. I was so close to give up since I didn’t have so much time left. I give it a try, hurried my steps and follow the alleys until I got to this wonderful building, a palace made entirely of glass, mirroring its shapes in the lake in front, where ducks and swans and turtles were enjoying the spring sun. And so I declare this my most favourite place in Madrid.
Lesson learned: never leave without a pen, mostly to countries when you need to complete a visa form. It’s about time I keep this in mind.
Happy Women’s Day, a boy said to me, handing a pink rose. A lady invited me to have some sweets. And so I was beautifully welcomed to Morocco.
Since it took me longer to complete that visa form, because of the missing pen and I was among the last to leave the airport of Tanger, I missed my change to find a big yellow taxi, a shared one. So I start the negotiations in my not so perfect French with the only one left, a 70 years old taxi driver, stubborn as a mule. After 15 minutes I got nowhere so I accepted its price: 60 euro to Chaouen.
I jumped, pretty disappointed, in its old cream Mercedes and so we left to Chaouen, as he called it.
Welcome to Morocco, he said, just like the taxi driver in Egypt, after he scammed me of an extra 5 euro.
I was expecting to see a lot of vast dry lands, instead Morocco, this part of it, was incredibly green, with billions of colorful tiny flowers covering the ground. The air blowing from the open window, messing up my hair, brought scents of grass and early spring. We stopped at one point as the taxi driver wanted me to get a look at what was a beautiful valley between three green hills and a dark lake among them. If seen in a photo, without knowing where it was, I could have place this spot anywhere, but never in Morocco.
We talked about his family, his life in Tanger, his favourite places in Morocco, how Casablanca was not so nice but Marrakesh was great, about Sahara and the Morrocan food.
After 2h of speed driving among green lands, passing through the beautiful white Tetouan and a few other small villages where locals, mostly women, were selling products in small markets and men were hurry to get to the afternoon prayers to the mosques, I started to see the first signs of blue. My excitement was on the rise… Soon after we were in Chefchaouen city centre, a part which looked modern, with new buildings, with cars and people wandering around and most of all, not so blue as expected.
Since my taxi driver didn’t trusted my Google Maps, we wandered around in vain, sent to different hotels by locals that didn’t actually understood where I needed to get to. I soon understood what was happening, meaning I was losing time, and insisted that we follow only my directions. In a few minutes we were close to my hotel, right in front of the entrance gate to the medina, the old town, as they call it.
He pretended he didn’t had any change and I won’t find a place to change money there, thought I insisted we find a money change office since we left Tanger and he kept promising we’ll do that in Chefchaouen. I got really mad for this new scam that cost me an extra 10 euro but all I wanted was to leave this taxi driver for good and go see the blue city I was dreaming about.
Another lesson learned: always change money
My yellow backpack and I were now in the middle of a busy street with not so clear idea where to head to. I was in a very bad mood after that scam. I had to find my hotel in a labyrinth of small streets, according to the map and I already knew Google Maps is not helping in places like this. I tried my chances entering what seem to be a gate, like an arch opening in a stone wall, following many locals and 2-3 tourists. This was like stepping into another world, the blue world of Chefchaouen. In a second, all was blue, all shades of blue. Literally all, wherever I was looking. The old medina blued my mind on the spot, surpassing instantly all what I have previously ever seen in all the photos of this corner of the world. The bad mood was now forgotten as I was getting more and more charmed with every step.
– Where are you from? An old beggar dressed in old grey rags asked me as I arrived in front of him, catching my breath and all smiling. He was sitting at the end of a street made of big cobbled steps, a crossroads of three blue streets, with his back against an old wall, also blue, of course. As the sun rays reached his face half covered in a white beard, lighting the marks left by all the years he had lived, he looked like someone in a Pulitzer awarded photo. He smiled when I told him I have just arrived.
I stopped in admiration for a gorgeous tall blue door, sculpted in a wall and happily, right next to it, I saw the name of the hotel I was looking for. The small square interior yard, with a few round tables and chairs and a little round fountain in the middle, offered, from inside, the perfect view to this old building. It was three levels high, the 4th was the blue sky. Each floor had a surrounding terrace with white columns and a blue door on every side, painted by hand with colorful drawings, a technique that I later found out was specific to this place.
I met my host, Ahmed, who spoke almost 0 English and French. With the 3 words I know in Spanish and many sight we understand each other perfectly.
I wandered the blue streets and it was so incredibly beautiful, I thought I was dreaming. Every corner was a blue little story, with small windows carved in the walls or the beautiful blue doors in all the forms and sometimes even the steps were painted in blue. The only color non matching that blue everywhere were the cats and the kids playing around. I took photo after photo and I couldn’t get enough of this blue everywhere.
I really needed to change some local money to buy some delicious looking desserts I saw, so I left the old town and went to the city centre, where the taxi driver dropped me earlier that day. After 10 minutes of wandering and asking people, I found the exchange. It was just a few meters from where my taxi driver said there’s no exchange in the area. God damn scam.
Now that I had some dirhams in my pocket I realised I really needed to eat and drink something. The tiny slice of pizza from Madrid was long gone and I was very dehydrated too. I follow a small crowded street with a few fast foods and local restaurants. I saw one serving fish. It didn’t look promising but I trusted the TripAdvisor stitcher on its door. I felt a little adventurous to eat fish there but I was starving. I ordered using mostly signs since the owner spoke Arabic only. And I waited for what seemed to me an eternity. I was the only person in the restaurant, so another good sign. Not. I was melting of hunger with little energy left but I almost exclaimed when the owner came back with two big plates, one with rice and fries and another, much bigger, with a large fish, a lot of fried calamaries and 5 little fish. A mountain of food was in front of me! The calamaries was just as delicious and soft as those I had in Vernazza, in Cinque Terre, the best I had in my life and the fish had that sweetness that only fresh and wild fish has, something so rare these days. All seasoned with fresh lime zest. Unbelievable good and I finished all.
I was afraid now that maybe I didn’t understood the price when I ordered. But nop, all that and a big bottle of water was less than 5 euro. I loved Morocco on the spot!
As round as I was, after that huge meal, I wanted to catch the sunset. And I did. I reached the panoramic view point at Ras Elma and caught the sky on fire above the blue city of Chefchaouen. I so wanted to come here and now I couldn’t believe it.
I bought lots of deserts on my way back, home made cakes. At dark the medina was not so spectacular, that blue needed light. I ended up a perfect day with a 10h sleep. I needed it badly.
Next: making friends in Chaouen