PART 5: CHEFCHAOUEN - THE BLUE PEARL
By the last days of our North African adventure, I realized the sites that awed me; the Portuguese fort in Essouria and the surviving Roman columns of Volubilis, were built by Morocco’s conquerors. Then we entered Chefchaouen*.
If I could change anything about the planning of our trip, it would be to spend five nights in the blue city rather than in Marrakesh. Perhaps my open heart was due to sweet summer memories in mountainous upstate New York, since Chaouen, carved into the Rif mountains, is also a vibrant, welcoming resort town that manages to bustle while still seeming bucolic. Like no other city I’ve seen, the streets, steps and many buildings are washed in blue paint, ** creating a bright cerulean swath over the dusty green and ecru of the landscape that looks like fallen pieces of sky.
The air was sweetened by icy streams that continually flowed downward. Juice sellers netted their beverages and secured them in the cool waters. I stood on a soaked rock-pile watching whole oranges bobble in the frigid water like whack-a-mole targets at an arcade. The women, heads and legs covered as directed by the Koran were at their tasks early, rushing to the bakers’ ovens with their raw dough or slapping their soiled clothing onto the public trough and hanging up wash on the seemingly endless clothes lines overhead.
In the early morning, HJ went mountain climbing, returning in time for breakfast with tales of the slippery trails at jebel el kelaa. We headed out to explore the city. Artists and artisans called us from their shops, “Madam, Madam. Chinois!” Most of the paintings looked like local juried art show entries, but one woman created fantastical woolen infant hats; pink lambs and violet goats with inviting smiles and eyes. I regretted having no babies back home to delight.
Intrepid as always, HJ told our guide we could find our way back to the riad without him and began following her Google map. We were up and down the same steps three times before realizing our instincts were superior to Google’s technology.
Another series of mountain steps loomed before us. HJ led the way. I watched as 2 boys above us, signaled to each other. One aimed a pebble at HJ’s head. I must have forgotten I had the athletic prowess of a beany baby, because I leapt up to deflect the stone. My agility honed solely by shopping and texting, could only lift me an inch off the ground when I tripped and went down on all fours. While there’s a curse word or two I can say in French, I chose my teacher-vocabulary to shoo them away, “Monsieur, allez vous en!” (Sir, go away!) The boys took off, but at least their pebble missed its target. I still haven’t told my friend that I had almost saved her life.
While the food throughout Morocco is delicious, our last meal in the Blue City topped them all. The restaurant was dirty, dark and disorganized, but my dish of chicken and olives in a gravy that must have been made by angels, was the best meal I had ever eaten. HJ loved her beans in a mouthwatering well-spiced sauce so much, she stopped all conversation and ate slowly in silence. To my astonishment, she convinced the owner to give her the casserole plate as a gift.
Like its other Moroccan cities, Chaouen’s buildings are crumbling, its women forced into medieval roles and young men petulant, but somehow the Blue City’s charm shines through. If you are Moroccan-bound, you must go to Chaouen.
*Chefchaouen is called Chaouen by Moroccans. (Chef) means the city of.
** During Hitler’s reign over Europe, he also set his eyes on North Africa to crush France’s territories, and since many Jews escaped to Morocco; kill more Jews. The ceremonial king of Morocco at that time was Mohamed V who did what he could to protect the Jewish communities. There were over 300,000 Jews in Morocco, many escapees living in Chefchoaon, where they blue washed the city to represent their freedom under the Moroccan sky. When the Vichy-Nazi government demanded a list of all the Jews, the King’s response was, “we have no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccan citizens.” The Jewish refugees painted the town with a blue wash to signify God’s presence watching over them.