Chefchaouen is a good place to chillax. Moulay Ali Ben Moussa Ben Rachid El Alami was its founder in 1471. It provided sanctuary for Moorish exiles from Spain and went on to welcome Jews and Christians in turn. Many people speak Spanish as well as Arabic, as opposed to French in most of the rest of Morocco.
Initially we were unable to locate Dar Meziana in the intricate plethora of streets, but they’re used to that! We called them from a café and they sent someone out to fetch us. It was cold, wet and windy in March, so the mint tea and pastries served ‘on the house’ in front of an open fire in the dining room were much appreciated. We ate our breakfast there each morning too although in warm weather one can take it on the roof terrace. I don’t know what the other bedrooms looked like but we marvelled at ours!
The owner speaks excellent English and was keen to enable us to enjoy our stay and answer all my questions. I say my questions because I want to stress that Tim likes to stick to his guidebook and usually (but not always) has the answers already, while I just like having an excuse to talk to people! I did find out one theory as to why the town is painted blue, which differs from those to be found in most guidebooks. Apparently a local businessman decided to paint his property blue and when his luck soon took a sharp turn for the better, hoping for the same good fortune, all the locals decided to paint their homes and businesses a similar hue. The result is striking!
Chefchaouen is compact and apart from exploring the town itself, which is sufficiently interesting, there is scope for both some serious walking and wonderful strolls in the Rif mountains. We did what was probably the easiest walk. The trail begins from Bab al Ansar, the medina’s eastern gate, and passes the Ras el’Ma river, before continuing about forty minutes up the hillside towards the recently renovated Spanish mosque which affords great views back towards the town. It’s possible to continue on the trail and we managed to make it into a circuitous route – always my preference. You’ll likely see locals heading to and from nearby villages and plenty of goats!
The morning of the day that we arrived in Tangier (aka Tanger or Tangiers) I’d finished reading Tahir Shah’s delightful The Caliph’s House. It’s set in Casablanca, but he mentions his grandfather living in Tangier around 1960 – exactly when my own grandparents (or more precisely my father’s mother and stepfather) were living there and running a small hotel, Los Tres Pelicanos, which we couldn’t find any trace of. They did bring back a set of signed Paul Bowles novels, so they were presumably more in the arty set than the retired colonial gentry crowd to which my grandmother might have gravitated, having lived in colonial India.
Epitomising ‘faded glory’ – the Hotel Continental, in the medina with many rooms facing the sea, is one of the city’s oldest hotels. Past guests include Winston Churchill, Paul Bowles, Jack Kerouac and the Rolling Stones to name but a few, and Bertolucci set some of the scenes for The Sheltering Sky here too. There’s a large terrace where one takes breakfast overlooking the port and a vast Aladdin’s cave of a gift shop which may not have been dusted for decades. Why else would you stay here? Certainly not for the fairly basic and unremarkable rooms. If you struggle with stairs the lack of a lift may present a problem too and the service is nothing special. On the other hand, it’s an ‘experience’ worthy of a couple of nights. It’s very cheap and clean and although it is billed as an alcohol-free environment, when Tim and I decided to eat dinner there, the waiter nevertheless managed to rustle up a perfectly acceptable bottle of Moroccan rosé. I’m not going to describe the public interiors, and recommend you explore these yourselves whether or not you decide to sleep over.
Follow in the footsteps of Matisse at the recently renovated Villa de France, where in 1912 he painted Window at Tangier. The view from the hotel is not unchanged but it’s fun to ask at the front desk to be shown the room itself, and if unoccupied, you will be escorted there for a few minutes to take in the scene and spot the differences. There is no charge for this as you are basically looking at a hotel room, but a small tip won’t go amiss.
My grandparents would have known the delightfully old-world Hotel Continental where we stayed, the then British consulate which now houses the Museum of Contemporary Art (hosting interesting temporary shows; closed Mondays), and the very grand Grand Hotel Villa de France, which reopened in 2014 after years of closure. Matisse stayed here in 1912-3, in room 35, which has been kept as a shrine to the great painter. Of the many paintings created here the most famous perhaps is his Landscape Viewed from a Window (now in Moscow’s Pushkin Museum), but the trees are much higher now than they were then and it’s hard to clearly see the Anglican church of St Andrew, which was the focal point of Matisse’s painting.
Naturally we went to the church (it can take a bit of banging on the gate to gain access), where Yassine the caretaker was very helpful but there was no record of my grandparents, although they definitely supported the church. We also met the new priest, who after about 17 years as chaplain to the British embassy in Moscow was sent here for a year to try to fix the divide between millionnaire expats and the subSaharan migrant Anglicans asking them for money. A tough job!
Consecrated in 1905, the church is known for its Islamic-style décor (including the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic script around the chancel arch), and for the luxuriant churchyard housing the graves of various notable expats, as well as the odd tortoise.
Of course the French cultural imprint is far stronger than the Anglophone one – in particular we noticed the strong arty publishing scene with bookshops selling literary pamphlets etc in French.
Our guidebook has trains terminating at Moghougha or Morora (about 5km south, just off the N2) and CTM buses at Tanger-Ville station by the harbour. Both are wrong – in fact trains now continue to the ‘new’ Tanger-Ville station by the waterfront 2km east of the centre, while the CTM bus station is at Moghougha (Dh80 by grand taxi – our driver complained that were ‘lots of constrictions’ meaning construction). Morocco’s TGV high-speed railway opens in 2018 (the trains are waiting in its depot at, where else, Moghougha), but Moroccan rail and bus terminals are not planned by anyone who actually uses public transport, so it will probably take the best part of an hour to get to the TGV station for the two-hour trip to Casablanca. Likewise, the ferries to Spain are being moved from the old harbour of Tanger to the new port of Tanger-Med, 45km east – highly inconvenient for public transport users, although there is a railway and a shuttle bus.
Our credit cards didn’t work at ticket machines in the railway stations, so expect to queue to pay cash. Taxis are often the only way to get around, both in towns and between them, and our drivers were all pretty good and safe.
We were pleased that trains and long-distance CTM buses were non-smoking and pretty civilised – although the buses didn’t have a toilet or wifi and (mercifully) the TV was off as well. I was glad not to be driving as I couldn’t work out who had priority at roundabouts.
As for languages, we speak French, but it was noticeable that English was more popular with younger people than the language of the colonial oppressor.
What we read in Morocco
As well as being amazed by how much better the 1993 Rough Guide to Morocco was than current equivalents (and amazingly, the prices listed were still more or less correct!), we also enjoyed a couple of books set in contemporary Morocco. Secret Son by Laila Lailani (Algonquin Books/Penguin), written by a Rabat woman now married and living in the US, is the tightly woven tragedy of a young man born in a Casablanca slum who makes it to university but finds that everything in his life betrays him. The Caliph’s House is by Tahir Shah, sitting in the line of British authors who set up home abroad (Peter Mayle, Chris Stewart) and have exotic encounters with local builders and the like – but his encounters are far more exotic, and not just with humans! It turns out he went to the same school as me, but that’s not important. John Hopkins’ The Tangiers Diaries (1997; Tauris 2015) covers the period from 1962 to 1979 (about Marrakech as much as Tangier). It’s by the Tangier literary figure you’ve never heard of, but he does offer enjoyable insights into unspoilt Morocco and the circle around Paul Bowles.
Just before sunset every evening food stalls are erected in the main square of Marrakech – theJ’ma el Fnaa. They are all quite similar, so it’s hard to discern which might offer the best deal. I always go to stall 72 where Othman works – I first met him a few days before his 21st birthday, when his ambition was to learn better English so he could progress to become a Silver Service waiter in one of the upmarket hotels. He’s changed a bit over the years: still working the stalls, he’s become a bit cynical, but when on form can be helpful and funny. He may remember me. Some stalls offer you a complimentary mint tea after you’ve eaten. If you’ve any food left over, and you are accosted by a woman selling tissues, you might offer her the remains of your dinner. She’ll have a plastic bag to gather leftovers to feed her family. They’ll be slopped in like a flash.
Museum Tiskiwin (aka Maison Tiskiwin) was created by Bert Flint, a Dutch anthropologist, and features art from Morocco, Mali and nearby in the Sahara. Housed in a beautifully restored riad tucked between the Bahia and Dar Si Said palaces, it showcases a selection of North African arts and crafts that chronicle the region’s cultural trading history. The attendant has a bee in his bonnet about ‘not taking photographs’. It is NOT forbidden, but he is of the opinion that it detracts from your experience and he informed me of such with force! Nevertheless, if you are interested in fabrics, carpets and quirky objets then it’s well worth a visit. The main exhibition info is in French but English handouts with copious descriptions are available.
The five-star Hotel La Mamounia, opened in 1923, is set in superb gardens that are almost entirely surrounded by the city’s 12th century ramparts. It is possible to get a taste of the luxury and experience the splendour without actually staying there. The main thing to note is that there is a dress code, so don’t turn up in trainers and jeans! It’s huge – so once inside keep walking straight through the building till you reach the café terrace area leading into the gardens. For the steep price of a drink, you can stroll through the extensive gardens, where you’ll also find another small café selling ice creams and pastries. We had a buffet lunch at the poolside cafe, which was frustrating as we were not permitted to swim – for that privilege you have to buy a day-pass. Check their website for current prices which seem to change by season. There’s also a Spa pass but you can get a more authentic Hammam experience elsewhere for a fraction of the price.
There are so many wonderful Riads to discover at a good range of prices. I’m recommending just one, Dar El Mudal. I met Gloria, its owner, in Kolkata, India, before she and her late husband, the artist Norman Douglas Hutchinson, settled in Marrakesh. The decor reflects their life-long and eclectic interest in beautiful works of art and furnishings and has many wonderful images (many of Gloria) painted by Norman. It has four air-conditioned double bedrooms available for adults only, each with its own bathroom.
Why would you want to stay there? Gloria is a gracious and delightful host. If you’ve had enough of tagine or couscous she may, for a fee, offer you an Indian meal using the locally available spices. We even ate home-made kulfi (Indian ice cream). She will help you organise a visit to an authentic Hammam where you are unlikely to see other tourists. Be prepared to be scrubbed and pummeled and showered as clean as you’ve ever been and hang out with the locals, who choose to go through this ritual on a regular basis. Men and women are kept apart.
In my opinion an excursion from Marrakesh to the Kasbah du Toubkal is not to be missed, despite the cost which is midrange, ie pricey for Morocco. The location is spectacular, at the foot of the highest peak in North Africa, and the cheapest option is to take a Berber Salon for four. If you are a couple, then paying the full whack is still worth every penny. Stay at least two nights and if you have the time and funds, enjoy trekking up to the comfortable Azzaden Lodge too. It’s a challenging mostly uphill six-hour walk (though you can take a taxi back if desperate!) but thoroughly worth it for the views and the experience of passing through traditional mountain villages. You will stop half way up to eat a freshly cooked feast and take a rest before completing the hike. If you don’t have the time or funds, then, instead, opt for the complimentary walk offered each day to a number of nearby villages, generally taking a couple of hours or so. The Kasbah has won awards for its approach to responsible tourism and runs a project which contributes towards the education of local girls.
Another rather upmarket experience worth going for if you have limited time but not limited funds is to venture out to La Pause, just 45 minutes from Marrakesh in the Agafay Desert. It’s called ‘a luxury retreat’ – and offers a whole expensive holiday experience with accommodation and activities, I visited only to eat a traditional lunch, which was copious and served in my own tented dining/sitting room. There’s use of a shady new swimming pool and a great short walk to the top of the hill nearby for extensive views back towards the city and over to the Atlas range. If you wander in the other direction towards some prominent sculptures you’ll find a small valley where camels rehydrate at the stream. Lizards of all sizes scuttle by and a variety of birds are accustomed to swooping down to clear up the crumbs. La Pause is not easy to find on your own so you’ll need to arrange a pick up.
I booked my onward travel by rail, via this website, before I left home. My tickets were delivered a day in advance to my Riad, which saved me hassle and benefitted a local children’s charity!
Finding your way around the souks can be a challenge, particularly in Marrakesh. If you ask for directions they often offer to accompany you and you end up taking a circuitous route to a completely different location (usually a friend who is hoping to sell you something) and can be expected to tip for the privilege. On the other hand, if you simply ask to be pointed in the right direction, the last few times I was there, you are pointed the completely opposite way. Solutions: 1. Buy a really good map to the souks. 2. Know ahead of time the general direction you are heading. 3. Remember that some people are still trustworthy and kind and helpful! I found young boys who expect only a few coins very helpful and the older men approve of their entrepreneurial spirit. If all fails, it’s really quite fun and an adventure to get lost in the souks!
It used to be said that you can identify a true Marrakechi by his or indeed her bicycle. The city’s streets were once busy with cyclists, but they are now clogged with scooters and cars. To combat this congestion, electric buses were introduced in June 2016 and in November North Africa’s first bike-share scheme was opened here. There are 300 bikes stationed at ten hubs across the city; rental is not cheap enough by local standards (and you need a credit card or smartphone) and more cycle lanes are needed to encourage potential users, but it’s a start.
Fès sees FAR more tourists than Meknes (lots of Germans, a few Asians) – but it still has a pleasantly relaxed feel to it. Naturally we stayed in a riad in the medina with its 9,400 alleys, known as the most complete medieval city in Africa, still with 160,000 Fassis resident here in the old town. It really is very easy to get lost, although after a while you do start to remember some waymarks – and you can always ask someone how to get home (they’ll probably send a boy to show you the way). Most of the medina’s dars (townhouses) are now occupied by multiple families and it’s amazingly diffcult to get agreement to do major repairs or indeed to sell them as a whole – but quite a few have now been bought and done up as delightful guesthouses.
In 2016 there has been a slump in the numbers of tourists visiting Fès, and Morocco as a whole, and so you won’t have to pay much for a lovely room – but this is really hurting the riad owners, their staff and the whole local economy. Meanwhile, accommodation owners have been told their pages will be removed from Booking.com unless they register according to a new grading system which has not yet been drawn up… It will all be sorted out in the end, no doubt.
The King, Mohammed VI, has been behind the restoration of many of the medina’s monuments – he was due to reopen the famous stinky tanneries a few weeks after our visit. Also newly refurbished are the Seffarine, Mesbahiya and Sbaiyyine medersas, built in the Merinid period, as well as the Mohammadia medersa, built by King Mohammed V, and the Dar Al Mouaqqit museum room in the minaret of the Al-Karaouine mosque (famous for its water clock) – it’s good to see him putting some of his money into the tourism industry, but I can’t help feeling he might be even richer if he put more in. In fact I gather more of the funding came from UNESCO. There are photos of him everywhere, feasting in food shops, in sports gear in sports shops, and so on; despite being a bit flashy and probably a bit repressive he’s doing a decent job of keeping Morocco safe for tourism, and is also building a huge new centre in Rabat to spread the message of moderate Islam. (It was the present king’s father who loved golf and is responsible for the country’s courses.)
We saw the other sights, of course, notably the Bou Inania medersa, supposedly ‘the most elaborate, extravagant and beautiful of all Merenid monuments’ and ‘close to perfection in every aspect of its construction’. Well, it was very striking, of course, but it’s not possible to go upstairs now and we felt that the stucco needed a good clean.
The palaces of Fès
There are some very grand palaces in Fès, built between the 18th and 20th centuries, but most of these are also now in multiple occupation and have the same problems as the townhouses. The most accessible is Dar Batha (closed on Tuesdays), which has been a museum since 1916 and displays local crafts such as carved wood, carpets and Fès’s distinctive cobalt-blue ceramics, and also has fine Andalusian-style gardens (not Spanish, of course, but Moorish, ie the style developed by the Arabs when they occupied southern Spain) – magical concerts are sometimes held in the gardens.
Others are hidden in the alleys of the Douh, Zerbatana and Ziat districts, east of the Batha, and have a little hand-painted sign or none at all; you’ll have to pay about 25 Dirhams to be shown around each one. This money helps the family survive and perhaps patch the building up a bit, so don’t haggle too hard. The Dar el Glaoui or Glaoui Palace (1 rue Hamia, Douh), now impressively run-down, was built for T’hami El Glaoui (1879-1956), a warlord who allied himself with the French and suppressed all his rivals with their help, becoming Pasha of Marrakesh from 1912 and commonly known as the Lord of the Atlas. It’s becoming known as an off-beat alternative to Dar Batha, due to the abstract painter Abdelkhalek (or Abdou) Boukhars who welcomes visitors to his studio and to some of the ground-floor rooms. (This is not Hassan El Glaoui, a son of T’hami and perhaps Morocco’s best-known figurative painter; he was discovered by Winston Churchill, who persuaded his parents to send him to art school.) Again, the palace complex is now divided between a dozen or so families and is now delightfully delapidated (but if you have a couple of million dollars you might be able to buy it – though you’d need another million or two to restore it to its former glory).
This is the painting by Abdelkhalek Boukhars that Katy bought:
Gavin Maxwell’s classic book Lords of the Atlas, about T’hami, is strong on the wild tribal life of the Atlas, but you wouldn’t know that he also had a life in Fès, the then capital of Morocco (and still its spiritual capital). You enter a huge courtyard and glimpse a few stately rooms, decorated with carved and painted woodwork and zellij mosaic tiles, the huge kitchen, and the first modern European-style bathroom in North Africa, still with its original plumbing; but the complex sprawls to the rear with gardens, a cemetery, stables, mills and baths, while roof terraces, if you can gain access, give views across the city.
While T’hami El Glaoui was Pasha of Marrakesh, Si Tayab El Mokri served as Pasha of Casablanca (from 1927 to 1949), and he too built a huge palace in Fès in 1906 (with some 1930s additions). In the southern part of the medina near the Bab Jdid gate, at 1 Rue Hamia, Douh, the Dar El Mokri has a more European feel with Oriental touches. As usual in Moroccan palaces there’s a large courtyard inside the entrance, for parades and grand receptions for dignitaries arriving on horseback (or even on camels); stairs lead to a terrace above, from where you can watch the comings and goings to the informal workshops that now occupy most of the rooms around the courtyard. The family still lives here and is keeping the place in good order; the grand drawing room with its pink walls and white stucco boasts a huge golden cupola and shell-shaped alcoves. The spacious gardens are rather run-down, alas. There’s a good chance that this palace will be refurbished for exhibitions, conferences and other events (and it has already been used as a film location).
The easiest to see, in fact, is the Palais Mnebhi, right on Talaâ Seghira at 15 Rue Souiket Ben Safi, which is now a restaurant catering mainly to tour groups. Built by a minister of war under Sultan Moulay Abd el Aziz, it was home to Maréchal Lyautey, first French résident-général. In addition the Palais Amani, at 12 Derb el Miter, Oued Zhoune, is now a luxury riad, and no doubt there will be accommodation in others too once the tourism business picks up again.
A couple of places to eat
Situated in a beautifully decorated, 250 year-old courtyard house, Cafe Clock is a contemporary cultural hub. Artists, tourists and musicians gather in the library, the terrace, the bar, the red room, the courtyard, and the balcony spaces. You’ll find story telling, music and cooking classes as well as a tiny cinema, where, if you happen to be the only one who shows up, you can watch whichever film you fancy, of those available. The weekly programme is set each Sunday night.
The food will give you a break from more traditional dishes (although these are also available and as vegetarian versions). You can also try their Camel Burger! We ate their delicious Aubergine and Goat’s Cheese Quiche and I recommend the Orange and Almond Sephardic Cake.
The Ruined Garden – not the easiest place to find, but worth it for the exquisite food! Once a merchant’s house, then a rubbish dump, now exactly as it says, adapted to create an atmospheric restaurant and bread-making school with an outdoor kitchen and lovely open fire inside. It’s opposite the pharmacy at Sidi Ahmed Chowi, 5 or 6 minutes walk downhill from Batha roundabout, and with a little notice they’ll even send someone to meet you there if you are nervous about finding it. We followed a lad of about nine who took us down a number of side alleys.
En route from Fes to Chefchaouen
We took the 11.00 bus (checking in our luggage for 5 drh each), which stopped for a lunch break at the Cafe Boucherie where, if you are on the mark, you can choose a portion of meat at the butchers and then have it grilled next door and ready to eat before departure 30 mins or so later.
Meknes was pleasant, but I didn’t find a lot to say about it, although the Tribunal (former law courts) houses the brand new Musée de Meknes (Museum of Meknes), which we didn’t see – it seems to exhibit local metalwork, textiles, carpets, pottery and jewellery, as well as farming implements and a spectacular suit of armour studded with coral, turquoise and coins. The Dar Jamaï Museum, right on the main Place El Hedim, is a fine 19th-century palace that displays excellent local polychrome ceramics and carpets with striking geometric designs from the Middle Atlas.
Katy says: The best place to really cool down in Meknes is the Koubba el Khayatine! This is a huge underground vault known as the Ambassadors’ Hall which may once have been a granary or a dungeon for Christian slave labourers.
We often use AirB&B to find interesting local places to stay and can recommend a real gem in Meknes medina. It wasn’t easy to find at first, but we were met outside a nearby mosque by the owners’ daughter who led us to their charming house. Our simple, small but spotless room was on the roof terrace and we were offered a welcome meal of harira soup that evening in the family kitchen. Dominique is French and his wife is Moroccan. They are both helpful and cultured without being in the least obtrusive. We paid £28 for the night for us both, but the price may go up in high season. Despite the very low front door (see photo of Tim) the rest of the building was of normal dimensions!
We soon took a shared taxi to Moulay Idris, adjacent to the Roman ruins of Volubilis (from the 1st Century BC to the 3rd Century AD). It’s an easy and pleasant 45-minute walk along a back road from Moulay Idriss to Volubilis, and on a Friday (the Islamic day off) there were lots of friendly people going the same way and sitting in the fields. If you want to take a taxi one-way, it’s easier from Moulay Idriss, as there were only grands taxis waiting at the ruins and they were reluctant to only go as far as Moulay Idriss. You could also walk on a higher-level route, but you’d need a decent map. The ruins’ major selling point is the array of mosaic floors, remarkably well preserved by the dry climate – well worth seeing!
It strikes me that Rabat is quite a good entry point for those new to Morocco, with its small, modern airport that’s clean and user-friendly, its lack of hassle and high-volume tourism, even its modern tram system. It doesn’t have lots of major sights, with a fairly ordinary medina and ville nouvelle – but at its northern extremity the Kasbah des Ouidaïas (see below) is lovely (the only place you’ll find unofficial guides wanting to show you around – easily turned away), with the platforme offering views of the sea and river, and the Andalusian gardens (actually built by the French colonists) a peaceful oasis.
At the city’s southern extremity, beyond the Royal Palace (it should be possible to walk through the grounds, although it didn’t work out for us), the town’s highlight is the Chellah, where a 14th-century medersa (koranic school) and tombs nestle against the Roman forum and baths (still in use in medieval times, it seems) – with a great number of nesting storks, clacking their bills as a courting gambit, or stabbing fiercely at their rivals.
The Archeological Museum, supposedly the most important in Morocco, didn’t really do it for us, I’m sorry to say: the Roman bronzes – supposedly its great treasure – were away for restoration and many other items were on temporary display elsewhere. It does have some lovely Neolithic reliefs and naïf Phoenician grave markers.
The striking new Musée Mohammed VI d’Art Moderne et Contemporain (Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art – museemohammed6.ma; 10am-6pm, closed Tues) is well funded (by the king) and ambitious, putting on a big Giacometti show earlier in 2016. Definitely worth seeing what’s on.
Note that Rabat has blue petits taxis and Salé has yellow ones, and they’re not allowed to cross the bridge from one to the other – you need a white grand taxi, or take the tram (there must be a special arrangement for airport taxis). The tramway is exactly the same as you’d find in Metz or Nantes or any similar-sized French city – supposedly too pricey for average Moroccans but actually too full to board at times. The service on the core section (from Salé to the cathedral) is frequent enough but on the branches you can wait 8-10 minutes.
We stayed in Salé, across the river, which was once far more important than Rabat but is now a quiet and relaxing backwater – the only restaurants are at the modern Marina (near the Bab Lamrissa tram stop), a glimpse of Morocco’s middle-class future, where we ate pizza but couldn’t get a beer. However you should make a point of visiting the Medersa of Abou El Hassan, opposite the mosque, which was founded in 1341; you can explore the upper floors, and look down into the courtyard, unlike in the more famous medersas of Meknes and Fes. Like the other great Merenid medersas it’s intricately decorated with carved wood, stucco and zellij (enamelled terracotta tiles set into plaster), echoing a basic pattern in countless variations, as well as bands of calligraphy, mainly Koranic texts.