Thursday, August 21, 2014

Tetuan and Chefchaouen

It's good to have a "fixer"-- you know, one of those people who knows everyone and can get everything done, even when you've been told that nothing can be done. Frank found us a fixer (who spoke French, German, English, and a little Italian in addition to Arabic), and he was able to find us a brand-new car (with air-conditioning, no less) to rent. We had thought we might need to give up the idea of renting a car here and wait until we got to Ceuta (the other Spanish enclave, so it's officially part of Spain) because we had been told that there were none available anywhere. We didn't want to wait because Frank had heard that it is a major pain to drive across the border and we wanted to take advantage of our bureaucratic state of being in Morocco. Our fixer (ahead of us on his scooter) also showed us the way into Tetuan (about 10km), where we were going to meet our guide.

After getting gas, we met our guide, Ahmed, a sort of professorial-looking man in his late 50s, with glasses and a beard. His French is excellent and his English is not bad either. He has lived in the medina (old walled city) for his entire life. His house is 450 years old and the last four generations (at least) of his family were born in the house.

It was a good thing he was along, though, because there is no possible way that even Frank-the-the-human-GPS could have found his way around the maze of the medina. We spent over five hours there, mostly walking around, but we did do a little shopping as well. This medina has existed virtually unchanged (except for cell phones, which seem ubiquitous) for over 600 years. There is electricity but no running water, so people still get their water from large public fountains and take baths at public baths. The baths have separate hours for men and women. There are, of course, no cars in the medina; they wouldn't fit. People transport things by wheelbarrow or hand truck. In fact, we went through some streets which heavy people or very pregnant women would have a hard time negotiating.

The medina has three neighborhoods: the Andalusian quarter (by far the largest one), the Jewish quarter, and the Berber quarter. Everyone lives everywhere now, but these influences are quite obvious.

The houses are set up around wide courtyards and they have very thick walls, so they are cool in the summer and warm in the winter. I was surprised that even though it was probably 95 degrees outside, as long as we were in the shade it was quite comfortable in the medina.

Moroccan decor is very colorful and very comfortable, with lots of sofas and cushions. Ahmed took us by his house, where we met his wife, his mother, and his mother-in-law, all of whom were in the very large main room (at least it is the large room you see when you enter the house). None of his kids were home. The ceiling was several floors high and the other floors were arranged around the central courtyard, if that makes sense.

Apart from the narrow streets, one thing that struck me was how small all the shops and stalls are. Moroccans can fit a huge amount of things in a tiny area; they are incredibly efficient in their use of space! This appeals to me.

In the medina, we were also able to see people working: weaving, making clothes, working on rugs and leather goods. We also visited the tannery and watched them drying and stretching the leather, as well as working on bags.

We wanted to buy a small carpet for the boat, so we spent quite a long time looking at rugs. Frank bargained "harder than a Berber," the owner said, but after mint tea and negotiations, we came away with a beautiful narrow Berber carpet for the salon.

Frank and Ahmed both said that having seen the medina in Tetuan, there really isn't anything better that we would see in Fez or Marrakech. Since we are not going to either place, I will believe them.

After we left the medina and said goodbye to Ahmed, we headed for Chefchaouen, a beautiful town (also with a medina) in the mountains. Somehow we missed a crucial sign, so a journey that should have taken less than an hour stretched to nearly two, but the scenery driving through the mountains was absolutely unbelievable. I will try and post some video, but unfortunately it was taken on my phone out the window as we were driving. That, coupled with my complete lack of talent as a videographer, pretty much guarantees that you will get no sense of how spectacular the view really was. Sorry!

The mountains are high, but the valleys are wide and gradual, and the landscape is so vast that I felt very small. I also felt incredibly privileged to be experiencing it. In some ways it's a bit like the west, but the isolated houses on the hills and the people walking on the side of the road (regardless of how busy a road is you will find people walking on the side of it) reminded me that I was somewhere completely and totally different.

By the time we got to Chefchaouen it was 9:00 and we were all starving. Our fixer had procured a guide for us here too, so we met Mohammed and he showed us to our hotel, which was in the medina of Chefchaouen.

I don't think I have ever stayed in a more beautiful hotel--Casa Hassan, should you ever get there--ceramic tiles and mosaics everywhere; our door was exquisitely painted wood, and the shower was beyond sublime. I will post pictures when I can, but suffice it to say that a shower like that should be every human being's birthright!

Dinner at the hotel restaurant was included, so Frank had couscous, Isabelle and I had tagines, and Max had--wait for it--spaghetti. Yum! No alcohol was served, but we were so thirsty we didn't miss it. I think we downed three liters of water in the course of the meal!

The only bad thing is that Frank seems to have shared his cold with Isabelle, so now she's feeling miserable. She takes a licking and keeps on ticking, though; she trekked all over the Chefchaouen medina and the mountain without complaint. I seem to be the only one spared so far, maybe because I have no Schicketanz genes, but if I do get it all if the tissues will be gone. 

The mountain air was blowing gently through the open windows when we went to bed. We were all woken up around 4:00, though, by the muezzin and the call to prayer. It's really a nice sound when there is only one, but the recordings of the prayers from all seven of the Chefchaouen mosques going at once was just a cacophony. I can't imagine that even the people who live there could distinguish what was being said!

After my spectacular shower (have I mentioned how great the shower was?) and a yummy breakfast of bread, cheese, olives, and not-very-good coffee (you would think that I would know better than to drink coffee in a tea-drinking country, but I just don't LIKE tea, except for herbal tea), Mohammed met us to show us the medina and take us up the mountain where the Berbers live.

This medina, too, had narrow streets and old houses like Tetuan, but their colors were so different: indigo, turquoise, bright blue, teal--and all of these colors in different shades and tints. If I lived there I would be voted the resident-who-is-most-coordinated-with-the-buildings. A worthy title, I think! So beautiful...

Chefchaouen is a mountain town, so it is very hilly. In addition to going through the medina and the market, we went outside of town, past the spring where people bring their laundry and up the mountain to a Berber house. The part we saw was very traditional; the sofa and what looked like a bed took up most of the space in this room, but there was a computer in the corner open to Facebook.

Everyone made a big fuss over Max and people were checking Isabelle out too. There were quite a lot of women who were not traditionally dressed so I at least did not feel too out of place.

On the way back from Chefchaouen, we are sardines (Max had chicken) at a little roadside place. Then we brought ourselves back to Smir to begin the process of getting out of Mirocco. Once the formalities were finished, we headed off to Ceuta, from whence I will send this. If you've gotten this far, I won't make you read any more.

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